Clausewitz, Genius, and the Rules*1
by Clifford J. Rogers
Reproduced by The Clausewitz Homepage with permission
Clifford J. Rogers is an associate professor at the United States Military Academy, where he teaches military history and the history of military theory. His most recent books are War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy under Edward III, 13271360 (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), and (co-edited with Mark Grimsley) Civilians in the Path of War (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
JON Sumidas recent article on Book II of Carl von Clausewitzs On War*2 does a valuable service in highlighting the importance of Clausewitzs theory of education, which I agree is one of the great theorists most significant contributions. Unfortunately, however, Sumida succumbs to a significant error in interpreting Clausewitzs conception of the relationship between theory and genius. For some reason, this mistake is a common one. Other Clausewitz experts like Michael Handel and Katherine Herbig have also fallen into the same confusion.*3 Because the matter goes right to the heart of Clausewitzs ideas about the nature of war and the value of military theory, it seems worthwhile to try to clarify the issue.
Incorporating a quotation from On War, Sumida writes that the phenomenon of genius, [Clausewitz] was convinced, by its very nature rises above all rules. *4 But to say that genius rises above all rules is essentially to say that a genius can act in contradiction to the rules and still be successful. Indeed, in this conception, the genius is almost defined as the commander who is able to achieve success by violating the rules that bind ordinary mortals.*5 As Clausewitz fully recognized, this poses a great problem for military theory. Any theory proposing rules not good enough for Genius, that Genius can lightly disregard as beneath its notice, would conflict with reality, for it would set theory in conflict with genius,*6 and the successful actions of military geniuses are part of the reality which theory ought to help us understand and explain. Indeed, says Clausewitz, theory can have no higher purpose than to explain such events, and thereby help us learn from them.*7
Yet theory, by its nature, relies on the explanatory power of rules. Without theoretical rules, historical research (the discovery and interpretation of equivocal facts) can occur, but not critical analysis.*8 Without some theoretical structure to support it, historical analysis (linking cause and effect) is hopelessly inefficient. Indeed, it becomes virtually impossible, for only by using theoretical principles can we bring any point of argument to an indisputable conclusion without probing every detail of it.*9 And, of course, probing every detail of every point of an argument is impractical, for the number of details multiplied by the number of points is simply too large a sum.
Thus, if genius rises above the rules, then that means the rules conflict with reality. If the rules proposed by a particular theory conflict with reality, then that theory is, as Clausewitz says, bad theory, unreliable, shabby wisdom (dürftiger Weisheit).*10 And if genius rises above all rules, then there can be no true theory, and without theory, there can be no good historical analysis, no criticism, not even any way to make rational decisions or to justify them in a council of war. Any commander opposing a military genius might as well pack up, snuff out the lights, and go home, leaving a surrender note behind.*11
Clausewitz, of course, devoted his life as a scholar to creating the greatest work of military theory ever written, and his life as an active soldier to defeating the greatest military genius of modern history. He did not believe that theory was worthless, or that a scientific analysis of warfare was impossible, or that one could not discern valid principles of war which bound even the greatest commanders:
The great difficulty of constructing a scientific [philosophischer] theory for the conduct of war, and the many very poor attempts which have thus far been made to do so, have led most people to say that the task is impossible, since it concerns matters which cannot be defined by fixed rules. We would agree with this opinion, and give up all theoretical endeavor, were it not for the multitude of propositions that can be demonstrated easily and conclusively.*12
A lack of basic principles and clear laws for the theory of war, moreover, was intellectually repugnant. Reflections on the events of war and history created an urgent need for principles and rules whereby cause and effect, ends and means, could better be understood. The effort to identify the rules or principles underlying the conduct of war was therefore a positive goal.*13 The problem with earlier efforts in military theory was not that they sought to define rules, but rather the methods they used to find those rules, and the type of principles they aimed to identify.
The main problem with the theoretical methodology of earlier writers was that, starting from a sound premise, they reached a false conclusion on how to proceed with their analysis. They recognized, as Clausewitz did, that the moral forces (i.e., all influences on events not material in nature: the morale and experience of the troops, or the skill of the general, for example, as opposed to numbers of troops, quality and quantity of arms, etc.) were quite important in war, and yet were essentially impossible to measure.*14 This created a difficult dilemma: theoretical calculations would either have to be inaccurate (excluding the moral forces) or impossible to carry through rationally to the point of prescribing action, since they included indeterminate quantities. The response of many pre-Clausewitzian writers (and many post-Clausewitzian analysts as well) was simply to ignore what could not be measured, and to calculate based on what could, assuming that the moral forces would be balanced between the two sides, and have no net influence.*15 As Alan Beyerchen has pointed out, this type of simplification is the classic response of linear science trying to grapple with a non-linear or complex phenomenon.*16 Such analysis has its value, but becomes dangerous when it over-reaches itself, when it loses sight of the fact that what is being analyzed is an abstract simplification, not reality.
