Is the enemy of my enemy’s strategy really my strategy?

Finally getting through some of my backlog posts.

Thinking about Vegetius (author of the famous De re militari, a reformist treatise on Roman warfare written before 450 AD), I remain puzzled over what appears to be a mainstay of strategic conventional wisdom. It appears in Vegetius’ General Maxims (Book III chapter 26), wherein he states, to use Milner’s translation:

In all battles the terms of campaign are such that what benefits you harms the enemy, and what helps him always hinders you. There we ought never to do or omit to do anything at his pleasure, but carry out only that which we judge useful to ourselves. For you begin to be against yourself if you copy what he has done in his own interest, and likewise whatever you attempt for your side will be against him if he chooses to imitate it.

Other military authors have stated much the same, usually when advising generals to avoid being forced into a field battle, and it has been favorably cited by modern military historians as well. To quote from an English translation of Frederick the Great’s Military Instructions to his Generals: “Those battles are the best into which we force the enemy, for it is an established maxim, to oblige him to do that for which he has no sort of inclination, and as your interest and his are so diametrically opposite, it cannot be supposed that you are both wishing for the same event.” [There’s some context around this quote that merits consideration too.]

But once I start to analyze this logic, my head hurts. It seems like there are a number of rather questionable assumptions underneath this conventional wisdom, or, at least, complications that make me wonder about its utility as a heuristic.

“Forcing an enemy to fight a battle they don’t want” and “Avoid fighting a battle your enemy is trying to force upon you” seem like reasonable advice on the surface, though perhaps the second is more reasonable than the first. Although one of the key assumptions seems to be that victory goes to the one prepared for battle, i.e. it assumes the enemy doesn’t want to fight because he’s not ready for it and will therefore lose. This fits the prudential argument that preparation and discipline are key, but seems to be undermined by the corresponding prudential point that battles are inherently risky and chance plays a key role, regardless of how well prepared you are. If the outcome of a battle is decided by chance or fortuna or the Wheel of Fate or God or whatever, what does your intention and preparation have to do with anything? (I don’t recall seeing the old “God helps those who help themselves” quoted in this context, but I know Eugene of Savoy mentioned it at least once.) Or maybe the military sages don’t really believe the “battle is dictated by fate” line after all? Maybe that’s more of a platitude than practical advice.

This advice leaves me confused on another level (but, then again, what doesn’t). Another major assumption is that a strategic zero-sum game is in effect – most clearly stated by the Prussian Great Captain. But is it usually true that military operations are a zero-sum game, that the two sides are diametrically opposed? Can it be rational for two sides to both pursue the same strategy, to want the same thing, e.g. to fight a field battle? (Especially if we assume that the outcome of battle is a roll of the dice, in which case it wasn’t necessarily a mistake for the losing side to seek battle.) Isn’t it possible that the same event (say, a battle), could actually benefit (and harm) neither side, or end up helping/harming each side equally, i.e. end up being a wash? Haven’t we seen one or two indecisive field battles in history?

This conventional wisdom also seems to imply an omniscient understanding of both yourself and your enemy, in wartime no less. There seem to be several levels here, and I’m not sure about their correspondence with each other: a) what you want to do, b) what you want your enemy to think you want to do, c) what your enemy wants to do, d) what your enemy wants you to think he wants to do, e) what you should do that will help you, f) what you should do that will hurt your enemy, g) what the outcomes (tactical, but also operational and strategic) of those actions are. Some possible complications:

  1. What if you are wrong about your weaknesses? About your enemy’s? Do people, particularly people in the emotionally-charged, dangerously-competitive and deceptively-secretive atmosphere of wartime, always know what is best for themselves, and what is worst for their enemy? Maybe heuristics for generals should encourage them to question their assumptions, to contemplate their origins, rather simply embrace them? Or does that only promise indecision and paralysis?
  2. Should you avoid acquiescing to you enemy’s desire for battle if your enemy is wrong? If he’s adopting a flawed strategy, or relying on flawed intell, etc.?
  3. How well do you really know your enemy’s intentions? Should you reassess your strategy based off what your enemy is attempting to do? Only forcing the enemy to do things which they have “no sort of inclination” is an important qualification, but what level of certainty does this require, and how do we achieve that level of certainty in wartime? How does the frequent discussion of stratagems and tricking the enemy relate to knowing what the enemy wants? What if, for example, your enemy is using a stratagem to get you to react? (“Let’s see, I know that he knows that I know…”) If the enemy gives out that they want to fight, should you avoid a battle? How do you even know your enemy really wants to fight, and isn’t just yanking your chain to waste the campaign season?
  4. If applied blindly, the heuristic of “avoid what your enemy wants” seems to imply that you should abandon your predefined objectives if they end up telling you to do what the enemy seems to want you to do. How is one to reconcile the contradiction when your predefined strategy coincides with what the enemy wants to do, especially in Frederick’s world of diametrical opposition? Let’s say the mediocre French commander Villeroi is marching towards the Allied army to engage in battle. Does that mean the Allies should avoid the battle because the enemy wants it? (Spoiler alert: they happily accept the French will to fight and thrash them at Ramillies.) So the “judging for yourself” actually seems to be the key and almost too obvious to merit explicit formulation, yet it usually gets buried underneath the doctrinaire “what helps your enemy always hinders you.” Why so strict a formulation? Why bury the lede?
  5. Where is the guidance as to how you should measure what helps vs. what hinders? Perhaps a battle victory might help with one problem but hurt you on another level. Oddly, the reasons often given for why you should fight a battle, often revolving around the potential future loss of numerical or moral superiority, seem  fleeting, hypothetical and hardly fatal, yet they are portrayed as catastrophic enough to induce one to commit to a field battle. Is this fear of battle?

