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Moltke on the Art of War

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Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes
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Author background: Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (October 26, 1800 – April 24, 1891), was a German Generalfeldmarschall. The chief of staff of the Prussian army for thirty years, he is widely regarded as one of the great strategists of the latter half of the 1800s, and the creator of a new, more modern method, of directing armies in the field. He is often referred to as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who commanded the German army at the outbreak of World War I. Moltke is often viewed as the person who operationalized Clausewitz’s theories.

Thesis: Moltke's main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since only the beginning of a military operation was plannable. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes.


· Chapter 1: Nature of War

o Peace is a dream and war is a part of God’s world order
o Man’s best characteristics emerge in war (courage, self-denial, devotion to duty, and selflessness)
o War is subordinate to the requirements of national policy, but war should be conducted separate from politics; the time for politics is before and after war, not during
o The strategic offensive combines well with the tactical defensive (i.e., encircle the enemy and force him to fight his way out)

· Chapter 2: Headquarters, Operations, Technology

o Too many advisors can slow commander decision-making
o Local commanders should have freedom to act in line with commander’s intent
o Mobile forces better protect a country than fixed fortifications
o Full use should be made of technology, but improvements in communication can threaten local commander freedom of action

· Chapter 3: The Battle

o Moltke emphasizes the destruction of enemy forces as the objective of strategy (like Clausewitz)
o Two key principles of Moltke’s strategy (echoed by Tukachevsky)
§ Subordinate commander initiative (e.g., march toward the sound of canon fire)
§ Cooperation among the three basic arms (infantry, cavalry, and artillery)

· Chapter 4: 1869 Instructions for Large Unit Commanders

o Single-most important official document guiding German military thought through WWI
o “Victory alone breaks the will of the enemy and forces him to submit to our will. Neither the possession of a tract of land nor the conquest of a fortified position will suffice. On the contrary, only the destruction (Zerstörung) of the enemy’s fighting power will, as a rule, be decisive. This [destruction of the enemy’s fighting power] is therefore the foremost object of operations (Operationsobjekt).”

· Chapter 5: Various Teachings on War

o Moltke suggests that units should march separately and unite only on the battlefield in order to maximize the chance to encircle the enemy. Risk was deemed worth the gain.
o Moltke emphasizes the importance of flexibility to counter chance in war

Implications for Strategy

  • No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy; the enemy always gets a vote so be prepared
  • Field commanders should be encouraged to exercise initiative

Sugar's Tips on Von Moltke the Elder

The Goodness

War and Peace

However, whoever knows war will agree that it cannot be restrained by theoretical chains. 23 It’ll often be constrained by Moral, political, economic, and materiel considerations, but I don’t think anyone has ever stopped fighting to have a theoretical debate. Maybe it’ll happen at the next SAASS roll call….

Every law requires an authority who watches and regulates its execution; but this power is lacking in the observance of international agreements. 23 Guess I am becoming a realist.

No paragraph learned by heart will convince the soldier that he must see a lawful enemy in the organized populace which resorts to force of arms on its own initiative and from which his life is not secure for a moment, day or night. 23 Put another way, “Making war upon insurgents is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” TE Lawrence

One hopes that with advancing civilization war will be less frequent, but no state can entirely dispense with it…As long as different nations lead separate existences, there will be disputes that can be settled only by the force of arms. 24-25 Realism defined.

There can be no thought of freedom if there is no power to hold it. 25 If “Freedom is not free”, and “Might makes right”, this is definitely true.

I have more confidence in the judgment and power of governments than in the Areopagus of delegates selected by the peoples and international brotherhood or what has been proposed in this direction, which is suited only to create Babylonian confusion. 25 Yup, think Moltke is definitely a realist.

The money market also has today gained an influence that can call on the armed forces into the field for its interests. 26 Good observation, but when was this not true?

The frontiers of a large state cannot be constructed according to scientific principles. 28 Durand line, anyone?

We must never forget that the savings of a long series of years of peace can be lost in a single year of war. 28 Much like a quote from MacArthur about how nothing is more expensive than having the second best military.

