Clausewitz, On War, Book II: The Intellectual Style of the Military Genius

Last week Lexington Green and I wrote on the virtues intrinsic to military genius. These virtues were categorized as intellectual, or psychological, or both. The truths revealed came from Chapter 3, Book I of On War.

Book II of On War attempts to serve as bedrock to the theory of war, and in doing so, provides a guide to the kinds of knowledge that belongs in the intellect of the military genius. Book II also explains how that knowledge ought to be learned, and used, and ultimately the intellectual style of the military genius. This supplements the lengthy treatment I gave to psychological, emotional, and moral factors that help describe the military genius.

How does the commander go about learning what he must? What is his intellectual style and what are his habits? What must he learn? How must he learn it? Should have be a disinterested third party with respect to his knowledge? Must he internalize his military knowledge? Is his knowledge derived mainly from experience, or from study? What are the pitfalls of the intellectual methods of the military mind?

Before we delve further, let’s look at the nature of the knowledge that Clausewitz claims is required of the military commander. Clausewitz claims that military knowledge is simple:

Knowledge in war is very simple, being concerned with so few subjects and only with their final results at that. (p. 146)

Yet the required knowledge increases with rank and responsibility, and as most anybody would expect:

Within this field of military activity, ideas will differ in accordance with the commander’s area of responsibility. In the lower ranks they will be more focused on more minor and more limited objectives; in the more senior, upon wider and more comprehensive ones. (p.145)

…This does not make its application easy…Leaving aside those [obstacles] that can be overcome only by courage, we argue that genuine intellectual activity is simple and easy only in the lower ranks. The difficulty increases with every step of the ladder; and at the very top –the position of commander-in-chief—it becomes the most extreme to which the mind can be subjected. (p.146)

Adding a degree of complexity, knowledge required of a senior officer is not always a derivative of knowledge learned while serving in previous posts:

There are commanders-in-chief who could not have led a cavalry regiment with distinction, and cavalry commanders who could not have led armies. (p145-146)

Surely, excellent service as a platoon commander probably does translate into likely excellent service as a company commander, or even as a battalion commander. This is only because such commanders are concerned only with tactical matters, and consequently expertise can be built up and transferred. Once the commander begins to deal with strategic matters, however, previously-learned tactical knowledge loses relevancy. This fact presents great problems for militaries, as they tend to be “promote-from-within” institutions. The tactical leaders today are asked to fill the shoes of the strategic leaders of tomorrow.

This is a conundrum that the United States has failed to solve. The US military tends to be extraordinarily successful at the tactical level, and yet very inconsistent at the strategic level. Indeed, the idea that the US “wins battles but loses wars” is so commonplace today that it has the strength of conventional wisdom, and evidence need not be furnished for the layman. He will just believe that wisdom.

Now that I’ve established that my tactical knowledge might lose relevancy when attempting to answer strategic questions, what sources must I use to learn strategic knowledge?

Clausewitz names three sources: Scientific Investigation, Military History, and Experience.

Allow me to briefly touch on experience…

Is tactical experience irrelevant? Clausewitz certainly thinks so. Therefore he must mean that only strategic experiences are a source of strategic knowledge. If that is the case, then perhaps our entire process where we attempt to produce strategic excellence from tactical excellence is foolish! Is this the case? Should we continue expecting our tactical leaders to miraculously transform into strategic leaders?

Might we be better off by trying to produce tactical excellence from strategic excellence? (The exact opposite of what we’ve been doing). Could this be the genius of the Strategic Corporal concept? Is the Strategic Corporal a worthy rejoin to strategic incompetence?

Returning back to the three sources of strategic knowledge…

Scientific Investigation has numerous problems because it tends to get sidetracked in minutiae that have no bearing on the study of strategy (Clausewitz says the commander has no business concerning himself with making guns and gunpowder—p.144). Therefore an exhaustive scientific evaluation of strategy is not really possible, as there are so many details to account for. Nor is this scientific inquiry even desirable:

That is why anyone who thought it necessary or even useful to begin the education of a future general with a knowledge of all the details has been scoffed at as a ridiculous pedant. Indeed, that method can easily be proved to be harmful: for the mind is formed by the knowledge and the direction of the ideas it receives and the guidance it is given. Great things alone can make a great mind, and petty things will make a petty mind unless a man rejects them as completely alien. (p.145)

This leaves Military History and Experience as sources of strategic knowledge. Clausewitz allows that:

We therefore turn to experience and study those sequences of events related in military history. The result will, of course, be a limited theory, based only on facts recorded by military historians. But that is inevitable, since theoretical results [the results of scientific investigation] must have been derived from military history or at least checked against it. Such a limitation is in any case more theoretical than real.
The great advantage offered by this method is that theory will have to remain realistic. It cannot get lost in futile speculation, hairsplitting, and flights of fancy. (p.144).

