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Theorists of War

Theorists of War. All warfare requires thought. Even the most primitive battle demands mental preparation, and it is not possible to control armed forces of any size without preconceived methods of organization and action. It is difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to distinguish categorically between this kind of instrumental thinking and military theory more strictly understood, as a systematic attempt to link or subordinate the conduct of war to abstract analytic concepts or to broader social, political, or geographic relationships of which war is but a part. Such theorizing may aim at practical knowledge of how war can be conducted or averted, in which case its concerns may approach those of the strategist or military planner. Or, a theorist of war may simply seek understanding for its own sake. Yet these are not mutually exclusive impulses, and both are evident in varying degrees in the work of most serious students of war.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, military theory in the United States was dominated by European models, of which the most imposing was that provided by Antoine Henri Jomini. Jomini, a staff officer in the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars, sought to codify the basic tenets of modern war in terms of a small number of timeless principles. He stressed the advantages of fighting on interior lines; of maintaining secure communications while seeking to attack those of the enemy; and above all, of concentrating one's forces at what he called “the decisive point.” Jomini's work suggested that the chaos and uncertainty of war could be mastered by means of a positivistic social science, and also that the precise mental habits and systematic approach of the engineer and the industrial manager could find a use on the battlefield.

Jomini's ideas permeated the curriculum of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the antebellum era, and shaped the basic outlook of officers on both sides of the Civil War. The protracted destructiveness of that conflict caused his reputation to recede, in part because he was thought to have held out a false promise: that war conducted on scientific principles would be more readily controlled than in the past. Yet no modern army has felt able to dispense with the notion, however tenuous, that there are in fact enduring Principles of War that matter to the conduct of operations and the education of officers. In this respect, Jomini remains among the most influential of modern military theorists.

The most creative of Jomini's American disciples was a naval officer, Alfred T. Mahan, whose self‐proclaimed intention was to do for naval warfare what Jomini had done for war on land. Mahan argued that “sea power,” an expression he claimed to have coined, was the ultimate arbiter of world affairs. Its principal instrument was the battle fleet, built for the sole purpose of defeating or intimidating others of its kind. Mahan was among the first to articulate a comprehensive strategic vision for the steam‐and‐steel navies of the industrial era. In relation to the wooden‐hulled vessels they displaced, the tactical superiority of such ships was absolute. Yet, because of their dependence upon a global infrastructure of coaling stations and secure ports of call, their capacity to conduct traditional operations of close blockade, commerce raiding, and amphibious warfare seemed far beneath what had been possible in the age of sail. Mahan, however, argued that all such techniques were secondary to, and dependent upon, the clash of battle fleets, whose outcome would decide any war in which a naval power might engage.

Like Jomini, Mahan's reputation suffered because the future failed to conform to his expectations. The battle fleets of the great powers did not determine the results of World War I, in part because new underwater weapons were already transforming combat at sea, in part because the belligerents were reluctant to risk the irreplaceable fleets they had built up at such great expense. The early twentieth century was also marked by a growing realization, stimulated in part by the work of the English geographer Halford Mackinder, that the saliency of seapower was being eroded by the spread of railroads, paved highways, and modern communications. Certainly, these developments reduced the relative advantages of movement over water compared to land, and contributed to the growth of integrated continental economies relatively resistant to the effects of blockades. At the same time, the attendant confidence that armies would be able to “outflank the sea,” by reaching decisions on land before the attritional effects of naval war could be felt, would prove almost entirely illusory. Seapower thus remains an important theoretical conception, less because its possession ensures military success than because its absence continues to be disproportionately associated with military failure.

Jomini and Mahan exemplify theories of war based on a didactic reading of what they considered to be the relevant historical record—chiefly war in the West, particularly Europe, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the fall of Napoleon. This general point of view continues to prevail among students of what has increasingly been called “conventional” war, meaning combats between the organized forces of established states. In this arena, intellectual mastery includes a strong sense of historical continuity, and a pronounced respect for the “lessons” of at least the recent past. At the same time, technological and political developments have seemed sufficiently unprecedented to cast doubt on the continuing validity of such an approach.