The credit of a state rests above all on its security. 29 Thomas Friedman, the globalization “Earth is Flat” guy, would agree

The best pledge for peace is to be armed for war. 31 This sounds suspiciously like “To secure peace is to prepare for war" from Mettalica’s “Don’t Tread on Me”, and was also the slogan of an Italian city state that Machiavelli references, which was originally lifted from Vegetius, namely Si vis pacem, para bellum. Apparently there will be free drinks for you at the next Roll Call if you can remember it – or anything close to it.,_para_bellum

Arms are quickly distributed but not so quickly taken back. 33 Also very true with beers.

The task is to make a solider out of the recruit; that is, a man who not only practices the parade step or mounts guard, but who is expected to act independently…34 This is the “training vs. education” debate, and Moltke argues for the importance of both.

Military service is a school for the growing generation in regard to order, punctuality, cleanliness, obedience, and loyalty – attributes that underpin subsequent productive work. 34 Is that why we’re going to hell in a handbasket since the “Greatest Generation” retired and handed the reins over to the freakin’ hippies? J

War and Politics

War is the violent action of nations to attain or maintain purposes of state. It is the most extreme means of carrying out that will and, during its duration, abolishes international treaties between the beligerents….Thus, policy cannot be separated from strategy, for politics uses war to obtain its objectives and has a decisive influence on war’s beginning and end. Policy does this in such a manner that it reserves to iself the right to increase its demands during the course of the war to satisfy itself with minor successes 36 It also changes in the other direction to expand objectives after previous successes – the UN forces in the Korean War is a great example of both.

In no instance must the military commander allow himself to be swayed in his operations policy by policy considerations only. 36 Easy to agree with the opposite of an absolute statement. He incorrectly jumps upon this rhetorical device to try and prove the opposite condition, but he overreaches (see the “Moltke is wrong” section)

The military and moral consequences of every great engagement are of such a far-reaching kind that they usually create a fully transformed situation, a basis for new measures. 45. This is exactly why policy has to be part of strategy, and while it shouldn’t ask the unreasonable or unachievable, the current political situation should always inform the strategy, which then must adapt itself to the new operational environment lest it plow forward into irrelevant operations at high costs. This also means that often, the results of combat make previous political positions unfeasible – for example, even if the allies had backed off the demands for unconditional surrender had “the Bulge’ gone the Germans way, there was no way the Nazis were ever going to maintain power after their actions in the occupied countries or the Holocaust became known. Better example - after the bloodbaths of Verdun and the Somme, there was no way the European governments could settle for a return to the prewar status quo.

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s strength. Only the layman sees in the course of a campaign a consistent execution of a preconceived and highly detailed original concept pursued consistently to the end. 45 Ah, the famous quotes. Translated to brospeak: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”, and “The plan is nothing, but planning is everything”.

Certainly the commander in chief will keep his great objective continuously in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance…everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and consistency. 47 This goes right along with Clausewitz’s idea that it’s the commanders job to remain poised in the midst of change and uncertainty, to keep his eye on the strategic picture when the tactical details are confusing and contradictory, and to use his coup d’oeil to “pierce through the fog” at the key times and places, recognize the salient factors, and adjust the plan appropriately to the new situation.

Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than a discipline; it is the transfer of knowledge to practical life, the continued development of the original leading thought in accordance with the constantly changing circumstances. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions. 47 Amen, Bruder. Strategy must ultimately be distilled into practical applications and relayed in “brospeak”, which then generates physical actions that shape favorable outcomes in the real world. Anything else is an academic exercise, not strategy.

Defensive, Offensive, and Bayonet Fighting

Thus is the strategic offensive tied to the tactical defense. 48 Good reminder that subsequent defense should be a consideration in any offense, and that tactical events can have strategic consequences.

Defensive and Offensive

I am convinced that improvements in firearms have given the tactical defense a great advantage over the tactical offense. 52 Absolutely true until mobility was improved by airpower and mechanized warfare. Unfortunately, more people concentrated on the “bayonet” quote than this one before WWI, despite the lessons of the Russo Japanese War ten years prior that had largely validated this point.

