8 February 2012
Clausewitz is a philosopher more closely associated with the idea of war than the idea of civilization, but Clausewitz’s conception of war can also shed some light on civilization. Allow me to review some familiar ground in regard to the Clausewitzean conception of war. Here is a famous passage from On War that gives Clausewitz’s famous formulation of war as a continuation of politics by other means:
“…war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the art of war in general and the commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 24
Before this Clausewitz gives a sense of how the military aim and the political aim give way to each other based on the presumed progress of a conflict:
“The law of the extreme, the view to disarm the adversary, to overthrow him, has hitherto to a certain extent usurped the place of this end or object. Just as this law loses its force, the political object must again come forward. If the whole consideration is a calculation of probability based on definite persons and relations, then the political object, being the original motive, must be an essential factor in the product.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 11
This insistence upon the political character of war is the reason Anatol Rapoport identified Clausewitz’s philosophy as a political theory of war, which Rapoport contrasted to cataclysmic and eschatological theories of war (something that I have discussed in More on Clausewitz, Toward a Dialectical Conception of War, Species of War and Peace, and War and Peace, Again).
More recently, as I have continued to think about these Clausewitzean themes, I wrote this on Twitter:
Then reformulated the same idea in A Shift in Hemispheres:
“Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.”
And reformulated the idea once more in The Agricultural Apocalypse:
“Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.”
Obviously, this has been on my mind lately. And as unlikely as this may sound, when I was writing these observations I was thinking of a passage in Hermann Weyl’s Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. In an appendix to this work, after describing the response among mathematicians when Gödel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrated that Hilbert’s program (the finite axiomatization of mathematics) could not be carried out, Weyl wrote:
“The ultimate foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remain an open problem; we do not know in what direction it will find its solution, nor even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. ‘Mathematizing’ may well be a creative activity of man, like music, the products of which not only in form but also in substance are conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defy complete objective rationalization.”
Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Appendix A, “The Structure of Mathematics”
A generalization of Weyl’s observation beyond the exclusive concern for creative activities of man might comprehend both creative and destructive activities of man, and that human activity, whatever form it takes, is conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defies complete objective rationalization. Of course, I doubt even Clausewitz (Enlightenment philosopher of war that he was) would have thought that war transcended history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but we must of course think of this in comparative terms: we would have high expectations for mathematics to conform to this ideal, and relatively low expectations for warfare to conform to this ideal, but all human activities would presumably fall on a continuum defined at its end points by that which is entirely immanent to history and that which entirely transcends history. It is the degree of being “conditioned by the decisions of history” that marks the difference between abstract and a priori disciplines like mathematics and concrete and a posteriori disciplines like war.
It would be interesting to construct a philosophy of war based upon the idea that war does in fact transcend the accidents of history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but I will not attempt to do that at the present moment (but I will suggest that we might call this, in contradistinction to the political, eschatological, and cataclysmic conceptions of war, the transcendental conception of war). In the meantime, I will assume that war eludes a transcendental theory and must be given a theoretical treatment (if at all) as being “conditioned by the decisions of history” to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, I will make the same assumption about civilization, which appears to be as “conditioned by the decisions of history” as is the constant warfare that has attended civilized life. Civilization also eludes complete objective rationalization. In this, then, we already see that war and civilization belong to similar spheres of human endeavor, residing near the empirical end of the a priori/a posteriori continuum, while mathematics and logic lie at the opposite end of the same continuum. That is to say, we have similar theoretical expectations for war and for civilization.
