Clausewitz, Jomini, and the Birth of Modern Strategy

Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz
Antoine Jomini
Antoine Jomini

Of the military and political theorists who emerged from the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the Enlightenment, Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini both produced writings which captured enduring lessons and insights into the nature and conduct of war. The works of Clausewitz (On War) and Jomini (The Art of War) can both rightly claim a lasting legacy, but can it be said that one of these men was more responsible for guiding modern strategy? While not disputing that Jomini left a significant mark on modern thinking on warfare, I tend to side with the Clausewitz camp. If there was such a title as “Father of Modern Strategy,” I think it belongs with Carl (although the title of this blog may also have been a spoiler).

Jomini’s purpose, as he sought to explain Napoleon’s breathtaking military successes across the continent in the early 19th century, was to boil warfare down to a scientific basis for strategy.[1] His primary interest was in how to conduct war[2]. Early in Jomini’s most famous work, he identifies six distinct parts to “the art of war” (although he primarily concerns himself with the first four of these parts): statesmanship (diplomacy), strategy, grand tactics logistics, engineering (the attack and defense of fortifications), and minor tactics.[3] It is this focus on the conduct of strategy that helps to separate The Art of War from Clausewitz’s work, and ultimately makes Jomini’s ideas less relevant in the long run (as we shall see). To Jomini, victory could be achieved by adhering to a fundamental principle of war: the application of mass against an enemy at a decisive point at the proper time.[4] It was the intention of Jomini to demonstrate that the chaos and complexity of war could be reduced to such a simple principle that it, when mastered by an exceptional military commander, would lead to victory.

Battle of Fère-Champenoise in 1814. Much of Jomini's writings were intended to explain Napoleon's battlefield successes.
Battle of Fère-Champenoise in 1814. Much of Jomini’s writings were intended to explain Napoleon’s battlefield successes.

There is much of Jomini’s theory that resonated with soldiers since the Swiss-born military man first found an audience in the early 19th century. His ambition lay in simplifying the complexities of war, and after doing so prescribing methods to achieve victory on the battlefield.[5] This may have helped shape, and in turn was itself shaped by, the establshed military thinking over the many years Jomini developed his theories. There was a certain simplicity to be found in his works, something that may have appealed to soldiers in general over subsequent decades.[6]

Clausewitz, on the other hand, purposefully set out first to define not necessarily how to fight a war, but to identify the essential nature of it. In On War, he endeavored to explain what was possible and what was impossible to achieve in regards to understanding war with theory. Very much at odds with Jomini, Clausewitz warns against the notion of reducing military action to simple formulae. “In short, absolute, so-called mathematical, factors never find a firm basis in military calculations.”[7] War is complex, and any theory which sought to exclude variables introduced by such “friction” as human genius, courage, incompetence, and other unpredictable events is useless.[8] Like Jomini, Clausewitz pulls from his experience during the Napoleonic Wars. But rather than seeking to demonstrate war as being obedient to certain simple fundamental principles, Clausewitz sought to understand the phenomenon of war, suspended as it was between the “remarkable trinity” of violence, chance, and politics.[9] Paret states it well when he said that in On War, Clausewitz was primarily concerned with “political and strategic planning, and the conduct of hostilities.”[10]

Clausewitz more fully develops the centrality of policy and politics to war.
Clausewitz more fully develops the centrality of policy and politics to war.

The enduring relevancy, then, is that when Clausewitz does venture into the battle (as he does in his discussions on the virtues of defensive war, offensive war, and limited war) it is that the discussions can almost always be traced back to his original thesis, that war is an extension of politics that employs the use of violence. Book Eight, Chapter Six of On War, for example, continues to remind the reader that the political aim affects military objectives. In speaking of the motivations of allied states (in the midst of his chapters on limited war), Clausewitz states that “even when both [allies] share a major interest, action is clogged with diplomatic reservations, and as a rule the negotiators only pledge a small and limited contingent, so that the rest can be kept in hand for any special ends the shifts in policy require.”[11] This reoccurring point about the centrality of policy and politics to war is not to be interpreted as something that should impede the commanding general. Rather, for Clausewitz, war and politics – and therefore strategy – were that inseparable. “It follows that the transformation of the art of war resulted from the transformation of politics [here meaning changes wrought by the French Revolution]. So far from suggesting that the two could be disassociated from each other, these changes are a strong proof of their indispensable connection.”[12]

There are areas of apparent overlap between Clausewitz and Jomini, although this overlap frays somewhat if it is examined closely. For example, both acknowledge the fundamental relationship between the execution of war and politics. Jomini states that the first order of business for a commanding general is “to agree with the head of state upon the character of the war…”[13] However, the treatment that The Art of War gives to political leadership is not developed much beyond this. Additional attention is given in regards to the government’s obligation to maintain a credible military in times of peace (which does, in fact, often sound familiar to debates waged today over military spending). There is also a discussion on the proper manner in which a prince should take direct command of fielded forces.[14] However, little attention is given over how the government provides definition of the objectives the prince has determined. This is more than quibbling over whether Jomini (or Clausewitz for that matter) had the foresight to look beyond the efficiency of monarchical government. Jomini’s stated purpose was to separate war from the specific events of his era, and to present scientific truths about strategy. But by tying his theories to the notion that politics and war were separate and distinct, he essentially limited the applicability of his lessons to future conflict. For Jomini, the central player and most often target audience is the commanding general. For Clausewitz, the central player may also be said to be the commanding general, but the target audience is arguably the political leadership as well. This distinction alone makes Clausewitz’s work more enduring, and therefore more relevant, than Jomini’s.

