Clausewitz’s Military Genius and the #Human Dimension

…what we must do is survey all those gifts of mind and temperament that in combination bear on military activity, taken together constitute the essence of military genius. — Carl Von Clausewitz

If war is an inherently human phenomenon, then discussion of the human aspects of war is as timeless as the discussion of war itself. One prudent start point for any discussion on military matters is the philosophy of war described by the 19th century theorist Carl Von Clausewitz. In one of the lesser read sections of On War, he described what comprised the penultimate military genius. This article explores Clausewitz’s description of military genius as a point of discussion in the ongoing human dimension dialogue. In Clausewitz, we have a life-long soldier describing what it takes to reach the highest strata of the profession of arms; we would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

A Combination of Mind and Temperament

To Clausewitz, military genius was a very special harmonious combination of elements that created a highly developed mental aptitude for war. He argued true military genius comprised of two elements: the mind and temperament. These elements themselves contained many different facets and, when taken as a whole, one could argue that they offer a valuable model for today’s warrior. The figure below provides visual representation of the narrative, and includes some of the key descriptors as offered in the Howard and Paret translation.[1]

Depiction of Clausewitz’s Description of Military Genius

To Clausewitz, a military genius had more than a deep understanding of war. This rarified warrior had the temperament to act with physical and moral courage to inspire others. This included the ability to face danger personally and the courage to accept responsibility. The uncommon aspect of this courage is that the military genius not only sought out the physical dangers of combat, but also remained unaffected by them. The military genius acted in a positive manner and had the ability to manifest personal will power physically through their endurance, staunchness, and energy.[2]

To Clausewitz, war was a contest of wills, and in the military genius, a commander must possess the ability to withstand single setbacks, and multiple setbacks over time. As such, a military genius had strength of mind and character. His description of courage highlighted the quality as the ability to carry out the physical requirements to make what the intellect envisioned happen. To Clausewitz, this included the ability to exercise self-control, keep one’s ego in check, and avoid becoming obstinate. The military genius kept his or her head and thought rationally, even when others failed to. Within the aspect of intellect are things that one would expect of any military leader including determination and presence of mind.[3]

Coup d’oeil is the ability to grasp a sense of things and make prudent decisions intuitively with presence of mind with an inward looking-eye. Clausewitz understood this as a gift inherent in a brilliant commander that allowed the genius to see what others could not. In Gladwell’s book Blink, he described how scholars have observed similar phenomena in other fields of human endeavor.[4] In tennis, professionals call the ability of the best players to move on the court to the right position before the ball is hit toward them as court sense. In another case, birdwatchers use the term gissto describe how inexplicably an experienced birdwatcher knows ahead of time where to spot a certain bird. Gladwell’s conclusions are that around somewhere around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, this sense of things develops, making the person a true expert.[5] Even though we understand more today about how expertise such as coup d’oeil can develop, it does not make it any less miraculous or any less necessary for military genius.

What Clausewitz discussed was more than just understanding terrain, it included a deeper understanding of what it would make the opposing commander do, feel, and decide.

Clausewitz also described how the military genius had the uncanny ability to grasp topography and visualize terrain in their mind. In his time, a commander relied on maps of questionable accuracy, military scouts, and spies. What Clausewitz discussed was more than just understanding terrain, it included a deeper understanding of what it would make the opposing commander do, feel, and decide.[6] Today, with computer mapping software and real-time intelligence, commanders can visualize the battlefield in three dimensions with a high degree of detail and precision. However, with so much information at hand, the risk of information overload is a very real problem. A commander today still has to sift though mountains of data and look beyond the latest commander’s update to envision the future despite a great deal of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Clausewitz emphasized the importance of self-control, acting rationally, not succumbing to emotions, and suggested that obstinacy and stubbornness is a fault of temperament that a commander could ill afford. Here he also cautioned against the failings of egotism the “pleasures of autonomous intellect.”[7] The trap that Clausewitz warned us of is still very real. If a general officer continually services their own thoughts and pet theories, their cognitive processes take on the quality of mental masturbation in the guise of intellectual rigor. Here the General’s staff is also culpable. The staff must avoid the natural tendency to appeal to authority and to yield to groupthink. It is easy for the ambitious staff officer to be tempted to reflect the boss’s ideas back to them in the products they produce. Unfortunately, a lack of critical thinking and willingness to listen to voices of dissent will only serve feed the pleasures of autonomous intellect and prevent the general officer from emerging as a military genius.