Strategic Offensive and Defensive

The tactical defense is the stronger, the strategic offensive is the more effective form- the only one that leads to the goal…One may say, in short, that the strategic offensive is the direct way to the objective, the strategic defensive the roundabout way 68 This is a modification of Clausewitz’s concept that the defense was stronger, but the offensive had the positive aim. Clausewitz argued that you could win on the defensive as well, and that warfare was never purely offensive or defensive. Moltke suggests that the relative strengths of offense and defense depend on the level of war, and that offensive was the stronger form of war at the strategic level. This goes along with Clausewitz’s concept that victory ultimately required an offensive action to bring decision and disarm the opponent, but by saying “more effective” instead of “stronger”, he may have unwittingly contributed to the “Cult of the Offensive” that dominated prior to WWI, and arguably still continues to live on in some circles today (just a couple of airpower advocates in that camp).

Thoughts on Command

The composition of an Army’s headquarters is of an importance that is not always sufficiently recognized. There are supreme commanders who need no counsel…but these are stars of the first magnitude not found in every century. 76 The French command and control system, which we have in many ways followed, is focused on supporting the commander. The Prussian general staff worked more for overall excellence – the concept was that since we can’t always get a genius, let’s make sure we have enough guys who are “good enough” when we execute these “march separately, attack together” operations. This was vital to their concept of battle, in which separated units trying to converge on the same are with limited communications had to operate autonomously until communications could be reestablished.

In most cases the commander of an army will not wish to do without advice. This advice may well be the result of the collective deliberations of a smaller or larger number of men, whose education and experience make them competent to judge correctly. 76 Can I get a “hell yeah” from all the ASG grads? This actually has lots of applicability today – who gets to give the commander advice, and how many people is “too many cooks”? In practice, we usually review the big stuff with the whole group, and break into smaller groups to work specific COAs after the big picture guidance. The Army is trying to figure out how this small group that formulates the problem statement – the “design team” will tie in with the rest of the staff, and how they should translate these high fallootin’ Jervis and Allison ideas into Brospeak for Campaign Plans, OPORDs and JAOPS. Give ‘em credit – they’re taking on this monster that we’re still trying to figure out 140 years after Moltke…

But of that number, never more than one opinion must gain prevalence. The military’s hierarchical organization must assist both subordination and thought. Only one authorized person may submit to the commanding general this one opinion. The supreme commander chooses that person not according to rank, but according to the confidence placed in him. Spoken like a true Chief of Staff…

Read pages 76 – 78, and compare it to JOPP, JAEP, MDMP, MCPP, etc. Mmmm….

Railroads 107 & telegraphs 113– very tactical, but very important recognition at the time

Strategy (again)

Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions. Strategy is the application of sound human sense to the conduct of war; its teachings go little beyond the first requirements of common sense. Imagine Moltke speaking from beyond the grave directly to us – “Keep it down to earth - Don’t be a SAASShole! “ It’s value lies entirely in concrete application. The main point is correctly to estimate at each moment the changing situation and then do the simplest and most natural things with firmness and caution. Thus war becomes an art – an art, of course, which is served by many sciences (that explains our 120 books) 124

He’s getting better – he keeps the tie to practicality, but adds the concept of a learning organization (“improvement of leading thought) and continuous operational assessment (“estimate at each moment”), and also taking a multidisciplinary approach to your mission analysis (art and sciences). Dropped the political stuff, though…

In war, as in art, we find no universal forms; in neither can a rule take the place of talent. General theories, and the resulting rules and systems, therefore cannot possibly have practical value in strategy. 124 Take that, Jomini….Design dudes, I’m watching you…124

Instructions for large unit commanders

No calculation of space and time guarantees victory in this realm of chance, mistakes, and disappointments. Uncertainty and the danger of failure accompany every step toward the goal, which will no be attained if fate is completely unfavorable. In war, everything is uncertain; nothing is without danger, and only with difficulty will one attain great results by another route. 175. - You’r e sounding a little negative guys. I get the chance, fog, and friction, but why so gloomy and absolute? Hey wait a minute, I see the good side to this “uncontrollable war” thing. If bad things inevitably happen, there’s less stuff you can say that the CG or the staff screwed up! I knew that there was a reason I liked Clausewitz more than Jomini…

