1.3 Book One, Chapter 3: On Military Genius
GIV COMMENT: This is an important chapter from a practical point of view and is not dependent on historical analysis or setting. Genius does not have any special meaning other than an ordinary meaning, “in which “genius” refers to a very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 100.)
[I]t is precisely the essence of military genius that it does not consist in a single appropriate gift—courage, for example—while the other qualities of mind or temperament are wanting or are not suite to war. Genius consists in a harmonious combination of elements, in which one or the other ability may predominate, but none may be conflict with the rest.
[T]he terms refers to a special cast of mental or moral powers which can rarely occur in an army when a society has to employ its abilities in many different areas. The smaller the ranges of activities of a nation and the more the military factor dominate, the greater will be the incidence of military genius. This, however, is true only of its distribution, not of its quality. The latter depends on the general intellectual development of a given society. In any primitive, warlike race, the warrior spirit is far more common that among civilized peoples. It is possessed by almost every warrior: but in civilized societies only necessity will stimulate it in the people as a whole, since they lack the natural disposition for it. On the other hand, we will never find a savage who is truly a great commander, and very rarely one who would be considered a military genius, since this requires a degree of intellectual powers beyond anything that a primitive people can develop. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 100.)
Possession of military genius coincides with the higher degrees of civilization: the most highly developed societies produce the most brilliant soldiers, as the Romans and the French have shown us.
COMMENT: In accord with the Platonic virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom and justice. Clausewitz suggests that the most evenly balance produces military genius.
Examining the qualities of Military genius:
War is the realm of danger; therefore courage is the first quality of a warrior. [GIV COMMENT: As Plato reminds us, a lion can lead an army of rabbits; but an army of lions cannot be led by a rabbitt. The Republic]
Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility… [Clausewitz only discusses the first]
Courage in the face of personal danger is also of two kinds. It may be indifference to danger, which could be due to the individual’s constitution, or to his holding life cheap, or to habit… Alternatively, courage may result from such positive motives as ambition, patriotism, or enthusiasm of any kind…
These two kinds of courage act in different ways. The first is the more dependable; having become second nature, it will never fail. The other will often achieve more… The highest kind of courage is a compound of both.
War is the real of physical exertion and suffering. These will destroy us unless we can make ourselves indifferent to them and for this birth or training must provide us with a certain strength of body and soul… it is exactly these qualities that primitive and semicivilized peoples usually possess.
If we pursue the demands that war makes on those who practice it, we come to the region dominated by the powers of intellect. War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for…
War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder. Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 101.)
If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead. The first of these qualities is described by the French term, coup d’oeil; the second is determination. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 102.)
GIV COMMENT: In this regard, Sidney Hook’s comment is apropos at this juncture: “One of the most conspicuous expressions of political insight is the sense of timing. Without it, great intelligence can be ineffective. Coupled with strong will, it can carry a mediocre mind to the heights.” The Hero in History, 1943.
The aspect of war that has always attracted the greatest attention is the engagement. Because time and space are important elements of the engagement… the idea of a rapid and accurate decision was first based on an evaluation of time and space…
Coup d’oeil therefore refers not alone to the physical but, more commonly to the inward eye… the concept merely refers to the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 102.)
GIV COMMENT: This is the O[bservation] O[rientation] part of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop decision-making matrix
[Determination] Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that the most intelligent people are irresolute. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 102.)
COMMENT: Interesting to read Clausewitz’s observation along side Neitzsche’s: “Courageous, untroubled, mocking, violent—that is what wisdom wants us to be: wisdom is a woman and loves only a warrior. […]
Since in the rush of event a man is governed by feelings rather than by thought, the intellect needs to arouse the quality of courage, which then supports and sustains it in action… [T]he role of determination is to limit the agonies of doubt and the perils of hesitation when the motives for action are inadequate. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 102-103.)
Determination, which dispels doubt, is a quality that can be aroused only by the intellect, and by a specific case of mind at that… it is engendered only by a metal act; the mind tells man that boldness is required, and thus gives direction to his will. [men of low intelligence cannot possess military genius because] They may act without hesitation in a crisis, but if they do, they act without reflection; and a man who acts without reflection cannot, of course, be torn by doubt. [Kornilov—heart of a lion with brains of a sheep] From time to time action of this type may even be appropriate; but… it is the average result that indicates the existence of military genius. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 103.)
[D]etermination proceeds from a special type of mind, from a strong rather than a brilliant one. We can give further proof of this interpretation by pointing to the many examples of men who show great determination as junior offices, but lose it as they rise in rank. Conscious of the need to be decisive, they also recognize the risks entailed by a wrong decision; since they are unfamiliar with the problems now facing them, their mind loses their former incisiveness. The more used they had been to instant action, the more their timidity increases as they realize the dangers of the vacillation that ensnares them.
