To most military historians and war-mongering armchair generals, Carl von Clausewitz is some stuffy know-it-all jerk that everybody feels like they need to read even though they never do because it's not particularly exciting. His book, On War, is the single most influential military theory text in human history, yet few people can recite any part of it other than the bit about war being "politics by other means".
Well forget all that shit. This guy was the fucking definition of an asskicking German warrior. He was the goddamned Sir Isaac Newton of kicking ass, his book laid out principles that have defined Western military doctrine for the last century, and while engaging the enemy head-on he was wounded twice serving on the front lines as a General for two separate European armies, personally witnessed Napoleon's two greatest defeats, once snuck through enemy lines to convince an entire Corps of infantry to desert their commanding officer, ran the shit at the Berlin War Academy for over a decade, banged a Countess even though he was just a regular commoner, and is still a best-selling author 180 years after his death.
One of the most badass people ever named Carl was born near Magdeburg in 1780, the son of a retired army officer who had kicked ass across Europe with Frederick the Great but now just sat on his ass exaggerating old war stories, complaining about the arrow he took in the knee, and telling chicks he was Prussian nobility even though he totally was just some middle-class geezer. Clausewitz was like whatever and bailed from his home in 1792, enlisting in the Prussian Army at the ripe old age of 12, and was immediately thrown into hardcore backwoods tooth-and-nail guerilla fighting against guillotine-equipped French anarchists during the Wars of the French Revolution.
Staring down the sights of his musket at a horde of his soon-to-be-despised foes from the front rank of a Prussian Infantry regiment, this MENSA-grade preteen somehow impressed his superiors enough to be promoted to Lance-Corporal at thirteen, commissioned an officer before his balls dropped, and promoted to Lieutenant at 15. Even though he still wasn't technically old enough to drive a car, drink beer, or get into R-rated movies without parental supervision, Lieutenant Clausewitz was stomping across Europe in hard-soled German shit-kicker boots shanking French regular infantry in the eye with a bayonet at the Siege of Mainz and across several engagements during the 1793 Rhine Campaign, all the while cultivating his intense love of war and his ridiculously-over-the-top hatred of all things West of Germany.
"The invention of gunpowder and the constant improvement of firearms are
enough in themselves to show that the advance of civilization has done nothing
practical to alter or deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy,
which is central to the very idea of war."
After the war things got super boring as fuck for Clausewitz, so instead of sitting around the barracks all day scratching his nuts and complaining about the weather he enrolled in the Berlin War Academy and started studying every single thing he could possibly learn about viciously and brutally sawing the pants out of all who opposed him on the battlefield with a hail of gunfire and a point-blank cannon shot to the face. Graduating from his country's most prestigious military academy at the top of his class, Clausewitz was appointed to serve as a military aide to Prince Augustus, the current ruler of Prussia, assuming the position just in time for his country to face what would become their most hated and fearsome opponent yet – the new French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon had already been royally fucking shit up in Europe for a while, but Prussia only truly started to get worried about the little Corsican dude and his unstoppable horde of patriotic rifle-toting Frenchmen after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, when L'Emperoreurur marched West, engaged the combined might of both Austria and Russia at the same time, and smashed their asses so hard with his gigantic iron-plated cannon balls that it splintered the ice underneath them and dumped both armies to their deaths in a freezing-cold lake. Clausewitz was a chief-of-staff when Prussia mobilized for war, and, at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, personally went up against Carl von Clausewitz – a man who, as I mentioned earlier, is nowadays widely believed to be the greatest theoretical military genius of the modern era.
Napoleon beat the holy ever-loving catfuck bejeezus out of the Prussians in one of the most humiliatingly lop-sided defeats the German military would ever suffer. Clausewitz, personally engaged during a rearguard action, was wounded in combat while personally defending the Crown Prince of Prussia from onrushing French troops. He spent the next two years imprisoned in France and Switzerland, surrounded by French people and cuckoo clocks and other bullshit he couldn’t stand. Prussia was conquered, the Prince was captured, the Prussian military was dismantled, and Carl von Clausewitz sat rotting in a prison cell stewing with rage and plotting his cold, calculating, deliberate revenge.
"There is only one decisive victory: the last."
Clausewitz was released from prison in 1807 and sent back to Berlin, where he immediately threw himself into furthering his understanding of tactics, warfare, and battle. He got involved in intellectual circles that discussed everything from artillery tactics and the Frederick the Great's campaign history to Enlightenment literature and the complicated rationalist philosophies of Immanuel Kant. He spent time with the top Prussian generals, made friends with Gebhard von Blucher, became a professor at the Berlin War Academy, worked as the personal military tutor to the future Prussian King Wilhelm III, and married a hot well-educated Prussian Countess by blowing her corset off with his ridiculous ability to intelligently discuss Goethe, Voltaire, and Mozart while putting a bullet through the Ace of Spades at 100 paces and swordfighting a bear.
