top of page
  • Centro para el Bien Común Global

Thought and war

Gabriel Cortina

Thought is at the very heart of strategy. More than a single doctrine, the strategy that has been successful and has become a benchmark is a method of thinking. That is to say, the one that has made it possible to classify and rank the facts in order to then choose the most effective procedures. In this sense, the Spanish edition of La pensé et la guerre, initially published in 1969, is a historical and strategic milestone, hence the interest in commenting on its contents.

It is a collection of lectures that the writer and philosopher Jean Guitton (1901-1999) delivered over several decades and always at the request of those in charge of the French War College, who asked him to help them to think, to reflect on the motivations of the future adversary, to understand the logic of events, the latent philosophy of strategies, their principles and how they can influence modern warfare. Indeed, any strategy presupposes a latent philosophy. Let us recall that Clausewitz reflected on Napoleon's campaigns, as did Jomini, but he went further than the latter, because the Prussian military man was steeped in metaphysics: he had studied Kant and above all Hegel.

The essential concept provided by the author is that of "meta-strategy". Issues of peace, threat and war inspire behaviors and confront ultimate questions. The entry into play of nuclear deterrence, as a total weapon and responding to the dynamics of mutually assured destruction, goes beyond its own potential, since "for the first time in history," he asserts, "the human species as a whole is perfectly capable of reciprocal suicide. Albert Camus, the leading figure of existentialism, pointed out that the problem of suicide is the most serious problem facing man. Guitton, of the same opinion, affirms that suicide is properly a human act - the animal does not know it - and is therefore a metaphysical act. The reflection is that, with the nuclear destructive potential of the second half of the twentieth century, all previous strategies are put in check and call for reflection on whether the despair of one can or should imply the death of all.

With this new word, "meta-strategy", he tries to explain that in our days the strategic act also becomes a philosophical act. This is what caught the attention of the professors at the War College and is the excuse for the audacity of this book written by a civilian. It is not a book but a collection of lectures delivered at different times and separated by long intervals. The approach to the themes and the conclusions offered is an essay that invites to "see it all", to a global reflection. Guitton is not a military theorist; he knows that he reasons as a philosopher from the perspective of the infinite, and assumes that the strategist reasons from the perspective of the finite. Thought and War succeeds in converging both interests and is a masterful work, both for the thinker and the strategist, and -I would add- for the security and conflict-oriented analyst, so much in need of deeper training.

The work is divided into five parts, each corresponding to lectures delivered to students and officers of the French military academy: Hitler, Revolution and War (1940) commented by Martin Motte, director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) and head of the strategy course at the War College; The Art of Thinking and the Conduct of War (1952), commented by Colonel Thierry Noulens, professor at the War College and head of the department of human and social sciences of war; Thought and War in Foch (1976), also annotated by Martin Motte; Hegelian Thought and the Conduct of War (1953), annotated by Audrey Hérisson, frigate captain and professor at the War College; and Philosophy of Deterrence in the Nuclear Age (1967), annotated by Georges Henri Soutou, president of the Institute of Comparative Strategy and academic advisor to the director general of the War College. The Appendix consists of two contents: excerpts from a letter from General Weygand to the author, on the probability of war, and a note on aspects of naval strategy compared to land strategy.

These five lectures reflect the history of a generation, that from 1940 to 1970: that which became aware of the war of 1914 and the significance of the battles of the Marne and Verdun; that which was thrown into the war of 1940, with the irruption of a new type of conflict which surpassed any destructive expectations; that which has seen new forms of confrontation appear, through "subversive warfare"; that which has seen the birth of new States, the fruit of colonial empires in decline, with their corresponding social conflicts; and that which has seen the intervention of the most absolute weapon, the nuclear weapon, capable of suppressing not only war but also humanity. Guitton wonders if there has ever been a generation that has been offered more arguments, more opportunities to discern, in the "war and peace" phenomenon, the essential from the accessory, and, consequently, to face possible conflicts with more flexibility and more lucid courage. For this reason, the work we present here is a profound and thought-provoking reflection from a generational perspective.

Which chapters would you highlight? I would personally highlight two: first, the Preface, where he explains the origin and intention of the work, how it was conceived and the most relevant and profound ideas, which is the author's great intellectual heritage to strategic theory, as a philosopher and as a metaphysician, always concerned with the ultimate ends; secondly, for reasons of scope and topicality, the last chapter, dedicated to nuclear armament and deterrence. Few philosophers have written specifically on the atomic weapon. Apart from Jean Guitton, we have the work of the German Karl Jaspers published in 1963 under the title The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Man. I highlight it, not because he tries to add reflections to the myth of the bomb, capable of destroying the human species, but because this new reality produces an unquestionable practical result that the strategist must take into account: fear has definitely led military and political leaders to act less irrationally than in the past.

The translation corresponds to the French edition published in 2017, prefaced by Major General Hubert de Reviers de Mauny, director of the War College. For its part, the foreword to the Spanish edition is by Colonel José Luis Calvo, director of the Coordination and Studies Division of the Ministry of Defense. I end with a reflection by Colonel Calvo, which serves as a colophon to understand the relevance of this work: Jean Guitton faced an extreme situation, war, a competitive and violent practice; he was not a strategist but a philosopher, but like many other philosophers and thinkers he was attracted by this contrast between subtle and sophisticated thinking and a brutal reality. The French author focused his work on the human being, on his relationship with God and the world, and on the search for truth. He thought he could learn much from this by studying the phenomenon of war, with its massive and lethal violence, and such a seemingly perplexing discipline as strategy. Undoubtedly, Thought and War is a reference work for those who wish to delve deeper into these two realities. Its conclusions are highly topical.

Technical details:

Thought and War

Enlarged and annotated edition by the professors of the War College

Jean Guitton

Ediciones Encuentro, Madrid, 2019

251 pages


Gabriel Cortina holds a Diploma in Higher Studies of National Defense (CESEDEN) and is part of the research team of the Center for International Security.



bottom of page