1 January 2014
One Hundred Years of Industrialized Warfare
Now that it is 2014 the year will unfold with a series of remarkable 100 year anniversaries as we look retrospectively at the events that led to the First World War — the first global industrialized war, and one of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century, or of any century. There were industrialized wars before WWI — the Russo-Japanese War — and there were global wars before WWI — the Seven Years’ War — but WWI as the first global industrialized war introduced several discontinuities into history that continue to shape us today. The Second World War involved a greater number of casualties and more destructive force, but it was the First World War that decisively cut us off from our past and marked our full transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization.
While the anniversary of a conflict is a pseudo-event, in so far as it prompts reflection it does not have to be merely an empty pseudo-event, although a forced search for parallels is likely to be more misleading than enlightening. Perhaps it is inevitable that such comparisons will be made. An article in The Economist discussed the parallels between 1914 and 2014, The first world war — Look back with angst: A century on, there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the first world war. Is this a helpful exercise? Or is the search for historical parallels a kind of pseudo-history that emerges from pseudo-events?
The Nature of Industrialized Warfare
Industrialized warfare is warfare driven by the STEM cycle, with the additional incentive of an existential threat to spur the rate of innovation and to shorten the time lag between scientific innovation and technological application. In short, industrialized warfare is the whole of industrial-technological civilization in miniature, escalated, accelerated, and focused on some particular conflict that has no intrinsic relation to the ways and means employed to wage the struggle.
Industrialized warfare has a distinctive character. In the warfare of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, hostilities often had to yield to the agricultural calendar. Wars were fought in the summer; those pressed into service, if not released at harvest time, would desert in order to harvest their crops — if they did not, they would starve. No major engagements could take place in the winter because of the lack of mechanized transportation. In the spring, as in the fall, the mass of the populace had to plow and plant. Only a small class of professional warriors could devote themselves to a career of arms and could fight year-round.
Industrialized warfare is no respecter of seasons; men can be taken by train into battle under inclement weather conditions (as they were in WWI)), and supplied in the field by transportation and food preservation technologies. Technological changes were matched by social changes; the rigid and hierarchical class structure gave way to a democratic and egalitarian ideal that was exapted by newly emergent nation-states in the form of enlightenment universalism that popularized the notion of every man a soldier. Industrialized warfare is mass war, fought by mass man; it is the warfare that emerges from the anonymization of killing. It is the anonymous and mass nature of industrialized warfare that makes it particularly absurd and senseless, as the individual soldier is no longer a heroic figure, but, like a worker in a vast industry, the soldier is merely a cog in a gigantic machine.
The Causes and the Possibilities of Industrialized Warfare
It should be evident from the above that the telos of industrialized warfare is global total war, since the industries that make such industrialized conflicts possible are global, and to successfully wage such a war it is necessary to disrupt the global supply chain of one’s adversary. A similar logic dictated the “de-housing” of industrial workers in the strategic bombing campaigns of the Second World War once that became technologically possible. At some point in the development of industrial-technological civilization, World War One or some equivalent conflict was bound to occur, but did this particular conflict in this particular form have to occur? We might shed a little more light on this question if we attempt to analyze it in a finer grain of detail. To do so it will be convenient to distinguish long term causes, short term causes, and triggers. (Long term causes, short term causes, and triggers may be assimilated to Braudel’s tripartite distinction between la longue durée, the conjuncture, and the history of the event; in Braudel in Ecological Perspective I have shown how Braudel’s historical distinctions can be understood in the light of what I call ecological temporality for a broader theoretical context.)
The long term causes of World War One include the development of industrial-technological civilization itself, and the application of industrial technologies to warfighting, as well as the struggle between developing powers within the regions where the events of the industrial revolution had transformed the life of the people most rapidly and drastically. Slightly less long term as causes are historical forces including the rivalry of France, Germany, and Russia for dominance of the Eurasian landmass, with Britain serving as the “off shore balancer” for balance of power politics. The longer of the long term causes stretch back to the origins of civilization, while the shorter of the long term causes shade imperceptibly into short term causes.
