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The Essential Clausewitz
Selections from On War
By Carl von Clausewitz, Joseph I. Greene
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ON THE NATURE OF WAR
THE GENIUS FOR WAR
EVERY SPECIAL CALLING IN LIFE, IF IT IS TO BE FOLLOWED WITH success, requires peculiar qualifications of understanding and soul. Where these are of a high order, and manifest themselves by extraordinary achievements, the mind to which they belong is termed genius.
We know very well that this word is used in many significations which are very different both in extent and nature; but as we neither profess to be philosopher nor grammarian, we must be allowed to keep to the meaning usual in ordinary language, and to understand by "genius" a very high mental capacity for certain employments.
We wish to stop for a moment over this faculty and dignity of the mind to explain more fully the meaning of the conception. What we have to do is to bring under consideration every common tendency of the powers of the mind and soul towards the business of War, the whole of which common tendencies we may look upon as the essence of military genius. We say "common," for just therein consists military genius, that it is not one single quality bearing upon War, as, for instance, courage, while other qualities of mind and soul are wanting or have a direction which is unserviceable for War, but that it is an harmonious association of powers, in which one or other may predominate, but none must be in opposition.
The fewer the employments followed by a Nation, the more that of arms predominates, so much the more prevalent will military genius also be found. But this merely applies to its prevalence, by no means to its degree, for that depends on the general state of intellectual culture in the country. If we look at a wild, warlike race, then we find a warlike spirit in individuals much more common than in a civilized people. But amongst uncivilized people we never find a really great General, and very seldom what we can properly call a military genius, because that requires a development of the intelligent powers which cannot be found in an uncivilized state. That a civilized people may also have a warlike tendency and development is a matter of course; and the more this is general, the more frequently also will military spirit be found in individuals in their armies. Now as this coincides in such case with the higher degree of civilization, therefore from such nations have issued forth the most brilliant military exploits, as the Romans and the French have exemplified. The greatest names in these and in all other nations that have been renowned in War belong strictly to epochs of higher culture.
From this we may infer how great a share the intelligent powers have in superior military genius. We shall now look more closely into this point.
War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior.
Courage is of two kinds: first, physical courage, or courage in presence of danger to the person; and next, moral courage, or courage before responsibility. We only speak here of the first.
Courage before danger to the person, again, is of two kinds. First, it may be indifference to danger, whether proceeding from the organism of the individual, contempt of death, or habit: in any of these cases it is to be regarded as a permanent condition.
Secondly, courage may proceed from motives such as personal pride, patriotism, enthusiasm of any kind. In this case courage is not so much a normal condition as an impulse.
We may conceive that the two kinds act differently. The first kind is more certain, because it has become a second nature; the second often leads him further. In the first there is more of firmness, in the second, of boldness. The first leaves the judgment cooler, the second raises its power at times, but often bewilders it. The two combined make up the most perfect kind of courage.
War is the province of physical exertion and suffering. A certain strength of body and mind is required, which produces indifference to them. With these qualifications, under the guidance of simply a sound understanding, a man is at once a proper instrument for War. If we go further in the demands which War makes on its votaries, then we find the powers of the understanding predominating. War is the province of uncertainty : three-fourths of those things upon which action in War must be calculated, are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty. Here, then, above all a fine and penetrating mind is called for.
An average intellect may, at one time, perhaps hit upon this truth by accident; an extraordinary courage, at another, may compensate for the want of this tact; but in the majority of cases the average result will always bring to light the deficient understanding.
War is the province of chance. In no sphere of human activity is such a margin to be left for this intruder. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance, and deranges the course of events.
From this uncertainty of all intelligence and suppositions, the actor in War constantly finds things different from his expectations; and this cannot fail to have an influence on his plans. If this influence is so great as to render the predetermined plan completely nugatory, then, as a rule, a new one must be substituted in its place; but at the moment the necessary data are often wanting for this, because in the course of action circumstances press for immediate decision, and allow no time to look about for fresh data, often not enough for mature consideration.
But it more often happens that the correction of one premise, and the knowledge of chance events which have arisen, are not sufficient to overthrow our plans completely, but only suffice to produce hesitation. The reason of this is, that we do not gain all our experience at once, but by degrees; thus our determinations continue to be assailed incessantly by fresh experience; and the mind, if we may use the expression, must always be "under arms."
