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Response by Jon Sumida to the Remarks by Dr. Rogers

Reproduced by The Clausewitz Homepage with permission of the The Journal of Military History and the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission. Jon Tetsuro Sumida is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914 (1989) and Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (1997). This is his response to Cliff Rogers' article "Clausewitz, Genius, and the Rules," The Journal of Military History 66 (October 2002), pp.1167-1176. Professor Sumida's reply was printed in that same issue.

Clausewitz recognized the utility of rules with respect to planning, the analysis of operations, and discussion amongst the leaders of an army. The fact that this was so, however, did not mean that these instruments of theory could serve as the basis of understanding the character of decision-making with respect to the execution of the plans of a campaign by the commander-in-chief, which was the domain of genius. War as Clausewitz saw it was such an infinitely variable phenomenon that there was no one set of rules capable of guiding the judgment of the commander-in-chief during the event. This did not mean that there were no rules, but rather the number of rules sets that had to be considered as potentially applicable were numerous if not infinite. Moreover, the changeability of circumstances could mean that more—even many more—than one set of rules would have to be applied in the course of a campaign.

I offer the following analogy by way of illustration. Success in playing baseball could be attributed to following the formal rules of the game and the effective application of techniques appropriate to the particular sport. The problem in war is that the commander-in-chief had to contend with the probability that the game could start out as baseball but rapidly and unpredictably become football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and so on. The critical question would then not be the application of rules, but the correct and timely identification of what game was being played, and given the likelihood of delays in perception of transition, what kind of actions would be needed to mitigate errors arising from decisions informed by the belief that one sport was being played when in fact another was under way.

In other words, when it came to genius, Clausewitz defined the critical issues as rapid and accurate perception of a difficult and changing reality, and sustenance of mental composure in spite of setbacks, not knowledge of rules. Of course knowing the rules of each game and being able to apply those rules if that game was indeed ongoing could be important, but such capacities were not sufficient to enable a commander-in-chief to achieve operational success in war. To put things another way, what was crucial to Clausewitz was the capacity to react to transitions in games and in spite of misadventure. This, I argued, was a matter of a sensibility that integrated conscious and unconscious thought, and equanimity, which at the moment of decision did not function in terms of language— and thus in terms of rules.


Go to Cliff Rogers' article "Clausewitz, Genius, and the Rules," The Journal of Military History, October 2002.

Other items from Jon Sumida:


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