In the decades between the world wars, for instance, proponents of strategic airpower argued that the advent of bomber aircraft had rendered historical experience obsolete. Billy Mitchell, a general in the U.S. Army Air Corps and the most prominent American champion of this new kind of war, regarded armies, navies, and civilian populations as equally vulnerable to air attack, against which neither geographic isolation nor human art could offer a defense. World War II demonstrated that this latter impression was mistaken, even as it inspired the development of weapons whose destructive power fully vindicated Mitchell's intuition of a world made new by technology. No country has relied more heavily on nuclear weapons than the United States, and it is unsurprising that American nuclear war theorists like Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling, and Bernard Brodie should occupy a preeminent place among those who have sought to analyze principles governing their use.

A comparable sense of novelty has prevailed among theorists of what in America is termed revolutionary insurgency or low‐intensity conflict. Here, too, the distinction between armed forces and civil society, on which theories of “conventional” war depend, has threatened to dissolve. In Mao Zedong's famous (and often misunderstood) phrase, political power in revolutionary war grows out of the barrel of a gun, in the sense that it is through military effort that political authority is constituted and legitimized. The guerrilla fighter is accordingly conceived as a fish swimming in the sea of his countrymen, without the distinguishing marks that have allowed soldiers to recognize each other in the past.

America's encounters with guerrilla warfare have given rise to an academic and professional literature that resembles the work of the nuclear theorists in being marked by deep pessimism and frustration and a strong sense that the best solution to conflicts of this kind is to avoid them. It has also contributed to a revival of interest in one of the greatest of all theoretical works on war, Sun‐tzu's The Art of War. Sun‐tzu's treatise dates from the Warring States period of Chinese history (c. 403–221 B.C.) and has been known in the West since the eighteenth century. Only since the 1960s, however, has it received sustained attention, by virtue of the inspiration it afforded Mao, and for the insight it offers into Asian ideas about war. These considerations do not exhaust Sun‐tzu's contemporary appeal. By reaffirming the importance of intellect and technique in war, the central value of discipline and generalship, and the vital importance of avoiding escalation and attrition, The Art of War speaks to the dilemmas of modern war with a directness that few contemporary works can match.

Contemporary military theory thus finds itself confronted by three distinct modalities of conflict—conventional, nuclear, and revolutionary—that have proven strongly resistant to intellectual synthesis. One measure of the perplexity that has resulted is the exceptional status still accorded Carl von Clausewitz's classic treatise On War (1832), whose intellectual range transcends the fragmentation of modern military experience. This Prussian military intellectual approached the theory of war by way of comprehensive historical study combined with a rigorous theoretical focus on war's fundamental elements. In Clausewitz's work, attack and defense, risk and decisiveness, combat and maneuver, politics and violence, appear not as static characteristics to be weighed up and accounted for once and for all, but as dynamic concepts that define and react upon each other. It is a method ill‐suited to the development of prescriptive theory, but remarkably powerful as a means of grasping what Clausewitz called the chameleonlike nature of organized violence.
[See also War.]


Alfred Thayer Mahan , The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1890.
William Mitchell , Winged Defense, 1925.
Giulio Douhet , The Command of the Air [II dominio dell'aria, 1921], trans. Dino Ferrari, 1942.
Antoine‐Henri Jomini , Summary of the Art of War [Précis de l'art de la guerre, 1838], trans. J. D. Hittle, 1947.
Bernard Brodie , Strategy in the Missile Age, 1959.
Herman Kahn , On Thermonuclear War, 1960.
Thomas Schelling , Arms and Influence, 1966.
Carl von Clausewitz , On War [Vom Kriege, 1832], trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 1976.
Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, 1986.
Sun‐Tzu , The Art of Warfare [Ping‐fa] trans. Roger Ames, 1993.
Lawrence Freedman, ed., War, 1994.

Daniel Moran

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