In other words, the thought process here seems so simplistic and confusing that I wonder what utility contemporaries actually derived from such formulaic advice. Did they debate these issues, perhaps prompted by the theoretical manuals? Or am I totally missing the point? Fodder for my battle book.



31 responses to “Is the enemy of my enemy’s strategy really my strategy?”

  1. Gavin Robinson says :

    Was the golden bridge also a popular idea in the early-modern period? Was there any debate between the “don’t do what they want” school and the “let them retreat if they want to” school? I tend to think that the latter makes more sense. As you say, battles are always risky, and even a win will involve taking some casualties and expending some ammunition. Achieving operational objectives without having to fight seems more attractive. Has the view put forward by Vegetius and Frederick been exaggerated by Whig historians with their Great Captains and decisive battles?

    • jostwald says :

      Vegetius was certainly known in the later 17C-early 18C (my main focus), though the latest English translation was 1572, and not another till the 1760s (where the preface claims that his ideas were little known then). So Vegetius’ ideas were around, though the frequency of direct references to him (versus being summarized, appropriated, or alluded to) seems to decrease once you get past the 1670s treatises (which were often written decades earlier). But 1) even Vegetius was more battle-oriented than he’s given credit for – more detail in my eventual book, 2) as I alluded to in my Vauban under Siege, there was a heavy dose of vigor and battle-seeking that clearly contradicts Vegetian battle-avoidance, and 3) as other scholars have noted, different parts of Vegetius could be emphasized or ignored as needed, which means it’s conceivable contemporaries focused on Vegetius’ discipline and stratagems while ignoring his admonitions to beware battle.
      If the choice was between a risky battle (risk is in the eye of the beholder) and an almost-certain expensive and delaying siege (“knocking heads against stone walls”, as the English liked to say), then most English preferred the battle option – you probably know Defoe’s semi-approving comment about English civil war generals wanting to beat each others’ brains out. (My forthcoming book chapter on Popular English Perceptions of Louis XIV’s Way of War spells this out.) So the golden bridge idea was around (and sometimes misinterpreted), but it wasn’t very prominent, at least for the late Stuart treatise authors.

      Overall the situation is a bit confusing: there was definitely an English vigor vs. Continental prudential divide (“the Continental divide” I guess I’ll have to call it), but there also might have been a divide between pre-17C English (maybe up to the 1670s) and later English (and maybe another change in the mid-18C), plus there was definitely a divide between what theoretical treatises might say and what the average Englishman (and English soldiers/generals) expressed.
      Hence my thoughts are a bit scattered right now: I’m still working through how to reconcile all these strands, which raises the question of whether there was a coherent strategic culture at all (a consensus), or whether there were internal contradictions within the generally-accepted theory (e.g. there sometimes seem to be potentially-contradictory statements about vigor and prudence in the same treatise), or whether there was a debate between two (or more) camps, or whether it was instead just a cacophony of voices publishing into the wilderness, many of them blindly aping the Ancients and repeating adages because that’s what their audience needed to write in their commonplace books.

      Generally my battle book analyzes how the idea of battle shaped contemporary perceptions of the WSS (as well as shaping its later military historiography) even when big battles were neither frequent nor decisive (in a war-ending sense). But before that book gets done I need to finish a book chapter on the honor (or lack thereof) in Louisquatorzian sieges, which will actually be important groundwork for my discussion of the honor acquired in battle.

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    People tend to want concrete rules but human endeavors are chaotic. I’d imagine that Vegetius and his experienced readers would be expected to know that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes.

    1. What if you are wrong about your weaknesses? About your enemy’s?

    You will be wrong, the question is how wrong and in which direction.

    You have your known knowns (of which there will likely be precious few) and your known unknowns. Within your known unknowns, you can further subdivide into reasonably believeds and no clues. There’s no profit worrying about the unknown unknown; doing so will just waste your time. Essentially, you use what you have to develop a confidence level, keep your options as open as you can, and keep trying to refine your intelligence as you go.

    Long story short, while you can hedge your bets, it’s still a gamble.

    2. Should you avoid acquiescing to you enemy’s desire for battle if your enemy is wrong? If he’s adopting a flawed strategy, or relying on flawed intell, etc.?

    In most cases, allowing your enemy to make a mistake is to your advantage (“Hello Cannae, are you ready to rock?”). It’s not an absolute, however. If you don’t have the resources to pull it off without suffering too greatly or being able to follow through, it could turn Pyrrhic.

    3. How well do you really know your enemy’s intentions?

    Same as 1 above. Depending on the enemy, he may not even “really know” his intentions.

    4. If applied blindly, the heuristic of “avoid what your enemy wants” seems to imply that you should abandon your predefined objectives if they end up telling you to do what the enemy seems to want you to do.

    No heuristic/maxim/rule/etc. can be applied blindly. If I had to go to war and got to pick my opponent, I’d go for the one who believed in rules (particularly rules laid down over a thousand years previously).

    5. Where is the guidance as to how you should measure what helps vs. what hinders?

    I’d imagine such guidance, had it been provided, would have been both voluminous and completely out of date. I’m not sure what the shelf life of that type of advice would have been during the early modern period, but I doubt it would span multiple decades.

