Monday, March 13, 2023

Clausewitz's Philosophical Roots by Richard Ned Lebow


Clausewitz learned the fundamentals of grammar, arithmetic and Latin in a provincial municipal school and was later exposed to a more sophisticated curriculum during his three years at the Allgemeine Kriegsschule (the German Army’s premier institution of higher learning). In France ( as a prisoner of war) and Berlin, he rad a dfiverse selection of authors, including Ancillon , Fichte, Gentz, Herder, Kant, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Johannes von Muller and Rousseau. But above all, Clausewitz read history to augment his personal experience and to discover the underlying dynamics of war.

Clausewitz lived through a particularly turbulent era of German and European history that encompassed the French Revolution, the French and Napoleonic Wars, the industrial revolution, the rise of nationalism and the counter-Enlightenment. The latter is a catchall term for a variety of movements and tendencies, including conservatism, critical philosophy, historicism, nationalism, revivalism and holism, that developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in large part in reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment put faith in the power of reason to unlock the secrets of the universe and to deduce from first principles laws and institutions that would allow human beings to achieve their potential in just, ordered and secure societies. Counter-Enlightenment thinkers considered these expectations naïve and dangerous; they saw the world as complex, contradictory, composed of unique social entities and in a state of constant flux. They rejected the Enlightenment conception of a human being as a  tabla rasa, and the mere sum of internal and external forces, as well as its emphasis on body over soul, reason over imagination and thought over the senses. They insisted on a holistic understanding that built on these dichotomies, and one, moreover, that recognized individuals and social groups as the source of action motivated by their search for  expression and authenticity.

The counter-Enlightenment began in France and gained a wide audience through the writings of Rousseau. It found German spokesmen in the 1770s, among them Hamann, Herder, the young Goethe, and Lavater and Moser, the dramatists of Sturm und Drang, and the Schiller of his early plays. The French Revolution of 1789, and Napoleon’s subsequent occupation of German territories, provoked a widespread reaction to French cultural and political imperialism and to the Enlightenment more generally. In literature this found expression in the early romanticism of Novalis (Friedrich Hardenberg), the Schlegel brothers and Christian Friedrich Tieck, in religion with Friedrich Schliermacher, and in the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and later, Georg F. W. Hegel. Clausewitz knew their writings intimately, wrote a letter to Fichte and was personally acquainted  with Schlegel, Tieck and Novalis. On more than one occasion he played cards with Hegel; at the home of August Henrich von Fallersleben.

Clausewitz is often described as someone who wholeheartedly embraced the the counter-Enlightenment. There are indeed many aspects of his thought that reflect and build  upon counter-Enlightenment assumptions, but he owes an equal debt to the Enlightenment. Like Kant, from whom he borrowed heavily, Clausewitz straddled the Enlightenment and the German reaction to it. His life-long ambition to develop a theory of war through the application of reason to history and psychology was a quintessential Enlightenment project,. His recognition that such a theory could never reduce war to a science nor guide a commander in an inherently complex and unpredictable world reflected counter-Enlightenment views, as did his emphasis on emotive force and personality and the ability of genius to make its own rules. But, in a deeper sense, Clausewitz remained faithful to the Enlightenment. He appropriated many concepts from philosophers of the ‘German  Movement,’ but stripped them of their metaphysical content. He borrowed their tools of inquiry to subject war to a logical analysis, and looked beyond pure reason to a psychology of human beings to find the underlying causes for their behavior.

The same duality marked Clausewitz’s political thinking; his un-reflexive nationalism and visceral hatred of France coexisted with his belief that education, economic development and good government could bring about a better world. Clausewitz’s political beliefs evolved more rapidly than his philosophical ones, and he made little efforts to reconcile their contradictions. His thoughts about war were more extensive and productive. One of the remarkable features of On War is its largely successful synthesis of assumptions and methods from opposing schools of thought. In this sense too, Clausewitz follows the footsteps of Thucydides.

Scharnhorst exercised  the most direct and decisive influence on Clausewitz’s thinking and writing. He was among the leading Aufklarers [proponents of the Enlightenment] in the Prussian service. He was born in 1765 to a retired Hanoverian non-commissioned officer and the heiress of a wealthy farmer. He entered the Hanoverian army in 1779, and later taught in a regimental school that he established. In 1782, he founded and edited the first of a series of military periodicals, and wrote two widely read ‘how to’ books for officers before leaving his desk job to fight against revolutionary France. In 1801, he entered the Prussian service , and in 1806, he penned a long essay that summarized and extended his thoughts on the study of war.

