I am reading Clausewitz because I fight as a profession. It is therefore my duty to heed my obligation to society that I read and understand my craft. Clausewitz, whether one agrees with him or not, has shaped the doctrine of all modern state-owned militaries. The capstone doctrinal document of the Marines, MCDP 1: Warfighting, is laced with Clausewitzian thought and terminology. Ask any Marine lieutenant what Friction is. He almost certainly knows!
On my road to professionalism I have wondered what makes a person a genius at the military arts and sciences. Fortunately Clausewitz provided me the Third Chapter of Book One of On War, where he dissects military genius into its component parts and discusses them. In doing so he provides a great starting point to discuss the nature of military genius. What is military genius? Where does it come from? What kinds of people are military geniuses? Do we make geniuses, or are they born?
Here I will digest the chapter and provide my thoughts, as well as questions for the Round Table.
Clausewitz is rather unscientific, yet precise, when he writes about military genius. Perhaps thinking brevity is a virtue, (that he only occasionally embodies!) Clausewitz uses rather pedestrian language to describe military genius:
“But since we claim no special expertise in philosophy or grammar, we may be allowed to use the word in its ordinary meaning, in which “genius” refers to a highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation…
…But we cannot restrict our discussion to genius proper, as a superlative degree of talent, for this lacks measurable limits. What we must do is to survey all those gifts of mind and temperament that in combination bear on military activity. These, taken together, constitute the essence of military genius. We have said in combination, since it is precisely the essence of military genius that it does not consist in a single appropriate gift—courage, for example—while other qualities of mind or temperament are wanting or are not suited to war. Genius consists in a harmonious combination of elements, in which one or the other ability may predominate, but none may be in conflict with the rest.” (p. 100)
Clausewitz endeavors to analyze military genius by way of deconstruction, and views the idealized military genius as a combination of virtues. The military genius must draw from a wide variety of virtues, so much that he is probably a paragon of a human being.
Clausewitz quickly goes into his deconstruction.
Courage (p. 101). He notes that Courage “is the soldier’s first requirement.” He views Courage as a virtue of two kinds:
• Courage to Face Dangers
• Courage to Accept Responsibility
The Courage to Face Dangers is further broken down into two types. It may be an indifference to danger, or it may result from a positive motive. In the first case it is a condition, consistently present in a given person. In the second it is an emotion, only present at a given moment. The first is inherent, steady, and passive (in that it doesn’t require an active mind). The second is relatively fickle, but may accomplish more.
Strangely Clausewitz doesn’t devote space to explain the Courage to Accept Responsibility. I find this to be a fallow acre in an otherwise fruitful field. Perhaps Clausewitz viewed the Courage to Accept Responsibility as so intrinsic to the military genius that it didn’t warrant explanation, at least in his day. Today I am less sanguine. There are plenty of military leaders today who lack the capacity to publicly accept responsibility, as shown by the courageous Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling in a firecracker of an article.
Strength of Body and Soul (p. 101). Clausewitz says that since war is the “realm of physical exertion and suffering.” He claims that hard training, combined with innate talent, can equip the military genius adequately for the physical demands of war.
Clausewitz seems to imply a mind-body connection, in that training can be used to strengthen the soul as well as the body. This implies that he sees the commander as integral: You may take his virtues and vices, break them down, and say something about them. But you cannot separate the core aspects of his person from one another, because the physical body affects the soul, and the soul affects the mind. To Clausewitz, the best Chicken Soup for the Soul is hard, physical, training.
Powers of the Intellect (p. 101). There is much meat in this small section, not all of it directly related to intellectual gifts. It is worth repeating in full.
“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” (p. 101)
Put this way, Powers of the Intellect doesn’t really refer to the strength of the mind, but instead to Powers of Observation combined with Powers of Induction.
Yet Clausewitz certainly doesn’t want a dolt running an army:
“Average intelligence may recognize the truth occasionally, and exceptional courage may now and then retrieve a blunder. But usually intellectual inadequacy will be shown up by indifferent achievement.” (p. 101)
Clausewitz puts the intellectual faculty in negative terms here: Intellectual inadequacy is shown in indifferent achievement.
