April 1, 2006  

Chasing the Austerlitz ideal

The enduring quest for decisive battle

At 10 o’clock in the morning Dec. 2, 1805, a few miles west of the Austrian town of Austerlitz, the main weight of the Austro-Russian forces under the command of Marshal Mikhail Golonishchev Kutusov bore down on Brigadier Paul Thiébault’s infantry brigade.

Enveloped in a heavy fog of battle smoke, the French forces — which had just taken the commanding ground of the Pratzen Heights — charged their 12-pounders with double shot, topped them off with a round of canister and waited for the attackers to advance within 150 yards of the French line. Under intense pressure, Thiébault ordered a bayonet charge in combination with a volley of cannon fire that “opened great square holes in the enemy lines” and in some instances “whole battalions of Russians got themselves killed without a single man leaving the ranks.” The destruction caused by Thiébault’s brigade exemplified the ability of Napoleonic armies to demolish their enemies.

Austerlitz would become one of the French emperor’s most acclaimed battles. It reaffirmed the lessons of his earlier campaigns, that military victory could bring enormous political results. In one day, Napoleon had effectively annihilated the army of his allied enemies and smashed the Third Coalition. In contrast with the preceding era of limited warfare, when battles rarely achieved dramatic political gains, annihilation of the enemy’s army seemed once more a realistic means to achieve a strategic goal. As Russell Weigley noted, “The Austerlitz battle, the thunderstroke victory that destroyed the enemy army in a single clash of arms, became almost every general’s hoped-for means to the goal.”

Surveyors of the Napoleonic Wars sought to unravel the mysteries behind the Great Captain’s successes, and from these analyses arose two of the most important theoretical treatments of warfare in the Western world: Antoine Henri Jomini’s “Précis de l’Art de la Guerre” and Carl von Clausewitz’s “Vom Kriege.” In very general terms, while Jomini advocated a principle-based approach to the study and conduct of war, Clausewitz’s emphasis was more on the interaction of changing variables. As Alan Beyerchen observes, Clausewitz was “willing to accept uncertainty and complex interaction as major factors in order to cope with what is happening along the hazy boundaries where the opposing forces, or contending categories in theory, are actually engaged.”

While Clausewitz insisted on accepting uncertainty in warfare, the United States armed forces in general and the U.S. Army in particular have historically been uncomfortable with ambiguity along the “hazy boundaries” of war. And despite the recent experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still a predilection within the U.S. Army to view warfare through the historical lens of decisive battle as classified by Jominian principles. These historical lessons have defined the Army’s professional culture and, in some instances, have created a view of warfare that is too narrow in an era where a single decisive battle seems all but impossible to achieve.

In large part, the United States’ technological dominance in conventional operations has reinforced this institutional bent for battle. But only by reorienting professional thought from technologically supported principles and formulas to understanding war from a Clausewitzean approach that requires a depth of knowledge in the fields of theory and history can the Army and its sister services get out from under the shadow of Austerlitz. Ironically, clarity about war is only to be found by preparing for a future marked by uncertainty and indecision.


Immediately after the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon wrote to his wife, Josephine, that “The Russian army is not only beaten but destroyed.” Despite this immodest claim, Russia found itself able to fight the emperor at Eylau and Friedland in 1806-07 and to break the Grande Armée in the expanses of the Russian hinterland in 1812. And certainly no army had been more thoroughly destroyed than the Prussians at Jena-Auerstädt in 1806, yet King Frederick William III continued the struggle until his allies, the Russians, were defeated for a third time in three years at the battle of Friedland in 1807. Lasting decision too often proved elusive for the emperor, as his enemies never fully reconciled themselves to a permanent French restructuring of the European map. Despite frustration, Napoleon’s enthusiasm for the quest by no means dampened.

This quest for decisiveness is a major component in the U.S. Army’s approach to warfare and, in one sense, rightfully so. As an organization, the Army has leveraged much in intellectual and industrial capital to attain distinct advantages in conventional operations. But, in the process, we may have restricted our collective professional vision and created a certain degree of impatience. Many leaders, military and civilian, have come to expect immediacy in the Army’s operations, conventional or unconventional, as illustrated by the ever-optimistic talk about exit strategies and withdrawal timetables within Iraq. The Austerlitz ideal is still alluring, even though the Great Captain’s battlefield victories normally proved decisive only in the short term.

