February Handgrenade of the Month 2019

John T Kuehn's picture

Handgrenade February 2019


Can On War serve as an Anti-war Treatise?


John T. Kuehn


H-WAR and handgrenade readers,   the question above IS the handgrenade.


Discussion:   The more I read On War, the more I have come to realize that its sometimes dark and penetrating insights on the human condition often lead one to muse “if this be so, why would anyone EVER go to war, especially someone whose very basis of power is threatened by such an action?”

When read through an anti-war, or rather a “hey you, have you really thought about what it is you are about to do?”-lens, I often come away with a feeling that Clausewitz really thinks war, especially wars of choice, are a tenuous gamble, that they really should only be undertaken to defend the state when the state deserves defense. 

As Captain Alan Zimm (USN, retired) writes of a specific decision for war in one case:

“…tantamount to the CEO of a bank withdrawing all the company’s core cash reserves to buy a lottery ticket.”  (Zimm, from Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions)


So let’s come up with some pro and con supporting discussions. My own entry is that, when one reads this:


The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to it nature. On War, Carl von Clausewitz [Howard and Paret trans.]


One might come away with a very cautious mindset that might reject overt military action in most cases if not altogether..


Vr, John “Peacenik” Kuehn

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Keywords: anti-war, Clausewitz

Interesting question. I don't think it was (or is) entirely anti-war, although it is certainly possible to have an apparently pro-war text that is profoundly anti-war (Twain's "War Prayer" comes to mind). There's also Nikias' "pro" invasion speech, a bungled attempt to persuade Athenians not to invade Sicily. I've often thought that the famous aphorism "War is the continuation of politics by other means" can be read as arguing for war as the absolute last choice.

Interesting coincidence as this post intersects with a thread on another military history list I participate in. The topic is US participation in unconventional wars - Vietnam in particular but also with some application to Afghanistan. The thrust of my initial post is that almost everything written and talked about Vietnam is to laundry list (ad nauseum) all the mistakes we made and that we should not have gone. My position in the discussion is that given the situation in the early 1960s we had no option but to be involved, it is just we are not good at such wars and didn't do it right. My position is that as the greatest nation in the world - economically for sure, we can "win" these wars. So my quest is to find not just criticism but better ideas on how to do this differently (and I have substantial numbers of my own ideas I have developed over my academic and professional careers working primarily in this area.) So to get to John Kuehn's post and the quote he provides - it struck home somewhat with me as the bottom line -whether dealing with conventional or unconventional wars, those making the decisions need to really understand up front the "kind of war on which they are embarking..." The error I think in Vietnam was that few of the decision makers had the correct understanding of the war they were starting, not many people frankly do, and many of the bad decisions came from that. It is not to say that we should not have gone (except in the context of - "either do it right or don't go at all") and I truly believe we could have "won" Vietnam and still could "win" in Afghanistan...

Greg Banner

LTC, USA (SF) (ret.)

First thoughts:

John's takeaway that "wars of choice...really should only be undertaken to defend the state when the state deserves defense" begs several questions.

First, which state? Presumably, the state in question is the leader's own state; however, it's hard to see how by that standard anyone would ever go to the aid of an ally.

It seems to me that this would require that the ally's defense be commingled so thoroughly that any determination of a "deserved" defense would also apply to the ally on the same level as one's own state. How would that be determined? (Macedonia, any one?)

For example, following this reading the British government in 1939 should have written off Poland, unless Poland's defense was clearly commingled in Britain's . (In this case, Viscount Halifax, who would probably have done so eventually, should have been preferred to the warmongering Churchill.) But if this condition existed in 1939, why didn't it exist in 1945 after the Red Army occupied Poland? Don't know; just asking.

Also, what standard establishes 'deserves'? I can see where in some cases arguing that a nations deserves a defense is going to generate an argument even among that state's own citizens. Some anti-war activists in the 1960s might have taken (did take?) the position that the corrupt U.S. and the West generally deserved no defense, and certainly none that required their participation. How do democracies settle this?

I think another, perhaps more apt, reading of Clauswitz's intention in the quote John provides (The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to it nature. On War, Carl von Clausewitz [Howard and Paret trans.]) can be found in the example of Anwar Sadat's actions in 1973.

