Governed by Chance: On War, Disorder, and Representation


by Anders Engberg-Pedersen

In his unfinished magnum opus, On War, Carl von Clausewitz writes: In war “the light of reason moves through different media, it is broken into different rays than during speculative contemplation.” Clausewitz knew what he was talking about. He was only twelve years old when he entered the army in 1792, and the following year he experienced the matrix of war from the inside. First for Prussia and later for Russia he fought against the French armies in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which put Europe into an almost permanent state of war from 1792-1815. What Clausewitz did not know was how he should describe that state. The enormous reach and intensity of the wars had so profoundly changed the way the world normally functions that the state of war could neither be described nor understood and certainly not managed with the means inherited from the past. For Clausewitz, the wars seemed to be a prism that deflected the light of reason and splintered fundamental categories of time, space, and knowledge. Back at his desk after the wars ended, he attempted to draw the outlines of this prism in the many historical and theoretical works he wrote until he succumbed to cholera in 1831.

He wasn’t alone in this endeavor. A generation of writers, philosophers, cartographers, pedagogues and inventors, who had all spent several years of their lives inside the war matrix, had run into a similar problem: how do you describe let alone manage a phenomenon that seemed devoid of any kind of order? What is the state of knowledge, how do you make decisions, how do you act?

In the eighteenth century military theory had been guided by geometry. Early in the century leading theorists such as Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban and Menno van Coehoorn had developed the highly intricate star-shaped fortifications that can still be found protecting the old core of many modern cities. In their treatises the carefully calculated architectural shapes emerge directly from simple geometrical forms. Readers of Tristram Shandy will remember Laurence Sterne’s satire of such complex calculations in the form of Uncle Toby, who runs around on a bowling green playing at war. He first builds a three-dimensional model of the fortifications in the War of the Spanish Succession, and proceeds to play through the siege with a pair of jackboots as mortars and two Turkish tobacco pipes as smoke generators. Sterne satirizes not just contemporary treatises of fortification, but also their implicit belief that military theory was a fully developed science – the belief that with the aid of the rules of geometry war as a phenomenon could be rationalized and brought under control.

Nevertheless, the geometrical principle, as Clausewitz labeled it, was widespread. In a treatise from 1748, the French military theorist Marquis de Puysegur wrote that it was easy to teach the art of warfare “without war, without troops, without an army, without having to leave one’s home, simply by means of study, with a little geometry and geography.” With the notoriously well-disciplined Prussian troops of Frederick the Great, which on his command could move around on the battlefield in a complex military choreography, geometry had not disappeared, it had simply migrated from dead matter to living matter, from buildings to people.

It is this crystalline order that breaks down around 1800. The minor, tactical battles and sieges of the eighteenth century were replaced by enormous armies that spread out across a theater of war stretching from Madrid to Moscow. Even though only about 10.000 soldiers made it back alive, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 with an army numbering between 4-500.000 men. When war was waged on such a scale and with so many unknown factors, the geometrical order seemed to belong to a past age.
What came in its place? That was the question military theorists, writers, and inventors all grappled with at the turn of the century. In 1797 a retired Prussian general by the name of Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst set the stage for an important shift in the thinking of war. He published a book in three volumes entitled Observations on the Art of War, on its Progress, its Contradictions and its Reliability. It quickly attracted attention due to its radical theory of knowledge. According to Berenhorst the recent expansion of military activities had transformed war into an “empire of chance,” an amorphous, random, chaotic phenomenon where chance reigns supreme. As such, war can neither be understood nor controlled. Only, no one will admit it. As he writes: “No teacher can make themselves begin with the confession: his science lacks all elements, the entire field is governed by chance.”

