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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Modern and Contemporary Warfare. Every ancient
soldier after him might try to be an Alexander. Every
modern one may try to be a Napoleon. The failure
of all the European armies' war plans in 1914 led
B. H. Liddel Hart to exorcise The Ghost of Napoleon
(London, 1934) by claiming that “the influence of
thought upon thought is the most influential factor in
history,” and that Clausewitz had not been “the
prophet... of Napoleon,” but “the Mahdi of mass
and mutual massacre” (pp. 11, 120). Liddell Hart ad-
mitted that Clausewitz was easy to misunderstand, but
Clausewitz' contemporary, A. H. Jomini—who had
reduced Frederick's and Napoleon's grand tactics to
geometrical figures which are still used in military
science—did not think that he was obscure, but that
he was much too skeptical about military science. This
was true, though many later mathematical military
scientists failed to note in their Clausewitzian incanta-
tions his remark that while an enemy's “power of
resistance” can be “expressed as a product of two
inseparable factors: the extent of the means at his
and the strength of his will,” only the first
can be estimated in “figures,” and that the second


is “only approximately to be measured by the strength
of the motive behind it” (On War, Book I, Ch. ii, 6).

The people had to be armed, although Clausewitz
saw “a people's war in civilized Europe... [as] a
phenomenon of the nineteenth century” which might
be “as dangerous to the social order at home as to the
enemy.” Prussia's conservative military reformers, es-
pecially after the Revolution of 1848, had to manage
national and popular “passions,” while carefully train-
ing and indoctrinating a mass conscript army which
might again have to “advance against Paris, and engage
the French army in a great battle.” Prussia was still
the weakest of the great powers. Hence Prussia and
her allies should “act with as much concentration...
[and] as swiftly as possible.” Clausewitz could not have
been expected to see that a new Napoleon would be
more afraid of arming the people than Prussia's con-
servatives would be. But he did fear that since “bounds
once thrown down, are not easily built up again,...
at least whenever great interests are in question, mu-
tual hostility will discharge itself in the same manner
as it has done in our time” (ibid., Book VI, Ch. xxvii;
Book VIII, Chs. ix, iii b).

Although “militarism” is a nineteenth-century term,
its meaning received little attention from nine-
teenth-century philosophers. There is no index entry
for it in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia
(1911). John H. Muirhead's article on Hegel
ignores Hegel's idea that modern war fosters unselfish-
ness and does not lead individuals to hate individuals,
and stresses “the overpowering sense of the value of
organization” which had led Hegel to feel that “a vital
interconnexion between all parts of the body politic
is the source of all good” (Encycl. Brit., XIII, 203).
Later, democratic propagandists saw Nietzsche's
supermen and Treitschke's history as characteristically
militaristic, conservative, German, Clausewitzian, and
Hegelian. Tocqueville, on the other hand, feared that
the inevitable growth of democracy would also lead
to despotism and militarism. While “peace is peculiarly
hurtful to democratic armies, war” and its popular
passions give “them advantages which... cannot fail
in the end to give them the victory.” His “secret con-
nection between the military character and... [that]
of democracies” was the profit motive. “Men of democ-
racies are... passionately eager to acquire what they
covet and to enjoy it on easy conditions,... worship
chance, and are much less afraid of death than of
difficulty.... No kind of greatness is more pleasing
to the imagination of a democratic people than military
greatness—a greatness of vivid and sudden luster ob-
tained without toil by nothing but the risk of life”
(Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeves, London
[1840], IV, 239-40).

Tocqueville felt that “no protracted war can fail to
endanger the freedom of a democratic country,” if only
because “it must increase the powers of civil govern-
ment.” Democracy's defenses against militarism and
Bonapartism lay in “characteristics of officers, non-
commissioned officers and men” which were not uni-
form “at all times and among all democratic nations.
In every democratic army the noncommissioned offi-
cers will be the worst representatives of the pacific
and orderly spirit,... and the private soldiers the
best.” If the “community is ignorant and weak,” its
soldiers may “be drawn by their leaders into disturb-
ances;... if it is enlightened and energetic, the com-
munity will itself keep” its leaders “within the bounds
of order” (ibid., IV, 231-32).

Tocqueville died in 1859, the year in which Prussia's
conservatives began to strengthen her army against
Napoleon III's designs on the Rhine. The next decade
ended with their founding of a German Empire at
minimal costs in “blood and iron.” This left them in
a good position to combat the industrial classes' grow-
ing egalitarianism by the deliberate promotion of a
popular militarism which promised still more “vivid
and sudden luster.”

