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6 April 2014


  By Michael I. Handel, Author Master of War
Even the most creative theories in history were not conceived in a vacuum; one way or another, they owe something to the works of others. To describe this intellectual and intuitive process, historian of science I. B. Cohen has developed a concept called “the transformation of ideas,” which reveals how great scientists have used the existing body of knowledge as a basis of or catalyst for their own inspiration.  Scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, for example, either synthesized and combined the work of others, while adding their own ideas, or were heuristically stimulated by existing ideas to develop their own original concepts. The same is true of those whose creative and analytical thought processes have “transformed” the intricacies of strategy—in this case, naval strategy—into an innovative theory or body of work. It is well known that Alfred Thayer Mahan, as he himself made clear, was significantly influenced by Baron de Jomini’s work and that Sir Julian Corbett was equally influenced by Clausewitz’s On War.

My argument is that while Mahan integrates and synthesizes Jomini’s work with his own, Corbett uses Clausewitz’s On War as a heuristic point of departure. Mahan, in other words, remains loyal to Jomini’s ideas, and by extension, those of the “continental strategists.” In contrast, Corbett, although inspired by On War, develops ideas different from and sometimes contradictory to those of Clausewitz. The subtle approach adopted by Corbett ironically resembles that of a work he had never read—Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.   In view of the limited space available, I will focus on two of Corbett’s most original ideas, which also provide excellent illustrations of the differences between naval and land-based warfare: namely, his positions on “the concentration of force” and “limited war.”

Let me first, however, say a few words on what Corbett and Clausewitz do have in common. To begin with, Clausewitz and Corbett share a belief in the primacy of politics in war and in devising an appropriate strategy to protect the national interests. Clearly, Corbett independently understood the importance of the primacy of politics before reading On War in 1904, but Clausewitz’s ideas did help him to clarify this idea. Corbett also believes in studying and developing the theory of war for educational purposes. His debt to Clausewitz on this score is made clear in his chapter on “The Theoretical Study of War—Its Use and Limitations” (Some Principles, pp. 3–11). Herein he adds that such study will establish a “common vehicle of expression and a common plane of thought . . . for the sake of mental solidarity between a chief and his subordinates” (Some Principles, pp. 8, 5).

Corbett also agrees with Clausewitz that since even the best theory of war is “not . . . a substitute for judgment and experience,” it cannot “systematize” strategy into an exact science (Some Principles, p. 10). At best, theory can ascertain what is “normal”—but war, with its reciprocal, uncertain, and complex nature, is dominated by deviations from the norm (Some Principles, pp. 8–9). Friction, chance, and luck must never be discounted as well.   Corbett therefore resembles Clausewitz in his repeated emphasis on the importance of understanding both the value and inherent limitations of a theory of war.
“Strategical analysis can never give exact results. It aims only at approximations, at groupings which will serve to guide but will always leave much to the judgment” (Some Principles, pp. 83–4). With the constantly changing nature of war (more so in Corbett’s time, because of the accelerated development of new technologies and weapons at sea), the first question that either man would ask is, 

What is the nature of this war?  Much more could be said about the similarities between the two, but let me now turn to a discussion of their differences.

Corbett’s most glaring criticism of Clausewitz, the continental strategists (for instance, Jomini), and most British naval strategists of his time concerns their “big-battle fixation. "   Most of Corbett’s contemporaries were content to accept this crude and highly selective version of Clausewitz’s ideas, because it conveniently supported their own beliefs.7 This was a major component of the Napoleonic style of war, which consisted of a “strenuous and persistent effort—not resting to secure each minor advantage, but pressing the enemy without pause or rest till he is utterly overthrown.”  (Corbett believes that the origin of what he terms Clausewitz’s fetish for the decisive battle could be traced back to Oliver Cromwell [Some Principles, pp. 22, 157, 176].) The search for the decisive battle is closely related to Clausewitz’s principle of destruction and achievement of victory through the greatest possible concentration of forces at the decisive point. 

Clausewitz presents the idea thus:   Combat is the only effective force in war; its aim is to destroy the enemy’s forces as a means to a further end. . . . It follows that the destruction of the enemy’s forces underlies all military actions; all plans are ultimately based on it, resting on it like an arch on its abutment. . . . The decision by arms is for all major and minor operations in war what cash payment is in commerce. . . . Thus it is evident that destruction of the enemy forces is always the superior, more effective means, with which others cannot compete (On War, 1.2, p. 97).

We do claim that the direct annihilation of the enemy’s forces must always be the dominant consideration. We simply want to establish this dominance of the destructive principle (On War, 4.3, p. 228).

The maximum concentration of forces was indeed the key to winning the decisive battle and overthrowing the enemy: Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Jomini, and all of the other continental thinkers would agree that this is the most important principle of war. Clausewitz puts it this way: “As many troops as possible should be brought into the engagement at the decisive point. . . . This is the first principle of strategy” (On War, 3.8, p. 195); also, “The best strategy is always to be very strong; first in general, and then at the decisive point. . . . There is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated” (On War, 3.11, p. 204).

Corbett does not believe that the concentration of naval forces at sea is the highest and simplest law of strategy. On the contrary, he observes that the principle of concentration has become “a kind of shibboleth” that has done more harm than good (Some Principles, p. 134). The principle of concentration is “a truism—no one would dispute it. As a canon of practical strategy, it is untrue” (Some Principles, p. 160). 

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