Short term causes of World War One include the arms race in continental Europe (including the naval arms race to build Dreadnaught class battleships), the network of secret alliances among the major powers, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the professionalization of the German General staff, with its master plan for war meticulously crafted year after year, the decline of the Hapsburg monarchy and the increasingly restive populations of subject territories, not only in Hapsburg domains but also within the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe.” With Hapsburg and Ottoman power in decline, and ethnic populations newly conscious of themselves as potential political communities, therefore clamoring to fill the gradually growing power vacuum, there were numerous European dyads across which war could break out given the proper trigger and a failure to contain escalation.
The trigger for World War One is one of the purest examples of a triggering event in history: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Once the shots were fired and the Duke and Duchess were dead, it was only a matter of repeated diplomatic miscalculations (in an atmosphere of universal preparation for a European-wide war) that escalated the murder into an international incident, the international incident into an armed conflict, and an armed conflict into war between the major European powers and eventually into a global conflagration. Different triggers might have resulted in different details of the world’s first global industrialized war, and different outcomes as well, but that the newly industrialized powers with their new industrialized weapons systems would not decline a test of their newly found powers is as close to inevitable as anything that has transpired in human history (while still not rising to the level of inevitability that coincides with necessity).
Europe had been preparing for a war for a generation, since the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The increasing wealth due to increasing industrialization led many to interpret nineteenth century history in terms of continual progress, but the military planners never lost sight of preparations for war. In France, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was captured in the phrase, “Think of it always, speak of it never.” With planning for war solidly in place, only the trigger was left to chance. For the First World War to have been significantly different, the short term causes would have had to have been significantly different. And for the First World War to have been a profoundly different conflict than in fact it was, the long term causes wold have had to have been different. With long term and short term causes in place, the structure of the war was largely shaped before it began.
Global Industrialized Warfare Since 1914
As we all know, the First World War was followed by an armistice of twenty years (although the armistice was called a “peace”) as a new generation prepared for a new war, and when the next war broke out in 1939 it spiraled into the most destructive armed conflict in human history. The whole development of the twentieth century up to 1945 may be considered one long escalation of industrialized warfare. After that time, European multi-polarity was replaced by the Cold War dyad, which meant that major wars could only break out across this single power dyad, which limited the triggers that could come into play. The effect of stalling major industrialized conflicts led to what I have called the devolution of warfare, allowing human beings to continue the fighting and killing that they love without triggering a catastrophic nuclear exchange that would bring the fun to an end for everyone.
We are still today, even after the termination of the Cold War dyad and the emergence of an ill-defined multi-polarity, living with the the devolution of warfare that has bequeathed to us multiple low-level asymmetrical conflicts around the globe. The very idea of peer-to-peer conflict between major industrialized powers seems distant and unreal. That complacency may be a vulnerability that allows miscalculation to escalate, but what has permanently changed in human history — what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact” — is the availability of nuclear weapons that constitute an existential threat to civilization. This existential threat is the counter-veiling force to rising complacency.
The Future of Global Industrialized Warfare
The First World War, although global, was focused on Europe; the Second World War, while triggered in Europe, was not centered on Europe: North Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially the Pacific were major theaters of conflict. As the focus of global attention continues its gradual shift from the older and mature industrialized economies of Europe, which have bordered on the Atlantic Ocean and which grew in conjunction with the growing economy of North America, to the now mature industrialized economy of North America, which borders on the Pacific Ocean and grows in conjunction with the growing economies of East Asia, world history (in so far as there is any such thing) slowly shifts from the Atlantic basin to the Pacific Basin. Atlanticism becomes more and more an irrelevant relic of the past. The strategic reality of today is that of a Pacific-centered world order. In deference to this changing strategic reality, the US is seeking to execute a strategic pivot toward the Pacific and to formulate a grand strategy for the Pacific.
