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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

One False Word Makes a Big Difference in Warfare

So Carl von Clausewitz, when properly understood, was right about how wars do or do not end. Even after a resounding triumph, it behooves the victors to be on guard for what follows. Even final victory is never something absolute.

221013-N-LK647-1031 ATLANTIC OCEAN—A view of the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) from aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) as Normandy participates in a Tactical Force Exercise as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, Oct. 13, 2022. Ford is on its inaugural deployment conducting training and operations alongside NATO Allies and partners to enhance integration for future operations and demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s commitment to a peaceful, stable and conflict-free Atlantic region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey)

Darned if there’s not another misleading word choice in the standard (and on the whole excellent) Princeton University Press translation of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, which dates to 1976. Back in 2014 I ran an item over at The Diplomat making the case that translating the Prussian philosopher-soldier’s famous maxim that war is “the continuation of policy by other means” conveyed a false impression about the nature of war. War is a political act, not a mindless, apolitical spasm of violence for its own sake. That was lost in translation.

The piece jumped off from humorist Mark Twain’s reputed quip that it’s not what we know that gets us in trouble; it’s what we “know” that “just ain’t so.”

I argued that there is a world of mischief in that word “by,” when in the original German the text states that war is a political act carried out “with,” or “with the addition of,” forcible means. Violence is never what war is all about when accurately understood. It’s a means to a political end. And in fact, Clausewitz was keenly aware of the danger that mistranslating his words might have. He goes out of his way to declare that war is not some radical change of state in international interactions. It’s merely the competitors adding another tool, violent force, to the toolkit that bears such implements of statecraft as diplomacy and economic coercion. Sage statesmen and soldiers use all the tools in the toolkit in unison.

War is martial diplomacy, in other words. In wartime combatants employ battles and engagements rather than—or sometimes in concert with—diplomatic communiqués to make their points. But politics never stops even amid the clangor of combat. It remains supreme. Thinking it stops when the fighting starts could send soldiers or their political overseers astray.

And in fact the Michael Howard and Peter Paret translation gets the Clausewitzian text right; the mistake comes in precisely one subhead, disagreeing with the wording Clausewitz himself used, and it’s misused in the same fashion a handful of times in the translators’ commentaries on the text. I speculated that some copy editor at Princeton knew, in the Mark Twain sense, that the proper translation was “by,” and substituted his or her own judgment for that of Howard and Paret. The translators simply missed the goofs during their final review of the manuscript. It happens when you go over a mass of verbiage in a hurry, as is the rule in the publishing endgame.

That was then. The dubious word choice I noticed this spring is subtler and in all likelihood less consequential. It doesn’t warp readers’ understanding of the fundamental nature of war, as the other one does. But it’s still worth batting around, if only to remind ourselves that ambiguities linger in even the most authoritative translated texts. Like the “by other means” passage, this mistranslation comes in a subhead, not in the body of Clausewitz’s meditations. It’s the claim (on page 80 if you have your copy) that “in war the result is never final.” That subhead prefaces a short discussion that begins, “even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final” (my italics in both). “The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

“Is not always to be regarded is final” differs markedly from stating that the result is “never” final in armed strife. What gives? So, back to the original text of On War, where the subhead states that the result in war is “never something absolute” (nie etwas Absolutes). In English as in German, the word absolute is a close cousin to—but not the same thing as—final. Getting the translation right reconciles the subhead with the body of the discussion.

Indeed, victory is very seldom absolute in a trial of arms, as military history confirms. Not even overthrowing an enemy political regime or crushing its armed forces to dust makes a victory absolute. Victors get the peace they enforce. If you decline to enforce the peace won by your arms, the ensuing power vacuum invites others to take up arms in their own interest. The outcome is far from absolute if they do.

But the result could be final without being absolute. The annals of military history show that there are final victories. Macedonia scattered the population of Athens after defeating the city in the fourth century B.C. Drastic measures put an end to Athenian great power in the ancient world. Rome crushed Carthage, razed the city walls to the ground, and reportedly salted the wreckage to keep Carthaginians from rebuilding. It doesn’t get more final than that. Tacitus quotes a vanquished foe of Rome as lamenting that Romans “make a desert and call it peace” when waging war.

Nor are final victories some figment of classical antiquity, although they seldom approach Carthaginian proportions. In recent months we have been self-flagellating over the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The ouster and slaying of Saddam Hussein made the invasion’s result final in the terms set forth for the operation, which, roughly stated, were to create a non-Baathist regime, not armed with nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological weapons, that would refuse to lend support to terrorists. In that sense the mission was accomplished, as President George W. Bush’s much-mocked banner on board USS Abraham Lincoln proclaimed twenty years ago this coming Monday.

The triumph over the foe—Saddam and his party—was final.

It was far from absolute. The U.S.-led coalition failed to foresee that chaos would follow the destruction of the ruling regime, however loathsome, and that chaos makes fertile ground for insurgent groups, terrorists, organized crime, name your favorite agents of lawlessness. Some new antagonist may rise from the ruins of even a final victory to challenge the peace. So again, you get the peace you enforce, and winning the peace did not go well, to say the least, in post-Saddam Iraq.

In that sense the mockery flung Bush’s way was warranted.

So Carl von Clausewitz, when properly understood, was right about how wars do or do not end. Even after a resounding triumph, it behooves the victors to be on guard for what follows. Even final victory is never something absolute.

Revised edition of On War, Princeton?

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”