  3. jegrenier says :

    Just thinking that any strategy (that thing you come up with to reach your policy objectives) based this would 1) show a lack (rather than the opposite) of strategic vision and 2) be bad strategy because so much would be out of your control. Trying to think of an example where this strategy has produced decisive outcomes. I can’t.

    • jostwald says :

      Agreed. Which makes me think these tips weren’t of much use, except perhaps as occasional prompts. Probably mentioned when soldiers wanted to play the ‘intellectual’ and illustrate their familiarity with history/Classical adages.

    • Gene Hughson says :

      1812 Russian campaign?

      • Jegrenier says :

        Gene, not sure what you mean. NB invaded Russia (who was Britain’s enemy?) and lost badly there, which derived from British grand strategy how? I’m not seeing it, but nothing new there 🙂

      • Gene Hughson says :

        John, when Boney crossed the Nieman with the Grande Armee, his strategy was to seek a quick, crushing victory. Barclay de Tolly’s strategy was to retreat and deny him what he wanted. Where the Russians deviated from that (Smolensk, Borodino), the costs were great and the benefits nil. The strategy of refusing to give Napoleon what he wanted ultimately cost him roughly 80% of his forces and half the fragment remaining were the all but openly hostile forced allies (Prussian and Austrian corps). Not so bad a strategy.

  4. Jegrenier says :

    Are we absolutely convinced that NB wanted battle, especially in Russia in 1812? Wasn’t he smart enough to link his strategy to his policy objectives? Wasn’t his policy objective the fall of the Tsarist state and the incorporation of Russia into the Empire? Could NB, maybe the greatest military thinker of his age (again, debatable, but that’s for elsewhere) have seen that he could attain his objectives without battle? Or was he stuck in somekind of Maslow’ Hammer Principle? I frankly do not know, but I think it’s indicative of the macro problem J called out with this post: commanders have no idea knowing what the other guy thinks. You can make pretty good guesses, but you can never be sure. So it would seem to me to be pretty foolish to base strategy (and operations) on not doing something because YOU THINK an opponent wants you to do it, or doing something bc YOU THINK your opponent doesn’t want you to do it. Of course, there’s always an element to such thinking in planning (I’d contend that’s why the current US military campaign planning process [I think JP-05, but it’s been a decade+ since I was a planner] calls for branches and sequels so you can reapportion, reallocate, and reposition forces when your opponent doesn’t do what you expect him to do), but the best strategy (and I think history backs this up) is the one that you make sure is in line with your policy objectives, you align proper forces to accomplish, and you make unambigiously clear to those at the operational level of war. Remember, both water and shit flow downhill. If you’re constantly dorking around trying to outfox your opponent because you’re trying to not do something he wants you to do, your corps, division, and brigade commanders are going to be left grasping at air. You’re going to take away their freedom of action (and consider that you put them in those positions because you need them and trust them to act independently, bc you can’t do everything by yourself) at which point they stop doing, stop being proactive, become reactive, and lose battles and then wars. I don’t see how you ever explain the “we’re not going to do this because this is what they really want us to do” in any efficient or effective way once the campaign is rolling. I think you’d just confuse the hell out of everyone. Gotta keep it simple: The best armies are the ones that focusing on doing very well what they do, and don’t buy in to the silliness of letting the chips fall where they may. They create unfair games in which they hold the trump cards or have loaded the dice. Again, they don’t worry about not doing something because their afraid their opponent might actually want them to do it. They do or don’t based on their goals and objectives. Again, pardon typos. I’m all about the iPad.

    • Gene Hughson says :

      “Are we absolutely convinced that NB wanted battle, especially in Russia in 1812?”

      I am. I don’t have access to my library right at the moment, but if memory serves, I could find references to Bonaparte’s own utterances to that effect.

      No matter, it might be an advantage as this places me in the nearly the same position as Barclay de Tolly regarding my assessment. Napoleon needed a victory and quick in order to avoid a protracted campaign that would quickly diminish his forces via the dismal logistical situation (Sweden’s Charles XII provided a well-known historical precedent for this issue). Additionally, Bonaparte had a history of seeking quick knockout blows followed by an imposition of peace on the emasculated enemy.

      “Wasn’t he smart enough to link his strategy to his policy objectives?”

      I think so. That being said, the outcome of the execution of a strategy is a function of both his action and the Russian’s reaction (In truth, it’s more complex than this because each side is acting and reacting, so there’s a larger number of variables in play). He could fish all he wanted to, but if they didn’t bite his ability to force the issue was limited.

      “Wasn’t his policy objective the fall of the Tsarist state and the incorporation of Russia into the Empire?”

      Where did you get that idea? He never attempted that with Austria or Prussia (even after he nearly carved it up into oblivion). Why would he attempt to do this with Russia? It fails even an elementary cost/benefit analysis. As far as I’m aware, his aims were much more modest: bringing Alexander back into the fold re: the Continental system.

      “Could NB, maybe the greatest military thinker of his age (again, debatable, but that’s for elsewhere) have seen that he could attain his objectives without battle? Or was he stuck in somekind of Maslow’ Hammer Principle?”

      Assuming that the “greatest military thinker of his age” is applicable, it doesn’t follow that that helps with all political problems. War might be the continuation of politics by other means, but that doesn’t make those means the optimal ones in all cases.

