Tuesday, August 11, 2009

That Devil Forrest! : An Example of Military Genius?

Nathan Bedford Forrest is one of the most controversial commanders in US military history. Slave trader, plantation owner, (un)successful businessman, gambler, philanthropist, LtGeneral of Confederate Cavalry in the Civil War, and finally as a Grand Wizard in the original Klu-Klux, he is revered by some (perhaps some who should not revere him) and hated by others (who perhaps should take a more careful look).

Was he a war criminal for what happened at Fort Pillow in April 1864? And how could one of the prime movers behind the formation of the Klu-Klux order its disbandment in 1869 and then even offer the state government of Tennessee in 1874 to “exterminate” those who had refused to disband?

Forrest was needless to say a complex man, but if the war records, and much of what has been written since, are to be believed also a 24-caret military genius.

Back to theory now. How would one define a military genius?

Clausewitz defined military genius as a “harmonious combination of elements, in which one or the other ability may predominate, but none may be in conflict with the rest”. What types of societies produce such genius? “The smaller the range of activities of a nation and the more the military factor dominates, the greater will be the incidence of military genius. This, however is true only of its distribution, not its quality. The latter depends on the general intellectual development of a given society. . .” (Book 1, Chapter 3, On War).

The main point to consider about this concept of military genius is that it is the prime element which counteracts friction in war.

Antullio J. Echevarria provides us more on this:


Military genius, according to Clausewitz, consisted of a harmonious balance of several qualities belonging to reason (Verstand) and passion (Gemüt), or what we might refer to, while admittedly taking some liberties, as sense and sensibility. The latter category included energy (Energie), steadfastness (Festigkeit), resolve (Standhaftigkeit), strength of temperament (Gemütsstärke), and strength of character (Charakterstärke).

As mentioned earlier, these served as a counterweight to the elements of danger, physical exertion, uncertainty, and chance, which made up the atmosphere of war; . . . Energy was necessary to overcome the resistance of one's enemy as well as the inertia of one's own military machine; it might take the form of a commander's personal quest for glory, or his desire to satisfy his own honor.

Although these motives were often regarded as negative, Clausewitz believed they could prove more powerful, and thus more valuable, than other passions, such as patriotism, fanaticism, and revenge. Steadfastness and resolve go hand-in-hand: the former refers to the ability to stay focused when confronted by sudden adversities; the latter means the capacity to remain committed over the long haul. Strength of temperament best equates to self-discipline, the ability to listen to the voice of reason in the midst of even the strongest of emotional appeals—to maintain one's perspective. Strength of character, a common term throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, means strength of conviction, which might stem from many factors, but—ideally—came from an unshakeable belief in correct principles; in contrast, obstinacy was blind adherence to unfounded or incorrect ideas, and thus was a perversion of strength of character, and so was to be avoided. Once again, therefore, we see the importance of objective knowledge in the formulation of judgment.

In a sense, all of these qualities fall under the heading of physical and psychological courage. Physical courage means the ability to function in spite of the debilitating influence of danger and the physical privations of war; psychological courage refers to the capacity to accept responsibility, to make decisions in times of crisis.

Yet, the central point of this chapter of On War is that all of these qualities would come to naught without the use of the intellect. The ability to penetrate the fog of uncertainty that surrounds events in war, and to exercise sound judgment, was essential. This higher use of the intellect required a certain coup d'œil—an innate ability to see in an instant the true significance of manifold things or events, to grasp the situation completely and precisely even as it unfolded. Put simply, coup d'œil describes the ability to see simultaneously with the physical as well as the mind's eye. As mentioned previously, this talent could be nurtured by acquiring correct knowledge of war.

Together, these were the qualities essential for successful command at high levels, and Clausewitz believed one could find them in evidence in each of history's great military commanders: Alexander, Hannibal, Gustavus Adolphus, and Frederick the Great. However, he did not limit genius only to such lofty heights. In his view, true genius was the harmonious union of the traits of temperament and intellect in such a way that each cooperated with, rather than opposed, the others. While some scholars believe Clausewitz's model for genius was Napoleon, it was probably Scharnhorst, whose traits were balanced. Napoleon's character was weighted toward arrogant recklessness, and thus not balanced enough for true genius. In Clausewitz's studies of the 1814 and 1815 campaigns, moreover, he more than once sought to deflate the Corsican's growing legend, though he clearly admired aspects of his way of waging war. The officer he most admired was his friend and mentor Scharnhorst, to whom he owed a great deal.

Possessing all the qualities mentioned above was not enough to qualify as a genius, however; they also had to work together. The message was, simply, that favoring one type of quality, such as energy, led to an imbalance, a character flaw that adversity would overwhelm, or an adversary would exploit.

Clausewitz and Contemporary War, pp108-9

Military genius can use theory to understand what is going on, but more importantly genius operates “beyond theory” since genius is able to understand the application of the military means (beyond simple tactics to operations and the achievement of strategic aims) acting/reacting within a resistance environment. That is how these means are used during a specific epoch, in effect the genius creating an “art of war” for that epoch, which others attempt to copy. Strategic theory in turn attempts to incorporate these “insights” into the further development of theory. Thus strategic theory is the retrospective attempt to codify military genius developing an art of war for a specific epoch - as well as testing the tenets of the general theory which covers all wars. . .

Thus concerning the genius there is a very important temporal component: the military genius, unlike the avante garde artist, is very much a person of his times. Whereas, like the artist, the military genius creates and provides models for others to follow, which in both cases does not mean that those who follow will be able to achieve the same results.

Later in that same chapter Echevarria goes into the distinction between the military genius and the “brilliant military mind”, quoting Clausewitz’ contemporary Kiesewetter, “A brilliant mind is one who makes discoveries in science, a person who, with respect to knowledge, is original. A genius is that person who, in works of fine art, delivers exemplary products . . . achieves originality . . . Newton was a brilliant mind and Horace was a genius”. Put another way, the brilliant mind follows the rules and makes an original discovery, whereas the genius makes his own rules and creates an achievement of originality.

