Carl von Clausewitz
NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832) published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the standard translation today; for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation. Consider the more modern versions and other relevant books shown below.
On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (Clausewitz.com, 2010). ISBN: 1453701508. This book is built around a new and complete translation of Clausewitz's study of the Waterloo campaign [Berlin: 1835], which is a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it.
Buy the best translation—recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776. Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's Art of War in one volume. The translation of Clausewitz's On War is the 1943 version done by German literary scholar O.J. Matthijs Jolles at the University of Chicago during World War II—not today's standard translation, but certainly the most accurate.
Buy the standard English translation of Clausewitz's On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976/84). ISBN: 0691018545 (paperback). Kindle edition. This quite readable translation appeared at the close of the Vietnam War and—principally for marketing and copyright reasons—has become the modern standard.
Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (Oxford University Press, 2015), ISBN: 0190225432. A rich biography of Countess Marie von Clausewitz that also sheds enormous light on the life, ideas, influences upon, and character of the great military thinker himself.
BOOK 2 • CHAPTER 2
On the Theory of War
1.—The first conception of the "Art of War" was merely the preparation of the Armed Forces.
FORMERLY by the term "Art of War," or "Science of War," nothing was understood but the totality of those branches of knowledge and those appliances of skill occupied with material things. The pattern and preparation and the mode of using arms, the construction of fortifications and entrenchments, the organism of an army, and the mechanism of its movements, were the subjects of these branches of knowledge and skill above referred to, and the end and aim of them all was the establishment of an armed force fit for use in war. All this concerned merely things belonging to the material world and a one-sided activity only; and it was in fact nothing but an activity advancing by gradations from the lower occupations to a finer kind of mechanical art. The relation of all this to war itself was very much the same as the relation of the art of the sword cutler to the art of using the sword. The employment in the moment of danger and in a state of constant reciprocal action of the particular energies of mind and spirit in the direction proposed to them was not yet even mooted.
2.—True war first appears in the Art of Sieges.
In the art of sieges we first perceive a certain degree of guidance of the combat, something of the action of the intellectual faculties upon the material forces placed under their control, but generally only so far that it very soon embodied itself again in new material forms, such as approaches, trenches, counter approaches, batteries, etc., and every step which this action of the higher faculties took was marked by some such result; it was only the thread that was required on which to string these material inventions in order. As the intellect can hardly manifest itself in this kind of war, except in such things, so therefore nearly all that was necessary was done in that way.
3.—Then tactics tried to find its way in that direction.
Afterwards, tactics attempted to give to the mechanism of its joints the character of a general disposition, built upon the peculiar properties of the instrument, which character leads indeed to the battle-field, but instead of leading to the free activity of mind, leads to an army made like an automaton by its rigid formations and orders of battle, which, moveable only by the word of command, is intended to unwind its activities like a piece of clockwork.
4.—The real conduct of War only made its appearance incidentally and incognito.
The conduct of war properly so called, that is, a use of the prepared means adapted to the most special requirements, was not considered as any suitable subject for theory, but one which should be left to natural talents alone. By degrees, as war passed from the hand to hand encounters of the middle ages into a more regular and systematic form, stray reflections on this point also forced themselves into men's minds, but they mostly appeared only incidentally in memoirs and narratives, and in a certain measure incognito.
5.—Reflections on Military Events brought about the want of a Theory.
As contemplation on war continually increased, and its history every day assumed more of a critical character, the urgent want appeared of the support of fixed maxims and rules, in order that in the controversies naturally arising about military events, the war of opinions might be brought to some one point. This whirl of opinions, which neither revolved on any central pivot, nor according to any appreciable laws, could not but be very distasteful to people's minds.
6.—Endeavours to establish a positive Theory.
There arose, therefore, an endeavour to establish maxims, rules, and even systems for the conduct of war. By this the attainment of a positive object was proposed, without taking into view the endless difficulties which the conduct of war presents in that respect. The conduct of war, as we have shown, has no definite limits in almost any direction, while every system has the circumscribing nature of a synthesis, from which results an irreconcilable opposition between such a theory and practice.
7.—Limitation to Material Objects.
Writers on theory felt the difficulty of the subject soon enough, and thought themselves entitled to get rid of it by directing their maxims and systems only upon material things and a one-sided activity. Their aim was to reach results, as in the science for the preparation for war, entirely certain and positive, and therefore only to take into consideration that which could be made matter of calculation.
8.—Superiority of Numbers.
The superiority in numbers being a material condition, it was chosen from amongst all the factors required to produce victory, because it could be brought under mathematical laws through combinations of time and space. It was thought possible to leave out of sight all other circumstances, by supposing them to be equal on each side, and therefore to neutralise one another. This would have been very well if it had been done to gain a preliminary knowledge of this one factor, according to its relations; but to make it a rule for ever to consider superiority of numbers as the sole law: to see the whole secret of the art of war in the formula—in a certain time, at a certain point, to bring up superior masses—was a restriction overruled by the force of realities.
9.—Victualling of Troops.
By one theoretical school an attempt was made to systematize another material element also, by making the subsistence of troops, according to a previously established organism of the army, the supreme legislator in the higher conduct of war. In this way, certainly, they arrived at definite figures, but at figures which rested on a number of arbitrary calculations, and which, therefore, could not stand the test of practical application.
An ingenious author tried to concentrate in a single conception, that of a Base, a whole host of objects, amongst which sundry relations even with immaterial forces found their way in as well. The list comprised the subsistence of the troops, the keeping them complete in numbers and equipment, the security of communications with the home country, lastly, the security of retreat in case it became necessary, and, first of all, he proposed to substitute this conception of a base for all these things; then for the base itself to substitute its own length (extent); and, last of all, for that to substitute the angle formed by the army with this base: all this was done merely to obtain a pure geometrical result utterly useless. This last is, in fact, unavoidable, if we reflect that none of these substitutions could be made without violating truth and leaving out some of the things contained in the original conception. The idea of a base is a real necessity for strategy, and to have conceived it is meritorious; but to make such a use of it as we have depicted is completely inadmissible, and could not but lead to partial conclusions which have forced these theorists into a direction opposed to common sense, namely, to a belief in the decisive effect of the enveloping form of attack.
As a reaction against this false direction, another geometrical principle, that of the so-called interior lines, was then elevated to the throne. Although this principle rests on a sound foundation, on the truth that the combat is the only effectual means in war; still, it is just on account of its purely geometrical nature nothing but another case of one-sided theory which can never gain ascendancy in the real world.
12.—All these attempts are exceptionable.
All these attempts at theory are only in their analytical part to be considered as progress in the province of truth; but in their synthetical part, in their precepts and rules, as quite unserviceable.
They strive after determinate quantities, whilst in war all is undetermined, and the calculation has always to be made with purely varying quantities.
They point the attention only upon material forces, while the whole military action is penetrated throughout by intelligent forces and their effects.
They only pay regard to activity on one side, whilst war is a constant state of reciprocal action, the effects of which are mutual.
13.—As a rule they exclude genius.
All that was not attainable by such miserable philosophy, the offspring of partial views, lay outside the precincts of science—was the field of genius, which raises itself above rules.
Pity the warrior who is contented to crawl about in this beggardom of rules, which are too bad for genius, over which it can set itself superior, over which it can perchance make merry! What genius does must be just the best of all rules, and theory cannot do better than to show how and why it is so.
Pity the theory which sets itself in opposition to the mind! It cannot repair this contradiction by any humility, and the humbler it is so much the sooner will ridicule and contempt drive it out of real life.
14.—The difficulty of Theory as soon as moral quantities come into consideration.
Every theory becomes infinitely more difficult from the moment that it touches on the province of moral quantities. Architecture and painting know quite well what they are about as long as they have only to do with matter; there is no dispute about mechanical or optical construction. But as soon as the moral activities begin their work, as soon as moral impressions and feelings are produced, the whole set of rules dissolves into vague ideas.
The science of medicine is chiefly engaged with bodily phenomena only; its business is with the animal organism which, liable to perpetual change, is never exactly the same for two moments. This makes its office very difficult, and places the judgment of the physician above his science; but how much more difficult the case is if a moral effect is added, and how much higher we place the physician of the mind?
15.—The moral quantities must not be excluded in war.
But now the activity in war is never directed solely against matter, it is always at the same time directed against the intelligent force which gives life to this matter, and to separate the two from each other is impossible.
But the intelligent forces are only visible to the inner eye, and this is different in each person, and often different in the same person at different times.
As danger is the general element in which everything moves in war, it is also chiefly by courage, the feeling of one's own power that the judgment is differently influenced. It is to a certain extent the crystalline lens through which all appearances pass before reaching the understanding.
