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Posted on Dec 22, 2009 in Books and Movies

The Clausewitz Delusion – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

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.

The author spends a substantial portion of his book in detailing the overall changes the Army should undertake now to prepare for future conflict.

“This book questions whether the top part of the army did as well as it should have in conceptualizing and preparing for the wars that have consumed the nation for the past eight years. The book argues that the army entered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lacking a reasonable understanding of how they would or could be won, as events in both these countries have proven. Perhaps worse, the army has embarked on a costly strategic military offensive without due consideration of the nation’s chances of success and the very dangerous second- and third-order effects of such a strategy are also now becoming apparent.”

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The above is taken from the preface of Steve Melton’s new volume The Clausewitz Delusion: How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (A Way Forward). As you can correctly infer from the above passage and title, it is a book that is opinionated and pulls no punches. It is a book sure to spark emotions with every reader. Most importantly, it is a book certain to generate many periods of reflection within the reader.

Any discussion of a book of this genre must begin with an analysis of the author’s credentials. In the past months, we have seen the market became increasingly populated with books of this type. However, as we are well aware, quantity does not always equate to an increase in overall quality. Unfortunately, the majority of these books are written by authors who possess little credibility due to sparse experience or lack of expertise in the subject matter.

This is not the case with Melton. He retired from the U.S. Army after a long and distinguished career. Importantly, he served during the period in which he bases much of his criticism of the U.S. Army. Melton’s credibility is further enhanced by his current position as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. In this position, he has studied extensively the performance of the U.S Army, and he daily addresses the subject material found in this book.

Melton utilizes this experience to answer three basic questions within the pages of The Clausewitz Delusion. First, what were the strategic and operational failures/errors of the United States (focusing primarily on the Army) during the initial years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Second, what were the chief contributing factors to these failures/errors? Finally, what changes must the Army undertake now to avoid these failures/errors in future conflicts?

In dissecting the first question, it is obvious the author is highly critical of the strategic and operational decisions made in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Army’s role in these decisions and their implementation. (As a note, he applauds the performance of the Soldiers and units at the tactical level.) In his analysis of Iraq, he keys on the areas of initial troop commitment; of little desire or capability to conduct nation-building; confusion as to purpose; and conducting operations with flawed doctrine. In his study of Afghanistan, he highlights conducting operations early in the campaign without sufficient infantry; again, ittle desire or capability for conducting nation-building; poor interaction between civilian and military on the ground; and a confused endstate.

Most will not discover any new nuggets within the author’s critique of Iraq and Afghanistan. The above points have been articulated by others before, sometimes more effectively. However, Melton’s intention in examining current operations is to strengthen his arguments for answering his other two questions. For him, a concise treatment of the present sets the conditions for expanded discussion of the past and future.

Clearly, the most debatable and intriguing portions of the book are the author’s thoughts on what caused the strategic and operational failures/errors in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Melton, the chief contributor to the Army’s current problems can be traced to a total shift in mindset in the early 1980s. It is the author’s premise that the Army’s fascination and subsequent devotion to the ideas of Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831, author of On War) that was the principle driver of this change. He believes these thoughts over time transformed the Army into an organization equipped mentally, doctrinally and organizational to conduct an archaic from of war-fighting. The result was an Army unprepared for the overall challenges Iraq and Afghanistan presented.

Although Melton acknowledges a few of Clausewitz’s views are still relevant today, he is clearly in the attack mode. In particular, he focuses on the impact of the Clausewitzian theories of center of gravity and battles of annihilation on current Army doctrine. He contends that the most successful U.S. offensive wars were based on doctrine totally in disagreement with Clausewitz. The author provides extensive examples to illustrate his argument emphasizing the Army’s use of attrition warfare as the key to victory.

Melton’s distain for Clausewitz and his belief that the Army has departed from a model of success is captured in the following passage: “It is especially galling, therefore, that we now fail to recognize the reasons for our historic success in our current war-fighting doctrine but rather embrace the transient knowledge of the nineteenth-century foreign philosopher Clausewitz, who came from a military tradition much less successful than ours. He could learn more from us than we could ever learn from him.”

Without question, this section of the book will spark great internal debate within readers and provide much material for water-cooler discussions. Personally, I found times when I was in total agreement with the author, then minutes later wondered how he could come to a conclusion he’d reached. There is much food for thought within the pages, no matter what your opinion of Clausewitz is.

Unlike the preponderance of current authors of this genre who focus solely on the "problem," Melton offers potential solutions. The author spends a substantial portion of his book in detailing the overall changes the Army should undertake now to prepare for future conflict. These changes revolve around reorganizing an Army not prepared to “destroy enemy armies but rather … to defeat enemy governments and then establish better governance for their populations.” Again, this is a perspective that will stimulate discussion.

Melton’s recommendations are diverse and encompass not only the Army, but include government and the military as a whole. He focuses much of his attention on the development of an Army Military Governance Division. Within this discussion he defines its potential roles and organization. Other suggestions include doctrinal changes at various levels of war, modifications to the Army School System, a dramatic increase to postwar reconstruction capability, and ways to improve civil-military cooperation. I found many of Melton’s proposals sound and viable.

In summary, there will be those who will vehemently disagree with some (perhaps much) of Melton’s thoughts and conclusions. If this is the case, I believe the author will be more satisfied than if everyone was in complete agreement with him; he will have achieved the major goal of his book, which is to spark “a debate about the true nature of warfare.” The ability of The Clausewitz Delusion to stimulate this intellectual discussion truly makes it an important contribution to the field.

Rick Baillergeon co-authors the Tactics 101 series that appears each month in the War College section of ArmchairGeneral.com.

