A Clausewitzean Meditation on Memorial Day
As a day of remembrance that often highlights the sacrifices of the military, there is a sense in which it is eminently appropriate to write about Clausewitz today. In yesterday’s Another Book that Changed the World I discussed Hew Strachan’s Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography. Today I should like to further pursue some Clausewitzian themes.
In Anatol Rapoport’s Introduction to the widely available Penguin abridgment of On War, Rapoport distinguishes three philosophies of war which he calls the political, the eschatological, and the cataclysmic. I would rather call these three conceptions of war — conceptions that can be illuminated by philosophical analysis — but I won’t quibble over this at present. Rapoport gives Clausewitz as the paradigmatic representative of political war, characterizes eschatological war as a messianic conception with both sacred and secular variants, and describes the cataclysmic conception of war as something akin to a natural disaster like a fire or an epidemic.
Rapoport cites no figures comparable to Clausewitz as philosophers of war who have formulated an eschatological or cataclysmic conception of war, though for the latter it is not difficult to find a reference. In the letter I quoted yesterday that W. T. Sherman sent to the City Council of Atlanta on 12 September 1864, Sherman wrote:
You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.
The comparison of war to the inevitability of a thunder-storm classes Sherman amongst the cataclysmic philosophers of war.
In Rapoport’s exposition of these three philosophies of war, war appears as an event that “happens,” interrupting the “ordinary” and “normal” condition of peace that prevails, or ought to prevail, and it is clearly implied that something must be done to “explain” the outbreak of war. Why not rather explain the outbreak of “peace”? In what sense can we consider peace to be a norm that is shattered by the outbreak of war? In fact, it is not. War is no less the norm than peace.
Such assumptions are foreign to Clausewitz’s theoretical framework. The famous aphorism that is associated with Clausewitz, “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” (Book I, Chapter I, 24) proposes a continuity between state policy and war, and this is as much as to propose a continuity of war and peace. There is not only a continuity of the genesis of war of peace, but a continuum that bridges the apparent gap between war and peace, and the actions and policies of most nation-states can be located somewhere along this continuum while only rarely would it be accurate to say that they unambiguously should be classed at one extreme pole or the other of a smoothly graduated continuum.
Clausewitz wrote (On War, Book I, Chapter I, 3):
“If the Wars of civilised people are less cruel and destructive than those of savages, the difference arises from the social condition both of States in themselves and in their relations to each other. Out of this social condition and its relations War arises, and by it War is subjected to conditions, is controlled and modified. But these things do not belong to War itself; they are only given conditions; and to introduce into the philosophy of War itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.”
Clausewitz was wrong about war being crueler among savages; anthropological research since his time has shown definitively that war is far more costly in lives and materiel among so-called “civilized” peoples, but the important idea here for Clausewitz is that war is subject to, and shaped by, social conditions (something that I discussed in Civilization and War as Social Technologies).
Clausewitz makes the point again (On War, Book I, Chapter III, 3):
“…War belongs not to the province of Arts and Sciences, but to the province of social life. It is a conflict of great interests which is settled by bloodshed, and only in that is it different from others. It would be better, instead of comparing it with any Art, to liken it to business competition, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities; and it is still more like State policy, which again, on its part, may be looked upon as a kind of business competition on a great scale. Besides, State policy is the womb in which War is developed, in which its outlines lie hidden in a rudimentary state, like the qualities of living creatures in their germs.”
As I noted yesterday, for Clausewitz, war is a form of social organization, a form of social technology, that is integral with other forms of social technology (these are my terms, not Clausewitz’s terms). War is an extension of social custom to violence, but, as Clausewitz and Sherman note, the violence cannot ultimately be limited. To limit the scope of violence in war is to leave open the possibility to another party to the conflict not observing these limits and thus triumphing by default.
We see clearly in the integral nature of war and peace within a political continuum Clausewitz’s dialectical conception of war. The Clausewitzian dialectic is equally present in the interrelation of violence and social custom.
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