Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 3: Response to Capt. Lauterbach on Clausewitz on Military Genius

A comment began to grow to unreasonable length. I decided to post it separately. Nate posted here about Clausewitz’s chapter on military genius. (As ART noted, it was good to see this focus on the “personnel” question, rather than the more heavily plowed pages of Book I, Chapter 1.)

What follows are some comments in response to Nate’s piece.

Descriptive and “qualitative” analysis “Clausewitz is rather unscientific, yet precise, when he writes about military genius.” Clausewitz still lived in the era before all data was quantified, and before all non-quantified data was suspect. The method he uses of verbally breaking out the characteristics of military genius is old-fashioned. We would expect to see survey data, with pie charts. I tend to think the way Clausewitz did it still has value. But no one thinks or writes this way anymore.

Courage It is no surprise that Clausewitz says that “courage is the soldiers first requirement”. That is almost axiomatic. Soldiers march toward the sound of the guns, rather than following ordinary instinct, and running as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

Clausewitz divides courage into two parts:

Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one’s own conscience. Only the first will be addressed here.

Why doesn’t he discuss the second one? As Nate noted, the unwillingness to take responsibility is perceived as a problem in the military today. We would have liked to have had Clausewitz’s thoughts on this. Moreover, we know that Clausewitz himself made a hard decision to leave his King’s service and go into the service of the Czar, rather than cooperate in an alliance between France and Prussia which he believed to be dishonorable. He had every reason to believe that this decision would ruin his career. Yet he did it. In another place on the blog I said asserted that “mere physical courage is not enough. People fear failure and humiliation more than death and wounds.” I had no citation for this assertion, other than what I have read and what I have seen. But I believe it to be true. We want officers to obey civilian authority. We also want them to speak the truth to the political leadership, and to their uniformed superiors, as they see it, based on their professional expertise, without regard to whether so speaking will be career enhancing. We would like this to happen in any profession, but in the military most of all because the stakes are so high.

I do not know how a person who is already an adult can be trained to have moral courage if he was not brought up to have it. I do not think it is possible. Such people are uncommon.

It is noteworthy that Clausewitz further subdivides what we might call “moral” as opposed to “physical” courage. The commander must not only be willing to face his superiors, “the tribunal of some outside power”, and answer for his actions. He must also face “the court of his own conscience”. He has to be willing to do things, to give orders that will weigh heavily on him, and he cannot abdicate and place that responsibility on others. He may give the order, “you are to attack with your division at dawn”. He knows that many of the men in that division will be, in Clausewitz’s words, killed or mutilated. He has to be willing to face his superiors, but he has to be willing to face himself.

The best depiction of this type of courage I have seen is in William Slim’s book Defeat Into Victory:

The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted…Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory–for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. ‘Here,’ he will think, ‘I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.’ He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. He will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. ‘I have failed them,’ he will say to himself, ‘and failed my country!’ He will see himself for what he is–a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.
And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these attacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat–they are more than from victory.

The commander of genius cannot be soft-hearted. He must apparently lack certain humane virtues, so that others may be very strong in him. His seeming inhumanity is in fact the needed strength to push himself and his soldiers to victory, which is the only way to end the fighting and stop the dying. So, paradoxically, the very man who would be crushed by the sight of suffering caused by his orders, who may falter or hesitate as a result, is less likely to bring the pain to a swift end – by victory.

Coup d’oeil Clausewitz describes coup d’oeil as the “quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.” Clausewitz’s depiction of coup d’oeil is, as Nate observes, a capacity to make inductive leaps both quickly and accurately.

This capacity is particularly important in light of the matters discussed later in Book I. Danger and physical exhaustion can paralyze the intellect. Perhaps worst of all, as he depicts in Chapter 6, the intelligence that comes in to the commander is always, to some significant degree, wrong. The commander has to have the capacity to penetrate this fog.

As Nate observes, a commander who lacked coup d’oeil would be stymied by a commander who could acted more quickly and surely with the same quality of information available. This will remind our listeners of John Boyd’s OODA loop.

Perhaps we can define coup d’oeil as the capacity, all else being equal, to more quickly and accurately complete the OODA cycle.

The source of coup d’oeil apparently a combination of innate talent and experience. In Clausewitz’s day, there were maneuvers, but the training methods were not sophisticated compared to today. Nate says that it could “be developed through force-on-force training, tactical decision games, etc.” If so, good, and I hope the American military gets ahead and stays ahead of everyone else in this department.

Nate asks:

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?

