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Weekly StandardPeter Paret's small book is masterfully constructed. He has set out to 'consider specific events' without losing sight of the general issues they exemplify.
— Thomas Rid
Responding to the enemy's innovation in war presents problems to soldiers and societies of all times. This book traces Napoleon's victory over Prussia in 1806 and Prussia's effort to recover from defeat to show how in one particular historical episode operational analyses together with institutional and political decisions eventually turned defeat to victory.
The author moves from a comparative study of French and Prussian forces to campaign narrative and strategic analysis. He examines processes of change in institutions and doctrine, as well as their dependence on social and political developments, and interprets works of art and literature as indicators of popular and elite attitudes toward war, which influence the conduct of war and the kind and extent of military innovation. In the concluding chapter he addresses the impact of 1806 on two men who fought on opposing sides in the campaign and sought a new theoretical understanding of war—Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz.
Fields of history that are often kept separate are brought together in this book, which seeks to replicate the links between different areas of thought and action as they exist in reality and shape events.
"Given the importance of the topic and Paret's exceptional expertise, his new book on 1806 must arouse considerable interest. . . . If this handsome little book does not fulfill the need for a comprehensive study of the Prussian reform, it does provide a brief, intelligent, and artful recapitulation of some of the period's major themes."—Eugenia C. Kiesling, Michigan War Studies Review
"The Cognitive Challenge of War offers a welcome alternative to the usual historiographic ping-pong about the War of the Fourth Coalition. . . . Rather than weighing in on the traditional arguments about skirmishers and linear tactics or the corps d'armee system, Peter Paret has offered an intriguing bridge between social history and military history."—Sam A. Mustafa, Journal of Military History
"[E]xperts of the subject and readers of Paret's earlier works will not find many new insights in this short book, but for them and for everybody who is interested in the subject, it offers an excellent and elegantly written overview on Prussia in 1806 and the responses to the defeat of its army."—Karen Hagemann, Journal of Central European History
"A valuable study for anyone interested in the Napoleonic era, military reform, or the Prusso-German military experience."—A. A. Nofi, Strategy Page
"[T]his book is a major achievement that few historians could even have tried to undertake, and the reader will be richly rewarded by the unusually comprehensive perspective and the many compelling insights. Anybody interested in Prussian history of the nineteenth century, Napoleonic military history, military and strategic theory, or the history of military innovation will find the price well worth paying."—Claus Telp, European History Quarterly
"Paret writes profoundly on the Prussian military reforms and on the ideas that underpinned them. . . . His greatest success . . . is in revealing [the] linkage . . . between the ideas of the military reformers, Clausewitz amongst them, and the broader cultural trends at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."—Michael Rowe, European Review of History
"Paret's achievement in this elegant extended essay is to show how On War emerged not just from the wreckage of Jena-Auerstadt, but also from the political, social, artistic, and literary context in which it was conceived."—Alex Roland, ISIS
These pages discuss the response to innovation in war. "It is right to learn even from one's enemies," wrote Ovid. Right, but not necessarily easy. In exploring the issue, I shall address specifics much of the time, but to begin it might be useful to remind ourselves of some basic facts.
* 1 *
The components of war-mobilization of human resources, discipline, weapons, tactics, strategy, and much else, the issues they raise, and the problems they pose-are timeless. But the forms they take and the social context that does much to shape them are always changing. How people react to change and innovation in war, or fail to react, is as meaningful as are the changes themselves. Responses are of two kinds. One is the military's desire and ability-strong or feeble-to master innovation, whether in technology, doctrine, or policy. The response may be to specific issues-the introduction of the tank and of poison gas in the First World War, the emergence or reemergence of the suicide bomber in our time-or to broad developments, in recent centuries, for instance, the Western world's growing reliance on conscription. The other response is that of society itself, the public's awareness of a new weapon or of one or the other belligerent's motives and methods that seem to reflect new ideas. Here the principal problem is not how to defeat or make use of innovation, but how to live with it. An example is the tolerance of modern societies to wars of long duration and to casualties that in a week may run into the thousands, as happened in the two world wars.
