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The New International, April 1944

Walter Jason

Art of War – Ancient and Modern

Prof. Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy


From The New International, Vol. X No. 4, April 1944, pp. 113–117.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The publication of Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Prof. Edward Mead Earle, of Princeton University, and lecturer at the Army War College, enables us to review briefly the ideas of the important military theoreticians whose influence has been decisive in this field. It also enables us to draw certain conclusions pertinent to the present World War.

The book is a series of essays by reputable authorities, ranging from Machiavelli’s Art of War, Adam Smith, Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, Engels, Trotsky, Stalin, Ludendorf and Hitler to Japanese naval strategy. Comprehensive, well buttressed with notes and quotations, and with excellent bibliographical sources, these essays deserve study. For they are, above all, an accurate picture of capitalism at war.

Clausewitz’s dictum, “War is a continuation of politics by other (i.e., forcible) means,” is commonplace today. But his historic significance is generally unappreciated. His weighty influence on the war today is not understood. His particular influence and appreciation among the Marxian “greats,” especially the “military” men of the Marxist movement, Engels and Trotsky, is likewise not thoroughly understood. This entire work brings out all these interesting facts. It reminds one again – and it is refreshing – of the important contributions to the understanding of war which Marx, Engels, Lenin (to a lesser extent) and Trotsky made. These are the judgments of serious students of military theory – not the journalistic outpourings of the Max Werner or George Fielding Eliot type.

Machiavelli’s Art of War is generally recognized as the first modern classic on war: The author was the first modern military thinker. It is true that predecessors and contemporaries likewise sought to draw the lessons of ancient and feudal wars, but it took the genius of this shrewd politician and warrior to summarize the conclusions of the newly-developing warfare, one which reflected his age, the age of mercantilism and the Renaissance. For his analysis of methods of war Machiavelli naturally went back to the Punic wars. He realized the difference between a general plan (strategy) and the technique of carrying it out (tactics). His sharpest ridicule was reserved for the feudal military system.

Machiavelli described the victory in the battle of Zagonara as one in which “none were killed excepting Lodovico degli Obizzi, and he together with two of his men were thrown from his horse and suffocated in the mud.” Such was the military system of the flower of knighthood glorified in high school histories – a bankrupt regime with bankrupt military tactics. Machiavelli understood this to be the case. He emphasized the relationship between a war aim, the financial system of a state, and the strategy and tactics to be used in carrying out the general objective.

Of special interest was his disputed position on the role of artillery, an inevitable development from the discovery of gunpowder, and the rise of mercantilism, or embryo capitalism, which furnished sufficient wealth to make the employment of artillery possible. Just as with air power today, the contemporaries saw artillery, because of its devastating and, at that time, new effects, as THE weapon of war, replacing foot soldiers, etc. Machiavelli sought to put artillery in its proper place within the overall organization and method of an army.

Foreseeing Modern Warfare

In crude form Machiavelli introduced many ideas which were rounded out and became the basis for the solid and decisive writings of Clausewitz. Vauban’s writings on siege-craft and the “science” of fortifications filled another gap in the understanding of battles and wars. Frederick the Great, a first-rate soldier, then came upon the scene with his Principes généraux de la Guerre, based on his own brilliant successes in the field. In the matter of discipline, organization, flexible tactics and strategy his work was outstanding. In the field of battle, in his time, and under the social conditions of the day, his work stands out as that of a genius. It led Napoleon (to repeat the worn-out story) to remark, when he visited the grave of the German King at Potsdam some fifty years later, “If you were here, I wouldn’t be here.”

The rime was ripe for someone – a soldier with outstanding personal ability – to employ the totality of these advances in the fighting of wars and to make military history. When the French revolution broke the bonds of feudalism and created a new socio-economic structure to furnish a powerful, almost irresistible “home front” and an inspired soldiery, it was the hour of a Napoleon.

The French Revolution, once and for all, changed the basis of war. Under capitalism, war was a matter of the whole nation. The profound impact of the Napoleonic wars, coming after the French Revolution, set the stage and inevitably brought forth new schools of military thinkers. It laid the basis for modern warfare.

