Starting Point, Starting Place

This is the first post of a monthly series. It'll mainly deal with the operational and logistical aspects of warfare in Europe and the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Initially, in fact, it'll be focused even more narrowly on Napoleonic campaigns and battles.

So why blog at all? Why on this topic?

Most immediately to give visitors to this website something to come back to each month.

Less immediately, and using other more authoritative people's words, because:
War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be throughly studied.
Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu does not mention history in his elaboration on this.

Napoleon, however, has been widely quoted as having said things such as:
Wage war offensively, like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Prince Eugene, and Frederick; read and re-read the history of their 83 campaigns; model yourself on them; it is the only way to become a Great Captain and to master the secrets of the Art.

So generally, according to good authority, the study of war is important and it is best studied via history.

The particular focus can be justified because of the Western way of war having had particular importance and this period, particularily the Napoleonic part of it, having had a disporportionate impact on the way the West wages war.

That's a plausible argument, but perhaps a rather abstract one and not an entirely complete or convincing one.

So I'm going to leave it to another day and take a more personal approach here and now. Also a more concrete one.

Whatever the arguments for studying the military history of these places and this period, and whatever their strength, I'm blogging about them because I think they're important. And because I find them interesting. And that's because of my history.

Mainly my history of reading. Best explained by the four books that I've been the most influenced by.

These four books are, in the order in which I encountered them:

A copy of Montgomery's "A History of Warfare" was lent to me in high school.

I'm pretty sure it was the first dedicated military history I ever read.

May have read Churchill's account of battles like Hastings (1066 and all that) in his "History of English Speaking Peoples" about the same time. Churchill wasn't one to scant the importance of warfare in history, and his style was certainly engaging, but Montgomery was my introduction to military history.

It was a big thick hardcovered book. It was filled with thick high quality paper for the text, plentiful maps, illustrations, and diagrams. There were many pages of glossy paper with photographs of paintings and of  museum artifacts such as models of Eygptian soldiery and  Samurai warriors.

The text itself was of considerable interest. There was detail; Montgomery tells us that for the Assyrians "Senior army officers were also priests, and the word 'rebel' meant the same as 'sinner'." and that in Normandy in 1944 the British infantryman could "use very expressive language about the way he [had]to bear the main burden in battle. There was also considerable breadth in both time and place in Montgomery's coverage. He began with the Eygptians and Hittites at Kadesh and ended with comments on the Nuclear Age. He had chapters on the Ottoman Turks, Mongols, Chinese and Japanese as well as the Greeks, Romans and Europeans.

That immense depth and variety to the topic of military history was one of the book's main two lessons.

The second lesson took longer and concerned the importance of personality and the dangers of generalizing about it. As I learned more I also learned that Montgomery was a somewhat controversial figure.

Many histories of the Second World War painted Montgomery as an arrogant egotist who talked a much better game than he played. He didn't seem to compare well to Rommel or Patton.

But it turns out authors often favor a good story over balanced and naunced reporting. Also appears it's possible to be a consummate and well-informed professional and still have personal flaws. Lastly, comic books, adventure novels, and myths to the contrary individuals must work within the constraints of the situations in which they find themselves.

If you're the commander of a powerful, but clumsy and slow, army that represents a fragile investment your country could not truly afford in the first place, a certain degree of deliberate caution might well be in order.

The degree of understandable outrage that that last comment may cause in some quarters likely explains why it's one Montgomery didn't express himself and is one reason this blog will not be explicitly covering any topics after the First World War.

There is much similar controversy over Napoleon and other figures contemporary to him, but hopefully the years have worn some of the edge off of it.

There was a time when Sun Tzu was little known.

At least in the West. That's changed. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war the conventional Western understanding of war seemed to need some revision.

To indulge in caricature that conventional understanding was that the big battalions would win the battles, and having won enough battles, one side would have won the war and the leaders of the losing side, needs be, had to sue for the best peace they could get.

There was a sense that clever tricks or better weapons, bows and cavalry in 'olden times' or tanks and planes in more modern ones, could alter the odds somewhat for a while before the other side caught on, but in the end whoever could amass the most force, generally in the form of infantry, would prevail.

After Vietnam,though, considerable doubt about the utility of conventional armies used in a conventional fashion developed.

It wasn't just Vietnam; it was the "loss" of China and decolonization in general, Kenya, Cuba, Algeria and other places. Regular First World armies didn't seem able to beat Third World guerrillas. Conventional armies couldn't win small wars. In the Nuclear Age conventional armies didn't seem very useful in winning big wars either.

A search for the secret sauce underlying the successes of General Giap and Mao began.

Sun Tzu looked like one of the ingredients. Over the following decades endless versions of his work in multiple, often wildly differing, translations would appear. The variety of accompanying commentaries was even greater. Sun Tzu's wisdom was touted as the special spice to grant success not just in war, but business and life in general.

It was difficult to ignore this, but unclear, too, what to make of it.

In a sense, though Sun Tzu pre-dates the arrival of Bhuddism in the Far East by centuries, reading him is a Zen experience. His work generates questions more than it provides answers.

In the west war is seen as the epitome of violence. In its pure form it is the maximum of violence applied in the most extreme manner.

Sun Tzu writes "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the is the acme of skill".

In the West the phrases "trial by battle", and "the audit of war" are cliches. One westerner writes: "There is an inherent truth in battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battle field.".

Sun Tzu, however, writes that "War is based on deception".

In Sun Tzu war appears to be a struggle carried out in the the minds of the opposing leaders. The forces they deploy and the attendant death and destruction figure as a mere backdrop to that struggle.

No doubt there are many lessons to be learned from Sun Tzu, but there are two I took to heart.

First the goal in war is to shape the will of your opponent to your ends. Force is only one means and not the best.

Second, the means to achieving that goal is to clarify your own understanding while clouding that of your opponent. The most important understanding being that of the minds of you and your opponent.

Could be that this is obivious, but the practise is more difficult than the formulation.

Victor Davis Hanson makes the case in "Carnage and Culture" for a uniquely effective Western Way of War. He believes this unique cultural tradition originated in Classical Greece. He illustrates his argument via accounts of nine specific battles beginning with Salamis and ending with the Tet Offensive.

His key idea seems to be that of decisive battle. Hanson doesn't use the phrase but in Texas Hold'em terms the West goes "all in" when it bets on war.

And from the point of view of our culture's reigning ideology this means everyone who can contributes fully and whole heartedly and in turn expects and gets a say.

Those are my words not Hanson's. Hanson's words would be "Freedom", "Decisive Battle", "Citizen Soldiers", "Landed Infantry", "Market Capitalism", "Discipline", "Individualism" and "Dissent".

Hanson qualifies and restates a great deal, but maximum commitment resulting in maximum mobilization with a corresponding wide input into decisions in order to achieve decisive results sums Hanson's argument up. He's quite persuasive.

Not everyone is convinced though. Peter Turchin and Azar Gat, for instance, both raise objections.

Myself I find Hanson particularily persuasive as an explaination of weaknesses in the traditional Western methods of waging war, namely the relative dislike of missile weapons and a tendancy to plunge headfirst into ambushes without bothering to scout ahead let alone gather in-depth intelligence. A general headstrong eschewal of any finesse or trickery indeed unless absolutely forced to adopt methods more clever or efficient appears to be a consistent theme in Western warfare.

Why did the feudal West adopt the heavy armoured horseman from Byzantium and Persia but minus the compound bow?

Why did the vaunted Roman army manage to be ambushed not just by Hannibal multiple times but also by the Parthians and the Germans?

Cultural history can be a tricky thing.

Back in the early '70s during the waning years of the Vietnam War officer trainees would apparently wear wigs when out for the evening in hopes of not being dismissed as "baby-killers" by the co-eds. (There were not yet co-ed officier cadets.) A decade later the average student wouldn't remember there'd been a Vietnam War except as a dusty historical fact and certainly wouldn't care much. Things change. One wonders how much even exhaustive emersion in copious primary sources can evoke of an era's zeitgeist.

In any event it would seem the former students of the extended 1960's later recruited into academia, and who came to dominate it, did retain their attitudes. For much of the later half of the twentieth century regular academic history and military history were not on the best of terms.