Will the Pacific see a major conflict in this century? This has become a major concern of strategists and war planners who see the world’s sole superpower — the US — challenged across the Pacific by the rising economic power of China, which may translate its economic power into military power. If the US and China come to engage in open armed conflict, the likely theater will be the Pacific, much as the US and Japan faced each other over the Pacific during the Second World War, which was the only conflict and the only theater to see major aircraft carrier engagements. Since that time, the aircraft carrier has only grown in stature as the premier instrument of force projection in the world today. China has recently begun sea trails of its first aircraft carrier, and while it is a long way from parity with US Naval strength in the Pacific, it is possible that China could begin to invest in a carrier fleet in direct competition with the US, much as the Kaiser sought to create a fleet of Dreadnaught class battleships in direct competition with the Royal Navy.
If the twenty-first century is to see a major peer-to-peer industrialized conflict, the long term causes are already in place — the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War, and the international system of nation-states that we today take to be the permanent reality of global political order — and only long term efforts could address these long term causes. Any short term causes are now in the process of formation, and we would have a realistic chance of addressing these short term causes of a future war by creating institutions that are resistant to escalation and tolerant of miscalculation. Our agency in these matters — they are ideally within our control — is a hopeful sign of the times; what is not hopeful is that efforts to constitute a world order that is resistant to escalation and tolerant of miscalculation are almost nonexistent.
If both short term and long term causes are in place, and no short term or long term initiatives are undertaken to mitigate potential causes for war, then only the trigger of a future global industrialized conflict is left to chance; the war itself is already shaped by the long term and short term causes: the weapons systems already built and fielded, the military doctrine for their employment, the alliance structure within which military action is undertaken, and the political and economic forces that shape alliances that come into play in the event of armed conflict.
Another global industrialized conflict is possible, though not likely. No one would say that it is inevitable. Much more likely are regional asymmetrical conflicts scattered across the globe, fought with whatever weapons are ready to hand, and for different reasons. There are historical forces that could escalate regional conflicts into global conflicts, and other forces that work against such an escalation. But the price of such a conflict with twenty-first century weapons would be so high that, even if the likelihood of global industrialized warfare is low, it merits our concern as an existential risk.
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Since writing the above the BBC has carried Dancing over the edge: Vienna in 1914 by Bethany Bell about the lead up to war in Central Europe, the Financial Times carried the editorial “Reflections on the Great War: World can still draw lessons from the catastrophe of 1914″ (Thursday 02 January 2014), and The Independent carried Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian by Ian Johnston.
The BBC has since added La Belle Epoque: Paris 1914 by Hugh Schofield BBC News, Paris, and Berlin 1914: A city of ambition and self-doubt by Stephen Evans BBC News, Berlin, and has a page dedicated to The World War One Centenary.
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21 January 2013
What happens when invariant civilizational properties are subjected to variation due to adaptation?
If the extraterrestrialization of human civilization is consistent with all previous human civilization, then human extraterrestrial civilization will exhibit the civilizational invariants of warfare, social hierarchy, and geographically settled communities (which I recently identified as civilizational invariants in Invariant Properties of Civilization). That is to say, there will be some form of warfare, some form of social hierarchy, and some form of geographically settled communities.
Certainly it would be remarkable if any of these norms of civilization were seriously called into question; it would be, by definition, an unprecedented circumstance, and unprecedented circumstances are historically unique upon their occurrence (even if they should become common later, after their first appearance in history).
If the necessary transition and adaptation of earth-originating human institutions to a future extraterrestrial context results in an absence (or suspension) or warfare, an absence of social hierarchy, or the absence of settled communities (or any combination of these three), then the processes of extraterrestrialization could be said to precipitate a post-civilizational successor institution, and upon the realization of such an institution humanity could be said to have entered upon a fundamentally novel form of development (and a new macro-historical period). This would be remarkable, but it is within the realm of possibility.
I have employed the example above of an extraterrestrial human civilization, but similar considerations hold for any strategic trend that might come to dominate the shape of the human future over the coming centuries. What are these possible shapes of the human future?