      “I frankly do not know, but I think it’s indicative of the macro problem J called out with this post: commanders have no idea knowing what the other guy thinks. You can make pretty good guesses, but you can never be sure.”

      Of course you can’t – waiting for certainty is a prescription for paralysis.

      “So it would seem to me to be pretty foolish to base strategy (and operations) on not doing something because YOU THINK an opponent wants you to do it, or doing something bc YOU THINK your opponent doesn’t want you to do it. Of course, there’s always an element to such thinking in planning (I’d contend that’s why the current US military campaign planning process [I think JP-05, but it’s been a decade+ since I was a planner] calls for branches and sequels so you can reapportion, reallocate, and reposition forces when your opponent doesn’t do what you expect him to do), but the best strategy (and I think history backs this up) is the one that you make sure is in line with your policy objectives, you align proper forces to accomplish, and you make unambigiously clear to those at the operational level of war.”

      See above re: both sides acting and reacting simultaneously. Ignoring the opponents mindset seems reckless.

      Respectfully, I get the feeling that you’re over-thinking it. Vegetius’ maxim is simplistic and carried to an absurd extreme would be counter-productive. That’s not the same as being altogether wrong (nearly any principle can be corrupted by slavish adherence).

  5. Jegrenier says :

    Hi Gene, thanks, there’s a lot there to think about. I do not want to chew up all our time, but I’d like to (over)think the notion that NB was about battle for battle’s sake. Not sure if I’m putting words in your mouth, so please pardon me if I am. That said, I think NB understood far better than his contemporaries (those brought up to preserve the status quo of the ancien regiem) the “revolutionary” implications that could be spun off from battle. I think he understood that chasing decisive battle was like chasing a ghost. His experiences had been that he could crush the enemy army in the field, and another one would pop up in time. I (over)think it’s too easy to focus on NBs battlefield successes and failures (12 and 15 of course jump out) and miss his brilliance in the geo-political realm. Battle, for him, I think served as little more than a hammer to break the old system and create a new Empire under him, and it would take much more than battle to build that empire into being. Looking at ’12, there were much better means to bring the Tsar back into the new fold as a lackey than invading Russia. NB, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say, intended to conquer Russia, and while an Austerlitz or Jena would help to reaching that goal, he had to know it would take more a thunderclap of battle to do it. It would take all the non-military tools of empire, in addition to battle, to suceed. IF he DIDN’T see that, then we have really overated him as one of the greatest military minds of all time. In that case, we should see NB as a nothing more than pretty fair operational commander who beat up on the second and third string, but could not close the deal againt a first-string opponent. I think the only way to tease out the larger,vice superficial, meanings of this is to in fact over, under, sideways, etc think through the problem. We have a lot of inch deep and mile wide understandings of military history. I’d like to see us as a community drill down to find richer veins of analysis, synthesis, argument, and significance. Frack it I say. I’m not going to suppose I can do that on NB, so I’ll leave it to others. NTL, thanks for letting me intrude in this converstaion and discussion. It’s given me insight and context for my little corner of the sandbox, especially my thinking on the problems the 18th-cent British state had with war termination. So, instead of droaning on here, I need to get back to work on my current project so I can start my new project.

  6. Frederick Schneid says :

    Napoleon absolutely believed that he could defeat the Russians in a decisive battle, and he had no reason to think otherwise. He achieved decision against them at Austerlitz in 1805 and again at Friedland in 1807. This was his historical memory, and therefore he sought it again in 1812. He hoped to catch them at their camp on the Dvina, but they abandoned it. He engaged them at Smolensk, where they intended to fight for the city, but they soon withdrew. Finally, at Borodino he believed he could achieve his long sought decisive victory. At a war council held the night before the battle of Borodino Marshal Davout proposed to swing his corps around the Russian left during the night. Napoleon rejected the plan because he feared the Russians would discover the movement and withdraw to avoid battle. He made it abundantly clear that he intended to smash the Russians at Borodino. All of this explains his shock weeks later when he occupied Moscow and his overtures to Tsar Alexander were rejected. All of this indicates that he did not fully comprehend the different conditions of war in Russia, where there was an abundance of land, resources and people. Napoleon failed to appreciate the economy of scale in Russia. Huge mistake. PS- Throughout the campaign the Russian generals argued over the best course of strategy with many advocating battle, while others preferred a Fabian strategy. Hence, the initial desire to fight at Drissa, then Smolensk when the “battle party” won the argument, only to be overturned by the “Fabian” faction. Borodino was fought because Alexander was convinced by his “battle” generals that he could not give up Moscow without a fight. Honor dictated it. A lot of good books on this subject, but Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon is the best.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks much Rick. This jibes with what I thought I’d read, but I prefer an expert weigh in.
      More broadly, John’s revisionist inklings are, I think, more evidence of the need for my battle book! The decisive battle ideal has become such a stereotype among early modernists over the past few decades, that it’s often hard for us to believe that anybody *really* believed that (see: Weigley, Age of Battles). And yet, from my own research, many believed it wholeheartedly! And long before Napoleon as well.
      I’m also glad Rick brought the personal honor of battle into the mix – I’ll be emphasizing that a lot in my book.

      • Frederick Schneid says :

        The problem with “decisive battle” studies is that generals actually sought it, but very few ever achieved it. After all, how many generals -other than Falkenhayn- conceived of a campaign and said, “I prefer a battle of attrition rather than annihilation.” Ok, perhaps Fabius?

