Clausewitz’s Split Personality

An interesting tidbit from Joseph Fouche, with an accompanying Zoolander-esque graphic:

Unfortunately for Bismarck there was two Clausewitzes roaming about the battlefield. Following Beatrice Heuser’s formulation from Reading Clausewitz, there is Realist Carl and and Idealist Carl. Realist Carl believed that war could be limited by the scope of limited political goals to something modest like seizing a piece of enemy territory as a bargaining chip in bantering for peace. Idealist Carl was transfixed by the example of Buonaparte, the so-called “god of war”, and believed that war could be reduced to winning a decisive battle and occupying the enemy capital. Bismarck, though he may not have realized it, was a disciple of Realist Carl. Molkte, a student of the flesh and blood Clausewitz, was a disciple of Idealist Carl. Realist Otto’s earlier string of successfully realized limited goals had opened the path to Idealist Helmuth’s unlimited desires to occupy Paris as the only fitting dénouement for his victories in two decisive battles. Molke’s system of expedients, drawing on chance and probability, had overwhelmed Bismarck’s system based on pure reason.

One of the things that has always transfixed me when reading about Napoleon and his campaigns has been the degree to which he was the singular engine of what was for a little while an unstoppable system of operations. Of course, Napoleon was more of a synthesizer than innovator, he cleverly manipulated the trends of his time. The basics of the distributed corps system and the age of nationalism were already beginning to put in place by the time he began his major campaigns. He also benefited from strong subordinates. But given the extreme centralization of his command and control system, he was the single driving force that breathed life into the Imperial war machine.

But it was the last time (for now) that force of personality and operational excellence alone could be such a strong driver. And Napoleon was arguably exceptional in his ability to aggregate the diverse sensory inputs together into a seamless whole. Clausewitz’s “split personality” is a reflection of the hold that the “God of War” had over 19th century Europe and the way that everyone struggled to produce carbon copies of his technique. It’s this “heroic” view of war that so appalled Basil Liddell-Hart and other critics of Clausewitz. Of course, Liddell-Hart and others had a simplified view of Clausewitz’s work (and its complexity) as well as the militarism and toxic ideologies that led political-military leaders to twist Clausewitz’s ideas to fit their own designs.

One thing that I’ve always wondered is whether or not it’s possible for another Napoleon to emerge with a similar power and mechanism. Most generals (and their publicists) since then have seen themselves in this manner, but the truth is that conflict since the 19th century has fiercely punished the battle of annihilation that Napoleon utilized so effectively–with a brief interlude in 1940 and 1991. The major insight of Svechin and others was that attrition would be the dominant mode of war for a long time. If 1905-1945 locked in attrition, nuclear weapons finally limited the scale of conventional conflict. Will that ever change? And if so, what might be the consequences for peace?


5 thoughts on “Clausewitz’s Split Personality

  1. Realist/Idealist (or is it Romantic versus Enlightened?) is the obvious comparison, but it is only one (or two) that comes out in regards to Napoleon and Clausewitz. For me what is more important is the distinction between the “subjective” and the “objective” or more clearly, between the art of war of a certain epoch and the general theory of war. Napoleon casts light on both. He was able to take the military instrument in his hands and perform early 19th Century operational magic, but also defined by his actions the role of the military genius for the general theory. The military genius being able to expand the realm of theory retrospectively . . .
    Nice tie-in with Svechin. He is the Clausewitzian theorist of the first part of the 20th Century, pointing out that a strategy of annihilation required very specific political/military conditions to succeed . . .

  2. That is what is so special about Napoleon, and why he continues to fascinate people two centuries later.
    I like Svechin a lot, he needs to get more love outside of the Soviet studies community…

  3. I really liked your blog quite informative and interesting facts and figures you have discussed on your blog even the comments are very fruitful and helpful in enhancing the knowledge regarding the topic.

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