So the aim of any theory of military strategy is to be realistic and practical, if somewhat limited in scope. This aligns with how Clausewitz describes the mental machinery of the commander:

One will expect a visionary, high-flown, and immature mind to function differently from a cool and powerful one. (p. 139)

A commander-in-chief need not be a learned historian nor a pundit, but he must be familiar with the higher affairs of state and its innate policies; he must know current issues, questions under consideration, the leading personalities, and be able to form sound judgments. He need not be an acute observer of mankind or a subtle analyst of human character; but he must know the character, the habits of thought and action, and the special virtues and defects of the men whom he is to command. He need not know how to manage a wagon or harness a battery horse, but he must be able to gauge how long a column will take to march a given distance under various conditions. This type of knowledge cannot be forcibly produced by an apparatus of scientific formulas and mechanics; it can only be gained through a talent for judgment, and by the application of accurate judgment to the observation of man and matter. (p. 146)

Thus the commander is an intensely practical man, and he is a generalist. He cares not of psychology of mankind, but he does care of the psychology of the men he commands. He cares not of mere technical matters like the packing of wagon trains, but he does care deeply about the capabilities of that wagon train (what it can carry, how quickly it moves). He cares about practicalities: What things actually influence his troops when engaged in combat.

The commander’s practicality and realism do not, however, imply that he is not probing or curious:

The knowledge needed by a senior commander is distinguished by the fact that it can only be attained by a special talent, through the medium of reflection, study, and thought: an intellectual instinct which extracts the essence from the phenomena of life, as a bee sucks honey from a flower. In addition to study and reflection, life itself serves as a source. Experience, with its wealth of lessons, will never produce a Newton or an Euler, but it may well bring forth the higher calculations of a Condé or a Frederick. (p. 146)

Nor is the military genius an intellectual lightweight:

To save the intellectual repute of military activity there is no need to resort to lies and simple-minded pedantry. No great commander was ever a man of limited intellect. But there are numerous cases of men who served with greatest distinction in the lower ranks and turned out barely mediocre in the highest commands, because their intellectual powers were inadequate. (p.146-147)

Let us reduce the intellect of the military genius to a few adjectives: Practical, realistic, inquiring, and experienced. But how is this knowledge known by the commander?

Knowledge must be so absorbed into the mind that it almost ceases to exist in a separate, objective way. In almost any other art or profession a man can work with truths he has learned from musty books, but which have no life or meaning for them….Continual change and the need to respond to it compels the commander to carry the whole intellectual apparatus of his knowledge within him. He must always be ready to bring forth the appropriate decision. By total assimilation with his mind and life, the commander’s knowledge must be transformed into genuine capability. (p.147)

He must make that knowledge intrinsic to his person. He must internalize it to such a degree that his persona is unified with the knowledge. This is due to the unique requirements of combat, where fortunes can be reversed so quickly that there is no time to reflect on the events as they are happening. That reflection and internalization must occur prior to combat. Clausewitz goes on to say:

That is why it all seems to come so easily to men who have distinguished themselves in way, and why it is all ascribed to natural talent. We say natural talent in order to distinguish it from the talent that has been trained and educated by reflection and study. (p. 147)

So, natural intellectual talent for war making isn’t natural, but is instead a result of reflection, study, internalization, and unification of the knowledge with the commander’s mind. This unification results in what appears to be a natural talent, but really is an extremely disciplined, reflective, and self-focused form of learning. Commanders make their own intellectual luck.