Nevertheless, Clausewitz himself points out the continued need to elucidate philosophical truth even from historically contingent events by attending to the essential elements:
“Whoever laughs at these reflections as utopian dreams, does so at the expense of philosophical truth. Although we may learn from it the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other, it would be rash to attempt to deduce laws from the same by which each individual case should be governed without regard to any accidental disturbing influences. But when a person, in the words of a great writer, “never rises above anecdote,” builds all history on it, begins always with the most individual points, with the climaxes of events, and only goes down just so deep as he finds a motive for doing, and therefore never reaches to the lowest foundation of the predominant general relations, his opinion will never have any value beyond the one case, and to him, that which philosophy proves to be applicable to cases in general, will only appear a dream.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 6, Chapter 6, section 5
Clausewitz, throughout his treatise, maintains his focus on the political nature of war as a means to the end of discerning, “the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other,” and in so doing finds his inquiry led to broader considerations such as, “the general state of intellectual culture in the country” (Bk. 1, Ch. 3, “On Military Genius”), which must be, at least in part, a function of civilization. Clausewitz goes on to say in the same section:
“If we look at a wild, warlike race, then we find a warlike spirit in individuals much more common than in a civilised people; for in the former almost every warrior possesses it; whilst in the civilised, whole masses are only carried away by it from necessity, never by inclination. But amongst uncivilised people we never find a really great general, and very seldom what we can properly call a military genius, because that requires a development of the intelligent powers which cannot be found in an uncivilised state. That a civilised people may also have a warlike tendency and development is a matter of course; and the more this is general, the more frequently also will military spirit be found in individuals in their armies. Now as this coincides in such case with the higher degree of civilisation, therefore from such nations have issued forth the most brilliant military exploits, as the Romans and the French have exemplified. The greatest names in these and in all other nations that have been renowned in war, belong strictly to epochs of higher culture.”
Thus, for Clausewitz, the highest degree of civilization coincides with the highest degree of military genius; high achievement in civilization is the necessary condition for high achievement in war. Military exploits can be the work of genius, like a sculpture of Michelangelo or a fugue by Bach. Brilliance, then, whether expressed in war or in any other endeavor of civilization, requires the achievements of high culture (presumably cultivated by civilization) to reach its ultimate expression.
All of this has been stated — as Clausewitz stated it — giving civilization the priority, but all of these formulations can be inverted ceteris paribus, with war given priority, so that, for example, the highest degree of war coincides with the highest degree of civilizational genius; high achievement in war is the necessary condition for high achievement in civilization. Here we see again, as we have seen before, that war and civilization are convertible. The antithetical view is that war and civilization are not convertible, but antithetical.
It has become a kind of truism — usually unchallenged — in discussing the violence and brutality of the twentieth century to segue into a critique, implicit or explicit, of industrial-technological civilization, which inevitably resulted in the industrialization of war and the application of science and technology to violence and brutality. We find this, for example, in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, in which he says in regard to the fate of some of Europe’s cultural treasures during the Second World War:
“Many buildings of the eighteenth century were erected simply to give pleasure by people who believed that pleasure was important, and worth taking trouble about, and could be given some of the quality of art. And we managed to destroy a good many of them during the war including the Zwinger at Dresden, the palace of Charlottenburg in Berlin, and the greater part of the Residenz in Wurzburg. As I have said, it may be difficult to define civilization, but it isn’t so difficult to recognize barbarism.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, pp. 240-241
In a similar vein, after the 1981 Brixton riots Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” Earlier in the above-quoted work (p. 220), Clark made a related reference that extended his critique from industrialized warfare to industrialized civilization itself:
“…the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism… stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society…”
For Clark, industrialized society and industrialized warfare is transparently barbaric and antithetical to civilization. This is what many of us would like to believe, but in order to believe this we must adopt a systematic blindness of the history of civilization, since war is implicated at every step. In every age of organized human activity, civilization has built monuments to itself, and war has destroyed most of them. A few treasures remain for us from the past, but they are the exception, not the rule. The history of civilization without war is also the exception, not the rule.
We flatter ourselves when we only condescend to give the name of civilization to a certain range of values that we believe reflect well on humanity. This reminds me of the scene in the film Dead Poets Society in which the professor ridicules the overly-refined and delicate way in which Shakespeare is often presented. In the film this is a laugh line, but in real life people really convince themselves civilization is the equivalent of the comedic presentation of Shakespeare.
