Military Genius: Is it still possible?

I’ve been re-reading some Clausewitz lately in an effort to nail down a theoretical basis for a concept I’m currently working on, and I strolled across his chapter on military genius (pp.100-112 in H&P edition). This got me thinking, in this modern age of instant communications, images from the front line and the capacity for direct political intervention, is military genius as Clausewitz understood it possible?

For those who haven’t been brushing up on their 19th Century military theorists, a quick and overly simple recap. Clausewitz saw military genius to lie in the temperament, intellect, strength of character and determination of an individual. He valued the inquiring mind over the creative, the comprehensive approach in opposition to the specialised and a calm disposition rather than the excitable. Has his definition become obsolete now though? As commanders’ roles have changed and many long since left the field of battle do these traits still have relevance today?

My gut feeling is that the character of genius has changed somewhat, and the more successful leaders are those who can process vast quantities of information filtering out the irrelevant or contradictory pieces and choosing an appropriate course of action, something Clausewitz noted but sat as only one factor amongst a number. But does this mean we’ve seen the backs of the Nelsons, Malboroughs, Adolphuses and Napoleons? Or will we simply see commanders with lesser ranks elevated in status and prestige?

14 responses to “Military Genius: Is it still possible?

  1. Just a quick response, as I will come back this later. I think the term ‘genius’ clouds our understanding of the command. To many people concentrate on these traits but fail to recognise what is effective command. Surely the real question is not whether it is possible but whether it is needed?

    • Care to elaborate on how it clouds our understanding of command? I can understand that in terms of focus it often inadvertently downplays the surrounding cast ala Napoleon and Berthier, but there are still undoubtedly commanders who really do command the title. I look forward to reading a further elaboration.

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  3. I don’t think you’ll ever see another Napoleon at least not in the digital age. Warfare is connected to society today in a way it never was before and so the most successful military leaders won’t achieve greatness based on their tactical or operational prowess but on their ability to manage the chaos of warfare with particular emphasis to its social and political effects. In other words more like Marshall or Eisenhower and less like Patton.

    Two of todays leaders I’ve taken a particular interest in are Petraeus and McChrystal. McChrystal’s work in Iraq as commander of JSOC by all accounts was an operation and strategic success bordering on a masterstroke. Petraeus on the other hand hasn’t been as inventive or creative in his strategic or operational decision making, in Iraq he adopted a strategy outlined by others, he fully embraced and implemented it. The reason history will probably remember Petraeus far more fondly is because he excelled in dealing with the chaos, dealing with the social and political as smoothly as possible.

    I also have to agree with Ross we haven’t seen much in the way of genius because for the last 40 years very rarely has their been an opportunity for a commander to express much in the way of strategic creativity. Perhaps the only guy who has had that chance since WWII is Schwarzkopf and even in that regard its hard to call GWI an ideal example.

    Again though I think military genius in the digital age is more about the ‘extension of politics by other means’ part of On War than any of the bits that actually deal with particular ways of attacking or defending.

  4. Playing Devil’s advocate here somewhat: Does managing these components in war not constitute genius in another form though? It may well be harder to see, but balancing the fighting, media, political, economic and logistical pressures of an army through to victory takes, at least, a lively mind. We value hard-work along the same lines in other fields and it seems we’re reluctant to dish out ‘geniuses’ in the military profession (breaking cover of the Devil’s advocate: and rightly so!) where other fields would probably recognise the achievements of say Schwarzkopf or McChrystal.

    The difficulty though, with General Staffs and the like, is in discerning just what a commander did in a conflict. Ask me now what the day-to-day responsibilities of the CGS is now and I honestly wouldn’t be able to give specifics beyond generalities. So I propose we petition for a Nobel War Prize to recognise the continuing endeavour of the world’s militaries against the unending partisan interference of modernity!

    • If your expanding the conventional definition of what constitutes military genius to those whose greatest skills are the management of the theater assets as well as the multitude of political and social factors than i’d say the notion of military genius is alive and well. I do feel that for the most part evolved into something equally political.

      • That’s the way I expect it to go, although as I said at the bottom; this isn’t really an expansion of the conventional definition – merely a greater emphasis on one part of it for the time being. I guess whether this type of warfare is transient is another issue entirely, and one I’ll leave up to the bigwigs discussing the SDSR.

    • Stuart, in terms of ‘balancing the fighting, media, political, economic and logistical pressures of an army through to victory’ how about Giap as a military genius?

      Still living though no longer active. Very good track record against both the French and later the USA; started off in a minor role against the Japanese, considered by some to be tactically and operationally brilliant; initially trained in China but developed his own methods, survived some pretty significant political infighting throughout his military career yet remained a member of the ‘politburo’, developed the logistical system which became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, was the primary architect of DBP and the French defeat/withdrawal, ditto Tet and the subsequent US wind down, and therefore (arguably) the greatest exponent of guerrilla warfare of the twentieth century.