Two names are generally associated with the study and the conclusions drawn from the Napoleonic campaigns, Jomini and Clausewitz. Both were contemporaries of Napoleon, with Jomini being an unofficial “mouthpiece” of Napoleon. Clausewitz, the Prussian, living and studying in the army, had time and again felt the brunt of Napoleon’s genius.

What Jomini and most military writers called principles of strategy are outlined briefly as follows:

  1. Bringing by strategic measures the major part of an army’s forces to bear successively upon the decisive areas of a theater of war and as far as possible upon the enemy’s communications, without compromising one’s own;
  2. Maneuvering in such a manner as to engage one’s major forces against only parts of those of an enemy;
  3. Furthermore, in battle, by tactical maneuvers, bringing one’s major forces to bear on the decisive area of the battlefield or on that part of the enemy lines which it is important to overwhelm;
  4. Arranging matters in such fashion that these masses of men not only be brought to bear at the decisive place, but that they be put into action speedily and together, so that they may make “a simultaneous effort.”

Of course, these essentially sound rules – for that’s what strategic principles are – were developed and employed by Napoleon to the highest degree possible at that time (they did not, however, win the last battle, or the war). With some improvement, these “principles” are to be found in the field manuals today, be they Russian, German, American, or Japanese. Hannibal had used the right combination – the decisive element – of these rules to win the classic battle of the ancient world, Cannae. Jomini hoped to find the secret of success in method: strategy and tactics. Today Hitler and the German general staff can remind him that these are not enough. Foch and the other Allied generals blundered similarly in the First World War.

This dream, an almost inevitable one in the military mind, of finding the key to success in method, was exploded, above all, in the one war which has served as a model, along with the Napoleonic campaigns, for a study in strategy and tactics. This war was the American Civil War. Unquestionably in all military matters – leadership, strategy and tactics – the chief representatives of the South, Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, were far superior to anything the North produced. Victory was achieved elsewhere: in political aim and in the superiority of the social system of the North, combating the decadent semi-feudal South. This is the lesson from the facts, from the theories expounded by Clausewitz and brilliantly exposed by Engels, with certain correction from Marx.

Clausewitz and Engels

Clausewitz’s basic theoretical views on the political interpretation of war (a significant contribution to military theory) are stated succinctly:

“War is nothing else than a continuation of political transactions intermingled with different means. We say intermingled with different means in order to state at the same time that these political transactions are not stopped by the war itself, are not changed into something totally different but substantially continue, whatever the means applied may be ... How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between different peoples and governments cease when the exchange of diplomatic notes has ceased? Is not war only a different method of expressing their thoughts, different in writing and language? War admittedly has its own grammar, but not its own logic.”State policy is “the womb in which war develops.”

The bitter experience of every war, before and since these profound yet simple truths were written, has verified to the hilt this fundamental approach. Clausewitz brought a wealth of examples from exhaustive studies to illustrate his theory. Yet today there are many so-called military leaders, not to speak of countless civilians, who seek to “keep politics out of war.”

Clausewitz understood the relationship between the means and the end. It is evident in his discussion of “wars of coalition.” It is illustrated in his definition of strategy and tactics: “Tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat; strategy is the theory of ‘the use of combats for the object of the war.”

In writing on the advantages of defense (not to be confused with the theory that defensive warfare is advantageous over offensive warfare) he points out that these advantages are counterbalanced by a dialectic relationship.

It is with this comprehensive scope of thought that Clausewitz made his mark in military theory. His reputation rests solidly on that and not on the merits of the question of his interpretation of Napoleonic “principles” versus those of Jomini, or his “glorification of war.”

Marx and Engels, in particular the latter, come next in line of original thinkers whose ideas added to an understanding of the nature of war and modern military theory. Many people know about Engels’ articles on the American Civil War and the fact that Marx’s timely corrections on evaluating the economic factors therein, helped “The General,” as Engels was known, to write some of the most brilliant articles to appear en this struggle, both in its military and political phases.

Engels did more. His place in his contemporary society is indicated best by the fact that his articles on the Crimean war in the New York Tribune were attributed to General Winfield Scott, the Mexican war hero. His pamphlet, Po and Rhine, was considered to be the work of the Prussian, General Pfuel. His blistering criticism of the general staffs and their strategy stands on a plane by itself.

