Azerbaijani legionnaire from the 804th Azerbaijani infantry battalion

The Second World War will be studied by historians as long as human civilization endures, since the scope and scale of the conflict puts it in a class by itself, but what kind of war was it? What kind of war was the Second World War? It is a deceptively simple question, since it implies that there is some kind of taxonomy of warfare, and that the Second World War neatly fits into some taxon. Thus the question implicitly appeals to theories of war that remain unstated in the question. One could relativize the inquiry with some formulation like, “According to a Marxist perspective, what kind of war was the Second World War?” This would at least make our theoretical framework explicit, and would narrow the inquiry to a manageable scope. I’m going to tackle the subject in an open-ended way, without doing this.

A North African soldier from the Free Arabian Legion and a Cossack volunteer.

Some years ago I formulated a taxonomy of war (largely building on the ideas of Anatol Rapoport) that schematically distinguished between political war (human agency), eschatological war (non-human agency), catastrophic war (human non-agency), and naturalistic war (non-human non-agency) — I didn’t systematically develop this schema in relation to war to the point of writing a post on each kind of war, but cf. More on Clausewitz, Three Conceptions of History, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception (every conception of history implies a conception of war, and vice versa; moreover, every conception of war implies a conception of civilization, and vice versa). While this schematism possesses an enviable neatness (when systematically laid out), in retrospect it appears to me as being a bit too neat, and therefore not always helpfully reflective of the messiness of the actual world. And war is perhaps the messiest manifestation of the actual world.

Soldiers of the Free Indian Legion of the German Army, with a Luftwaffe Member, 1944.

If we abandon the attempt to explicitly formulate a taxonomy, we can distinguish wars of conquest, imperialist wars, resource wars, geostrategic wars, ideological wars, genocidal wars or wars of extermination, and so on. This grab bag of classifications is not unlike our classifications of science — empirical science, natural science, physical science, social science, historical science, and so on — in so far as there is no overarching conception that systematically relates the parts to each other and to the whole. For a messy world, there is a certain inevitability to messy systems of classification, but our taxonomies of classification should be no more messy than is absolutely necessary. Knowledge inevitably involves imposing a template on the messiness of actuality in order to organize our experience rationally and coherently, so that the more systematic our organization of experience, the more knowledge we could be said to possess of this experience. Taxonomies of war seek to systematically organize our experience of war into knowledge of war, and from knowledge of war comes efficacy in waging war.

The Clausewitzean approach is to define war and then to refine and elaborate the definition in order to illuminate the nature of war, rather than to converge upon a taxonomy of kinds of war. In Book Two, Chapter One of On War, Clausewitz does discuss the classification of war, and Clausewitz did note some kinds of war, for example, his distinction between absolute and real war. In Book Eight of On War Clausewitz comes to focus on the outcomes of war as persistently as he focused on the definition of war in Book One, and in focusing on outcomes Clausewitz distinguished between real war and absolute war, which latter is often assimilated to Erich Ludendorff’s conception of “totale Krieg”. (An interesting discussion of this can be found in “The Idea of Total War: From Clausewitz to Ludendorff” by Jan Willem Honig; also cf. “Controversy: Total War” by Daniel Marc Segesser.)

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-295-1560-22, Nordfrankreich, Turkmenische Freiwillige, photograph by Karl Müller

Real war, for Clausewitz (and in contradistinction to absolute war), is what we today would call limited war, but absolute war is the paradigm of war and the criterion against which any other conception must be measured, here expressed in the context of Clausewitz’s political conception of war: “If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form.” (Book Eight, Chapter 6, B) However, no great emphasis is given to the classification of war in Clausewitz. This has left taxonomies of war underdeveloped in the post-Clausewitzean literature. If Carnap was correct that scientific concepts develop from taxonomic (classificatory), through comparative, to quantitative concepts (though we are under no obligation to accept this schema of scientific development, but at least it offers a framework), then the underdevelopment of taxonomic concepts for warfare represents a failure in the development of a truly scientific understanding of war.