Or, in our case War as social relationship and military genius as art. Logistics, communication, technical intelligence collection . . . as brilliance, in other words staff . . .

So how does Nathan Bedford Forrest measure up as a military genius?

In 1861 Forrest was a successful business man and plantation owner in western Tennessee close to Memphis. He had no military training or experience although had grown up on the frontier, was used to a rough life, and had hunted and ridden a horse since childhood. He enlisted as a private, but was quickly elected to the rank of LtCol by the cavalry regiment he had raised himself. He distinguished himself in his first action against Federal troops in December 1861.

He had the innate ability (coup d'œil or in German Takt des Urteils) to size up an enemy situation and know whether it was ripe for a cavalry charge or not. This he gained from personal reconnaissance without field glasses. He trusted his own eyes better.

Far from being reckless, he gave the impression to some other commanders as being too skeptical, asking numerous questions and demanding accurate intelligence in the planning of an operation, and then acting with absolute decisiveness once he had made up his mind to act. Forrest was also a master at what the Soviets would later refer to as maskirovka (not just camouflage, but active deception as well) in that some of his greatest triumphs were escaping from pursuit (by simply hiding his command in a woods) and in getting superior Union forces to surrender to him after elaborate ruses to convince them of his “overwhelming strength”. Having experienced US Grant’s use of psychological means (his demand of “Unconditional Surrender!” at Fort Donelson in 1862) Forrest used the same methods reinforced with his well-earned reputation for fierceness to demand the same from several unlucky Union commanders who crossed his path.

He had incredible drive and energy and being a physically powerful man would help to manhandle horses and artillery across rivers, offering an inspiring example to both his officers and men.

At the tactical level, Forrest developed several innovative cavalry manoeuvres and pioneered close coordination of artillery with his cavalry acting as infantry. Discarding the cavalry saber as a preferred weapon early on, his troops fought mostly with pistols and on foot, using the shock action of the mounted charge when he best sensed it would bring about a decision. In battle Forrest was brutal and fearless, leading countless charges and having at least 29 horses shot from under him in action. He was also an expert at close combat, credited with single-handedly killing 30 Federal soldiers and officers in personal combat, at times outnumbered three to one. He was both loved and feared by his men: calm, quiet and even gentle in garrison, battle transformed Forrest into a red-faced demon, a veritable “steam engine of war”. “War means fighting, and fighting means killing” was his view of war and “shoot any man who won’t fight!” was his first order of battle to his officers.

Forrest was able to transfer this tactical success to the operational, and even strategic level. His actions in Tennessee challenged Union control of that state and his raids kept Sherman looking over his shoulder during his advance through Georgia. Forrest almost single-handedly kept the Southern cause alive in not only Tennessee but Kentucky and northern Mississippi as well, and was able to recruit new units even in Union occupied areas as late as mid-1864. Given his correct assessments of the situations at Fort Donelson and Shiloh in 1862, Chickamauga in 1863, and Franklin in 1864, and his keen understanding of the importance of communications and logistics in the warfare of his time, had Forrest been given the command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in 1862, or at the least been allowed to deal with Sherman’s advance in the manner he had argued, the course of the American Civil War would have been quite different.

Not that this be taken as harping over “the lost cause”, Forrest, while not arguing for secession in 1861, admitted that the war was “about slavery”, that is his genius and the horrible sacrifices of his countrymen, let alone the tragic damage they did to the country as a whole, were for a criminal cause. This being not the last time that the genius and human potential of a capable people would be abused and squandered on a twisted and inhuman dream.

So, Nathan Bedford Forrest is my example of a true military genius following Clausewitz’s definition. A fitting close would be to read Forrest’s farewell address to his troops issued at his surrender.

Is there any one else you consider a military genius in this regard as well, especially since Forrest’s time?

Why is a military genius such a rare commodity?

What would “military genius” entail today?

What is the effect of strategic culture on the formation of a military genius?


  1. I've always thought of the Southern military whizzes as sort of like the 3rd U.S. Infantry in Washington D.C., as the highest examples of practice of a beautiful, useless military art.

    By 1863 - certainly by 1864 - it was pretty obvious that Southern industry and the Southern resource base (including MAMs) weren't up to the task of holding back the North provided that the North was willing to take the losses needed to win. A true strategic genius would have either insisted on suing for peace or resigned. This is more a critique of Lee than Forrest, but I've never heard that Forrest tried to talk the South out of regional suicide. So I'd have to say that his qualifications for strategic genius are tarnished.

    He was certainly a military genius at the tactical, grand tactical and operational levels.

    But the man was a traitor to his country, and for one of the worst reasons in history, the defense of chattel slavery. His genius was at the service of perhaps one of the worst causes men ever fought for.

    I have a hard time getting past that.

  2. If we take Forrests concept of GETTING THERE FIRSTEST WITH THE MOSTEST then it's simply a small step to realizing that we'll never win a COIN campaign.
    The bad guys as we like to call them were there first with the most. That's difficult to counter.

  3. Jim: The foreigner can do it; the Romans did. You just have to get there last with a completely ruthless willingness to exterminate everyone who so much as blinks at you.

    But short of genocide, you're right. Local entropy will beat foreign control pretty much every time.

  4. And I should add that Forrest might have been able to work the Roman COIN. He was pretty damn ruthless.

  5. The primary characteristic of a military genius is luck! Of course, it really helps when you can evaluate the odds correctly, but without the luck, you are a failure.

  6. Oh boy, here I go again...

    I'm going to stand up in defense of Forrest. The Chief's basically got two arguments against the guy:
    1. That he didn't try to talk the South out of breaking away from the Union.

    Forrest, like Lee, was one of those unswervingly loyal guys who just follow orders, perhaps too well.

    But grand strategy level that you're talking about Chief belongs more in the civilian world than in the military. The civilians need to know and communicate the objectives when they start the war. The whole Southern government was one huge tangle of conflicting objectives that never worked with any degree of efficiency and never communicated any rational objectives to the soldiers.