In his remarks on Clausewitz, he not only gives a sound judgment of the man’s work, but settled, once and for all, we believe, the question of a “military science.” Among other things, I am now reading Clausewitz’s On War. A strange way of philosophizing, but very good on his subject. To the question whether war should be called an art or a science, the answer given is that war is most like trade. Fighting is to war what cash payment is to trade, for, however rarely it may be necessary for it actually to occur, everything is directed toward it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive. (The post-October Revolution dispute among the Red Army leaders centered around this issue, and we will refer to it again.)

Engels and Marx brought the best method of investigation yet devised, that of historical materialism, to the study of military theory. It enabled them to have a more rounded-out view of the war. It polished up the rough spots in Clausewitz. It added the decisive element of the class struggle as an integral factor in all military conflicts. It saw nations, not as “entities,” but nations as reflections of capitalist society, thereby giving them a deeper insight into all the social and political forces which are reflected in war.

Warfare and Decay Capitalism

Until the October Revolution, and the Nazi counter-revolution, little of significance was contributed to the theory of war or warfare. Moltke and Schlieffen were great craftsmen in their trade. They did a good job of building a military machine. But they were not theorists.

The French Revolution, as indicated, shattered, among other things, the military theory and practice of the day. New forms of organization, new tactical and strategical devices and a new appreciation of the “imponderables,” especially of the morale of the army, were forthcoming. The sum total was an increase in mobility (as transportation developed, particularly railroads, this was further increased). A nation in arms inevitably developed. The October Revolution occurred, marking the end of this cycle of capitalist growth. Henceforth, stagnation is the rule.

The Red Army was born in struggle during this later epoch. For its organizational, technical and political basis a whole set of fundamentally new things existed. In particular, after the brief period of the civil war in Russia, a host of new technical factors were introduced into the problems of strategy and tactics. American ingenuity had developed, but did not fully utilize, among other things, such important inventions as the rifle with interchangeable parts, the machine gun, the balloon, the parachute, the plane, the first dive bomber and the submarine. Only the German and Russian armies took full advantage, in so far as their national economies permitted, of these significant technological advances in the methods of war.

The history of the Red Army is significant, for one thing, because it throws much light on the basic problems ever discussed by military theoreticians. In view of the veil of obscurity thrown over its early history, let us quote some of the significant statements made by Professor Earle.

“Seen in retrospect, Trotsky’s work of organizing, supplying, officering and even personally commanding the Red Army is one of the outstanding achievements of modern military history,” he points out.

“Leon Trotsky was the living refutation of Karl Kautsky’s statement that warfare is not the strong point of the proletariat. Trotsky was the father of the Red Army, the organizer of the victory during the civil war, and the author of much of the doctrine upon which Soviet military policy is founded.”

New Theories and the Red Army

Inevitably, after the victory of the Red Army, came the debate over the lessons of the civil war (“the small war was a big school,” wrote Trotsky), the future form of the army, its role, its strategy and tactics. Interwoven with these questions were the emerging political disputes between the “Troika” (Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev) and Trotsky. Confining ourselves, as far as possible, to the “purely” military questions (as against the political and theoretical differences between Trotsky and the Troika, which utilized the dispute in its campaign against Trotsky), the basic question in military theory was whether a Marxian military theory existed. Trotsky demolished this view.

“The Marxist method is a method of historical and social science. There is no ‘science’ of war, and there never will be any. There are many sciences war is concerned with. But war itself is not a science; war is a practical art and skill. How could it be possible to shape principles of military art with the help of the Marxian method? It is as impossible as it is impossible to create a theory of architecture or to write a veterinary handbook with the help of Marxism.”

In saying this, Trotsky stood on the ground of Marx, Engels and of Clausewitz. The opposition, which included, to one degree or another, Frunze, Gussev, Voroshilov and Tukhachevsky, sought to develop both a doctrine and a special theory of “offensive.”

