Military Leadership: Art or Science?

Military Leadership: Art or Science?

By Geraldine Cook
March 04, 2016

The differences in how two renowned Military thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine Henri Jomini, view Military history are still relevant in today’s modern environment.

Since the study of Military history and strategy is one of the cornerstones of the training of staff officers at the Chilean Army’s War Academy, it is important to consider the theoretical underpinnings of the strategic thinking we seek to develop in our students. In this context, the theories of two of the most important Military thinkers of all time, Karl von Clausewitz and Antoine Henri Jomini, have dominated the classrooms of Military academies since the 19th century. Even today, their concepts fuel a debate that strikes at the heart of Military Sciences.

Clausewitz was a 19th century Prussian general and Military theorist. He was known for emphasizing the political and psychological aspects of armed conflict and was considered a realist who relied to a large degree on the concepts of rationality. Jomini was a Swiss Military officer who served as a general in the French and Russian Armed Forces in the 19th century, and known for his writings on the Napoleonic method of war. Both Military thinkers were influenced by the European Enlightenment.

By studying their writings, it is possible to infer that the fundamental differences between Clausewitz and Jomini are rooted in their different concepts of the historical process, as well as the nature and role of Military theory.

Competing views of war

For Clausewitz, history must be seen in relative terms, thereby rejecting absolute categories, normalization, or standardization, and pre-established values. The past has to be accepted on its own terms; that is, the historian must try to get into the mindsets and attitudes of a given period, what he calls the “zeitgeist.”

History is a dynamic process of change, driven by forces that cannot be controlled. This historicism is particularly evident in two key issues of his work “On War” (1832), which are not made explicit in his earlier work, “Principles of War” (1812). They are that “war is a continuation of politics by other means” (organized violence) and that war may vary in form depending on the changing nature of the politics and the society in which it is fought.

These proposals reflect a thorough understanding of the philosophers of his time – intelligently formulating the principles of Hegelian dialectics, and the essential principles of Emmanuel Kant’s pure reason and practical reason. It creates an understanding of the dialectic of war and reaches the conclusion that, even though in theory all war is absolute, in practice it never occurs in those terms.

By contrast, Jomini’s view of history and war was static and simplistic. The general consciously applied the scientific method, as he understood it, to his studies of Military history. As a result of these studies, he discovered what he thought were common behavioral paradigms in Military operations. These models of behavior were codified in axioms and principles to better instruct other officers in how to organize, plan, and conduct “modern” war and would subsequently take the form of a “code of conduct.”

Like Clausewitz, Jomini built his theories on foundations formulated during the Enlightenment, adding a fundamentally reductionist and predictive character to his approach. It is undeniable that Jomini made a significant contribution to the evolution of Military thinking in trying to explain the theory of war by giving it a scientific character, whose components were clearly classified and governed by immutable universal principles.

It therefore seems that through these two great minds of Military history we find the roots of the claim that Military leadership is both an art and a science. In their ideas we can see the conflicting visions that are apparent today, as this dilemma has in no way been resolved. Our knowledge and understanding of war is a science, but the act of war itself is largely an art. This will not change in the future, independent of scientific and technological advances. As in the past, the character of war will change, but the nature of war – as formulated by Clausewitz – will remain unchanged.
Excellent reflection…in effect, war is art and science… I like the article but I don’t think the YES – NO assessment system is adequate. According to the article, Clausewitz himself mentions that “history must be seen in relative terms, thereby rejecting absolute categories.” Maybe it would be good to come up with another kind of system that isn’t so Manichaean. Cordial regards. Great overview of military thinkers who provide excellent reflections.