Sunday


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At present I am listening to Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography, by Hew Strachan. Earlier in this forum I commented on two other volumes in the series “Books that Changed the World” published by Grove/Atlantic and released as a book on CD by Tantor Audio. The other two books were Francis Wheen’s book on Marx’s Das Kapital and Christopher Hitchens book on Paine’s The Rights of Man.

Of these three works, I definitely like this Strachan book on Clausewitz best, and it is the most scholarly and the most carefully focused on the eponymous book that is the pretext of the task of the series. Strachan discusses the textual history of On War and also goes into the details of some of Clausewitz’s terminology and its translation in English, which is both problematic and, because it is problematic, interesting. The above-mentioned books on Paine and Marx did not tightly focus on the textual history and terminology of the works in question but primarily sought to place the books in historical context.

Recently in Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism I said that the industrial revolution came relatively late to war. It could also be said that the Enlightenment came relatively late to war, and Clausewitz is the representative of the Enlightenment for war. Clausewitz stands in relation to bringing the Enlightenment conception of scientific knowledge to war as before him Newton stood in relation to physics, Adam Smith stood in relation to economics, and Gibbon stood in relation to history. After Clausewitz, Darwin similarly stood in relation to biology and Freud to psychiatry.

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It has been instructive to listen to this book about Clausewitz not long after having listened several times through to Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror. I praised Carr’s book for its thoughtfulness, though I disagreed with much of it (cf. Terrorism and the evolution of technology and Mass War and Mass Man). Carr was highly critical of Clausewitz, and the portrait of Clausewitz painted by Strachan truly brings out many of the features that Carr most strongly criticized, especially Clausewitz’s emphasis upon a “strategy of annihiliation” in war. For Carr, this stigmatizes Clausewitz as “non-progressive.”

I had assumed, when listening to Carr’s book, that there had to be another side to Clausewitz than that criticized by Carr, and now it appears to me that Clausewitz’s “strategy of annihilation” can be interpreted as an aspect of his Enlightenment outlook. Forcing a war or campaign to a decisive battle that settles the outcome of the conflict could be considered the military equivalent of the experimentum crusis in science.

Moreover, Clausewitz rightly observes that if battle is reduced to maneuver, eventually someone will come along and cut off our arms with a sharp sword. The message here, as I understand it, is that war is thoroughly integral with human social organization (I’ll come back to this in a later post), and as such over time it becomes civilized and refined. War becomes just another social technology of organization. But this can only happen in a relatively closed system in which certain social conventions are rigorously observed. When some force comes in from the outside — Mongols or barbarians or what have you — and they do not choose to observe the social niceties that have evolved within the closed civilized system in question, the sheer brutality of the onslaught in likely to crush all before it.

This is also what I take to be the idea behind a famous passage from W. T. Sherman’s letter to the City Council of Atlanta of 12 September 1864 (if my memory serves, Carr quoted this passage with disapprobation, noting its consonance with Clausewitz):

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.”

Thus a nation-state that cultivates war as anything less than a strategy of annihilation courts its own annihilation. Anything so forthright must inevitably be controversial today, and Clausewitz’s concept of a “strategy of annihilation” may sound little different from a “war of extermination.” Indeed Strachan explicitly addresses the terminology that Clausewitz employed for this conception and the possibility of translating Clausewitz in terms of “extermination” instead of “annihilation.” I recommend this discussion to the interested reader.

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Mass War and Mass Man

27 April 2009

Monday


marx4

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.

a-savage-war-of-peace

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.

firestorm

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.

"What will happen once the authentic mass man takes over, we do not know yet, although it may be a fair guess that he will have more in common with the meticulous, calculated correctness of Himmler than with the hysterical fanaticism of Hitler, will more resemble the stubborn dullness of Molotov than the sensual vindictive cruelty of Stalin." Hannah Arendt

"What will happen once the authentic mass man takes over, we do not know yet, although it may be a fair guess that he will have more in common with the meticulous, calculated correctness of Himmler than with the hysterical fanaticism of Hitler, will more resemble the stubborn dullness of Molotov than the sensual vindictive cruelty of Stalin." Hannah Arendt

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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