We can adopt the Clausewitzean approach and begin with a definition of war, which then defines the class of all wars, and then we can decompose the class of all wars into subclasses that define kinds of war. Any good taxonomy (by which I mean any taxonomy useful and fruitful for research) will involve a schematization of a complex and ambiguous reality that results in simplification. One of the most difficult aspects of scientific abstraction is finding the “just right” point between too much fidelity to empirical fact, which makes schematization impossible, and over-simplification, which falsifies empirical reality to an unhelpful extent. Ideally we would want a principled classification that decomposes all wars into a finite number of classes, each of which is mutually exclusive of the others, and each of which exemplifies an unambiguous idea. The ideal of classification is rarely realized, so we are often thrown back on a classification based on contingent properties. There are several contingent properties that characterize the Second World War and so furnish us with the most familiar, even if not rigorous, classifications. These contingent properties do not result in mutually-exclusive, non-overlapping classes, which means that there is overlap among kinds of wars. The Second World War was an industrialized war, but the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War were also industrialized wars. It was a planetary-scale war, but The Seven Years’ War and the First World War were also both planetary-scale wars. From the Second World War being a planetary-scale war it follows that it was a war fought on multiple fronts and in multiple theaters among a wide variety of combatants drawn from many nation-states. The Second World War was more a war of maneuver than attrition, more about offense and initiative than defense and stagnation. In this it differs significantly from the First World War, but resembles the Napoleonic Wars.

Beyond a haphazard classification of war by overlapping contingent properties, there are reflective taxonomies that seek to organize our knowledge of war around principles of war, but which embody no overarching conception that unifies the principles employed. This is the status of Anatol Rapoport’s distinction among political, eschatological, and cataclysmic philosophies of war, mentioned above (but which I developed in accordance with an overarching conception of agency). Another example can be found in Ian Clark’s Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (pp. 19-23), which distinguishes six concepts of war, as follows (the headings below are Clark’s, but the explanations and commentaries that follow each heading are mine), and which I will examine in relation to planetary-scale warfare:

War as instinctive violence — This could be called the evolutionary or biological conception of war. As Freud once wrote, “…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.” This was written long before evolutionary psychology had been formulated, but further work in evolution, biology, and psychology has underlined Freud’s assertion with voluminous evidence, including something like war fought among chimpanzees in the wild. If human beings are instinctively violent, then it should not be surprising that human beings organized by civilization should engage in organized violence on a scale proportional to their organization, and this is what was exhibited in the global industrialized wars of the twentieth century.

War as divination or legal trial — We could also call this “war as a decision procedure.” In so far as the decision procedure of war invokes divine sanction on its side, it also becomes an eschatological war, but it is at least arguable that its eschatological character is epiphenomenal in the context of war as a decision procedure. The point is to settle a dispute, and in so far as war has a decisive outcome (which is not always the case), the dispute is settled and the procedure of war has yielded a decision. In the case of a planetary-scale war of multiple theaters, there are multiple decisions simultaneously in pursuit of decision, and it cannot be expected that all of these outcomes will be decisive. This implies that planetary-scale war rarely if ever achieves an outcome that largely decides outstanding issues, hence the Second World War was followed by the Cold War.

War as disease — This closely corresponds to what Anatol Rapoport called the cataclysmic philosophy of war, but Clark makes a distinction between war as disease and war as cataclysm: a disease can be cured, whereas a cataclysm usually cannot be prevented, so that mitigation efforts focus instead on limiting the damage and cleaning up after the fact. War as disease suggests a cure, and is therefore an abolitionist conception, but it also suggests the possibility of pandemic. If human beings, or human societies, are infected with the disease of war, then war will be spread like a disease, and at times that disease will take on the properties of a pandemic. War understood as a pandemic is planetary-scale war of planetary-scale civilization.

War and social change — Clark glosses war as social change as war being either a measure or a means of social change. Although Clark mentions Comte and Schumpeter (focusing on economic development), this is essentially a Hegelian conception (or, if you prefer, a Marxist conception), since it is conflict that pushes the social dialectic forward; we cannot make social change without fulfilling all of the steps of the dialectic. If we look how far we have come, driven by conflict, it appears as a metric of that development; if look forward to social change yet to come, conflict appears as the means by which such change can be brought about. If we look forward to a planetary civilization, then only a planetary-scale dialectic, which involves planetary-scale war, can secure that end. This was once made very clear in some varieties of Marxism, which insisted that the peace of the communist millennium could come only after the world entire had experienced proletarian revolution and the planet entire has been unified on communist economic principles.

War as a political instrument of the state — This conception perfectly embodies the political philosophy of war, which we usually identify with the work of Clausewitz. For the political conception of war to culminate in a planetary-scale war, the political framework must be planetary, and this planetary-scale political framework has been taking shape since the Age of Discovery, with the industrial revolution providing the technological means for effectively acting on a planetary scale at human time scales. It could be argued that it was only the twentieth century that this framework and its means came to maturity, and as soon as this maturity was achieved, planetary-scale wars were waged. This argument, however, minimizes the role of human agency (it makes war look as inevitable as a violent instinct), which agency is one of the key features of the conception of war as a political instrument. In other words, there is an interesting overlap between the most agency-centered conception of war and the least agent-centered conceptions of war.