Where theorists like Dietrich von Bülow and Henry Lloyd went astray, therefore, was in trying to create the wrong type of rules. They sought rules which would provide a positive doctrine, a model for the art of war that can serve as a scaffolding on which the commander can rely for support at any time, and give theoretical directives, which could tell a general what to do in a particular (real) case. All [good] theories, however, must stick to categories of phenomena and can never take account of a unique case; this must be left to judgment and talent.*17 It is only when theoreticians ignore this dictum that talent and genius operate outside the[ir] rules, and theory becomes the antithesis of reality.*18 But it is only unreasonable theories that make the absurd claim that there is a fundamental divergence between theory and practice. [T]hat difference, which defies common sense, has often been used as a pretext by limited and ignorant minds to justify their congenital incompetence.*19 A satisfactory theory of the conduct of war, on the other hand, must be useful, and never in conflict with reality.*20 Logically then, Clausewitz concludes, one never rises above the rules, if the rules are correct. He who possesses genius should make use of it, but the decisions to which genius leads him will be those entirely consistent with the rules.*21
Thus, to say that genius . . . is above all rules . . . amounts to admitting that rules are not only made for idiots, but are idiotic in themselves.*22 But such an admission is neither necessary nor correct for all rules, only for the paltry philosophy of rules and principles laid down in total disregard of moral factors.*23 Such theories, which exclude genius from the rule, are indeed thoroughly bad, or reprehensible [verwerflich],*24 but provided that the theorist does bear in mind the part that moral factors may play, he may formulate sound rules concerning physical factors without being misled into making categorical statements that will be too timid and restricted, or else too sweeping and dogmatic.*25 For example, Clausewitz considered the following propositions to be valid theoretical principles describing the nature of war:
that defense is the stronger form of fighting with the negative purpose, attack the weaker form with the positive purpose; that major successes help bring about minor ones, so that strategic results can be traced back to certain turning-points; that a demonstration is a weaker use of force than a real attack, and that it must therefore be clearly justified; that victory consists not only in the occupation of the battlefield, but in the destruction of the enemys physical and psychic forces, which is usually not attained until the enemy is pursued after a victorious battle; . . . [and] that every attack loses impetus as it progresses.*26These rules are statements of the reality of cause-effect relationships, not prescriptions for action (though they do carry implications for decision-making).*27 They belong, in other words, to the realm of Kriegswissenschaft, the science of war, which aims at understanding, not Kriegskunst, the art of war, which aims directly at doing.*28 Geniuses cannot ignore these rules any more than anyone else can: Napoleon might be the god of war,*29 the epitome of genius, but his invasion of Russia in 1812 was nonetheless subject to the rule that every attack loses impetus as it progresses. Nor could even he rise above the rule that superiority of numbers is a powerful factor in determining battlefield victory, to the point that the skill of the greatest commanders may be counterbalanced by a two-to-one ratio in the fighting forces.*30 To be sure, he could, and often did, succeed in campaigns where he was outnumbered by that ratio or more, but this was not because he ignored or lightly disregarded the principles of war. Rather, it was because he understood them and applied them better than his enemies did.*31
Indeed, that was the very essence of his genius. Genius, for Clausewitz, was not some sort of magic black box: a genius, rather, was simply someone who possessed to an exceptionally high degree a pair of talents (together composing genius for war) which all commanders possess to a greater or lesser extent, namely, as with Napoleon, the abilities (1) to recognize and (2) to apply the rules which govern the reality of warfare, in all their non-linear complexity. The conclusions a genius reaches should be the same as the conclusions of a well-educated and experienced student of even moderately high intelligence, reflectively applying sound theory to the question.*32 The rulesthat is, the relationships that link causes to effects, means to endsare not conceptually difficult; indeed, they are very simple. By no means do they require the intellectual prowess of a Newton or an Euler (i.e., of a person capable of creating extremely elaborate chains of abstract and deductive analysis, of the sort which can be difficult to follow or understand even when set out in equations which show the logic step by step) to comprehend.*33 The difficulty is not in understanding the rules, nor even in applying them to a given military situation; rather, the difficulty, and thus the need for exceptional mental gifts, comes in:
1. applying the rules to a military situation where the key data are in fact not given, but must be guessed ator, better put, recognized, based on fragmentary evidence, by intuition, which itself works not by rising above the rules, but by (in the words of a modern cognition theorist) extract[ing] patterns from experience, without necessarily being able to say what they are, through use [of] information that is of a degree of subtlety greater than we can talk or think about.*34A person who can consistently carry out these three very difficult tasks with an extraordinary degree of success possesses one of the two characteristics of the military genius, what Clausewitz calls coup doeil. This is the essentially intellectual (though partly subrational) component of genius, which gives the ability to quickly recognize a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.*38 Knowing what to do, however, is only half the battle, if that. The commander still must overcome fear and friction to do it. This requires tremendous determination, which is the second half of the Clausewitzian conception of genius.*39
What makes the great commander great, thus, is not an ability to rise above the rules, for genius, dear sirs, never acts contrary to the rules.*40 Geniuses are, rather, distinguished by exceptional ability to grasp and to apply the rules, intuitively, in the trying circumstances of military command, and then, overcoming friction, to execute the course of action that, as the rules of cause and effect take their course, will lead to the outcome desired.
