#Reviewing The Conduct of War, 1789-1961

Major General John Frederick Charles “Boney” Fuller was judged a “flawed and unappealing, arrogant and authoritarian character" by the "exasperating, amateurish and dotish senior British officers” that failed to appreciate his insights on mechanized warfare in the interwar years.[1] But he wasn’t ignored by the Germans, with Heinz Guderian (the “father of Blitzkrieg”) a keen admirer.

Even as a young officer, Fuller was as widely read as he was a prolific writer. Fuller considered himself a philosopher as well as a military reformer, combining intellectual propositions from various disciplines into brilliant historical treatises. But respected scholars such as  Martin Van Creveld find much of his theorizing “half baked, tied as it was to his interest in mysticism and the occult.”[2] The Conduct of War 1789-1961 was written in Fuller’s final years and is therefore a good gauge on whether it is his magisterial work or the mumblings of the deranged.

This book follows a few strands of historic trends. True to his form as the father of mechanized warfare, Fuller does an apt job of demonstrating how changes to technology change the tactics of war. “Weapons should always give shape to tactics” as he states. But to me this is not the most interesting part of The Conduct of War. Instead, as Fuller suggests, “the heart of the problem is not to be sought in types of weapons, but in the aim which governs their use.”[3]

Fuller maps the character of war not in war itself, but as related to the great western political and social revolutions since 1789. The Conduct of War is a historical thesis to prove Clausewitz’s dictum that it is the duties of the statesman and the general to understand the war in which he engages in, not to take it for something which it is impossible for it to be.[4]

Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

Fuller starts earlier than the cover would claim. Asking the question on the difference between the fifteenth century despots and the seventeenth and eighteenth century kings, the book points to the reliance on mercenaries of the former, while the latter relied on standing armies. The exhaustion of Europe from the Thirty Years War in turn constrained warfare in the 150 ensuing years. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and Emerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations had a role in influencing and reflecting the sociopolitical causes of the limited form of warfare that took place during the period.

This all changed with the writings of Jean Jacques Rosseau in the Social Contract that led to the levée en masse as the wars of kings became wars of the people. A nation fed on violent propaganda could not make an enduring peace, and therefore war, Fuller argues, lost its political purpose.

Here Fuller turns on Clausewitz. While agreeing that war must reflect the character of the politics to be a continuation, he disagrees with Clausewitz’s assumption that war will become more effective when politics and war become one in absolute war. Fuller argues that it is not destruction that is war’s ultimate aim, but peace. “Peace should be the ruling idea of policy, and victory the only means towards its achievement.”[5] Quoting Montesquieu and reflecting the sub plot to the book, Fuller states “that nations should do each other the most good during peacetime and the least harm during wartime without harming their true interests” if peace is to be anything more than a temporary suspension of arms.[6] A prolific advocate for limited war, he argues the “destructive means employed to achieve a profitable end must be limited” as leaving nothing left to heel would indicate that “the means would have swallowed the end.”[7]

"...nations should do each other the most good during peacetime and the least harm during wartime without harming their true interests” if peace is to be anything more than a temporary suspension of arms.

The opposing states of war and peace were important concepts when applying military force for political purposes.  Sociopolitical challenges of Industrial Age, which were reflected by the writings of Marx and Engel, caused the distinction to change.  In accordance with Marxist theory, war and revolution are interchangeable terms with interchangeable political and military weapons, the highest economy of force is to be sought in transforming an international or imperialist conflict into a civil war.[8]  When war became social and not a tool of political advantage, it became precipitated by “violent unmoderated propaganda that awakened a primitive spirit of tribal fanaticism.”[9] And with this change, Fuller poses, the power to sue for peace was also transferred from the government to people—peacemaking was the product of revolution.

Somme Battlefield Diorama (Australian War Memorial)

The Industrial Revolution led to globalization, which integrated nation's economies through trade. Therefore Fuller surmises that World War One was not fought for political purposes of the European monarchs, but as an economic struggle for existence, saying “Neither Germany nor Britain were in the wrong; it was not their respective cupidities or ambitions which brought them to loggerheads, it was the Industrial Revolution which made them competitors.”[10] Fuller’s definition of political purposes is rather restrictive—stripping away social and economic issues that fill the agenda of the modern statesman.

As Fuller claims that the war was fought for non-political objectives, the Great War would ultimately be won by the non-military means of British economic blockade and propaganda.[11] But achieving the war’s non-political objectives would also need to be achieved through removing the adversaries’ political system. General surrender, not peace negotiations, was demanded from Germany’s military rulers and monarchist autocrats. With lessons that resonate today in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, Fuller reflects that in times past war was waged to change the enemy’s policy, and not only to change the government. The rationale being that should the government be overthrown, there would be no stable authority to negotiate a peace with.

