Tag Archives: Clausewitz

The Napoleonic Wars in 10 Questions

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:

  1. Or, are they due to the nature of war?
  • What is war?

  • To break these down somewhat:

    Continue reading The Napoleonic Wars in 10 Questions

    Review: Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe 1792-1914

    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.

    Continue reading Review: Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe 1792-1914

    The Clausewitz Chronicles: Part 1. Clausewitz and Medieval Warfare

    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. Continue reading The Clausewitz Chronicles: Part 1. Clausewitz and Medieval Warfare

    Medieval Knights and PTSD; the Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz, and etc…

    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…

    The Kings of War, the Clausewitz page, and military blogs

    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!

    From the SWJ: Thinking Critically about COIN and Creatively about Strategy and War

    I haven’t been on the Small Wars Journal Blog in a while, and am pleased to see this interview with Colonel Gian Gentile, an acquaintance from West Point and someone whom I admire very much.  He has been a forthright opponent of the current military counter-insurgency strategy (COIN), and in this interview he delivers a thoughtful critique of that strategy; I especially like his invocation of Clausewitz in suggesting that the “center of gravity” isn’t always the same thing every time.  It needs to be “discovered,” as he says.   The article has certainly caused a bit of a stir on the forums, as the comments make clear.

    As far as Afghanistan itself goes, I’m afraid I have nothing better to offer than The New York Times’ articles from the last few days.  They seem to be fairly good articles, at least from what I can tell–though I am ready to stand corrected on that, naturally.  Ostensibly, some progress is being made in suppressing the Taliban; hence the President’s announcement that the exit schedule is on track.    But the report is very forthright in saying that operations need to be stepped up, and that strategic gains are coming slowly and with much effort.  Nevertheless, the Taliban is apparently recognizing that it is losing substantial ground in the south to NATO efforts:

    The stepped-up operations in Kandahar Province have left many in the Taliban demoralized, reluctant to fight and struggling to recruit, a Taliban commander said in an interview this week. Afghans with contacts in the Taliban confirmed his description. They pointed out that this was the first time in four years that the Taliban had given up their hold of all the districts around the city of Kandahar, an important staging ground for the insurgency and the focus of the 30,000 American troops whom President Obama ordered to be sent to Afghanistan last December.

    All well and good.  But the Taliban isn’t done.  It’s focusing now on the north of the country, where, according to a Red Cross official, “the north as its own logic.”   I’m not sure how much stock one should put in the NYT’s graphic map of Afghanistan’s political stability, but it certainly doesn’t promote an optimistic outlook.  U.S. intelligence services apparently aren’t optimistic either, as a couple of new reports make clear.

    Anyway, there it is.  Good reading to you, and godspeed to our those in our armed forces, and those of our allies.