The Triumph of the Rationalists (Part 4/8)

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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.

Did I mention that Jomini was also a skilled self-promoter who lived until 1869 (!) and produced multiple editions of The Art of War? Well, he was and he did. As a result, his text became catnip for those involved in a bold new 19th century experiment – the development of professional military education in general and German-style war colleges in particular. Stop and think about it. If you were responsible for creating an easily digestible curriculum for hyper-utilitarian men of action, what would you rely on – Jomini’s tidy lists or Clausewitz’s head-scratching Hegelian dialectics? The rationalists’ way of dissecting war was just too user-friendly to pass up for those who were eager to professionalize their officer corps through formalized education; and by seizing on this particular mode of analysis, the new educators ensured, at least in part, that the rationalists’ view would gain acceptance by a tribe of pragmatists who were predisposed in every way to embrace it in the first place. You can see a perfect prefiguration of what would later occur in the case of Dennis Hart Mahan, who was Alfred Thayer Mahan’s father and a professor of engineering and military science (note the “science” here) at the United States Military Academy at West Point from 1824-1871.

In the 1840s Mahan became THE exponent of Jominian rationalism, as codified by The Art of War, to a cadre of impressionable young cadets who would later become the senior military commanders of the American Civil War. One of them was Robert E. Lee, who entered this conflict with Jomini’s paradigm of war firmly in mind. If the American South was to survive as an independent “nation,” Lee thought, he would have to “kill” the sources of Northern hard power, preferably in the North. If Northern political resolve then crumbled before too much blood was spilled, so much the better. The centrality of first focusing on Union hard power, however, was something Lee did not question. Now Lee may have been a brilliant tactician, but on the strategic level he was unfortunately looking back at Napoleon instead of what was becoming the future – grinding industrial warfare. In the end, and while still trying to accomplish Jomini’s most cherished prescription, he killed his own army (through attrition) rather than General Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Rationalism-influenced military education was one factor that fed into this defeat and it was this type of “geometrical” education that grew with the proliferation of war colleges later in the 19th century. (The other factors, among others, included the application of new industrial and communications technologies for military purposes, bureaucratic reforms that permitted the mass mobilization and long-term support of armies, and the growing spread of nationalism.)

Indeed, the rationalist “tilt” I just described only became more obvious with time, and it paralleled what occurred in Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, Napoleonic militaries became Napoleonic-industrial-bureaucratic militaries. War colleges, in turn, featured principles-centric and lessons learned-oriented curricula, which then inspired their graduates to write doctrines, if you could call them that, based on what became railroad timetables.

To cite the Americans again, they eventually developed what became an undeniably rationalistic, Jomini-flavored American Way of War. Russell Weigley and others eventually characterized this way of war as follows.

  1. It is practical/utilitarian rather than abstract/theoretical;
  2. It is problem-solving-oriented;
  3. It is optimistic/can do-oriented;
  4. It is technology loving and dependent;
  5. It is firepower oriented;
  6. It is large-scale/mass-oriented;
  7. It is aggressive and offense-oriented;
  8. It is profoundly regular (in the sense of embracing Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare as its preferred paradigm of war);
  9. It is impatient;
  10. It is logistically excellent;
  11. It is highly sensitive to casualties;
  12. It is historically tone deaf;
  13. It is culturally tone deaf;
  14. It is “flexibly” (i.e., weakly) connected to political objectives;
  15. And finally, because of #’s 12-14, among other reasons, American hard power has often been perceived as an ALTERNATIVE to diplomatic bargaining rather than an extension of it, or even as a form of independent violent bargaining itself.

Now, a few of the above traits might be uniquely American but most of them are not.  They describe the attributes that many other armies embraced after the 19th century industrialization of war and the formalizing of military education.  I might add that newly-minted European General Staffs also embraced this Jominian version of Napoleonic war for a less lofty reason, especially in troublesome Germany.  As the 19th century progressed, the military castes of Europe lost, or thought they were losing, social, political and economic power.  To regain their influence, or at least carve out a respectable niche for themselves in an emerging world of (sniff, sniff) middleclass parliaments, rabble rousing newspapers, and bent-backed shopkeepers, they systematically tried to professionalize themselves and claim to have specialized, arcane knowledge.  This knowledge, if it were going to be respected, needed a rationalist veneer; it needed principles and axioms; it needed . . . well, it needed the imprint of the “scientific” and highly utilitarian Jomini.  So, we ended up with war colleges that produced self-described “engineers” such as Chief of the German General Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, or HIGHLY developed military technicians such as Schlieffen’s successor Helmuth von Moltke the Younger.  That the always politically conscious Clausewitz would not have been amused goes without saying.

The ultimate proof, however, that the rationalist Napoleonic-industrial approach to war was a juggernaut that could not be stopped was the “sausage machine” violence of World War I and the annihilating race wars that defined World War II.  These wars became more barbaric the longer they lasted – i.e., the less clear the political rationales behind them became.  (Unconditional surrender, more than a few analysts have sniffed, was no one’s idea of a strategy worth the name.)  The mindset going into these wars, however, would not have been alien to a late-18th century and early-19th century military rationalist.  (In other words, a rationalist of the past who then applied his “objective” principles to a Napoleonic present.)  Nor would have Jomini in particular been disoriented by the updated and industrialized version of Napoleonic warfare that ravaged a much broader stage a century later.

So, of the two competing models of hard power we’ve discussed in the previous blogs, there is little doubt that the “scientific” one came to dominate modern Euro-Atlantic conceptions of war in the period between 1815 and 1945.  It also appears, if we are to believe the vast number of after-action reports, histories and memoirs available to us, that World War II only confirmed the fundamental rightness of the rationalist conception of war.  It, along with its prescriptions and rules, was widely assumed to be war itself, and it appeared to be here to stay.  Well . . . uh, not so fast.  Slouching towards us on the horizon was the beginning of the end – i.e., the end, or at least the serious diminution, of the rationalists’ long-term dominance over the vocabulary of war, as we shall see in the next blog.

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