Scharnhorst’s writing excelled in its detailed reconstruction of historical engagements. He believed that combat experience aside, case studies were the next best way to capture the reality of war. Scharnhorst  used his cases to infer ‘correct concepts (richtige Beriffe) that could order warfare and identify its principle components in a useful way for practitioners. His two books drew extensively on his wartime experience and historical research, but he never succeeded in developing a general theory of war.  His case studies provided good evidence for his critiques of  mathematical systems to guide the conduct of war developed by Bulow, Dumas, Muller and Jomini.

Peter Paret observes that no military theorists of his time was as conscious as Scharnhorst of the distinction between theory and reality. His lectures at the Allgemeine  Kriegsschule paid lip service to the conventional wisdom that good theory and good preparation could eliminate uncertainty and chance, but he did not for a moment believe it. In good sophistic tradition, the examples he used to pepper his lectures encouraged perceptive students to conclude that theory might be more effectively used to recognize and exploit departures from the expected. Clausewitz would develop this concept further, making surprise and chance central, positive features of his theory of war, in contrast to many earlier writers on the subject, who treated the un-foreseen as an inconvenience, if they addressed it at all. Scharnhorst taught his students that geometry and trigonometry were useful in sharpening the mind, but that any theoretical understanding of warfare had to be based on history. Good history require access to reliable primary sources. This was another lesson the young Clausewitz assimilated, and many of his early writings were historical case studies. Scharnhorst also opened his students’ eyes to the broader political, social and intellectual forces that influenced warfare and determined its nature in any historical epoch. He taught Clausewitz that the distinguishing feature of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was the ability of France, and then the other European states, to extract greater resources and demand greater sacrifices from their populations. Survival in the modern age demanded efficiency in exploiting the physical and social resources at the disposal of the state, and this required a governing elite open to talent and merit independent of class or religious background.

Clausewitz’s early writings reveal the influence of Scharnhorst, but also his ability to transcend the conceptual limits of his mentor. These works span the years 1803-06, and consist of notes and essays on politics and strategic principles, treatments of the Thirty Years War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1736-39, a longer study of Gustavus Adolphus and a review article of one of Heinrich von Bulow’s many books on the theory of war. Clausewitz reveals and early fascination with power, and a qualified acceptance of the rights of states to extend their sways as far as they can. He also emphasized the interest, indeed the responsibility, of other states to oppose such aggrandizement-especially in the case of France – when it threatens their interests or existence. This principle was so obvious to him that he found it strange that not all statesmen conceived of foreign relations in terms of power. He nevertheless recognized real world constraints on the exercise of power, some of them imposed by domestic political considerations, and others the result of deliberate and wise moderation by many leaders.

Clausewitz’s fascination with power may have come from his reading of Machiavelli or Fredrick the Great, but it was positively Newtonian in conception. He conceived of power in terms of the latter’s Third Law; a body in motion would stay in motion until acted upon by an equal and opposite force. States could be expected to expand their power until checked by an equal and opposite political-military force. This was a law of politics, but, unlike laws of physics, it was tempered in reality by other influences that kept states from expanding as far as their power might allow, and others from checking them as their interests dictated. Paret speculates that it was a short step from Clausewitz’s formulation of power to the conception of war he developed in his mature years: that war in theory led to the extreme through a process of interactive escalation, but was constrained in practice by numerous sources of ‘friction’. This concept too was borrowed from Newtonian physics.

Clausewitz’s early writings alternated between case studies and more theoretical writings, and the two were related. His case studies were theoretically informed, more so than those of his mentor, Scharnhorst. He wrote military history to explore the possibilities and limits of theory, and then refined his nascent concepts in follow-up case studies. It is apparent in retrospect that Clausewitz was trying to discover which aspects of warfare were amenable to theoretical description and which were not, and what else he would need to know to construct a universally valid theory. ‘While history may yield no formulae,’ he concluded, it does provide an exercise for judgment, here as everywhere else.’ There is no evidence that Clausewitz began his research program with this insight in mind; it seems to have developed in the course of his reading and writing. It may even represent an unconscious effort to reconcile two distinct and otherwise antagonistic aspects of his intellect: a pragmatic bent that focused his attention on concrete issues and problems, and a desire to step back and understand issues and problems as specific instances of broader classes of phenomena.