Not everyone bought Berenhorst’s radical scepticism, but with his provocative treatise he formulated the challenge that contemporary thinkers all had to deal with: if war can no longer be subjected to a geometrical order, but does not consist entirely of chance events either, then how can it be described? Clausewitz is most famous for his statement that war is the continuation of politics by other means. But more interesting is what he has to say about war and knowledge, about which knowledge order obtains in a state of war. Clausewitz’s all-important move is to replace Wahrheit—truth–with Wahrscheinlichkeit – probability. Yes, war is indeed pervaded by chance, and yes, you are often forced to act on the basis of uncertain or lacking information, so you won’t make it far if you insist on acting only on certain knowledge. If, however, you conceive of the state of war through the lens of the probability theories that were being developed at the same time in France by people such as Pierre-Simon Laplace, then you will wield a tool that is perhaps less noble than truth, but extremely practical and useful for dealing with uncertainty and chance. In other words, in the state of war truth does not exist, only probabilities that together produce an “average truth.”

G.W.F. Hegel was not happy. For this towering figure of philosophy probability was a weak form of knowledge and, as he put it, “nothing compared to truth.” But for a number of thinkers and writers whose military experience was not limited—as Hegel’s was–to a brief glimpse of Napoleon on the evening before the battle of Jena, and who did not thereby believe to have seen the “World Soul on horseback,” that kind of statement was metaphysical nonsense. In a direct challenge to the leading German philosophers – to Kant’s critical philosophy and in particular to the speculative idealism in Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling – they took their starting point in the state of war and sought to develop a more world-oriented thought that could describe and navigate the mutable empirical world they inhabited. As Clausewitz put it, it was time to become “unlost in philosophical dreams.” And in order to wake up, truth had to be replaced with probability, certain, well-grounded knowledge with a groundless non-knowledge, with calculable uncertainty.
How do you make such a complex calculation? The at times dreamy, unworldly fascination with the subconscious in the Romantic period is here given a new twist. Since it is far beyond the capacities of conscious thought to calculate with so many uncertainties, you should instead leave the calculation to an intuitive sense that the military thinkers called the “tact of judgment.” In other words, the subconscious was seen as an extremely potent mathematician who with lightning speed weighed all the relevant probabilities and improbabilities against each other and in the obscure recesses of the mind almost immediately delivered the best of all possible average truths to consciousness.

Heinrich von Kleist, the tragic and brilliant Prussian poet, thought that the new understanding of the state of war and the new means of dealing with it were of such importance that he wrote an entire play about it. The Prince of Homburg, in the drama of the same name, suddenly abandons the superior commander’s predetermined battle plan and rushes into the fray with his troops when he intuitively senses that the moment for action has come. In the commander’s carefully planned choreography of troops and in Homburg’s groundless tact, the military theory of the eighteenth century clashes with the new way of thinking war around 1800. Of course Kleist complicates matters, for even though Homburg emerges victorious, it is mentioned in passing that he has twice before deprived the commander of victory by acting intuitively. The truth average of Homburg’s subconscious mathematician is merely 33 percent.
But could tact be trained? Was it possible to learn how to navigate the empire of chance? This was the problem that several inventors around Europe now tried to solve. The Napoleonic Wars coincide with the development of the modern war game. The advanced hi-tech virtual reality simulations used by the military today can be traced back to forgotten names such as Venturini, Chamblanc, and Opiz around 1800. Before then, the war game was not much more than a variation on chess, but their predictability and abstract form appeared increasingly obsolete when compared to the inventors’ own experiences in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806 a man by the name of Johann Ferdinand Opiz therefore made contingency into the central operative principle of war when he introduced two dice into his war game. All actions were now associated with different degrees of probability, and whether they succeeded depended on the yes or no of the dice. Opiz reprinted a gushing review of the war game in the accompanying manual: “What a difference! What incomparably more important, far superior advantage compared to chess!—which admittedly practices the mind immensely in reflection, but in no way teaches the soldier the various and often mind-boggling impediments in an operation.” It may well be that Opiz wrote the review himself. Regardless, his war game constituted an innovative simulation of the contingent knowledge order that Kleist and Clausewitz would later describe in their literary and theoretical works.