Great nugget in here for you C2 guys (and future C2 guys):

Even in peacetime, the command structures of the Army, which are already organized in peacetime and which continue in war with only partial expansion, serve to bring fulfillment to the will of the highest commander. 176 This is the foundational concept for both the standing joint task force headquarters and the Component Numbered Air Force with its AOC. Instead of having to take staff weenies out of letterd HQ staffs, you keep a scalable HQ running at all times, doing the same basic battle rhythm but with extended timelines for the main events. When the balloon goes up, you’ve got the core in place, trained, and ready to hit the ground running as your “auggies” plug and play as needed to expand the capacity of the HQ. This way you’re executing strategy from the word “go”, instead of trying to figure out where your seat is, waiting hours to get a network login, trying to figure out who your joint staff and sister service players are, etc.

Where Moltke is just plain wrong or has become irrelevant (My opinion, which will get you a Mocha from McDonalds on Mondays. Tell ‘em Sugar sent you. )

His technique – Moltke cherry picks often valid historical examples to illustrate his point that politicians often ask for the military to do things that don’t make sense tactically or strategically, but then makes the mistake of trying to use this to validate a maxim that political interference in military affairs is always bad. He doesn’t spend much time on the times when policy overruling the military brought Prussia more success than fighting – this mix of decisiveness and restraint is the reason Bismarck is often pointed to by historians as one of the best examples of someone who successfully balanced the political and military aspects of warfare…

I believe that all governments are today endeavoring to maintain peace. 25 Maybe the “haves” are…but some unhappy with the status quo actually stand to benefit from war, while others (i.e. arms dealers nations, nations getting “anti—terror funds from the US ) benefit from keeping war part of the current status quo.

Modern wars call whole people to arms. 26 Not necessarily. Is the US at arms? Great Britain? Know this is meant for the MCO context, but apply the same questions to 1991 and 2003.

But in its actions, strategy is independent of policy, mainly to prevent that policy from demanding things which are against the nature of war, and out of ignorance of the instruments from committing errors of their us 36 The last part is good – Clausewitz also talks of the importance of having military advice in the “cabinet” to make sure leaders don’t ask the military to do something it can’t or shouldn’t do. But the overreach here is the implication that strategy and policy are independent – Clausewitz is 180 out from this at the highest levels of strategy, realizing that the D and M are integral parts of a comprehensive grand strategy. This is exactly what we’re still trying to get our arms around with our efforts to increase interagency planning and cooperation, as well as the recent restructuring of the Obama National Security Council under General (Ret) Jones.

Military considerations are decisive for the course of the war. Political considerations are decisive only so far as they do not demand something impossible in a military sense. 36 He’s trying to pile on Clausewitz’s argument that tactical victories are necessary for strategic success, which is ultimately guaranteed by a forced decision. He’s actually got it backwards – while the tactical victories are often key enablers to setting the stage for conflict termination, when deciding the course of the war (not the battle), political concessions or acceptance of the new political status quo are the only things that end a war (ask the North Vietnamese, the Iraqis, or anyone who has served in USFK for the last 60 years).

In no instance must the military commander allow himself to be swayed in his operations policy by policy considerations only. He should rather keep military successes in view. What policy can do with his victories or defeats is exclusively the business of policy. 36 Moltke starts by arguing against an absolute statement, which most will agree with, but he then tries to make another absolute statement the truth opposite of that. It’s a false argument – just because you shouldn’t focus solely on political factors doesn’t mean that you should focus exclusively on military ones, you should reject it as a false absolute just like the previous statement. The last part in red is the main problem with German strategy in both World Wars – they kept to this (with some notable exceptions that were squashed), but continued to fight on for operational and tactical successes when they were pointless at the strategic level, a problem which only could have been alleviated by adopting a different political policy (like making a deal with the Allies, which their exercises in genocide had made almost impossible by that point)

A mistake in the original assembly of the army can scarcely be rectified in the entire course of the campaign. 45 While this is true the narrower your time window is, the truth of this statement depends on how long the campaign is, how much production and transportation capability you have, and how much mobility/adaptability you have with the forces that are there. Over the course of the Pacific campaign, the fact that we started with only a few carriers did not mean that we could not bump those numbers up to near 50 by the end of the war. In North Africa, the mistakes of Kasserine Pass were rectified, and Rommel was chased out of Africa in ’43 with most of the same forces that went in, just operating with different, more effective tactics and practices (including the abandonment of “Penny packeted” airpower).