What are the downsides of this style of learning as it relates to generalship? There are several:

1) The commander, unless he is extraordinarily reflective, finds it difficult to be objective about his knowledge. This can only be remedied by way of Critical Analysis—which is a rigorous, deductive reasoning:

A critic should never use the results of theory as laws and standards, but only—as the soldier does—as aids to judgment. (p. 158)

Critical Analysis, which is deductive and scientific in nature, is thus defined as an aid, or tool, for the commander. It is not a source of knowledge by itself.

2) If his intellect is ossified, he may find that his methods become outdated. This risks defeat in battle. This is epitomized by the expression, “The longer you hold the hammer, the more everything starts to look like a nail.” Clausewitz specifically addressed this issue in his chapter on Method and Routine:

…They prefer to use the means with which their experience has equipped them, even in cases that could and should be handled individually. They will copy their supreme commander’s favorite device…When we find generals under Frederick the Great using the so-called Oblique Order of Battle…then we recognize in these repetitions a ready-made method, and see that even the highest ranks are not above the influence of routine… (p.154)

3) The commander might not scrutinize various assumptions that are inherent in his knowledge. This is due to the previously-mentioned lack of objectivity.

…When in 1806 the Prussian generals, Prince Louis at Saalfeld, Tauentzien on the Dornberg near Jena, Grawert on one side of Kapellendorf and Ruechel on the other, plunged into the open jaws of disaster by using Frederick the Great’s Oblique Order of Battle, it was not justa case of a style that had outlived its usefulness but the most extreme poverty of imagination to which routine has ever led. The result was that the Prussian army under Hohenlohe was ruined more completely than any army has ever been ruined on the battlefield. (p.154-155)

These generals had failed to evaluate the assumptions on which Frederick’s Oblique Order of Battle was based, and consequently, their reactions to their circumstances were incorrect.

The benefits of increased speed of decision may outweigh the costs of these downsides. This can be illustrated by Boyd’s omnipresent OODA Loop (click to enlarge):

If the commander successfully unifies the military knowledge with himself, that knowledge assumes a role in the Orientation of the commander. Once unification is accomplished, the commander is able to more immediately see the results of any actions he takes. Were this knowledge not unified with the intellect of the commander, he would have to consciously decide to either discard that knowledge, or act on that knowledge. This act of decision has the effect of slowing the speed of action of that commander.

(All of this assumes, of course, that the Knowledge, and therefore the Orientation of the commander is correct given the circumstances!)

In this piece I have attempted to clarify and expound on Clausewitz’s description of the intellect of the military genius. He has been shown to be practical, cool, reflective, and curious. He must internalize his knowledge to a degree not required by other professions, and this can lead to numerous pitfalls. But if the commander is at once unified with his knowledge and at the same time questioning of that knowledge’s assumptions, the commander will have an accurate, yet agile outlook on his combat environment.

What are your thoughts?

8 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book II: The Intellectual Style of the Military Genius”

  1. Another excellent piece of work.

    I’m going to respond to several points:

    “Once the commander begins to deal with strategic matters, however, previously-learned tactical knowledge loses relevancy. This fact presents great problems for militaries, as they tend to be “promote-from-within” institutions. The tactical leaders today are asked to fill the shoes of the strategic leaders of tomorrow.”

    Strategic matters require a grasp – not expert mastery but familiarity – with an increasingly wide number of fields to see how the different “parts” of a strategic situation best “fit” in the new relationship or end state the commander hopes to acheive. The ability to think horizontally across domains and integrate components is synthesis (as opposed to analysis, which literally means “to break apart” ).

    Synthesis is not part of the military education curriculum nor of the curriculum of of most schooling in the civilian world either, except indirectly in classical liberal education where it seems to be a frequent result. Synthesis, moreover, tends to lead to new insights over and above assembling parts into a “big picture”. If this frame of mind is picked up, it is largely through a combination of experience, a habit of problem solving and a bent toward intelklectual curiosity.

    “So, natural intellectual talent for war making isn’t natural, but is instead a result of reflection, study, internalization, and unification of the knowledge with the commander’s mind. This unification results in what appears to be a natural talent, but really is an extremely disciplined, reflective, and self-focused form of learning. Commanders make their own intellectual luck.”

