Hereby a review of a rather fine book. Being an illustrated volume it nonetheless is readable; for the keen student of "rigorist history" it is something of a treat. If you enjoy historical and conceptual essays on war and history, you might enjoy this too.
This is a review of the following book. -- Martin van Creveld. The Art of War – War and Military Thought. London: Cassell & Co, 2000.
And what, indeed, have we here...? We have an essay discussing military thought from olden times to our times, even including ancient Chinese and Greco-Roman thinkers. For an illustrated coffee-table volume it is rather fine; the photos and battlefield sketches are at least tolerable and the text is mostly thoughtful and vivid. Being a popular survey there is nonetheless the ambition to cover a wide field, in space and time, and in the process we get the odd reference to some not-so-famous military thinkers along with the classics. You could say: van Creveld might not always be right but he is rather seldom wrong...
With that, we mean that we now have reviewed the book. Now for a summary of it; voilà a brief look at the history of the art of war, mirrored in books on military theory and outright handbooks. We will start with the Chinese.
Rather early Chinese military men started to reflect about the nature of war. The 400s BCE, the Warring States Period, saw the emergence of a state of war of rather long duration. This gave rise to handbooks on war that also had a unique, conceptual, holistic grasp; in the West, or in India at the same time, there is nothing quite like it. You could say: the Chinese school of war, judged by its doctrines, has flashes of theoretic brilliance, often of eternal validity. A kind of “Clausewitzian grasp” can be seen in its best wisdoms.
According to van Creveld in the book at hand, what characterized the Chinese school of war? – It saw war as a necessary evil, disrupting the cosmic harmony of Tao. To restore this sacred Tao was needed a virtuous general, a general possessing Tao. “You should cultivate your Virtue ... and observe the Tao of Heaven” (Ta’i Kung quoted after van Creveld, p. 24). This kind of “mindful generalship” is also seen in Sun Tzu, stressing the need for the people to be in harmony with their leaders.
This focus on harmony didn’t mean that ancient Chinese armies were some new age summer camps; no, fierce discipline and capital punishment for wrongdoers was the norm. The ideal army should be imbued by the general’s personality; thus the general would not have to worry about punishments or rewards, instead the army would be one efficient war machine – it would, as an instrument of war, be in harmony with its commander and thus (remembering the religious Chinese adherence to harmony) Tao would also be served...! van Creveld: “Governed by necessity, the best-disciplined army is so good that it requires neither rewards nor punishments. Behaving as it were a single personality, it will follow its commander of its own accord ...” (p. 25)
This aspect of harmony and Tao must be remembered when looking at ancient Chinese military thought. Sun Tzu himself often spoke about winning without fighting battles, winning by using stratagems and deception and diplomacy, but in the last instance force was also needed, the ability to strike and strike hard. We also see this strain in the words of the wiseman Sima (freely translated after Pettersson, Sun Tzis krigskonst, 2010): “He who likes to make war will go under; he who forgets war will end up in danger.” – You could say: be fierce but be balanced is the lesson for the use of military might, now and forever. “Go all the way, then step back,” as Harley Earl said. When building an army make sure it becomes a sharp sword, but use it with moderation.
From the same source (Pettersson) we get a similar wisdom of the harmonic kind. It is given us by Wei Liao Zi: for a state to gain stability the civil and the military must walk hand in hand. This is like Clausewitz, 2000 years before him; this is being conscious of military might as a tool of the state, as an instrument of statecraft, and not just a means in itself. This is the unique Chinese brand of grasping the totality of war, politics and everything; it is grand strategy of the ancient kind.
Now for a look into van Creveld’s chapter about the Greco-Roman antiquity and its military thought. He praises the historical approach of writers like Thucydides, Sallust, Caesar, and Josephus, yea, even Horodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, and Livy; historical narratives of war and warfare they have given us, often thoughtful and enlightening, but in the case of military theory per se the Greco-Roman world has not so much to offer. Great generals there were (Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar etc.) but systematic treatises on the art of war, like the Chinese have given us, are lacking. The works we have are of the practical handbook type, interesting as such, but maybe not as conceptually stimulating and “rather timeless” as for example Sun Tzu.
Nevertheless, for the record we will now say something of them, with van Creveld as a guide.