So when I encountered Azar Gat's "A History of Military Thought; from the Enlightment to the Cold War" browsing a bookstore it offered to fill a heartfelt need for a work with a broader than normal perspective, one that placed miltary thought in its wider social context. So despite its being a big brick of a book from the Oxford University Press with a price to match I snapped it up.

Looked at all the words and didn't know what to think.

The book is certainly a serious work of scholarship. Gat's sources include a wide variety of French and German works and primary sources as well as the usual (and some unusual) suspects in English. The extensive bibliography makes that clear, but it is also apparent throughout the text. Gat directly quotes and carefully analyzes his sources. He doesn't just give a precis and then expound. Not possessing a comparable degree of linguistic skill or erudition I'm sure there are many subtleties and insights that I missed. Nevertheless managed to take away a distinct narrative and some particular points that were very interesting. And also very enlightening.

The book doesn't actually start with the Enlightment.

Rather the topic of the first chapter is Machiavelli's "The Art of War". It is not as well known among the general public as his "The Prince", but among people who've taken some interest in early modern warfare it is rather infamous.

To quote Gat: "Despite inaccuracies, he put forth a penetrating analysis of the principal military models of the past and achieved a remarkable synthesis of the legacy of classical military theory. Yet it took little time before his military views were struck by the full weight of an unprecedented historical change."

Machiavelli relying on classical models dismissed the importance of artillery and firearms as well as cavalry. A bad call for perhaps good reasons.

In any case Gat writes that "The classical legacy continued to form the intellectual background and source of historical reference for military thinking - among other spheres of European culture - until the end of the eighteenth century. "

Gat basically skips over the rest of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the period in which "the classical miltary models, when synthesized with modern firearms, were still of great relevance and influence" devoting just a few bare pages to them before beginning his study in earnest with the Enlightment as his title promised. He begins with Monteecuccoli who lived, fought, and wrote during the seventeenth century but he addresses him as an inspiration to and the starting point of Enlightment military thought rather than in his seventeenth century context.

Essentially Gat begins his study in the middle of the Military Revolution and is mostly concerned with the developement of French military thought in its context of the Enlightment. In particular he is concerned with showing how German military thought developed both out of it and in reaction to it. He further places the developement of German military thought, that of Clausewitz in particular, into the context of German Romanticism which was a more general reaction to the French Enlightment.

He has this school of French thought showing a distinct up trend (based on number of publications) in the late 1740's and continuing through to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and argues that French military practise in both periods was based on the theories they developed in those preceding decades.

It seems likely that this ferment in French thought had its basis in their set-backs during the wars of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years war, and that Prussia's success in turn had its roots (as did the Enlightment itself see Rabb's "The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe") in the trials of the seventeenth century. Gat does not focus himself on this, however, his primary focus is on the German reaction to to the French military innovations and their successes. In particular he is concerned with placing Clausewitz's work in context.

With German successes in the military sphere in the nineteenth century and their tactical and operational successes despite strategic failure in the twentieth Clausewitz's theories came to dominate Western military thought until at least the mid-twentieth century.

The latter third of Gat's book concerns itself mainly with the British counter-reaction to all out Clausewitzean war. Corbett, Fuller, Lawrence, and Liddell Hart all have predominate places in his wide ranging discussion and in some part all advocate partial wars of containment using technology and indirect approaches.

The respect Gat accorded these British thinkers provided the third of what I don't think I can really call lessons, but would rather be better categorized as "shocks" or "surprises", that I received in reading Gat's work.

The first surprise was realizing just how ignorant I'd been of the importance of cultural context in understanding the military thought both of the Enlightment and of the nineteenth century, particularily that of Clausewitz. A sort of "expected surprise" in that after all I was reading the book because I knew I was ill informed on its topic.

The second surprise calls to mind Mark Twain's remark that "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

Never having read much of Clausewitz, (I've read "The Campaign of 1812 in Russia" but only odd bits of "On War") I didn't think he'd had much impact on my thinking. It was shocking to realize that the idea of concentrating maximum force to achieve decisive results which had seemed axiomatic came with a certain pedigree. In particular it had not occurred to me that I'd been dismissing the majority of historical warfare measured in terms of both duration and geographical extent that involved Ecumene and culture spanning Empires fighting mostly peripheral or civil wars as not being of interest because they weren't all out wars between states of roughly equal means seeking decisive results. Not to mention a certain blindness to wars for limited territorial or commercial gains.