1 Comment

  1. Steve Melton’s a supremely ignorant idiot and the only type of critic that the establishment press will allow to produce a book for the mass market (re-enactors, forum lizards, and self termed military geniuses who obtained that rank from reading media dross))new volume .
    Since I am dealing with drugstore and bureacrat militarists of the “rules of war” genre, I will not try to educate you!
    . Unfortunately, the majority of these books are written by authors who possess little credibility due to sparse experience or lack of expertise in the subject matter.(They don’t have credibility among the establishment bureacracy that is bereft of judgment, innovation or intellecct.)
    This is the case with Melton. He retired from the U.S. Army after a long and distinguished career (as a ”warrior diplomat,” “nation-builder”, “multicultural savant and Clintonista.). Importantly, he served during the period in which he bases much of his criticism of the U.S. Army(share the guilt share the disgrace). Melton’s credibility is further enhanced by his current position as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (such boobs are the indoctrinators of American officers for higher appointmen.). In this position, he has studied extensively the performance of the U.S Army, and he daily addresses the subject material found in this book. (He wanted to know how he could protect his job by better identifying himself as a propagandist of the “high tech army” inanity.)
    Finally, what changes must the Army undertake now to avoid these failures/errors in future conflicts? (It is obvious that he has written several low-brow thesis.)
    . (As a note, he applauds the performance of the Soldiers and units at the tactical level. Of course attritionists always promote the tactical level and forget the Operational Art)) In his analysis of Iraq, he keys on the areas of initial troop commitment; of little desire or capability to conduct nation-building (huh?); confusion as to purpose; and conducting operations with flawed doctrine. In his study of Afghanistan, he highlights conducting operations early in the campaign without sufficient infantry; again, little desire or capability for conducting nation-building (idocy); poor interaction between civilian and military on the ground(idocy); and a confused endstate (The only army in the world that does not promote victory. Instead it talks only about the end of the struggle so that the generals can return to their earthly pleasures, teevee, liquor and mental masturbation).
    Most will not discover any new nuggets within the author’s critique of Iraq and Afghanistan (that is certainly true). The above points have been articulated by other (uniformed bureaucrats) before, sometimes more effectively. Clearly, the most debatable and least intriguing portions of the book are the author’s thoughts on what caused the strategic and operational failures/errors in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Melton, the chief contributor to the Army’s current problems can be traced to a total shift in mindset in the early 1980s. It is the author’s premise that the Army’s fascination and subsequent devotion to the ideas of Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831, author of On War) that was the principle driver of this change. He believes these thoughts over time transformed the Army into an organization equipped mentally, doctrinally and organizational to conduct an archaic from of war-fighting. The result was an Army unprepared for the overall challenges Iraq and Afghanistan presented. (Most US Army generals have never understood Clausewitz. Only Schwarzkopf seemed to have any understanding during the past 30 years. I.e. Since the Polish military journals told the US about Operational Art in the 1980s.)
    Although Melton acknowledges a few of Clausewitz’s views are still relevant today, he is clearly in the attack mode. In particular, he focuses on the impact of the Clausewitzian theories of center of gravity (an important concept) and battles of annihilation (impossible in a politically correct army) on current Army doctrine. He contends that the most successful U.S. offensive wars were based on doctrine totally in disagreement9 totally ignorant of) with Clausewitz. The author provides extensive examples to illustrate his argument emphasizing the Army’s use of attrition warfare as the key to victory. (A return to the lowest form of military thinking. The US army only hires attritionists as teachers and any transforming that has been done is to turn everything over to air power. Then the “army will occupy and mop up.” Sound familiar?)
    Melton’s distain for Clausewitz and his belief that the Army has departed from a model of success is captured in the following passage: “It is especially galling, therefore, that we now fail to recognize the reasons for our historic success in our current war-fighting doctrine but rather embrace the transient knowledge of the nineteenth-century foreign philosopher Clausewitz, who came from a military tradition much less successful than ours (right! America is very successful at war?). He could learn more from us than we could ever learn from him (what arrogantly insane bullshit!).”
    Without question, this section of the book will spark great internal debate within readers and provide much material for water-cooler discussions. Personally, I found times when I was in total agreement with the author (another idiot), then minutes later wondered how he could come to a conclusion he’d reached. There is much food for thought within the pages, no matter what your opinion of Clausewitz is.
    Unlike the preponderance of current authors of this genre who focus solely on the “problem.” (American officers are stupidly told that if they can identify the problem(s) the solution will be easier to divine. That method has been proven bankrupt thousands of time.) Melton offers potential solutions. The author spends a substantial portion of his book in detailing the overall changes the Army should undertake now to prepare for future conflict. These changes revolve around reorganizing an Army not prepared to “destroy enemy armies but rather … to defeat enemy governments and then establish better governance for their populations.” (A denizen of Shensiki! The Army is doomed.) Again, this is a perspective that will stimulate discussion.
    Melton’s recommendations are diverse and encompass not only the Army, but include government and the military as a whole. He focuses much of his attention on the development of an Army Military Governance Division. Within this discussion he defines its potential roles and organization. Other suggestions include doctrinal changes at various levels of war, modifications to the Army School System, a dramatic increase to postwar reconstruction capability, and ways to improve civil-military cooperation. I found many of Melton’s proposals sound and viable. (the person who wrote this review, Rick Baillergeon of the low brow Amrchairgeneral.com, is nearly perfect in the ignoramus hierarchy.)
    In summary, there will be those who will vehemently disagree with (every one of) Melton’s thoughts and conclusions. If this is the case, I believe the author will be more satisfied than if everyone was in complete agreement with him; he will have achieved the major goal of his book, which is to spark “a debate about the true nature of warfare.” (no! Its is reinforcing propaganda for an “end state” that already exists.)The ability of The Clausewitz Delusion to stimulate this intellectual discussion truly makes it a worthless contribution to the field.

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