  5. Ok i’ll bite a bit, I am sitting in the Reading Room at the IWM so I will be brief for the moment. With regard to ‘Genius’, the problem is is such a sfluffy term. It is ill-defined in most of the lierature. While I would agree that Clauswitz’s definition fits the people he mentions, notably Napoleon, it does not constitute effectiveness of the command system. Napoleon was good but often made mistake so while we see ‘genius’ on the battlefield there are plenty of examples on poor decision-making in his career. This creates problems.

    You are right to raise the issue of the General Staff in the 20th/21st centuries, even in the 19th too. These rauses what for the modern commander must be there over-riding commitment and that is management. They need to manage the staffs they have. Idf they do not then alll the battlefield brilliance in the world will not make them and effective commander as they will create friction in the system. If this friction exists and can not be overcome then it will impact on the effectiveness of command.

  6. I’d disagree on your first paragraph Ross, CvC’s definition transcends the few examples he mentions and strikes much closer to a theoretical ideal. This in my humble opinion ensures its relevance far beyond one individual period. In fact I’m currently writing in my thesis how this section given its breadth of relevance can be used as a theoretical yardstick with which to judge the lowest ranks of the BEF. The first ten or so pages are almost pure theory and it’s not until p111 does he seriously grapple with practical examples.

    As for the general staff I’d agree you need to be as much as manager and diplomat as a tactician; one alone may invalidate the others. To some degree this has always been the case though, while not as pronounced owing to size, commanders have had to grapple with management; if not those directly subservient to them, then in the form of meddling statesmen. A quick example would be Cosimo I de’ Medici and his general in the field Marquis of Marignano who constantly had to manage the siege of Sienna while suffering the former’s perpetually impractical tactical recommendations (Simon Pepper’s article in Tallet and Trim’s European Warfare 1350-1750 is great in showing the continuities in this regard). The question is then, with the increase in size and staff to manage has that been enough to stifle the possibility of genius? I’m not convinced, at the moment there’s very little scope in counter-insurgency warfare to demonstrate genius, but given the opportunity to plan a theatre wide campaign I still think that it has just as much possibility of emerging as before, only now the requirements are that tiny bit harder to achieve.

  7. I’m not sure I would agree that the COIN operational environment does not offer the emergent military genius to an opportunity to demonstrate his skills, unless you are looking purely from the counter-insurgency perspective.

  8. Stuart my issue is more with the use of the term ‘Genius’ than with Clasewitz’s defintion. We should be talking about effectiveness, a much more tangible facet. The other problem is that the leadership literature, certainly on the business side of things, is littered with title such as ‘Clausewitz for Business’ etc. Yes his areas are still useful to today but I think you should consider expanding your reading.

    I assume you are looking at the battalion, brigade and divisional commanders of your division for your thesis. You should consider looking at ideas such a followership and action centred leadership as a measure for who effective these men were and the friction that existed in the command system you are looking at. Clauswitz’s view is useful for the higher level of command but not so for lower down where I think they form only part of the equation.

  9. Nice post Stewart.

    “CvC’s definition transcends the few examples he mentions and strikes much closer to a theoretical ideal. This in my humble opinion ensures its relevance far beyond one individual period.”

    Very much agree with this statement. The concept of genius is what allows the individual commander to work outside of theory, to actually expand theory if only retroactively. Also Clausewitz’s ideas of military education and the formation of a modern general staff would complement and extend the capabilities of such a military genius.

    For the 20th Century I think you have to look at Mao as the best example of the Clausewitzian military genius. He was not only a military commander, but a strategist, a strategic theorist, and a politician.

  10. Von Clausewitz wrote of a Military Genius having personal Courage, an Intellect which seeks and sees truth with “the courage to follow this faint light (of truth) wherever it may lead”, a “Coup d’oeil” (Good Eye) which refers to “the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.”, the temperament of determination coupled with the “… courage to to accept responsibility..,” with a mindset “…which employs the fear of wavering and hesitating to suppress all other fears…”.
    He said a Military Genius needed a Presence of Mind with “…An increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected” and a steady nerve, for “resourcefulness in sudden danger calls, above all, for a steady nerve,”. He must have a strength of will so “The ardor of his spirit must rekindle the the flames of purpose in all others; his inward fire must revive his mens’ hope.” and a deliberate endurance sustained by intelligence.
    This Military Genius needs a Strength of Character which “…does not consist solely in in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one’s balance in spite of them.” and must act on ” Only those general principles and attitudes that result from clear and deep understanding (that) can provide a comprehensive guide to action.”. This person must also possess a “Sense of locality” or knowing where you are, which combines the ability to visualize and imagine topography and leads to the ability to fight from a map.
    I believe that these characteristics of Military Genius are as valuable in today’s environment as they were in Von Clausewitz’s day.

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