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Major Gregory R. Ebner

Combat Studies Institute - Command & General Staff College


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Scientific Optimism: Jomini and the U.S. Army

The U.S. Army presents itself as a Clausewitzian organization.  Officers in the Army fondly quote the Prussian theorist and, at the strategic level, his dictums dominate; political control of the military, war as an extension of policy, his trinity, etc.  Consideration of Clausewitz’s friction and fog of war has translated into the doctrine of auftragstaktik and maintenance of initiative at the lowest possible levels of command.  At the tactical and operational levels, however, the U.S. Army remains more firmly rooted in the ideals of Antoine-Henri Jomini.  Jomini’s scientific approach to understanding and succeeding at war lies at the heart of Army doctrinal operations.  The American Army, in its collective description of war and its methods of planning operations in war, follows more closely the Swiss theorist than the Prussian.  The U.S. Army, particularly at the tactical and operational levels, espouses the collective genius of good staff work and the military decision-making process (MDMP) rather than the singular genius of military command embraced by Clausewitz.  This reliance upon military science and method over the application of genius firmly defines the U.S. Army, tactically and operationally, as a Jominian institution.

The definitive feature of Jomini’s theories of war rests with the scientific nature of their application.  Though Jomini goes to great lengths to discourage those who would critique his maxims as simple reduction of the drama of war to mathematical calculations,1 there is a strong element of truth to his critics.  For Jomini, war is a winnable endeavor; winnable if one follows his few simple truths.  The U.S. Army, in its doctrinal attempt to encode Jomini, developed its well-known Principles of War.  Jomini’s influence readily shines in these principles (Dr. Thomas Huber describes the Principles of War as “Jomini writ short”2).  The Army’s application of them at all levels of operations suggests that, as an institution, it agrees with Jomini.  War can be mastered by adherence to maxims that can guide the commander to victory on the battlefield.

Several of the Principles of War link directly from Jomini’s Fundamental Principle.  The U.S. Army maintains a reliance on mass, offensive, maneuver and economy of force, all of which are primarily elements of Jomini’s first four divisions of the Fundamental Principle.3  Offense, in particular, deserves attention as a U.S. Army doctrinal mainstay that stands as a direct link to Jomini.  The Swiss theoretician as strongly advocates gaining and maintaining the initiative through offensive operations as does the cornerstone Army doctrinal manual, FM 3-0.4  Both consider the offense as the decisive form of war and both consider defensive operations only acceptable as a step toward the offense.5  The parallels between U.S. Army doctrine and Jomini continue in his advocation of the “offensive-defensive”, analogous to the Army’s mobile defense.  Certainly, Clausewitz was also an advocate of offensive strategy, but not to the same refinement as Jomini.6  Clausewitz relied more on maximum exertion7 of forces while Jomini required the more familiar focus of strength at the decisive point.8

American reliance on decisive points and the scientific application of military theory to provide the commander with solutions to problems in war are further suggest the Jominian character of the U.S. Army.  In schools of tactics, U.S. Army officers repeatedly study the use of the military decision-making process (MDMP) as the predominant tool for deriving solutions for operations in war.  If the Principles of War are Jomini writ short, then the MDMP is Jomini in full glory.  Through a scientific, step-by-step calculus, the MDMP promises to assist planners in finding a suitable solution to any military problem that they may face.  Its systemic approach to problem solving relies on simple rules governing the movement of forces, the synchronization of their effects, and the discerned application of maximum power at decisive points on the battlefield.  The clarity and optimism of the MDMP relies on Jominian hopes that war can be controlled and that the studious theoretician can master the application of violence.  The lucidity and precision of the MDMP trumps Clausewitz’s friction and fog and offers the Army officer the ability to maintain command of the chaos of war.  Its calculations are cold.  It discerns areas of terrain as impassable when degrees of slope, space between trees, and the very diameter of the trees reach specific numbers.  The MDMP continues the Jominian thread in its calculations of probable victory when opposing units clash by assigning numbers of relative strength and matching friendly units against enemy units of similar size, much the same as Jomini’s determination that one battalion is interchangeable with another.9

The reliance of the U.S. Army upon the promises of the MDMP represents its hope that properly trained commanders and staff officers can control the complexities and the violence of warfare.  The MDMP represents the egalitarianism of the U.S. Army as it allows the planning and execution of military operations without the need for singular military genius in the mind of the commander.  All who come to the staff can participate and provide valuable contributions to the success of a mission through the use of the MDMP.  Certainly, the commander plays an important role in the process, but his role in the U.S. Army is more diffused than Clausewitz would require of the military genius capable of cutting through the fog of war.  The theories and calculations of MDMP are more agreeable to Jomini as he states in his introduction to Summary of the Art of War:

Natural genius will doubtless know how, by happy inspirations, to apply principles as well as the best studied theory could do it; but a simple theory, disengaged from all pedantry, ascending to causes without giving absolute systems, based in a word upon a few fundamental maxims, will often supply genius, and will even serve to extend its development by augmenting its confidence in its own inspirations.10

Protecting against the absence of Jomini’s “natural genius,” the U.S. Army has a developed an intricate, encompassing, and ubiquitous method of deriving appropriate solutions to military puzzles.  The Army follows Jomini’s prescription and, through the MDMP, the Principles of War, and the Tenets of Army Operations, has provides the framework for commanders and their staffs that has become a fundamental system of Army tactical and operational planning, limiting the need for natural military genius.