See Response by Jon Sumida to the Remarks by Dr. Rogers
2. Jon Tetsuro Sumida, The Relationship of History and Theory in On War: The Clausewitzian Ideal and its Implications, Journal of Military History 65 (2001): 33354.
3. Michael I. Handel, in Sun Tzu and Clausewitz Compared (Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, 1991), 66; Katherine L. Herbig, Chance and Uncertainty in On War, in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed. Michael I. Handel (London: Frank Cass, 1986), 103; cf. also Thomas H. Killion, Clausewitz and Military Genius, Military Review 75 (1995): 97100, at 98. Of course, many other students of Clausewitz have understood the theorist correctly. For example, see Azar Gat, The Origins of Military Thought, from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 17678.
5. As Clausewitz suggests, this could lead us into mistaking lucky fools for geniuses. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 178. All citations to On War are to this edition. Citations to Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, are to the German text, ed. Werner Hahlweg (Bonn: Ferd. Dümmlers Verlag, 1952). When the German edition is cited, the translation given here is mine, although I have also included the equivalent page in On War.
7. Vom Kriege, 182: Was das Genie tut, muss gerade die schönste Regel sein, und die Theorie kann nichts Besseres tun, als zu zeigen, wie und warum es so ist. (What Genius does, must ipso facto be the finest rule; and Theory can accomplish nothing better than elucidating how and why it is so.) Cf. On War, 136. Theory, of course, would not contribute anything of value in showing how and why the action of a genius led to success if it simply observed that this was the action of a genius, which rises above the rules. That, however, is what the earlier theorists whom Clausewitz criticized had done.
11. Vom Kriege, 18182; On War, 136. Wehe dem Krieger, der zwischen diesem Betteltum von Regeln herumkriechen sollte, die für das Genie zu schlecht sind, über die es sich vornehm hinwegsetzen, über die es sich allenfalls auch lustig machen kann. (Woe to the warrior who is supposed to creep around in this realm of beggars rules, rules that arent good enough for Genius, that Genius can lightly disregard as beneath its notice, can even mock.) This sentence has often been misunderstood. Clausewitz here is not commiserating over the sad and hopeless fate of a general whose opponent is a genius; rather, he is pointing out how worthless it would be to develop a theory that did not apply to (or explain) the actions of a genius. The translation given by J. J. Graham in his version of On War has contributed to the confusionand was made even worse, with a small alteration, by Lynn Montross, War through the Ages, 3d ed. (New York: Harper and Bros., 1960), 585, followed, e.d., by E. B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863 (New York: Knopf, 1992), 69.
12. Nachricht, in Vom Kriege, 80; Unfinished Note, Presumably Written in 1830, in On War, 71. Die grossen Schwierigkeiten, welche ein solcher philosophischer Aufbau der Kriegskunst hat, und die vielen sehr schlechten Versuche, welche darin gemacht sind, hat die meisten Leute dahin gebracht, zu sagen: es ist eine solche Theorie nicht möglich, denn es ist von Dingen die Rede, die kein stehendes Gesetz umfassen kann. Wir würden in diese Meinung einstimmen und jeden Versuch aufgeben, wenn sich nicht eine ganze Anzahl von Sätzen ohne Schwierigkeit ganz evident machen lie¤e. I have followed Howard and Paret in translating philosophischer as scientific. As Paret and Daniel Moran note, wissenschaftlich and philosophisch are terms that Clausewitz often used interchangeably. Carl von Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, ed. and trans. Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 1n. Scientific seems preferable here, given the emphasis on fixed rules.
