We must rethink our reading of Clausewitz's work as a search for and a description of eternal principles for an objective understanding of war. The nature of war is one thing, but war as instantiated in actual conflict and combat is another thing altogether; yet, both must somehow be held together in order to understand war. It is in this paradox that Cormier thinks we must locate, evaluate, and apply Clausewitz's ideas.
No tactical situation is entirely new, but none are ever entirely the same either. Applying theory to an original situation in an original way is the art, in both tactics and strategy. It’s also why tactical principles can never be immutable and are always subject to the play of probability. By understanding tactical theory, tacticians can train their minds to recognize the ways they can weigh the dice of probability in their favor.
Great theories stand the test of time—shedding light on their subject’s essence despite varying contexts, technological upheavals or mutable human relations. One such work is Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. That said, with the detonation of the atomic bomb and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, many find Clausewitz wanting. How can there be a decisive battle without nuclear annihilation? Nuclear weapons seem to breach our understanding of force, suggesting the need for radically different conceptions of war. Enter Thomas C. Schelling and his work on The Strategy of Conflict
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can help us better understand the experience of Clausewitzian genius. Now, this sounds about as illogical as Lewis Carroll’s famous riddle, uttered by the Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” But unlike the riddle, which was initially constructed without an answer, the concept of genius links Clausewitz and Alice without artifice. While Clausewitz’s “field of genius...raises itself above rules,” Wonderland is a fantastical space that enables Alice to raise herself not only above rules, but also sense. To see how this is so, we can appeal to Alice and her encounters in Wonderland to highlight the complexity found within military genius. But first we must locate genius in the space where theory fails to map onto reality.
Several years ago, during a visit to the U.S. Army War College, I was invited to have lunch with some of its instructors. The school teaches Army officers about strategy and its course offerings (“Civil-Military Relations,” “Peace and Stability Operations,” “Irregular Warfare”) reflect that mandate. So, naturally, the lunch discussion focused on strategy, and how to teach it. While I don’t now recall the exact details of that conversation, a statement by one of the war college’s professors has stayed with me. It brought immediate laughter — and unanimous assent. “Just remember,” he said, “that no matter what the question, the answer is always 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.