The Possible War

25 June 2011


One of my favorite passages from Nietzsche is the opening of his Preface in his On the Genealogy of Morals, where he writes:

We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge — and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves — how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves? It has rightly been said: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”; our treasure is where the beehives of our knowledge are. We are constantly making for them, being by nature winged creatures and honey-gatherers of the spirit; there is one thing alone we really care about from the heart — “bringing something home.”

Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Preface, section 1

Nietzsche continues with this apiary theme later in the same Preface:

…out of my answers there grew new questions, inquiries, conjectures, probabilities — until at length I had a country of my own, a soil of my own, an entire discrete, thriving, flourishing world, like a secret garden the existence of which no one suspected. –Oh how fortunate we are, we men of knowledge, provided only that we know now to keep silent long enough!

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Preface, section 3

I know this feeling, and have experienced it many times myself. Anyone who thinks for years in isolation is likely to cultivate just such a secret garden and to silently enjoy its pleasures.

Keeping a garden, however, is more than the cultivation of rare and exotic varieties of plant life; perhaps the greater part of the gardener’s time is devoted to weeding out his beds of unwelcome invasive species. So too with we men of knowledge, we honey-gatherers of the spirit: we not only gather honey and bring it home, but we must also tend the hive.

Weeding the garden and tending the hive for us means guarding against growths that occur naturally enough but which must nevertheless be systematically eradicated in order for the plants of our secret garden to take root, to grow, and the flourish. If we are thorough, we can remove these unwelcome growths, these weeds of the spirit, by the root, but mostly we must come back to our secret garden, time and again, pulling the weeds and clearing the soil.

In scientific thought, our preparation of the beds of our secret garden means beginning with methodological naturalism. But it is not good enough merely to begin with methodological naturalism; we must return time and again to the roots of our thought, and eradicate time and again the pre-scientific growths that threaten to crowd out our methodological naturalism.

Thinking scientifically about war also requires methodological naturalism, and here too we must return time and again to the roots of our thought to weed away the natural children of the soil so that the particular plant varieties we wish to cultivate can grown unimpeded.

What are the weeds of the spirit that threaten to crowd out methodological naturalism? The two particularly on my mind today are idealization and teleology. I have written about teleological thinking on many occasions, so at present I will have more to say about idealization. As I noted above, it is not good enough to begin free of teleology and idealization; we must return to the roots of our thought and root them out time and again, because the human mind all to easily reverts to its lazy habits of thinking in terms of purpose and abstractions. Teleology interprets the world in terms of purposes; idealization interprets the world in terms of abstractions. Philosophical maturity means dispensing with both purposes and abstractions, hence rooting out the teleology and idealization that beget them.

What has any of this to do with war? Simply this: we fight possible wars, and not impossible wars, or ideal wars, or perfect wars. This seems too obvious to bother to say, but if we closely examine some criticisms of the ways in which wars are waged there is often an implicit reference to an ideal war (as strange as that sounds) that might have been waged in place of the actual war that was in fact waged. In circumstances such as this, I say that the actual war that was fought was the war that was possible under the given circumstances. Hence this was the possible war.

If we let down our conceptual guard for a moment, we are apt to allow purposes and abstractions creep back into our thinking, including our strategic thinking about war. And every time we allow this to happen, we think in terms of empty concepts and categories rather than actual, concrete circumstances. And nothing is more important for strategic thinking than to remain committed to the concrete, the particular, the circumstantial, and the contingent.

What do I mean by allowing idealization to creep into strategic thought? Here is one concrete example: in recent years a number of historians and moralists have called into question the strategic bombing campaign waged over Germany during the Second World War. It is often said that the only reason allied commanders were not prosecuted for war crimes as a result of the strategic bombing campaign was victor’s justice that overlooked the sins of the victorious Allies while punishing the defeated Axis powers. While these claims are being made openly now, they are not new. Even immediately after the war there was a visceral reaction to leveling of Germany, and “Bomber” Harris who directed the campaign felt the need to escape to South Africa to avoid the stigma attached to his actions by his own countrymen.

Why did the Allies (the UK at night, and the US by day) engage in the brutal strategic bombing campaign over Nazi Germany? The answer is simple: this was the possible war. Germany had declared war on two fronts, east and west, and for a time only the UK seemed to stand against Hitler. What was Britain to do? They struck back in the only way that was open to them to strike back. Hence the strategic bombing campaign. This was the possible war; at that time, no other war was possible, and war against the Germans was deemed necessary at any cost.

The US War of Independence was in most ways a possible war and not an ideal war. The colonies declared their independence, and once Britain sent ships and troops to put down the rebellion, the colonists had to fight in any way that they could. The Continental Army went from defeat to defeat, and there was little that the glorious about it, but it was the possible war.

The guerrilla wars that multiplied in the twentieth century and continue now in the twenty-first century are possible wars. If a people decides that war must be waged, but have not the resources for peer-to-peer competition, they do not on that account give up the fight and go home. They wage the possible war. They wage the only war that is open to this. And from this imperative emerges the asymmetrical tactics that more and more absorb the attention of military commanders.

It is all too easy to say that people ought to wage this or that kind of war, but these are idealizations. The conditions under which “ideal” wars can be waged usually do not obtain, and so the actual wars that are waged depart from the ideal. As long as we have purged superfluous idealizing tendencies from our thought, we will not be greatly troubled by the unkempt possibilities, as though always comparing them to a non-existent ideal. Methodological naturalism in strategic thinking demands that we do so.

What I have written here regarding idealization holds, mutatis mutandis, for teleological thought in strategic thinking. But I leave that for another time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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