As Christmas approaches, I’ve been casting around for a suitable topic to help draw to a close Defence-in-Depth’s first four months – something light-hearted and suitably tongue-in-cheek. By the looks of the title of this post, I’ve found one.
Last week, a young Lieutenant (that’s Loo-tenant, rather than Lef-tenant) posted a guest contribution on Foreign Policy’s Best Defense blog. His article was essentially series of complaints about ineffective/incompetent peers and superiors within his unit. Unsurprisingly, elements from the military blogosphere descended on his comments like a pack of baying hyenas feasting on the rotting carcass of a recently felled wildebeest. You can read some of the posts – which are reasonable enough – here, here and here.
I seek to make no comment on the unseemly nature of a series of more-senior and more-experienced officers and soldiers taking umbrage at the public comments of one of their own. One post which did catch my eye, though, by the witty and erudite PowerPoint Sapper, is entitled ‘Military Blogging: Are we truly helping to solve issues of just kvetching?’
Here’s one of the most important points:
‘After thirteen years of war, and what that necessarily entails, there is a lot of fodder out there. The massive rise of military blogs in the past few years shows us that service members have a lot to say and intend to say it. But at what point are we all taking what used to be a private bitchfest in the dayroom with some beers and putting it out into the public, for all to see? Are we really making that change that we believe we are, or are we gradually convincing each other that the system that we work in is broken?’
PowerPoint Sapper also makes reference to Clausewitz, who was an officer in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars, and correctly identified systemic failings but was ignored. Following the catastrophic defeat of his country’s forces at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, Clausewitz was part of a group of officers who became known as the reformers. Of these, the most famous were Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who began to reform the Prussian Army in the wake of 1806, making it fit for purpose in time for the successful campaigns of 1813, 1814 and 1815.
PowerPoint Sapper’s point is that Clausewitz was once a disgruntled officer, whose attempts to point out problems were ignored, and only after significant failure, did the need for necessary reforms gain traction.
There is a conscious or unconscious parallel being drawn here between the military blogosphere (largely driven by the US armed forces, although there are some pretty excellent British ones starting to spring up, such as Think Defence and Fall When Hit) and military thinkers of the past – Clausewitz in particular.
This becomes more apparent when one considers Clausewitz’s life as a whole. For help on this I turned to Donald Stoker’s recently published and excellent Clausewitz: His Life and Works. As a biographer of a rather well-known military figure myself, I feel it is impossible to understand what someone writes without first understanding the person themselves.
It is quite clear that Clausewitz’s experience of war (and the bureaucratic resistance to military reform) made him bitter at the time. When he came to write his ‘Observations on Prussia in Her Great Catastrophe’ between 1823 and 1825, although that bitterness had faded, as Stoker points out, it is ‘still a biting critique on the Prussian state and lacks the objectivity of his other historical works’.
At the time he wrote this, and his other campaign histories, as well as, most famously On War, Clausewitz was director of the Prussian Kriegsakademie. His attempts to reform the syllabus (including reducing lectures and increasing classroom discussions) had failed, and this was symptomatic of a wider retrenchment in the Prussian state and armed forces, where the reformers were considered closet republicans, and therefore regarded with hostility.
On War itself was the culmination of many years thinking and writing about war. Many of the ideas that we now regard as important reflections on the nature of war, were initially aired in letters to colleagues and friends. ‘War is not an independent phenomenon,’ he wrote to one, ‘but the continuation of politics by other means.’ We’ll never really know how much he discussed these ideas in private conversations at the Kriegsakademie.
His great fear was that he would not finish On War before his death. ‘If an early death should terminate my work, what I have written so far would, of course only deserve to be called a shapeless mass of ideas. Being liable to endless misinterpretation it would be the target of much half-baked criticism, for in matters of this kind everyone feels he is justified in writing and publishing the first thing that comes into his head when he picks up a pen, and thinks his own ideas as axiomatic as the fact that two and two make four.’
And so this leads me back to my original point. Many of Clausewitz’s ideas were borne of ‘kvetching’, and it is only by airing such viewpoints could they be refined and honed. Part of the great strength of On War is that it is incomplete. The fact that it is open to interpretation (and misinterpretation) means we can debate and dwell on it, and so increase our own understanding and ideas about war.
As an historian researching how armies (and by extension, the officers and soldiers in those armies) learn, it is a source of constant frustration that no one left a blow-by-blow account of how that learning took place. We can only speculate about the heated discussions that took place in Staff College Classrooms, and over dinner in the Mess. Clausewitz is probably the closest we’ll get to such a process because he at least discussed his ideas in his written correspondence. Few of the great commanders of the age did likewise.
I’ve often commented that the next generation of historians will have an even tougher job of assembling the historical picture. Communication is principally conducted electronically, usually in a language – I call it acronymese – which takes years of study just to understand. How many officers and soldiers keep diaries now?
But the discussion that burst onto various social media platforms last week opened my eyes to a different source of information about the learning process. Those conversations that used to take place privately, now, at least in part, take place publicly (if you know where to look) albeit usually anonymously. Sure, much of it is just ‘kvetching’, but some of it is genuinely brilliant thinking – raw, unfettered, dirty – but brilliant. Possibly for the first time, then, historians will have access to the learning process as it takes place.
Image: An interior shot of the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham. Available under the terms of OGL.