And yet we cannot doubt that these things acquire a certain objective value simply through experience.
Every one knows the moral effect of a surprise, of an attack in flank or rear. Every one thinks less of the enemy's courage as soon as he turns his back, and ventures much more in pursuit than when pursued. Every one judges of the enemy's general by his reputed talents, by his age and experience, and shapes his course accordingly. Every one casts a scrutinising glance at the spirit and feeling of his own and the enemy's troops. All these and similar effects in the province of the moral nature of man have established themselves by experience, are perpetually recurring, and, therefore, warrant our reckoning them as real quantities of their kind. And what could we do with any theory which should leave them out of consideration?
But, certainly, experience is an indispensable title for these truths. With psychological and philosophical sophistries, no theory, no General should meddle.
16.—Principal difficulty of a Theory for the Conduct of War.
In order to comprehend clearly the difficulty of the proposition which is contained in a theory for the conduct of war, and thence to deduce the necessary characteristics of such a theory, we must take a closer view of the chief particulars which make up the nature of activity in war.
17.—First Speciality.—Moral Forces and their Effects. (Hostile Feeling.)
The first of these specialities consists in the moral forces and effects.
The combat is, in its origin, the expression of hostile feeling; but in our great combats, which we call wars, the hostile feeling frequently resolves itself into merely a hostile view; and there is usually no innate hostile feeling residing in individual against individual. Nevertheless, the combat never passes off without such feelings being brought into activity. National hatred, which is seldom wanting in our wars, is a substitute for personal hostility in the breast of individual opposed to individual. But where this also is wanting, and at first no animosity of feeling subsisted, a hostile feeling is kindled by the combat itself; for an act of violence which any one commits upon us by order of his superior, will excite in us a desire to retaliate and be revenged on him, sooner than on the superior power at whose command the act was done. This is human, or animal if we will; still it is so.—We are very apt to regard the combat in theory as an abstract trial of strength, without any participation on the part of the feelings, and that is one of the thousand errors which theorists deliberately commit, because they do not see its consequences.
Besides that excitation of feelings naturally arising from the combat itself, there are others also which do not essentially belong to it, but which, on account of their relationship, easily unite with it—ambition, love of power, enthusiasm of every kind, &c., &c.
18.—The impressions of danger. (Courage).
Finally the combat begets the element of danger, in which all the activities of war must live and move, like the bird in the air, or the fish in the water. But the influences of danger all pass into the feelings, either directly—that is, instinctively—or through the medium of the understanding. The effect in the first case would be a desire to escape from the danger, and, if that cannot be done, fright and anxiety. If this effect does not take place, then it is courage, which is a counterpoise to that instinct. Courage is, however, by no means an act of the understanding, but likewise a feeling, like fear; the latter looks to the physical preservation, courage to the moral preservation. Courage, then, is a nobler instinct. But because it is so, it will not allow itself to be used as a lifeless instrument, which produces its effects exactly according to prescribed measure. Courage, is, therefore, no mere counterpoise to danger in order to neutralise the latter in its effects, but a peculiar power in itself.
19.—Extent of the influence of danger.
But to estimate exactly the influence of danger upon the principal actors in war, we must not limit its sphere to the physical danger of the moment. It dominates over the actor, not only by threatening him, but also by threatening all entrusted to him, not only at the moment in which it is actually present, but also through the imagination at all other moments, which have a connection with the present; lastly, not only directly by itself, but also indirectly, by the responsibility which makes it bear with tenfold weight on the mind of the chief actor. Who could advise, or resolve upon a great battle, without feeling his mind more or less wrought up or perplexed by the danger and responsibility which such a great act of decision carries in itself! We may say that action in war, in so far as it is real action, not a mere condition, is never out of the sphere of danger.
20.—Other powers of feeling.
If we look upon these affections, which are excited by hostility and danger as peculiarly belonging to war, we do not, therefore, exclude from it all others accompanying man in his life's journey. They will also find room here frequently enough. Certainly, we may say that many a petty action of the passions is silenced in this serious business of life; but that holds good only in respect to those acting in a lower sphere; who, hurried on from one state of danger and exertion to another, lose sight of the rest of the things of life, become unused to deceit, because it is of no avail with death; and so attain to that soldierly simplicity of character which has always been the best representative of the military profession. In higher regions it is otherwise; for the higher a man's rank, the more he must look around him: then arise interests on every side, and a manifold activity of the passions of good and bad. Envy and generosity, pride and humility, fierceness and tenderness, all may appear as active powers in this great drama.