I am not in the military, so I cannot say anything about the Professional Military Educational system. It seems to me, as an outsider, that a legalistic and bureaucratic approach to staff practices would be crushing to the exercise of coup d’oeil, which could be described as a form of highly educated intuition. The very fact that the commander with fragmentary information makes a firm and rapid decision is his strength in this area. However, if he is forced to justify his decision after the fact, with articulable facts as his reasons for the decision, then coup d’oeil becomes impossible. It may be that very elaborated Rules of Engagement are this sort of thing. If a commander must follow a set protocol so that he and his men will not be subject to legal penalties or career destroying criticism, then the legalistic and rule-bound military is doomed to be lumbering and slow to act and slow to react. In effect, taken to its logical extreme, is would be to concede the initiative to the enemy categorically. There is a trade-off here, and all of the costs are probably not being assessed.

As to the issue of the vast volume of information reaching the commander, perhaps it is of better quality than the intelligence Clausewitz discusses in Chapter 6. Even so, the quantity of information that can be processed and used is finite. Others understand this subject better than I do.

Longing for Honor and Renown Nate points out an exceptionally strong statement by Clausewitz: “Of all the passions that inspire man in battle, none, we have to admit, is so powerful and constant as the longing for honor and renown.”

So, Clausewitz claims to have identified the most powerful motivation for men going into battle.

Nate agrees, and tells us what our own observations, and all of history, show to be true. “This largely explains the willingness of the willingness of boastful and brash men in their teens and 20s to sign up for battle. … 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.” Napoleon, who knew more about these things than anyone, purportedly said “give me enough ribbon and I will conquer the world”. Less cynically, I read somewhere, but cannot find it, that Napoleon said something like this: “A man will not sell his life for any amount of money, but he will throw it away for a bit of ribbon.”

Nate commented: “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.” He asked: “What are your thoughts?

Men, especially young men, want the esteem and recognition and respect of other men, whom they esteem and respect in turn. This is the foundation of any volunteer military. These sentiments are strongly at odds with much of what passes for normal or even moral in our society. In particular, the desire to do and participate in dangerous activities is very strong. These factors exist in males, not females, and they are deeply rooted and served a biological purpose developed over millennia. These desires must be channeled and harnessed to the military service by lawful soldiers on behalf of the common good, giving them space to live and function as soldiers. If the option of military service which serves and satisfies these basic desires does not exist, these powerful desires will not go away. They will find outlets in lawless behavior and violence, gang membership, etc.

A society which fails to harness these forces to positive ends will have a lot of trouble. A military that is prevented from taking advantage of these forces due to feminism or political correctness or simple embarrassment at the reality of masculinity, and that boys and girls really are very different, will suffer a disadvantage.

The opinion leaders and educators in our society do not really want to “celebrate diversity”. They want people with precisely identical ideas and values with crayon-colored variations in skin color, and men who are de-masculinized and non-threatening.

Soldiers cannot be made of such material, nor policemen, nor anyone who has to face hardship, danger, or exercise serious authority. A society which only produced such human material as feminists and proponents of political correctness supposedly want would be swiftly eaten alive by the human predators who swarm about the world.

Zenpundit astutely noted in response to Nates post that it is democracy itself that is anti-military, as Tocqueville observed. This is true, so far as it goes. American history shows that attitudes toward the military are shaped by regional culture. The dominant regional culture in the USA is the Yankee-derived northern tier, originating in New England and settling due west across the Upper Midwest, and taking later infusions of Germans and Scandinavians. This dominant folk-culture has usually been anti-military. Edward Coffman’s books on the peacetime military show this throughout our history. World War II was the great anomaly. It was a unique case. With the Vietnam era resistance to the draft, the return to a volunteer military, and the rejection of military service by the wealthy and powerful, we are back to the historical norm. Military service has usually been by a small part of the community, the officers from military families, or ambitious lower middle class people, and the enlisted personnel from the poorer regions and newly arrived immigrants. In addition, certain regions and communities have long been more martial in outlook than others, particularly the Scotch-Irish.

This is the typical Anglospheric pattern. Britain and the USA are maritime powers. We have not usually needed mass armies supported by mass conscription, with a large does of martial patriotism to sustain it. The long service British regiments were recruited in poor areas and sent abroad to fight in small but bloody wars that were often not front page news. Their officers were from a caste of families, which sent their younger sons into the Army. In the USA, the destruction of the Indians was accomplished by a small, professional, and not particularly popular or well-funded Army. The Marine Corps was sent to various trouble spots around the world, and its exploits barely made it into the newspapers.

Bottom line: The current relative dislike of the military is nothing new. The ideological edge of feminism and political correctness are new, and certainly make things worse.