Even as we attempt to flatter ourselves by associating humanity with a certain selection of values, we also impoverish ourselves. We must convince ourselves, against experience and reason, that civilization is a delicate and fragile thing, rather than the robust reality that it is, forged in war, tried by fire, and built out of sacrifices.
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29 January 2012
There is more than one list of exactly those evils represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Biblical passage from which the image is derived mentions the horses as being white, red, black, and pale. These have been interpreted as representing conquest, war, famine, and death, though in the Dürer etching above the four horsemen are commonly identified as war, famine, plague, and death.
If we take this latter litany of war, famine, plague, and death as the evils of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it immediately becomes clear that these are not four evils of apocalypse, but one evil intrinsic to the human condition (death) and three evils intrinsic to settled agricultural civilization.
It is settled agricultural civilization itself that is the apocalypse; the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution was at the same time the Agricultural Apocalypse. For in so far as anthropologists and archaeologists have been able to determine, prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, there was no war, no famine, and no plague. There was, of course, death, since death is the human condition, but it was the change in the human condition brought about by settled agricultural civilization that added war, famine, and plague to the human condition.
I have mentioned in several posts that the Paleolithic is sometimes called the Paleolithic Golden Age. It is well known that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, before they settled down into agricultural civilization, had a more diverse and therefore a healthier diet. From this healthier diet followed a healthier life. Individuals were taller and lived longer.
It also seems to be the case that settled agricultural civilization made possible war, famine, and death. I have argued many times that civilization and war are born twins. Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.
With settled civilization and control of the food supply, our ancestors allowed family sizes to grow — both because it was now possible to raise more children than the parents could physically carry, and because more children meant more farm labor. The entire family could be impressed as a labor gang to work on the farm, which produced surplus food when conditions were favorable. However, when conditions turned unfavorable, there were now many mouths to feed, and they could not be readily moved to another location, having surpassed the numbers that can be realistically transformed into a roving band. The obvious result was famine.
Also with settled civilization came the concentration of growing populations in urban centers and in extending trading networks. These concentrations of human population effectively created disease pools in which both viral agents and bacteriological infections could be easily transmitted through a community in close physical proximity. The obvious result was plague.
While the Industrial Revolution allowed us to transcend many of the institutions of agricultural civilization, the pattern of settled life remains, and with it remains the possibilities of war, famine, and death, which now are part of the human condition, and having lived with them for so long they are also become constitutive of human nature.
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19 January 2012
Since I last wrote I have experienced a dramatic change in hemispheres, going from the snow of rural Oregon, pictured above from just a few days ago, to the overcast heat and humidity of Lima, Peru. The contrast would have been even more striking had it been as sunny as I expected the southern hemisphere to be in January, but it is still a dramatic hemispherical shift. There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust when Faust requests grapes (or some other fruit — I can’t precisely recall), and Mephistopheles disappears only to return momentarily with the grapes. Although the feat is magical, Faust does not ascribe it to magic, but furnishes the explanation to Faust that on the opposite side of the world it is summer even as it is winter in Faust’s Europe. This is how the man of the Northern Hemisphere views the exotic climes of the Southern Hemisphere.
Even while taking leave of the Northern Hemisphere I have remained within the Western Hemisphere, and I am very pleased to be back in Peru, since it has been almost twenty years since I was last here. Peru is the fons et origo of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. Like Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the history of civilization runs deep here. The succession of peoples and cultures has left stratified layers in time, and this stratigraphy of history gives a definite shape to the past.
There has also been a succession of empires through the ages. When I was last in Ecuador, at the Hacienda San Agustin — which in its earlier iterations was an Inca outpost on the periphery of empire — the Ecuadorians spoke of the Peruvians as warlike and given to quarrel. I do not know if this is true, but I do know that when they spoke, they spoke with the knowing look of a neighbor on their faces.
We should not be surprised at this. Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.
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29 December 2011
Yesterday in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I mentioned the current foreign policy debate over the idea of a preventative war against Iran and recounted some of Iran’s known capabilities.