      • Gene Hughson says :

        That, I think, captures it. “Decisive battle” is less Loch Ness Monster and more hole-in-one; they happen, they’re great when they happen, but getting one is massive combination of skill, luck, equipment, etc.

        I see Fabius, Barclay de Tolly, and others choosing their strategy of avoidance in acknowledgement of the fact that accepting an ill-considered battle could be giving their opponent a decisive one (and we’re back to refusing to give the opponent what they want as a strategy).

  7. jostwald says :

    A very important point, Rick – “decisive battles were rare” too easily becomes confused with “contemporaries didn’t seek decisive battles.” Lynn, for example, argued that Louis XIV intentionally chose attrition, but that’s only *after* his attempts to quickly end his wars failed. The English debate c. 1700 over which military strategy to pursue (I’ll look at the various strategic models including Fabius, Pyrrhus…), and how they interpreted the results of the WSS, are very interesting.

    • Frederick Schneid says :

      Jamel, yes, war as process vs. war as event. Gene is correct too when he states that to achieve decision one must be willing to risk total defeat. In lieu of this you get a battle of attrition. To return to Russia 1812, Napoleon’s decision not to commit his Imperial Guard once the Russian center was seized reflects his desire not to risk it all. The issue is complex. Frederick the Great sought decisive battle, but was compelled to wage wars of attrition, etc. etc. etc.

      • Frederick Schneid says :

        I meant his decision not to employ the Imperial Guard at Borodino. Sorry. Typed too fast.

  8. Jegrenier says :

    Thanks for the input. We’re down one rat hole and headed to another. That’s a good thing IMHO, because very few other places do we (or at lest I, from my bunker) get to talk about this.

    I think the decisive battle trope is just that … A trope. So J, give us that book, please. Rick mentions EF as the 1st/rate guy (maybe) who said “give me attrition not annhilation.” Delbruckian annhilation gives us decisiveness, I suppose. That may have worked on the Continent, but necessarily outside it. That’s why attrition over annhilation shaped British thinking post WSS, especially in the 7YW in North America. And during that war the British came right out and said they preferred the former over the latter. Ligonier (there’s a biography waiting there, btw) picked his cohort of “young” commanders (Amherst, Wolfe, Barrington, etc.) because he knew they “got it.” They knew that in the North American enviornment, time and logistics were far more important that battle. One winter could undo the most brilliant and putatively decisive battle (just ask the redcoats in Quebec in the winter of 59-60). So Wolfe kind of f(&$/d this up at Quebec, but that’s a different story. Amherst on the other hand stayed the course: he knew the French could not offer him a set-piece battle … There would be no Blenheim, no Fontenoy (which if I recall were not even decivise … The wars raged on long after them) in North America, which was the only threater that would win the war for GB. All that was left was slow, grinding, methodical marching, digging, and petite guerre on the fringes (drum roll please, that’s why rangers were so important). That explains both his strategy and operations in 59 and 60. Likewise Pitt (the architect of the Empire) had no interest in decisive battle. He looked at the abattoir of Germany in ’57, ’58, ’59 and saw no advantage to sending British troops to be mauled in Frederick or Ferdinand’s constant quest for the great battle that would decide it all. The bloodletting at Zorndorf frankly shocked him into finally and completely turning his back on Euope. In the end, Minden was an inconsequential sideshow despite all the post-battle c.m. drama. Pitt specifically limited the resources he sent to the Army of Observation becuase he knew it was too risky to throw the dice for a decisive battle, especially when time and the Royal Navy was on his side. He was brilliant enough to recongize there was no such thing as a singularly deceive battle possible on the Continent … hell, in hindsight it’s incredibly difficult to keep track of all Fred the Great’s battle, when where who why, etc, I can’t imagine trying to make sense of this as it was happening. But victory could be gained by the sum of many seemingly indecisive campaigns. The Descents of the French coast are classic examples of this, but even better ones I think are the British operations in the West Indies between 1759-1762.

    Just this morning, Mark Danley and I had an off-line discussion about the need to link European with American (both North and the Caribbean I’d argue) with South Asian Military history of the 18th century if we really want to understand the big picture. I think a dialogue among different historians would be useful, but I also think we need to go into the discussions with the willingness to consider that the experience we know for our historical neck of the woods might apply only to that neck of the woods. We so often throw around Fabian, decisive, annhilationist, attritive, climatic, extension of politics, etc etc that I’ve come to doubt they are any longer significantly useful for digging down more than an inch deep and a mile wide. So, back to the beginng, or the middle, NB was trying to force the Russians into a decisive battle. He had a pipe dream that he could recreate Austerlitz. Ok, got it, and by the way that’s what I used to teach my students in Hist 123, Intro to Mil Hist, back when I was a professor. But I always felt like I was telling them the same old story. I always wanted to give them a view of NB, or Alexander the Great, or William Westmoreland, or Stormin’ Norman that gave them insights into more than litanys of battles and operations. I’m more interested, t/4, in learning about how NB proposed to conquer Russia if he didn’t win a decisive battle? I’ll trust you guys, as experts on the man and his campaigns, that he did not think beyond the possible, perhaps probable fact that he could not compel/force the Russians to engage him in a decive battle. Kind of the issue we started with way back on Dec 29. If that really is the case, that he did not prepare for the contingency that it might not work out how he wanted it to, then I need to seriously rethink my views of NB. Anyone who makes that basic of a mistake certainly can’t be included in the pantheon of Great Captains. Throw him in the hack pool with Rummy. Again, sent from iPad…ignore the typos pls.