Things he missed Nate observes that Clausewitz failed to say that an officer should have a liberal education. I think it was probably the case that most of the senior officers in Clausewitz’s day all had one, to some degree. That was the definition of being educated at that time. Of course, some of the commanders were war dogs who knew how to fight, and then fight some more. Blucher could barely read, supposedly. Marshall Ney may not have read much, and yet he was a field marshal. Napoleon said of him, “Ney is a spear I cast at my enemies”. Napoleon was well-read, as was Frederick. But others, I don’t know, or think not. Marlborough? Wellington? Charles XII? Gustavus? Wallenstein? Turenne? Grant?

So, Clausewitz may not have agreed that a liberal education was necessary for military genius. Some military geniuses over history did not have such an education. So, while my strong inclination is to agree that a modern commander should have such an education, I cannot say that Clausewitz was wrong for not emphasizing it.

It is true that Clausewitz, or the translators, do not use the term “leadership.” It is not clear what to make of this. Clausewitz does talk about the commander infusing his army with his will and drive. But it does seem odd that Clausewitz did not single out the capacity to inspire subordinates and lead them as a separate element of military genius. I have no explanation for this.

As to the omission of “creativity”, I think two things. First, the term itself is a product of the Romantic movement. Clausewitz may not have been aware of it. I also think the idea may be inherent in his discussion of coup d’oeil. But he may also have perceived less need for an “innovative” approach than we do nowadays, due to the slower tempo of technological change in his time.

18 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 3: Response to Capt. Lauterbach on Clausewitz on Military Genius”

  1. “But it does seem odd that Clausewitz did not single out the capacity to inspire subordinates and lead them as a separate element of military genius. I have no explanation for this.”

    Is this not implicit in the nature of Military Genius? If you accept the combat power definition of Will, Skill and Equipment (Moral, Physical and Conceptual) I think he was rightly assuming that Military Genius is completely useless without the ability to get people to do things they would rather not, because it might get them killed.

    As I said in another comment, don’t separate CvC words from whom he was intending them for. CvC would be shocked and stunned to find us still discussing him today.

  2. Wilf, Clausewitz breaks other things out very clearly. As Nate said, he “decontructs” military genius into its sub-parts. So, while I agree that he “must have” meant to include leadership, he did not do so expressly under an unambiguous heading of its own. I find that odd. In his own experience, he saw many examples of the various methods and styles of leadership. Blucher was a human attack-dog, where Gniesenau was a man of coolness and quiet speech, yet each was a successful leader. On the other side, setting aside Napoleon himself, there was the theatric style of Murat, and the aloof and methodical style of Davout, and each of the Marshals had a distinct style. It is too bad Clausewitz did not say more about this.

  3. A very good book to read on the basis of regional cultural values in the United States is one written by David Hackett Fischer titled “Albions Seed”. In it he describes the very different folk-ways of the four distinct sets of English colonists that settled in different regions of the the original thirteen colonies.
    These consisted of the Puritans that settled in upper New England states; the Quakers, who settled in the Delaware River region; the Cavaliers, who settled in the Chesepeake Bay area; and lastly the Scotts-Irish who ended up mostly in the “dark and bloody” lands of the frontiers.
    A notewothy difference between the Scotts-Irish and the Puritans is that while the Puritans tended to place a high value on community cohesiveness and consensus within their relativly safe and established settlements the Scotts-Irish were very different. As can be imagined, being on the frontiers and facing the hardships and dangers of such produced a very different mindset. It is from the decendents of these people that many of our best military people have come.

  4. “The dominant regional culture in the USA is the Yankee-derived northern tier, originating in New England and settling due west across the Upper Midwest, and taking later infusions of Germans and Scandinavians. This dominant folk-culture has usually been anti-military.”

    I have some arguments with this, but there’s a different point I’d like to make.

    Many immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were fleeing conscription (in Wilhelmine Germany, for example) or violence of various types (related to the Russian Revolution or the rise of Hitler, for more examples). It’s not surprising that their families, having experienced war firsthand, would feel that it was not a good thing.

  5. “I have some arguments with this …”

    So do I. It’s a one-sentence oversimplification of a very large topic.

    You are right that there are lots of reasons lots of people were opposed to conscription. We only had conscription very briefly in World War I, and it was unpopular, with good reason.

    But, still, given all that, I’ll stand on the statement, for what its worth.

    American popular anti-militarism has lots of roots and lots of reasons, many of them sound ones.

  6. David, Albion’s Seed is a key source for my views on this. We have discussed and referred to that book many times on this blog.

    A related book is Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, which builds on a similar model.

    Michael Lind’s book, Vietnam: The Necessary War, has a nice capsule history of the settlement pattern and the attitudes of the various cultural communities.