To be sure, Clausewitz’s work is not without its own imperfections and criticisms. For example, On War almost completely ignores naval operations, likely the result of Clausewitz’s own lack of experience in that area. More significantly, considering the fundamental relationship between politics and war, he never addresses the relevance of national economics. [15] However, Clausewitz’s theory of the nature of war, both theoretical and real, is arguably more resilient that Jomini’s fundamental principle of the art of war. The weaknesses in Jominian theory when applied to unsymmetrical warfare has already been referenced. But Clausewitz’s theory, with allows for (and even assumes) the unexpected, retains a flexibility that has proven it to be a far more valuable theoretical construction.

The author of On War’s impact on modern strategy is arguably greater in that his writing has retained more overall relevancy throughout its existence. This is in part because it remains valuable to more than military commanders. While again acknowledging that Jomini does address the role of the head of state in war, this is mostly in the narrow context of leading the actual campaign. But by framing war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” Clausewitz’s writings beckon the attention of political as well as military leaders. His discussions on mobilizing resources for war and the identification of centers of gravity – which do not necessarily have to be an army – are just as insightful as the defining of objectives outside of the narrow paradigm of occupation of territory. Peter Paret insightfully notes that the amount of influence that Clausewitz’s ideas have wielded over time is hard to gauge.[16] In fact, he finds that since the late 19th century, there is little evidence that governments or military leaders have actually put into practice much of Clausewitz’s theories. While I disagree with this somewhat (we have seen keen interest since World War II on centers of gravity, an idea that has been nurtured and evolved to this day), Paret’s larger point serves to prove Clausewitz’s truth about the complexity of war. Regardless of the acceptance of any theory, the frictions brought to bear on the execution of war in the real world will almost certainly result in something that looks very different from that theory. Yet the framework proposed by Clausewitz of the fundamental nature of war and the friction that inevitably makes conflict so difficult to predict and control continues to offer insight to students of strategy even today. This is the reason why more non-military historians recognize Clausewitz, and why he should be considered the Father of Modern Strategy.

[1] John Shy, “Jomini,” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 144.

[2] Antulio J. Echevarria II., “Jomini and The Art of War.,” Seminar III. Lecture 1.2, 2.

[3] Baron de Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott: 1879), 15.

[4] Ibid, 48-49.

[5] [5] John Shy, ibid, 179.

[6] Antulio J. Echevarria II., ibid.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 86.

[8] Ibid, 89.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Peter Paret, in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 208.

[11] Carl von Clausewitz, ibid, 603.

[12] Ibid, 610.

[13] Ibid, 45.

[14] Baron de Jomini, ibid, 29-31, 35-37.

[15] Peter Paret, ibid, 208.

[16] Ibid, 213.

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2 thoughts on “Clausewitz, Jomini, and the Birth of Modern Strategy

  1. Great post – got me thinking. I think there’s little question that Clausewitz conceptually defined the notion of nation states at war; the idea – inevitably, given his Eurocentric background – of warfare as an extension of the state system, and of wars being won through defeating the primary armed force of the enemy in the field of battle. This concept applied, without question, to the major wars between the ‘civilised’ nations that followed through the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Beat the enemy’s armed force, and you beat the enemy – hence, commanders looked for the decisive battle. It came unstuck occasionally, as on the Western Front – though we could look on that as a single gigantic battle with a duration of years – but otherwise held true. Is it true today? I’m not sure. The problem is that it’s predicated on the assumption that the enemy will play by those rules. If they don’t – if they do something else, such as fighting a guerilla campaign, or inciting populations, as happened in South East Asia during the Cold War – then a war becomes unwinnable and even un-fightable in a purely Clausewitzian sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the fantastic, thoughtful comment!
      I was part of a discussion a year or so ago that touched on a similar subject, which was “what made up a Clausewitzian center of gravity.” As you state, this is typically identified as a nation’s primary military force. But Clausewitz did develop his notions a little more than just the army as a nation’s center of gravity, which has given his work additional relevancy, even today. Clausewitz describes a center of gravity as the “most effective target for a blow.” In Book 6, it’s true that he defines this somewhat narrowly as it relates to troops ( “wherever forces are most concentrated.”). But he does expand his theory in a way that does make it more relevant even for guerilla warfare. In Book 8, he describes how each side of a conflict will have certain “dominant characteristics” from which a center of gravity will emerge, “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. This is the point against which all our energies should be directed.” For certain kings and emperors (such as Alexander and Frederick the Great), their COGs were their armies. But then Clausewitz demonstrates how a belligerent’s COG can be something else: for a country “subject to domestic strife,” it can be the capital. For a revolutionary movement, the COG can be the leadership. So although Clausewitz is clear that the destruction of an enemy’s forces is always the best “way to begin, and in every case will be a very significant feature of the campaign,” the COG is not an army alone.

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