    2. The second objection is that Forrest fought in the cause of "perhaps one of the worst causes men ever fought for."

    This leads to a subtle and important point. Forrest wasn't fighting for slavery at the beginning of the conflict. He would have strenuously argued he wasn't a traitor either.

    One of the original points of the Constitution was that the states really were countries which could form their own policy and, in theory, quit the Union if they didn't see it as being in their best interests. The problem, from the Southern point of view was that the Constitution doesn't include instructions on how to get out of the Union (another example of the brilliance of the people who wrote it the first place).

    Lincoln managed to change the focus of the conflict from states rights to slavery and left the Confederates with no moral ground to stand on but that doesn't make Forrest less of a genius.

    The original intent of the KKK wasn't to subdue the blacks, it was to put some limits on the rapaciousness of the carpetbaggers who came south and plundered the Union reconstruction funds. It wasn't very effective so Forrest quit the organization and he volunteered to destroy it when he realized that it was mutating in ways that he hadn't forseen. Frankly I doubt he would have been effective in destroying it, the huge resentment of the southern whites needed some safety valve to bleed off pressure and they found it in vicious racism.

    The single biggest blot on Forrest's career was the Fort Pillow incident but I've never been able to find any reliable accounts of exactly what happened from the Confederate side. The Confederates massacred a bunch of black Union soldiers (something they promised to do if they caught any) but I have no idea of whether Forrest lost control or led the charge. Personally I suspect he led the charge because he had his men under such strict control during the rest of the war it doesn't make much sense that his troops would break out at that very moment.

  7. I'd like to nominate Patton as a military genius. The guy really liked to show off and bluster but reviewing the historical record shows that he had an outstanding grasp of logistics and overall strategy.

    Although Patton liked to brag about running his men as far forward as possible, that was two parts bravado and one part his awareness of how important it is for an attacker to keep the defender off balance. In reality he rarely exposed his men to enemy fire unless he saw considerable advantage.

    Patton's November offensive against the Siegfried line in November 1944 was a masterful example of this. He managed to advance his troops through a well-fortified area with minimal casualties and using minimal airpower and artillery support against Hermann Balck, one of the greatest German defensive minds. The only thing that prevented him from breaking through was the German assault at the Battle of the Bulge which forced him to shift gears and attack north instead of west (which was another masterful logistics exercise).

  8. On the other hand, I'd like to un-nominate Rommel for the award. I'l give Rommel his full due as an astonishing presence on the battlefield, but that's pretty much where it ends.

    The man seesawed between overly aggressive and overly cautious and was an absolute disaster at logistics. During the long retreat from El Alemain the German and Italian troops kept finding supplies that they had desperately needed at the front that Rommel's staff had misplaced. The Germans had to burn 500 tons of fuel oil that they discovered waiting for them at Benghazi because they didn't have enough land transport to carry it.

  9. Pluto,

    This seems like a pretty even-handed account of the Fort Pillow battle:


    It certainly doesn't depict Forrest as a monster.

    Is anyone else struggling with this Ecchevarria's contention that Horace was a genius while Newton was merely a "brilliant mind" because:

    "...the brilliant mind follows the rules and makes an original discovery, whereas the genius makes his own rules and creates an achievement of originality."

    I mean, if Newton wasn't a genius who went "beyond theory" to make "his own rules and create an achievement of originality," then nobody ever has.

    I'll pass on the notion of artistic genius, since it's pretty much a subjective judgment, rather than one based on outcomes. After all, Rommel's side lost and Washington's side won. Who was the better employer of military art?



  10. Newton was probably the smartest individual who ever lived.

    He invented calculus by himself (and did it the hard way!)

  11. Thread's developing nicely. First to JP who is struggling manfully with the distinction between "brilliant mind" and "military genius". I too find it interesting, but haven't quite got it down either. . . Full quote:

    However, there was more to genius than balance. True genius rose above talent, according to Kant. Clausewitz's description of genius closely resembles that advanced in Kant's Critique of Judgment (1788–90), which defined genius as: ... the talent (natural gift), which gives the rule to art. Since that talent itself, as an innate productive ability of the artist, belongs to nature, we may put it this way: Genius is the innate psychological aptitude (ingenium), by which nature gives the rule to art.
    ... The psychological powers whose union, in certain individuals, comprise genius are imagination and understanding. ...
    [Genius] is the exemplary originality of the natural gifts of an individual in the free employment of his cognitive faculties.

    Kiesewetter's Outline of Logic amplifies the Kantian concept of genius in this way:
    We distinguish between a brilliant mind (Kopf) and a genius; a brilliant mind is one who makes discoveries in science, a person who, with respect to knowledge, is original. A genius is that person who, in works of fine art, delivers exemplary products; the one who, with respect to the production of works of taste, achieves originality. ... Works of genius are, however, inexplicable, and the genius himself cannot say how he brought them forth. Both—brilliance and genius—are gifts of nature, talents; Newton was a brilliant mind, and Horace, a genius. The products of genius can, of course, arouse the creative forces in a similarly gifted individual, and inspire that person to accomplish similar works; however, the master cannot teach others how he created his original works.
    A key element in Kant's definition of genius is, thus, the quality of originality. Works of genius are by necessity original works. A genius cannot just follow existing rules or models; otherwise his works would not be original. Rather, by virtue of his innate talent, nature provides him special rules or concepts by which to operate, and his finished works in turn provide the models, or rules, for others to emulate. In this way, different schools in art, and thought, develop."

  12. FDChief-

    I did mention the issue of slavery in my post. I see the crime as going to war to retain slavery, not slavery in itself since the right was at least implied in the Constitution. I grew up with these guys so I have a different take on it, although not necessarily a more positive one. Still Forrest comes across to me as a very interesting personality and obviously a military genius regardless of the cause he served. I would hesitate to speculate on how those who fought in Bush's wars will be looked upon in 20, 40, or 80 years time . . . Reading Huck Finn as a child brought to me the quandary of those times (pre-Civil War South) since Huck figured he was going to hell for not having turned in his friend Jim. . . The morality of mores as Nietzsche showed us, changes over time.