The two kinds of response bear on each other. The soldier's knowledge helps guide public opinion; social characteristics and attitudes influence the soldier's analysis. The importance of the military's response is obvious, but the response of society to new ideas or methods in war, driven less by analyses than by anxiety and assumptions based on class and culture, is also significant. It may influence immediate events, stimulate confidence or fear, and, as it blends with other tendencies, color more lasting attitudes and expectations. As much as the military's response, a society's reaction to its perception of the new in war affects subsequent policy and behavior.
To recognize innovation, whether in military institutions and how they function, or in their leaders and how they think, is itself a change. Even then society and soldiers will not find it easy to understand the new. Cultural preconceptions and institutional and individual self-interest may block understanding. Further cognitive barriers add to the difficulties. In any conflict, the enemy's stated or perceived aims, the likely consequences of defeat, affect reactions to the war. A third barrier, beyond the need to comprehend what may now be expected in war, and how a particular war may alter one's condition, is or may be the challenge of understanding war itself. To achieve it is not always necessary. A weapon or method can be countered even if one does not see beyond the immediate issue. Still, a broader understanding remains desirable. Above all, it is important to keep in mind that wars are fought not to be won but to gain an objective beyond war. War, however, is not only a complex social, organizational, technological, and political reality, its ambiguous character engages emotion as well as reason. Once combat begins and people die, it may be difficult to remember the instrumentality of war, and to realize that victory is not invariably followed by reward. Everything in war may have consequences beyond the operational or strategic intent. How often has success itself proved counterproductive-perhaps because of the manner in which it was achieved! War exists to implement policy, whether or not that policy is rational. But war also creates conditions and engenders feelings that may weigh on and interfere with its instrumentality. The employment of violence can be rational. And yet violence and its effects are always emotional and subject to the irrational-even when the violent act is justified, as it may be in self-defense. The emotional impact of violence on perpetrator and recipient never dissipates in a vacuum. When soldiers burn a village or kill prisoners because a civilian has fired on them, when a politician proclaims that "to end the war prematurely would betray the men who have fallen," war has changed from a tool of policy to a force that imposes-or seeks to impose-its own emotional demands.
Innovation in war may be a sociopolitical issue-for example, in determining who serves. It may relate to organization, technology, operations, and tactics, or to ideology. The adoption or rejection of the opponent's innovation is one response; devising new countermeasures is another. The challenge of innovation is intensified by the extremes of organized violence that are central to war. New weapons or methods often appear in highly charged situations, which affect the response to them.
We can study how the challenge of innovation has or has not been met in the past by universalizing the process, always recognizing that general statements on complex phenomena devalue nuance and rely on abstraction, the precision of which may vary. Or we can trace the interaction of innovation and response in the unique forms it assumed at a particular place and time. In choosing this second approach here, I am not suggesting that a given set of circumstances or sequence of events will reveal a general pattern, only that the concreteness of the single episode, how challenge and response engage and play themselves out in their historical context, may also offer insights into their generic nature and dynamic. In these pages I shall try to consider specific events without losing sight of the general issues they exemplify.
The historical episode I want to address is the war of 1806 between France and Prussia and some of its consequences. A discussion of generalities in their historical context will find the Napoleonic wars a useful arena. They occurred at a time of great change in the organization and use of force. They have been much explored and are familiar even to nonspecialists. Among them, the war of 1806 has advantages and disadvantages for our purpose. Two systems of warfare clashed, and a conventional, time-tested way of raising troops, of training and fighting, was not only defeated but demolished. To be sure, the belligerents were not equal in military power and economic resources. The Prussian army had not seen action since the middle 1790s, after which the French army had become the strongest and most seasoned military force in the world. The French also began the war with a strategic advantage, the war of 1805 having ended with parts of the Grande Armée remaining deep in Germany. The outcome of such an uneven conflict may therefore prove little. But history is better at revealing than at proving, and states do not interact in controlled laboratory conditions that allow comparisons of precisely equal elements. We must study war in the shifting reality in which it occurs.