Reflecting the these attempts to make a case for or against preventative war with Iran, I was led back in my thoughts to a post I wrote last summer about what I called The Possible War. In this post I tried to emphasize that ex post facto criticisms of conduct in war — like criticisms of the Allies’ strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War — presume a parity of capability and opportunity that almost never obtains in fact. Military powers do not engage in ideal wars that meet certain standards; they fight the war that they are able to fight, and this is the possible war.
Moving beyond a description of the possible war, the idea can be formulated as a principle, the principle of possible wars, and the principle is this: in any given conflict, each party to the conflict will fight the war that it is possible for that party to fight. In other words, no party to a conflict is going to fight a war that it is impossible for it to fight. In other words again, no party to a conflict is going to fight a losing war on the basis of peer-to-peer engagement if there is a non-peer strategy that will win the war. This sort of thing makes good poetry, as in The Charge of the Light Brigade, but in so far as it ensures failure in a campaign, it exerts a strong negative selection over military powers that pursue such policies.
The military resources of a given political entity (whether state or non-state entity) will always seek to maximize its advantage by employing its most effective means available against its adversary’s most vulnerable target available. This is what makes war brutal and ugly, this is why it has been said since ancient times that inter arma enim silent leges.
There is a sense in which this principle of possible wars is simply an extension of the classic twin principles of mass and economy of forces. Each party to a conflict concentrates as much force as it can at a point it believes the adversary to be most vulnerable, and the enemy is simultaneously trying to do the same thing. If we think of concentration as concentration of effort, rather than mere numbers of battalions, and we think of vulnerability as any way in which an enemy can be defeated, and not merely a point on the line that is insufficiently defended, then we have the principle of possible war.
War is not always and inevitably brutal and ugly, and the principle of possible wars helps us to understand why this is the case. Previously in Civilization and War as Social Technologies I discussed how in particular historical circumstances warfare can become highly ritualized and stylized. There I cited the non-Western examples of Samurai sword fighting, retained in Japan long after the rest of the world was fighting with guns, and the Aztec Flower Battle, which combined religious rituals of sacrifice with the honor and prestige requirements of combat. However, there are Western precedents for ritualized combat as well, as when, in the ancient world, each party to a conflict would choose an individual champion and the issue was decided by single combat.
Another example of semi-ritualized forms of combat in Western history might include early modern Condottieri wars in the Italian peninsula. Before the large scale armies of the French and the Spanish crossed the Alps to pillage and plunder Italy, the peninsula was dominated by wealth city-states who hired mercenary armies under Condottieri captains to wage war against each other. With two mercenary armies facing each other on the battlefield, there was a strong incentive to minimize casualties, and there are some remarkable stories from the era of nearly bloodless battles.
Another example would be the maneuver warfare of small, professional European armies during the Enlightenment, who sometimes managed to fight limited wars with a minimal impact on non-combatants. This may well have been a cultural response to the horrific slaughter of the Thirty Years War.
In these latter two examples, limited wars were the possible war because a sufficient number of social conventions and normative presuppositions were shared by all parties to the conflict, who were willing to abide by the results of the contest even when a more ruthless approach might have secured a Pyrrhic victory. Under these socio-political conditions, limited wars were possible wars because all parties recognized that it was in their enlightened self-interest not to escalate wars beyond a certain threshold. Such social conventions touching even upon the conduct of war can only be effective in a suitably homogenous cultural region.
After the escalating total wars leading up to the middle of the twentieth century, limited wars emerged again out of fear of crossing the nuclear threshold. Parties to the conflicts were willing to abide by the issue of these limited wars because the alternative was mutually assured destruction. Also, all parties to proxy wars knew they would have another chance at achieving their goals in another theater when the proxy war would shift to another region of the world. Thus limited wars because possible wars because the alternative was unthinkable.
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27 April 2009
This morning on twitter I jotted down a few quick notes that partially reflect the fact that I am presently listening to a couple different books about war: Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, by Marshall de Bruhl, and A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954 – 1962, by Alistair Horne.