“The Military Opposition”

Earle indicates that Trotsky wrote objectively when represented the position of the military opposition as follows:

“The opposition tried to find some general theoretical formula for their stand. They insisted that a centralized army was a characteristic of a capitalist state; revolution had to blot out not only positional war, but a centralized army as well. The very essence of the revolution was its ability to move about, to deliver swift attacks, and to carry out maneuvers; its fighting force was embodied in a small, independent detachment made up of various arms; it was not bound to a base; in its operations it relied wholly on the support of a sympathetic populace; it could emerge freely in the enemy’s rear.”

Of course, this is an idealization of guerrilla warfare.

One of the professors at the Red Army staff college put the matter this way:

“For each war it is necessary to develop a special line of strategic behavior; each war represents a particular case, which calls for the establishments of its own peculiar logic ... In the broad framework of the general theory of contemporary warfare, dialectics permits a clearer characterization of the line of strategic conduct which should be chosen in a given instance than could be achieved even in a theory specially formed to cover that specific instance.”

The question of a professional versus a militia type of army was another disputed point, with Tukhachevsky taking the independent position of being for a professional army and Trotsky remaining open-minded on the question (depending on political and military needs of the Soviet state). Events proved once again that elasticity in military thought, Trotsky’s strongest point, conformed closer to the realities than any preconceived notions or dogmatic “principles.” For the Soviet army combined features of both the professional and militia type of armies.

Many valuable books and documents on the military dispute in the Red Army are not available, so final judgment is not possible. This much is positive: The Red Army began its career unhampered by the dead hand of the army bureaucracy of a decadent Czarist regime. Its program and teachings were in a state of flux and experimentation. Tukhachevsky, the dominating influence in military matters for a long time (basic field service manuals as late as 1936 bore his imprint and many of the present officers learned under his tutelage), sought to prepare the Russian army for this war. The only other army which did likewise was the German army. As a matter of fact, both armies learned much from each other.

Tukhachevsky’s works were published in Germany, and German military thought was very influential in the Soviet Union. Under the secret provisions of the Treaty of Rappallo, “military cooperation” was practiced, under which Red Army officers studied in German military schools, and the German staff tested its theories in Russia, since the small German forces were hardly sufficient for that purpose. [1]

“A word needs to be said, too,” writes Prof. Earle in relation to the Russian armies’ battles today against the Nazi forces, “about the exiled, discredited and murdered Trotsky. He had always warned against a dogmatic view of strategy, which sought to be all things for all occasions. He had advocated adaptability and elasticity as being more suited for a revolutionary society and more in accord with sound military principles. This has vindicated Trotsky’s judgment.”

Earle adds that he considers “Stalin a titan in his own right.” Perhaps in a military sense? Many of the facts are obscured behind the screen of Russian censorship. A year ago a brilliant and devastating criticism of Stalin’s strategy appeared in an unsigned but authoritative article in Foreign Affairs. We hope to return to this subject on some other occasion. For the purposes of this review, it is sufficient to note that nothing new in military theory or strategy was worked out (or claimed) by Stalin.

Cenfution of Bourgeois Leaders

To the dictum that truth is the first casualty of war should be added the corollary: military theories and reputations are the next casualties ... at the cost of many lives. All the debates over questions like mass army versus mechanized army, professional army versus militia, blitzkrieg tactics as the “secret of success,” the role of guerrilla warfare, planes versus ships, bombers versus fighters, are reduced to their proper proportions, and the experiences of war give the definitive reply.

Each nation is busy getting out as much of all types of military weapons as its socio-economic base, or its allied bases, can assure. Moderation in strategy and tactics, shifts in emphasis on this point or that point, experiments here and there, all testify to the basic fact that in changing conditions the search for an algebraic formula to fit all situations is as fruitless as wishing for a war “according to rules.” The totality of war and the totality of the war machine embraces the entire socio-political life of the world to an extent not yet realized by most military leaders. The elementary notion in physics, “to each action there is an opposite and equal reaction,” operates with surprising force in the field of war. New tactics by the Nazis – counter-tactics of the Russians; blitzkrieg-blitzgrind. In the air war, the same rule applies. One has only to follow the day-to-day reports of the bombing flights and fighter battles over Europe to see this.