In earlier posts I have outlined five possible scenarios for the future, all of which involve extrapolation of known strategic trends occurring in the present (and therefore my futurism represents a kind of uniformitarianism):
● Extraterrestrialization is the expansion of human civilization beyond the surface of the earth, so that humanity ultimately becomes a majority extraterrestrial species.
● Pastoralization is the growth of conurbations and the parallel continuing depopulation of the rural countryside, in which agriculture has also been urbanized.
● Singularization is the now-familiar scenario of the technological singularity, in which humanity is superseded by its superintelligent mechanical progeny.
● Neo-Marxism is the familiar future of communism, which I have argued in many posts has not been historically falsified as usually believed, most recently in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce.
In regard to extraterrestrialization, the idiom of “space settlement” is already becoming current (in the attempt to avoid the use of the term “space colonization” because of the desire to disassociate an exciting human future from the dismal history of colonialism), but these settlements would be be a geographical location on the earth’s surface, which already marks a radical departure. However, the basic properties of settlement would likely be realized in any permanent human community off the surface of the earth. There is no reason at present to suppose that we will not bring our social hierarchies into space with us, and we already have nascent warfighting technologies for space under development, despite the efforts of the international community to de-militarize space.
In regard to Pastoralization, settlement is focused on cities, cities are likely to retain their entrenched social hierarchies, as well as their tendency to go to war with other cities, so this macro-historical development does not greatly challenge the existing paradigm of human civilization.
In regard to Singularization, human institutions disappear in the most radical scenario, which means the disappearance of human warfare, human social hierarchies, and human settlement. This represents a radical departure from the received paradigm of civilization, but we must ask next if the machines that supersede us will replicate our tendency to warfare, social hierarchy, and settlement. We cannot know this, and for this reason we cannot say that it is impossible.
In regard to Neo-Agriculturalism, here settlement remains a strong force, while I imagine those who might imagine such a future would conceive an utopian future free of warfare and social hierarchy. If an attempt were made to put such conceptions into practice it would more or less guarantee a dystopian result of horrifically magnified warfare and hierarchy.
In regard to Neo-Marxism, we have a conception of the future that is ideologically committed to the elimination of human social hierarchies, and in this sense neo-Marxism represents a strong challenge to a civilizational invariant, but we know that all attempts at constituting Marxist societies resulted in no change to social hierarchy, only the fungibility of the individuals within that hierarchy. Marxism also represents a view of the future in which, at totality, warfare would be eliminated because all reasons for war would be eliminated through just allocation of goods and services. Again, no actually existing experiment in Marxist society was free from war, so the tension between ideal and realization remains strong. Neither Marxism nor neo-Marxism calls settled society into question.
In each case of these potential macro-historical revolutions, the developments are consistent with either the retention of civilizational invariants or their abolition. In so far, then, as these macro-historical revolutions issue in specifically human civilizations (even if it is an essentially human civilization replicated by machines in our absence), the weight of history suggests that the civilizational invariants will remain largely invariant — perhaps producing a few problematic cases that represent qualifications, exceptions, or conditions that must be introduced into any exposition of civilizational invariants.
From the perspective of long-term futurism — what one might also call futurism in the context of big history — the really interesting question here would be to identify the developments of human civilization that might force a change in one or more civilization invariants, and to do so in an unambiguous way, so that what follows must be understood as a post-civilization social institution.
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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 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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6 December 2010
The first great age of Western philosophy — the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — occurred in the aftermath of war. I don’t think that this has been sufficiently appreciated. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was not the Athens that saw the foundations of the Parthenon laid, not the Athens of Pericles, not the Athens that transformed the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and not the confident (if not overweening) Athens that allowed itself to become involved in the Peloponnesian War. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a defeated Athens, an Athens that had witnessed catastrophic escalation and radicalization, had been ravaged by a plague, and was administered by a puppet government installed by the Spartans.
The Peloponnesian War was the World War of classical antiquity. There were many wars in antiquity, and many wars before the Peloponnesian War, but there was never before anything like the Peloponnesian War, when almost all the city-states of Hellas were forced to take sides in a brutal conflict that lasted almost thirty years (and more than fifty years if we count the First Peloponnesian War and the Thirty Years’ Peace). If there had been such things as nation-states in classical antiquity, the Peloponnesian War would have been the great example of a civil war. As it was, the Greeks knew that the Peloponnesian War turned Greek against Greek and father against son.