Briefly, Sadat opened the 1973 war intending, as I understand it, to fight for limited military objectives that would lay the foundations for negotiations. He largely succeeded in giving the Israelis a very hard problem, until toward the end of the fighting, he allowed Egyptian forces to move out from under the SAM bubble that protected their positions on the east bank of the Suez. This was decidedly a case of trying to turn the Egyptian army into something that was alien to its nature, that is, into a ground army without air that would be the equal to Israel's army with the then freed to maneuver IAF. Bad idea. (He also rejected intel reporting the Israeli crossing to the west but that's not directly related to this point.)

In any case, I think Clausewitz here can be read less as anti-war and more as anti-don't-try-to-make-your-war-into-something-it's-not.

Clausewitz continues as these 3 thoughtful and provoking replies show, challenge and on several fronts or levels, if allowable. Not wishing to delve into philosophy particularly, but his theory of war does raise a couple of comments upon the 3 replies.

Hegle developed a philosophy that stated a circular description to truth and history as remembered off the top. His philosophy called for a thesis, giving rise to an antithesis out of which came a synthesis. Marx applied this same principle to social analysis and economics to reach his conclusions which are not the focus here.
What is this focus concerns Clausewitz, whose conclusion war is politics continued by other means. Quite circular when you consider, its opposite. Easily the conclusion can be drawn that politics is the continuation of war by other means, [albeit not violent]. But is there a synthesis ?

How does this, further apply to Vietnam, its choices then and its history since those were determined ? Do find my own agreement with Lt. Banner, the US had no choice except to get involved; ie, that choice was forced upon it by the Communists of the time in their resort to force as means of achieving their political ambitions in Vietnam. Do not agree that economic strength alone made a guarantee of success, nor that Americans misunderstood the type of war they found Vietnam to be. In fact, Americans have a considerable history and experience with guerrilla war and its conduct.

Rather would draw the conclusion, it succeeded in part and missed opportunities in part, with an outcome whose final decision was a direct result of impacts upon the politics of that historical era. Differences among Americans gave rise to another form of politics which finally led to a conclusion not expected. It is erroneous to read this history as something else.

Democracy, as Grant opines, has struggled to find in freedom for all, answers to how you conduct both politics and warfare to preserve and extend that freedom. Perhaps Churchill has something of an insight when he declared to effect, Democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives to it. So long as politics remains committed to the goals of freedom there is a path, even thru war, to another history of factual experience which allows for the success of Democracy. Clausewitz did not have this focus except thru attempting to defeat what then was perceived as the tyranny of a Napoleonic order and rule. In this, his philosophy or theory of war may have indeed served 'freedom' as it was becoming known during his times.

Looking to the politics of the time might well serve as that window on the war being waged by political means.

Patricia, I like that line thinking, taking what Peter Paret deems a central theme of On War, and looking at it as the resort of last political choice.

Greg, Vietnam is difficult, decision makers were increasingly constrained, I buy at least that pat of Prados' argument in his book on Vietnam, of a menu of decreasing policy and choice options over time. That said, no less an authority than Westmoreland, in his book A Soldier Reports, does an honest job discussing choosing not to intervene--the memoir is painfully honest, not self-serving as some believe. Westy really believed that intervention, just as his political masters believed, was the right thing to do. What was not well understood by American people was that we were trying to retrieve the result of a war that was already lost...but after election in 1964 Johnson and the best and brightest had more freedom of action...but the Congressional mid-terms of 1966 now drove things to a degree because of Johnson's domestic agenda.

However, when given a choice, the old Chinese proverb applies, "do not make the decision yet...wait a while..." although in matters of existential import waiting can be disastrous. I do not believe this to be the case in 1965 and 2003.

As for Afghanistan, it appears a reverse law applies....when given a choice to end involvement in a conflict, again if matters of existential import not in play AND one has geopolitical position that supports security (like US does), then withdraw.