As I was capturing a few thoughts about contemporary warfare, it dawned on me that my thoughts on war can be given an interesting Marxist formulation. If there is anyone who reads this forum on a regular basis you will know that, despite my clear differences with Marx, I often end up citing and quoting him, and I will further develop my quasi-Marxist reflections today.
One of the features of Marx’s thought that retains its value despite the problematic nature of so much Marxist theory is that of the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure. There should be a name for this distinction and the view of society that it implies, but I am not sufficiently up on Marxist studies to know if there is a term that is commonly used within the discipline, so at present I will refer to it as “the economic interpretation of history”.
I wrote about this last week in relation to Joseph Campbell’s use of the phrase, and there I said that I didn’t know exactly what Campbell meant by it. Well, this is as good a meaning as any for the phrase, and indeed I think it sums up the idea Campbell meant to criticize quite nicely. We could even say (with a certain flourish) that the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is that the ideological superstructure of a society is completely determined by the economic base of the same society.
This uncompromising statement of the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is a perfect instance of reductionism as well as of constructing a theoretical absolute. Reductionism is mostly out of favor among contemporary thinkers, though it is not without its advocates, and constructing a theoretical absolute can be little different than erecting a straw man. There are obvious re-formulations of this theorem that are far less rigid, and thus far more likely to be true, or, at least, to have some truth in them. For example, we could say that the economic interpretation of history is the principle that ideological superstructure is mostly determined, or somewhat determined, by economic base. Or, hedging even more, that ideological superstructure is determined at least in part by economic base. It would be foolish to deny the latter outright, so we see that between an absolutist and uncompromising statement of a principle, and a thoroughly hedged statement there can be the difference between night and day.
But rather than conditionalize, compromise, or hedge, I would like to go in the direction of greater abstractness and generality. In other words, I would like, for the moment, to pursue an even more thorough-going reductionism, all in the interest of philosophical principle.
When thinking about it this morning, I was struck by the obvious fact that Marx’s formulation of the economic interpretation of history can be generalized. Rather than limiting our foundations to economic foundations, any social system whatever can be seen as the social base of a society, while any cultural or intellectual expression of a people is a wider field of ambition than political ideology in the narrow sense. Thus a generalization of Marx’s principle would be that social conditions determine the life of the mind. Once again, if we hedge and say, “Social conditions, at least in part, determine the life of the mind,” we have a proposition with which few will disagree.
Now, to war. War is one form of social organization. Indeed, it is a pervasive form of social organization throughout human history. There are important respects in which war is an expression of human culture. It is then to be expected that the social conditions of a society at war are expressed in the methods by which that society makes war.
Since the end of the Second World War, there was been much discussion of strategic bombing. An explicitly philosophical treatise has been written to denounce it as immoral (A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?). Caleb Carr denounces it in his The Lessons of Terror. Firestorm, mentioned above, questions the utility and rationale of strategic bombing. But, if I am at least partly right, it is misleading to try to understand strategic bombing in exclusively moral or political terms. Strategic bombing is an expression of our culture.
Once we see it in this context, it seems rather obvious. Hannah Arendt is especially remembered for her argument that twentieth century totalitarianism and fascism is a political outcome of the emergence of mass man in history. I would argue that mass warfare is also a nearly inevitable historical outcome of the emergence of mass man. Today we have mass war for mass man. It may be horrific, but it is not to be treated as some kind of anomaly: this style of warfare perfectly matches the structure of society today.
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For the record, below are my Twitter posts from this morning, laying the above out with a certain succinctness:
1. Influencing policy through mass terror could have no place before popular opinion was crucial to the formulation of policy.
2. The limited war of earlier ages corresponded to the drastically limited sovereignty of non-democratic institutions.
3. Where vox populi is law, to shift the feeling or perceptions of the people, through terror or other means, is a coherent strategy.
4. Twentieth century campaigns of mass death and strategic bombing are brought into being (not justified) by popular sovereignty.
5. The ideological superstructure of modern war (mass war) supervenes upon the social and economic base of modern human life (mass man).
6. Mass war is a product of the Age of Mass Man.
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