Early Modern and Modern France

A Seamless Relationship of Strategy and War?

Betts' account of how strategy is inexorably limited by the unpredictability and contingency of war is based on his equation of strategy with a particular account of reason. That is, Betts’ views reason as a certain “meta-narrative”, in which all possible causes and effects ideally become foreseeable. Accordingly, Betts’ thinks of strategy in this same all-encompassing sense: strategy is that which can anticipate any possible change in circumstance, such that strategy as a form of reason is essentially “an illusion.” Betts’ thus takes a very static approach to strategy and reason, one that is arguably influenced by post-modern philosophy: he does not think of the possibility that strategy – or reason, for that matter – may indicate a perpetually dynamic process that is constituted by immanent attempts to think through a series of problems and changing circumstances. In short, Betts’ argument that strategy is an illusion is too facile, insofar as he does not think through the possibility that strategy and reason may be changing beasts, such that they may be as dynamic as war itself. For Betts, either strategy drives war, or war drives strategy.

We can encounter some of the limitations of the account of a strategy and war as a strict dichotomy when analyzing the military history of early modern and Modern France. Certainly, this is a heterogeneous period of history for the French polity, including diverse conflicts such as the Italian wars, the “wars of religion”, and the Napoleonic triumphs. In an early Modern Period characterized by the expansion of states’ spheres of influence in the absence of a European superpower, the French strategy was adaptable according to its times, as was its particular choice of conflicts. At the same time, the perpetual conflicts that characterized France in these periods suggests, as Pichichero contends, that “war was one of the most ubiquitous and foundational cultural forces in eighteenth-century French society.” Pichichero argues that the centrality of war to the French in this period clearly demonstrates that war to a certain extent shaped strategy, however, not in Betts’ sense, in which war inevitably marks some breakdown of rational strategy, but rather that war is itself a strategy, a means to perceive the world. More specifically, Pichichero argues that war in France designates “a military discourse of the Enlightenment.”, such that contra Betts’ move of separating war and reason through the separation of war and strategy, Pichichero suggests that war is consistent with the expression of reason. It would seem that this thesis bears out when considering France, while also showing that this synthesis of war and strategy/reason is concomitantly indicative of another element that drives policy, that is, power. Thus, Perry et al. suggest that “war served the interests of a monarchy bent on consolidating its power and authority.” For example, the religious wars tied to the Protestant reformation from 1562 to 1598 were damaging to the “king control over vast areas of kingdom”. War not only became a means to establish such authority, but moreover war itself was viewed, as Pichichero states, as inseparable from authority itself. Strategic objectives and war become completely intertwined. The eventual “consolidation of French monarchial power” under Louis XIV thus occurred through an “absolutist state” that was the very concentration of power. Here, power, war, and strategy are fundamentally inseparable, allowing for the emergence of the absolute monarch. One can thus add a supplement to and re-arrangement of Betts’ scheme, whereby a concept of power determines both war and strategy.

Such an analysis suggests a symmetry with the French Modern period and Napoleon in particular. In this historical figure, one sees a fusion of war, strategy and the ambition for hegemony. Arguably, the very success of Napoleon is the result of such a fusion, in which war and strategy remain seamless in an effort to consolidate forms of power. At the same time, it is such a drive for power that perhaps leads to an over-stretching of ambition, one that subverts the effectivity of the sound implementation of military strategy and waging of war. In other words, while situations remained contingent, Napoleon’s successes point to an ability to control them – nevertheless his failure occurs when a certain Nietzschean will to power enters within the war and strategy framework.

Accordingly, the history of France in the Early Modern and Modern Period provides prescient historical material for re-thinking the apparent dichotomy of war and strategy that Betts’ maintains. These two elements become bound together through a commitment to power, evinced in figures such as Louis XIV and Napoleon.