Further evidence of the U.S. Army’s Jominian character lies in its espousal of Lines of Operation. FM 3-0 devotes large sections of Chapters 5 and 6 to this major Jominian concept.11  The U.S. Army has developed the concept further to include both temporal and spatial lines, but the idea of solution of a military problem through the application of logical threads of continuity remains Jominian at its core.  Jomini’s original concept suggested purely contiguous lines of operation focusing on the advantages of interior versus exterior lines of operation, and the U.S. Army continues to show a desire to maintain that orientation.  Doctrinal planners have expressed the need to find solutions to operations that demand mastery of non-contiguous and non-linear battlefields,12 but most instructors of tactics seem to rely more readily on the previous methods of describing the battlefield framework. 

The extreme opposite of the linear battle, guerilla wars of a national character, shake Jominian ideals to their very core.  He recommends avoiding them all together.13  Since Vietnam, the U.S. Army has demonstrated a similar reluctance to these types of operations.  Recent operations in Afghanistan demonstrate the Army’s desire to conform to a linear, contiguous battle space concept.  The beginning of the Afghan campaign suggested that the U.S. Army would attempt to use non-conventional means to force surrender of the Taliban.  While Special Operations Forces were used extensively and Ranger task forces conducted airborne raids of a non-contiguous nature, defeat of the enemy came through coordination of the Northern Alliance in primarily linear operations on a contiguous battlefield.  The U.S. Army has demonstrated a desire to move away from Jomini’s lines of operation but, at the heart of its doctrine, it still embraces the Swiss theoretician’s ideals.

A final and perhaps most telling indicator that the U.S. Army is a Jominian institution lies in the Army’s optimistic approach to combat operations.  The Army, especially in its recent history, holds full expectations of winning its battles.  Doomsayers continue to predict extended operations, massive casualties, or expansion of operations beyond control of the players, but rarely has the Army entered into an operation without the sincere belief that it would dominate and succeed.  Jomini would be proud of this sanguine approach to war.  He allowed for a prescription for a winnable war of limited nature.  Under the control of skilled commander and a trained staff, Jomini considered war scientifically manageable.  Clausewitz however warned against the dangers of the inherent uncontrollability of war.14  In the U.S. Army’s confidence of tactical and operational dominance of current and future battlefields, it falls firmly in the Jominian camp at the expense of Clausewitz’s fears.

The U.S. Army’s doctrinal application of the theories of war at the tactical and operational levels shows that, at its core, it is a Jominian institution.  Its scientific approach to the complexity and confusion of war eschews the fears of Clausewitz for the promises of his Swiss counterpart.  The Army’s universal application of the Principles of War demonstrates its Jominian heritage; its reliance on the Military Decision Making Process exhibits its faith in the idea that the need for military genius can be mitigated by strong staff work using cold, calculative science.  Currently, the Army’s struggle with lines of operation and non-contiguous operations as a potential future of war displays more clearly a desire to maintain its ties to Jominian theoretical concepts.  While leaders of the Army and self-proclaimed civilian experts of military thought prefer to quote Clausewitz when describing current and future operations, it is to the comfort and optimism of Jomini that the U.S. Army continually returns.


1. Antoine-Henri Jomini, Introductory Material to Summary of the Art of War; reprinted in U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, C600 Term I Syllabus/Book of Readings, (Fort Leavenworth: USACGSC, July 2001), pp. 267-268.

2. Huber, Thomas M., “Introduction to Lesson 8,” U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, C600 Term I Syllabus/Book of Readings, (Fort Leavenworth: USACGSC, July 2001), p. 264.

3. Jomini, p. 284.

4. U.S. Department of the Army Field Manual 3-0, Operations, (Washington, DC, 14 June 2001), p. 7-2.

5. FM 3-0, p. 8-1 and Jomini, p. 286.

6. Paret, Peter, “Clausewitz,” Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Ed. Peter Paret, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 205.

7. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Ed. and Trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 77.

8. Jomini, p. 284.

9. Shy, John, “Jomini,” Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Ed. Peter Paret, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 173.

10. Jomini, pp. 267-268.

11. Shy, p. 169.

12. FM 3-0, pp. 6-14 to 6-17.

13. Shy, p. 171.

14. Ibid, p. 158.

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