War as regulator of the international system — This might also be called war as the invisible hand, as the parties waging war are, by waging war, performing a function that restores the balance of power, though through no intention or plan of the parties to the conflict (Clark does not make this connection). If war is waged as the action of the invisible hand of the international system to maintain its own viability and stability, then we would also expect instances of “market failure” in which the invisible hand ceased to function. In cases of political failure (say, the failure of conception of war as a political instrument, above), the wars waged in the wake of political failure would fail to restore balance of power and confer viability and stability on the international system, cascading into planetary-scale war now free of the mechanisms that had once governed its scale and conduct (being much like the concept of war as a disease).

In the above taxonomy, there is no obvious place for what Rapoport called the eschatological philosophy of war, except as briefly mentioned under war as divination, where the eschatological aspect is epiphenomenal. We could place eschatological war under instinct or divination or elsewhere; the point isn’t to find a place for it, but to point out how haphazard taxonomies usually miss something important and fail to fully clarify that which they exhibit as central. Still, some attempt to give order to our experience is better than no attempt at all. Sometimes the only way to proceed is to work with a haphazard framework, revising and refining it with further experience and evidence, until either it converges on an effective taxonomy, or the additional experience and evidence forces a model crisis and a paradigm shift, with a new taxonomy emerging from the paradigm shift.

As the largest war of human history in scope and scale, the Second World War was also the messiest war, and therefore the most difficult to classify, but in hindsight (because of its salience in our consciousness of war) it has become a war understood in schematic terms in which the messiness is progressively erased from historical memory. Even the Cold War, in all its complexity, was simpler than the Second World War, because of the planetary-scale division between the US and the USSR was, at its basis, an us-against-them conflict, and could be reduced to this schematic dyad. The Second World War cannot be reduced to a dyad; it was a war with many fronts, many theaters, many belligerents, and many motivations for participation. When Nazi Germany set its war machine in motion and it was evident to all that this was a formidable force, there was probably a strong sense of inevitability about ultimate German victory in the war. When Poland and France had fallen and the British had retreated at Dunkirk without any means of striking the Germans except for their long-ranger bombers, and with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact keeping the Soviet Union out of the war, “Fortress Europe” looked secure, and the burden fell upon those on the outside Fortress Europe to penetrate its defenses. When the Allies did begin to penetrate the defenses of Fortress Europe, and the Soviet Union entered the war after Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had to seek more manpower for their armies.

Bosnian soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Handschar”

It was a relatively straight-forward matter to recruit from Soviet and Soviet bloc POWs, as many of them were passionately anti-Bolshevik and had no love for the Soviet Union. Promised the opportunity to fight for the freedom their native homelands from Soviet tyranny, many joined. These volunteers were opportunistic, not ideological. The volunteers from western European nation-states, by contrast, were more ideologically driven, though not always in the way one might guess. There were two Waffen-SS divisions of Scandinavian volunteers, the 5th Wiking and the 11th Nordland, and the different circumstances of the Scandinavian nation-states, which were very different indeed, influenced the character of the volunteers for Germany. The Finns fought the Russians in the Winter War of 1939, and thousands of Swedes volunteered to fight in Finland against the Russians, so when Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and went to war with the Russians, Finland became an ally of Germany (until the Moscow Armistice of 19 September 1944), one of the Axis powers, and Finland then became a “pipeline” for fighters to join the Axis cause. Sweden remained resolutely neutral throughout the war, but Norway was occupied up until the very end, and occupied Norway was governed by Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with treachery. Quisling was an interesting figure, as he was not an opportunistic fascist nor even an anti-Semitic fascist; Quisling belonged more to ideological fascism, and even to the mystical and esoteric side of Nazism; one suspects he would have been much more comfortable with Heidegger than with Hitler or Himmler.

Soldiers of the Turkestan Legion.

The German use of foreign legions was no doubt utterly cynical, which is to say, it was pragmatic; it was equally cynical (i.e., equally opportunistic) on the part of those who sought to hitch their wagon to a star by jumping on the bandwagon of what seemed to be the most powerful military force on the planet. The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor, argued that Hitler himself was an opportunist, not driven by fanaticism or an insane lust for destruction, but was responding to geopolitical imperatives to which any German politician would have had to answer. Taylor’s book was controversial in the extreme (the response to it was not unlike the intensity of the response to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), and only time will tell its eventual reputation. Taylor’s arguments aside, we should question the idea that any war — and most especially a war as large and as complex as the Second World World — must be pigeon-holed as one and only one kind of conflict. There is the possibility that a war might be one kind of war for one of the combatants, and another kind of war entirely for another of the combatants. This is most obviously the case when a war of extermination on the part of one party to a conflict is a war of survival for the other party; those fighting only to survive need not exterminate their rivals, though they may well come to desire this end. However, it also can be the case that, when an ideological war is being fought by two or more parties of the conflict, other parties join the conflict for opportunistic reasons. This was manifestly the case during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were locked in an ideological struggle, but third world proxy wars which the great powers attempted to contain within ideological bounds inevitably became mired both in local struggles as well as opportunistic conflicts.

