As Mark Twain reputedly quipped, it’s not so much what we know that gets us in trouble; it’s what we know that just ain’t so. How much of what we know about martial ventures is wrong? In the naval sphere, for instance, it’s common knowledge that Alfred Thayer Mahan instructs commanders never to divide the fleet. Except he doesn’t. Once upon a time, it turns out, historians took to quoting other historians quoting Mahan to that effect. Over time the quotation — in reality, someone’s bowdlerized version of his ideas about concentrating naval strength — took on an air of authenticity and authority. “Never divide the fleet” endured as a truism despite its flimsy provenance. And it drowned out Mahan’s real ideas through constant repetition.
This is about more than salvaging a long-dead maritime strategist’s reputation. Faulty or outdated ideas can carry real-world repercussions. Acting on them creates a garbage-in/garbage-out effect that bedevils strategic endeavors. Nor is the problem confined to one apocryphal maxim from Mahan. We all know, don’t we, that strategic grand master Carl von Clausewitz defines war as “the continuation of policy by other means” (italics in original). Except he doesn’t. Read in the original German (insert favorite Hitler joke here), Clausewitz’s masterwork On War proclaims — uniformly — that war is a mere continuation of policy “with other means” (mit anderen Mitteln), or sometimes “with the addition of other means” (mit Einmischung anderer Mitteln). Nowhere in On War or his prefatory notes does the Prussian write “by” other means.
Yet this false quotation refuses to die. “By,” “with,” who cares? Well, any student or practitioner of warfare should. Substituting a two-letter for a four-letter word makes a big difference in how Westerners conceive of war. And as Clausewitz teaches, grasping the nature of war in general — and of the particular war we’re contemplating — constitutes the first, most fundamental, most crucial act of statecraft. Get the basics wrong and grim consequences follow.
It’s actually a rather serious mistake, and such an obvious one that it tends to suggest it was intentional. And given that I speak sufficient German to be clear on the difference between “bei” and “mit”, I feel very mildly embarrassed to have occasionally resorted to the mistranslation, although my excuse of never actually having read Clausewitz in the original.