    Go for Patton. Remember you have certain aspects to fulfill:

    Transition from tactics to strategy;
    Charismatic leader attributes;
    Balance of abilities;
    Success and followers attempting to model . . .

    Any others?

  13. One of the biggest problems I've seen with Western military art is our tendency - as Pluto shows above - to consider warfighting to consist of two seperate, unrelated skill fields, one purely physical and kinetic, the other purely intellectual and political.

    But, Pluto, if I talk you into getting into a fight with that kung fu master over at the corner table, I've gotten you the ass-whipping before you so much as cock a fist. Yamamoto would have nodded his head there, as would Sun Tzu and probably Clausewitz, too. Genuine military strategy at the highest levels requires the ability to assess logistical and political constraints on military operations. Grant, for all that his grasp of the operational art was fairly crude, understood that he had the manpower, the logistical base, and the political support to bash Lee's head in by just pounding him long enough - all he needed to do was to hold the Army of Northern Virginia by the head while Bill Sherman kicked the Confederacy's ass. Lee never got that. IMO it makes him the best bad commander in history - just good enough to lose.

    BUT - note that I didn't say that Forrest needed to counsel surrender in 1861. At that time anything could have happened, and the North might have folded after First Manassas.

    But by 1863 or 1864 at the latest the handwriting was on the wall. Forrest is still fighting, still caught up in "us versus them" like Lee and the rest of the goddam cavaliers. I can excuse them, the stupidity was bred into their bones. But Forrest was a Modern guy, his approach to war was very 20th Century. Except in this. To make it into the top tier, he would have had to have done a von Rundstedt ("Make peace, you fools!") His failing is the exact same failing as our modern genius generals. Nobody wants to come right out and say that farting around trying to remake central Asia is a fantasy. So we have this GEN and that LTG telling us how they're going to protect this population here and hold and build there. It's cloud cuckoo land, and Forrest, if he was all that, should have seen the same hopelessness by a year before Appomattox.

  14. Ael-

    "Newton was probably the smartest individual who ever lived. He invented calculus by himself (and did it the hard way!)"

    And since we have taught millions of others calculus, but we have not created another Horace, or Mozart, or Forrest . . . Which I think is the distinction. Thanks!

  15. "Copperheads" . . . interesting comparison with today. Back when we actually were a democracy . . .


  16. Pluto, seydlitz, c'mon.

    One of the least defensible intellectual positions about the Civil War is the "states' rights" canard absolving the Southern partisans from committing treason in defense of slavery.

    What was the "right" they were defending?

    The right to own other human beings.

    Now I'm not pretending that the Southerners were uniquely awful human beings in their racism. Pretty much the default position at the time was that anyone not caucasian was some sort of defective subhuman. But the American South WAS unique in its determination to hold onto a "peculiar institution" that pretty much the whole rest of the Western world even at the time had concluded was inhumane and wrong. Great Britain outlawed slavery (without so much as a skirmish) in 1804. Most of the Spanish and Portugese dominions in the New World did the same within several years of independence.

    Jeff Davis had no illusions about the Confederacy's position regarding the ownership of one human by another:

    "The condition of slavery with us is, in a word, Mr. President, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority."

    His problem, and the problem that the other traitors of 1861 had nothing to do with "Lincoln managed to change the focus of the conflict from states rights to slavery".

    It's that the state right they insisted on WAS slavery.

  17. The general commanding the Japanese Army units on Luzon was hanged for illegal tortures and executions performed by his subordinates in 1944.

    Regardless of individual responsibility, Forrest commanded the assault on Ft. Pillow. Given his personal feelings regarding slavery, it is not hard to imagine that he pretty much turned his back while his boys butchered the remaining USCT.

    That's not very geniusy, in my opinion.

    So I'll come back to where I was earlier: the man was a a brilliant tactical and operational commander who worked for a loathesome cause, a sort of 19th Century Yamamoto, Model or Kesselring (since you don't want to give me Rommel). I'll give you that much. But for more, you've got to find more to the man, a level of geostrategic skill I just don't see.

    Ugh. This whole topic skeeves me out, like we were talking about the romantic poetry of Darth Vader.

  18. FDChief-

    Slavery was part of America up to 1863. Only ended then, and that next year there were plenty in the North ready to throw in the towel concerning "Lincoln's war". The Southerners Knew Northern politics. They were masters at it. Had the Democratic Party won in 1864 the whole history of the US would be different. And nobody in Lincoln's home state in 1864 would have been that surprised had it happened . . .

    So what does that tell you? History, as you know is like that, which is why we study it.

    Had Forrest been able to operate in central Tennessee instead of being posted to western Tennessee he would have been able to have operated directly against Sherman's supply lines. Had Sherman's advance been held up, had he not captured Atlanta, or not captured it before the election of 1864 . . .

    The Northern armies, unlike the Allies in World War II did not have anything approaching material supremacy in an industrial war which meant they were strung out with a low concentration of relatively primitive forces compared to the area they had to cover. Forrest understood very clearly what their weaknesses were and he was in Tennessee . . .

    This is an excellent example of the limits of an economics-based view of war. War is not a test of economic potential, organization and application, it is a test of political wills.

  19. I'm with Seylitz on this one, Chief. You're absolutely right about the lack of intellectual honesty in any defense of slavery but the South has never been particularly self-honest and the position I described on states rights was viewed as extremely important at the time.

    You're also probably right about Forrest's role at Fort Pillow but I'll challenge you to show me any decent military commander who doesn't do something stupid when his side is losing a war. The Germans in WWII are the ultimate example of extraordinary tactical skills that were largely negated by bad behavior after the conquest.

    Your position about military leaders having a moral duty to advise their civilian masters is a very good one but not favored by civilian leaders; they just want their military leaders to go out and win and stay out of politics.