The novelists faced a perhaps even greater problem. For where the theorist and the military commander ‘only’ had to describe and manage the state of war, literary authors were forced to create the state of war from scratch. They could not simply include a pair of dice along with a manual of when and how to use them in the novel. Instead they had to develop other means for simulating a phenomenon where chance, contingency, and uncertainty were not peripheral elements, but constituted its very core. Indeed, the first serious attempt to describe the state of war ends in an utter failure. But at first it looked quite promising. Toward the end of the 1820s, Honoré de Balzac had laid down a clear battle plan. In his notebooks we read the following entry: “To write a novel with the title The Battle (La Bataille), in which you hear the canon roaring on the first page and the cry of victory on the last one.” Balzac intended to describe one of the great Napoleonic battles from beginning to end. The novel had already been announced, and Balzac’s correspondence during the summer and fall of 1832 give the impression of an enthusiastic and industrious writer who can soon deliver his manuscript. But the publication date is repeatedly postponed and his reassuring letters about the state of the novel is replaced by frustrated confessions that he suffers from writer’s block. The topic is too big and the state of war too complex. In October he finally owns up to a friend: “You have won! I haven’t written a line of La Bataille. But I spent so much energy on it!” After further deadline extensions he finally calls it quits, and the novel ends where it began with the grandiose intention. The product of his hard toil remains a minimal fragment scribbled on the verso of another manuscript. It reads: “La Bataille. First Chapter: Gross-Aspern, 16 May 1809, toward noon.”

To get a better grasp of his topic, Balzac had turned to a different medium of war that had become the sine qua non for the management of the enormous military operations of the day: the topographical map. With his corps of topographical engineers Napoleon established an extended cartographic network across Europe and thereby started a two-dimensional arms race between the major nations. For the empires had to an unprecedented degree become dependent on their symbolic doubles, on the extent and precision of their paper empires. Thus when the Russians invaded Paris in 1812, they were quick to loot the Dépôt de la guerre – the central depot for military maps.

Cartography did not help Balzac solve his literary problem, but it became such an important part of Napoleonic warfare that the one medium ended up migrating into the other. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace the military map appears every time the Russian generals plan a battle. Tolstoy is less interest in the war against the French, however, and more in criticizing the knowledge order of the military map. He repeatedly reduces the map to a symbol of a pseudo-scientific military theory that excludes time, probability, and chance. While the map is often connected to a divine omniscience, Tolstoy preaches a kind of epistemic atheism. For him, as for Berenhorst, the state of war consists of ‘one hundred million contingent factors” impervious to any kind of control and management. Where Opiz and other inventors of war games designed simulations for the purpose of training officers to handle the contingencies of war, Tolstoy, in his mammoth novel, designs a number of literary simulations that place the reader in the midst of a phenomenon that appears so irrational and shapeless and that creates such a pervasive disorder that it can never be controlled or even conceived. For Tolstoy, war is the essence of incomprehensibility.

War is fundamentally about destruction. But war is also an aesthetic phenomenon. Our understanding of it is inextricably tied to the ways in which we build our representations of it. In the symbolic order – in the operational logic of the war games, in the topographical image of military cartography, in the forms of literary texts – we can decode the shifting historical conceptions of the state of war and its complex knowledge order. And there we find an understanding of war that reaches beyond the extensive, but nevertheless historically limited terrain of the Napoleonic Wars. When a number of French philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Guy Debord ask whether civil society is itself a latent state of war, whether our everyday lives are not a continuation of warfare by other means then they find support in the world picture that was articulated by people such as Kleist and Clausewitz. The state of war, which a generation of thinkers had tried to see clearly, ends up as a prism that reflects back on civil society and reveals a fundamental disorder of things underneath the civilized façade. However far one wants to follow that theory, one will do well to follow the French philosophers back to the military thinkers, inventors, and writers of the nineteenth century to get a better understanding of the phenomenon that has pursued us like a shadow up through history and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.


Anders Engberg-Pedersen is the author of Empire of Chance: The Napoleonic Wars and the Disorder of Things (Harvard University Press, March 2015).



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