Chiang Wei-kuo, adopted son of Chiang Kai-shek, attended a German military academy and commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

Because of the diversity and multiplicity of war, there is no unity and clarity of purpose at the largest scales. For a fire team of soldiers caught in a skirmish, there is perfect unity and clarity of purpose, but this purpose doesn’t scale beyond a certain limit. The grand strategies of nation-states, kingdoms, and other political agents, constitute clarity of purpose in so far as the grand strategies themselves are clear, and impose a measure of clarity on those wars that have their origins in grand strategy, but, once a war has started, the grand strategy of any one of the parties to the conflict cannot contain the conflict within the grand strategy parameters of the originating party. The grand strategy can continue to guide developments in a war as it progresses, and so can confer a rough directionality on the conflict, but even this directionality can evaporate if the political agent attempting to pursue its grand strategy begins to lose the conflict. Precisely this occurred in the Second World War. The ideological aims of the Nazi party were rendered ambiguous by the growing scale of the conflict, and eventually become meaningless. Whether the ideological aims of political parties were ever causes of events, or whether they were, rather, responses to events — symptoms of a disease, as it were — may be a chicken-and-egg problem.

Original caption: “Treu der Kosaken-Tradition Oberfeldwebel Nicolas Balanowski, kämpft wie viele seiner Landsleute, in den Reihen der landeseigenen Verbände gegen seine früheren Unterdrücker, den Bolschewisten. Getreu der alten Kosakentradition, trägt er noch immer die Kosaken-Mütze.” In English: “True to the Cossack tradition, Sergeant Nicolas Balanowski, like many of his compatriots, fights in the ranks of the state’s associations against his former oppressors, the Bolsheviks. True to the old Cossack tradition, he still wears the Cossack hat.”

The Second World War was many wars — Theodore Ropp wrote that, “The Second World War consisted of four related major wars, each presenting separate military-political problems.” (War in the Modern World, New York: Collier, 1971, p. 314) — and these many wars of the Second World war each had a distinctive character, hence even more diversity and multiplicity than are typically to be found in smaller conflicts. On the western front, it was a straight-forward political war of the kind that had repeatedly erupted between Germany and France; on the eastern front it was a war of extermination, not unlike the German campaign in German Southwest Africa or the British campaign against the Boers during the Boer War. On the northern front, it was a static war of occupation in Norway, while on the North African front it was a mobile war of mechanized armor against mechanized armor, and in the Pacific Theater further complexities were added by the multiplicity of colonial powers and their subject peoples who were involved.

One useful distinction that can be made among kinds of war is that between methods of war on the one hand, and, on the other hand, kinds of war based on causes and objectives (which, for purposes of brevity, I will call causal taxonomies). In my post Hybrid Warfare I included a list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO — Antisubmarine Warfare, Biological Warfare, Chemical Warfare, Directed-Energy Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, Irregular Warfare, Mine Warfare (also called Land Mine Warfare), Multinational Warfare, Naval Coastal Warfare, Naval Expeditionary Warfare, Naval Special Warfare, Nuclear Warfare (also called Atomic Warfare), Surface Warfare, Unconventional Warfare, and Under Sea Warfare — all of which are methods of warfare, constituting a methodological taxonomy. Needless to say, the US DOD and NATO do not recognize wars of extermination as a distinct mode of warfare, but it could be conceived as such. More importantly, these methods of war tell us very little about causal taxonomies of war, even when methods and outcomes are mutually implicated (as in genocidal wars of extermination). The taxonomy of war employed by Ian Clark, discussed above, clearly draws a connection between methodological taxonomies and causal taxonomies, as each kind of war suggests methods of waging war, or methods of mitigating war, but for Clark, as I read him, it is the causal taxonomies that are fundamental, and the methods of waging war follow from these causal imperatives. Methodological taxonomies may satisfy war planners and unify soldiers and command structures, but they do not touch on the motivations of the mass societies of planetary civilization to wage war.

