editorial | WEST POINT

From Clausewitz to Al Qaeda

The US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., recently announced its list of the “top 10 classics” in warfare. To understand the dynamics that bring countries into conflict, and the skills needed to win, students and scholars are urged to read Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 classic “On War” and the ancient works “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu and “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides. It is an important list, but the books are mainly about big wars a long time ago, and have limited application to the situations today’s cadets are likely to face.

Just as the military itself has had to adapt its tactics and equipment in response to irregular warfare — the battles between big powers and smaller ones who utilize insurgency and terrorism — it should do the same with its reading list. This shouldn’t be a difficult task: Military literature is filled with lessons learned from guerrilla warfare as far back as the American and Chinese revolutions, the Algerian insurrection against the French, and the fall of empires from the British to the Ottoman.

West Point’s course offerings have already adapted to these new threats. Insurgency tactics in Vietnam and Afghanistan, terrorist targeting of civilians, and even cyber-attacks from China are all a part of the core curriculum. So it isn’t clear why so much of West Point’s “top 10” reverts back to an earlier style of war. Perhaps it is nostalgia for a time when the clash of enemies was very clear, the battleground set, and the terms of victory well defined. But not all historical conflicts, let alone modern-day wars, followed the model of giant clashing armies; nor should a reading list of military classics.