Starting with Aeneas the Tactician (300s BCE) his only surviving treatise on war is about how to defend a besieged city against attack. From Babylon to Bourges all ancient cities were walled so this was a mainstay of ancient warfare and Aeneas seems to have had hands-on experience of it; How to Survive Under Siege is a handbook written by a technical expert, interesting for those who think that siege warfare is worth studying.
Aeneas at least was a military man; the next in line in this survey, Asclepiodotus who wrote Outline of Tactics, belongs firmly in the “armchair general” category. For instance, his focus is on the Greek phalanx, though in his day – first century BCE – it was long gone from the battlefield, the Roman legion being the current norm. Asclepiodotus speaks about the length of the phalanx soldiers’ spears, the width of their shields, and how to make them turn left or right; he also has something to say of light infantry, cavalry, and chariots. But there are no real-life examples or discussions on how to coordinate different services of arms, that which makes an army into an army. So, as intimated, this book has “a smell of the lamp”. It has been seen as “an exercise in rhetoric,” which might justify its existence.
Another ancient writer on the art of war is Onasander who wrote Ho Strategos (The General, 1st century CE). In it he for instance says that a good commander, among other things, if possible, should be a father of children. Interesting. Onasander also strays into the realm of “mindful generalship” by elaborating upon the other qualities a general should have, like self-restraint, vigilance, toughness, et cetera. Then follow chapters about how to raise and maintain an army, including the use of soothsayers and omens. Onasander seems to know what he is talking about; however, like Asclepidotus, his ideal army is of the phalanx model; Alexander the Great’s influence was rather immense back then. And he gives no examples, overall making his style rather dry.
Onasander was rather much studied in later times, during the early modern European era. And so were two other ancient writers on war, Frontinus (1st century CE) and Vegetius (400s CE). Frontinus had military experience in fighting tribes in what is now Wales. And in his Strategmata we read of tactical tricks and feints, illuminated by historical examples, like mentioning that Caesar in words and deeds favored his Tenth Legion, creating a mood of competition among the units of the army. This, we mean, might be the first historical conceptualization of the need for elite forces.
Vegetius wrote Epitoma Rei Militaris (A Summary of Military Matters). Looking back on late Republican and early Imperial times his work “stands in a class all of his own” (van Creveld p. 51), “presenting us with a remarkably coherent whole” (ibid). What we get is a handbook on how to raise a Roman legion, from recruiting the rank and file through organizing the sub-units in many details, and distributing it for battle and even fighting; this, and some authoritative advice on “how to do it, and how not to do it,” raises his book above the merely descriptive. (A final chapter, probably written by another author, deals with fortifications and naval warfare.) In early modern Europe this was seen as the best military handbook of them all.
Two documents of war theory of Byzantine origin, are Strategikon (600-700s) and Taktika (800-900s). Primarily we mention them because they intimate the origin of two extant core concepts of war theory, strategy and tactics. – By Clausewitz strategy was defined as “the employment of battles to gain the end of war”. Etymologically strategy is of classical Greek stratos meaning army, and agein, to lead. Strategos means general. Strategikon would then mean generalship. – Tactics is from Greek tassein, “to set in order”, from whence is derived concepts like tagma, battalion, and taktika, “the art of drawing up soldiers in array,” in other words, pretty much what we today call tactics.
Looking at Strategikon as an opus we get an authoritative handbook over the Byzantine way of war, where stirrup cavalry had become the basic fighting unit, replacing the Roman legion. In all an impressive work, covering many aspects of warfare, including “blessing the flags,” a mindful aspect of war that must not be forgotten. However, Strategikon in my eyes is mostly of ancient historical interest, because of this: medieval and early modern Europe knew no Greek and thus it has a rather limited “history of reception” in our culture, the Faustian.
Taktika, for its part, is based on Strategikon and Onasander. Then came some other Byzantine essays, and van Creveld summarizes them all in this way: “All these volumes reflect the workings of highly sophisticated, articulated armed force with numerous subdivisions and an emphasis on combined arms. As might perhaps be expected from the ‘Byzantines’, all of them also display a strong penchant for secrecy, flexibility, cunning and guile in order to achieve victory. In this respect they resemble the Chinese classics; however, since war is regarded purely as an instrument in the hands of the emperor, the underlying humanitarianism which makes the Chinese works so attractive is entirely absent.” (p. 55).
