October 2019 Handgrenade - Clausewitz and Jomini

John T Kuehn's picture

October 2019 Handgrenade

Jomini and Clausewitz: Some Myths that Need to Go Away

John T. Kuehn


The other day I chanced to have a short discussion with a student (not one of mine but someone else’s at the college I work at).  He was a US Navy officer, but he could have been any number of types of officers at the college because what he said I’d heard many times before, from marines, airmen, soldiers, and international officers (not just sailors).

            “I like Jomini, he was always on the winning side, not like Clausewitz, who always lost.”

Yes that was what he said, and I cringed.   Then I smiled and said in as neutral a voice as I could muster, “That is one of those myths that won’t go away, will it?”  I then explained to him why I felt this particular myth so misguided and misinformed (although the four hours of military history classes on the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars he’d just had should have obviated our discussion).

            First, Jomini did NOT always win.  Second, Clausewitz did NOT always lose.  Baron Antoine de Jomini was in failed campaigns in Spain, most famously Massena’s failed invasion and nearly catastrophic retreat from Portugal in 1810-1811 as chief of staff to Marshal Ney’s corps, which conducted most of the rearguard actions during that retreat.  He was also part of the catastrophic campaign in 1812 in Russia, on a much larger scale, again as chief of staff to Ney, getting almost cut off and annihilated after the retreat through Smolensk and Krasny.  Although Jomini’s last campaign with the French (in Spring 1813) was nominally that of a winner, his performance as chief of staff to Ney’s wing of the army at Bautzen caused Marshal Berthier to bring charges against him that caused his defection to the Russian Army where he became an aide to the Tsar.   Even then, he still had one more loss coming his way, with the Tsar at Dresden in 1813, one of the few battles Napoleon won in the Fall of that year.

So much for Jomini.

Now good old Carl.  True, his military career had been for a nation that withdrew, without either victory or defeat, from war in 1795 and then for the next 11 years Clausewitz got no chances to win or lose on any battlefield (except perhaps at court where he met his future wife Maria).  This period was also when his mentor, Gerhard Scharnhorst, helped develop the young prodigy’s ideas about war.  True, the Prussians were soundly defeated in 1806-1807 and Clausewitz captured and interred in France.  But his next military action was in the same campaign that proved so hellish for Jomini, the 1812 victory in Russia, where Clausewitz served as an aide to the Russians, although not so much to the Tsar as to General Barclay de Tolly, the Russian commander of the First Army and minister of war.  Significantly, Clausewitz was instrumental in negotiating the defection of an entire Prussian Corps from the French side at Taurrogen (in modern Lithuania) near the end of the disastrous French retreat. He was on the winning side from then on, for the rest of his career, all the way to the triumph at Waterloo, where he served as the able chief of staff to the Prussian corps that tied down Marshal Grouchy’s wing of Napoleon’s army, preventing it from reinforcing Napoleon at Waterloo and allowing Blücher’s army to have its decisive effect on Napoleon’s flank.

            So much for the winning-losing side of the myth. As for the notion that Clausewitz’s ideas, or the ideas of anyone, who might have been on the losing side, being less valuable than the ideas of the winners—take for example the German losers after World War I.  They did a pretty good job of learning from defeat to win in 1940, to say nothing of the Soviets learning pretty well from defeat to defeat at the hands of these same Germans. It is superficial and specious to judge someone’s ideas on this basis—they won or they lost.  Carl himself wrote that victory or defeat sometimes hinges on the smallest detail, which itself might be an accident.

Ka Pow.

I will continue to search for these unhelpful myths, which I have found litter the playing field of military history in particular.

John T. Kuehn

Fort Leavenworth Kansas, October 2019

Not your most stimulating grenade, John -- not a patch on the Doolittle Raid question that ran wildly, almost out of control. But what's interesting to me is that an historically-minded contemporary military officer would even have heard of Jomini. Whereas everyone has heard of Clausewitz, even if many of us have only an imperfect understanding of what he wrote.

And as for learning from losers, let's keep in mind, again, the Germans, whose lost campaigns and notions of leadership so firmly ensnared the imagination of the US Army in recent decades.

Well, Clausewitz was more capable than most if he continued to actively participate in military affairs after he was interred. Perhaps autocorrect has stuck again.


I fully agree; the success of Jomini was to live longer than Clausewitz. He could plea pro domo and remain silent on Clausewitz. Clausewitz died 38 years earlier. There was no chance to confront the opinions of both writers. In the comments on both the works of Jomini and Clausewitz, it appears that the reputation of Jomini is greater now than during his life.

I'm not a military history scholar, but a scholar of rhetoric (especially "pathologies of deliberation"), who is interested in how those pathologies operate across fields of decision-making.

And, oddly enough, I've often had a similar question about theorists of rhetoric. Of the various scholars in the Western tradition who've written theoretical/prescriptive treatises about rhetoric, very few were actually involved in politics. And the few who were did not have records of endless success, or, in some cases, much success at all.

Socrates was (famously) involved in political rhetoric, but not in ways that ring with success; Plato chose not to participate; Aristotle (because he was Macedonian) was prohibited from participating; Isocrates wrote treatises on political issues (how to handle the Macedonian threat), but wasn't involved in the day to day scrum of political rhetoric (and doesn't seem to have been especially effective); Cicero was politically active, but failed to save the republic; Quintilian wasn't active at all in politics; and so on. The only people after Cicero with theoretical/prescriptive treatises on rhetoric who were active in their political situation were Francis Bacon and John Quincy Adams.

