What would von Clausewitz say?

By James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

Its me, Carl von Clausewitz, here to speak about der Krieg -- oops, the war -- between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the retired generals.

I ordered Herr Pinkerton to take the day off, because I know a lot about war. I wrote the book on the subject. Literally.

If my name doesnt ring a bell, then you probably never served in the armed forces, at least not as an officer -- because, Im proud to say, my writings are enshrined in just about every military academy in the world. But I hope that even you civilians will keep reading, because although Ive been dead for 175 years, what I have to say concerns all Americans today.

Perhaps my most famous saying is this: War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means. That is, war is just another way for a nation to influence another nation. You Americans have been trying to influence Iraq for a long time now, including by fighting two wars. Im here to assess how youre doing.

I was interested, for example, in the words of one of Rumsfelds critics, retired Gen. John Batiste, on CNN: When we violate the principles of war, he said, ignoring unity of command and unity of effort, we do that at our own peril. That Batiste fellow has obviously given me a close reading; I wrote a lot about unity of command and effort. And Ill also have you know that in 1812 I wrote a book titled Principles of War. War has three purposes, I declared. First, to conquer and destroy the armed power of the enemy; second, to take possession of his material and other sources of strength; and third, to gain public opinion. Thats right, almost two centuries ago, I understood that as much as anything, war was about persuasion -- persuading the enemy to give up.

So how do I assess Rumsfelds performance? Has he eliminated the enemys armed power? Just as important, has he persuaded the foe to stop fighting?

The answer is no, not after three years of fighting. Rumsfeld seems not to have absorbed one of my key dicta: War does not consist of a single short blow. That is, if you want to win, you have to fight longer and harder than the enemy. Mind you, Im not squeamish about casualties; I was in the Prussian Army as we fought Napoleon over two decades. Thats when I decided to study war, on the theory that if youre going to fight, its better to win than to lose.

And war is a waste if you dont win your political objective. If Americas goal had been merely to remove Saddam Hussein from power, well, that was accomplished in April 2003. But President George W. Bush wanted much more; he pledged the same year that the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution. And so the big Clausewitzian question: Has the United States committed the resources necessary to achieve that goal? The answer, obviously, is no. America wasnt prepared for either a robust insurgency or an emerging sectarian conflict. Thats OK; Im the guy who coined the phrase fog of war. Yet, even as the fighting escalated, Rumsfeld failed to escalate in response. He seems strangely willing to be a spectator as the United States falls short of accomplishing its mission, which is to make the Iraqis bend to Americas will.

So historys verdict on Rumsfeld will be harsh. But what about these half-dozen generals who are attacking their ex-boss? With the exception of Anthony Zinni, the other five kept their criticism well hidden until recently. And three of them served Rumsfeld in Iraq. So those generals, too, are going to have to do a lot of explaining when they come before the high court of history, up here in Valhalla.

Special to Newsday

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