The ancient Chinese provided “a coherent philosophy of war. In the West, the only writer who met that demand was Clausewitz.” (p. 65) – Onwards, therefore, to military thought of early modern and modern times; we will look at the writers preceding him and succeeding him.
Our review of the early modern era will begin with Machiavelli, putting us firmly into the Faustian-European context.
To be sure, Machiavelli’s lasting contribution as a writer was in realist politics (qv. The Prince); his military thought was rather unoriginal. And van Creveld duly notes it. Thus, L’Arte della Guerra (1521) is mostly a curiosity. Machiavelli was stuck in the ancient republican Roman pattern: his “model army” would have no fire arms; there would be infantry with swords and shields (and no lances); and conscripts, no mercenaries. As an overall military ideal for the 1600s this has “a smell of the lamp”. (More about Machiavelli and The Prince can be read in my essay Rigorism.)
We will now focus on a man named Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), who wrote about the construction of fortifications and how to conquer them in a siege; he knew his stuff. Creveld: “[T]hanks largely to the fact that of all types of military operations siege warfare was the easiest to reduce to rules, it was a model of its kind which others sought to emulate.” (p. 82)
Another curiosity might be Jacques François de Chastenet, Marquis de Puysegur (1655-1743), who in 1720 wrote L’Art de la guerre par des principes et des règles (The Art of War by Principles and Rules). It covers everything but fighting: things like conducting marches, constructing camps, foraging et cetera is in focus, not the actual interaction of two enemy armies fighting it out on the battlefield. Marechal de Saxe (aka. Marshal de Saxe, aka. Moritz of Saxony, 1696-1750) partly wrote Rêveries in 1732 as a reaction to the clinical approach of Puysegur. For instance, de Saxe says that 50,000 is the maximum that can be handled by a general, which is rather feasible. However, De Saxe also was into this “theatrical, ritualistic” way of war when speaking about maneuvering as a way to win wars whereby tangible field battles could be avoided; “battle was to be engaged in only as a last resort, and then only when the prospects for victory appeared certain.” (p. 87)
de Saxe advocated the subdivision of armies into a kind of brigades called legions; at 3,582 men they were to include infantry, cavalry, artillery, HQ, engineers and all. This pointed ahead to the division, used by the French at the end of the Seven Years’ War, a way to get a more manageable unit than a whole, undivided army. – General observation by Creveld: “[N]o more than his contemporaries did de Saxe ... distinguish between strategy and tactics.” (p. 88)
Frederick the Great in one of his writings described Prussia “as an artificial country, spread over much of Germany and Poland, and held together as a work of art” (p. 88). In fact the army held it all together; this was the backbone of the state. “The officers were to be drawn exclusively from the nobility: ‘the one factor which can make men march into the cannon that are trained at them is honour’, and honour was to be found among nobles alone.” (p. 90) The rank and file was to be kept down by a ferocious discipline, having them “fear their officers more than the enemy,” Frederick meant (ibid).
More could be said about Frederick but that is a subject for another time. Suffice to say that we are now in the age of horse and musket, the pre-revolutionary era the French call “la guerre en dentelles” (= “war in lace”). In general its military thinkers now began seeking after the essence of war, basic principles, universal rules. But only Vauban, and maybe de Saxe, focusing on narrow subjects without strategic and political aspects involved, succeeded in writing viable documents with this approach. Otherwise the “lace era” systems of war were mostly groping in the dark; in vain they tried to capture war in a succinct formula.
In general, the pre-revolutionary days saw the end of the self-taught officer who put up a regiment he paid for and raised himself; the new style was for the ambitious soldier to attend a military academy and getting a commission that way, and maybe also attending a staff college after that. This was the new kind of military establishment that military doctrine was to be aimed at (p. 93).
