eastern front

The question of existential risk is intentionally formulated as a very large conception that is concerned with risks to humanity on the largest scale — the possible extinction, stagnation, flawed realization, or ruination of Earth-originating intelligence. An existential threat (as the term is commonly employed, and in contradistinction to an existential risk) may be considered a relative existential risk, that is to say, an existential threat that constitutes a risk to concerns less comprehensive that the whole of humanity and humanity’s future. Individual human beings face existential threats, as do particular business enterprises, cities, nation-states, and social movements, inter alia. In short, any existing object that faces a threat to is continued existence may be said to face an existential threat.

When nation-states (or, before the advent of nation-states, their predecessor political institutions) that view each other as existential threats become engaged in a war, these wars typically escalate to become wars of extermination. A war of extermination is a particular species of the genus of warfare, uniquely characterized by systematic effort to not merely defeat the enemy, but to annihilate the enemy. Thus wars of extermination are also called wars of annihilation.

Another way to formulate the idea of a war of extermination is to think of it as a genocidal war. Genocides can be carried out in the context of war or in isolation (presumably, in the context of “peace,” but any peace that provides the context for genocide is not a peace worthy of the name). In sense, then, the ideas of war and of genocide can be understood in isolation from each other — war without genocide, and genocide without war — though there is another sense in which genocide is a war against a particular people, i.e., a war of extermination.

It is worthwhile, I think, to distinguish between the Clausewitzean conception of absolute war or the more recent conception of total war and wars of extermination, although this distinction is not always made. Absolute or total wars refer to means, whereas war of extermination refers to ends. Means and ends cannot be cleanly separated in the unkempt reality of the world, and the means of total war is one way to bring about the aim of a war of extermination, but a war of extermination can also be pursued by less than total means.

In several posts I have written about what Daniel Goldhagen calls “human eliminationism,” of which he distinguishes five varieties:

transformation: “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.” (this is very similar to what I have called The Stalin Doctrine)

oppression: “keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.”

expulsion: “Expulsion, often called deportation… removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.” (I wrote about this in The Threshold of Atrocity)

prevention of reproduction: “those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.”

extermination: for Goldhagen, extermination seems to be equivalent to genocide simpliciter, in the narrow and strict sense: “killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a ‘final solution’.”

If we take Daniel Goldhagen’s distinctions within this scheme of human eliminationism, we see that many means can be employed to the ultimate aim of genocide. Indeed, what are sometimes called “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) may in some cases be sufficient to bring about some level of human eliminationism, and therefore prosecute (an undeclared) war of extermination.

The above considerations give us six categories of war that overlap and intersect to present an horrific exemplification of Wittgensteinian family resemblances:

● war simpliciter

● war of extermination

● war of annihilation

● genocidal war

● absolute war

● total war

A recent book on wars of annihilation and wars of extermination, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, employ several of these concepts of war without trying to make fine distinctions of the sort one would like to see in a comprehensive theory of war:

“The war of annihilation is a cultural phenomenon. It does not exist merely because war exists. A war of annihilation — that is to say, a war which is waged, in the worse case, in order to exterminate or merely to decimate a population, but likewise a war aimed at exterminating the enemy population capable of bearing arms, the opposing armies, and indeed also a battle of annihilation in which the aim is not merely to defeat or beat back the opposing army but to kill the enemy in the greatest possible numbers — all these forms of the war of annihilation, however widespread they may be in geographical space and historical time, are not historical inevitabilities.”

Heer and Naumann, editors, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, “The Concept of the War of Annihilation: Clausewitz, Ludendorff, Hitler,” Jan Philipp Reemtsma, p. 13

…and further…

“Clausewitz had been wrong: the war of extermination was structured not only by grammatical rule, but also by a particular kind of logic. Whereas the grammar — as Schenckendorff and Kluge both correctly assumed — could be controlled, the logic behind the war of extermination — as Hitler knew full well — was utterly dominant and tolerated no half-measures. At the end of the second year of the war in the East this principle was nowhere so clearly in evidence as on the partisan front.”