    Let's do a hypothetical situation where a military leader is beginning to lose a war in spite of his best efforts and advises surrender. He's removed from duty and has to watch while less competent leaders lose the war, unnecessarily killing thousands of soldiers who had faith in him. I can't see any benefit to the nation or the army but some people would make a case that the general had been traitorous in doing something that caused his removal.

  20. Your requirements for identifying a military genius are challenging Seydlitz, but I'll give it a try.

    1. Transition from tactics to strategy:
    Patton caught George Marshall's eye when won a blitzkrieg wargame in Lousiana in 1940 by attacking 24 hours before the start of the wargame.

    His opposite number appealed that Patton hadn't fought fairly. Patton agreed that he hadn't fought fairly and pointed out that the Germans didn't fight fair either. Marshall ruled in Patton's favor.

    Patton showed some tactical flair in Tunisia and Sicily but, contrary to popular legend, mostly stayed off of the battlefield to keep an eye on the big picture.

    By Normandy he was exclusively in the grand operational level where he stayed for the rest of the war.

    2. Charismatic leader attributes:
    Well documented, I don't think I need further comment.

    3. Balance of abilities:
    Here you've got me. Patton was more or less a flash in the pan. The US military became enamored with air power and mostly translated his style of combat to Air Cav, which has never quite made perfect sense to me. I just can't get the mental image of well-armed elephants counter-attacking elephant hunters out of my head.

    No doubt the elephants will kill a lot of the hunters but in the long run the elephants can't win. In a perfect world the elephants will apply sufficient firepower to win quickly but I've read about too many things going wrong to be comfortable with the concept.

  21. I stand with the Chief' opining on Forrest. Additionally, I do not see his contribution to the war effort advancing the Confederate cause. But I do think perhaps Gettysburg would have turned out different if Forrest was Lee's cavalry commander instead of the sightseeing Stuart. What say you? In any case, the war would not have turned out differently. Military art and genius did not win the war, a strong industrial base won it in spite of the superior generalship of a few southern generals. Now that our industrial base is evaporating, we do not want to end up like Lee or Forrest or any other gifted general if we ever have to face an industrial power in war.

    I also have to wonder if Forrest's actions at Ft Pillow were a driving factor in Sherman's ruthlessness during his drive to the sea later in 64? My answer would be yes.

  22. mike: I don't think Bill Sherman needed any example. He was one of history's hard men, and he and Forrest were a pretty matched set.

    He would have done better with the AoNV cavalry than Stuart, but that's like saying that Italy would have won Caporetto if they'd have had a decent air force.

    And I'm surprised to hear a good strategist like seydlitz continue to defend the untenable position of the proslavery forces in the U.S. Looking past the wretched economics of it, and the corrupting effect it had on southern U.S. society, the truth is that southern slavery was becoming unacceptable even at the time. Even if the South had managed to turn back Sherman (who, being the ruthless bastard he was, would have done sooner what he did anyway and cut loose from his bases in Tennessee and Kentucky and left Forrest to cavort in empty air) they would have only managed to last until the NEXT time the North took a whack at them. And given the relative growth of the two regions, a Second Civil War in 1880 would have gone even worse for the South.

    Treason is indefensible. Slavery is, and was indefensible. There's no reason to defend it. We can admire the generalship of people like Bonaparte, Rommel and Yamamoto without respecting the causes for which they fought. It makes them lesser men, flawed men, but who amoung us is without flaws?

    Forrest was a great, bad man. There's a certain grandeur in that. But that's all there is. Respect the man's abilities - I do - but deplore his cause. I do.

  23. "Let's do a hypothetical situation where a military leader is beginning to lose a war in spite of his best efforts and advises surrender. He's removed from duty and has to watch while less competent leaders lose the war, unnecessarily killing thousands of soldiers who had faith in him."

    How is this worse than what Lee did, or what Hitler's and Hirohito's generals did? His and their military skills played out the string long past where a less competent commander would have been whipped, and yet the result was the same. Lee's intransigence killed thousands of men on both sides in the pointless siege of Petersburg. A Burnside in Lee's place would have lost sooner and saved the lives that the Southern commander's skills cost.

  24. BTW - Ael, Newton and the calculus???

    What about Liebniz? And what about the Ancients whose shoulders Newton and Liebniz stood on to develop modern calculus? I know the English propaganda machine pushed Newton as the all knowing one. In truth he only developed a small branch of calculus and his notation was garbage, we use Liebniz's today.

  25. I wouldn't go quite so far as mike in giving such lopsided credit to Leibniz over Newton in the development of the calculus. And his point about these "standing on the shoulders of giants" is of course true -- and true of almost ever advance in science and the arts.

    But whomever you credit for it, I can't quite grasp seydlitz's argument about calculus. Saying that calculus is not a matter of genius because thousands of people have learned how to use it, is like saying that Mozart wasn't a genius because thousands of people have learned how to play his compositions.

    I agree that there are limits to the value looking at warfare from an economic viewpoint, but I also think that any particular viewpoint is limited to some extent. The notion that 'political will' is paramount seems to me to smack of the "great man" approach to history.

    It also seems to me that the history of the Civil War actually reinforces the importance of economics. The strategic importance Sherman's (and Sheridan's) campaigns had to do at least as much with destroying the South's agricultural economic base as it had to do with inflicting punishment and terror.

    But the idea of different viewpoints for a given topic is a very important one. In my line of work, it is usually the case that no human mind can integrate all viewpoints into a coherent whole. So you take different slices (viewpoints) of the problem (e.g., the engineering viewpoint, the business viewpoint, the operational viewpoint, etc.) which are developed by experts in those specific areas. And you then try to integrate those viewpoints rather than having a "master builder" who creates the whole thing top-down.

    Isn't technological innovation also a valid viewpoint with which to examine warfare? As I've said before, I'm a dabbler in this stuff, and whatever knowledge I have is surely no more than the conventional wisdom (e.g., who was and was not a military genius). But...

    Would Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane be counted as military geniuses if not for the invention of composite bows and the stirrup?

    Would Rommel be considered a genius for developing combined arms if not for the technology that enabled blitzkrieg to work?