Clausewitz requires two indispensable qualities in the intellect of the military genius: Coup d’oeil and Determination.
Coup d’oeil (p. 102). Coup d’oeil (“koo-dwee”) is, “an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth.” It may refer to the simple recognition of a suitable point to attack as an objective when working under time pressures with limited or conflicting information. It may also refer to “the inward eye” that refers to the “quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.”
To me, Coup d’oeil refers to recognition-based, or inductive, problem-solving methods. Therefore it is something that can be developed through force-on-force training, tactical decision games, etc. These are techniques that are being revitalized by Donald Vandergriff. If you lack “the inward eye,” it can be learned, to a certain extent.
Coup d’oeil also seems to imply a sort of comfort with uncertainty, risk taking, and even gamesmanship.
How does a commander act on limited information without a well developed Coup d’oeil? Surely, a commander lacking in this faculty would usually wait for better information rather than act on the limited information available. The waiting commander may become a victim of his own thirst for information, because his foe may be consistently acting on less information. Consequently, the commander who acts on limited information will be able to generate a quicker tempo of operations, while the waiting commander only stagnates. Thus the commander who uses his Coup d’oeil can use information as a weapon against the commander who waits on more perfect intelligence.
Clearly, Coup d’oeil is extremely important whenever commanders are operating in an environment with compressed time lines or imperfect information, or both. Does the Professional Military Education system develop Coup d’oeil? Do modern bureaucratic staff practices support Coup d’oeil or inhibit it? Does the panoply of information sources the modern commander has access to reduce or increase the need for a well-developed Coup d’oeil?
Determination (p. 102-103). Determination is, “the courage to follow the faint light wherever it may lead.” Clausewitz notes that it is actually a form of courage formed by the interplay of intellect and temperament. Its function is to dispel doubt. The intellectual portion of this virtue is a very specific and rare kind of intellect:
“Some may bring the keenest brains to the most formidable problems, and may possess the courage to accept serious responsibilities; but when faced with a difficult situation they still find themselves unable to reach a decision. Their courage and their intellect work in separate compartments, not together; determination, therefore, does not result.” (p. 103)
Determination mentally uses the fear of hesitation to suppress other fears. A dull man who lacks self-possession cannot therefore be determined. There are surely stupid men who are able to act without hesitation in a crisis, but these men only do so out of the nature of their character, not from any reflective capacity to suppress fear.
In a bit of snarky sarcasm, Clausewitz states that a reader might know a few determined cavalry officers “who are little given to deep thought,” but allows them a degree of determination because determination results from a type of intellect capable of reflection, but not deep reflection. One need not be a Thoreau to be determined. But one must have the intellectual capacities to control their emotions.
In my view, this sort of courage is the type where the leader confronts his fear because he knows intellectually that he can. He knows from location of the beaten zone that the enemy hasn’t properly adjusted the elevation on his machine guns. The combat leader can safely stand up and “brave” the fires. Or he might know that his comrade-in-arms might die in the next hour if he messes up the Casualty Evacuation brief, so he keeps composure, keys the microphone stoically, and in measured, short bursts, informs the command of another “Urgent-Surgical” casualty. Or a general, having studied insurgencies in the past, goes against the conventional wisdom, against public opinion, and against the advice of the press, and instead works to deploy thousands of additional troops in the midst of a civil war to bring a modicum of security to the ailing country’s population. In each case, the commander knows, and that knowledge allows the commander to beat back fear. A laconic countenance pervades, and motivation is transmitted from the commander to the troops.
Presence of Mind (p. 103). Presence of mind is “the increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected.” Clausewitz says this quality needs only to be adequate, not exception, in the military genius. It may be due to “a special cast mind” or “steady nerves,” but neither can be completely lacking.
I have no qualm with this, and I have nothing to add to it.
On Psychological Strength in General (p. 104). There are times when the army is quickly marching and easily reducing the enemy. During these times the spirit of the army is sufficient to motivate the army to action. At other times, when fortunes have been reversed, when the enemy is fighting effectively, when the army begins to slow, and even begins to fight against the orders of its own commander. The army’s sheer size becomes a burden it begins to slow and lose spirit. During these times the psychological strength of the commander is severely taxed.
