The Hero With a Thousand Faces: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "On War" by Carl von Clausewitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Carl von Clausewitz’s philosophy of war? How is it possible that defenders—not aggressors—are responsible for initiating war? Can wars be fought peacefully?

According to Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war is a means of achieving political objectives. Therefore, wars are instigated by defenders, not aggressors. This is because aggressors don’t directly make war; they only make political demands. If the defender gives in to their demands without a fight, then the war doesn’t happen.

Keep reading to learn about Carl von Clausewitz’s philosophy of war.

Carl von Clausewitz: War Is a Tool of Politics

The key premise of Clausewitz’s philosophy of war is that it’s simply a tool for advancing a political agenda. When different nations or groups have conflicting political interests, one way to make the other side accommodate your interests is to compel them by means of military force. This, then, is the purpose of war: to force the enemy to comply with some kind of political demand. For example, maybe one country demands control of a region currently controlled by another country and invades that region if the other country refuses to cede it. Or perhaps an interest group within a country demands governmental reform and starts a revolutionary war if the government doesn’t reform.

Of course, war is not the only tool for advancing political interests. Clausewitz would probably agree that you shouldn’t resort to war if you can achieve your political purpose by other, less extreme measures. He does point out that, while war is a tool of politics, politicians sometimes use it in ways that defeat its purpose.

The Essence of War Is Violence

According to Carl von Clausewitz, war is a tool for advancing political interests, but that is its purpose, not its essence. What differentiates war from other means of pursuing a political objective? According to Clausewitz, it’s violence. Combat is the essence of war: When two nations or factions are at war with each other, their respective soldiers are trying to kill each other. If they’re trying to achieve a political objective by any means other than killing each other, then war is not the tool that they’re using.

Consequently, Clausewitz completely dismisses the idea of trying to make war less violent. Since war is violence, any attempt to make it less violent is delusional. By all means, find non-violent ways of achieving your objectives if you can, but if you must resort to war, then you must resort to violence.

Carl von Clausewitz’s Philosophy of War

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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