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From Clausewitz to Delbrück and Hintze: Achievements and Failures of Military History

Whether Machiavelli’s Art of War is the first modern book on military theory might be an open question; it is certain, however, that for centuries, it was a famous and influential work. Its centerpiece is the account of a battle, and this description stands out from the rest of the book by the different method of presentation. In the other parts of the book, Machiavelli presents in a cool, almost detached way, his thesis that the Romans were superior to the moderns in organizing their armed forces; their manner of conducting war ought to be imitated by modern commanders in all its details. Machiavelli explains in lengthy detail how the Roman commanders drew up their troops for battle; however, when the preparations have ended and the fighting ought to begin, the tone of the book suddenly changes. The carefully reasoning scholarly author turns into an excited observer: ‘Do you not hear the artillery?… You see the general who encourages his troops… Do you not see, as they fight, their array so crowded that they scarcely can use their swords? … See them flee on the right flank; they flee also on the left; behold, the victory is ours…’1

What are the reasons for this change of style? Clearly Machiavelli wants to stress that a battle is crucially important; he regards it as the culmination of war: the highest triumph a man can obtain is victory in battle. This is good classical tradition; battles had this role in the writings of ancient historians. They took it for granted that the foreign policy of a citystate aims at expansion and that this goal can be reached only by war, and that wars are decided in battles.