And as the "peace" of World War One did not resolve the political dispute (perhaps due to not military victory but an armistice), there could be no real peace as conflict continued in an economic and psychological form through the Treaty of Versailles. As Hitler wrote, “No war can become humanity’s permanent state; no peace can become the perpetuation of war.”[12] So to make Germany independent of the economic constraints imposed by international loan-capitalism, Fuller argues that Hitler resorted to a system of finance which antagonized the great trading nations. In 1933, both Roosevelt and Hitler set out to solve the self-same economic problem, one by means of his New Deal and the other by means of his New Order.[13]

Apart from the economics, Fuller touches on the ideological conflict that spawned World War Two, as a battle for ideas that remains relevant to strategy today. For any side—Democratic, Marxian, or National Socialist—to be fully effective, the destruction of an idea had to be total, which means that it could only be killed by a more acceptable idea. And each party had a different conception of war and peace: to democracies peace was an end in itself—the cessation of war; to the National Socialists peace was a time wherein to incubate war; and to the Russian Marxists peace was yet another form of war.

Roosevelt and Churchill at the Allied Conference in Casablanca in 1943, where "unconditional surrender" was made the objective against Germany (Wikimedia)

Fuller laments Roosevelt and Churchill’s proclamation of unconditional surrender on Germany (not Hitler) because he believed they looked at war as a lethal game, rather than an instrument of policy.[14] Keeping Stalin in World War Two was important to obliterate Germany, Fuller suggests, but not to restore the balance of power in Europe—and this allowed Stalin to achieve the Soviet Union’s objectives of growing its empire across much of Europe. No other victor gained territory at the end of the war. But World War Two did not lead to peace either, but a Cold War, a perpetual state of war—a Hobbesian fear.

In reflection, Fuller points to the dangers of militaries and other state institutions not keeping up with the social conditions or technology of the day. In World War One he blames the militaries as being of “the old agricultural order of society” while its “activities blindly grope towards those of a new industrial one.”[15] And “in spite of the increased deadliness of weapons fashioned by industry, military theory remained much as it had been in the days of the muzzleloader.”[16] This is something we should take on notice as we explore what it means to fight in the Information Age. We should therefore reflect on whether our military institutions are built on the precedent of the past, or whether our structures are more reflective of the technology and society that surround us. Fuller is optimistic (for the 1960s) in claiming that the struggle that Marx postulated between social classes was not as serious a problem as the tension between, “the evolving institutions of the new society and the established institutions of old.”[17]

J.F.C. Fuller

Fuller does prove a better historian than a futurist, demonstrating history’s limits as a guide. He predicts that poverty would be abolished, and with it would vanish Marx’s concept of the proletariat. Fuller lays claim that the West had proven Marx wrong by the rich having declining incomes while the workers’ pay packets had steadily rose. He explains this, pointing to the trend to increasing state enterprise in the post New Deal World and the decreasing role of private enterprise. Fuller might be bemused by the political dialogue we endure today.

To be sure, Fuller has his quirks and biases, but who wouldn’t have peculiarities at the age of 83? But also shining through in The Conduct of War is a lifetime of research, analysis, and deep introspection. Fuller reminds us that if war is a continuation of politics through other means, the character of war must also be a continuation of the character of the politics that let loose the dogs of war. But also, war’s political aim must be achievable through the means of war. If that aim is peace, the character of war must be conducive towards those ends, and in turn the character of politics must allow war to achieve that peace. So the question we must all ask ourselves is how will the character of tomorrow’s politics change the character of future war, and are our militaries able to use this tool to obtain a desired peaceful outcome?

Fuller has strong opinions and demonstrates deep and broad scholarship, but some of his most cutting statements are not given the benefit of justification and are presented as a fait accompli. The trouble with criticizing him for this, is that on reflection I tend to agree that there is some logic to his claims. To get the most out of this book you need to get past the obvious prejudice that Fuller has, undoubtedly colored by his exasperation with the leaders who muddled through World War One and those who sidelined him during World War Two. If you can do this, The Conduct of War is an excellent historical introspection into the character of war and its utility for achieving political advantage.

Craig Beutel joined the Australian Department of Defence in 2006. He has deployed to Afghanistan and is a graduate of Australian Command and Staff College. His views do not represent the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: The barricades of Presnya, 1905 by Ivan Vladimirov (Wikimedia)


[1] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 131.

[2] Martin van Creveld, The Changing Face of War (New York: Ballatine, 2006),90.

[3] J.F.C. Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961:A Study Of The Impact Of The French, Industrial, And Russian Revolutions On War And Its Conduct (London: Eyre Metheun, 1972), 128. All quotes in this review are from The Conduct of War unless otherwise noted.

[4] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1976), 88-89.

[5] See footnote 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Timothy Andrew Taracouzio in War and Peace and Soviet Diplomacy (New York: Macmillan, 1940), 28

[9] See footnote 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Erich Ludendorff, My War Memoirs 1914-1918 (London: Hutchinson, 1919), 360-8, 380, and 684. Sir Hew Strachan argues that the “blockade worked not in isolation but through interaction with the fault lines in German society and in the structure of the German polity.” While some may argue that it was the arrival of the United States that caused the Armistice, Strachan argues that the effect of these troops was “above all psychological”. The First World War (London: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 215 and 303.

[12] Norman H Baynes, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939 Volume II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), 1094.

[13] “The similarities of the economics of the New Deal to the economics of Mussolini's corporative state or Hitler's totalitarian state are both close and obvious.” Franklin D. Roosevelt as quoted in Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 28-29. Hjalmar Schacht, the German economist, also pointed out the similarities during his interrogation at Nuremberg.

[14] It should be noted that Fuller’s disdain for both leaders is not hidden.

[15] See footnote 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.