Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book: 'The Cognitive Challenge of War: Pussia 1806' by Peter Paret

I picked up this book to take along during a recent vacation for the simple fact that, as a slim volume (only 143 pages, before notes), I knew it would not weigh a ton in our baggage. (We take and buy far too many books on our travels as it is, and while I am not a great fan of e-readers they do have their place!) 

My first introduction to Peter Paret's work was during my grad studies when I was reviewing his excellent translation and analysis of Clausewitz's classic 'On War'.  Paret is a specialist on the interconnections of 18th /19th century art, literature and warfare with particular insight to their effects on military theorists of the day, namely Jomini and Clausewitz.  Though sometimes a challenge to read his insight to the social and political environments of the Napoleonic period is very insightful and interesting.

In his book Paret examines how the crushing defeat of Prussia by France in 1806 sent a shock wave  throughout Prussian society, and how these reactive changes were not only experienced within the Prussian military establishment but also through their art, literature, music and poetry. One of the aspects which is  particularly surprising was that there was not a universal revulsion of all things French by Prussians after the Jena/Auerst├Ądt debacle, but instead Paret describes that a significant segment of the Prussian population  welcomed the challenge to their socially-stagnant, hyper-conservative society and almost reveled in the humiliation of the once-arrogant army elites. Paret also discusses the impact that these social changes - often fueled by the pressures of the Revolution and  persistent warfare - had upon the military doctrine of both France and Prussia. He illustrates how these violent changes allowed military intellectuals such as Scharnhorst, Jomini and Clausewitz to flourish as they were tasked to reform their armies to better reflect the times. Finally, Paret describes what is perhaps as the cruelest twist of all: That the phoenix-like successes of the newly reformed Prussian army (from 1813 through to 1870), with its cutting-edge Great General Staff and access to conscripted manpower, re-created a military super-elite, spurring the often quoted remark that, "Prussia is not a country with an army, but an army with a country".  Sadly this 'army with a country' would play a critical if tragic role nearly a century later in August 1914.

It is through books like this that I feel quite humbled in my understanding of the Napoleonic period. I highly recommend this book as it helps to place in perspective the causes and reactions of the battles we so often regard in isolation.

The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806
Peter Paret
Princeton University Press,
September 8, 2009
ISBN: 0691135819