Certainly, Napoleon was not the first commander to be thwarted in his search for effects exceeding the immediate military situation. In the 3rd century B.C., despite numerous crushing defeats of the Roman legions and occupying Italy for 18 years, Hannibal found he could not force the Senate and people of Rome to negotiate, much less surrender. British officers were equally exasperated fighting during the American Revolution, particularly in the Southern colonies. Though British forces had destroyed two Continental armies at Charleston and Camden in 1780, Gen. Charles Earl Cornwallis found that guerrilla warfare had, in many Southern areas, replaced conventional fighting. As historian Don Higginbotham notes, “Cornwallis discovered that the rear areas could no longer be treated in the traditional sense as zones of communication and supply; the front-behind-the-front became a theater of operations in its own right.” Destruction of armies had not directly led to the achievement of higher-level objectives.

This is not to say that significant results, consequences or turning points cannot be achieved by the conduct of battle. Austerlitz might well have had lasting effects had Napoleon’s avaricious appetite not led him to Germany in 1806, Poland in 1807 and, most regrettably for the French army, Spain in 1808. In the War of American Independence, the successful conclusion of the Saratoga campaign in October 1777 led not only to the capitulation of an entire British field army but also, more importantly, to the entrance of France into the war in March 1778. Even a tactical draw can have large strategic consequences: The bloody battle at Antietam in September 1862 left Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia free to fight almost three more years, but allowed President Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Soon after the proclamation went into effect at the beginning of 1863, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote that “the character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels. … We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them.”

Decisive battles such as Austerlitz or Antietam tend to dominate the narrow conceptions of warfare, if for no other reason than they are glorious and have consequences. Decision is attractive because alternate strategies seem time-consuming, expensive and inglorious. Young warriors are not eager to speak in terms of limitations, and even the language of Jomini and Clausewitz seems to address decisive battle as the only form of real warfare. Jomini noted that the fundamental principle of war was “to throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successively, upon the decisive points of a theater of war.” Even Clausewitz, who normally offered a more nuanced approach to warfare, appeared to reinforce this argument with the “conviction that only a great battle can produce a major decision.” His conviction was deeply held: “founded not on an abstract concept of war alone, but also on experience.”

In fact, war is an enormously varied phenomenon in which political objectives are intimately involved, thus giving rise to a correspondingly complex set of appropriate strategic responses. Certainly, the current adversaries of American armed forces in Iraq are not intent on seeking out and fighting a decisive battle — quite the opposite. Given U.S. tactical advantages, such a course would prove disastrous, as it was in Fallujah in November 2004. Thus, correlating their means to objectives, insurgents in Iraq have settled on a strategy of attrition in hopes of gradually eroding our combat power and ultimately breaking the nation’s will. For them, decisive battle — at least against the United States — is simply no longer relevant.

For all services, we should be cautious that in the process of training our officers better than any in the world in the application of firepower to achieve decision in battle, we have not lost sight of alternative strategies. If our enemies are not willing to fight in a conventional manner, battle may not be as relevant as it once was. Yet, despite the tremendous efforts of those focused on civil-military relations in Iraq and the yeoman work being done by our men and women in uniform, large-scale operations in western Iraq over the past two years have shown that translating tactical battlefield successes into operational and strategic objectives is a complicated endeavor. Exacerbating this problem of concentrating on decisive battle is the view that the technological side of transformation can provide substantial weight in winning the global war on terror.


In October 2004, the U.S. Army Futures Center published the “Army Concept Development and Experimentation Campaign Plan, 2005-2016.” Discussing how the future force would conduct decisive operations to achieve strategic ends, the plan holds out a vision of simultaneous distributed operations occurring across a “non-contiguous battlespace,” thus changing the “geometry of the enemy’s defense and enabl[ing] the Future Force to act throughout the enemy’s dispositions to achieve dislocating and disintegrating effects.” As the enemy becomes strained by the future force’s “overwhelming operational tempo,” the disintegration of the enemy’s defensive integrity would be completed by “direct attack of key enemy capabilities and centers of gravity.” All of this is to be accomplished by an integrated, network-enabled battle command that would provide “the required base of situational understanding for the most effective application of combat capabilities and forces and enable self-synchronizing forces to respond quickly to changing battlefield conditions.”