[a related subject to coup d’oeil and determination]: “presence of mind.” This must play a great role in war, the domain of the unexpected, since it is nothing but an increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected. [Determination] Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that the most intelligent people are irresolute. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 103.)
The expression “presence of mind” precisely conveys the speed and immediacy of the help provided by the intellect.
A quick retort shows wit; resourcefulness in sudden danger calls, above all, for steady nerve.
Four elements make up the climate of war: danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance. [then discusses the interplay of psychological forces at play]
To begin with, clear thought demands that we keep one point in mind: of the weight, the burden, the resistance—call it what you like—that challenges the psychological strength of the soldier, only a small part is the direct result of the enemy’s activity, his resistance, or his operations.
A second way in which the enemy’s resistance directly affects the commander is the loss that is cause by prolonged resistance and the influence this exerts on his sense of responsibility.
So long as a unit fights cheerfully, with spirit and élan, great strength of will is rarely needed; but once conditions become difficult, as they must when much is at stake, things no longer run like a well-oiled machine. The machine itself begins to resist, and the commander needs tremendous will-power to overcome this resistance. [Determination] Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that the most intelligent people are irresolute. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 104.)
Of all the passions that inspire man in battle, none, we have to admit, is so powerful and so constant as the longing for honor and renown… It is primarily this spirit of endeavor on the part of commanders at all levels, this inventiveness, energy, and competitive enthusiasm, which vitalizes an army and make it victorious.
Staunchness indicates the will’s resistance to a single blow; endurance refers to prolonged resistance.
Strength of mind or of character -- “[T]he ability to keep one’s head at times of exceptional stress and violent emotion. Could strength of intellect alone account for such a faculty? We doubt it. [Determination] Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that the most intelligent people are irresolute. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 105.)
We repeat again: strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one’s balance in spite of them. Even with the violence of emotion, judgment and principle must still functions like a ship’s compass, which records the slightest variations however rough the sea. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 107.)
We say a man has strength of character, or simply has character, if he sticks to his own convictions, whether these derive from his own opinions or someone else’s, whether they represent principles, attitudes, sudden insights, or any other mental force. Such firmness cannot show itself, of course, if a man keeps changing his mind… Obviously a man whose opinions are constantly changing, even though this is in response to his own reflections, would not be called a man of character. The term is applied only to men whose views are stable and constant. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 107.)
Action can never be based on anything firmer than instinct, a sensing of the truth. Nowhere, in consequence, are differences of opinion so acute as in war, and fresh opinions never cease to batter at one’s convictions. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 108.)
Often there is a gap between principles and actual events that cannot always be bridged by a succession of logical deductions…. Frequently nothing short of an imperative principle will suffice, which is not par of the immediate thought-process, but dominates it: that principle is in all doubtful case to stick to one’s first opinion and to refuse to change it unless forced to do so by a clear conviction. (Id., p. 108.)
Strength of character can degenerate into obstinacy.
Obstinacy is not an intellectual defect; it comes from reluctance to admit that one is wrong… Obstinacy is a fault of temperament. Stubbornness and intolerance of contradiction result from a special kind of egotism, which elevates above everything else the pleasure of its autonomous intellect, to which others must bow. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 108.)
We would therefore argue that strength of character turns to obstinacy as soon as a man resists another point of view not from superior insight or attachment to some higher principle, but because he objects instinctively. (Book One, Chapter Three, pp. 108-109.)
Appropriate talent is needed at all levels if distinguished service is to be performed. But history and posterity reserve the name of “genius” for those who have excelled in the highest positions—as commanders-in-chief—since here the demands for intellectual and moral powers are vastly greater. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 111.)
[A] commander-in-chief must also be a statesman, but he must not cease to be a general. On the one hand, he is aware of the entire political situation; on the other, he knows exactly how much he can achieve with the means at his disposal. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 112.)
Circumstances vary so enormously in war, and are so indefinable, that a vast array of factors has to be appreciated—mostly in the light of probabilities alone… What this task requires in the way of higher intellectual gifts is a sense of unity and a power of judgment raised to a marvelous pitch of vision, which easily grasps and dismisses a thousand remote possibilities which an ordinary mind would labor to identify and wear itself out in so doing. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 112.)
Truth in itself is rarely sufficient to make men act. Hence the step is always long from cognition to volition, from knowledge to ability. The most powerful springs of action in men lie in his emotions. He derives his most vigorous support… from that blend of brains and temperament which we have learned to recognize in the qualities of determination, firmness, staunchness, and strength of character.
If we then ask what sort of mind is likeliest to display the qualities of military genius, experience and observation will both tell us that it is the inquiring rather than the creative mind, the comprehensive rather than the specialized approach, the calm rather than the excitable head to which in war we would choose to entrust the fate of our brothers and children, and the safety and honor of our country. (Book One, Chapter Three, p. 112.)
L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace. General George S. Patton