Another key quality of Clausewitz’s military genius was that they had a firm grasp of policy. As war always intertwines with policy, he felt that at the highest levels of command, a military genius understood how military strategy and operations connected with policy. Through this understanding, the genius could combine a nation’s means and will to maximize resistance for one’s adversary. Any military genius must understand and work within the parameters of primordial violence, reason, and chance as it manifests in the interactions between the military, the government, and the people.[8] Still today, the higher the military genius rises through the ranks the more important his or her understanding of policy becomes to their success. Overall, Clausewitz has provided a description of military genius as a rare and special combination of traits that is still relevant today.

Analysis of the Model

Clausewitz’s model of military genius, as the rest of his opus, is comprehensive and nothing short of brilliant. In discussing the interplay between the two major virtues of mind and temperament, his model has captured the essence of the great captains of his time, and arguably throughout history. However, one must consider the context in which the master wrote as limits the model’s validity and relevance for today’s generals. As a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and war in general from a very young age, the internal validity of Clausewitz’s argument is quite strong. There is no questioning that he is an expert in the field, and arguably an expert for all time. There is no reason to doubt that he wrote from he observed and learned as a warrior in the field countless times.

One could draw similarities between Clausewitz’s description of military genius and Napoleon himself, and make the conclusion that Napoleon is the embodiment of the model.

One could draw similarities between Clausewitz’s description of military genius and Napoleon himself, and make the conclusion that Napoleon is the embodiment of the model. Although the similarities are pronounced, Clausewitz never states this outright. If Napoleon was the military genius Clausewitz described, it raises the question how well a Prussian on the other side of the Napoleonic wars could observe, know, or understand the true essence of Napoleon’s genius. This leaves room for the reader to assume that he could have adjusted his model based on Napoleon’s failings. As Clausewitz does not state his inspiration either way, it is impossible for the reader to tell conclusively if how much of his description military genius was inspired by Napoleon at all, and therefore impossible to verify his description with other accounts.

The context of the world he lived in, his life experiences and his given talents shaped his account on the nature of war. Although it is outright heresy to call into question the writing of the master in some circles, when looking at the external validity of the description, he has provided only one data point as one looks at human phenomena of war throughout history. In no way does this degrade the depth or importance of his work, nor minimize his impact on military thought. Overall, as the consummate soldier-scholar, his description of military genius retains a high degree of validity to those pondering the aspects of the human dimension in contemporary times.


Today, the military is grappling with what comprises the human dimension and how this manifests in the warriors that America sends into battle. Clausewitz’s description of the interplay of mind and temperament is similar to ongoing discussions of the physical, social, and cognitive traits that warriors require to win in a complex world. Although we know much more about how the human mind works today, there exists a simple and beautiful elegance in Clausewitz’s work that still rings true.

The analysis presented here is but one interpretation of the master’s thoughts, and undoubtedly, many others may have varied opinions on the nuances of each specific word he used. We would encourage all to read the original text, conduct their own analysis, and develop their own deeper understanding. Rightfully so, the individual can interpret the model presented here and apply it however they wish. The hope is that this interpretation of Clausewitz’s military genius informs the continued discussion concerning the human dimension. More importantly, a few warriors just may benefit from Clausewitz’s ideas as they strive for the lofty goal of someday becoming military geniuses themselves.

This article was provided by Montgomery Erfourth and Aaron Bazin, U.S. Army strategists. The views expressed in this piece are theirs alone and do not represent the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] On War, Carl von Clausewitz, ed. trans. by Howard and Paret, 1984, p. 100–112
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Blink, Malcom Gladwell, 2005, 48.
[5] Ibid.
[6] On War, Carl von Clausewitz, ed. trans. by Howard and Paret, 1984, p. 100–112
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.