This is, frankly, 21st-century jargon in service to 19th-century thinking. Interestingly, the campaign plan notes the importance of changing the enemy’s “geometry.” While Jomini partially broke from the earlier geometrically-based theories of Heinrich von Bülow, he was not averse to using such theories in the development of general rules which could be learned by commanders and applied in any situation. As one survey on Jomini notes, “The central problem in warfare, in Jomini’s opinion, is the choice of the correct lines of operation and the most important objective of the commanding general is the domination of the zone of operations in which he is engaged.”

One of the ways in which the Army transformation effort hopes to control the future battlespace is through information dominance. In transformation theory, information dominance supports highly synchronized operations that in turn support a decisive battle concept. As Joint Vision 2020 argues: “The joint force must be able to take advantage of superior information converted to superior knowledge to achieve ‘decision superiority’ — better decisions arrived at and implemented faster than an opponent can react… .” In essence, decisive battle remains the centerpiece of transformed operations, with technology enabling what are basically Jominian principles at a more rapid pace. The geometry of the battlefield may not include new dimensions such as information, but the ideas are the same.

In preferring technological to cultural change, the U.S. military risks following the footsteps of earlier misguided armies. In spite of horrendous casualties in the First World War, the French army applied only modest exertion in reforming its doctrine. The cult of the offensive still reigned supreme within most of the French command until at least 1917 and the failed Nivelle Offensive. Despite an influx of new technologies during the war, scant thought was given to how the army could best employ them in its contemporary operating environment. As one French historian observes, “The acquisition of huge numbers of machine guns and artillery pieces; the adoption of new heavy artillery, tanks, and airplanes; and the innovative use of automotive transport all occurred without any systematic rethinking of French military organization, strategy or doctrine.” The result was that in the 1920s and 1930s, the French may have had better tools than the Germans but not a coherent doctrine with which to apply them. Improvements on traditional methods took precedence over true innovation in the years prior to World War II.

Arguably, the American experience in Vietnam was no different. Andrew Krepinevich’s thesis that the United States failed in Southeast Asia because it was wedded to a conventional concept of war holds constructive lessons for an army that will no doubt let out a collective sigh of relief when it departs Iraq. As Krepinevich asserts, “The lack of progress in defeating the insurgents in the period 1965-68 can be attributed, in part, to an Army strategy reflecting traditional methods of operation in a conflict that was dramatically different from its wars over the previous half-century.” While we should all be careful in searching for prescriptive lessons from the U.S. Army’s experience in Vietnam, we may, in fact, gain valuable perspective in fighting a protracted, unconventional conflict if we study that war in a thoughtful, critical manner. Certainly, the Army in Vietnam was a technologically superior force, yet it still faced myriad difficulties in fighting a committed insurgency.

With technology reinforcing an emphasis on a principle-based approach to warfare, today’s Army, if not much of our overall society, has been imbued with a cult of decisive battle. Strengthening this propensity for decisiveness is the Army’s development and promotion of network-centric warfare, an institutional response to the move from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. The current vehicle-centered concept of operations is to be transformed into a network of vehicles and sensors, achieved through collaboration, synchronization and information-sharing. Information advantage thus equates to war-fighting advantage. According to one Marine Corps officer, though, increases in available information do not necessarily lead to battlefield proficiency. “In the unconventional operations that have followed [the conventional phase of operations in Iraq], most of the high-technology systems have proven irrelevant.”

Advantages in military technology have allowed American armed forces to drive the enemy from the air and sea, but on the ground, there is no need for an adversary to possess high technology to wage an effective war against those same American forces. This is not to say that we shouldn’t leverage technology to achieve conventional battlefield success, but we should be wary of doing so to the exclusion of discounting the importance of human factors in the conduct of war. A contest of wills does not always lend itself to a decisive, mechanistic approach to warfare.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War and the “shock and awe” phase of the current war in Iraq clearly illustrated the futility of attempting to symmetrically fight the United States with both inferior equipment and less well-trained armed forces. Certainly, potential enemies have learned this lesson. In fact, insurgents in Iraq have been agile enough to make changes within and between U.S. military operations, effectively combating American technological superiorities. Dedicated to a formulistic approach to war that relies heavily on the use of technology, have we been equally as agile mentally?


Arguably, the main reason for the steadfast faith in Jominian principles and the efficacy of decisive battle is that current military culture is hesitant to support initiatives that fall outside the realm of strictly military operations. As an example, even as many Army schools integrate unconventional warfare into their curricula, the emphasis is still on techniques and procedures — such as checkpoint operations or the handling of improvised explosive devices — as opposed to higher-level social, political and historical thought regarding insurgencies.

