Recently, I’ve seen Dr. Chris Bassford’s site, Clausewitz.com mentioned at the Small Wars Council and then one of my co-authors, A.E. of Rethinking Security, favorably cited a link to Clausewitz.com on a social networking platform. Intrigued, I wandered over and read for a while. I’m glad that I did.
On War was a book I read as an undergraduate for a class that focused on German intellectual history and was included by the prof more or less as an afterthought, along with works by Kant, Marx, Nietzsche and a few others. I recall that I was not terribly impressed at the time by On War; my real interest then was Cold War diplomatic history and I paid far greater attention to Marx. To me, Clausewitz was a turgid writer, another Germanic pedant, though an important one for his contribution to strategy. I never developed any particular dislike for him either, since military affairs wasn’t a priority and I stuck Clausewitz on my shelf and ceased to give him much consideration thereafter. Other philosophers and thinkers seemed to be more relevant.
While reading at Clausewitz.com, I came across Bassford’s critique of various translations of On War and he panned one in particular:
7. Penguin Edition (1968). AVOID. The most widely available version of the Graham/Maude translation (see #4 above) is the weirdly edited and seriously misleading Penguin edition (still reprinted and sold today), put together by Anatol Rapoport in 1968. Rapoport was a biologist and musician-indeed, he was something of a renaissance man and later made some interesting contributions to game theory. However, he was extremely hostile to the state system and to the alleged “neo-Clausewitzian,” Henry Kissinger. He severely and misleadingly abridged Clausewitz’s own writings, partly, of course, for reasons of space in a small paperback. Nonetheless-for reasons that surpasseth understanding-he retained Maude’s extraneous introduction, commentary, and notes, then used Maude’s errors to condemn Clausewitzian theory. Between Graham’s awkward and obsolete translation, Maude’s sometimes bizarre intrusions, and Rapoport’s hostility (aimed more at the world in general, and at Kissinger in particular, than at Clausewitz personally), the Penguin edition is badly misleading as to Clausewitz’s own ideas. The influential modern military journalist/historian John Keegan apparently derives much of his otherwise unique misunderstanding of Clausewitz from Rapoport’s long, hostile introduction-necessarily so, since he has obviously never read Clausewitz’s own writings, not even the rest of the text of this strange edition. If you have any version of the Graham or Graham/Maude translation, but especially this twisted Penguin version, we advise you to get the modern Howard/Paret edition (discussed above).
Curious, I went over to a bookcase and pulled my copy of On War. Sure enough, it was the “twisted” Rapoprt version that I had read . I don’t know if the backstory Bassford gives about Rapoport and Henry Kissinger is true or not but it is certainly a plausible one. Kissinger, for all his intellectual abilities and charm was, in his heyday, a highly aggravating and insecure personality who made a legion of enemies with abrasive, dismissive and derogatory remarks and machiavellian conduct. I’ve seen scholars tilt at windmills for stranger reasons than that. My own mentor in diplomatic history had consuming hatreds for Alexander Hamilton and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to which I could never relate.
As a result of reading Bassford’s comments, I picked up a Paret translation of On War yesterday and a cursory flipping through told me that he was correct in his assessment. I had read an edition that was both mediocre and weird in college. So I bought the copy and look forward to getting acquainted with a much more accurate presentation of Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas.