Hard Power and the “Irrational” Approach of Clausewitz and the Germans (Part 3/8)

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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.)

Finally, Scharnhorst discarded the rationalist view of nature (and war) as “out there.” The world was not separate and distinct from the observer, and therefore amenable to objective analysis. Scharnhorst did not believe external forces or principles wholly defined reality. Human perception itself was a proactive and creative act; it interacted with the great “out there” to mold and define reality. Human experience, therefore, was a synthesis of the physical and the psychological, i.e., the objective world was actually subjective, or so Scharnhorst believed. As a result, he reached the anti-rationalist conclusion that war was ultimately a clash of wills or moral forces unfettered by scientific laws.

So if war was demonic, unrepeatable, and a lethal blend of the subjective and objective, was the rationalists’ compulsion to theorize dangerous? To early romantics such as Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Carl von Clausewitz the answer was “yes,” as it was to a fellow traveler later in the century – Chief of the Prussian General Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. For all three of these major “irrationalists” a general theory of war, as a lone conceptual system spanning across time, was impossible. Such a theory would inevitably focus on 1) the external forms of armed conflict and not capture its essential inner nature, and 2) succumb to the siren song of one-size-fits-all maxims and rules. Moltke the Elder, because he dreaded these errors, later argued that those who dared to use hard power needed to depend on Fingerspitzengefühl (“fingertip sense”) as much as strategy. The latter, by the way, was nothing more than a “free, practical, artistic activity” and a “system of expediencies,” or so Moltke argued in his “Doctrines of War.” (An excerpt of this text appears in Lawrence Freedman’s War, which Oxford University Press published in 1994.)

So far so good then , but let’s stop for a moment and ask what should be an obvious question – were Scharnhorst and Moltke the Elder’s views of hard power emblematic of the romantic school’s mainstream or were they actually members of its extreme fringe? Well, Carl von Clausewitz provides us an answer to that question. He shared Scharnhorst’s and Moltke the Elder’s hostility towards compulsive systematizing, but he also muted their absolutist vocabulary. He represented, in other words, the true romantic mainstream. As one of Scharnhorst’s most trusted disciples, Clausewitz did recognize that resorting to war was a creative moral act. He rejected strategies of certainty that, as Alan Beyerchen notes, sought “static equilibria, consistent explanations, periodic regularities, and the beauty of symmetry.” (Beyerchen’s words appear in his “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” which you can find in the Winter 1992-93 issue of International Security.) He further agreed that armed conflict was a nonlinear phenomenon. He realized that, in addition to chance, the intangibles and dangers of war (its “fog” and “friction”) were part of its essence, and not just pesky aberrations one tried to push or calculate away.

As a result, Clausewitz provided multiple (and metaphorical) definitions of war. War was a continuation of foreign policy by other means, and by a nation-state that spoke with a single voice. (One might ask if this fundamental belief is still true, given our partially globalized world where domestic politics have local and international implications.) Additionally, it was a game of cards, a duel, an act of commerce, or an act of force designed to impose one’s will. Lastly, it was a trinity or interplay of 1) primordial violence, hatred, enmity, and blind natural forces; 2) chance, probability, and the creative spirit; and 3) policy and reason. By providing these diverse definitions of war, Clausewitz illustrated to himself and others that there was an alternative to the rationalist’s “scientific” approach to war. As an anti-rationalist, he treated armed conflict like a prism. By rotating the prism in his hand and observing the ever shifting shards of light that flashed before his eyes, Clausewitz was able to express war’s complexity with a broader vocabulary than Jomini and his fellow rationalists ever did.

However, Clausewitz did not dismiss the impact of the external, physical dimensions of war. Unlike Scharnhorst and Moltke the Elder, he concluded that they did introduce some broad “statistical regularities” into armed conflict. By examining the phenomenon of war itself, and not running after empty rules or laws, Clausewitz decided he could identify its essential elements and yet keep theory grounded in fact. As a result, his variety of romantic analysis kept theory close to its empirical roots. He didn’t let “the language, logic, and polemics of theoretical discourse break away from the untidy, multifarious reality of actual warfare.” (John Shy and Thomas Collier make this observation in their article on “Revolutionary Warfare,” which appears in Paret’s Makers of Modern Strategy.) In short, Clausewitz’s model of war lies somewhere in between geometry and the irrational, and thus avoids many of the self-inflicted wounds generated by “pure” rationalist and anti-rationalist theorists of war alike.

So what do we have here? Well, as an alternative way to bound and characterize war, early 19th century military romanticism served as an antidote to the false universalism and scientism of the rationalists. Where the rationalists aimed at fixed values, the romantics postulated that everything in war was uncertain, and calculations had to be made with “variable quantities” in mind; where the rationalists emphasized the importance of external (i.e., objective) forces in defining human conflict, the romantics highlighted the equal importance of psychological forces and effects; and where the rationalists focused on the one-sided, unilateral application of violence against an unresponsive opponent, the romantics posited that war was “a continuous interaction of opposites.” By thus providing a second, competing way of characterizing organized violence, military romantics, whether “pure” ones such as Scharnhorst or pragmatic ones such as Clausewitz, restored a balance to what had been one-sided speculations about its uses and abuses. But, and it’s a big question here, was this counterargument strong enough to check the complacent certainties of the rationalist as the 19th century deepened? Well, that’s the subject of our next blog.

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