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The Second Magnet of Clausewitz

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Submitted By traceyp74
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Use Clausewitz’s “paradoxical trinity” to analyze a specific war from the H100 block. Which of the three magnets of Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity is most important for understanding that particular conflict?

“The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle… It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.” Ecclesiates 9:11 is an often cited passage of the bible used to explain the unexplainable or as an excuse for failure. I will allow that circumstances will always arise (whether in war or everyday life) that could not be predicted; however, the relative reaction to those circumstances is what separates the truly great from the merely average. I will show in this paper that the ability to creatively control ‘chance’ is the single most important factor of Carl von Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity in understanding the greatness of Napoleon Bonapart. He called this ability in a battlefield situation, ‘military genius’ and although Clausewitz believed in the equity of the three points in his trinity, I would posit that the ability to successfully apply military ingenuity and initiative to the probabilities and uncertainties of war is what was ultimately the deciding factor in the Napoleonic Wars. A closer look at the Battles at Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo will demonstrate the role of chance and the military genius in victory and defeat. It is necessary first to briefly explain Clausewitz’s trinity. There are many interpretations of the precepts described in On War, but the work and research of Christopher Bassford and Edward Villacres describe the trinity as violence, chance and reason. It is also often referred to as the people, the military, and the government. While it is convenient to boil down the trinity into single word compliance, it does not do justice to the brilliancy of the theory. The second magnet in Clausewitz’s trinity is actually stated as, “…of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.” To call it simply, “chance” is to do a disservice to the intent of the writer. If fact, ‘probability’ is the opposite of ‘chance’ and the true tenet of the trinity is in the relationship between them and the commander’s ability to use them to his advantage. Clausewitz expounds on this theory later in his book by writing,
Circumstances vary so enormously in war, and are so indefinable, that a vast array of factors has to be appreciated—mostly in the light of probabilities alone. The man responsible for evaluating the whole must bring to his task the quality of intuition that perceives the truth at every point. Otherwise a chaos of opinions and considerations would arise, and fatally entangle judgment. Bonaparte rightly said in this connection that many of the decisions faced by the commander-in-chief resemble mathematical problems worthy of the gifts of a Newton or an Euler.
Clausewitz fought against Napoleon’s men often enough to see his tactical prowess in action. Napoleon, heralded as a military genius, seemed almost undefeatable until he met a man of similar abilities, the Duke of Wellington, on the field at Waterloo. The battle of Austerlitz has long been heralded as one of Napoleon’s greatest tactical victories. Napoleon quickly saw that a ridgeline called the Pratzen would prove to be the key terrain feature in the battle. However, instead of placing his men on the Pratzen Heights, he chose to use it as bait for the Allied forces. He left the heights unoccupied and positioned his own troops on the lower ground in such a way that they would appear to have a weak flank from the vantage point of the Pratzen ridgeline. When the Allied forces pursued the French ‘weak’ flank and left the Heights lightly defended, it was an easy enough task for Napoleon’s troops to move on to the position. By chance, the weather favored Napoleon’s troops. It had been raining and dreary and a low mist covered the grounds. This mist not only helped hide the French advance on Pratzen, but helped to hide a large portion of his army from Allied observation. Not realizing the extent of the French army likely explains why the Allies were willing to leave a key piece of terrain so lightly defended. As the French troops advanced up the slope through the fog, the legendary ‘Sun of Austerlitz’ emerged dispensing the mist. Essentially, the French troops had the cover of fog when they needed it most. Napoleon was able to apply his military wit to both the probable and chance circumstances that arose during the Battle of Austerlitz which helped to cement his place of honor as a brilliant tactician in the history books.
Although Napoleon was quick to declare victory at Borodino, the history books tell a different story claiming that Napoleon’s failure in committing his reserves to the battle, cost him the entire Russian campaign and caused the utter destruction of the French army of 1812. By chance, Napoleon was ill during the battle and was physically removed from the action. He kept the French Imperial Guard with him in reserve as he watched the action play out. This excerpt from Baron Lejuene’s account of the battle shows that others thought the reserve should have been deployed to render a final blow to the retreating Russian forces, “When I got back to the Emperor he had already been able to judge of the good results achieved by the artillery of his Guard, and he was still hesitating whether, as many amongst us wished, he should follow up this success with a grand charge from the whole of the brilliant cavalry of the Guard.” In this battle, General Kutuzov of the Russian army was able to take great advantage of the chance circumstance that kept Napoleon from crushing his force. That one chance circumstance combined with the probability of the French not being able to withstand a Russian winter without supplies allowed the Russians the opportunity to apply their own military genius to the situation. In this case, Napoleon failed to apply the ingenuity he was so famous for.
As a last example, I want to take a quick look at the man who would cause the defeat of Napoleon. The Duke of Wellington, in command of the British Army, is not always considered a military genius. He was not flamboyant. He wasn’t trying to conquer the world or make himself a dictator. However, Wellington was able to win nearly every battle he fought. He is often criticized for his strategy at Waterloo. Still, he won. When he received the message that the entire Prussian Army was on its way (rather than the 25,000 or so he asked for), he immediately changed his plan and set up his position at Waterloo. He took a chance circumstance, combined it with his years of experience and beat Napoleon’s Army bringing more than 40 years of peace to Europe.
If the thesis is that military genius, or the circumstances that allow for military genius, is the most important tenet of the trinity, then the antithesis is that all three of the tenets are equally important. Clausewitz’s use of the term magnets seems to imply that he believed them all to be equal and, at the same time, attracting and opposing. According to Alan Beyerchen, the metaphor refers to a Random Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum (ROPM). In this classic non-lineal scientific experiment, a ball suspended above three equidistant magnets and set in motion swings randomly between the three points of attraction. Only the forces of friction eventually allow the ball to rest on a single point. Furthermore, it is impossible for the pattern to be predicted or repeated. Clausewitz’s use of this metaphor would imply that while at any given point the pull from one magnet may be stronger; over time, all the magnets are equally important. It is important to remember that Clausewitz did not write about how to wage war, but how to think about war. The equal importance of all three magnets, in relation to all war, is undeniable. However, in the microcosm of Napoleon’s unparalleled rise and subsequent fall from power, the idea of chance and the military commander’s ability to use it to his advantage takes top billing.
There is no doubt that Napoleon felt he was destined for greatness. He once said, “In Italy I realized I was a superior being and conceived the ambition of performing great things…” However, he, more than any of the great military commanders, was the beneficiary of chance. Had the French Revolution not occurred, he would not have been able to achieve such heights given his family’s relative poverty. Napoleon’s ability to incorporate both probability and chance into a tactical, almost mathematical, equation led to his greatest successes. Conversely, his failure to do the same led to his eventual defeat. Through a rudimentary analysis of the battles of Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo, it is easy to see the important role of Clausewitz’s second magnet. Without the ability (both mentally and organizationally) to apply creativity to the battlefield situation, Napoleon would not today be known as one the best military tacticians of all time.

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