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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


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 he won.

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