Only one rather raucous school of “independent” thought remains, the “victory through airpower” advocates. It is another example of the “wish-is-father-to-the-thought” type of mentality which has always marked military circles. Like artillery warriors in the old days, the proponents of airpower have fought a long, hard battle to win recognition for (his weapon. The story of General Mitchell is familiar to everyone in America. The conservative tendencies always present in bureaucratic armies resisted the development and use of this vital weapon. Exaggerated claims for the airplane were an inevitable reaction.

The war has shown already that the presupposition of “control of the air” is an illusion. Göring’s dream was the first to be shattered on this score. Even the enormous difficulties of the historically unprecedented plan for the “second front” have not prevented the general staffs, on both sides, from coldly reckoning that only when land power is employed decisively against Germany, with the cooperation of sea and airpower, will a military conclusion to the war be possible.

Hanson W. Baldwin of the New York Times has been one of the few present-day military writers to stand on firm ground on this issue. These basic considerations are not altered by the sudden emphasis that Winston Churchill has given to the role of airpower. For he notes that the greatest air offensive ever imagined can serve only as the prelude to the invasion of Festung Europa.

Political Obstacles Confront Bourgeoisie

Always in history there has been a dream of a small, professional, superior-armed force which could bring victory, for always has there existed a fear of the arming of the vast millions. So it is again today. Dieppe and Anzio stand out sharply in the minds of Churchill and others. And there is the fear of the reaction to terrific losses in a land invasion. The collapse of Italy brought a climax to the European phase of this war, but with Germany in a delicate balance between panic and defeat, the historic opportunity was inevitably muffed. For the nightmare of the revolt of (he peoples in Europe loomed over the heads of the Allied statesmen. This was the political defeat of the war.

Hitler and his cohorts caught their breaths, and the war goes on. Those significant events of last autumn testified to the fact that in war aims, and therefore in strategy and tactics, the differences between the battling nations were one of degree at best, and not of principle. And the difference in degree was insufficient to bring decisive results. Fighting to preserve a world status quo is hardly an inspiring rallying point, in a changing world. The chief worry over bringing into play the underground forces in Europe is precisely the worry of bringing into action the masses of Europe in a fight for the control of their destinies. Therefore, the main hope of the United Nations rests in economic preponderance. Their hesitancy in hurling large forces against Festung Europa is rationalized as being a “concern over lives,” when actually it is concern over the reaction to the loss of lives – something quite different. Pouring vast quantities of equipment into France, for example, would save lives, since a powerful force could arise from within Festung Europa at the right moment. But that again means arming the masses and possibly losing control over them.

In the American Civil War not only did the North have an economic preponderance, but it rested on a superior social order. Even then it took the lives of vast numbers of men. However, these could be justified in the sense that the war could truly be called progressive. Victory meant the destruction of an historically-outmoded social order, based on slavery.

The world statesmen and military leaders know the meaning of the paragraph on war which we quote from the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, published in 1935:

“The World War exhibited a capacity for progressive destructiveness that is felt as a warning to the ruling classes everywhere. Every country that participated in the war issued from it burdened by a colossal debt and crushing taxes, currency disorders, a hectic economic life declining toward depression and chronic economic disorder. Every country discovered the foundations of civil order were less secure than had been assumed. Whether what is known as modern civilization could survive another war involving the great powers is regarded by most students of society as an open question.”

There were neither victors nor losers in the First World War, as far as nations were concerned. Only the beacon light of October, and the threat of its repetition on a world scale, stopped the First World War. No evidence exists that there is any other way out of the Second World War.


1. The Von Seekt theory of a small “professional” army was primarily a rationalization of the conditions imposed on the Wehrmacht by the Versailles treaty. Hitler, with a better understanding of the politics of war than the German general staff, changed this and sought to obtain an army as large as possible, equipped as well as possible for the next war. The German army, like the Russian, adapted itself more readily to the new conditions of war Imposed by the current technological developments. But Hitler, like so many others, erred fatally when he substituted streamlined tactics (“Blitzkrieg warfare”) as his hope for victory, for a more rounded-out strategic concept. For the Drang Nach Osten – a decisive strategical mistake – the Nazi army had long laid plans. For the counter-attack, the Russian army had been holding field maneuvers for over fifteen years.

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