21.—Peculiarity of mind.
The peculiar characteristics of mind in the chief actor have, as well as those of the feelings, a high importance. From an imaginative, flighty, inexperienced head, and from a calm, sagacious understanding, different things are to be expected.
22.—From the diversity in mental individualities, arises the diversity of ways leading to the aim.
It is this great diversity in mental individuality, the influence of which is to be supposed as chiefly felt in the higher ranks, because it increases upwards, which chiefly produces the diversity of ways leading to the end, noticed by us in the first book, and which gives over to the play of probabilities and chance, such an unequal share in events.
23.—Second peculiarity, living reaction.
The second peculiarity in war is the living reaction, and the reciprocal action resulting therefrom. We do not here speak of the difficulty of estimating that reaction, for that is included in the difficulty before-mentioned, of treating the moral powers as quantities; but of this, that reciprocal action, by its nature, opposes anything like a regular plan. The effect which any measure produces upon the enemy is the most distinct of all the data which action affords; but every theory must keep to classes (or groups) of phenomena, and can never take up the really individual case in itself: that must everywhere be left to judgment and talent. It is, therefore, natural that in a business such as war, which in its plan—built upon general circumstances—is so often thwarted by unexpected and singular accidents, more must generally be left to talent; and less use can be made of a theoretical guide than in any other.
24.—Third peculiarity—uncertainty of all data.
Lastly, the great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.
What this feeble light leaves indistinct to the sight, talent must discover, or must be left to chance. It is therefore again talent, or the favour of fortune, on which reliance must be placed, for want of objective knowledge.
25.—Positive theory is impossible.
With materials of this kind we can only say to ourselves, that it is a sheer impossibility to construct for the art of war a theory which, like a scaffolding, shall ensure to the chief actor an external support on all sides. In all those cases in which he is thrown upon his talent he would find himself away from this scaffolding of theory, and in opposition to it, and, however many-sided it might be framed, the same result would ensue of which we spoke when we said that talent and genius act beyond the law, and theory is in opposition to reality.
26.—Means left by which a theory is possible. (The difficulties are not everywhere equally great).
Two means present themselves of getting out of this difficulty. In the first place, what we have said of the nature of military action in general, does not apply in the same manner to the action of every one, whatever may be his standing. In the lower ranks the spirit of self-sacrifice is called more into request, but the difficulties which the understanding and judgment meet with are infinitely less. The field of occurrences is more confined. Ends and means are fewer in number. Data more distinct; mostly also contained in the actually visible. But the higher we ascend the more the difficulties increase; until, in the commander-in-chief, they reach their climax: so that with him almost everything must be left to genius.
Further, according to a division of the subject in agreement with its nature, the difficulties are not everywhere the same, but diminish the more results manifest themselves in the material world; and increase the more they pass into the moral, and become motives which influence the will. Therefore it is easier to determine, by theoretical rules, the order and conduct of a battle, than the use to be made of the battle itself. Yonder physical weapons clash with each other, and although mind is not wanting therein, matter must have its rights. But in the effects to be produced by battles when the material results become motives, we have only to do with the moral nature. In a word, it is easier to make a theory for tactics than for strategy.
27.—Theory must be of the nature of observation, not of doctrine.
The second opening for the possibility of a theory lies in the point of view that it does not necessarily require to be a direction for action. As a general rule, whenever an activity is for the most part occupied with the same objects over and over again, with the same ends and means, although there may be trifling alterations, and a corresponding number of varieties of combination, such things are capable of becoming a subject of study for the reasoning faculties. But such study is just the most essential part of every theory, and has a peculiar title to that name. It is an analytical investigation of the subject that leads to an exact knowledge; and if brought to bear on the results of experience, which in our case would be military history, to a thorough familiarity with it. The nearer theory attains the latter object so much the more it passes over from the objective form of knowledge into the subjective one of skill in action; and so much the more, therefore, it will prove itself effective when circumstances allow of no other decision but that of personal talents; it will show its effects in that talent itself. If theory investigates the subjects which constitute war; if it separates more distinctly that which at first sight seems amalgamated; if it explains fully the properties of the means; if it shows their probable effects; if it makes evident the nature of objects; if it brings to bear all over the field of war the light of essentially critical investigation,—then it has fulfilled the chief duties of its province. It becomes, then, a guide to him who wishes to make himself acquainted with war from books; it lights up the whole road for him, facilitates his progress, educates his judgment, and shields him from error.
