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Review: Antoine Henri Jomini, Summary of the Art of War, A Condensed
Version, ed. by J.D. Hittle.
Stackpole Books (1987).
Antoine Henri Jomini wrote his Summary of the Art of War in 1838, and it quickly became the bible
for those seeking to understand Napoleon.
As the editor of this edition pointed out, Jomini is worth studying if
only because of his influence on American generals in the Civil War and then
indirectly on those who learned from Civil War campaigns.
The editor lavished great praise on Jomini in his
introduction as the counterpart to Clausewitz, but the text did not live up to
its billing. Jomini's basic understanding
of war was mechanistic, and while he occasionally drops in a line about the
importance of morale or the uncertainty of war, he did not really believe
it. The heart of the book, Jomini's
explanation of "lines of operations," is not at all clear, but the
fault could either be Jomini's or the editor's condensation. Still, and despite Jomini's lip-service to
the contrary, his vision of war was extremely geometric and geographically
based: "In a war of invasion the
capital is, ordinarily, the objective point." (468) This is essentially an eighteenth-century
view of war, which Napoleon was able to capitalize on because he knew how his
opponensts would react within this geographical concept of war. Yet even Napoleon may not have been fully
aware of the transition in which he was participating. Along with Jomini, he seems to have viewed
the destruction of the enemy army as a means to the end of occupying the enemy
capital (or threatening to), upon which the enemy would have to make peace. When the Russians refused to consider the
fall of Moscow the signal that they were defeated, Napoleon had no choice but
to retreat. American generals in the
Civil War, disciples of Napoleon through Jomini, were unable to bring the war
to a close through a decisive, Napoleonic battle, although they tried mightily,
until General Ulysses Grant finally broke the rules and continued to attack
even after he had been "defeated."
Jomini thus was advocating a style of war that had
already become obsolete. Much of his
theory was still perfectly applicable to individual campaigns--it was still possible
to maneuver an enemy army out of a position by threatening its lines of
communications--but such battles for geographic points was unlikely to be
decisive any longer. Even the defeat of
an army was not necessarily decisive when the state could raise another in a
short time. In other ways, too, the
book provides evidence that Jomini had no understanding that Napoleonice
warfare was a transition point into a new kind of war. For example, he advocates that "the
prince" take the field at the head of the army whenever possible, unaware
that Napoleon would be the last head of state to do this.
Jomini, of course, can hardly be blamed for not
foreseeing the future. He, along with
the rest of the Western world, was caught in the long shadow that Napoleon cast
over war for the next century. The main
value of his book is that it helps show how contemporaries viewed Napoleon, and
what they hoped to learn from him.
Jomini is useful not so much for understanding how Napoleon won his
victories, but for understanding how nineteenth century generals thought