GO NAVY BEAT ARMY

GO NAVY BEAT ARMY

'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Monday, November 25, 2013

Strategic thought from the masters--Clausewitz, Jomini, Moltke...and Tolstoy?

So, continuing with our excellent book club, the sections on Clausewtiz and Jomini are solid, if not outstanding.  However, a couple of interesting dynamics that occurred to me are the ying and yang of the art and science of war and the ability of a general, even a great general to truly influence what occurs on the battlefield once the first shot is fired.

Dr. Freedman makes the case that Jomini and Clausewitz viewed war very differently.  If anyone actually perused Jomini's Art of War (seriously, these guys need to come up with some more original titles), it's sometimes like reading a geometry textbook.  Although both writers emphasized similar themes, no doubt the results of their experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, they proscribe very different ways to achieve the Holy Grail of the battlefield --critical mass at the critical point of the battle.  Clausewitz definitely viewed war as more messy and uncontrollable once battle was engaged (that pesky friction thing), and would not have recommended a "cookbook" approach to military strategy.  Jomini was more "scientific" and seemed to think that if you maneuvered your troops in a certain way in reaction to certain situations, victory could almost always be assured.  Of course, the challenge for a 19th century general, with no staff, little usable intelligence, and the command and control span of his horse and a few aides was to know where to commit your precious reserves, when to attack, and when to retreat.

Along those lines, Tolstoy gets thrown in the mix to shake up conventional wisdom.  No doubt Dr. Freedman does this to show that not EVERYONE in the 19th century, or even early 20th century believed in the utility of strategy to war.  Tolstoy, who was not a general, nonetheless makes a number of comments on war in his masterpiece War and Peace,which apparently has a cameo appearance by ol' Karl himself.  The provocative notion Tolstoy presents is that strategy is so fluid, with so many variables caused by human nature, that's its worthless to even try to think strategically.  Maybe Tolstoy just takes "friction" to its extreme ends, but he seems a little hysterical. 

NOW, I will say that the problem with strategy, and strategists...especially at the political level, is the assumption that your opponent will do JUST what you want them to and react JUST like you think they will.  They don't, of course, listen to Clausewitz when he tells them that fundamentally, war is a HUMAN act, between humans that think, react, evolve, and change, often quickly and in directions never imagined by their opponent. 

A good strategy will have the ability to vary the ways and means to achieve the desired ends and will be flexible enough to react while keeping the end goal in sight.  This, of course, also assumes that the chosen ends can be achieved within the available means, another problem that both politicians and generals have trouble understanding.  So, while Tolstoy was a little dramatic (hey, he's Russian, what can I say), the fundamental problem isn't strategy as an art or science, but strategy as a delusion where wishful thinking and invalid assumptions lead to an inflexible plan that can't be implemented or if implemented, can't be changed to meet different circumstances.

This is where Moltke enters the stage...Prussia/Germany was probably never better served than by the team of Bismarck and Moltke, two giants that changed Europe and the world forever and probably the greatest political/military team in Germany's history.  Moltke was the ultimate strategist, keeping ends, ways, and means aligned, and always ensuring the strategy could be implemented at the tactical and operational level by subordinates who could adapt to the reality on the ground, while still working toward the commander's overall goal.  The trifecta of wars in 1864, 1866, and 1870 that united modern Germany into the military and economic juggernaut of the first half of the 20 century were masterpieces of limited war, although Moltke agreed with the concept somewhat less than Bismarck which served to unite the German people while avoiding a general European war.  Moltke's genius was not merely strategic, but operational, as he realized the potential of the railroad and telegraph to give Prussia a unique ability to quickly mobilize its army and attack before their rivals were even fully prepared for combat.

Excellent sections, with some thought provoking material.  As an introduction to the challenges of the major militaries of Europe grappling with the social and military changes to war wrought by Napoleon with the introduction of major new technologies, including naval technologies, Dr. Freedman does an excellent job summarizing the contributions of these great masters.

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