If a man of expertness spends half his life in the endeavour to clear up an obscure subject thoroughly, he will probably know more about it than a person who seeks to master it in a short time. Theory is instituted that each person in succession may not have to go through the same labour of clearing the ground and toiling through it, but may find the thing in order, and light admitted on it. It should educate the mind of the future leader in war, or rather guide him in his self-instruction, but not accompany him to the field of battle: just as a sensible tutor forms and enlightens the opening mind of a youth without, therefore, keeping him in leading strings all through his life.
If maxims and rules result of themselves from the considerations which theory institutes, if the truth concretes itself in that form of crystal, then theory will not oppose this natural law of the mind; it will rather, if the arch ends in such a keystone, bring it prominently out; but it does this only in order to satisfy the philosophical law of reason, in order to show distinctly the point to which the lines all converge, not in order to form out of it an algebraical formula for the battle-field: for even these maxims and rules also are more to determine in the reflecting mind the leading outline of its habitual movements, than to serve as landmarks indicating to it the way in the act of execution.
28.—By this point of view Theory becomes possible, and ceases to be in contradiction to practice.
Taking this point of view, there is a possibility afforded of a satisfactory, that is, of a useful theory of the conduct of war, never coming into opposition with the reality, and it will only depend on national treatment to bring it so far into harmony with action, that between theory and practice there shall no longer be that absurd difference which an unreasonable theory, in defiance of common sense, has often produced, but which, just as often, narrow-mindedness and ignorance have used as a pretext for giving way to their natural incapacity.
29.—Theory, therefore, considers the nature of ends and means—Ends and means in Tactics.
Theory has, therefore, to consider the nature of the means and ends.
In tactics the means are the disciplined armed forces which are to carry on the contest. The object is victory. The precise definition of this conception can be better explained hereafter in the consideration of the combat. Here we content ourselves by denoting the retirement of the enemy from the field of battle as the sign of victory. By means of this victory strategy gains the object for which it appointed the combat, and which constitutes its special signification. This signification has certainly some influence on the nature of the victory. A victory which is intended to weaken the enemy's armed forces is a different thing to one which is designed only to put us in possession of a position. The signification of a combat may therefore, have a sensible influence on the preparation and conduct of it, consequently will be also a subject of consideration in tactics.
30.—Circumstances which always attend the application of the Means.
As there are certain circumstances which attend the combat throughout, and have more or less influence upon its result, therefore these must be taken into consideration in the application of the armed forces.
These circumstances are the locality of the combat (ground), the time of day, and the weather.
The locality, which we prefer leaving for solution, under the head of 'Country and Ground,' might, strictly speaking, be without any influence at all if the combat took place on a completely level and uncultivated plain.
In a country of steppes such a case may occur, but in the cultivated countries of Europe it is almost an imaginary idea. Therefore, a combat between civilised nations, in which country and ground have no influence, is hardly conceivable.
32.—Time of Day.
The time of day influences the combat by the difference between day and night; but the influence naturally extends further than just to the limits of these divisions, as every combat has a certain duration, and great battles last for several hours. In the preparations for a great battle, it makes an essential difference whether it begins in the morning or the evening. At the same time certainly many battles may be fought, in which the question of the time of day is quite immaterial, and in the generality of cases its influence is only trifling.
Still more rarely has the weather any decisive influence, and it is mostly only by fogs that it plays a part.
34.—End and Means in Strategy.
Strategy has in the first instance only the victory, that is, the tactical result, as a means to its object, and, ultimately, those things which lead directly to peace. The application of its means to this object is at the same time attended by circumstances which have an influence thereon more or less.
35.—Circumstances which attend the application of the Means of Strategy.
These circumstances are country and ground; the former including the territory and inhabitants of the whole theatre of war; next the time of the day and the time of the year as well; lastly, the weather, particularly any unusual state of the same, severe frost, &c.
36.—These form new Means.
By bringing these things into combination with the results of a combat, strategy gives this result, and, therefore, the combat—a special signification, places before it a particular object. But when this object is not that which leads directly to peace, therefore a subordinate one, it is only to be looked upon as a means; and, therefore, in strategy we may look upon the results of combats or victories, in all their different significations, as means. The conquest of a position is such a result of a combat applied to ground. But not only are the different combats with special objects to be considered as means, but also every higher aim which we may have in view in the combination of battles directed on a common object, is to be regarded as a means. A winter campaign is a combination of this kind applied to the season.