On the other hand, strategy appropriates the success of every engagement and builds upon it. The demands of strategy grow silent in the face of tactical victory and adapt themselves to the newly created situation. 47 Really? Or is it that the demands of policy often adapt when tactical victory or defeat changes the situation? Moltke’s claim might look true which you get to what you perceive as the enemy’s COG sooner than you thought (i.e. driving the Taliban out of Kabul), but the demands of strategy (eliminating Al Qaeda as a threat) were not satisfied with this tactical success, nor were the demands put upon strategy by policy reduced in the long term. Thinking that the strategic demands of that policy had been reduced encouraged us to conduct an economy of force operation in Afghanistan, which gave the enemy time to regroup. Thinking that the buildup of early tactical successes had gotten the job done (strategy growing silent), without addressing the core strategic issues of how Al Qaeda operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has come back to bite us in a big way.

The advance with the bayonet is the means finally to overcome the enemy. No army can do without the bayonet. The confidence of the man in his bayonet cannot be sufficiently fostered, but its employment must first be made possible by the course of the battle and must be prepared by the effects of fire. 49 Hundreds of thousands of WWI soldiers probably wished that their leaders had continued to read on to the next sentence. “The leader should always remember that even the most brilliant bravery fails against an insurmountable obstacle.”

A turning movement falls out of the scope of tactics and into the realm of strategic operations…A flanking attack on the enemy is a turning movement in the sphere of tactics. The former works morally and directly, the other materially and directly. 57 “Turning” your opponent means making him move out of his position and redeploying, done either by force or by guile, but it’s a conscious decision of the enemy to reposition their forces. Moltke says that if you can get him to do this before your directly engaged with him, this is a “strategic” movement due to forcing the issue through psychology, where a flanking attack is using brute force is tactical because you’re physically pushing him out of position. We would probably call the first one maneuver, and the second attack, and usually categorize them in the operational and tactical levels of war respectively. However, you can produce strategic effects with maneuver as well – that’s the whole reason we still have B-52s in Guam today.

The Nazi’s favorite Von Moltke quotes:

War is part of God’s world order. 22 This is how you can be a God Fearing Nazi.

War develops man’s noblest virtues, which otherwise would slumber and die out…22 Again, “the Tree of Liberty”…

The soldier endures hardships and privations, fatigue and danger. He not only can but must take from the resources of the land what is necessary for his existence. 24 This explains a lot about what happened to the German soldiers on the Eastern Front in WWII.

Only a strong government can carry out beneficial reforms and assure peace. 27 Bet this passage had Hitler licking his lips…

Germany’s principle strength rests in the homogeneity of its population 27 I can see where this is going…

…we have become a nation only through sacrifice and work. 28 “Blut and Ehre” - Hitler was willing to burn Germany to the ground himself because he thought losing meant that the German nation wasn’t living up to this idea

…the main question is of training and stabilization of moral qualities, the military upbringing of youth to manhood. That cannot be drilled into the recruits; it must be acquired through long years of service. Hitlerjugend

Not the schoolteacher, but the educator, the military class, has won our battles, has educated the nation in regard to corporal vigor and mental freshness, love of fatherland, and manliness. We therefore cannot do without the army for the domestic purposes of educating the nation. SS

The Nazis’ least favorite Von Moltke quotes

Germany has shown that it is a peace loving nation, one that does not need war to achieve glory and which does not want war to make conquests. I really do not know what we would do with a piece of land wrested from Russia or France. 27 Make “Lebensraum”? Oh, and get slaves and resources, too

Woe to him who applies the torch to Europe, who is the first to throw the match into the powder cask. 29 Oops…

  • Flexibility and mobility are superior to fixed fighting positions

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