Posts Tagged ‘Clausewitz’

I greatly enjoy Geoffrey Wawro’s work. His writing is crisp, his arguments clear, his learning deep but lightly worn. His study on the Austo-Prussian War of 1866 is spectacularly good, though perhaps too hard on the Austrians and I’m still partial to Gordon Craig’s old study of Koeniggraetz.  In this post, I want to focus on his 2000 volume Warfare and Society in Europe 1792 – 1914, which I have used very successfully in teaching, and intend to use again.

First of all, the book is pitched at just the right level for undergraduate teaching, and is a great reference for grad students as well (though of course the bibliography needs updating after nearly 15 years). The chapters are anywhere from 18 to 36 pages, rendering them ideal for subject overviews that also state arguments for class discussion.

Despite the opening date of 1792, Napoleon and the French Revolution do not dominate the narrative so much as explain and contextualize the century of war-making that followed. The chapter is 23 pages, leaving enough time to identify the salient points of the Revolution and Napoleon’s impact on the art of war. In particular, Wawro deftly shows how social, tactical, and political issues cannot be considered in isolation from each other, as too many histories of Napoleonic warfare. The character of warfare was changing, as Dennis Showalter has argued began during the Seven Years War. “Civilians,” writes Wawro, “were drawn inexorably into the fighting and brutally sacrificed. Methods of strategy and tactics also change” (5).  Crucially, Wawro asks “How did Napoleon keep French-occupied Europe and the multinational Grande Armée going?” (16)  Another subtext of the chapter (and in some measure of the book) is the theme of “modern war,” which term crops up throughout the Napoleon chapter. speaking of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, he says, “Here at last was modern war: mass armies and mass slaughter, with no immediately apparent result. (Of course the fact that fewer than 80,000 men were injured by 2.09 million projectiles indicated just how far ‘modern war’ had yet to go to become truly modern.)” (20) Statements like this make the book a gold mine for teaching, as they present students with positions to argue for or against–and, full disclosure, there are many points throughout the book with which I disagree. But that’s part of the pleasure of using the book in the classroom.

Slightly less successful, in my opinion, is the chapter assessing Napoleon’s legacy, “Restoration and Revolution, 1815-49,” but that is due to two factors. First, every military historian has his or her opinions on Clausewitz and Jomini, and it will be a cold day in Hades when you can find two who agree in every particular. So, I have a different and somewhat less critical interpretation of Jomini, and indeed a less polarized picture of Jomini’s position viz-a-viz Clauswitz. Second, and partly the cause of the first point, the most incisive analysis of the Napoleonic legacy is, in my opinion, Hew Strachan’s European Armies and the Conduct of War, which actually does not take as its starting point the opinion that Clausewitz somehow grasped an “essential truth” of “modern war” that Jomini had missed. That, I think would be to give Clausewitz too much prescience, and Jomini too little. Rather, I prefer Strachan’s argument that Jomini better fit the cultural and social world of post-Napoleonic Europe.  This aside, the chapter discusses technological advances and the utility of force in post-1815 conflicts that should lead to great classroom discussions.

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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. (more…)

Good afternoon!  “And etc.”  Ever hear that old song, “Elenore”, by the Turtles?   I always liked it, not least for actually using “et cetera” as part of the lyrics. I mean, who does that?  Anyhow, on a more serious note, there have been a few bloggable things piling up of late, among them two items of particular interest to my own work.

I have several long-term, serious blogging projects in nascent stages, where they will most likely remain until the dissertation is defended in the spring (technically summer begins June 21, so that makes anything before that the spring, right?).  One of these will have posts titled “The Clausewitz Chronicles”, since the old Prussian just doesn’t go away, and I want to explore in depth the issue of Clausewitz’s relevance to medieval warfare and the study thereof.   In that vein, The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz seems quite relevant. It’s been making its way around cyberspace lately, with a lot of my friends re-posting it.  Brilliant stuff, and the illustrations are priceless. Here’s hoping there are more posts in the future.

The second item concerns another topic I’ve been interested in, and that is an analysis and correlation of the medieval combat experience with Dave Grossman’s studies On Killing and On Combat (these future posts to appear under the title “On Medieval Combat”).  Apparently the SAXO Institute at the University of Copenhagen has been doing analogous research, and has come to the conclusion–surprise–that medieval knights suffered from PTSD, just like soldiers in any other period.  Who knew…Well, Geoffroi de Charny, for one; and, although I hesitate a bit over their precise translations of his text, I’ll go with their conclusions that he was talking about the same phenomenon as we are. On the other hand, I’m very cautious about Heebøll-Holm’s conclusion that medieval folk were no more violent than we are today–a conclusion that relies on extensive nuance and qualification, and that will be lost in a news flash.  And I’m not sure it’s an accurate conclusion anyway–but that’s a debate for another time.

And here are a couple random topics of interest: an article by Steven Hijmans on Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birthday, and the controversies it engendered in the early Church.   And a recent post in Disunion about African Americans and civil rights in 1861-2 Washington D.C., worth reading.

Ok, back to work…

Another quick post as I speed through the week…I hadn’t checked The Kings of War blog in a while, and there’s plenty of interesting entries to browse.  As the descriptor says, it’s run by faculty and students from the King’s College, London, Department of War Studies. I don’t answer for the content necessarily, I’m just saying that the posts are worth reading.

Parallel to this, I would suggest Dr. Christopher Bassford’s Clausewitz page, which has more than you ever wanted to know about the famous, and often misunderstood, German military theorist (and some would add practitioner as well, but I’m withholding judgment on that for now).

Lastly, courtesy of Dr. Mark Grimsley’s military history blog roll, I came across Mark Stout’s On War and Words blog, which is also very interesting.

Ok, that’s it for now. Have a good afternoon!