The Triumph of the Rationalists (Part 4/8)

Napoleon Bonaparte. Image: istock

We ended yesterday’s blog with a question that the title of today’s entry answers. The reason for this is actually relatively straight forward. By the time of Clausewitz’s premature death in 1831, Western military thinkers had essentially established the framework for subsequent debate. They identified themselves, in other words, with one of two paradigms of war – they were either prescriptive, as were the 18th century rationalists we’ve previously discussed, or they were non-prescriptive, as were the two varieties of military romantics we discussed yesterday. So, which school of thought would come to dominate the Anglo-European discourse on hard power over the next 150 years? Frankly, it didn’t take too long for the answer to appear.

Let’s remember that the Napoleonic system lashed up state policy and military activity together. This was possible because Napoleon was both head of state and the supreme military commander of France. Jomini, the greatest of the rationalists we’ve discussed, did not think the above arrangement was abnormal or, more precisely, a symptom of a particular political time and place. Instead, when he began his self-appointed quest to identify war’s eternal truths, he saw in Napoleon the unquestioned, last-stop source of these elusive truths. Jomini, in other words, did not see Napoleonic warfare for what it was – a type of war – and instead came to confuse it with war itself. And at the heart of Napoleonic warfare there indeed seemed to be a universal truth – i.e., if you expect to use hard power effectively to fulfill your foreign policy goals, you will at some point have to destroy or seriously incapacitate your opponents’ armies. Napoleon’s example was so conceptually all-encompassing that both Jomini and Clausewitz believed in what appeared to be this inescapable truth. Jomini, however, garnished it with other easily digestible rules (half-disguised as mere principles) and assorted lists. There was no Teutonic obscurity in his Art of War, as there was in the romantic ruminations of Scharnhorst, Clausewitz and eventually Moltke the Elder. Indeed, there were prescriptions to be had and if you followed them properly success would be yours, or so Jomini argued again and again.

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.”