So, as you can imagine Carl von Clausewitz was kind of righteously pissed off as hell out of his mind in 1812 when Napoleon forced Prussia to ally with him and invade Russia. Clausewitz was so enraged, it turned out, that he and 30 other Prussian generals not only refused to fight under Napoleon's command, but actually defected from Prussia, fled the country, rolled right up to the Russian Tsar's palace, and offered their swords to help him fight off Napoleon's invasion. Before he left town, the ever-honorable Clausewitz first informed his pupil, King Wilhelm III, of his intentions to abandon the cause and continue battling Napoleonic assholery across Europe. The 15 year-old king disowned Clausewitz, and told him never to return. Clausewitz handed him a book he'd written on military tactics before he left.
"Strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings,
but in maintaining one’s balance in spite of them. Even with the violence of emotion,
judgment and principle must still function like a ship’s compass,
which records the slightest variations however rough the sea."
Serving in the Russian-German Legion, a unit of German ex-pats battling the invading armies of Napoleon, Carl von Clausewitz continued the struggle, this time using new tactics and strategies he'd learned to help him battle his hated French enemies. He undertook guerilla raids aimed at slowing down Napoleon's forces, participated in the ultra-deadly and decisive Battle of Borodino that dealt the final, bloody blow to Napoleon's invasion hopes, and then, as Napoleon was retreating back to France, Clausewitz snuck into enemy territory, found the commander of the Prussian troops under Napoleon, and convinced him to abandon L'Emperor and defect to the Russians. The guy did, and Napoleon got so pissed at losing an entire Corps of infantry overnight that he broke the alliance with Prussia and told them to go fuck themselves.
King Wilhelm didn't let Clausewitz back into the Prussian military immediately, so Clausewitz formed his own independent command of Guys Who Hated the French and led a multinational force of Lithuanians, Poles, Brits, and Prussians during the War of Liberation in 1813, including one battle outside Lutzen when he was wounded while leading a cavalry charge on enemy positions. Once Napoleon was defeated and exiled Clausewitz was allowed back into the army, and when Napoleon tried once again to fuck with him Carl von Clausewitz played a crucial role in the Waterloo Campaign that destroyed the Emperor's power once and for all, fighting a rearguard action and holding the line against a French army that outnumbered him two-to-one.
By 1818, 38 year-old Prussian soldier Carl von Clausewitz was a 26-year army veteran who had held the rank of General in both the Prussian and Russian armies, served in three campaigns against Napoleon, married a countess, and was working as the Director of the German War Academy in Berlin, the most highly-regarded military academy on the European continent.
None of this, however, is what he is remembered for.
"All war presupposes human weakness and seeks to exploit it."
It was around this time that Carl von Clausewitz made his lasting mark on history. He took all the shit he learned from his own experiences serving as a high-level officer in two different European armies against the single most brilliant military field commander of the 19th century and wrote his magnum opus top shelf double-malt besonderes masterpiece: On War, also known by its significantly-more-awesome-sounding German title Von Krieg. A massive, marginally-boringly-written yet ultra-mind-detonating-genius tome of hardcore military tactics and high-level brain-liquifying political strategy which, if I had to boil it down to one sentence, basically equates to, "Yeah, sure, war is all about kicking ass, but it's also a fuck of a lot more complicated than that.," which doesn't exactly have the same punch as "War is Hell" or "Hell is other people" or "What the hell is that fucking Mecha War Yeti doing running around with tactical nuclear missile launchers mounted on its spiked shoulder armor," but his book on the ins and outs of limited war as a political tool was still badass enough and important enough that to this day it's studied in every single military academy in the western world. His shit formed the foundation for Helmut von Moltke's campaigns to kick ass in the Franco-Prussian war and make Germany a unified country, was studied by unabashedly-hardcore dudes like Patton and Eisenhower, and has generally, you know, just guided all U.S. and NATO operational activity principles for every engagement since Vietnam. Which ain't bad considering he was busting this beeswax out halfway across the world in 18-goddamned-31. It's basically the Origin of the Species of asskicking.
Clausewitz didn't live to see his book become the single most influential military theory book ever published, but that was actually ok with him because he didn't want to put it out there during his lifetime because he knew it would kick off an unholy shitstorm that could potentially have ruined his career and cost him his job. After he died of cholera during an operation in Poland in 1831, Carl's widow Marie unsealed the manuscript, wrote an introduction to it, and published it.
It remains the most widely-read and famous book on military strategy since Sun Tzu's Art of War was first written around 500 BC.
"Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity...
if the leader is filled with high ambition and if he pursues his aims with audacity and strength of will,
he will reach them in spite of all obstacles."
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Wilder, 2008.
Clausewitz, Carl von. The Campaign of 1812 in Russia. J. Murray, 1843.
Sandler, Stanley. Ground Warfare. ABC-CLIO, 2002.
Weir, William. 50 Military Leaders Who Changed the World. New Page, 2007.