On War in the 21st Century
Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 176 pages
Book Review published on: July 28, 2017
Christopher Coker is a man with a problem. As a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, Coker is charged with introducing his undergraduate students to the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz. But, his students are resistant; in his words, they prefer to be told “what to think, not how to think,” and Clausewitz can be tough sledding. What, they ask, is the utility of studying an author who wrote almost two hundred years ago, a writer famous for the difficulty of his prose style and the impenetrability of his ideas? In other words, why bother?
Rebooting Clausewitz is Coker’s answer to the question. The author seeks to make “dead Carl” accessible to a modern audience by connecting Clausewitz’s nineteenth-century “worldview” to modern concerns and by showing that the Prussian philosopher’s view were, in many ways, ahead of their time. A key aspect of Coker’s methodology is found in three stand-alone essays that ask questions like, “What if Clausewitz had read Darwin?” or “If not Clausewitz, then who?” These are thought-challenging pieces that relate Clausewitz both to modern science and philosophy as well as older thinkers such as Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides.
However, the most accessible and entertaining elements of the book are found in the three chapters in which Coker teleports Clausewitz to three modern settings where he is required to defend his ideas against a contemporary critique. The first venue is West Point, where the Prussian considers the continuing value of theory in front of an audience of very precocious cadets. The second puts the Prussian—along with a Marine Corps general and a national security pundit—in front of a Beltway think tank where Clausewitz’s ideas are used to examine strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the penultimate chapter, Clausewitz defends the enduring value of his ideas in a London club populated by somewhat snooty Oxbridge academics.
Put Coker’s essays and “fictional interludes” together and you have a thoughtful and provocative package indeed. And, the reader will appreciates his generous use of humor to lighten the tone of some weighty topics. At one point, he notes that Clausewitz’s ideas on war have been translated into every language but Klingon, which is a pity because war “is what Klingons do.” Nevertheless, one is left wondering how accessible this book—with its references to modern sociology, philosophy, and cognitive science—will be to, say, the majors in my military history classes at the Command and General Staff College. For me, that may be the true measure of success or failure for Coker’s book. This book is recommended.
Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas