The Clausewitz Chronicles: Part 1. Clausewitz and Medieval Warfare

Posted: March 26, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I hadn’t meant to start my series  “The Clausewitz Chronicles” with a post of this nature. Linear, progressing through the book, that was my thought.  But certain passages scattered throughout parts of the volume began to coalesce into a discrete topic, and the sprawling thoughts below are nearly a short article in length.

Clausewitz seems to be as popular today as he has ever been. Which is something, if you stop to think about it. After all, for a theorist’s work to be valued as highly as is Clausewitz’s, to be used as the basis of so many operational and professional platforms nearly two centuries after it was first written, is remarkable. Please note, I’m not referring, in the main, to historical studies that aim to read Clausewitz in terms of his contemporaries (which would be my approach should I ever have to teach a course on the subject). I’m referring to works such as Willmott and Barrett’s Clausewitz Reconsidered (2009), which asks if On War is still relevant to current military planning; to Sumida’s Decoding Clausewitz (2008), which values the text for treating of “important military questions,” and which has advocates a particular relationship between theory and history which has heretofore proved elusive.[1] I’m referring to van Creveldt’s article, decrying Clausewitz for discounting the “laws of war” in his lengthy discussion of war itself, and Howard’s  “Very Short Introduction,” which however does treat Clausewitz in a more historical vein. The Prussian theorist himself has come under fire more recently from CGSC professor and career soldier Stephen Melton, whose book The Clausewitz Delusion (2009) credits to a misguided affection for On War many of the U.S. military problems in Iraq and Afghanistan (not sure how much I buy that, though there are some points in favor of that thesis). Whether you love him or hate him, Clausewitz is not going away.

[Note: My edition of On War is the Everyman’s Library edition of the Howard/Paret/Brodie translation, and has a different pagination than the older editions]

As a military historian whose first area of specialization is medieval warfare, however, I have wondered at the applicability of On War to medieval warfare in particular, and to pre-Napoleonic conflicts in general.  Gillingham perhaps said it best, when, in concluding his analysis of Richard I’s generalship, he said that “[i]n these circumstances a Napoleonic or Clausewitzian Niederwerfungsstrategie made little sense.”[2] Of course, Gillingham prefaces this sentence with some remarks on the superiority of defense over offense in medieval warfare, which as we all know is a basic premise of Clausewitz’s study (VI:chapters 2  and 3).  Many would be quick to point out that this factor alone is a great example of Clausewit’z utility in analyzing past conflicts—Rogers, for example, invokes Clausewitz’s idea of the “positive aim” in his discussion of Vegetian warfare.[3] But a multiplicity of accurate observations does not justify a text’s use as a paradigm of evaluation. And that is exactly what Clausewitz purports to be, for the strategic level of war especially, since a proper theoretical understanding of changes in warfare and their relationship to the historical practice of warfare is essential. When precisely did it become essential? When “war progressed from medieval hand-to-hand fighting toward a more orderly and complex form” (II.2, 154). Before that point, not only is a system less essential for understanding, it is extremely difficult to understand at all.   In fact,

“If we examine the conditions of modern warfare, we shall find that the wars that bear a considerable resemblance to those of the present day, especially with respect to armaments, are primarily campaigns beginning with the War of the Austrian Succession. Even though many major and minor circumstances have changed considerably, these are close enough to modern warfare to be instructive…The further back one goes, the less useful military history becomes, growing poorer and barer at the same time. The history of antiquity is without doubt the most useless and the barest of all.

This uselessness is of course not absolute; it refers only to matters that depend on a precise knowledge of the actual circumstances, or on details in which warfare has changed…A general glance at the condottieri is enough to show that the conduct of war depends entirely on the instrument employed [my italics]; at no other time were the forces so specialized in character or so completely divorced from the rest of political and civil life…

But the further one progresses from broad generalities to details, the less one is able to select examples and experiences from remote times. We are in no position to evaluate the relevant events correctly, nor to apply them to the wholly different means we use today.  (II.6, 203-4)

Assessing the past at all, however, requires a precise methodological and critical apparatus, especially as strategy and high command, like history, are so imprecise—the higher up the command chain one goes, the greater the imprecision. And according to Clausewitz, the only sure guide for that level of war is history—the only adequate means to inform theory so that it may be an “aid to judgment”, rather than a iron-bound rule (II:5, 183). There is indeed much to praise in Clausewitz’s approach to historical study, which approach Sumida has done such a fine job of illuminating. The tripartite aspect of critical history is one to which I think I subscribe myself, at least the first two parts:

First, the discovery and interpretation of equivocal facts. This is historical research proper, and has nothing in common with theory.

Second, the tracing of effects back to their causes. This is critical analysis proper. It is essential for theory; for whatever in theory is to be defined, supported, or simply described by reference to experience can only be dealt with in this manner.

Third, the investigation and evaluation of means employed. This last is criticism proper, involving praise and censure. Here theory serves history, or rather the lessons to be drawn from history. (II:5)

He goes on to say on the next page that “We have seen that in criticism it is vital to reach the point of incontrovertible truth; we must never stop at an arbitrary assumption that others may not accept,” etc. And “We have also seen that both investigation of the causes and examination of the means leads to the realm of theory—that is to the field of universal truth that cannot be inferred merely from the individual instance under study.”

Passages such as these make me suspect that, despite Sumida’s interesting analysis, Clausewitz’s work rests on some questionable assumptions concerning causation, rationality, autonomy and intentionality, and especially culture. As Stephen Morillo has noted, “if the history of human culture teaches us anything, it is that what seems most ‘natural’ is often highly constructed, socially and culturally.”[4] Interestingly, Clausewitz himself in several passages appears to so limit the applicability of his discussion of war–that the political and social factors involved in medieval conflicts are difficult for us to understand, thereby giving medieval warfare a futile appearance that we should beware not to believe (though he does describe most combat by condottieri a “sham”, VIII:3, p. 710).  And that the “new” type of war illustrated by Napoleon has rendered previous theorizing and accepted operational practice obsolete, thus requiring a complete rethinking of the problem of strategic and operational command.   At the same time, Clausewitz speaks in terms of “development”, “culmination”, and “maturity”, suggesting to me that Jeremy Black’s approach to the Military Revolution may be more Clausewitzian than often supposed. And Clausewitz also draws interesting parallels between Revolutionary and Medieval warfare in terms of its reliance on the “people”, defined as those who would have enjoyed the equivalent rights of citizens in the early nineteenth century. To be specific, consider the following passages from an oft-overlooked part of On War, Book VIII:[5]

Consequences of Napoleonic warfare, and of accepting its impact

VIII:2, page 700. “We said in the opening chapter that the natural aim of military operations is the enemy’s overthrow, and that strict adherence to the logic of the concept can, in the last analysis, admit of no other….In the chapter on the suspension of military activity [III:16] we showed how factors inherent in the war-machine itself can interrupt and modify the principle of enmity as embodied in its agent, man, and in all that goes to make up warfare….But what exactly is this nonconducting medium, this barrier that prevents a full discharge? Why is it that the theoretical concept is not fulfilled in practice? The barrier in question is the vast array of factors, [701] forces and conditions in national affairs that are affected by war….The man in overall command may actually have examined all these matters without losing sight of his objective for an instant; but the many others concerned cannot all have achieved the same insight. Opposition results, and in the consequence something is required to overcome the vast inertia of the mass. But there is not usually enough energy available for this.

[And here some crucial passages at length:]

This is its usual appearance, and one might wonder whether there is any truth at all in our concept of the absolute character of war were it not for the fact that with our own eyes we have seen warfare achieve this state of absolute perfection. After the short prelude of the French Revolution, Bonaparte brought it swiftly and ruthlessly to that point. War, in his hand,s was waged without respite until the enemy succumbed, and the counterblows were struck with almost equal energy. Surely it is both nature and inescapable that this phenomenon should cause us to turn again to the pure concept of war with all its rigorous implications.

(VIII:2, 701) Are we then to take this as the standard, and judge all wars by it, however much they may diverge? Should we deduce our entire theory from it? The question is whether that should be the only kind of war or whether there can be other valid forms. We must make up our minds before we can say anything intelligent about war plans.

If the first view is right, our theory will everywhere approximate to logical necessity, and will tend to be clear and unambiguous. But in that case, what are we to say about all the wars that have been fought since the days of Alexander—excepting certain Roman campaigns—down to Bonaparte? We should have to condemn them outright, but might be appalled at our presumption if we did so. [702] Worse still, we should be bound to say that in spite of our theory there may even be other wars of this kind in the next ten years, and that our theory, though strictly logical, would not apply to reality. We must, therefore, be prepared to develop our concept of war as it ought to be fought, not on the basis of its pure definition, but by leaving room for every sort of extraneous matter. We must allow for natural intertia, for all the friction of its parts, for all the inconsistency, imprecision, and timidity of man; and finally we must face the fact that war and its forms result from ideas, emotions, and conditions prevailing at the time—and to be quite honest we must admit that this was the case even when war assumed its absolute state under Bonaparte.

If this is the case, if we must admit that the origin and the form taken by war are not the result of any ultimate resolution of the vast array of circumstances involved, but only of those features that happen to be dominant. It follows then that war is dependent on the interplay of possibilities and probabilities, of good and bad luck, conditions in which strictly logical reasoning often plays no part at all and is always apt to be a most unsuitable and awkward intellectual tool. It follows, too, that war can only be a matter of degree.

Theory must concede all this; but it has the duty to give priority to the absolute form of war and to make that form a general point of reference, so that he who wants to learn from theory becomes accustomed to keeping that point of view constantly, to measuring all his hopes and fears by it, and to approximating it when he can or when he must.

A principle that underlies our thoughts and actions will undoubtedly lend them a certain tone and character, thought the immediate causes of our action may have different origins, just as the tone a painter gives to his canvas is determined by the color of the underpainting.

If theory can effectively do this today, it is because of our recent wars. Without the cautionary examples of the destructive power of war unleashed, theory would preach to deaf ears. No one would have believed possible what has now been experienced by all.

Medieval warfare

VIII:3, pages 710-11:  “Just as the character of the military institutions of the European states differed in the various periods, so to did all their other conditions. Europe, essentially, had broken down into a mass of minor states…A state of that type could not be said to be genuinely united; it was rather an agglomeration of loosely associated forces. Therefore we should not think of such a state as a personified intelligence acting according to simple and logical rules.

“This is the point of view from which the policies and wars of the Middle Ages should be considered. One need only think of the German emperors with their constant descents into Italy over a period of five hundred years. These expeditions never resulted in any complete conquest of the country; nor were they ever meant to do so. It would be easy to regard them as a chronic error, a delusion born of the spirit of the times; but there would be more sense in attributing them to a host of major causes, which we may possibly assimilate intellectually, but whose dynamic we will never comprehend as clearly as did the men who were actually obliged to contend with them. So long as the great powers that eventually grew out of this chaos needed time to consolidate and organize themselves, most of their strength and energies went into that process. Foreign wars were fewer, and those that did take place betrayed the marks of immature political cohesion.

“The wars of the English against the French are the first to stand out. But France could not yet be considered as a genuine monarchy–she was rather an agglomeration of duchies and counties; while England, though displaying greater unity, still fought with feudal levies amid much domestic strife.”

712: “But if war gained in power and effectiveness, it lost in other ways….Apart from a few commercial matters, relations with other states did not concern the people, but only the treasury or the government…The Tartar people and army had been one; in the republics of antiquity and during the Middle Ages the people (if we confine the concept to those who had the rights of citizens) had still played a prominent part; but in the circumstances of the eighteenth century the people’s part had been extinguished.

Some (half-baked) analysis

The contradictory aspects of Clausewitz’s thought—inevitable contradictions, I think—begin to appear. Our critical method must be honest and precise; but our ability to apply it in a precise manner is limited inversely by temporal distance. “Absolute truth” and “universal truth” is the goal of criticism, but depends on the precise relation of cause and effect that is always contingent and subject to interpretation—an aspect of history as a humanity, and not a science, that would have passed him by. And perhaps the most serious historical flaw in his analysis: postulating an “absolute” form of war as required by theory, and then, almost against his better judgment as it were, arguing that that ideal must be the yardstick against which to measure and assess command performance and war-making. I doubt whether many historians would find much merit in using this approach. Discovering “facts” (perhaps “historical facts”) and analyzing them to attribute cause remains the proper work of every historian, but “praise and censure” , or “lessons to be drawn” is extremely contingent, and fundamentally unstable. We cannot escape it as historians, but it does not need to be embraced—and it is precisely in that sense that military history as such functions. In that sense, Clausewitz was and is like any other analyst, just a somewhat more precise one, and despite his many prescient observations, we should be wary of applying his approach outside the context of his own times—i.e., from the War of the Austrian Succession to…well, that’s a good question. Perhaps the Second World War?

Clausewitzian war requires two important elements: centralized nation-states, and “the people.”  Medieval warfare possessed the latter, so to speak (or at least he wished to view it so) but not the former. Early Modern armies (i.e., 17th and 18th century entities) had the former, but not the latter. The French Revolution produced both, and Napoleon gave the best example of the war-making potential of this new system. Thus the practice of war, the aims, methods, and objectives of war are in Clausewitz’s work tied to a nation’s or an era’s dominant political structures.  In the language given above, this is seen as entirely a positivist proposition, in which the perfect form is realized in his own day–though who can say what tomorrow may bring–and that earlier eras were hampered from practicing war as it ought to be practiced due to one factor or another.  I would stipulate, however, that positivism per se can be said to be discredited as an effective or operable analytical system. There are therefore two possible consequences to acknowledging the positivist aspect of Clausewitz’s analysis, and both have an impact his applicability to medieval warfare.

  1. The conditions/factors of today’s war-making are not peculiar to today (and hence better…), so the analysis given in On War can apply to other periods.
  2. The past, and the “goals”, “ends” of warfare, should not be viewed in a hierarchy of ‘pure’ and ‘less pure’, but should be evaluated on its own terms. So, On War can NOT be applied to other periods.

And then, following from that, a third point:

  1. If the goals of war can vary, and the political formations and actors can vary, and methods can vary (as Clausewitz acknowledges), then it makes little sense to try to apply On War to earlier periods.

It’s not that Clausewitz was oblivious to the nagging arguments of what later became post-structuralism, it is rather that when faced with the disjuncture between the philosophical/analytical paradigm of his day and his own keen observation of historical causes and conditions, he made a (very medieval) choice to hold to the paradigm, and give pride of place to theory, in spite of the fact that he could not completely reconcile past eras into a unified theory of war.  The only way he could do so was to ignore this contrary evidence, and create what I would argue is a fallacious yardstick: the absolute form of war. Off-hand, I would say that such a yardstick of practice has rarely existed (outside of perhaps a Biblical context—a study in its own right). In point of fact, I think most scholars of warfare would be hard-pressed today to deny that warfare is at least in part precisely what Clausewitz wishes it weren’t:

“If this is the case, if we must admit that the origin and the form taken by war are not the result of any ultimate resolution of the vast array of circumstances involved, but only of those features that happen to be dominant. It follows then that war is dependent on the interplay of possibilities and probabilities, of good and bad luck, conditions in which strictly logical reasoning often plays no part at all and is always apt to be a most unsuitable and awkward intellectual tool. It follows, too, that war can only be a matter of degree.”

From the vantage point of the 21st century and what I hope is a keen appreciation of the culturally and socially constructed nature of war-making, this array of “undesirable” features of warfare is a fair description of how to approach warfare in different periods.  And I would also argue that a lot of recent research into the “Military Revolution” can be pressed into supporting this proposition. For instance, Clifford Rogers’ neat categorization of the different revolutions from 1300 to c. 1550 certainly suggests that “the form taken by war” IS the result of “those features that happen to be dominant”.[6]

Of all Clausewitz’s analysis, it perhaps the “battle-seeking” aspect that has consistently drawn most attention over the years. However, you don’t need Clausewitz in order to seek battle. And seeking battle does not make you a Clausewitzian.  It *could* point to the applicability of Clausewitz to past periods, in terms of case studies and studies in command, but that returns us directly to the syllogistic propositions just put forth above, and we’re left with the same methodological problems.   In other words, if Clausewitz’s On War is simply a method of interrogating the command decisions of past generals, it has no real coherence as a method beyond that basic question, and ignores much of the historical contextualization that Clausewitz himself provides.  But at best, applying Clausewitz’s “battle-seeking” paradigm to medieval campaigns would seem to be the application of a paradigm to a habitus, and would require careful contextualization.

Ultimately, perhaps what I’m saying is that Gillingham’s rejection of Clausewitz as a paradigm for understanding medieval warfare is a keen and valid insight. As an effective historical method for appreciating the complex and multivalent intersections of phenomena that confront a commander, Clausewitz’s On War retains considerable value. As a framework for assessing the nature, capabilities, and operations of time periods before the Napoleonic and Ancien Régime of the 18th century, it is less useful, as it rests on various questionable assumptions concerning the nature and goals of medieval strategic and operational thought—assumptions that its historical method would perhaps correct, if the inherent positivism of the text did not prevent it from doing so.

This means that there remains considerable room for future study. At the very least, we are left with the vexed question of the portability of the past. Military training centers and centers of higher education use history in a very particular way, and in some respects are far more theoretical than many English departments—a point brought home to me the other day in reading a 2011 master’s thesis on Crécy from the Army War College.  And this is not a bad thing. But we have to ask ourselves, at what point do “universals” in war-making stop, and culturally determined forms start?  Perhaps when we run into a practice or decision that seems outlandish to the Clausewitzian schema. Clausewitz would have explained the practice in terms of incomplete development, and distance from the ideal, when in fact we have a duty to interrogate the practice within its own system, and not to measure it against a chimera of “absolute war” and positivistic political maturity. At that point the Clausewitzian method of analysis, for all that I like it and find it applicable in many time periods, fails. John Lynn’s Battle: A History of Combat and Culture is a much surer mode of historical analysis in understanding war in different times and places, and it is not for nothing that he labels Clausewitz a “Military Romantic.”  Ultimately, I think there will always be tensions between “lessons learned” and “culturally determined”, but Clausewitz, while useful in organizing thoughts, is not the panacea for resolving such tensions.

As a bit of a post-script: In my own specific field, there remains much to be done as well. The most effective way of interrogating the mechanism of medieval strategic theory (which I believe DID exist, even though I do not believe Charlemagne had a “general staff”, a la Bachrach) requires us to discard old-fashioned (including some Clausewitzian) ideas concerning changes in military affairs, and to first examine the theoretical guides and frameworks that medieval commanders used in order to guide their campaigns and operations. The discussion must include Vegetius, of course, but at the same time MUST move beyond Vegetius as a text passively received, and propose other training that would have prepared generals to design a campaign. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of Gillingham’s article, since it rests on a misconception that Vegetius had little to say concerning battle (hardly the case—Rogers’ and Morillo’s articles are worth reading here). Vegetius alone did not prepare medieval commanders for high command, but neither will an application of Clausewitz get us much further forward, except as a temporal point of reference on strategic thinking.  And second, we should look at the theoretical and methodological aspects of selected campaigns. Professor Rogers has shown how to do this for Edward III, and I think this points the way forward for a further methodological revision of medieval warfare—ironically enough, one that moves away from Clausewitz, and recognizes that warfare relies on “those features that happen to be dominant”, “on the interplay of possibilities and probabilities”, and that the “ultimate resolution” is not always the soundbyte of “battle”, the “destruction of the enemy”, or the establishment of universal truths, but that, in the realm of strategy, battle and physical annihilation were but two of a range of possibilities. And always have been…Now that is a Clausewitzian contradiction.


[1] Neatly summarized in his earlier, preliminary article “The Relationship of History and Theory in On War: The Clausewitzian Ideal and Its Implications,” Journal of Military History 65 (April 2001), 333-354). As I do not have his more recent book in front of me at the moment, I hope I may be forgiven for drawing on this article slightly more than is advisable.

[2] John Gillingham, “Richard I and the Science of Warfare in the Middle Ages,” War and Government: Essays in Honour of J.O. Prestwich, edited by John Gillingam and J.C. Holt (Boydell, 1984)

[3] Clifford J. Rogers, “The Vegetian ‘Science of Warfare’ in the Middle Ages,” Journal of Medieval Military History, vol. 1 (2002), 13.

[4] Stephen Morillo, “Battle Seeking: The Contexts and Limits of Vegetian Strategy,” Journal of Medieval Military History, vol. 1 (2002), 23.

[5] I am fully aware, of course, that in taking “selections” from Clausewitz’s writing, I’m guilty of the “selective reading” charge that is always leveled at Clausewitz critics. To which I would respond in two ways: first, all readings of Clausewitz are selective, sui generis, and second, a work so complicated that it cannot sustain “selective readings” is a) useless, since it can’t be discussed, only duplicated, and b) must be in desperate need of such selective reading.

[6] Set forth most concisely in “The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War,” in The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, ed. Rogers (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995). I use Professor Rogers’ arrangement regularly when explaining medieval warfare to my students, with some minor tweaks and caveats concerning the cavalry dominance-rise of infantry shift—but then, I’m tending to disagree with a lot of folks on that crucial 1300-1350 period.

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