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The lawless rabble of camp followers

January 12, 2012

I’m finishing up my translation of Clausewitz Book Two into Kid, and I was struck by the last few paragraphs of Chapter Five, including the passage below:

A far more serious menace is the retinue of jargon, technicalities, and metaphors that attends theses systems. They swarm everywhere–a lawless rabble of camp followers. Any critic who has not seen fit to adopt a system–either because he has not found one that he likes or because he has not yet got that far–will still apply an occasional scrap of one as if it were a ruler, to show the crookedness of a commander’s course. Few of them can proceed without the occasional support of such scraps of scientific military theory. The most insignificant of them–mere technical expressions and metaphors–are sometimes nothing more than ornamental flourishes of the critical narrative. But it is inevitable that all the terminology and technical expressions of a given system will lose what meaning they have, if any, once they are torn from their context and used as general axioms or nuggets of truth that are supposed to be more potent than a simple statement.

He also talks about narrowness of thinking, the dangers of vanity in critical analysis, and misuse of historical examples in critical studies. I found it funny, in a dark way, how relevant this passage is to the jargon, sloppy thinking, and ineffectual analysis which are alive and well in contemporary writing on war, strategy, and security–never mind the frequency with which Clausewitz’s own words and ideas are taken out of context or contorted to fit a writer’s point. I guess some things never change.

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