As for Larry's response, I agree that quotation is mostly about not making war into something contrary to its particular nature. However, when one thinks through the ramifications, and that war changes in ways unanticipated--more than a true chameleon-- after one chooses it and commits resources, well...it is almost axiomatic that most wars turn into something that the chooser did not anticipate...even the most limited sorts of "wars." It is almost like quantum mechanics, in choosing you actually alter the context of the framework within which you chose.

vr, John T. Kuehn
PS we are looking at limited war theory, especially Michael Cannon's approach, right now at CGSC, or at least I am...

I submit that not just "what kind of war" needs to be thought through in advance but also what constitutes winning (just to be obvious.) "Winning Vietnam" would be defined as what - Unification of the country under terms satisfactory to the US? Preservation of the current Vietnamese regime (whichever one suited the purposes of the US at the moment), whether or not it was technically "legitimate"? Some sort of Asian version of the Good Friday agreement, recognizing the existence of two separate but equal Vietnams which peacefully co-exist...

Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, while he was writing the outline OVERLORD plan, asked the Chiefs of Staff what the object was. The objective was Berlin and the removal of the Nazi government. But what was the objective? What happens next? Do the Allies turn Germany into Morgenthau's green and pleasant land?, a new unified state, three small states, was Germany to exist at all? He never got a clear answer. So, he focused on the objective and the post-fighting period was perhaps a bit more ad-hoc than it needed to be.

What one wants to have and how one defines it shapes the war one fights, as does doctrine, geography, financial resources and past experiences, particularly if successful. Perhaps the US's received wisdom about the legacy of the Second World War still gets in the way of figuring out how to fight differently.


Stephen Kepher

Regarding Stephen Kepher's comment, I had forgotten about Henry Morgenthau's "green and pleasant" plan for postwar Germany (and the fairly swift retreat from it when Stalin's intentions became obvious.) Still, isn't "green and pleasant" what everyone hopes for as a final outcome to all wars, even today?

Morgenthaus's plan even sounds like the sort of "far-reaching act of judgment" Clauewitz believed to be the responsibility of the statesman and commander. And though it was not quite an anti-war sentiment applied to his contemporary war, it was certainly an anti-war commitment regarding future wars. (And there's some strong evidence that many modern Germans might agree with Henry.)

As John notes, however, Schrödinger's cat and the complex chaotic dynamical system of history continue to confound.

RE: what Stephen wrote later in his post, the argument of many current diplomatic and military historians is that unconditional surrender was really about winning the peace in Japan and Germany. No more "stab in the back" myths that let weasely, dissembling militarists claim they were not defeated on the field of battle. But remember, Germany and Japan had a lot more in common with the United States culturally than Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

vr, John T. Kuehn

A few more notes in the string.
I had listed one of our strengths as being economically the strongest nation in the world. I had used that as just one reason why we could win any war we choose to participate in but by no means did I intend to imply that economics alone can win a war. It was just meant as one indicator of our comparative power (then and now). The use of any and all tools is always the key.

Although I had spent a lot of time focusing on Vietnam, mid-way through my own career I served as a regional advisor in El Salvador during the civil war there. That experience certainly flavored my own thoughts on the subject and in many ways amplified what I already thought I knew about specifically how the US prosecuted the war in Vietnam. As many have said it is a very complicated subject but very briefly, I believe our secret to "winning" the war in El Salvador (bringing it to a successful conclusion under conditions favorable to us and the country in 1992) was simply that we maintained our support until the end. I was there for 15 months trying to do the best I could. I think we had good people but I will tell you in my opinion we did not have a great strategy, we were mis-using a lot of our assets, etc... We were mostly plodding along. But with maybe only a dozen US KIA during the whole war, we paced ourselves for the long haul and that is what got us to the end. As I said, even if we are not that good at many aspects of the fight, pacing ourselves politically and militarily is what we must do. That is not very elegant nor does it sound good as a strategy but I think it is the bottom line first, last and always... But then we should still strive to be better at all the lesser moving parts to get to the end sooner... Regards. Greg Banner. LTC, USA (SF) (ret.)

Yeah, I've focused a lot of my energy and curiosity on Vietnam, having been there and seen Nixon's "secret plan" successfully implemented. (He never used that term, but in my opinion he had a strategy and a big part of it WAS secret. A story for another day.) But in the long run that open flank in Laos, where ran the Ho Chi Minh Trail that we could never cut, doomed us to failure. And Watergate had a lot to do with that accelerating that failure, removing the "mad bomber" from office a couple of years early.

As for El Salvador, no disrespect to the SF guys who were our few "boots on the ground," didn't we just help win the war on behalf of the "forty families?" Did anything we do help the common people? Hard for me to call that a "win."

And re. the original hand grenade, long immersion in military history leads me to think that going to war is mostly, all too often, casting our fate to the wind. Planned outcomes will seldom be achieved, and even if we "win" on the balance sheet, there will be a lot of collateral damage and unanticipated problems down the road. Look at Iraq, and be careful what you ask for.

When I think through John T Kuehn's statement here vis-à-vis Vietnam:

>> I often come away with a feeling that Clausewitz really thinks war, especially wars of choice,
>>are a tenuous gamble, that they really should only be undertaken to defend the state when the
>>state deserves defense.

I think he is missing a point regards the Westmoreland generation of American military and political leaders.

Namely, the Vietnam generation of American leaders thought that if you wait until war is the _absolutely_last_resort_. You have made a grave policy error that will get lots of citizens of your democratic nation-state unnecessarily killed.

Specifically, Westmoreland and his peers viewed the British and French failure of will during the 7 March 1936 German occupation of the Rhineland as the seminal moment where World War 2 could have been prevented.

The UK archives has a nice article on the Rhineland crisis here --

German occupation of the Rhineland
What should Britain do about it?

You cannot understand American political-military actions in the 1960's regards getting into in Vietnam without the context of 1936 "Lesson of the Rhineland" as the policy making 'salad day first impression' of what failed Western National Security & Foreign Policy making looked like.

The lesson for Vietnam era US leaders was that Western Democracies cannot fail the military testing/probing of the Authoritarian/Totalitarian powers if they wish to avert a major war.

Point in fact, it appears that President Donald Trump world view is more shaped by "The Lesson of the Rhineland" than Vietnam.

Specifically it is "The Lesson of the Rhineland" which is the "best fit" for both his actions in the 2017 Shayrat Cruise missile strike in Syria -- while Pres. Xi of China was dining with him in Mar-a-Lago -- and the later Feb 2017 Battle of Khasham. Where a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah force supported the Russian PMC Wagner was annihilated by American air power.

Given that President Trump's uncle was the head of the British Branch of the MIT Radiation Laboratory (BBRL) in WWII. It should not be surprising that "The Lesson of the Rhineland" is central to his national security policy making.

See Syrian background articles:

2017 Shayrat missile strike

Battle of Khasham

The truth about the brutal four-hour battle between Russian mercenaries and US commandos in Syria
Up to 300 Russian and Syrian fighters killed in the attack
Eric Schmitt, Ivan Nechepurenko, C J Chivers
Saturday 26 May 2018

Larry et al, thanks to Venona Files we now know Morgenthau's assistant secy of Treasurer was a bonafide Soviet Spy who shaped Morgenthau's thinking to better serve Soviet interest. Harry Dexter White. Interestingly, this fact does not pop up right away in either google searches or Wikapedia. Which is why I highlight it hear, at least we historians should keep it ever in mind when thinking about the Morgenthau Plan or Bretton Woods.

As for the somewhat willful ignorance that I imply exists about White's agendas, see here:

Although White is mentioned nowhere in the article is the word spy used. A rather glaring omission, right?

Of course way off track from the intent of the original handgrenade with this sidebar.

vr, John T. Kuehn

A couple of items reference Ralph Hitchens last post.
He made a comment about President Nixon's actions concerning Vietnam. May or may not be valid but I would say President Nixon was handed a problem way down the road and had limited options. All of the administrations had their challenges but just in general if there is blame to be laid I would look more towards earlier decisions rather than later having to pick up pieces...

Regarding the Ho Chi Minh trail, my MMAS thesis at Leavenworth was on exactly that topic. I basically wanted to study the very common perception that "if we had only just blocked the trail it would have won the war for us." Basically I said "no" but the thesis is over 100 pages of discussion and you can find it on line by looking for MMAS thesis on the Leavenworth web site. (As a side note - it is also on Amazon where someone grabbed my public domain document, slapped a cover on it and posted it for sale... I don't know how common that is but I know mine is there. Earlier editions even kept my name as the author, the current edition does not but uses my title "The War for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.")