Some of this would have because of being immersed in the North American war gaming culture of the 1970's but much it would been from having been overly impressed by Mahan's "The Influence of Seapower upon History". One thing Gat makes very clear is just how influenced Mahan was by theories of Napoleonic land warfare. Apparently Jomini was Mahan's main influence but the schmatic version of Napoleonic land warfare Jomini outlined and that of the early Clausewitz were very similar.  Mahan applied the schema of Napoleonic warfare to naval warfare of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centures.  He advocated decisive battles between main fleets as the only true object of naval strategy. 

This doubtless explains in great my third surprise which is the degree to which I'd dismissed the thinking of British theorists of the early twentieth century.

We all knew about Fuller and Liddell Hart as armour theorists, and Lawrence even had a movie based on him. Corbett I was aware of as a naval historian. However, it never occurred to me to take them seriousily as military theorists doubtless because they didn't confirm to the Clausewitzian template I'd unwittingly imbibed. Gat served as an excellent corrective. It goes far beyond the period I've decided to cover, but still I think it's useful to remember to firmly place Clausewitz in his time and place and not see him as an oracle for all time.

So if I knew how to summarize all this I wouldn't have taken you on the long meandering ramble through my various readings.

Still I'll try and make a few points before ending.

First off there's an inherent contradiction between military history that's relevant and useful and any theory of warfare that purports to apply to all periods and times.

To quote Gat with regards to Clausewitz's efforts "From the outset, there was a latent tension in Clausewitz's thought between his historicist sense and particularist notions on the one hand, and his universalist quest on the other".

It was a circle Clausewitz and others failed to square. Like squaring the circle the effort may have worthwhile but the goal would appear to be unobtainable.

As a second point I think Clausewitz's observation that war is the continuation of politics by other means is useful. It is not just a platitude.

In fact, I think it's worth asking how we came to think of regular politics in times of peace and war as being separate. Tribal societies and empires have dominated most of the history of most of humanity. In most tribal societies and on the peripheries of empires war has been endemic. Only in societies organized in intermediate sized states, of which the West has the premier example, does war seem to be epidemic. In these middle structured societies virulent outbreaks of brutal existential war have alternated with stretches of peace. Islands in both place and time. Only in such islands could people have thought peaceful politics in some way normal. Paradoxically such peace is bought at the cost of earlier fighting or fighting somewhere else.

I think this explains Hanson's Western Way of War. In tribal societies the means to surpress violence are generally lacking. In empires the decision makers are isolated from the consequences of violence and have little incentive to go great extremes to surpress it. However in societies like that of the West which are more tightly organized than tribal ones but in which empire building has generally failed, the political decisions are in the hands of middling sorts and they will fight hard and go to extremes in hopes of being able to get on with their ordinary lives.

As a practical matter this political context, in particular the deep seated view that it is peaceful politics that is normal, makes it very difficult to have a useful discussion of military history that is contemporary or that adequately addresses warfare in its full context. The topic is too emotional and too controversial. Military history has been justifiably critized as being too narrowly focused, but there are good practical reasons for this narrow focus. I intend to take heed of those reasons and to focus both this blog and my games on narrow material issues of what was where when, and what practical decisions military leaders had to make. Political constraints and goals I'll address, if at all, in the most cursory fashion. Neither will I do much to address issues of how forces came to be constructed as they were.

Fourth and finally, as most of us likely don't wish to return to either tribal society or to be imperial subjects whose interests are of little concern to our masters we must try to be good citizens. This means, unpalatable as the thought may be, that we're all to some extent politicians who should concern ourselves with military affairs.

Military history is not just a pleasurable topic of study. It is not just "adventure" in the sense of bad things happening to other people far away in time or place. The study of military history is a civic obligation.


Bibliographical Notes:

Sun Tzu:


Other Books Referenced:


Other Books Not Referenced:


No comment section. Godwin's Law. A conversation on the Internet is almost guaranteed to over boldly go where no intelligent creature wants to.

Blog Table of Contents, Home