Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: The Oblique Order, the Road Not Taken, and the Black Swan

Themes and passages scattered throughout Book 2 reminded me of themes and passages scattered throughout mad prophet Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. Both Book 2 and the The Black Swan detail the ways humans fool themselves, sometimes in disproportionately disastrous ways. Both preach a critical and conservative empiricism in the face of a baffling and shifting world. Both use some of the same empirical techniques, in Clausewitz’s case two hundred years too early.

One of Taleb’s main themes is the tendency for specialists in any field to develop physics envy and attempt to reduce the horrifically complex phenomena they study to a deterministic and mechanistic model complete with grand and complex equations. This envy doesn’t lead to a higher level of truth and accuracy. It leads to a higher level of systemic self-deception and delusion. It creates financial weapons of mass destruction such as an MBA armed with a spreadsheet and the belief that manipulating rows and columns bestows the ability to prophesy. Vain dreams.

Clauswitz joins Taleb in explaining why this delusion will lead to ruin:

The essential difference is that war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter, as is the case with the mechanical arts, or at matter that is animate but passive and yielding, as is the case with the human mind and emotions in the fine arts. In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts. It must be obvious that the intellectual codification used in the arts and sciences is inappropriate to such an activity. At the same time it is clear that continual striving after laws analogous to those appropriate to the realm of inanimate matter was bound to lead to one mistake after another. Yet it was precisely the mechanical arts that the art of war was supposed to imitate. The fine arts were impossible to imitate, since they themselves do not yet have sufficient laws and rules of their own. So far all attempts at formulating any have been found too limited and one-sided and have been constantly been undermined and swept away by the currents of opinion, emotion and custom.

You can see Clausewitz calling out Jomini here, since Jomini tried (and failed) to reduce war to a science that followed predictable and universal principles (see Clausewitz’s picking on Jomini’s beloved interior lines for a specific example). Many died in the Civil War because of Jomini and his perverse inspiration (they may also have been killed by a second generation of warfare but rifles, Minié balls, and Napoleon guns are a poor defense against an out-of-control theory straining for relevance or killer generations). For those that disbelieve that military theory can’t kill, Clausewitz provides warnings a plenty.

Clausewitz provides a useful taxonomy of the differences between laws, principles, rules, regulations, directions, and methods. This is useful for drawing a line between where a piece of knowledge sets you free to adapt and when it (often unconsciously) enslaves the mind. A contention of Taleb’s is that the mind is a compressor that has to cram the vastness of the universe into the narrow confines of the human brain. The choice of compression algorithm is crucial because it determines what’s left in and what’s left out. The ultimate goal of any compressed image of the world is to transition from the slower Reflective System in the brain (what Taleb calls System 2) to the faster Automatic System (what Taleb calls System 1). Clausewitz discusses the circumstances under which this occurs:

Method“…is a constantly recurring procedure that has been selected from several possibilities. It becomes routine when action is prescribed by method rather than general principles or individual regulation. It must necessarily be assumed that all cases to which such a routine is applied will be essentially alike. Since they will not be entirely so, it is important that it be true of at least as many as possible. In other words, methodological procedure should be designed to meed the probable cases. Routine is not based on definite individual premises, but rather on the average probability of analogous cases. Its aim is to postulate an average truth, which when applied evenly and constantly, will soon acquire some of the nature of a mechanical skill, which eventually does the right thing almost automatically.

Taleb argues that such approaches are necessary in the land governed by the Bell Curve, Mediocristan, where probabilities are easily predicted and clear. Here, to use Taleb’s example, seeing a leopard and running away, a tactic, is usually a safe bet. Tactics is governed, in many cases, by the laws of Mediocristan:

Routine, apart from its sheer inevitability, also contains one positive advantages. Constant practice leads to brisk, precise, and reliable leadership, reducing natural friction and easing the working of the machine.

In short, routine will be more frequent and indispensable, the lower the level of action. As the level rises, its use will decrease to the point where, at the summit, it disappears completely. Consequently, it is more appropriate to tactics than strategy.

Compression becomes ever more risky at higher levels:

War, in its highest forms, is not an infinite mass of minor events, analogous despite their diversities, which can be controlled with greater or lesser effectiveness depending on the methods applied. War consists rather of single, great decisive actions, each of which needs to be handled individually. War is not like a field of wheat, which, without regard to the individual stalk, may be mown more or less efficiently depending on the quality of the scythe; it is like a stand of mature trees in which the axe has to be used judiciously according to the characteristics and development of each individual trunk.

Strategy, at the higher levels of war, lies more in the realm of Extremistan, governed by fat and long tails and large but consequential events that are almost impossible to foresee. Every action taken in Extremistan can lead to black swans, rare events that are consequential, unforseeable, and can only be moralized about afterwards.