Lastly about El Salvador; Ralph Hitchens' comment: "As for El Salvador, no disrespect to the SF guys who were our few "boots on the ground," didn't we just help win the war on behalf of the "forty families?" Did anything we do help the common people? Hard for me to call that a "win.""

Actually, no.... Of course one of our common problems in fighting/supporting counterinsurgency efforts is that most often the other side has plenty of legitimate complaints and there are no lack of problems with the host nation government and military forces. That was a huge factor in Vietnam and yes throughout Central America. We decided to abandon Nicaragua and the communist victory there didn't turn out so well for either us or the people of Nicaragua. The economy of El Salvador and much of the power base was certainly in the hands of the few powerful families but their influence has been declining over the years and there were huge groups of the working population who had no interest in supporting the leftist/communist FMLN forces. The peace which finally came resulted in monitored and fair elections which really integrated both the government and the guerrilla (FMLN) political parties. The political leadership and government since then has allowed both to participate. All things considered it is almost a model of integration with everyone at least respectful enough not to have to resort back to armed conflict. It was a really good outcome after over a decade of war. Of course economic problems continue and the impact of drug money and gangs fueled by US drug consumption (a "victim-less crime" in the words of many pro-drug US citizens) remains and has grown throughout Central America. But again, the peace treaty which ended the war in 1992 was about as good as it could have gotten and at the time supported a vast majority of the interests of all sides in the conflict... IMHO.
Greg Banner
LTC, USA (ret.)

Ralph, for yrs. carried around a news story in my wallet, where it stated, Nixon had said he had a 'secret' plan to end the war, as part of his 68 campaign for the WH. It was public knowledge as part of the environment back then.

As for the lessons of WW II and confronting political/military challenges, quite right. The generation view was summed in Pres. Johnson's declaration about Vietnam, "no more Munichs"; avoiding appeasement was big part of the propellent to entering Vietnam conflict. But it must be remembered, Kennedy had already done, thru the emphasis on 'guerrilla' warfare, when US advisors went into Vietnam before 1964. In 65, after Johnson had won the campaign in his own right for the WH, Communist challenge to US and South in the Central Highlands, by attacking the US air base at Pleiku, brought the need for US intervention into sharp focus and Johnson did exactly that, setting off the next decades events, warfare history in Vietnam.

Couple of points on this thread and posts; one here and another re: Vietnam, elsewhere.

Despite Morganthau's Deputy, as a spy for the Sovs, M would not likely have held a different position than reduction of Germany to an agricultural, non-industrial nation. History was not on the side of the Germans after US experiences in WW I, something FDR had known and seen also.

John! (clutches pearls) Do you mean to say there WERE communists (checks notes) in the Treasury Department!?

"Shades of Tailgunner Joe!"

I kid, but seriously, thanks for the reminder. I hadn't recalled Venona when I mentioned Henry, but given Morgenthau's Jewish background, the fresh discovery of the Holocaust, and the fact that he supported plans to rescue Jews from the camps earlier than that other hot bed of espionage (State), I doubt that any Soviet agent had to work very hard. There were a lot of people upset with the Germans by 1944, including a couple of my uncles. In any case, cooler heads prevailed pretty quickly.

To attempt a turn back to your original point, (the key act of judgment of statesman/commander is to properly typecast the war, etc.): Read from the German perspective, the Holocaust was precisely that kind of mistake by the Nazis. By running a war of extermination parallel to their military campaigns, the purely military war of conquest was weakened significantly as more and more resources were diverted to killing Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and etc. Happily, neither war ended well for the Germans.

Carrying through on Morgenthau's plan could have would have represented the same sort of mistake by the western allies, though considering the conditions by late 1944, they might have gotten away with it for a time. However, it would have been contrary to lessons they thought they had learned after the first war, (Victory must be complete and acknowledged, but punishment cannot be eternal, for example.) and they were determined not to make the same mistakes twice.

