Posts Tagged ‘Napoleonic Wars’

Well, twelve questions really, but the if you have a classroom with sliding chalkboards, as I did, you can hide the last two until you’re ready to reveal them. Currently taking a break at #AHA2015, and decided to take advantage of some down time to get this post out.

This was probably my favorite and most successful lesson from HI301 this past semester. We devote eight lessons to Napoleon and the wars of the French Revolution, and despite what you might think, most students know little about Napoleon beyond the dubious facts that he was “a short French dude” (as any aficionado knows, he wasn’t short, and he wasn’t really French). Thus the sheer volume of battles and wars is like polar bear swimming, and even the best students can have difficulty navigating things. It is at this moment that the approach of the individual instructor becomes extremely important: either you structure classes such that students can work their way to the big picture and big ideas, or you fall back on minutiae such as where each corps commander was in a given battle. Well, except Davout. ALWAYS know where Davout was. Even in 1813…

But I digress. Anyway, this particular lesson came just over half way through the Napoleon block, and my goal was two-fold. First, guide my students through a Socratic chain of reasoning, building the next question on the preceding question, so that they can work through a complex, sweeping argument. Second, and this was the big “reveal” at the end of class, to help them understand, in some measure, why Clausewitz felt that he had to begin with that most basic question, “What is war?”

So, here are the questions that they had to work through:

1. What is the point?

2. What does victory look like?

3. Who is the enemy?

4. Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.

5. How *could* you defeat the enemy?

6. Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable?

7. Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?

8. Now, can you defeat the enemy?

9. If you can’t, then why are you using military force?

10. Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations?

And then, the two bonus questions:

11. Or, are they due to the nature of war?

12. What is war?

To break these down somewhat:


Back in December, I was asked whether, given my criticisms of the medieval military revolution theories, I thought there WERE any good examples of pre-modern military revolutions.  The question gave me pause, as I’ve grown so used to critiquing military revolution theory from the Middle Ages forward that for a while now I haven’t given much thought to potential revolutionary candidates before c. 1250.

Mons Meg, at Edinburgh Castle; constructed in 1449. Photo from Wikipedia,

Now, on the whole I’m skeptical of “military revolution” as an historical concept.  Folks who know my dissertation and work in general have probably detected this character flaw. That is, I don’t think the concept helps us much to understand historical causation or change, or, in many cases, how contemporaries viewed the military events of their times. I think it encourages us to prioritize paradigm over process, simplicity over complexity, and a-priori patterns over the chaos of human existence, and thereby to create patterns of agency that either didn’t exist in the minds of contemporaries, or else functioned in non-replicable contexts. Of course, “military revolution” in the broad sense of “major change in military affairs that impacts human affairs” isn’t necessarily inaccurate or out of place, but in my opinion once we start to define and apply the term, we wind up putting a lot of carts before horses. And at that breadth of definition, the term stops being particularly useful. (more…)