The tidy, war-can-be-domesticated rationalists we looked at yesterday inevitably provoked a reaction. That it coincided with the great Romantic Rebellion in early 19th century Europe was no accident. That the reaction was largely German was no accident either, as the formidable (and seminal) Prussian general, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, clearly illustrated.
Out went geometry, out went science, and out went firm rules. Prussia’s antidote to Napoleon first repudiated the neoclassical characterization of war as a comprehensible part of a clockwork universe. Instead, Scharnhorst believed war was a blind, demonic force. It was changeable, imponderable and immeasurable. It roiled with brutal and spiritual energy, and therefore involved a free play of opaque spiritual forces that defied rigid, one-sided tick boxes. And since no abstract formula could capture war’s sheer diversity, one could not delimit it in exclusively mathematical (i.e., mechanical) terms.
If that wasn’t enough, Scharnhorst then dismissed the history-has-continuities arguments of the rationalists. He thought that Machiavelli and his disciples were wrong – the history of war was not homogenous and the past did not necessarily repeat itself. Instead, each epoch of armed violence was unique. It involved, as Clausewitz would note, an interplay of “possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad” that worked against historical cycles or patterns. Therefore, those who tried to foist personal or absolute templates on the past were doomed to defeat. (It was futile, Clausewitz argued in the late 1820s, for 19th century warriors to examine prior wars for hoary lessons learned. The similarities between past and present, he continued, did not extend beyond the War of the Austrian Succession [1740-1748]. Prior to that historical point, there were no fixed military dictums that one could identify, catalog, and adapt to the present or future, or so Scharnhorst’s disciple argued.) » More