Systems in War


“I cannot too often repeat that the theory of the great combinations of war is in itself very simple, and requires nothing more than ordinary intelligence and careful consideration.” Antoine de Jomini, Précis de l’Art de la Guerre

“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” Karl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege

Even a brief look at the history of warfare would seem to suggest that Clausewitz is correct, that warfare is complex and uncertain. However, if warfare is so unpredictable why do we continually try to reduce it’s complexity to rules and principles? I would suggest that there are four possible motivations. The necessity to proactively create military leaders, the need to train those leaders, our desire for a particular temperament in our leaders and, finally, the nature of military culture itself all contribute to a predisposition toward systematic military practice.

The first and most obvious motivation for systematic military practice is the need to proactively create leaders rather than passively waiting for the chance appearance of inherent genius. Genius, by definition, is rare and a modern state cannot wait for the unlikely and unpredictable as a critical part of their defense policy. In the absence of a Caesar, Frederick or Napoleon, a state still needs some form of competent military leadership.

Clausewitz himself suggests a second answer. He tells us that principles and rules are created not to be imitated or copied, but rather to train the mind and judgment of commanders. Even commanders of natural brilliance need learning and experience to make the most of their inherent abilities. Systematic practice will provide a launch platform for a great commander’s improvisatory genius rather than the final word on military practice.

A third reason may be that an egalitarian society requires a different kind of military leadership. Frederick was born to privilege as the Crown Prince of Prussia. Caesar and Napoleon used their abilities to achieve their status, but also brought an end to the republican governments of their respective states, turning them into personal empires. A democratic society may require a more consensus-oriented form of leadership that relies more upon adherence to generally accepted rules and practice over self-defining personal genius.

Thucydides provides the archetypal example in his account of the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades is the aggressive and egotistical commander that proposes and manipulates the Athenian democracy into the bold and daring attack on wealthy Syracuse. Nicias is the more cautious, consensus-oriented commander who argues against the unnecessary diversion of the Athenian military in the midst of war at home on the Peloponnese. Alcibiades style of command will lead to his being ostracized from democratic Athens, first to Sparta and eventually to the Persian Empire. Nicias, obeying the will of the majority against his better judgment, ends up leading the ill-fated expedition to his death and the destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily.

Cincinnatus and Washington are well known for giving-up their commands rather than utilizing their military power for personal or political gain. Secretary of State Colin Powell, like Nicias, followed the direction of civilian leadership against his better judgment to send military forces into a misdirected diversion from a more critical military effort. This form of cooperative command, under the direction of rules, laws and principles is perhaps better oriented toward military leadership under a democratic government than the dominating personality-oriented military genius.

The Colin Powell example, however, may not be consensus-based, as he was not following the judgment of a democratic plurality. Instead it may well have been an attempt, under the direction of the commander in chief, to mislead the populace and other branches of the civilian government. This leads us to the fourth and perhaps most problematic motivation—that the conservative nature of military culture creates a predisposition toward uniform systematic practice.

A clear set of rules, followed instinctually, leads to quick response across the chain of command and helps to avoid dissent. This may be necessary for the efficient function of a large organization like the military. However, that efficiency may come at the expense of individual judgment, perhaps even defeating the creativity of genius that Clausewitz argues for. Efficiency, achieved through conformity and practice, is perhaps the most dominant and troublesome motivation for why clearly defined principles and rules have, as John Shy points out, “appealed deeply to generations of soldiers. They belonged to a profession, conservative by nature, whose commitment to loyalty, obedience, and order responded to Jomini’s insistence on an unchanging truth, essentially simple.”


~ by severalfourmany on September 15, 2007.

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