It’s the moralizing that matters, because the lessons drawn from a black swan, internalized and compressed, in a cycle of Observe -> Orient -> Moralize -> Act, can be taken as gospel truth to following generations. If something worked once, the temptation, encapsulated in the old saw that generals always prepare for the last war, is always to do it again. The moral of the story will be internalized and rerun over and over again regardless of whether such a rerun is justified by actual conditions. War management will fall victim to a confirmation bias guided by prior experience. The situation will become what you want it to be rather than what it is. Book 2 was intended as a remedy to this natural instinct. As can be told by two world wars, Germany missed his point. The bitter end of World War I and the culminating funeral pyre of World War II are directly anticipated by Clausewitz when he uses the example of how the Prussian generals used the oblique order against Buonaparte and the French at Jena-Auerstadt, a defeat so catastrophic that the Prussian philosopher G.W.F. Hegel declared it the “end of history” 185 years before Francis Fukuyama co-opted the phrase. The moral of the Seven Years’ War loomed large. Everything they thought prior to the battle confirmed that the oblique order, devastating in the hands of Fredrick the Great, would trounce the Corsican Ogre.They soon learned otherwise.

Clausewitz also employs a pioneering use of counterfactual history:

Critical analysis is not just an evaluation of the means actually employed, but of all possible means-which first have to be formulated, that is, invented. One can, after all, not condemn a method without being able to suggest a better alternative.

Taleb refers to the roads not taken in history as “silent evidence” and refers elsewhere to the work of historian Niall_Ferguson in counterfactual history as a promising historical approach to examining silent evidence. This is Ferguson’s approach, expanded upon in his introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals:

How exactly are we to distinguish probable unrealised alternatives to the improbable ones? The most frequently raised objection to the counterfactual approach is that it depends on ‘facts which concededly never existed’. Hence, we simply lack the knowledge to answer counterfactual questions. But this is not so. The answer to the question is in fact very simple: We should consider as plausible or probable only those alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered.

This is a vitally important point, and one which Oakeshott seems to have overlooked. As has often been said, what we call the past was once the future; and the people of the past no more knew what the their future would be than we can know our own. All they could do was consider the likely future, the plausible outcome. It is possible that some people in the past had no interest in the future whatever. It also true that many people in the past have felt quite sure that they did know what the future would be; and that sometimes they have even got it right. But most people in the past have tended to consider more than one possible future. And although no more than one of these has come about, at the moment before it came about it was no more real (though it may now seem more probable) than the others. Now, if all history is the history of (recorded) thought, surely we must attach equal significance to all the outcomes thought about. The historian who allows his knowledge as to which of these outcomes subsequently happened to obliterate the other outcomes people regarded as plausible cannot hope to recapture the past ‘as it actually was’. For, in considering only the possibility which was actually realised, he commits an elementary teleological error. To understand how it actually was, we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t – but how, to contemporaries, it might have been. This is even more true when the actual outcome is one which no one expected – which was not actually thought about until it happened.

Clausewitz aspired to follow this pattern but deviates slightly in offering alternatives to various Buonapartist adventures:

[Referring to Buonaparte’s pulling back before the siege of Mantua and Clausewitz’s alternative] This is not the place to labor the point; we believe we have said enough to show that the possibility deserves notice. We cannot tell whether Buonaparte himself ever considered the plan. There is no trace of it in his memoirs and the rest of the published sources; none of the later critics touched upon it…There is no great merit in recalling its existence; one only has to shed the tyranny of fashion in order to think of it. One does, however, have to think of it in order to consider it and compare it with the means which Buonaparte actually employed. Whatever the result of this comparison the critic should not fail to make it.

You can scratch Clausewitz and summon forth a Modern. Of course, that could just be confirmation bias working its eternal rounds.

3 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: The Oblique Order, the Road Not Taken, and the Black Swan”

  1. Very interesting piece. I recently skimmed a book on business strategy which contrasted the ideas of Jomini with those of Clausewitz as applied in a business context–can’t remember the title or author but will try to find it.

    Regarding Clausewitz’s comments about “method,” see Dietrich Doerner, who has found “methodism” to be a key to failure in his simulation experiments on decision-making. I’m afraid that a lot of higher education, and especially graduate education, acts to encourage this particular thought pattern.

    See also my post management education and the role of technique and the links to earlier posts on this topic.

  2. “The essential difference is that war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter, as is the case with the mechanical arts, or at matter that is animate but passive and yielding, as is the case with the human mind and emotions in the fine arts. In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.”

    The latter case is also true of taxation and regulation. Liberal economists have yet to figure this out.

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