Planetary-scale war like the Second World War was not possible until there was planetary-scale civilization. The planetary-scale war that was the Second World War was both enabled by planetary-scale civilization and ultimately extended planetary-scale civilization (suggesting Clark’s war as social change), as became clear in the post-war period when there was a new impetus to create planetary institutions — the UN, the EU, and eventually the WTO and the World Criminal Court, inter alia. As I have argued on many occasions, our planetary-scale civilization is not politically or legally unified, although it is culturally, technologically, economically, and scientifically unified. Within a planetary-scale civilization, Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis is meaningless, and therefore stillborn. On a planet well on the way to integrating planetary-scale civilization there could be wars that break out between and among partially assimilated remnants of civilizations (formerly isolated regional civilization), which would constitute the trailing edge of Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and which latter could be said to have peaked in the 16th or 17th century. In this planetary context one can certainly imagine conflicts over control of Makinder’s world-island (“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the World.”), which would be essentially planetary-scale wars with planetary-scale methods and objectives, but which were not wars breaking out along the fault lines of civilizations.

Another way to think about wars in terms of outcomes (causal taxonomies) is that at least part of what makes a war the kind of war that it is, is the kind of peace that is possible following upon the end of the war (the actual outcome in contradistinction to the envisioned outcome, i.e., the war aim). While a war may begin with clear war aims, the war itself may cloud these war aims or make their achievement impossible, so that the actual outcome of the war is no longer recognizably related to the war aims of any of the parties to the conflict at the initiation of hostilities. In the case of the Second World War, the peace that followed was itself a war: the Cold War. Planetary-scale peace at the end of planetary-scale war came at the cost of small-scale regional wars and an arms race on a planetary scale. The decisive defeat of the Axis Powers was an unambiguously achieved war aim, but it was achieved by allies that were as ideologically opposed to each other as they were opposed to the Axis Powers. This set the stage for the conflicts to follow. Peace and reconstruction was geographically regional (not on a planetary scale, like the war itself) and was ideologically driven to a much greater extent than the pragmatic conduct of the war itself. Before the war was over Ernst Jünger had written, “It may safely be said that this war has been humanity’s first joint effort. The peace that ends it must be the second.” (The Peace, Hinsdale: Henry Regnery, 1948, p. 19) This was not to be the case, though FDR and the US tried to realize this ideal.

Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt in Paris.

A familiar narrative (especially to Americans) is that the Second World War was “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” (i.e., it was a just war, to invoke an Augustinian conception). This propagandistic conception of the Second World War is, in a sense, the mirror image of the Second World War as a great ideological conflict between lofty ideals on the one hand, and, on the other hand, naked evil, belies the pragmatism with which the war was fought and alliances were made, in which the war was rather a conflict driven by geopolitical imperatives — admittedly, geopolitical concerns extrapolated to a planetary scale, but still a conflict more about the distribution of ocean basins and mountain ranges than about ideology. The narrative of the Second World War as “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” elides the catastrophic policy failures of both the First and Second World Wars, and the peace settlements that followed upon them, which were arguably invidious to the grand strategies of the western nation-states. The Cold War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the Second World War in the same way that the Second World War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the First World War. However, it is at least arguable that the Cold War was fought more effectively than the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The General Assembly of the United Nations Convenes for the first time on 10 January 1946 in London.

The ability of human beings to conceptualize and to act upon planetary-scale ideals is noble and inspiring, but a failure to distinguish between ideals that can be brought into being at the present, and ideals that must wait for another time, when conditions are right for their realization, constitutes a failure of wisdom at least proportional to nobility of conceptualizing an unattainable ideal. When Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919, and when FDR traveled to Yalta in 1945, both American presidents were prepared to make major strategic concessions in order to bring robust international institutions into being, and this willingness to sacrifice US national interests to a larger vision for peace on a planetary scale, following upon war on a planetary scale, put the US at a disadvantage. The outcome could well have been better for all if these presidents had exclusively focused on US national interests and the national interests of US allies rather than upon a trans-national ideal. Other parties to the negotiations in Paris and Yalta cannot be blamed for taking advantage of US willingness to bargain away its interests, and the interests of its allies, in order to secure the future of international institutions, which no one else took seriously. Of course, it must also be noted that both Wilson and FDR believed that the successful implementation of these international institutions would be in the strategic interest of the US, and many would argue that the US, as the leading post-war international power, got at least part of what it bargained for in the form of international institutions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Discord Invitation

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franklin quote

It is often said that there has never been a good war or a bad peace. I disagree with this. There have been many periods of human history that have been called peaceful but which have not constituted peace worthy of the name. We must allow at least the possibility that if a short, decisive war can bring a rapid end to a peace not worthy of the name, and substitute for this something more closely approximating an ideal peace, then such a war would not necessarily be a bad thing. I am not making the claim that such a situation is often exemplified in human history (i.e., “good” wars are not often exemplified, although history has many examples of a bad peace), nor even that when such a condition obtains that it is recognizable by us, but only that it is possible that such a condition obtains.