  7. “We only had conscription very briefly in World War I” — what I was getting at was that it was terminated quickly because the very people you mention were against it.

    I did not mean to suggest that I do not know the overall history of conscription in the USA.

  8. A society which fails to harness these forces to positive ends will have a lot of trouble.

    The 1992 novel Double Deuce by Robert B. Parker, featuring his characters Spenser and Hawk, is largely a meditation on the issues you raise in the paragraphs starting from “Men, especially young men….”

  9. Lex, Yes Clausewitz did not deconstruct Leadership into clearly definable parts, or even call it leadership, but I suggest his use of the phrase “Military Genius” was telling, in that it makes this leadership, distinct from other forms, eg: Political, Educational etc,.
    I suspect it just never occurred to him to be more precise, because of his intended audience. Napoleonic Wars made for very demanding and unforgiving tests of Leadership. Everyone knew who could and generally could not perform. Brave but stupid, was acceptable. Brilliant but cowardly was not.

  10. William F. Owen-

    I think that you are correct that leadership is intrinsic to military genius, but then again, so is Courage (the “first requirement” of the solider), yet CvC chose to delve into Courage and not Leadership.

    I think it’s an omission on CvC’s part.

    However, I think this omission might be more explainable due to the social strata the officers came from. Perhaps military leadership was seen as more of the right of the relatively wealthy, rather than a personal gift or a skill to be developed. Consequently Leadership would have been seen as something intrinsic to social or economic position, rather than to military genius.

    Semper Fidelis,

  11. Lexington Green:

    I do not know how a person who is already an adult can be trained to have moral courage if he was not brought up to have it. I do not think it is possible. Such people are uncommon.

    Does “such people” refer to those who were “not brought up to have it”?

  12. Lexington Green:

    I agree on the “Unfortunately.” Given that, I notice that you do not mention the possibility that those who were brought up to have moral courage may lose it. Do you agree that this is possible? Or do you believe that moral courage cannot be corrupted?

  13. What?

    Of course not.

    Upbringing is in most cases a necessary but not sufficient condition.

    We all know people with great parents who turned out bad. It happens.

    I’m a parent. I will do what I can. But they will do what they decide to do. Period.

  14. Wilf:

    “Brave but stupid, was acceptable.”

    Those were the days.

    One could be a brave but stupid hussar, living by your wits and the edge of your sword, the world’s prizes were within your grasp if you were bold and tough and if the Emperor heard of your name and your deeds — and an early grave was what you risked with every roll of the dice.

    The Duellists shows a classic stupid but insanely brave, and homicidally proud, cavalry officer. Feraud, played (brilliantly) by Harvey Keitel.

    D’Hubert: I see no reason whatever for us to fight.
    Feraud: What reason shall I give you? Shall I spit in your face?

    Based on Joseph Conrad’s story The Duel. Such men could only stand so much peace. A few months of boredom, and they’d probably start killing each other out of sheer pent up animal spirits.

    The movie is a masterpiece, and the story is probably a little bit better than the movie.

  15. Lexington Green:

    Apparently my question was poorly framed, because your answer is skew to what I am seeking (though I agree with all your points).

    Assume someone who has been brought up well, goes out into the world and for years acts in ways we would describe as morally courageous. Is that person then immune from loss of his moral courage?

    I ask because you mentioned people who had moral courage and those who did not (and, in your opinion, never would). You made no mention of those who once had moral courage, but no longer have it. My question is whether you think this is a null class.

    Or perhaps, such a person never did have moral courage, but managed to fool everyone until his true nature was revealed?

  16. There is no true nature to be revealed. You are what you do.

    No one knows what kind of courage they will have until the moment of decision.

    Upbringing and training in fortitude, self-denial, and service to others, and prayer and presence of God, all which can be to some degree “engineered-in” by upbringing, can prepare you to some degree for the day. Without them, you will likely fail.

    One of the great attractions of war is people want to be tested and know what they will do at the moment of decision.

  17. The definition of leadership was different in the Prussian army. Only 50 years separated CvC from Frederick II, whose idea of leadership training was the admonition that the troops should be more frightened of their officers and whose idea of a inspirational message was “Dogs! Do you want to live forever”. This spirit of coercive leadership, where the assorted Prussian peasants and foreign mercenaries that made up Frederick’s army were treated more like mindless serf automatons than the men of the levee en masse, was fading during CvC’s time due to the destruction of the Prussian army during the campaign of 1806 and its resurrection as a more popular-based force as the Landwehr and its discontents after 1812. But it was not yet entirely dissipated either.

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