    The U.S. has produced very few great military strategists – Washington, Winfield Scott,U.S. Grant, Marshall and Eisenhower ( MacArthur’s egomaniacal brilliance had checkered results, I’m not qualified to speak about naval leaders though Nimitz comes to mind)- but this has generally been compensated for on the civilian side, though not always.

    Of this group, only Marshall and Ike managed to adeptly master the entire range of of strategic skills from simple tactics up to an international grand strategy. Interestingly, they had made critical reflection, professional discussion and study their habits of lifelong learning and brought other officers, like Patton and Bradley into this circle. Marshall ended up fitting in like a glove with his C-in-C President Truman, himself passionately devoted to private study of history and the classics (often in the original languages) and who had combat command experience of his own in WWI. They understood each other very well, like few presidents and their primary military-strategic adviser ever have.

    At the top we need not just commanders but statesmen as soldiers.

  2. Marshall fit in well with FDR as well, though that was a more challenging relationship because FDR was a more difficult person to deal with. FDR was very well read on military history, especially naval history, and he’d had experience for eight years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, seeing and participating in decision-making at the highest levels before, during and after World War I. He and Marshall both had a habit of keeping tabs on promising men, with Marshall picking his senior personnel on this basis, and FDR himself plucking Marshall past several more senior people because he had known him since World War I. The small world of senior men in that era made such personalized selection possible.

  3. Zen-

    “The U.S. has produced very few great military strategists”

    Why do you think this is the case? In some ways we equip today’s flag officers with the very best of military education. They use modern techniques to spur horizontal thinking, use small-group learning techniques, etc. Yet we still fall short.

    Is the problem that they all think alike, or maybe fall into, at most, 2-3 intellectual camps? Is jointness the intellectual enemy, because it might promote diplomacy between the services over rigorous intellectual thought? Do we not have enough eccentrics at higher ranks, who might leaven some otherwise stale bread? What is it about the Orientation of American officers that causes such mediocrity at the strategic level?

    Also, I think we should take a hard look at our strategic warfighting organization–the geographical Combatant Commands (CENTCOM, EUCOM, SOUTHCOM, etc.) Do these organizations support or inhibit strategic greatness?

  4. “Is the problem that they all think alike, or maybe fall into, at most, 2-3 intellectual camps? Is jointness the intellectual enemy, because it might promote diplomacy between the services over rigorous intellectual thought?”

    I suspect homogenization of worldview and the “up or out” promotion system each play a part.

    Gen. Marshall was outspoken with superiors and we as a nation are fortunate that both General John Pershing and FDR found his candor refreshing and advice valuable, because lesser figures would have cashiered Marshall on the spot.

    Of course it helped that Marshall was a) usually right and b) always speaking from selfless motives – some people have such an upright character that the rest of us feel shamed into imitation by their better example.

  5. Nate, finally some substantive thoughts in response to this.

    My post on Book II deals with some of the issues you raise here. I would also say that the key point that you derive is that the commander’s “theoretical” knowledge must be completely integrated into his thought and actions. The tempo of war means he will never be able to stop and “look something up”. Anything that is not immediately integrated into his real-time decision-making in the heat of battle may as well not exist.

    As you say “he must internalize his knowledge to a degree not required by other professions.” This means that he must be careful to only internalize theoretical points which are accurate, hence the need for critical analysis rather than rote learning or acceptance of what is presented as gospel.

    The content of the theoretical knowledge has changed greatly since Clausewitz’s time. Where does the aspiring commander go to get this knowledge? What is the best way for the military to extract the ore from the slag, and refine the ore down to what is valuable and needs to be known? I offered some thoughts on how that would be done, though I have no idea what is or is not actually being done.

    I agree that, in Boydian terms, the type of internalized knowledge that Clausewitz is talking about pertains to the “orient” section of the OODA loop. Other qualities of the commander implicate other elements. I would say that coup d’oeil would go to the “observe” section, “Courage to Accept Responsibility” would go under the “decide” section, “Courage to Face Dangers” as well as physical stamina and determination would go under the “act” section. It would probably be “pedantic” to spend a lot of time matching up Boyd and Clausewitz in this way. The key thing is that Boyd’s depiction of the decision cycle matches up with Clausewitz’s depiction of the personality and preparation of the commander without any significant conflict between the two soldier-scholars.

Comments are closed.