    In a similar vein, would the Allies have won WWII without the technical advances in computer aided code-breaking?

    Just askin'...



  26. FDChief-

    "continue to defend the untenable position of the proslavery forces in the US"?

    Is that what I you think I'm doing? I think I am arguing rather effectively strategic effect on the part of a military genius using counter-factual historical analysis. Since you seemingly concede that the election of 1864 could have easily been a Democratic win and mention a second Civil War in 1880 I think I have made my point as to Forrest's strategic effectiveness. Had the new Democratic administration begun peace negociations with the South it would not have mattered what Billy Sherman intended to do . . .

    The South knew that the election of 1864 was their last hope. The war only lasted another six months after that event.

    "Treason is indefensible."

    King George III would agree with you. Hang the rebels! Which would have included any of our founding fathers who had fallen into British hands at the end of a successful war. As for Forrest, he volunteered for the Tennessee militia after the state legislature had voted for secession, which doesn't make him a traitor. Civil wars are like that. For him to have avoided being a traitor in your view would have required him to have taken up arms against his own family, friends, region . . . which would have made him in effect "a traitor".

    "We can admire generalship . . . without respecting the causes for which they fought"

    Is that not what I'm doing? Where have I shown this "respect" you mention? What I have been arguing is that the historical background to this is complex and not as simplistic as you seem to think . . .

    "but deplore his cause"

    I do as well. I referred to Forrest's cause as "criminal" in the original post. Later I explained that this was criminal in the sense of resorting to war to retain the institution of slavery.

    Arguing that slavery itself is criminal is a moral and ahistorical (as concerning the US pre-1863) argument, since it was in fact "legal" and implied (at the least) in the US Constitution. US law required runaway slaves to be returned South even should they be in free states, that was Federal law at the time - thus the need for an "underground railroad". You may find that immoral, as do I Chief, but it is part of our history . . . My point it that morality changes over time. There are plenty of elements of 2009 US society which earlier American societies would have found "immoral".

    I would also argue that there is a strong affinity between the attitudes towards slavery prior to 1861 in the US and the more extensive Western attitude towards imperialism in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The British, French and Dutch were all for liberal democracy (for the right kind of folks) back home while at the same time they operated brutal empires abroad, all in the guise of spreading "civilization" . . .

  27. Pluto-

    Your comments on Patton made me think as to whether you could have more than one military genius at a time? In theory terms we consider the military genius as acting beyond theory, making the basis for renewed theory, that is an "art of war" for the epoch in question. If Forrest was a genius, I would argue that one could make the argument for Grant as well, although he lacks the innovative element at the tactical level? At the operational and strategic levels he's at his best and far outshines Forrest at the strategic, obviously.

    Influence is there as well, since Grant set the mold as to the industrial warfare emphasis of US strategic culture.

    So more than one at a time would be possible I suppose. Which allows for Patton along with Zhukov for instance. Take your point as to influence, but at the same time Patton seems to be more in the character of Forrest than Grant . . . Still did he actually get the opportunity to achieve notable success against adversity, which also is an important element? Zhukov brought the Wehrmacht to a halt at Yelna in 1941, whereas Patton was dealing with a Wehrmacht on its last legs. Much of what Patton was dealing with was incidental friction whereas Zhukov was fighting for his life (and not just against the Germans).

  28. mike-

    I'd give Leibniz equal credit, but then I used to live on Leibnizstraße in Berlin . . . :-)>


    Good comments. I'm not arguing against an economic viewpoint, but an economic-deterministic viewpoint. If we say that war has a complex nature, but that all wars share this nature, then we need to adopt a viewpoint with which we can analyze all wars. Economic potential works in industrial warfare in most cases, but the political situation of the 1864 election still could have saved the South, that is Northern war-weariness and a Democratic win could have led to a negotiated peace. So where does the economic argument leave you? The political will must exist to implement this economic potential. . . In guerrilla warfare (or what Clausewitz described as Peoples War) the economic is not that important at all in comparison to the political.

  29. I understand that Liebniz did much more complete and understandable version of calculus (via a much better notation). I also recognize that people built on that foundation because they could understand it readily. Nobody today teaches calculus as envisioned by Newton.

    However, that only makes Newton's achievement more impressive. He got there via a muddy twisted path!

    The raw intellectual horsepower displayed was most impressive.

  30. This is absolutely fascinating for me to read.

    What seydlitz mentioned about traitors and morality is very true, but you needed to take it one step further. The term "Traitors" is applied to losers and "Founding Fathers" is applied to the winners; IOW, a restating of "Winners get to write history".

    "Traitorship" and "Founding Father Status" are entirely POV.

    Another topic which the crew here could take up is "ethics" and "morality". I saw some confusion here about that. In my view, "Ethics" is what one believes is true or how the world works or should work and "morality" is how individuals or a society affirm that any particular action is ethical.

    So, if one could ask Forrest in person what his greatest duty was, then one could make some pertinent comments about his actions in the CW.


    There is no condemnation of slavery as such anywhere in the Christian Bible. Where the system of slave ownership in the US antebellum South skewed off the Biblical track was in the belief, as Chief's Jefferson Davis quote says, that the black slave was an inferior race. In "Biblical" times, there was very little, if any, of that; there were various reasons anyone was a slave in those days, often simply that of bad luck.

    As in any time and place, slavery often could be as dangerous for the masters as for the slaves, especially as slaves would come to the point where they believed that they had nothing to lose.

    And another point to make, that there were black slave owners and black Confederate regiments in the CW South.

    For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    I would offer Julius Caesar up as a military genius, and a political one as well. But he was caught in a bind: on one hand, had he been more ruthless in dealing with his opponents, would he have lived longer, but OTOH, had he been more forgiving in dealing with his opponents, would we even know he existed?

    Which brings up another question for my military compadres. Is military genius for, say, the last couple of centuries due more to innate ability and creativity or to military schooling like at Sandhurst or West Point?


    This whole topic skeeves me out, like we were talking about the romantic poetry of Darth Vader.

    Great line! 8-)

    Have you seen this series?