Yet to focus on war and peace as though they were polar opposites is likely to be counter-productive because misleading. War and peace are related in a way not unlike love and hatred. As we have all heard, it is indifference that is the antithesis of love, not hate. In other words, war and peace lie along a continuum, and a continuum is characterized by a smooth gradation between to opposed states. And so the complexity of history often reveals to us the smooth, imperceptible gradation between war and peace. In escalation, we have the gradual transition from peace to war, and in deescalation we have the gradual transition from war to peace.

The dialectic of war and peace, unfolding as the pendulum of history swings between the poles of war and peace, yields distinct species of war and peace as the development of history forces the realization of each polar concept in turn to take novel forms in the light of unprecedented historical developments. I have elsewhere argued that war is likely an ineradicable feature of civilization (cf. Invariant Properties of Civilization), i.e., the two — war and peace — are locked together in a co-evolutionary spiral so that you cannot have the one without the other.

We would like to think that peace is the equilibrium state to which society returns, and in which equilibrium it remains until this equilibrium is disturbed by war, and that war is a disequilibrium condition which must inevitably give way to the equilibrium condition of peace. This is wishful thinking. Of course, if one is dedicated to this idea one can certainly interpret history in this way, but the fit between the interpretation and the facts is not a good one, and considerable hermeneutical ingenuity must be invested to try to make the interpretation look plausible. In other words, we must tie ourselves in knots in order to try to make this interpretation work; it is not prima facie plausible.

This last point is sufficiently interesting that I would like to pause over it for a moment. I can remember the first time that I came to realize that history is a powerful tool for conveying in interpretation, not a vehicle for the conveyance of facts. History isn’t just an account of the past, a chronicle of names, dates, and places, that only becomes distorted when an historian with an agenda twists the material in order to make it serve a moral, social, or political function. All history, one way or another, conveys an interpretation. I came to this conclusion not from the study of war, but from the study of logic. Some many years ago I was trying to write a comprehensive history of logic, and the more deeply I penetrated into the subject matter from the perspective of the historian that I wanted to be, the more I realized that, no matter how I told the story, it would still be my story.

That all history — including contemporary history — involves interpretation does not make it arbitrary or merely idiosyncratic. The best histories robustly embody the temperament of their authors, and one knows when one is reading what the author’s point of view is, whether or not one agrees with it. This is true of all the great histories from Herodotus to Braudel.

One certainly could write a history of civilization in which peace is an equilibrium condition, from which war is a pathological departure, and this might well be a powerful interpretation of the human condition. One could just as easily write a history of civilization in which war is the equilibrium condition, from which peace is the pathological departure. We have histories such as the first variety, but very few of the second variety, mostly because people simply do not want to believe that war is the norm and peace a suspension of the norm.

Clausewitz famously held that war and peace are two sides of the same coin:

War is a mere continuation of policy by other means. We see, therefore, that 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

This is the Clausewitzean continuum: war and peace are what philosophers call polar concepts — concepts that anchor two ends of a single continuum — and each derives its meaning from its contrast with the other. Between the two polar concepts is a graduated continuum in which one is either closer to one end or the other of the continuum, but the positions on the intervening continuum do not perfectly exemplify the polar concepts, which are sometimes idealizations never realized in actual fact.

Foucault made the obvious inversion of this Clausewitzean dictum, namely, that politics is the continuation of war by other means (cf. Foucault on Strategy and A Clausewitzean Conception of Philosophy).

In light of Clausewitz’s dictum on the convertibility of war and politics, Clausewitz’s philosophy of war is at the same time a philosophy of politics, and, by extension, a philosophy of civilization, as I have characterized it in A Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization and Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology.

Whether or not we can transcend this dialectic of polar concepts and attain a realization of civilization that does not derive its meaning from its polar opposite, warfare, will be an inquiry for another time.

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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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:

“Uncharitably, we can say that civilization is an epiphenomenon of war; charitably, we can say that war is an epiphenomenon of civilization.”

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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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz

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Yesterday I concluded my post on Impossible Desires with the observation that, “In so far as we did not choose industrialization, but it happened to us as part of a large social transformation that was not the act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals, it it difficult to accept.”