It is critically important to consider the overall objective of war during planning processes, especially if commanders and staffs are already predisposed to the execution and support of tactical combat operations. An army that seeks decisive battle in an environment for which such battle is not suited may be failing to support the overriding political goal. As retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales noted in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, “War is a thinking man’s game. … We need to be able to understand the nonmilitary advantage, to read intentions, to build trust, to convert opinions, to manage perceptions — all tasks that demand an exceptional ability to understand people, their culture and their motivation.”

Within the U.S. Army, there is evidence of officers embracing the study and use of such nonmilitary advantages as it continues to develop toward the future force. As two officers from the 1st Cavalry Division recently wrote of the fighting in Iraq, “It is no longer sufficient to think in purely kinetic terms — executing traditionally focused combat operations and concentrating on training local security forces works, but only for the short term. In the long term, doing so hinders true progress and, in reality, promotes the growth of insurgent forces working against campaign objectives.” These officers go on to warn, however, that “what we have not been able to do is create the systems and processes to execute the nonlethal side as effortlessly as combat operations.”

Arguably, the primary reason for this focus on combat operations is that in programs of professional development, techniques and procedures have become more important than tactical or operational art. “TTP” — tactics, techniques and procedures — has become an honored acronym, an all-purpose trump card in professional conversation. Yet concentrating on techniques and procedures at the exclusion of thinking about the political practice of war seems to leave young officers ill-prepared for contemporary assignments. As one retired officer recently wrote, professional competence is not simply being proficient in the skills of the military art but “includes worldly wisdom, creativity and confidence.”

While creativity is important, every commander must obviously master the tools of his trade — the missions and tasks — just as all artists must obey certain fundamentals. Before a stonemason can craft works of art, he or she must be knowledgeable in setting, hand cutting and lettering. The Army, as with all branches of service, is no different in that it requires practical military skills, especially at the tactical level of war. Yet to define professionalism only according to these standards is seemingly incomplete, just as it would be in the art of stonemasonry. Tactical competence may be sufficient for success at the battalion or even brigade level, but those same officers have to perform equally well as division- and corps-level staff officers where operational and strategic level thinking is required.

A recent Rand Corp. study is illuminating in this regard. Written for the secretary of defense, the report concentrates on translating lessons from Iraq into future Defense Department policies. While attempting to develop lessons from a war still in progress can be risky business, the study offers interesting counsel for responding to insurgencies in terms of education and training. “In the future, U.S. military forces engaged in counterinsurgency operations must be [composed] of personnel with training and skills similar to special operations forces, i.e., the language and culture of the country, and in the critically important political, economic, intelligence, organizational, and psychological dimensions of counterinsurgency warfare.” It is uncertain how such a recommendation would be implemented, especially when the secretary of defense is directing the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop options for abbreviating professional military education during “stress periods.”

There are, of course, limitations in relying too heavily on historical theory, especially if one seeks Jominian prescriptions and precise formulas from the past. But a larger value is there. As Antulio Echevarria contends, “The role that history should serve in professional military education is not that of a foundation for experiencing war vicariously, but as a way to develop higher-level critical thinking skills.” Critical reading can lead to creative thinking and to a more intellectually agile officer corps that is better prepared to wage war outside the parameters of decisive battle.


Classical military thought can be eternally relevant, not simply an artifact of its time. Unfortunately, too many officers believe studying historical works as complex as Clausewitz to be superfluous, and that the current pace of operations is too demanding to allow for the deep study and strenuous reading they require. In Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland kept several classics on his night stand but confessed he was usually too tired to read them. Yet the price is worth paying. Clausewitz may not provide ready-made tactical answers but provokes a deep understanding of war. He offers intellectual problems, not simple solutions. Members of today’s armed forces should not read theory or history searching for lessons from decisive battles such as Austerlitz. Battles may be necessary, but they are not always sufficient.

In war, what seems theoretical is profoundly practical. Thinking about the purpose for the use of force is what is important, not developing and abiding by a set of rigid operational principles. By concentrating on how to think about war, and not simply about how to fight battles in accordance with technologically supported principles, the United States armed forces will be better prepared for short-term indecision in a long-term war on terrorism.

Army Lt. Col. Gregory A. Daddis is a history instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.