I have had occasion in other posts to quote some of the famous passages in Thucydides that describe the radicalization and brutalization that occurred as a result of the war, and since only longer extracts can do justice to the topic, I won’t repeat them here. Those of us who lived in the twentieth century know enough about radicalization and brutalization that we have some understanding of what happens to societies when war becomes a way of life. If you’re interested, you can read about the Corcyrean Revolution in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and you can read Thucydides’ descriptions of Athens and Sparta in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective. Better yet, get yourself a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War and read the whole thing.
What interests me today is the way that this great conflict shaped Western intellectual history. Before the Peloponnesian War Athens in particular and the Greeks in general were already famous for their philosophers and philosophical schools, but we note that this philosophy was largely cosmological and metaphysical. Thales said that the world was made of water, and Democritus said that there were only atoms whirling around in a void. This sort of thought, if carried on today, would be science, but in classical antiquity there was as yet no distinction between science and philosophy. One might even say that the distinction between science and philosophy begins, or at least has its roots, in the intellectual shift that happened during the Peloponnesian War.
The Golden Age of Athens had its philosophers, but it was much more famous for its poets and playwrights, its art and architecture, and its famous statesmen like Pericles. This was a vigorous culture that produced great monuments of building and literature that still astonish us today. It is thrilling even today to read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and to hear the hero contemptuously tell Hermes, “Tell your master Zeus that I hate and despise him.” Prometheus not only gave us fire, he also gave us the omertà. We Westerners recognize ourselves in this immediately; our rebelliousness is not the least of our Hellenism.
But Hellenism has a long history, and after the Peloponnesian War we do not see this confident, outward-directed energy, or the kind of overflowing vitality that made Greece (Hellas) the wonder of the world. What we do see is domestic comedy, like the New Comedy of Menander, and the emergence of moral philosophy. Socrates is the most important figure here. While Plato’s Socratic dialogues have their share of metaphysics and epistemology, the central concern is moral. The Republic is devoted to an inquiry into justice. The paradigmatic philosophical question for Socrates and Plato was, “Can virtue be taught?”
It is easy to understand, once we see this great age of philosophy in historical context, that the Greeks probably did a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of the war. One form that this soul-searching took was explicit philosophical inquiry into virtue and justice, as we find in Socrates and Plato. The radicalization and homicidal fury that Thucydides described, while it is all-too-real in the moment, cannot last. Tempers run high in war, but eventually the war ends, tempers cool, even if bitterness remains, and thoughtful men reflect on their deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps they even say to themselves as Nietzsche said, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.”
In several posts I have written about what some historians call the Axial Age, in which the world’s great mythological traditions had their origins and formative years. The Axial Age of Greece was the heroic age, even before the Golden Age of Athens. The formation of axial age mythology was, in a sense, the intellectual background to the Peloponnesian War, and following the ravages of the world, a novel and different kind of intellectual activity emerges. As I have suggested that civilizations undergo a process that we may call axialization once they reach a certain stage of maturity, we can also posit a process of philosophicalization when this mature form of civilization reaps the wind after having sown the whirlwind in mythological enthusiasm.
We find ourselves today in the aftermath of war — the aftermath of the Cold War. The Cold War was a long conflict fought on many fronts, through several proxy wars, between ideological enemies. Despite being a long contest, of the sort from which we do not expect a clear winner to emerge, in fact it was settled decisively in favor of one of the agents to the conflict. All of these things the Cold War has in common with the Peloponnesian War: its length, the many proxy wars fought by allies putatively aligned with one side or the other, the clear ideological difference between traditionalist Sparta and democratic Athens, and the decisive outcome.
We think in the aftermath of the Cold War as the Greeks thought in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, in terms of the structural influences that our civilization brings to bear on us. If we were to produce another Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, it might all be worth it.
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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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