Now, if it is to get safely through this perpetual conflict with the unexpected, two qualities are indispensable: in the first place an intellect which, even in the midst of this intense obscurity, is not without some traces of inner light, and then the courage to follow this faint light. The first is figuratively expressed by the French phrase coup d'il. The other is resolution. As the battle is the feature in War, and as time and space are important elements in it, the idea of rapid and correct decision related to the estimation of these two elements, and to denote the idea, an expression was adopted which actually only points to a correct judgment by eye. But it is undeniable that all able decisions formed in the moment of action soon came to be understood by the expression, as, for instance, the hitting upon the right point of attack, etc. It is, therefore, not only the physical, but more frequently the mental eye which is meant in coup d'il. Naturally, the expression, like the thing, is always more in its place in the field of tactics still, it must not be wanting in strategy.
Resolution is an act of courage in single instances, and if it becomes a characteristic trait, it is a habit of the mind. But here we do not mean courage in face of bodily danger, but in face of responsibility.
We have assigned to resolution the office of removing the torments of doubt, and the dangers of delay, when there are no sufficient motives for guidance. When there are sufficient motives in the man, let them be objective or subjective, true or false, we have no right to speak of his resolution.
This resolution now, which overcomes the state of doubting, can only be called forth by the intellect, and, in fact, by a peculiar tendency of the same. The mere union of a superior understanding and the necessary feelings are not sufficient to make up resolution. There are persons who possess the keenest perception for the most difficult problems, who are also not fearful of responsibility, and yet in cases of difficulty cannot come to a resolution. The forerunner of resolution is an act of the mind making evident the necessity of venturing. This quite peculiar direction of the mind, which conquers every other fear in man by the fear of wavering or doubting, is what makes up resolution in strong minds; therefore, in our opinion, men who have little intelligence can never be resolute. Should our assertion appear extraordinary to any one, because he knows many a resolute officer who is no deep thinker, we must remind him that the question here is about a peculiar direction of the mind, and not about great thinking powers.
There have been many instances of men who have shown the greatest resolution in an inferior rank, and have lost it in a higher position. They see the dangers of a wrong decision, and as they are surrounded with things new to them, their understanding loses its original force, and they become only the more timid the more they become aware of the danger of the irresolution into which they have fallen.
From the coup d'il and resolution we are naturally led to speak of presence of mind, which in War must act a great part, for it is nothing but a conquest over the unexpected. As we admire presence of mind in a pithy answer to anything said unexpectedly, so we admire it in a ready expedient on sudden danger. Neither the answer nor the expedient need be in themselves extraordinary, if they only hit the point.
Whether this noble quality of a man is to be ascribed more to his mind or to his feelings, depends on the nature of the case. A telling repartee bespeaks rather a ready wit, a ready expedient in sudden danger implies more particularly a well-balanced mind.
If we take a general view of the four elements composing the atmosphere in which War moves, of danger, physical effort, uncertainty, and chance, it is easy to conceive that a great force of mind and understanding is requisite to be able to make way with safety and success amongst such opposing elements, a force which we find termed energy, firmness, staunchness, strength of mind and character. All these manifestations of the heroic nature might be regarded as one and the same power of volition, modified according to circumstances; but nearly related as these things are to each other, still they are not one and the same, and it is desirable for us to distinguish here a little more closely at least the action of the powers of the soul in relation to them.
As long as his men, full of good courage, fight with zeal and spirit, it is seldom necessary for the Chief to show great energy of purpose in the pursuit of his object. But as soon as difficulties arise—and that must always happen when great results are at stake—then things no longer move on of themselves like a well-oiled machine, the machine itself then begins to offer resistance, and to overcome this the Commander must have a great force of will. By this resistance we must not exactly suppose disobedience and murmurs; it is the whole feeling of the dissolution of all physical and moral power, it is the heartrending sight of the bloody sacrifice which the Commander has to contend with in himself, and then in all others who directly or indirectly transfer to him their impressions, feelings, anxieties, and desires. Whenever his own spirit is no longer strong enough to revive the spirit of all others, the masses drawing him down with them sink into the lower region of animal nature, which shrinks from danger and knows not shame. These are the weights which the courage and intelligent faculties of the military Commander have to overcome if he is to make his name illustrious.
Energy in action expresses the strength of the motive through which the action is excited, let the motive have its origin in a conviction of the understanding, or in an impulse. But the latter can hardly ever be wanting where great force is to show itself.