* 2 *
The conflicts between 1792 and 1815 mark stages in a system of mobilizing men and resources and of warfare that emerged in the revolution, to be further developed under Napoleon. In always different combinations of plans and execution, new elements interacted with institutions and methods retained from the ancien régime. By 1806, roughly halfway in this dense sequence of wars, the new system had matured and was not yet declining into the less supple, increasingly weary forms it assumed in the empire's later campaigns. Napoleon thought the army of 1806 the best he ever led.
Conditions on the other side were more complex. The Prussian army was no longer that of Frederick the Great. But despite many changes, its organization and doctrine remained basically those of his last years. Some officers serving against republican armies in the early 1790s recognized the need for adjustments. In 1795 a Military Reorganization Commission was established. But it dealt principally with the increase in territory and population resulting from the Third Partition of Poland, and the changes it instituted did little to improve the army's performance in 1806. Another change, this one certainly significant, was a step backward: the strategic and operational thinking of the men now in charge was less imaginative, more cautious, than it had been under Frederick, who tried to impart to his senior generals some of his own uncompromising understanding of the use of force. Under his very different heirs, the Prussian military were ill prepared to learn from, let alone accept, the republican armies' innovations in organization, command, and execution.
To soldiers wherever they served, the wars of the French Revolution and of Napoleon posed problems ranging from the methods of raising troops and the structure of military forces to ways of fighting. To their societies the technical challenge of the wars was less important than their psychological, social, and moral impact. Looking back from the 1820s, Clausewitz noted that these wars had moved from the eighteenth-century ideal of limited conflict between standing armies, which left the social and economic environment relatively untouched, toward a new concept of unlimited or "total" war. In one of the last chapters of On War, he wrote that after 1792 "war, untrammeled by any conventional restraints, ... [broke] loose in all its elemental fury.... Will this always be the case in the future? From now on will every war in Europe be waged with the full resources of the state ...? Such questions are difficult to answer." Clausewitz concluded his statement by extending his definition of war as unalloyed violence into a historical and predictive dimension: "But the reader will agree with us when we say that once barriers-which in a sense consist only in man's ignorance of what is possible-are torn down, they are not so easily set up again."
Before the revolution the separation of war from civilian life was far from absolute, but it was more protective-especially in its exclusion of the middle range of society from military service-than the later concept of total war, which was to receive its loudest welcome in totalitarian regimes but was embraced elsewhere as well. In the conflicts that began in 1792 and changed Europe's political organization and part of its social structure, contemporaries experienced the events of 1806 as a powerful illumination of the new way of war, perhaps even of a new iron Age descending on Europe.
I shall now outline the campaign of 1806, the methods of the French army, and the difficulties the Prussians experienced in countering them. The following chapters address responses to these events. This chapter provides the raw material, which the succeeding chapters convert into discussions of art and literary history, political history, and the history and analysis of theory. The second chapter shifts from campaign history to examine German reactions to 1806 in broadsheets and in the fine arts and literature, which signal the extension of war to all classes of society, an expansion that created a new environment for policy and theory. In a further shift, the third chapter addresses Prussian political and institutional responses to the defeats. Social and political change, military reform, paintings and popular prints, novels and dramas-all respond to the new, and all bear on each other. The final chapter takes up yet another perspective by examining the ideas of several theorists of war, in particular of two men, who fought on opposing sides in 1806, Jomini and Clausewitz. Their considered reactions to their experiences link the war of 1806 to two competing ways of thinking about war, which were to have a long life and continue to influence us today.