If we are not fatalists of one stripe or another, we want to believe in our own agency, and, generally speaking, the greater the agency we retain, the better. Yet most of what shapes our life is not anything that we have chosen. There is a famous quote from Marx that I have invoked on several occasions, with which he begins his essay on The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Marx’s oft-quoted passage captures the intersection of human agency and vulnerability to circumstances. Men make their history, but not simply as they please. That is to say, history is partly made, partly the result of human agency, and partly it is a thing that is not made, the result of no act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals. Again, unless one is a fatalist, this is difficult to accept. If, on the other hand, one is temperamentally fatalistic, one will embrace one’s contingent lack of agency in the world as an affirmation of one’s conception of history. This is the philosophical equivalent of confirmation bias, and it is a bias that we live by.

There are many conceptions of history that men live by; one is not confined to choosing between a dialectical opposition between agency and fatalism, and even choosing a point on the continuum between the two. It occurred to me today that one way to divide attitudes to history can be derived from Anatol Rapoport’s introduction to Clausewitz, which I previously discussed in More on Clausewitz.

Rapoport distinguished political, cataclysmic, and eschatological conceptions of war, but we need not limit these conceptions to war. We can, broadly speaking, adopt political, cataclysmic, or eschatological conceptions of history on the whole. In other words, we can conceive of history as being subject to the agency of human beings (the political conception), as being subject to no agency whatsoever (the cataclysmic conception), or as being subject to a non-human agency (the eschatological conception). These, then, are three over-arching conceptions of history that an individual could adopt. I assume that an individual will usually adopt that of history conception that is most closely in accord with his or her temperament. As Fichte said, the kind of philosophy one has depends on the kind of man one is. This statement has been widely deprecated by subsequent philosophers, but I for one would defend it.

Last May in Human Agency in History I suggested that grand strategy can be defined as integral history subordinated to human agency. In doing so, I revealed my bias as to history. But the very idea that there can be such a thing as grand strategy implies that human beings have at least some degree of agency in the world, however compromised and limited. However, we certainly could formulate conceptions of grand strategy based on alternative conceptions of history, to whit: political grand strategy, cataclysmic grand strategy, and eschatological grand strategy.

Some of these ideas may seem like a stretch, but it is a salutary conceptual exercise to try to stretch the mind to accommodate unfamiliar thoughts. And, having only just now formulated the above division of grand strategies according to world view, I can think of an illustration of one of the more unlikely conceptions, that of eschatological grand strategy. And it is this: several historians have related that, under the Byzantine Empire, the belief in divine providence was so prevalent in the society, and hence in the troops mustered by the society, that soldiers on the battlefield would look for signs that one side was winning or losing, and when the decision of the battle seemed sufficiently clear, the losing troops would rapidly capitulate, assuming that it was the will of God that they should lose the battle. Here is a very practical application of a eschatological conception of history and its application to grand strategy. I could easily produce a naturalistic account of such actions, but such an account — while perhaps preferable, indeed perhaps even true — would not do justice to how the participants in the events understood them. A naturalistic account of eschatological grand strategy, in other words, would not penetrate into what Collingwood called the “interior” of events.

Byzantine soldiers were reputed to throw down their arms and flee the battle field when the tide of events turned against them, convinced they had seen the hand of God at work.

A little more thought might furnish further interesting (and unfamiliar) examples of Weltanschauungen and the grand strategies that follow from them.

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This post has been superseded by subsequent posts in which I expand the framework here from three conceptions of history to four conceptions of history. See, for example, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception.

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Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831)

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831)

While on the topic of Clausewitz

Contradictory concepts are locked in a dialectical relation. Logically, this means that a definition of a given concept yields the definition of its contradictory through negation. If war is the contradictory of peace, and peace the contradictory of war, then a negation of a definition of war yields a definition of peace, and a negation of a definition of peace yields a definition of war.

Things are rarely as simple as this in fact; this kind of conceptual neatness is rare. Concepts — especially old concepts with a long history — tend to be complex and to be related by implication to many other concepts. Conceptual pairs like war and peace — sometimes called polar concepts — are assumed to be contradictories when they are in fact richer in content and the polar concepts imply more than each other. And what concepts could be older than those of war and peace? The emergence of civilization is nearly identical with the emergence of war in human history, and the idea of peace emerges as a hope immediately following upon the depredations of war.

Thus war and peace are not precisely dialectical, not precisely definable in terms of the contradictory of the other. This in itself renders war and peace as dialectical concepts, as any attempt to think them through coherently and systematically engages the thinker in an attempt to reconciling internal tensions within the concept. If successful, this process yields a higher synthesis that transcends the limited perspective and scope of previous definitions of the concept and establishes a more comprehensive concept informed by previous conceptions but more adequate than earlier formulations.