16. Alan Beyerchen, Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War, International Security 17 (199293): 5990. This outstanding article can be conveniently accessed online via http://www.Clausewitz.com.
18. Vom Kriege, 187; On War, 140. Note the use of the subjunctive verb würde (translated by Howard and Paret as indicative, will), in the paragraph headed Eine positive Lehre ist unmöglich. This makes it more clear that Clausewitz is saying that the distinction between reality and theory would be the unfortunate consequence if one attempted to use theory to provide algorithms for action, not claiming that theory and practice inherently do conflict.
19. On War, 142. Also: Wehe der Theorie, die sich mit dem Geiste in Opposition setzt; sie kann diesen Widerspruch durch keine Demut gutmachen und je demütiger sie ist, um so mehr wird Spott und Verachtung sie aus dem wirklichen Leben verdrängen. Paraphrasing: Woe to the theory which sets its dictates in opposition to the calculations of genius (which take account of the moral forces that these poor theories exclude): such theories may make modest proclamations of their limitations, their inferiority to genius, but such protestations will be all too true, and only underline the essential falseness of their doctrines. Vom Kriege, 182; On War, 136. Note the parallel construction with the first sentence of the preceding paragraph (quoted in note 11, above).
21. Clausewitz, Õber die Strategie des Herrn von Bülow, in Verstreute kleine Schriften, ed. Werner Hahlweg (Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1979), 8081: über die Regel erhebt man sich nie, und da, wo man gegen eine Regel zu versto¤en scheint, hat man entweder Unrecht, oder der Fall gehörte nicht mehr zu jener Regel.... Wer Genie bestizt, soll davon Gebrauch machen, diess ist ganz in der Regel!
Alles, was von solcher dürftigen Weisheit einer einzigen Betrachtung nicht erreicht werden konnte, lag au¤er der wissenschaftlichen Einhegung, war das Feld des Genies, welches sich über die Regel erhebt. (All these attempts [to develop a theory based on material factors alone] are reprehensible. . . . They exclude Genius from the rule. Everything which was beyond the reach of such blinkered, shabby wisdom was [held to] fall outside the scientific realm, to be in the domain of Genius, which exalts itself above the rules.)
26. Unfinished Note, Presumably Written in 1830, in On War, 31. Other examples include the philosophical-dynamic law (philosophisch-dynamische Gesetz) that an inverse relationship exists between the certainty and the magnitude of success promised by a given course of action. Vom Kriege, 11819. The defense offers a greater chance of success than the attack, but the success to be gained is a lesser one (unless the defender is able to follow up a successful defense with a counterattack); the same goes for the use of interior versus exterior lines. On War, 35759; 368, cf. 392.
27. Which is not to say that Clausewitz excluded all prescriptive rules from valid theory. On the contrary, he believed that If the observations that theory has put in order form themselves into principles and rules, and if truth spontaneously crystallizes into these forms, theory will not resist this natural tendency of the mind. On the contrary, where the arch of truth culminates in such a keystone, this tendency will be underlined. Vom Kriege, 189; trans. modified from On War, 141; see also On War, 578. But even these principles and rules are intended to provide a thinking man with a frame of reference . . . rather than to serve as a guide which at the moment of action lays down precisely the path he must take (ibid., p. 141). In other words, a rule or principle of this sort is a law for action, but not in its formal, definitive meaning; it represents only the spirit and sense of the law: in cases where the diversity of the real world cannot be contained within the rigid form of law, the application of principle allows for a greater latitude of judgment (p. 151).
Principles of this sort are indispensable concepts to or for that part of the theory of war that leads to positive doctrines, i.e., Kriegskunst. Most of these principles apply to tactics, rather than strategy, because tactics deals primarily with observable, material means (soldiers, weapons) and ends (enemy casualties; terrain, guns, and standards seized). Strategy, because of its larger scale, requires the commander to act on data which require a greater degree of probabilistic estimation (he must work with reports from scouts and spies, rather than his own direct observation, for example), and the ends sought are more subject to the inexactitudes of psychology (the end of strategy being to affect the mind of the enemy, to compel him to fulfill your will). See On War, 15155, 14041.