Heer and Naumann, editors, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, “The Logic of the War of Extermination: The Wehrmacht and the Anti-Partisan War,” Hannes Heer, p. 117

It is widely acknowledged by scholars of the Second World War that the Nazi-Soviet war on the Eastern Front came to constitute a war of extermination. Casualties were heavier on the eastern front than casualties on the western front. Perhaps most tellingly, when the German war machine began collapsing, German soldiers made an effort not to be captured by Soviet troops, as they knew that they could expect the worst in this case.

When Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union in the massive Operation Barbarossa, it was the beginning of an existential struggle between ideological enemies — fascism and communism — in which each side explicitly framed the other as an existential threat. Thus the eastern front was, from the outset, expected to be a war of extermination, and the above-quoted book takes the Nazi-Soviet conflict as paradigmatic of a war of extermination.

It was partially in response to the experience of the eastern front and its war of extermination within the larger framework of the Second World War (which also included the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews) that the Nuremberg principles were formulated. The Nuremburg Principles include as principle VI(c) a list of crimes against humanity:

“These consist of murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried out in execution of or done in connection with any crimes against the peace or any war crime.”

All of these war crimes were realized in the course of the Second World War with shocking clarity — the kind of clarity that comes from an ideological war in which a war of extermination was expected to follow from explicitly stated positions of the combatants. History has not always been so clear in its demonstrations of philosophy teaching by examples, but even if earlier history was not as explicit in its prosecution of wars of extermination, less obvious forms have always been with us.

Wars of extermination did not begin in the twentieth century, and even Kant mentioned the possibility of such conflict in his Perpetual Peace. Kant states his sixth article as follows:

6. “No State Shall, during War, Permit Such Acts of Hostility Which Would Make Mutual Confidence in the Subsequent Peace Impossible: Such Are the Employment of Assassins (percussores), Poisoners (venefici), Breach of Capitulation, and Incitement to Treason (perduellio) in the Opposing State”

And in light of this he says of wars of extermination:

“These are dishonorable stratagems. For some confidence in the character of the enemy must remain even in the midst of war, as otherwise no peace could be concluded and the hostilities would degenerate into a war of extermination (bellum internecinum).”

The Latin tag employed by Kant points to the antiquity of the idea. Kant continues:

“…a war of extermination, in which the destruction of both parties and of all justice can result, would permit perpetual peace only in the vast burial ground of the human race. Therefore, such a war and the use of all means leading to it must be absolutely forbidden. But that the means cited do inevitably lead to it is clear from the fact that these infernal arts, vile in themselves, when once used would not long be confined to the sphere of war.”

One of the factors that made wars of extermination explicit in the twentieth century was the emergence of the nation-state as an actor on the international stage. The nation-state was conceived as a political representative of a particular people, and as representative of the aspirations and ambitions of a particular ethnic group, nation-states also frequently have exhibited the worst kind of ethnocentric politics.

I began my book Political Economy of Globalization with the assertion that we must begin with the fact of the nation-state as the central political institution of our time. Whatever we may think of the nation-state — whether one believes that it is a permanent feature of human political organization or that will soon join empires and kingdoms on the ash-heap of history — it is the central fact of the international system as it exists in our time.

The existential viability of a nation-state is predicated upon the ability of that nation-state to meet existential threats and overcome them. Few would dispute the right of a nation-state to defend itself in an existential struggle, but many would dispute the legitimacy of the grounds for such a struggle. When a political entity claims to be threatened on ideological grounds — when the mere existence of another ethnic group or ideological movement is construed as an existential threat — then we move beyond a defensive struggle to continue to exist and into the realm of ideological conflict that is the natural ground from which wars of extermination grow.

I have already written about the role of nation-states in genocide in Genocide and the Nation-State. I see a strong connection between the two. No war of such magnitude can be waged without the implicit consent of the peoples from whom the troops are drawn, and who continue to make it possible for the state to prosecute such a war. This is one sense in which total war and war of extermination coincide.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Strachan - back

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Grand Strategy Annex

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