The Dialectic of Conceptual Pairs

Conceptual pairs, like war and peace, that are apparently or superficially contradictory yet integral in fact are common in our intellectual experience. A few weeks ago I mentioned Romero’s distinction between doctrinaire and inorganic democracy. This is a great example of what I am trying to illustrate. What we have are two clusters of concepts that suggest in turn two further contradictory clusters. Doctrinaire democracy is contradicted by non-doctrinaire democracy (each can be defined as the negation of the other), while inorganic democracy is contradicted by organic democracy (which, again, can each be defined as the negation of the other). Thus doctrinaire and inorganic democracy stand in a problematic relationship to each other, as do non-doctrinaire and organic democracy. But systematically setting these concepts within a theoretical context that includes them all may help to illuminate the initial pair of concepts with which we began.

In my Political Economy of Globalization I made similar observations regarding the dialectic of the conceptual pair of globalism and localism:

Globalism is correctly understood as one half of a dialectic, that of globalism and localism, or globalism and tribalism. And this extension of the concept of globalism to the pair of concepts globalism/tribalism emphasizes the departure from twentieth century nationalism that is already becoming a fact of political life: the nation-state appears nowhere in this dialectic. However, the concept of globalism is also extended by another dialectic: that of advocacy and opposition, or globalism/anti-globalism…

Thus the pair of concepts, globalism and anti-globalism, extends the concept of globalism simpliciter, so that the only obvious permutation missing in this twice extended concept of globalism is that of anti-tribalism, and it is here, finally, that we recover the nation-state. For the nation-state is an undeclared anti-tribalism: personal loyalty to chieftain must be abolished so that a territorial loyalty to the nation-state can take its place.

There I also cited section 2 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

“How could anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? Or the will to truth out of the will to deception? Or selfless action out of self-interest? Or the pure sunlike gaze of the sage out of covetousness? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, even worse; the things of the highest value must have another, separate origin of their own—they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, lowly world, from this turmoil of delusion and desire! Rather from the lap of being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself ’—there must be their basis, and nowhere else!”— This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudice by which the metaphysicians of all ages can be recognized; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this “belief” that they trouble themselves about “knowledge,” about something that is finally christened solemnly as “the truth.” The fundamental belief of the metaphysicians is the belief in antithetical of values.

What could be more true of the opposites of war and peace? The faith in antithetical values has encouraged us to believe that war and peace are precisely contradictory, but we have seen that the concepts are more complex than that.

The Means and Ends of War

We can easily see how the concept of peace might emerge from the concept of war, or vice versa, from Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as the pursuit of politics by other means. Clausewitz restates this principle throughout On War and gives it several formulations, so that it constitutes a point of reference for his thought and is the locus classicus for what Anatol Rapoport called political war (in contradistinction to eschatological war and catastrophic war).

This Clausewitzian principle inevitably invited the formulation of its inversion by Foucault: “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” (“Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, p. 15) Thus politics, ideally peaceful, can be transformed into war, and war can be transformed into peace.

In holding that war is the pursuit of politics by other means, Clausewitz implicitly invokes the ends/means distinction, and suggests that the end, aim, and goal of war and politics alike is the same; only the means are different. War is the use of military means — violence — to compel another to do our will, whereas politics employs diplomatic means in the attempt to compel another to do our will. Seen in this context of means and ends, the transformation of war into peace and peace into war becomes obvious. Politicians pursue their ends with diplomacy, and finding the result unsatisfying turn to force in the attempt to attain the same ends. The use of force either attains these ends satisfactorily, in which case the war ends, or the ends are not attained, and eventually the war ends because it is seen as ineffectual in attaining the desired ends, and the politicians return to diplomacy in the attempt to secure that which could be be gotten by force.

Omnipresent War

Recent history has been rich in indecisive conflicts — the Colombian civil war, the Lebanese civil war, and the recently settled Sri Lankan civil war — in which the combatants have gone between peace table and battlefield as though through a revolving door. In such contexts, “peace” means little, and the temporary absence of armed conflict is only called peace for lack of a better term.

In so far as peace is an ideal — and we are well familiar with this ideal from literature and art — and not merely the cessation of hostility or the temporary absence of armed conflict, the greater part of the world for the greater part of history have not known peace. It was a tradition among the Romans that the doors to the Temple of Janus — called the Gates of War — would be closed in time of peace. This is said to have happened only five times in the combined history of the Republic and the Empire.

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More on Clausewitz

25 May 2009


tomb of the unknown soldier

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.

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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.

Anatol Rapoport (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Рапопо́рт, 22 May 1911- 20 January 2007)

Anatol Rapoport (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Рапопо́рт, born May 22, 1911- January 20, 2007)

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.

Clausewitz - back

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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Strachan - front

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.

Strachan - spine

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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