Tag Archives: Napoleon

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

    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