Energy (p. 105). Clausewitz spends very little whitespace on this topic. He only claims that energy varies with the strength of its motive, which can consist of intellectual conviction or of emotion. Great strength, however, is not easily produced where there is no emotion.
Longing for Honor and Renown (p. 105). Clausewitz claims that no passion is so powerful and so constant as the longing for honor and renown. In this, I agree. This largely explains the willingness of the willingness of boastful and brash men in their teens and 20s to sign up for battle. It explains my bitterness at the awards system of the American military, for bestowing too much glory to some and not enough glory to others. Many Lance Corporals long to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan only to be given the right to wear a couple square inches of campaign ribbon. Thirst for Honor and Renown is indeed strong.
Clausewitz claims that other emotions may be more common and more respected (like patriotism), but he says that these emotions are inadequate to inspire the commander to provide the vital force to rouse the army to victory. He also asks rhetorically whether any commander in history could be named who was not ambitious. I can think of two (Cincinnatus, Marshall). But Clausewitz is largely correct.
Clausewitz claims that the Longing for Honor is unjustly tarnished in the German language (it is known as “greed for honor,” and “hankering after glory”), and it certainly has a negative subtext in the English languages. Clausewitz abhors these negative connotations, claiming that, “The abuse of these noble ambitions has certainly inflicted the most disgusting outrages on the human race.” Perhaps he is a bit overdramatic, but he is not wrong.
Maybe our devaluation of honor-thirst is a function of a feminized, sedentary, or bourgeois society. Or perhaps it is devalued because so few volunteer to fight, and even fewer have the gifts of ability and circumstance to earn such honors.
What are your thoughts?
Staunchness and Endurance (p.105). Clausewitz gives fairly short shrift to these virtues. To him, Staunchness is the resistance to a single blow. Endurance is such resistance over extended periods of time. He views Staunchness as primarily an emotional virtue, and Endurance as an intellectual one. The longer an action lasts, the more important Endurance becomes.
I cannot agree more.
Strength of Mind, or Character (p. 105-109). Clausewitz devotes more pages to the virtue of Character than any other, and rightfully so. He defines Character as the force that allows one to “not be unbalanced by the most powerful emotions.” Yet it is unlike Determination in that Character does not originate in the intellect, but rather the temperament.
Clausewitz then divides mankind into four types of Characters, represented graphically below. The men were placed into their quadrants by me. The X Axis represents Speed to Action, and the Y Axis represents Depth of Emotion.
The Men of Easily-Inflamed Passions in the First Quadrant are “of little value in war.” Clausewitz believes that these men may make fine junior officers because often only a short burst of emotional force may be all that’s required in smaller engagements, but they lack the emotional endurance to handle a campaign
The Stolid, Dull Men of the Third Quadrant are difficult to throw off balance, but lack vitality. “It cannot be denied that the imperturbability of such men gives them a certain narrow usefulness in war.” (p. 106). Clausewitz is quite the utilitarian with regard to these poor folks!
The Active but Lackluster Men of the Fourth Quadrant are too prone to emotion with the small issues, and are likely to be overwhelmed by the larger problems. “This kind of man will gladly help an individual in need, but the misfortune of an entire people will only sadden him; they will not stimulate him to action.” (p. 106). The men of the fourth quadrant are too slow to action
Clausewitz thinks the Imperturbable Men of the Second Quadrant to have the Character of the military genius. “These are the men who are best able to summon the titanic strength it takes to clear away the enormous burdens that obstruct activity in war. Their emotions move as great masses do—slowly but irresistibly.” (p. 107) He also notes that these men may still be taken by “blind passion” if they ever lose their faculties of self-control (considering the faculty of self-control is the essence of Character, I’m inclined to agree!)
If you take Clausewitz’s methodology of dividing humanity into four Characters, then the matter whether we correctly match a person to his occupation within the army. This is of crucial importance, since the entire political body fights the war, not only the army. When the political entity is roused to war, it doesn’t always have the luxury of having a General Officer Corps of Second Quadrant Men. There are going to be men of all Characters throughout the army.