    • Gene Hughson says :

      I was going to let the whole Napoleon in Russia thing lie as I didn’t want to hijack the thread, but the question below does bring us back to the central question.

      “I’m more interested, t/4, in learning about how NB proposed to conquer Russia if he didn’t win a decisive battle?”

      He had no intention of conquering Russia. His aim was to conquer Tsar Alexander. Removing the Russian army from play would be one method, but not the only one. The deeper the Grande Armee went into Holy Mother Russia the more political pressure on Alexander to stand and fight (it’s a mistake to give too much weight to the autocratic cast of imperial Russian politics – Alexander’s father died with an aristocratic assassin’s hands on his throat). The scorched earth strategy was hotly contested by the nativist members of the imperial court and the battle of Smolensk occurred not by plan but as a result of Bagration’s insubordination.

      Moscow wasn’t the only instance where Bonaparte paused too long hoping vainly for Russian peace overtures. Segur claimed he toyed with a plan to winter in Vilnius and then resume operations in 1813. Given the dismal logistical situation (part of the reason for the Russian retreat was the difficulty in maintaining troops in the western provinces), there’s no guarantee that that would have turned out any better. In the end, he let himself be drawn ever farther forward and refused to throw in his hand until it was far too late.

      So (returning to the main question) Napoleon failed at imposing his will on Alexander and Barclay de Tolly’s spoiling strategy (a strategy that was both chosen and imposed on him) prevailed and got him sacked for his success. Neither of these invalidate Vegetius’ maxim, though it must be repeated that the maxim in itself is hardly a game changer. No one criteria is sufficient, victorys come from some combination of personalities, morale, logistics, geography, geometry, and ultimately, luck.

      “Anyone who makes that basic of a mistake certainly can’t be included in the pantheon of Great Captains.”

      Don’t be too hard on him. Boney was a superb handler of armies with an all-star staff of heroes and geniuses that he wielded magnificently (I’m a huge fan of Berthier, I’d love to see an accounting of how much of Napoleon’s glory belonged to “the Emperor’s wife”). He was likewise as good a politician as France had had for a long time. Although he was a lousy diplomat, Britain’s enmity would have stymied one far better than him. He blundered, but in the end, the fact that he failed to stand up to an arguably impossible task shouldn’t diminish him too much.

      • jostwald says :

        That’s why I think battle is so important in the historiography (and Western military culture) – it seems like all the Great Captains (or almost all) have to had fought (and won) field battles for them to be included. The ultimate outcome of their war (or their last war) is almost beside the point, possibly because military professionals are looking for tools to solve their tactical problems, which are seen as “universal” (Cannae anyone?). Seeking and fighting battles even apparently makes up for losing the war (or at least losing the last war). Charles XII (perhaps second tier pantheon) gets a lot of press for his vigor and battle-seeking tendencies, but we know how that ended for Sweden. Charles XII’s predecessor Gustavus Adolphus managed to get himself killed even quicker (Lützen vs. Frederiksten), yet Breitenfeld puts him in the pantheon nonetheless. Tactics and operations rule, even though most wars aren’t, I’d think, actually being fought just to win the battle or the campaign.
        So I get the sense that the Great Captains were/are measured by “highest peak” performance (with battle being worth triple the points of any siege or other accomplishment), rather than by the final position the Great Captain left for his country, or lifetime achievement, or some other sabermetrics yardstick.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        In my opinion, it’s yet another example of how bad humans are at analysis. Decisive battles are outliers, but they’re such spectacular outliers that we give them far too much weight. We see them as instances of a Great Captain imposing his will on an opponent where it’s really more of an opportunistic process akin to surfing – skillful but not forced. We look for single-variable answers to complex problems.

        I wonder if the emphasis is put on things that seem controllable because it’s too hard to wrap one’s head around the random bits. I liken it to the old joke about the drunk who lost his car keys in a dark alley looking for them under a street lamp because the light’s better there.

    • jostwald says :

      Not to bring up my not-even-written-yet book again, but I’ve been astounded at how persistent was the English belief that battle could/would be decisive. And they always came up with excuses for why a specific battle didn’t end the war, time after time. Even Marlborough appeared to believe the next battle would definitely end the war even in 1711, despite all the seeming evidence to the contrary. Which is why I think the belief in battle war-ending decisiveness is a faith as much as a rational interpretation of the historical record. So I find Napoleon’s Russian short-sightedness plausible, and even precedented, though it’s still very odd.

      You are totally correct, John, that we really need to think hard about how much we can generalize from our respective holes. Soon after my 2000 Ramillies article came out, which mentioned how difficult it was to force an enemy into a battle, I talked with Derek Croxton (who looked at the Rhine in the 30YW) and he said in his researches the problem was that it was TOO easy to surprise an enemy army and force a battle on them, so much so that Mazarin wanted to end the war quickly before another battle overturned his carefully-negotiated agreements. I can come up with possible explanations (theater, small size of forces, Derek thought some of it had to do with the armies’ failure to have cavalry screens/patrols….), but it’s rather disconcerting that things could be SO different.