In military thought of the Coalition War era (= Revolution-and-Napoleonic era) we first meet Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert, who in 1772 published Essai tactique générale. Based on the Seven Years’ War, when the French army despite numerical and economic advantage achieved very little, his essay would show how to do better next time (p. 97). He disowned the standing army and instead spoke of things like conscription, patriotic vigor, armies feeding themselves in enemy land; also, the field army was to be divided into independent subunits, like those practiced by French commander de Broglie during the latter years of the Seven Years’ War; the division was born. de Guibert also tangibly took part in the new way of war, on the eve of the revolution being called to serve in the War Office; however, he died already in 1790.
de Guibert didn’t himself use the concept of strategy. But another Frenchman did, Joly de Maizeroy. He saw tactics as the more basic action of fighting and strategy as the “overall conduct of military operations against the enemy – a field which hitherto had been left almost entirely to the general’s intuition.” (p. 98)
Going further into conceptual clarity we will now meet Adam Heinrich Dietrich von Bülow (1757-1807) who wrote Geist des neuern Kriegssystems (Spirit of the Modern System of War, 1799). By this time usable systems of maps were becoming available and Bülow’s thought implies this; conducting a war on the strategic level is now mainly done in an office on the surface of a map, not by sitting on a horse looking out over a field. Base, line of operation, objective; these new concepts were coined by von Bülow. Along the lines flowed supplies and reinforcements in one direction, and wounded, sick, and prisoners in the other. Further: two lines of advance, starting at the flanks of the base, should converge at the objective by forming a right angle; if the angle is more acute than this the objective is too far away, risking the advancing forces to be attacked and cut off.
This was an elegant way of making war looking like an exercise of geometrics; Clausewitz later criticized it. However, if Bülow’s approach looks a bit too pat it nevertheless was the first attempt of conceptually grasping the larger operations of war. It was more than the mere handbook style of “raising an army, equipping it, marching it here and there and building camps for it,” that hitherto had been the focus of military writers. From now on, Bülow’s inventions base, line of operation, objective became core concepts of strategy (“line of operation” could also be called “line of communication” to make it more up-to-date for modern thought). And Clausewitz also admitted that these concepts per se were helpful for military thought.
Antoine Henri Jomini (1779-1869) was a contemporary of Clausewitz, though less known; however, Jomini had some conceptual aces up his sleeve. By birth a Swiss citizen, he served under Napoleon and became chief of staff to Marshal Ney. How to maneuver in a real-world terrain of rivers, forests, mountains et cetera, and not the theoretical chessboard that Bülow seemed to have in mind? In answering this Jomini also strived for a system; the conceptual space of base, line of communication, objective was made into a Zone of Operations, and with several armies in the field in different directions you got several Theatres of Operations.
As for the lines of communications commanders such as Alexander, Caesar, Gustavus, and Charles XII could sometimes do without them, Creveld means: “Now, ... the whole point of the art of war was to cut one’s enemy’s lines of operations without exposing one’s own; this would lead either to the enemy’s surrender (as actually happened to the Austrians at Ulm in 1805) or to a battle in which he would be placed at a grave disadvantage (as happened to the Austrians at Marengo in 1800 and to the Prussians at Jena in 1806). Thus was born the manoeuvre sur les derrières, a method of operation by which one part of the army would hold the enemy while the other, if possible while using some natural obstacle in order to conceal and protect itself, would march around him and fall upon his rear.” (p. 107-108)
Jomini analyzed the theory of such a tactical move. He also spoke about operating on the internal lines, like in reality Napoleon did in his Italian campaign in 1796, Nazi Germany in 1944-45, and Israel in its wars against its Arab neighbors. As intimated, in olden times there were no lines of communications to be cut; as André Beaufre once said, the typical army operation, Army A at war with Army B, had the character of “one point in search of another point,” and battles only occurred as if by chance or by mutual consent. With the larger armies made possible by general conscription (France 1793), armies subdivided into corps and divisions, you had a larger “repertoire of strategic manoeuvres, which in turn were put into systematic form and codified by Jomini.” (p. 110)
A towering gestalt of military thought is Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). And van Creveld has some appreciation for him, seeing him as a conceptual giant; as the first Europan thinker Clausewitz succeeds in capturing the essence of war, not just giving handbook-style advice on "how to do it". Clausewitz's On War (Vom Kriege, 1832) approaches war holistically: what is war for the statesman, the general, the people...? - Answer: it is both a political instrument, it is a creative activity, and it is a force of nature... No one had said this before. War is an act of violence that can be both rational and irrational – rational in its aims and means, irrational in its destruction and violence.