During the next long peace the English liberal
Hegelian, T. H. Green, argued that more democratic
states saw the general good less militaristically, were
less prone to resort to war, and were more likely to
“arrive at a passionless impartiality in dealing with
each other” (Principles of Political Obligation, London
[1890], para. 175). His Social Darwinist contemporary,
Herbert Spencer, held that the individualism sparked
by the profit motive was the main source of modern
social progress and that the progress of democracy and
industrialism had already resulted in “a growing per-
sonal independence,... a smaller faith in govern-
ments, and a more qualified patriotism.” These would
eventually lead democratic industrial societies to return
to the norms of “certain uncultured peoples whose lives
are passed in peaceful occupations,... honesty, truth-
fulness, forgivingness, kindness.” The general “decrease
of warfare” in the nineteenth century had already
brought considerable relaxation of governmental con-
trols and popular militancy, although Germany's upper
classes had successfully combined feudal controls and
popular nationalism to spark those “increases of arma-
ments and of aggressive activities” which had forced
a temporary regression “toward the militant social
type; alike in the development of civil organization
with its accompanying sentiments and ideas, and in
the spread of socialistic theories” (Principles of Sociol-
New York [1897], Vol. II, Ch. XXIII) in Europe.

Hegel and Tocqueville were closer to the realities
of people's wars and revolutions than Green and


Spencer were. But none of this was very new, and there
were no major philosophical treatises on or major
histories of militarism. Each philosopher put his exam-
ples of Spencerian “social metamorphosis” into his
general social philosophy. On War remains the only
major philosophical treatise on that subject. By 1914
Clausewitzian ideas on the scientific management of
war dominated military thought, and Napoleonic mili-
tary ideas were as uniformly widespread as Frederician
ones had been in 1789. But, as in the other social
sciences, the scientific method had been only partly
applied to the resulting mixture of ancient and modern
lore which bolstered the discipline and morale of the
industrial nations in arms.

Clausewitz did not see how the nascent Industrial
Revolution would change war. British arms and money
had played only supporting roles in defeating Napoleon
in Russia and Germany. Better planning, rather than
better weapons, had built the German Empire, though
everyone saw the importance of national industrial
potential. War's “accelerating self-transformation” was
to be partly due to the “institutionalization of...
innovation in... research laboratories, universities,
... [and] general staffs” (William H. McNeill, The Rise
of the West,
Chicago [1963], p. 567), but what White-
head later called the “invention of the method of
invention” had been only partly applied in the peace-
time armies which took the field in 1914.

Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies (1880) and Colmar
von der Goltz's The Nation in Arms (London, 1883)
had argued that men could only be moved against
modern firepower by the “internal power” of “national
egotism.” More important, France's outnumbered army
thought that it could win a Napoleonic battle with
Germany. General Ferdinand Foch cited Frederick the
Great, de Maistre, Napoleon, G. J. D. von Scharnhorst,
Marshal de Saxe, Xenophon, and Clausewitz to show
that, “A battle won, is a battle in which one does not
confess oneself beaten,
” and that the “old theory” of
“superior numbers,... guns,... positions” was as
“radically wrong” (Foch, Principles of War [1903],
London [1921], pp. 286, 3) as the Russian banker and
economist Ivan S. Bloch's statistical projections of The
Future of War in Its Technical, Economic, and Political
(1898). Bloch saw the future of war as one
of technical military deadlock, economic collapse, and
political and social revolution.

Fifty years after the deadlock began, just before a
new test of military thinking, a United States Air Force
Basic Doctrine (1964) declared that “technological and
tactical improvements must be continuous.” Many
nineteenth-century officers came from a class which
knew as little science as many of its classically educated
critics. Weaponry was left to private contractors or
branch specialists. Testing was hampered and general
industrial progress aided by the longest general peace
in modern times. And “physical force” was being used
to uphold the “moral force” of international law. De-
spite the fact that Bloch's work on the future of war
influenced Nicholas II's call for the International Peace
Congress of 1899, international arbitration among the
great powers was seen in the article on “Arbitration,
International” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911)
as offering only faint hope amidst “the springs of
warlike enterprise still found in commercial jealousies,
in imperialistic ambitions and in the doctrine of the
survival of the fittest which lends scientific support to
both” (II, 331). The author, M. H. Crackanthorpe, was
the President of the Eugenics Education Society.

Two generations of violence produced many new
combinations of old ideas. Technology was the deus
ex machina
in most victory, peace, and prosperity of
Western nations. Science, for example, is the basis for
Kenneth E. Boulding's “great transition” out of the
war, development, population, and entropy “traps” of
The Meaning of the Twentieth Century (New York,
1964). But this prolonged military intellectual crisis
produced no new ideas about the origins of war, and
even the definition of militarism was greatly affected
by national experience and by more general con-
servative, liberal, and socialist ideas of conflict resolu-
tion or management.