* 3 *
In 1795 Prussia withdrew from the War of the second Coalition against France and for the next decade followed a policy of neutrality, claiming the role of protector of the north-German states, while extending her rule to the territories gained in the last two partitions of Poland. In the meantime French expansion in Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries continued. War resumed in Central Europe in 1803. Napoleon's hint that he might cede Hanover to Prussia induced Berlin not to join the new anti-French coalition. After occupying Vienna and defeating the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, parts of the French army took up quarters in southern Germany, and Prussia found herself not only politically but strategically isolated, a condition that a new secret agreement with Russia could not immediately lift (map 1). At last recognizing the danger, which even less clumsy diplomacy might not have avoided, Frederick William III ordered the partial mobilization of the Prussian army, called on his reluctant ally Saxony for assistance, and demanded the withdrawal of French forces from Germany. Napoleon replied by instructing his ambassador to leave Berlin unless Prussia demobilized. He ignored a new ultimatum, and on October 9, before Russian armies had come to her support, Prussia declared war, an ill-considered measure to forestall a French attack.
Prussia went to war to restore the status quo. Napoleon's intentions were more expansive. Victory would bring all of Germany under his control, extend his reach along the Baltic into eastern Europe, deny Continental markets to the British economy, and mount a threat or draw a forward line of defense against Russia. His resources seemed adequate for the purpose. The population of France, to mention only this, was three times that of Prussia, as Napoleon pointed out in a taunting letter to Frederick William as the first shots were being exchanged. Yet the first weeks of the war, which were also its decisive phase, did not reflect this disparity. Considering only the size of the opposing forces in October, a Prussian victory remained possible and might have blunted the French threat until Russian help arrived. But already at an early stage weaknesses became apparent, ranging from the strategic conceptions of the senior commanders to the army's organization and tactical methods, which were to hinder Prussian operations throughout the campaign.
Frederick the Great had put his trust in rapid offensives with concentrated force, even at the risk of leaving important targets unprotected, as he allowed Berlin to be raided by Austrian and Russian forces in the Seven Years War. Very different was another influential strategic system, which deemphasized battle and instead stressed the art of controlling key points and of maneuvering the enemy into unfavorable positions, even at the cost of dividing one's forces. In 1806 the Prussian commander-in-chief, the Duke of Brunswick, did not discount the importance of physically defeating the enemy; but he could not free himself from seeing battle as a dangerous last resort, and as the king's presence with the army led to frequent councils of war, arguments in favor of caution and safety inevitably diluted more aggressive proposals-a problematical response to an opponent who expanded on Frederick's rapid deployment of concentrated force with larger armies and far more ambitious goals.
The organization of the Prussian army acted as a further brake. Above the regiment, its executive and administrative structure was adequate for maneuvers; in war it was stretched to the limit. Despite some last-minute reshuffling of the table of organization, regiments were not grouped in permanent brigades, in which they learned to act together. The senior staff officers of the field commanders had limited authority and differed in their operational concepts. The commander-in-chief's staff, small and further handicapped by a scarcity of maps, found it difficult to coordinate the various parts of the army. Disciplinary concerns and the prevailing moral code precluded soldiers from living off the land, which tied the army to a ponderous network of depots and supply trains and reduced mobility, the more so since, in contrast to the highly drilled rank and file, the wagoners and drovers were civilians. Nor was it helpful to burden the supply service with grooms and hay wagons for the horses infantry officers kept to ride or use as carriage horses on the march-one of several ways the privilege of rank slowed the army. In these matters the French were more consequential. When Napoleon issued operational orders to his marshals, he did not feel it beneath his dignity to warn against the presence of unauthorized horses. Like their opponents, the French never had sufficient maps and suffered from the difficulty of coordinating widely separated units by means of messengers. Napoleon's constant demand that his generals keep him informed of their location did not prevent an entire corps from slipping out of his control during the campaign. But his strategic sense, operational intelligence, and energy made up for these and other flaws.
Excerpted from The Cognitive Challenge of War by Peter Paret Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations vii
Chapter 1: Two Battles 1
Chapter 2: Violence in Words and Images 33
Chapter 3: Responses and Reform 72
Chapter 4: The Conquest of Reality by Theory 104