      This is why I really don’t know what to do for the end of my book – if you and Mark and Ira Gruber all say mid-18C British officers were skeptical of battle, I have to believe you, but I don’t understand how such a huge sea change could have developed within a few decades after the WSS (because there were so many fundamental ways in which this battle-decisive belief was manifested). Unless the answer is the Austrian Succession (but why would that wipe out the WSS?). I don’t love the idea of ending my book with “But things changed later and I have no idea why”, but that may be better than me pretending to be an expert on the later period, or spending another 10 years expanding my research another 50+ years. My greatest fear is that some publisher will tell me I need to take it up to Napoleon or something.

      • Jegrenier says :

        Well, you’re young and fit. Think of the impact that book would have? Better one or two “big” books, imho, than a dozen blah books. You already have a biggie with VUS. It’d be a major letdown if you didn’t aim for the stars. Looks like you have accounted for the next decade. :). That whole expertise thing scares people away. Hence, SOS, different day or 1″ deep, a mile wide. Not chucking stones, because I live in a glass mansion. I just need someone to show me how it’s done.

      • Jegrenier says :

        Ok, quick thought on why, before I hit Better Call Saul. Is the difference the existence of the Blue Water Empire post-Utrecht? WSS was all about Europe … QAW was a sideshow (the only resources the British committed to No Am was the Walker Expedition of 1711, which ended badly). The previous war in No Am ( King William’s War/whatever you Europeanists call it) saw the colonists get no help from England. But by the Anglo-Spanish War of 39, then KGW, and even Father Le Loutre’s War, the British poured assests (mostly navy) into the colonies. We know the F&I/GWFE/7YW saw a No Am focus as opposed to a European focus. Did the big brains, like Halifax (boss at the Board of Trade) and Pitt, see the pointlessness of trying to wage the db in Europe, or the impossibility of it when you’re having to send so much stuff to expand the empire over the oceans? I’ve always thought it interesting that when Pitt signed on for the Newcastle-Pitt ministry, he was perfectly comfortable with being Sec of State for Southern Dept. His portfolio was officially the world outside Europe, and then he made himself ”Minister of Measure” and handled everything (and broke his health in the process). He didn’t care about being Sec of State for Northern Dept, or even PM. He publically opposed Newcastle’s System, aka the Old System … The Europe focused one … And then just switched the subsidy from Austria to Prussia. Pretty clear the ”Germans” were going to keep butchering each other; Austrian, Prussian, it really didn’t matter. Instead, he wanted to focus on colonies, and he was sure to put his men, Ligonier and Anson (originally a Newcastle client, ironically), in charge of army & navy bc he knew they wouldn’t give him any guff. So when 3rd Duke of M threw a fit and wanted to go to Germany rather than “waste” time on the Descents, same with Sackville, Pitt was like “fine, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” So perhaps it wasn’t the generals who turned away for db … which was the standard you were to aim for in Europe, but the politicians(?) 🇬🇧

      • jostwald says :

        Interesting idea, that the English fully embrace their naval dimension after their successes in the Spanish Succession. I’d have to give it more thought and, frankly, do more research. There was a fair amount of public agitation for overseas action in the Spanish Succession (Satsuma’s recent book focuses on this), and there were plenty of proposals for Caribbean attacks. Did descents ever lose their appeal? Perhaps it was an issue of which theaters of war were open for business? For example, the Tories feared knocking heads against fortresses in Flanders, but supported land adventures in Spain (to control trade from overseas) as an alternative. So I suppose it’s conceivable after their failures trying to capture Spain (beyond the Mediterranean-focused posts of Gibraltar and Minorca), they decided to focus on the colonies proper (possibly related to the South Sea Company?). What about the Quadruple Alliance? You out there Pat Speelman?
        The distinction between politicians, generals and populace is an important one I’m looking at, though it’s not always clear how distinct military men were from politicians (or that there was consensus within each group). The public seemed the most impatient for battle and I’d expect that to remain relatively constant over time (if only because battles were thought to have war-ending potential), but then there’s definitely the maritime subset who wanted the privateering and greater trade, and complained about every prize the French captured (hence the second Cruisers and Convoys Act in 1708). Perhaps the maritime subset came to dominate popular opinion over the course of the 18C? Perhaps land campaigns were acceptable to the public, as long as they quickly provided battle, but patience wore thin the longer they had to wait? Certainly that’s what I see in the WSS, but maybe, as you’re saying, the patience wears thin even more quickly when there are substantial naval alternatives? Should probably go read the rest of Simm’s Three Victories and a Defeat.

        Plus, the choice of theaters, or land vs. sea, aren’t exactly the same as the issue of battle vs. its alternatives. There were different ideas for what a descent should achieve, and in addition to the possibility of serving as a diversion, another idea was to invade the ‘bowels’ of the country and capture the enemy capital, or force the enemy to fight a decisive battle to prevent its capture. And even at sea you still have battle vs. its alternatives. I haven’t fully fit vigor into the naval side of the equation, but I’ve found some evidence to suggest that at least a few English commentators idealized vigorous fleet engagements, aka battles, rather than commerce raiding (Mahan vs. Corbett anyone?). Haven’t looked yet to see how late 17C authors dealt with Drake, et al – presumably one man’s pirate is another man’s freedom fighter. Interestingly, in one of these later wars (don’t remember which off hand) an English commentator bragged that the Royal Navy was bravely willing to fight at sea, while the French vessels “skulked” in their ports! English cartoons during the Napoleonic wars illustrated the same thing, with Bonny cowering behind his coastal fortresses just as French generals did in Flanders during the Spanish Succession. Can’t get away from skulking…

  9. Jegrenier says :

    “He had no intention of conquering Russia. His aim was to conquer Tsar Alexander.”

