International Relations History

Hard Power and the “Rational” Approach of Enlightenment Era Thinkers (Part 2/8)

Photo: David Ian Roberts/flickr

As we discussed yesterday, Raimondo Montecuccoli, along with contemporary military engineers like Sébastien Vauban and Blaise de Pagan, provided a significant link between the broadly prescriptive military theorists that preceded them and the rigid mechanical-mathematical treatments of hard power that subsequently appeared during the Enlightenment.  The military rationalists of that era, including Frederick the Great, Henry Lloyd, Heinrich von Bülow, Antoine-Henri Jomini, and a collection of lesser lights that went by the collective (and telling) name of the Auteurs Dogmatiques all embraced the linear thinking of the New Physics or “Natural Philosophy” of the 18th century.  (The latter group included the now largely forgotten Marquise de Santa Cruz, the Marquise de Feuquières, Marshal Puységur and other creatures very much of their time.)

They categorically rejected the spit-into-the-wind thinking of Marshal Maurice de Saxe, who famously characterized war as “a science so obscure and imperfect” that “custom and prejudice, confirmed by ignorance, were its only foundations and support.” (My translation.)   Instead, the soldier-thinkers of the Enlightenment embraced the intelligible, mathematical logic of Isaac Newton and his disciples.  That Newton wasn’t actually as irremediably linear and mechanistic as they believed was beside the point.  These men in arms were convinced that reality was “out there.”

It was separate and distinct from those individuals who dispassionately (and “scientifically”) contemplated the world around them.  Therefore, the soldier-philosophes argued, it was possible to develop an observationally-based set of maxims, grounded in mathematics, to describe and explain a clockwork universe dominated by the Law of Cause and Effect.  (The law, as they understood it, asserted that the same conditions always produced the same results, and that nature was so precise and harmonious that its laws never varied.)

Our budding pseudo-scientists then further claimed, within a uniform, cause and effect universe, state-level violence was also knowable and predictable.  War was a “machine” or a “mechanism.”  Indeed, Vegetius, Machiavelli, and Montecuccoli were right – warfare was reducible, calculable, and subject to universal and immutable principles.  The key, however, remained to identify those “statistical regularities” that actually shaped war.

Henry Lloyd, who coined the term “line of operations,” consequently thought that two foundations of war, if not THE foundations, were mathematics and geography.  Those who understood “tangibles like topological and geographical measurements, march tables, supply needs, and the geometrical relationship of supply lines to fighting fronts (or of armies to their bases), would be ‘in a position to initiate military operations with mathematical precision and to keep on waging war without ever being under the necessity of striking a blow.’”  (Barry Watts provides this quotation on Page 23 of his Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, Institute for National Strategic Studies McNair Papers, No. 52, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, October 1996.)

Heinrich von Bülow then went and beat Lloyd at his own game.  He stressed the quantifiable geometry of war to absurd lengths.  He saw all military operations as a triangle with its apex as the objective.  In a campaign or battle, the angle at the apex had to be less than ninety degrees for the opposing units, operating at the other two ends of the triangle, to attack safely.  Sigh. . . . (Bülow also believed, by the way, that all military theorists required a precise, metrics-based language to formulate improved theories and strategies in the future.)

And yet, despite the contemporary prominence of the above soldier-thinkers, it was Antoine-Henri Jomini who spoke and wrote the language of neoclassical rationalism best, even if his rise to prominence occurred at the tail end of the 18th century. Regardless of attempts by some military historians to reverse his popular image as a hidebound Mr. Checklist, at the end of the day Jomini was guilty as charged.  (See John Shy’s well-known attempt in the Peter Paret version of John Shy, “Jomini,” Makers of Modern Strategy.)  He provided a near endless series of prescriptions on how to succeed in war.  How many factors defined strategy?  Thirteen.  How many maxims ensured effective lines of operations?  Twelve.  How many methods were there for effective retreats?  Five. Yes, Jomini was not guilty of Bülow’s extreme mathematical formalism, but his now legendary emphasis on permanent principles of war (including such important gems as mass, surprise, and economy of force), and on the omnipresent tactical requirement to concentrate offensive forces against a weaker opponent at a “decisive point”, clearly identified him as a rationalist shaped by the New Physics of the 18th century.

In fact, through multiple editions of his seminal The Art of War, Jomini sought to domesticate warfare by robbing it of its awful complexity – i.e., he attempted to reduce it down to its fundamentals, despite throw-away, end-of-chapter disclaimers that war was oh so complicated.  In doing so, his increasingly popular writings reassured skittish European elites that Napoleonic warfare was not a murderous and revolutionary departure from the past. Yes, Jomini admitted, this type of war now involved whole nations in large and exhausting continental campaigns, but it was not a mob-driven and blind force of nature that threatened the very foundations of European civilization (i.e., comfortable elites riding on the backs of toothless peasants).  Instead, this type of war was part of a continuum; it was part of a world of predictable change where “pure cerebration” still dominated over out-of-control will, force, or luck.

Armed with theory, therefore, those who soberly (and properly) calculated the ends and means of human conflict would not only succeed, they would continue to refine war as a science. They would reduce the role of general friction and chance (and therefore bound the trajectory of future events), but only if they formalized patterns from the past in such a way as to make them usable in the present as guides to the future. In other words, the rationalists agreed with Machiavelli – at core, nothing changes in history.  A lessons learned view of hard power was not only legitimate but also helpful. Eternal truths always applied, provided one could identify them properly in a rational language of war. So, was this way of viewing things definitive or not? Well, as our next blog will show, a new storm was indeed on the horizon.

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