Nevertheless, the Western Allies and the Russians eventually confronted a similar sort of disconnect soon after the official war was over in Europe. The Russians fully intended (or at least weren't worried about ) turning their part of Germany into a plowed field albeit one under their close control. The Western Allies chose not to do the same. Once they heated up the Cold War, so to speak, each side discovered that they needed to recast their Germans as allies.

I don't think this contradicts your rule, but the observation begs a question: How soon after concluding a war with one design (destruction of Germany) can commanders and leaders start another (if colder) with the opposite design (confront old allies with old enemies as new allies)?

Re. Greg Banner's post -- Thanks for referencing your Leavenworth thesis, which I found online and read with interest. My belief that cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and fortifying all the way from the South China Sea to the Mekong River was the only way to win the Vietnam War did not get into details, for sure. It would have been extraordinarily difficult to accomplish, all but impossible but not impossible, I believe, it would have required a LOT of US troops & resources, and those in the military chain of command way above my pay grade (O-3 at the time) can hardly be blamed for not jumping on Harry Summers' strategic insight at the time. My only rationale for saying it is that I do believe geography was right up there with any other proximate cause of our failure in Vietnam. No matter how hard it might have been to accomplish the extension of the DMZ to the Mekong River, I can't see any other conceptual solution to the military problem we faced in Vietnam. The aerial and intelligence resources we devoted to interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail (my own insignificant part of the war) were immense, and all to no avail. I think the creation, maintenance, operation, and defense of the Trail represent one of the most impressive military operations in 20th century history.

A subsequent post by Mr. Banner (I think) talked about the mindset of NSC decision-makers during the early & mid-60s when we embarked on that ill-fated crusade. Given the "axiomatic thinking" of those guys, you know, the "best and brightest," there was simply no alternative course of action that would ever get any traction or sophisticated analysis. Was there anyone in any position of influence to suggest, "this is a no-win situation, we can't stay the course and we can bet that they will, but a unified Vietnam won't necessarily pose any further threat, it's not a zero-sum game, you know they'll be up against the PRC as soon as the American War is over, you know . . ."? Did anyone who openly opposed the war (Fulbright, Ball, McGovern) ever spin out plausible alternative scenarios that might have suggested a rationale for not getting involved over there?

Greg, The problem is pretty widespread, my SAMS monograph was published in the same manner as was my MMAS, both on Napoleonic topics. What I do is go to Amazon, and then in a book review provide the reader directions to download the work for free from the Combined Arms Research Library (CARL) website at Fort Leavenworth. That way one can at least give readers the choice to save money while at some time prevent these charlatans from making any money.

R, John T. Kuehn, Fort Leavenworth Kansas

I have found the discussion of Clausewitz interesting. It has been several since I've read the book and it provoked me to re-read this philosophic classic.
I found the discussion about Vietnam interesting too, if limited. But, we (myself included) are all limited by our own experiences. When I came to Fort Leavenworth in 1994 (until 2001) I was told in no uncertain terms (quite bluntly actually) the Vietnam experience, on any level, was irrelevant to the turbulent present. As I rose in the hierarchy, I came to realize that the mind set of our political and career decision makers had not changed from the 1960s or even from the 1950s.
I still have not yet seen an answer to the question Dean Acheson asked in 1953, "How did US policy toward Indochina change from the anti-imperialist stance advocated by FDR to backing the re-imposition of French colonial rule in 1946?"
If one reads the most discriminating and thorough examination, Arthur J. Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) one finds that when dealing with local politics and personalities, Dommen reveals the care and perspicacity with which American and French diplomats viewed the local scene. When dealing with the wars of independence, Dommen illustrates how they became intertwined with Cold War international relations. Unsurprisingly, the aspirations of the various nationalist and communist groups disappear as they are swallowed up in this Great Power rivalry.
The emergent picture is one of backroom deals and diplomacy accompanied by official mendacity. Dommen’s shattering revelation about the decisions to commit American resources to Indochina and the conduct of the war is that those who made them were well informed. No one lied to them about the probability of success, and they engaged anyway. Providing better or complete information didn't end the bad decisions. In the end, the decisions to intervene and withdraw were ideological, not informational. Disagreements arose over what conditions and how the United States should try to affect the governance of other countries. In sum, it's not what we know but what we believe in that makes the difference.
I hope that has not been too lengthy and I have not re-stated the obvious.
v/r, Lewis Bernstein

Re. Ralph Hitchens' post: I cannot recall any American in a position of influence arguing that a united Communist Vietnam would not be an intolerable threat to US interests. I suspect that some of them thought this, but fear and hatred of Communism were obligatory in public life. One could not hope to retain significant influence if one said clearly and publicly that Communist victory in the war might be tolerable.

