If we go over the career of Clausewitz, one wonders how a man of his stature was able to write the most influential book on war? For starters, he was merely a major general. It was high ranking, yes, but far from the highest rank possible. There were many more higher ranking generals in his times, as well as before and after him.

Then there is the issue that he himself did not actually win many battles. Against Napoleon he and his comrades were destroyed. His actual fighting/leading career in the battle-field doesn't seem impressive at all.

So my question is, why weren't more accomplished generals able to write such a book? Why Clausewitz?

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    Machiavelli, Confucius and Laozi wrote famous books about governance although they actually never even governed themselves.
    – Jan
    Feb 24 at 10:20
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    You seem to think that the attainment of military rank is purely an expression of military ability...that's far from the truth (even today). Also, losing battles is as instructive, to the survivors at least, as winning them. I suspect a definitive answer would require analysis of all of the other potential writers of the 'best book on war' to determine why they didn't produce one.
    – Steve Bird
    Feb 24 at 10:20
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    Why are the best books on programming written by people who are not necessarily the best programmers? Why were the most successful coaches in the world usually not the best players in their respective sports? Why are the definite books on chess not written by Magnus Carlsen? Answer: Because practical skill not necessarily translates to theoretical skill, or writing skill. Also, being successful -- in practice or as author on something -- has a lot to do with being lucky in the right moments as well. I feel the question is based on a deeply flawed understanding of success.
    – DevSolar
    Feb 24 at 10:49
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    Not everyone wants to be a writer & of those that do, not many of them have the talent to be a great writer. Transferring knowledge is a special talent. I'm sure everyone has experienced teachers who could effortlessly explain things, while other teachers (who are every bit as qualified) leave you completely confused. So ending up with the 'best book on war' requires having the knowledge in the first place, the desire to produce such a book, and the skill to be able to transfer that knowledge to the reader. Feb 24 at 11:56
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    In essence the question of "Why Clausewitz?" is why did no one else produce a better book? To answer that you would, as noted by Steve Bird earlier, need to identify all of the potential subjects who had sufficient knowledge and then work out if they had the time, motivation and talent to produce a better work. If they did have those, you then need to identify why they didn't succeed. A little beyond the scope of a H:SE answer, I think. Feb 24 at 12:04

2 Answers 2


Let's consider Napoleon - the Yogi Berra of military analysts - as a counter example:

I have fought 60 battles; and learned nothing that I didn't already know in the first.

Yes; we know. And it really shows. No wonder you followed that statement up with:

Do not fight too often against the same enemy; or you will show him all your art of war.

Not one of those he vanquished was so vain, and incapable of reflection, to disdain learning from either success or failure.

Boney did have 3 particular skills that served him well:

  1. Mastery of Grand Tactics (now termed Operational Art) comparable with the very best military commanders of all time; and at least arguably he might have been the best ever at this.

  2. He revolutionized the use of artillery in his age; but as others witnessed this, the principles that Napoleon introduced were soon copied even if not always perfectly.

  3. The capability to inspire fanatical loyalty from not only the French soldiery, but subordinates who wouldn't give each other the time of day; and even, such as with Bernadotte's actions during Jena-Auerstadt, worked to arrange the defeat of colleagues.
    When Wellington observes that Napoleon's presence on the battlefield is worth 40,000 men to the French, it is this trait in particular that he references.

However, as a battlefield tactician, Napoleon is far from even being the best French commander of the Napoleonic age. At a minimum Davout and Suchet surpass him at this; and others such as Massena, Desaix, and Lannes certainly rival him.

These are not the characteristics of a great and insightful author. Yes, some of Napoleon's comments on war are insightful; others can be twisted into possession of depth possibly unintended by the author; and others such as the two quotes above are merely risable as anything except a warning against hubris.

Finally: observe that the act of writing a book, and particularly a tome, is one of the most introverted of acts. In contrast, the exercise of command is one of the most extroverted. Finding both these extremes in a single individual is rare at best.

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    And even if Napoleon had written a book, you could say: why did Napoleon, who lost, write the best book on war? Why were more successful generals like Suvorov (undefeated) or Kutuzov (who defeated Napoleon) not able to write a better book? The qualifications are completely different.
    – SPavel
    Feb 24 at 14:15
  • @SPavel: While true - the very thought of Napoleon writing an insightful book I find hilarious. I know the quotes all come via Jomini - but their complete lack of self-reflection is the single largest take away. Feb 24 at 14:20
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    He would slay on Twitter, though.
    – SPavel
    Feb 24 at 14:29

Writing of war is, from a military point of view, a technical and scientific subject.

Every general and high military officer write a book of memories and military analysis (many of which are not know to the wide public).

They are then subject of consideration by other military expert, so the books (and the authors) that become known to the public and that are considered most important in the matter are those that survive that peer review by the content, and not by the importance of the author - as it happens to any other scientific publication.

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