    So the master of total war, the guy who built an empire across Europe by using TW, marched a massive army to damn the ends of the earth (Russia in 1812, and based on a recent trip, in 2014 as well) for the limited objective of conquering the Tsar? Mother Russia, not so much? It just doesn’t add up. If you’re correct in that assessment, then entire generations of historians have been wrong. They’ve said, I learned in grad school and PME, and I’ve told my intro-level students that Before Wars of the French Revolution (post 17th-cent Wars of Religion) = limited war; WFR starts unlimited/total war, and NB slams it into high gear. The classic comparison is Marlborough/Saxe/Fred the Great v NB. So something changed c. 1810? The Master changed course? Total War was out and he was back to Cabinet Warfare? Did I miss that argument in a book I should have read? David Bell has some inconsistencies in his book, but it’s pretty much a standard starting point for exposing students (especially PME types who will someday practice the theories) to this stuff. It’s all about TW dominating Europen warfare from 1789 to the Congress of Vienna.

    I think the point of being hard on NB is the point. Far to long we have been satisfied with the inch deep mile wide stuff. What is the best book, for example, on how NB managed his empire once he won it? Do we even care? Are we just satisfied with looking at him as what in essence is an operational-level commander? Really, if the answer is yes, we have very little to say to anyone other than the buffs and maybe 3 dozen specialists. There are so many better operational issues to study, st leadt ones useful to modern practitioners of military art and science. We spank the Germans of the 20th century for being brilliant tacticians (not really sure how one set of tactics are that much more brilliant, especially as a guy who taught company and battalion level tactics for years, but that’s a different issue) and operational-level planners and executors. That explains, for example, why the US Army is all about the Brigade Combat Team, not the regimental or divisional structure. But those poor Germans (actually couldn’t happen to a nicer group of warmongers) sucked at strategy. They could win battles (sometimes; Russia again being cade in point) but not wars. Kind of like the US military today … Lots of battle victories, no wars won sine 1945. So if we’re going to study NB, I think it’s important that we look at policy and stategy as much as battle. This thread, after all, started with a quesion of grand strategy. But you’re telling me NB’s grand strategy was soley to focus on defeating the Tsar in a decisive battle. He really didn’t care about territorially expanding his empire and turning Russia into a vassal state? More to my macro point, he went into Russia with no plan (what we’d call today) branches or sequals, to respond in case his army could not force the Russians into said battle and defeat them decisively? Wow, that verges of chimp-like bahavior, at least in my book. 🇫🇷

    • jostwald says :

      Now you see why I’d prefer to avoid Napoleon? (Sorry Rick) I’ve always been fascinated by John Lynn’s point (at least I heard it from him) that the only territory Nappy ended up adding to France was Avignon, and he lost a lot of territory that the French Revolutionary armies had acquired.

      Now Total vs. Limited war, that’s its own wing in the library. Next to the wing on the Military revolution. Both require explicitly setting out criteria and measuring them over time, which historians aren’t particularly fond of doing.

      On your question about books on Napoleon’s Empire (assuming it wasn’t rhetorical, which it may have been), I’ve assigned Michael Broer’s Europe under Napoleon in my FrRevNap course. It’s not military history, but it is interesting in its discussion of how Napoleon ruled his ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ Empires.

  10. Jegrenier says :

    So we just soldier on with the SOS, fill up library wings on the SOS, and at the end of the day, be satisfied with the SOS? Makes me wonder what’s the point, and why I take time away from Netflix binging to ever consider this stuff. Hmmm. What’s that thing about I’ll never get that time back? So here I am having a historian’s midlife crisIs.

    No, the question wasn’t rhetorical. I’ll order up Broer from the library, tomorrow. Thanks for the mark.

  11. Jegrenier says :

    For all you (perhaps I’m the only one) who didn’t know about this:

    Golden nuggets, almost like I was reading for comps:

    “In the introduction Broers lays out his main thesis: namely, that Romantic historians have misled readers by characterizing Napoleon principally as a military commander and conqueror who ruled through the force of his personality. Napoleon’s true achievement, according to the author, was the creation of the modern state through the application of rational and impersonal Enlightenment principles to law, administration, and the military.”

    “Finally, Broers concludes the book by reiterating his claim that Napoleon’s chief achievements were not as a commander but as a state builder, and observes that his state-building measures were ironically adopted by the various restoration regimes of Europe.”

    “At the same time, there are shortcomings to Europe under Napoleon. Specifically, Broers repeatedly insists on Napoleon’s “greatness” and “genius,” terms adopted from a hagiography that he otherwise explicitly repudiates. He shows impatience with historians who have refused to “recognize” Napoleon as a “genius.” Oops.

    Broers diverges from Napoleon’s hagiographers by attributing his “genius” to state-building rather than military matters and by insisting that it did not imply moral rectitude–he also refers to Napoleon as a “dark genius”

    Ok, moving right along ………

  12. jostwald says :

    Tying the Napoleonic diversion back to the OP, Clausewitz does talk a bit about whether there’s polarity in war or not (Bk I.15-17 and apparently in a later chapter that I’ll have to look at). He also talks a bit more about some of the issues I raised in the OP. Damn, I hate it when I have to read more Clausewitz!

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