    I promise, I will not ask about the military genius of Darth Vader.

    And as for Calculus, the Devil's own work, AFAIC.



  31. BTW, Chief,

    You say "Treason is indefensible".
    Does that make George Washington a great, bad man, too?

  32. A couple of mis-steps. I should've put my "treasure/heart" quote after the wiki link.

    A let me refine my question about military genius. What I meant to ask, is can genius in war be taught? ISTM that Forrest's military abilities came from having good judgement and common sense rather than impulsive behavior and the barrel of whiskey. His ability seems to me to be his leadership qualities.

    One more item. Would someone tell me how "post removed by author" works?


  33. bb,

    I'm not in the habit of cutting Christianity any slack, but while it is true that there is no condemnation of slavery in the bible, during the long period over which the bible was written, slavery was much of the time a merciful alternative to the common practice of killing all the males and children, while raping, kidnapping and/or killing the women.

    Similarly, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is a stricture against retaliation with more violence than the offense.

    But the silence of the bible on slavery was of course no excuse for it.


    I think we're pretty much in agreement here. All the viewpoint approach does is consider things in a particular knowledge domain by experts in that domain. If the experts say, "The economic aspects of this war are negligible," well, there you go.



  34. JP, you are correct, but upon whose mercy did the "not killing" depend?

    Joshua 6 contains no mercy for the people and animals of Jericho, with the exception of a prostitute and her family.

    Slavery was more about good business than mercy. King Ahab got into trouble with God for giving some unauthorized mercy.

    1 Kings 20

    Many cultures in moving from family- and clan-based law to constitutional statehood developed legal codes to curb the old blood feuds.

    And of course, these days, there are other forms of slavery for which there is no Biblical excuse.


  35. I'm in between doing some other things here, and there is danger in "drive-by" posting.

    So I'll stop and expand my statements concerning ancient slavery. Books have been written on the subject.

    Much of the cost of ancient wars was paid for by the property and people of defeated enemies. It was just business for the conquerors to demand that their captives do the dirty dangerous work in construction, maintenance and production that free citizens were not free to do, because often these citizens were part of the conquering military. The yeoman farmers of Roman Italy found themselves off their farmland more often than not, so what to do to keep food production up? Sell the land off to fellows with gangs of slaves to work the land, or mine the ore, or build the aqueducts, or whatever.

    But then what to do with the veterans who come home to do what? More problems, more topics to write books about.

    Was it merciful for Joseph's brothers to sell into slavery or not? Getting rid of a problem and making money off it at the same time, good business, yes?


  36. The new slavery and can also apply to the 2 articles below this one:


    "Arbeit macht frei"

    Kind of reminds me of that scene in "Schindler's List," where Ralph Fiennes as the camp commander shoots a very sick man who somehow did the impossible task he was ordered to perform.

    "Why did you shoot him? He did what you asked," another guard says.

    Fiennes replies, "Why didn't he work that hard for me all the time?"

    Yes, welcome to America, where "Work Will Make You Free". (Or is it "You'll Work Almost for Free"?) Hey, at least they don't shoot us - those of us who still have jobs, . . .


  37. I'm like to return to the subject of "genius" versus "brilliant mind". I'm not making a value judgement here, saying that one is superior to the other, but rather that there is a distinction between the two - following the sources I've posted here which go back to the Enlightenment/Counter-enlightenment.

    If you google the two terms they are used synonymously, but is there not a distinction? Does identifying a distinction answer any questions as to the relative rarity of military genius?

    So the "brilliant mind" follows the rules and produces an original discovery or invention which can be replicated and expanded upon by others. The "genius" creates a work of "art" an object of originality which serves as a model for others which they cannot replicate.

    JP questioned my example of Mozart's music compared to Newton's (and Leibniz's) calculus. Which required that I rethink that one.

    But who would think of "expanding upon" one of Mozart's works? They are each considered "complete" a work of originality in themselves. Conductors today preform their own "interpretations" of Mozart's works, but we don't really know what Mozart conducting Mozart sounded like . . . Mozart had some imitators after his death, but no was able to replicate his "genius". Can one say the same for calculus? Has it not been in fact expanded upon and replicated?

  38. jp-

    The Biblical justification typically given for slavery is a combination of no clear condemnation and Paul's statement that servants (slaves) should remain subject to their masters. The latter totally misconstrues what many scholars consider to be the intent of Paul's words, which was that Christianity was not to be used as a personal vehicle to escape the existing social order. In short, Christianity was not a secular "civil rights" or "human rights" movement.

    Consider the above sort of like the Second Amendment's "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" raises the oft debated issue of exactly what the subsequent "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" really extends to.

    I'm sure that the intent of Paul's message about servants (slaves) and masters was quite clear to the audience at the time, just as I am sure that the authors of the Second Amendment had some specifics in mind. I will not claim to know exactly what was the intent in either case. History and tradition, not to mention desired objectives, have obviously shaped the perceived and/or claimed meaning that certain people offer at subsequent points in time.

    Just some interpretative comments.


  39. Seydlitz-

    As to your searching for the difference between "genius" and brilliant mind, be careful you don't convince yourself that you can pick the fly turds out of the ground pepper.

    Now, if you are presenting an argument, and state, for semantic purposes, that you wish to use the two definitions you offer to differentiate between individuals, that's OK. But, since there is not really the generally accepted use of the two terms as you describe, it's a bit difficult to suddenly stop and say that such is the "Funk & Wagnall's" solution.


  40. bb and Al,

    Thanks for the commentary on the bible and slavery. I'm always glad to find something new and interesting to toss into my pack-rat mind.


    This discussion about credentials for the title of genius has led us rather far afield. But it's a lot of fun, so I'm still game if you are.

    Science is all about building on the work of other people, and producing something that can in turn be built upon. So if that disqualifies you for the genius label, then there are no scientific geniuses.

    And a corollary to that would be that the qualification for artistic genius is producing something useless. If no one can build upon the works of Horace or Mozart, then their achievements are nothing more than monuments to their intellect or talent.