Clausweitz could need a more thorough survey but we won't deliver that now. We will just give you some informal remarks -- like -- in the last book of On War is discussed absolute war, war stripped of social restraints (Kant is said to have inspired this “absolute” approach). Danger, friction, uncertainty... Clausewitz vocabulary: tactics, the art of winning battles; strategy, “the art of using battles in order to gain the objectives of the campaign” (p. 116) Be strong, attack the decisive point; to win by maneuver only is nonsense...
Between the age of Hellenism, like the Battle of Raffa in 217 BCE, and Waterloo in 1815, pitched battles were rather similar: armies of about 30-40.000 opposing each other. The appearance of firearms changed the face of battle, but only slightly, for battles were still fought with the opposing armies in sight of each other, with the men standing up, all of it taking place in a well-defined space (say 5 times 5 kilometers) and time (mostly, a day).
The next milestone in this development came in the mid-1800s, with the appearance of rifles, with a decidedly longer range of fire than muskets; at the same time the artillery saw the old muzzle-loader being replaced by ordnance that were breech-loaded and had rifled barrels, resulting in quicker rate of fire and longer range. Tactically, this resulted in a period of experimentation (American Civil War, Prussia’s wars of unification); it took some time to bring the lesson home that, for instance, charging against a line of infantry, protected by some obstacle (stone wall, earth wall) and armed with rifles, was tantamount to suicide. However, a commander like Prussia’s Helmuth von Moltke knew this and adapted his way of warfare to this.
He also knew of the need for railways when mobilizing the new, vast conscript armies. A railroad was a tangible, cast-iron form of the previously rather vaguely conceived “line of communication”. To plan for novelties like railroads, mobilization, maps, and telegraphic communications the Prussian General Staff, until then just a department inside the War Department, responsible for peace-time training and armament, grew into a vast bureaucracy. – At Königgrätz in 1866 the dispersed Prussian advance eventually turned into a virtue; the enemy was encircled, “the highest feat which strategy can achieve”, Moltke said in 1873 in a letter to von Treitschke (p. 136). This victory foreshadowed the Kesselschlacht of Sedan, which in turn became a conceptual obsession of von Schlieffen.
In other words, strategic offensive, tactical defensive was the recipe for victory. It still might be.
Strategic offensive, tactical defense: psychologically it is easy to make soldiers advance, to go on the offensive; conversely, to then hold them back might be hard, mirrored in what van Creveld says about Moltke’s concept: “Thus, strategically speaking, Moltke, intended his armies to take the offensive. Tactically the troops were supposed to make use of their firepower and remain on the defensive, although in practice that order was not always obeyed.” [p. 136] – This might be based on the situation at Königgrätz, which was a rather vast, hard-to-survey battle. It was also true of the operations of 1870, where Prussian armies often needlessly attacked strong French positions. However, in the final Kesselschlacht Moltke effected, Sedan, everything was more tight; there we had Prussian artillery surrounding the French captured in the town of Sedan. The battle was essentially won by the artillery.
Further in Moltke’s world... – In order for orders inter alia not becoming wire-tapped they should be kept short, telling the sub-commanders what to do, not how to do it. These kind of short “Sesselbefehle” (orders from the saddle) implied a well-trained army kept together by mutual trust, unified by a single goal and spirit, mirrored in the 1936 version of Truppenführung where it read, “war demands the free independent commitment of every soldier from the private to the general” (quoted after van Creveld p. 137).
By the time Alfred von Schlieffen became chief of the General Staff it was no longer an obscure bureau of the War Department, it was a core institution of the Reich. Schlieffen’s thought focused on things like war on two fronts, strike out France before Russia because France would be quicker to mobilize and the country having lesser maneuver depth, enabling a Kesselschlacht à la Cannae... Schlieffen wrote a 3-page essay on Cannae after he had resigned, in 1906. In other of his writings (The Warlord; War in the Modern Age) we for instance were given the vision of “the empty battlefield” we later saw realized in the Western Front no man’s land of WWI.
von Schlieffen realized that the longer ranges of fire from rifles and cannon necessitated dispersion of the troops. Thus, no more colorful uniforms, no compact formations led by the general on a hill; instead modern battles meant vast, seemingly empty fields where you only could catch glimpses of troop formations, fortifications, and artillery batteries, the latter mostly visible by night by its muzzle flames. However, Schlieffen died before he could see this realized in WWI; he lived 1833-1913.
