Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: “The Clausewitz Delusion”, by Stephen Melton

"If the wits are right in dubbing Proust the world's most quoted and least read novelist, Clausewitz must be his non-fiction counterpart". That's what Richard Simpkin said about the popular understanding of On War, AKA “the” theory of war by Clausewitz. A lot of "the" theory of war is no longer relevant, Melton says, at least not the parts that the US Army has chosen to incorporate into its doctrine. The Clausewitz Delusion is a soul-searching tour de force on how and why the US Army came to its current struggle to achieve decisive victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the author the US Army, in its decades-long infatuation with Clausewitz’s On War, has forgotten what it once knew and now lacks “a sufficient understanding of the nature of warfare at the strategic, operational and tactical levels”.  “What the US Army once knew” is one of the masterfully delivered, extensively documented key concepts in this book and the chosen point of departure for the discussion of future doctrine. Melton calls for a return to the good old and successful American way of war and to stop enshrining the old writings of the famed Prussian. Clausewitz "could learn more from us than we could ever learn from him".

When I started reading this book, the word Clausewitz in the title had me bracing for the worst. Clausewitz's On War is not an easy read: written over a period of almost a decade, its a collection of papers that never were edited, revised or formatted for a single book. To make things worse, the obscure, pseudo-philosophical writing in the original German version has suffered a a lot during translation. It was a pleasure to find out that Melton didn't go at large into just another Clausewitz de-codification but rather limited his analysis to the concepts that are incorporated into the US Army doctrine and the ones that make On War obsolete. First, Clausewitz's preference for war-ending battles of annihilation rather than protracted wars of attrition (a way of warfare where the US Army historically excelled). Second, the Clausewitzian concept of center of gravity, the hard-to-find entity that will allegedly bring the enemy down to its knees pretty much like kryptonite will do to Superman (no wonder is that hard to find, maybe it doesn't even exist). Third, the absence of post-conflict governance considerations (this one not Clausewitz's flaw but rather a product of the times of limited warfare where he lived in).

The way forward proposed by Melton is a return to the recipes that made the US Army to succeed in the past: attrition warfare and nation building (real nation building, not the hastily executed plans carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan). The book's recipe for waging offensive wars is not pretty: attrition warfare means there will be blood, lots of it. But in all honesty, even when I am almost a pundit in the opposite camp (maneuver warfare), Melton's careful treatment of the issue of attrition is convincing. When it comes to nation building, I'm only going to say that at the end of the book there is a reprint of Field Manual 27-5 Military Government, dated 1940, and that is impossible to read it without aching at the mess and loss of life that happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. There was a better way to do things, from half a century ago ...

Stephen Melton is a retired US Army officer and now a faculty member of the US Army Command and General Staff College. As a retired soldier and professor, his views on the subject of doctrine are the ones of an insider. In this era of pervasive think-thank mentality and self-proclaimed military analysts with questionable credentials, I can only hope that we see more books like this one. It may be a long wait for the next book matching the quality of this one: right in the preface of the book, Melton laments how the hectic life in the military prevents any type of reflective thought. He also comments that collaborative work is very difficult due to the dispersed nature of the US Army institutions.

Soldiers win battles that can’t be foretold. Scholars foretell battles that can’t be won. Don't let go the opportunity of having both in the same book.

The Clausewitz Delusion : How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (a Way Forward). 
Steven L. Melton. 
Zenith Press, 2009. 
320 pages. 
Hardcover. $30.00.


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