Clausewitz’s case studies addressed campaigns, not engagements, and were more analytical than descriptive. His study of Gustavus Adolphus’ campaigns of 1630-32 was ye most concrete expression of this approach. He sought to analyze the underlying causes of Swedish strategy during one phase of the Thirty Years War. He ignored the order of battle (the forces at the disposal of the two sides), and gave short shrift to individual engagements, including the Swedish victory at Breitenfeld and the battle of Lutzen in which Gustavus Adolphus lost his life. Clausewitz made clear at the outset his intention to focus on the more important ‘subjective forces,’ which includes the commander’s personality, goals, abilities and his own comprehension of them. He produced what can only be described as a psychological study of Gustavus Adolphus, and, to a lesser degree, of his Catholic opponents; he treats the war as a clash of wills, made notable by the energy and courage of the adversaries. He concluded that the Thirty Years War lasted so long because the emotions of the leaders and peoples had become so deeply engaged that nobody could accept a peace that was in everyone’s interest.

Clausewitz described Gustavus Adolphus as a man of ‘genius,’ a concept he picked up from Kant and would develop further in On War. William Tell, Wallenstein, William of Orange, Fredrick  the Great, and above all, Napoleon, qualified as geniuses because the grasped new military possibilities and changed the nature of warfare, and most other social activities, and made a mockery of attempts to create static theoretical system. The concept of genius was Clausewitz’s fist step towards a systematic understanding of change. It was based on his recognition, developed more extensively in On War, that change could be both dramatic and gradual. Gradual change, in the form of improvements in armaments, logistics and tactics, was an ongoing process, the pace of which varied as a function of political organization, technology and battlefield incentives. Dramatic changes were unpredictable in timing and nature, and transformed warfare  - and how people thought about warfare – in more fundamental ways. They were somewhat akin to what Thomas Kuhn would later call paradigm shifts.

Clausewitz used the findings of his psychological case studies of Gustavus Adolphus and Fredrick the Great to attack existing military theory, especially the work of Heinrich Dietrich von Bulow. Bulow maintained that the outcome of military campaigns was determined primarily by the angle formed by two lines drawn between the perimeters of the base of operations and the objective. Victory was assured if commanders situated their base close enough to their objective and extended their perimeters far enough so that the imaginary lines converged on the objective at an angle of at least ninety degrees. Clausewitz marshalled examples of defeat under these conditions, and of victories in cases where the angle had been less than prescribed. He attributed both outcomes to the skill of the generals, the elan of their forces and simple good luck.

Bulow’s system reflected the 18th century preference for wars of maneuver over combat, and was ridiculed by Clausewitz who insisted that war is about fighting. Strategy, he wrote, is ‘nothing without battle, for battle is the raw material with which it works. The means it employs.’ The ultimate goal [Zweck] of war was political: ‘to destroy one’s opponent, to terminate his political existence, or to impose conditions on him during peace negotiations.’ Either way, the immediate purpose [Ziele] of war becomes destruction of the adversary’s military capability which can be achieved ‘by occupying his territory, depriving him of military supplies, or by destroying his army.’ Clausewitz introduced a further distinction, between strategy and tactics: ‘Tactics constitute the theory of the use of armed forces in battle; strategy forms the theory of using battles for the purpose of war.’ The distinction between Zweck and Ziele, and strategy and tactics, would become essential components of his later theory of war.

Bulow and Jomini built their systems around the order of battle and relative positioning of deployed forces because they were amenable to quantitative measurement. They considered quantification an essential step in transforming strategy into military science. Clausewitz insisted that science requires propositions that can be validated empirically, and  was struck by how uninterested the leading military theorists of his day were in using historical, or any other kind of, evidence for this purpose. Like Scharnhorst, Clausewitz thought the study of strategy should begin with history, not with mathematics. It had to be rooted in psychology because the motives and means of war were determined by political considerations, and ultimately by human intelligence, imagination and emotions. The study of strategy had ‘to move away from the tendency to rationalize to the neglected riches of the emotions and the imagination.’ It had to find a systematic way of bringing these more tangible but critical considerations into the picture, while at the same time recognizing that chance, by its very nature, would always defy conceptualization and confound prediction.


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