    So this criterion means that there aren't any military geniuses either -- why would anyone want to study the work of a genius in the "military arts" if not to learn how to apply the military techniques they used?

    Aside from screwing around on the guitar, I know very little about music. But even though there has never been another Mozart, I would be amazed to learn that his work hasn't been built upon, adapted, and changed, in terms of the structure, techniques, melodic phrases, etc.

    Let's skip calculus because that was a small part of Newton's achievements. Newtonian mechanics (three laws of motion, universal gravitation) defined and quantified the interaction of mass and forces. Newtonian mechanics has been applied in uncountable ways, and used to explain uncountable phenemona.

    Faraday and Maxwell built upon this by developing the notion of fields (rather than "spooky action at a distance") as the mechanism by which these interactions took place, but the fundamentals truths of Newtonian mechanics were never shown to be wrong until Albert Einstein came along.

    And the really beautiful thing about Einstein's relativity was that it "swallowed Newton alive and kicking." That is, nothing Newton said was wrong, it just wasn't complete.

    So I would call the difference between genius and brilliance -- in a very, very loose metaphor -- as the difference between a successful explorer and a successful pioneer. E.g., Lewis&Clark vs. the people in conestoga wagons.

    Oh, and Al has a great point about fly turds and pepper. It reminds me of the apocryphal story about a scholar who spent his life trying to prove that the Odyssey was not written by Homer, but by another Greek with the same name.



  41. Al-

    Actually I avoid the fly turd problem by using a pepper mill, that is start with the pepper corns and grind them myself. If the fly turds are as big as pepper corns then I do have a problem . . . ;-)>

    Point taken, but far from developing these definitions myself, I am using Echevarria's book (which imo is the best explanation of Clausewitz's methodology). This distinction between genius and brilliant mind is Kiesewetter's who developed it from Kant's Critique of Judgment, and according to Echevarria it influenced Clausewitz's concept of military genius.

    So, I'm not inventing a new meaning for these words, but "reclaiming" what were considered distinctions in the past.

    Does it make any difference? Does it help explain why military genius is such rarity? What types of societies create such people?

    I don't know.

  42. Now this is good.

    Al and seydlitz are guiding us into a Cooking Show!

    "Better Butter makes Bitter Batter Better"

    And JP, I've also seen argument for the posit that Homer was a woman or that he was told the story by a woman, since there is considerable female power and connotation in the story.

  43. JP-

    But there are military geniuses. We call them "great captains". Due to the complexity of war, military officers study the great captains of the past in order to perhaps learn something from them. They cannot hope to replicate their success since the military genius, unlike the artistic genius, is tied to a specific period of time. In fact I have argued that it is this temporal element, that which places the military genius within his epoch with his specific intuitive feel for the times and their opportunities which is an important element of the military genius. Echevarria does not mention this in his chapter on genius btw. Political and social conditions change, so the same art of war does now work for every epoch. That and of course the nature of what the genius creates in terms of "originality". . .

    Can this habit of studying the great captains of the past lead commanders astray? Of course, as in the desire to replicate Napoleon's decisive successes in eras which did not match the limitations and opportunities of his own.

  44. Seydlitz,

    Of course there are military geniuses -- and scientific geniuses and artistic geniuses. All I'm saying is that Echevarria is all wet when he tries to distinguish between genius and brilliance with criteria he puts forth -- and that his criteria is just as effective in ruling out military genius as it is scientific genius.

    Let me ask you this: if you agree with Echavarria that Newton was not a genius, then who do you think _was_ a scientific genius?

    I would also say that the label of artistic genius is a much more subjective judgment than the other two. Lots of people think Picasso was a genius; lots of people don't. In fact, I'll bet lots of people think Picasso was just as crazy as a shithouse rat.

    Finally, I agree with you about the temporal aspect of military genius, but I think applies for the others as well. You and I should recognize that we're also agreeing with Ael about the importance of luck.

    Time and chance, bro. While it is said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, time and chance very often determine whether an opportunity presents itself.



  45. JP-

    Sure, some think Picasso was nothing, I'm sure there are fans of Rap who think Mozart was nothing, but then I think Rap is . . . well you get the point. If you are ever in Barcelona do check out the Picasso museum . . . you'll have no doubts then.

    Once again, the distinction is between genius as in art and brilliant mind as in science. Saying that a scientist has a brilliant mind and that an artist is a genius just makes a distinction between the two types of intellectual product, isn't saying that one is better than the other, that is, is not a value judgment. Which I think is Echevarria's point. I'm not completely convinced as to the utility of this, but must think about it more. . .

    Chance is one of the three elements of the remarkable trinity which is war (in terms of the general theory) . . . along with subordination to politics and passion . . . as I have been arguing all along. So we are indeed very close on this one.


    Anyway, gentlemen, it has been fun and I have learned from this thread, but I have to sign off for a bit. Heading back to the Southland with my youngest due to family commitments . . . so won't be posting for awhile. Maybe a couple of weeks, or if the local public library is open . . . that is the electronics are staying home.

    Watched the video on Basil's new thread . . . scary and to think that is where I'm headed.

    Enjoy this month of August. August is occasionally the mother of great things . . .

  46. Seydlitz -

    One great thing about the congressional recess is Book-TV on CSPAN. This AM they had historian and author Benson Bobrick discussing his bio of MajGen George H. Thomas.

    Bobrick claims Thomas was the finest general of either side during the civil war. At Chickimauga, Thomas was described by future president Garfield as "standing like a rock" when the other Union generals were skedaddling back to Chattanooga. Bobrick also claims that Thomas would have had Grant's job if not for his Virginia birth which caused political shudders and whispers of copperhead in Washington. And of course his reputation in the south was toast since he had a Yankee wife from New York and fought in Union blue.

    I note that the Amazon customer review rating is a mixed 3.5 stars and the bad reviews are apparently due to the author's putdown of Schofield, and his perceived putdown of Grant and Sherman. But at least one reviewer compared Thomas to von Moltke. Any thoughts?