When I go through the history of theories and practices of rhetoric, inevitably a student asks, "If the people who wrote rhetoric treatises didn't have boots-on-the-ground [a phrase I've heard more than once] experience to show that their theories were right, then what good is theory?

I think that's the real hand grenade in this post.

I must confess this is my first time hearing this argument made concerning Clausewitz vs Jomini. Probably one of the best summaries of the whole basic issue(i.e. the debate between the two theorists) was written by Christopher Bassford, who even argued that Jomini's later editions of "the Art of War" took into account many of Clausewitz's earlier criticisms. He also argues at the end that there are plenty of attempts made to revive Jomini's influence as a counterpoint to Clausewitz. I couldn't help but interpret John's story within that prism.


Stephen Satkiewicz

Ralph, The intermediate level history core curriculum here --taught to about 1200 officers, including about 120 internationals, 60-ish Navy and Marine Corps and Coast Guard, half dozen interagency, 70-ish Air Force--is taught in the following order:

H101 Introduction--Western Ways of War, Military Revolutions, RMAs, administrative junk
H102 Earl Modern Period up through Frederick the Great
H103 French Revolution up through about 1807 and Napoleon/French Ascendency
H104 Imperial Over-reach, Napoleonic Decline
H105 introduction to Clausewitz
H106 Introduction to Jomini
H107 Brains of the Army: Moltke, Industrial Warfare, General Staff
I could go on, but it goes this way to H113, our final lesson, which is on Mao and Sunzi
each lesson is 2 hours. It has been taught this way, with some slight modifications, for about 14 years. And I have been here
19 years.
Thus your surprise at the office having heard of it should now be better informed, he'd heard of it because he'd just been in class four hours (over two weeks) discussing the ideas of these two writers.
Respectfully, John T. Kuehn,

Patricia Roberts Miller: I am surprised you left out Machiavelli's Prince. I have always found the first dozen chapters a real rhetoric delight . Certainly up to the standards of those you noted in your post.

Walter McIntosh
Bluff, New Zealand ,

John, I do indeed stand corrected. Just because I haven't read much Jomini doesn't mean that he can be bypassed. Wasn't he, after all, the primary theoretical strategic influence on some Civil War generals?

Dr. Miller's post was thoughtful and thought-provoking. Her essential question, as I read it, is whether those who "talk the talk" must also have "walked the walk." I think the answer, by and large, is "no." Certainly there are cases where people with little or no experience in military affairs are laughably wrong, speaking out, writing, or (in the case of CNN's "Operation Tailwind" broadcast) putting something on TV in a state of ignorance that is truly embarrassing. But there are also many people, I believe, whose deep study and temperament compensate for a lack of direct experience. We have the case of Abraham Lincoln (no meaningful military experience) vs. Jefferson Davis (West Point graduate, combat & regimental leadership in the Mexican War). Can there be any doubt that Lincoln was the better wartime president?

This dichotomy (if that's the right word) can also exist within one person. In recent decades we've seen the example of Dick Cheney, who rode deferments through his generation's war (Vietnam) but was an effective Secretary of Defense during the First Gulf War, ensuring a proper, careful coalition strategy. (This in stark contrast to the military pundits, often retired generals, whose op-ed pieces were often too alarmist, giving us the "ten foot tall Iraqi," able to extract huge casualties from the US and its coalition partners.) Yet a decade later, Cheney as vice-president completely misread the Iraq situation after 9/11 and drove his president and our country into the greatest strategic miscalculation of the 21st century, whose effects are still being felt.

So I guess it depends. All things considered I'd rather see the rhetoricians of the present day with some modest experience in that whereof they speak. But we should listen to others, who might have the wit and imagination to see a lot of the truth despite a lack of direct experience.

Indeed, this is a worthy "hand grenade."


Does Tacitus' Dialogus fit in as a theoretical/prescriptive treatise on rhetoric, or perhaps not since it comes across as more a commentary on the decline of rhetoric under the empire? I can think of late antique historians who were soldiers and statesmen, but now you have me wondering about writers on rhetoric...

Ralph Hitchens,
You are indeed correct that Jomini was the principal theoretical influence on American Civil War strategy at least during the early parts of the conflict. Clausewitz did not gain attention til the latter half of the 19th century, in part as a result of Prussia's victory over France in 1871. This was also the time when J.J. Graham provided the first English translation of Clausewitz.

Stephen Satkiewicz

"Walking the walk", calls to mind one of our most prominent historians, Sir Max Hastings, whom I heard confess that he'd never heard a shot fired in anger. (Same here, for what it's worth.)

Of course, the major problem with "walking the walk" is that we've run out of historians who've have that distinction anytime before the Korean War.


(Dr.) Stanley Sandler

John, thanks for the curriculum summary, and I stand corrected. From my standpoint as someone no longer "in the business" I guess I've been influenced by the overwhelming barrage of Clausewitz studies in the military history press & blogsphere lately, and poor Jomini seems to have been left behind in the dust. Except at your institution, of course!

Tacitus isn't usually taken as a prescriptive treatise on rhetoric. If you start to include people who had interesting observations about rhetoric, then people like Tacitus, Machiavelli, and even authors like Shakespeare become important.

My own sense, by the way, is that practitioners are generally too involved in the short-term urgent decisions to take a long view. Sometimes, if they have the chance, they do (Jomini, Clausewitz, and Cicero would all be in that category), and it can be valuable.

In rhetoric, it's a given that many people imagine political discourse is war (so a reverse of Clausewitz's dictum); my crank theory is that the toxicity of antebellum rhetoric was partially a consequence of Jomini being the dominant military theorist.