There remain, therefore, as objects, only those things which may be supposed as leading directly to peace. Theory investigates all these ends and means according to the nature of their effects and their mutual relations.
37.—Strategy deduces only from experience the Ends and Means to be examined.
The first question is, How does strategy arrive at a complete list of these things? If there is to be a philosophical inquiry leading to an absolute result, it would become entangled in all those difficulties which the logical necessity of the conduct of war and its theory exclude. It, therefore, turns to experience, and directs its attention on those combinations which military history can furnish. In this manner, no doubt, nothing more than a limited theory can be obtained, which only suits circumstances such as are presented in history. But this incompleteness is unavoidable; because in any case theory must either have deduced from, or have compared with, history, what it advances with respect to things. Besides this incompleteness in every case is more theoretical than real.
One great advantage of this method is that theory cannot lose itself in abstruse disquisitions, subtleties, and chimeras, but must always remain practical.
38.—How far the analysis of the means should be carried.
Another question is, How far theory should go in its analysis of the means? Evidently only so far as the elements in a separate form present themselves for consideration in practice. The range and effect of different weapons is very important to tactics; their construction, although these effects result from it, is a matter of indifference; for the conduct of war is not making powder and cannon out of a given quantity of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpetre, of copper and tin: the given quantities for the conduct of war are arms in a finished state and their effects. Strategy makes use of plans without troubling itself about triangulations; it does not enquire how the country is subdivided into departments and provinces, and how the people are educated and governed in order to attain the best military results; but it takes things as it finds them in the community of European states, and observes where very different conditions have a notable influence on war.
39.—Great simplification of the knowledge required.
That in this manner the number of subjects for theory is much simplified, and the knowledge requisite for the conduct of war much reduced, is easy to perceive. The very great mass of knowledge and appliances of skill which minister to the action of war in general, and which are necessary before an army fully equipped can take the field, unite in a few great results before they are able to reach, in actual war, the final goal of their activity; just as the streams of a country unite themselves in rivers before they fall into the sea. Only those activities emptying themselves directly into the sea of war, have to be studied by him who is to conduct its operations.
40.—This explains the rapid growth of great generals, and why a general is not a man of learning.
This result of our considerations is in fact so necessary, that any other would have made us distrustful of their accuracy. Only thus is explained how so often men have made their appearance with great success in war, and indeed in the higher ranks, even in supreme command, whose pursuits had been previously of a totally different nature; indeed how, as a rule, the most distinguished generals have never risen from the very learned, or really erudite class of officers, but have been mostly men who, from the circumstances of their position, could not have attained to any great amount of knowledge. On that account those who have considered it necessary, or even beneficial to commence the education of a future general by instruction in all details, have always been ridiculed as absurd pedants. It would be easy to show the injurious tendency of such a course, because the human mind is trained by the knowledge imparted to it, and the direction given to its ideas. Only what is great can make it great; the little can only make it little, if the mind itself does not reject it as something repugnant.
Because this simplicity of knowledge requisite in war was not attended to, but that knowledge was always jumbled up with the whole impedimenta of subordinate sciences and arts; therefore the palpable opposition to the events of real life which resulted, could not be solved otherwise than by ascribing it all to genius, which requires no theory, and for which no theory could be prescribed.
42.—On this account all use of knowledge was denied, and everything ascribed to natural talents.
People with whom common sense had the upper hand, felt sensible of the immense distance remaining to be filled up between a genius of the highest order and a learned pedant; and they became freethinkers in a manner, rejected all belief in theory, and affirmed the conduct of war to be a natural function of man, which he performs more or less well according as he has brought with him into the world more or less talent in that direction. It cannot be denied that these were nearer to the truth than those who placed a value on false knowledge: at the same time it may be soon seen that such a view is nothing but an exaggeration. No activity of the human understanding is possible without a certain stock of ideas; but these are, for the greater part at least, not innate but acquired, and constitute his knowledge. The only question therefore is, of what kind should these ideas be; and we think we have answered it if we say that they should be directed on those things which man has directly to deal with in war.
43.—The knowledge must be made suitable to the position.