28. On War, 14850. Clausewitzs section on the Art of War versus the Science of War can be very confusing to modern readers, even in the excellent Howard/Paret translation, because Science and Art are not quite the same as the German words Wissenschaft and Kunst, which they are used to translate. For Clausewitz, the essence of a Wissenschaft (science) was that it aimed at pure knowledge, understanding a phenomenon, whereas a Kunst (art) aimed at doing something (p. 148). Thus, the concept of scientific is not defined solely, or even primarily, by a finished system of formal principles [im System und seinem fertigen Lehrgebäude]. This present work [a predecessor of On War] contains no such system, but that does not mean it is not scientific (Vom Kriege, p. 82). Rather, its scientific character consists in an attempt to investigate the essence of the phenomena of war and to indicate the links between these phenomena and the nature of their component parts (On War, p. 61).
In English, the argument over the art of war versus science of war bears more of the freight of the exact sciences, with their absolute laws and strong predictive ability, versus the fine arts, with their emphasis on emotional shadings and the expression of creative genius, and on the particular rather than the general. Thus, in English, the discipline of history is usually considered one of the liberal arts, whereas in German, it is one of the sciences. At one time English usage was more consonant with the German: see J. F. C. Fuller, The Foundations of a Science of War (London: Hutchinson, 1926; reprint, Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: USCGSC Press, 1993), 20, 20n.
Considering this distinction, and the passage cited in note 12, above, we should view with caution statements like Clausewitz scoffed at the notion that there could be a science of war, or Clausewitz denied the notion, popular in his own day, that the study of strategy could be made more scientific. (Jay Luvaas, Clausewitz, Fuller, and Liddell Hart, in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed. Michael I. Handel [London: Frank Cass, 1986)] 196212, at 201, 199.) On the contrary, the great Prussian, as his wife put it, directed his reflections mainly to the science of war [auf die Kriegswissenschaften], and all his efforts were directed to the realm of science. [Emphasis added.] Vom Kriege, 72, 74; On War, 6566. Clausewitz did think it was absurd to hope to develop the study of war into an exact science, but he also believed that war could and should be studied more scientifically than many previous writers had done. He compared war, among many other things, to commerce, and of course defined war as merely a continuation of politics with an admixture of other means. What he had in mind for Kriegswissenschaft, then, was a body of theoretical knowledge which could help a student understand a field of human endeavor, i.e. a social science, like economics or political science. (The idea of the social sciences was very cutting-edge at the time Clausewitz was writing.) On War, 14850.
30. Ibid., 195 (continuing with: The first rule, therefore, should be: put the largest possible army into the field); see also 283. Clausewitz acknowledged only two exceptions to this 2:1 rule in modern European military history: Frederick the Greats victories at Rossbach and Leuthen (p. 195). The existence of two counter-examples, however, does not invalidate the rule: The proverb goes there is an exception to every rule (p. 151). In Napoleons case, With the sole exception of Dresden in 1813, Bonaparte, the greatest general of modern times, always managed to assemble a numerically superior, or at least not markedly inferior, army for all the major battles in which he was victorious; and where he failed to do soas at Leipzig, Brienne, Laon, and Belle-Alliance [Waterloo]he lost (p. 283).
31. On the idea that a geniuss successes come not from knowing when to break the rules, but rather are the result of the workings of higher laws which normallythough perhaps not for a geniusthe workings of human intelligence alone would not be able to discover, cf. On War, 167, and 165 (The essential interconnections that genius had divined, the critic has to reduce to factual knowledge).
34. Ibid., 57273; Gary Claxton, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases when You Think Less (1997; reprint, New York: Ecco, 1999), 144, as quoted by Sumida, Relationship, 352; cf. On War, 146, 168.
37. Note of 1830, 71. Jomini, on this point, as on many, is not as far from Clausewitz as commonly represented (nor indeed as the Swiss theorist himself seems to have believed): cf. Baron [Antoine-Henri] de Jomini, Précis de lart de la guerre (Paris: Anselin, 1838), 1:2129.
38. On War, 102. The genius must bring to his task the quality of intuition that perceives the truth at every point and easily grasp and dismiss a thousand remote possibilities which an ordinary mind would labor to identify and wear itself out in so doing (p. 112).
Clifford J. Rogers, "Clausewitz, Genius, and the Rules." The Journal of Military History 66 (October 2002), pp.1167-1176.