Firmness denotes the resistance of the will in relation to the force of a single blow, staunchness in relation to a continuance of blows. Close as is the analogy between the two, and often as the one is used in place of the other, still there is a notable difference between them which cannot be mistaken, inasmuch as firmness against a single powerful impression may have its root in the mere strength of a feeling, but staunchness must be supported rather by the understanding, for the greater the duration of an action the more systematic deliberation is connected with it, and from this staunchness partly derives its power.
If we now turn to strength of mind or soul, then the first question is, What are we to understand thereby?
Plainly it is not vehement expressions of feeling, nor easily excited passions, but the power of listening to reason in the midst of the most intense excitement, in the storm of the most violent passions. This counterpoise is nothing but a sense of the dignity of man, that noblest pride, that deeply-seated desire of the soul always to act as a being endowed with understanding and reason.
By the term strength of character, or simply character, is denoted tenacity of conviction; but this kind of firmness certainly cannot manifest itself if the views themselves are subject to frequent change. Evidently we should not say of a man who changes his views every moment, however much the motives of change may originate with himself, that he has character.
Now in War, owing to the many and powerful impressions to which the mind is exposed, and in the uncertainty of all knowledge and of all science, more things occur to distract a man from the road he has entered upon, to make him doubt himself and others, than in any other human activity.
Here often nothing will help us but an imperative maxim which, independent of reflection, at once controls it: that maxim is, in all doubtful cases to adhere to the first opinion. And not to give it up until a clear conviction forces us to do so. We must firmly believe in the superior authority of well-tried maxims, and under the dazzling influence of momentary events not forget that their value is of an inferior stamp. By this preference which in doubtful cases we give to first convictions, by adherence to the same our actions acquire that stability and consistency which make up what is called character.
Force of character leads us to a spurious variety of it—obstinacy.
It is often very difficult in concrete cases to say where the one ends and the other begins; on the other hand, it does not seem difficult to determine the difference in idea.
Obstinacy is a fault of the feelings or heart. This inflexibility of will, this impatience of contradiction, have their origin only in a particular kind of egoism, which sets above every other pleasure that of governing both self and others by its own mind alone. We should call it a kind of vanity, were it not decidedly something better. Vanity is satisfied with mere show, but obstinacy rests upon the enjoyment of the thing.
We say, therefore, force of character degenerates into obstinacy whenever the resistance to opposing judgments proceeds not from better convictions or a reliance upon a more trustworthy maxim, but from a feeling of opposition. If this definition is of little assistance practically, still it will prevent obstinacy from being considered merely force of character intensified.
Having in these high attributes of a great military Commander made ourselves acquainted with those qualities in which heart and head co-operate, we now come to a speciality of military activity which perhaps may be looked upon as the most marked if it is not the most important, and which only makes a demand on the power of the mind, without regard to the forces of feelings. It is the connection which exists between War and country or ground.
This connection is, in the first place, a permanent condition of War, for it is impossible to imagine our organized Armies effecting any operation otherwise than in some given space; it is, secondly, of the most decisive importance, because it modifies, at times completely alters, the action of all forces; thirdly, while on the one hand it often concerns the most minute features of locality, on the other it may apply to immense tracts of country.
The Commander in War must commit the business he has in hand to a corresponding space which his eye cannot survey, which the keenest zeal cannot always explore, and with which, owing to the constant changes taking place, he can also seldom become properly acquainted. Certainly the enemy generally is in the same situation; still, the difficulty, although common to both, is not the less a difficulty, and he who by talent and practice overcomes it will have a great advantage on his side.
This very peculiar difficulty must be overcome by a natural mental gift of a special kind which is known by the—too restricted—term of sense of locality (Ortsinn). It is the power of quickly forming a correct geometrical idea of any portion of country, and consequently of being able to find one' s place in it exactly at any time. This is plainly an act of the imagination. The perception no doubt is formed partly by means of the physical eye, partly by the mind, which fills up what is wanting with ideas derived from knowledge and experience, and out of the fragments visible to the physical eye forms a whole; but that this whole should present itself vividly to the reason, should become a picture, a mentally drawn map, that this picture should be fixed, that the details should never again separate themselves—all that can only be effected by the mental faculty which we call imagination.
Excerpted from The Essential Clausewitz by Carl von Clausewitz, Joseph I. Greene. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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