Concepts of naval war is a vast era... And armies and land warfare are what we favor, not chasing after wind on the oceans. Nevertheless, A. T. Mahan (1840-1914) for his part spoke about large, modern navies meeting in a great sea battle; no politics was involved. But the British Julian Corbett (1854-1922) took this, politics, into consideration when discussing naval power historically. Corbett also saw the navy’s prime task as shipping armies to the zone of operation, quite a heretical view for a Brit (where the lauding of the navy per se is a long-standing tradition).
The inter-war period of 1919-1939 was interesting, but we won't go into it here. Suffice to say that in his book van Creveld covers it comparatively well. Maybe some other time we ourselves will speak about the historical etc. meaning of Guilio Douhet, J. F. C. Fuller, Liddell Hart, and other military thinkers of this era.
OK, one military thinker of this period we will highlight: Erich Ludendorff and his 1936 book Der totale Krieg. In the latter half of WWI Ludendorff led Germany into the realm of total war and in his book in question he formulated it conceptually. – He meant: war is more than fighting battles; it is about total mobilization (cf. Jünger, Die totale Mobilmachung) of a nation’s resources. Even Hoche and Carnot knew this back in the 1790s. Everything would be mobilized for the war effort, even the people’s morale, more efficiently than what Imperial Germany had done, Ludendorff meant, in this following the cue of Hitler in Mein Kampf (1925); for his part, Hitler criticized the Wilhelmine way of propaganda, deeming the British way of “psychic war” more exemplary.
Ludendorff also tangibly approached Hitler in politics; however, as it turned out, in the long run the old General couldn’t cooperate with Hitler, not after the failed 1923 coup. That said, Ludendorff’s Totale Krieg ideas are pretty much a blue print for the major players in WWII, along the whole gamut: Nazi Germany, US-UK, Soviet Russia. Dictatorship (or “democracy with regimentation and no freedom of expression,” which is virtually the same thing) was needed to curb the natural independence of industrial leaders, union leaders, generals, and the citizens, etc., all in order for waging total war.
We now come to the post-war era, the era from 1945 and onwards. Post-war conflicts were rather often asymmetrical, having modern states fight third-rate military powers; however, the latter could sometimes strike back and win by using guerilla warfare as part of a total defense system, having guerillas fight alongside conventional forces (China; Vietnam).
This van Creveld holds. It will serve as a symbolical wisdom of what he says of modern military thought, which we will not go into right now. However, to give an illuminating quote of his from the modern era we for instance have this: “[T]he 1980s saw a revival of conventional warfare theory centring around such ideas as ‘manoeuvre warfare’ and ‘air-land battle’. As these terms imply, both focused on strategy and the operational art while all but ignoring grand strategy. Manoeuvre warfare took the German campaigns of the Second World War as its model, so much so that for some ten years ‘German’ and ‘excellent’ were considered synonymous, and ex-Wehrmacht generals were treated to free lunches at the Pentagon. Air-land battle could barely be distinguished from, say, what Patton and his supporting VIIth Tactical Air Force had done to the Wehrmacht at Falaise in 1944.” (p. 188)
It is useless to prophecy about the future of war, or about a possible impending era of peace – for, as Plato said, the only people who will no longer see war are the dead. This is referred to by van Creveld on p. 213 and it is a fine coda to his book.
Hereby the chapter headlines of Creveld’s book:
1. Chinese Military Thought. 2. From Antiquity to the Middle Ages. 3. From 1500 to 1763. 4. Guibert to Clausewitz. 5. The Nineteenth Century. 6. Naval Warfare. 7. The Interwar Period. 8. From 1945 to the Present.
Finally, hereby what strikes us as a rather timeless van Creveld wisdom: “In military science as in so many others, attention to detail is absolutely vital and cannot be dispensed with. In military science as in so many others, attention to detail is not enough and does not automatically translate into genius.” (p. 42)
Heinlein and My SF Study