Inside this field itself of military activity, the knowledge required must be different according to the station of the Commander. It will be directed on smaller and more circumscribed objects if he holds an inferior, upon greater and more comprehensive ones if he holds a higher situation. There are Field Marshals who at the head of a cavalry regiment would not have shone, and vice versa.
44.—The Knowledge in war is very simple, but not, at the same time, very easy.
But although the knowledge in war is simple, that is to say directed to so few subjects, and taking up those only in their final results, the art of execution is not, at the same time, easy on that account. Of the difficulties to which activity in war is subject generally, we have already spoken in the first book; we here omit those things which can only be overcome by courage, and maintain that also the activity of mind properly called is only simple and easy in inferior stations, but increases in difficulty with increase of rank, and in the highest position, in that of Commander-in-chief, is to be reckoned among the most difficult which there is for the human mind.
45.—Of the nature of this knowledge.
The Commander of an army neither requires to be a learned explorer of history nor a publicist, but he must be well versed in the higher affairs of State; he must know and be able to judge correctly of traditional tendencies, interests at stake, the immediate questions at issue, and the characters of leading persons; he need not be a close observer of men, a sharp dissector of human character, but he must know the character, the feelings, the habits, the peculiar faults and inclinations of those whom he is to command. He need not understand anything about the make of a carriage, or the harness of a Battery horse, but he must know how to calculate exactly the march of a column, under different circumstances, according to the time it requires. These are things the knowledge of which cannot be forced out by an apparatus of scientific formula and machinery: they are only to be gained by the exercise of an accurate judgment in the observation of things and of men, aided by a special talent for the apprehension of both.
The necessary knowledge for a high position in military action is therefore distinguished by this, that, by observation, therefore by study and reflection, it is only to be attained, through a special talent, which as an intellectual instinct understands how to extract from the phenomena of life only the essence or spirit, as bees do the honey from the flowers; and that it is also to be gained by experience of life as well as by study and reflection. Life will never bring forth a Newton or an Euler by its rich teachings, but it may bring forth great calculators in war, such as Condé or Frederick.
It is, therefore, not necessary that, in order to vindicate the intellectual dignity of military activity, we should resort to untruth and silly pedantry. There never has been a great and distinguished commander of a contracted mind; but very numerous are the instances of men who, after serving with the greatest distinction in inferior positions, remained below mediocrity in the highest, from insufficiency of intellectual capacity. That even amongst those holding the post of Commanders-in-Chief there may be a difference according to the degree of their plenitude of power is a matter of course.
46.—Science must become Art.
Now we have yet to consider one condition which is more necessary for the knowledge of the conduct of war than for any other, which is, that it must pass completely into the mind and almost completely cease to be something objective. In almost all other arts and occupations of life the active agent can make use of truths which he has only learnt once, and in the spirit and sense of which he no longer lives, and which he extracts from dusty books. Even truths which he has in hand and uses daily may continue something external to himself. If the architect takes up a pen to settle the strength of a pier by a complicated calculation, the truth found as a result is no emanation from his own mind. He had first to find the data with labour, and then to submit these to an operation of the mind, the rule for which he did not discover, the necessity of which he is perhaps at the moment only partly conscious of, but which he applies, for the most part, as if by mechanical dexterity. But it is never so in war. The moral reaction, the ever-changeful form of things, makes it necessary for the chief actor to carry in himself the whole mental apparatus of his knowledge, that anywhere and at every pulse-beat he may be capable of giving the requisite decision from himself. Knowledge must, by this complete assimilation with his own mind and life, be converted into real power. This is the reason why everything seems so easy with men distinguished in war, and why everything is ascribed to natural talent. We say natural talent, in order thereby to distinguish it from that which is formed and matured by observation and study.
We think that by these reflections we have explained the problem of a theory of the conduct of war, and pointed out the way to its solution.
Of the two fields into which we have divided the conduct of war, tactics and strategy, the theory of the latter contains unquestionably, as before observed, the greatest difficulties, because the first is almost limited to a circumscribed field of objects, but the latter in the direction of objects leading directly to peace, opens to itself an unlimited field of possibilities. But as for the most part the Commander-in-Chief only has to keep these objects steadily in view, so therefore, the part of strategy in which he moves is also that which is particularly subject to this difficulty.
Theory, therefore, especially where it comprehends the highest services, will stop much sooner in strategy than in tactics at the simple consideration of things, and content itself to assist the Commander to that insight into things which, blended with his whole thought, makes his course easier and surer, never forces him into opposition with himself in order to obey an objective truth.
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