5 Influencers of Military Theory
Military theory is most commonly developed by directly experiencing war and recognizing strategies or methods for improving warfare. Yet, as academic military theorists know, insight can also be developed by simply witnessing war from afar. Whether generated through observation or direct experience, both viewpoints can offer unique perspectives and theses on warfare that can assist in comprehending leading military strategies and philosophies. Although having passed away, the below five influencers of military theory remain leaders in the field with diverse insights that can help today’s professionals gain a more holistic understanding of military theory.
Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian soldier who had extensive combat experience against the armies of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He first entered combat at the age of 12 as a cadet, then eventually received recognition as a general. After warfare, Clausewitz became a prominent military intellectual in Berlin and wrote On War, which is considered by many to be one of the most influential works of military philosophy in both Western & Eastern thought.
Written after being stunned by Napoleon’s dominance in Europe, On War is largely inspired by Clausewitz’s military experience and analysis of the new warfare of large scale Nation States. Within On War, Clausewitz highlights the classic issues of combat, formations, and character of commanders and the troops and stresses the moral aspects of war for all involved in a conflict. He also argues that moral forces can often matter more than physical forces, which remains an intriguing notion within military thought. Due to such interesting insights, strategies presented in On War have been applied to politics, science, and business, and the book itself has been held in high regard by the likes of the Duke of Wellington, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Colin Powell.
Alfred Thayer Mahan
United States Naval Officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) is considered by many within military history as one of the essential military theorists of the nineteenth century. After graduating the U.S. Naval Academy, Mahan was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1861 and served the Union during the Civil War as an officer aboard several ships. He was promoted to Captain in 1885, and eventually became an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy located in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1890, Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, as a groundbreaking analysis of how naval power led to the dominance of the British Empire.
In 1892, he wrote the volume The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812, which further highlights naval powers, specifically examining its success during the French Revolution. One of Mahan’s revolutionary theories was that the decline of competing navies, combined with the eventual control of the seas by the British, created the pathway for Britain’s domination as a global military and economic power. Mahan then extended this argument to note that this theory could also be applied by America to further dominate foreign overseas markets.
Giulio Douhet (1869 -1930) was an Italian army officer and author of The Command of the Air. Despite never having flown himself, his book is considered one of the most important books on airpower today. Prior to Douhet’s publication, the use of airpower in war had not been fully understood or appreciated. Having witnessed the brutality of trench warfare and its relative indecisiveness, Douhet conjectured that future wars could be decided quickly by airpower. Published in 1921, The Command of the Air introduced strategic bombing, the need for an independent air force, and the controversial use of bombing on civilian populated areas to fracture their belief in their country and overall wellbeing. While these concepts would eventually lead to the development of the Air Force, Douhet’s philosophies were slow in gaining influence, particularly within the United States, Britain, and France. Although implementation was gradual, by 1928, many of Douhet’s strategies were implemented by the United States, especially his concept of strategic bombing.
As a prominent British naval historian and military strategist, Julian Corbett (1854 – 1922), wrote a number of books. His most famous was Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911), which helped shape reforms of the Royal Navy. Though he never served in the Navy, Corbett became one of the leading intellectuals of naval practices due to his intriguing theories and publications. Corbett focused largely on maneuvering naval assets for tactical advantage, control of the sea, and control of the lines of communications. He also emphasized the importance of achieving victory while preserving as many costly assets as possible, a theory which forms the foundation of today’s naval warfare. It’s also important to note that Corbett saw beyond just naval battles, believing in the politics in war, particularly diplomacy and the formations of alliances.
Baron Jomini (1779-1869) was a Swiss officer who served as a general in Napoleon’s Army before later joining the Russian Army in 1813. Jomini initially started his military career after writing Treatise on Major Military Operations, which caught the attention of Marshal Ney, one of Napoleon’s top commanders. Jomini served at the Battle of Ulm in December of 1805 and was then commissioned as a colonel. In 1806, Jomini published his analysis of the impending war with Prussia, which inspired Napoleon to bring him onto his military staff. Jomini’s work during this time, particularly in the Battles of Jena and Eylau, earned him the Legion of Honor. Along with Clausewitz, Jomini is considered one of the most prominent and influential strategists in the revolution of warfare during the Napoleonic Wars. Jomini’s military strategies were considered so important that they were heavily leveraged during the American Civil War and became doctrine at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In particular, Jomini spoke in terms such as bases, strategic lines, and key points, offering simple advice to put superior combat power at the point of greatest importance. Jomini took the view that keeping casualties low should be a solemn duty of the commander and that war was not an exact science, so it shouldn’t be considered as such. Many of the theories proposed by these military strategists are focused on war in its totality, which includes politics, diplomacy, morality of action, economies, and the morale of the people. As a result, a number of these strategies have and can continue to also be implemented within the realms of economics, business, and politics, providing those in each industry with insight on how to improve leadership and management, as well as how to identify opportunities to strategically form alliances to achieve short- and long-term goals.
Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History: Securing International Markets in the 1890s, Office of the Historian
Carl von Clausewitz Resources, Clausewitz.com
Giulio Douhet, The Command of The Air (1921/1927), Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy
Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction, Clausewitz.com
The Three Stages of Mao’s Revolutionary Warfare, Parallel Narratives
Corbett, Clausewitz, and Sun Tzu, NWC Review
On War: Carl von Clausewitz, Clausewitz.com
Adm. A. Mahan, Library of Congress