Often times the American military wins the battles but loses the war, showing strength in tactical battle, but weakness in strategic war. Does this mean we too often promote the Fourth Quadrant Characters at the expense of the Second Quadrant Characters?
I think we do.
Understanding of the Nature of Warfare and Terrain (p. 109-110). Clausewitz devotes considerable space to the understanding of terrain as a military virtue. Without discussing this much further, he defines the Understanding of Terrain as “quickly and accurately grasping the topography of any area.” To do this, one must be able to see the terrain about him, fill in any gaps using the mind, and using the imagination to extrapolate beyond the locality.
Surely the appreciation of physical geography is important, but today we have extremely powerful tools that allow the commander to not only see, but to “fly” through virtual topographic representations of the world. Understanding physical geography is certainly easier today than it was centuries ago.
Clausewitz seems to view the understanding of the use of armies on a given piece of terrain as singular in importance. Perhaps in his day, it was. An understanding of the physical geography is still important today, especially on the small-unit level of war so much so that Marine Officer Candidates are taught the acronym “OCOKA-W” to remember various aspects of tactical physical geography. But Terrain’s relative importance to other aspects of the environments has been reduced in recent years.
Perhaps Clausewitz’s ideas of the importance of Terrain (physical geography) should be reinterpreted. Instead of Terrain, we should think of Battlespace. Yet even this is probably insufficient. Today’s battles often occur more in the moral & cultural dimensions of war more than the physical dimensions, so an understanding of human terrain is extremely important. Human Terrain is so important that the US Army implemented the Human Terrain System to aid today’s commanders in the Middle East navigate the cultural geography of their operating environments. Physical geography is certainly important today—just ask the reconnaissance team that is scaling the mountains in Afghanistan. But an understanding physical terrain is insufficient.
What Clausewitz Missed
So, how well does Clausewitz’s survey of the military virtues square on the battlefields today? My answer is that he is only mostly correct. In terms of the temperament required of a military genius, I think Clausewitz is absolutely correct. In describing the intellectual requirements of military genius, Clausewitz comes up short.
Liberal education is certainly a requirement of military genius today. Such an education allows today’s military genius to see the interconnections between war and everything else, and allows him to understand war in terms of everything else. It allows him to see how a war may be more successfully prosecuted using other elements of power (Diplomatic, Informational, Economic) in concert with military operations.
Some might argue that understanding foreign languages are important today. I agree that this is important, but it is not a requirement for military genius.
I must certainly make light of the blinding absence of the virtue of Leadership. The ability to motivate men and women to perform beyond their self-imposed limits in extremely trying circumstances is mandatory in a military genius. I challenge anybody to name a military genius that lacked strong fundamental leadership skills…you won’t find one.
Lastly, I must put a good word in for Creativity as a military virtue. It is strongly linked to Leadership. Military operations, though highly destructive, are actually acts of great creativity. No military action is exactly like any other—the number of variables is simply too great to reproduce, and yet even if the largest variables are reproduced, the smallest variables can be of immense importance. A rainfall yesterday can soften the ground into mud, reducing the shock action of the cavalry. A shift in winds can cause the smoke of a destroyed city to obscure a battlefield, rendering Close Air Support from allied aircraft ineffective. A poorly-led company in an otherwise solid division can cause the public to question their support for a campaign.
War is thus chaotic, and it is harsh.
Leading men and women under such circumstances is, by definition, a creative act. Yet some men are more creative than others. Under harsh circumstances, some men fall back on what they have done throughout their careers, whether it is always attack “right up the middle,” probing for weakness, or some other mode of operation. Other, more creative, military geniuses will win not by falling back on what has worked in the past, but instead by creating the circumstances of victory.
In conclusion, I think Clausewitz was correct in his day. But his ideas of what virtues constitute a military genius can only be described today as maybe 3/5ths correct. In terms of temperament, he was right on. Clausewitz failed to address the myriad intellectual requirements inherent in the military genius.