I myself believed that Communist victory would not seriously threaten US interests, and I know I said so, but I am not certain I ever said it clearly in any public venue, and I was far from being a person of influence.

Important opponents of the war, instead of arguing that the United States did not need to prevent the Communists from getting control of South Vietnam, argued that Communist rule could be prevented by methods other than a bloody war. They often seemed to believe that the Communists would be willing to abandon their war effort and leave South Vietnam under the control of the anti-Communist government in Saigon, if the United States and Saigon would just have the courtesy to come to a peace conference and accept their surrender. I have discussed this in some detail in my essay "The Mirage of Negotiations," in Lloyd C. Gardner and Tet Gittinger, eds., The Search for Peace in Vietnam, 1964-1968 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004), pp. 73-82.

(I'll try again)

It's fairly obvious but not noted sufficiently, IMHO: a major reason that "victory" for our side in VN was near impossible was the simple fact that if the we won, Indo-China would remain divided; if the North won, it would be re-united. Thus, the NLF could claim that, sure there were communists in their Front, but that the war was basically part of the age-long great patriotic struggle to free their land from foreign domination/imperialism.


Stanley Sandler

I find it interesting in how quickly the discussion got away from assessing what Clausewitz himself was getting at and moving into a debate on Vietnam. The shift was almost immediate from his war to “our” war, and the caution that has constrained America’s use of military force lest we face another Vietnam ever since.

I don’t think such caution is at all what Clausewitz was recommending, nor do I think that On War can be considered a subtly anti-war treatise. In reading Donald Stoker’s “Clausewitz: His Life and Works,” the reader finds two things apparent. First: Clausewitz was not anti-war; indeed, his entire career he longed for billets that would put him in the heat of the action. If the struggles he endured following Prussia’s defeat at Jena-Auerstedt—he had a front-row seat to the Prussian army’s great retreat—did not make him anti-war, I’m not sure anything would. Stoker also makes clear that Clausewitz despised both what he saw as general French arrogance, and Napoleon’s specific desire to rule Europe. War was not something Prussia had to engage in reluctantly because there was no better option; Napoleon deserved to get his, and Clausewitz wanted Prussia to play a big part in delivering the Corsican his comeuppance.

The second thing apparent in Clausewitz’s attitude is closely tied to how Clausewitz viewed Prussia’s preparations, or lack thereof, for war. He hated the weakness and vacillation of Prussia’s king in failing to take a strong stand against France at the outset. And this is where I see the context for Clausewitz’s admonition to understand the war you are fighting. For the longest time, Prussia’s leaders could not understand the different type of war Napoleon was waging. Napoleon was mobilizing his entire nation; Prussia still thought in terms of limited wars for small aims fought by the aristocracy and an army separated from the general population. Clausewitz wanted Prussia to adapt and change to this new reality to wage war against Napoleon more effectively.

Stoker reveals a passion inside Clausewitz that does not make itself readily apparent in the text of On War. He was no reluctant warrior.

True, this thread did wander far afield from JK's original Hand Grenade, and Clausewitz was shoved aside for a bit. I wonder, though, re. Ian Brown's post, how much significance we should attach to Clausewitz's desire to get into battle as counter-evidence of the caution he wrote about years later, about states deciding to go to war. My guess is that many who have made war their profession will express earnest desire to be in the front lines, even as they (some of them, at least) might question the wisdom of those in pay grades far above them who make decisions about war and peace. Clausewitz had seen and surely pondered the questionable decision of Prussia to stand aside while its erstwhile Third Coalition partners, Austria & Russia, were defeated by Napoleon -- and the suicidal Prussian decision in 1806 to unilaterally challenge Napoleon.

Re. Vietnam, I think Ed Moise nailed it, as he usually does. North Vietnam had one consistent objective from which it never deviated.