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"An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."
Sir Winston Churchill

11.12.2005

Clausewitz and War

Karl von Clausewitz is at once the most revered and reviled military theorist of the modern age.

A Prussian by nationality, Clausewitz employed his firsthand experience fighting the French in the Napoleonic Wars to distill various principles of warfare which tended to separate victor from vanquished. His nuanced and Hegelian view of warfare is often confused with the simpler, more direct enumeration of warfighting principles advanced by his contemporary, Baron Jomini.

Clausewitz key contributions to military theory lie in the notion that war is "merely a continuation of policy by other means" and that "fog" and "friction" prevent warfare from ever being a risk-free enterprise.

"Fog" is imperfect information in an ever-changing environment. Up through the Napoleonic Wars, the strategic commander would seek high ground from which to view the progress of the battle and to formulate battlefield strategy, helped in this effort by the custom of soldiers wearing garish uniforms and carrying unique guidons so as to distinguish friend from foe in the heat of battle. As armies and battlefields grew ever larger, this time-honored method of command and control broke down, as though the battlefield were shrouded in a haze of fog. Orders could be unclear, visibility narrow, the position of enemy and friendly forces unknown. The great commanders evidenced an ability to cut through this fog and see with startling clarity what needed to be done.

"Friction" is a concept akin to Murphy's Law---things tend to go wrong in war as with any complicated enterprise. Artillery gets stuck in the mud. Rations go bad. Cold weather uniforms don't make it to frontline troops freezing in their trenches. Weapons jam. Even the best-laid plan can come awry through friction, such as when "the Protestant Wind" swept through the Spanish Armada on the eve of its attempted invasion of England, or when the Hessian mercenaries employed by the British drunk themselves into such a stupor as to virtually guarantee Washington's victory at Trenton.

Clausewitz also posited that the most important target for military action was the enemy's army, a lesson made clear from the Grand Armee's devastating losses in Russia thanks to the Cossacks and General Winter. Without an army, political opposition crumbles.

Clausewitz is reviled in some quarters as the harbinger of absolute warfare, as though the man who commented (posthumously, even) on trends already apparent by the Age of Napoleon somehow initiated them. Today's lifelong bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom, Langley, and in the LWM share the belief that diplomacy and warfare are somehow good and evil polar opposites of statecraft---warfare simply being the failure of diplomacy. This is manifestly untrue---Hitler, for example, resorted to warfare only when he couldn't schmooze, cajole, or reason the European powers into acceding to his territorial demands. It wasn't the "failure" of diplomacy on the part of the Allies which led to WWII, it was Adolf Hitler's lust for power and territory in the first place. Had the Allies responded with military force to his remilitarization of the Rhine, or his building of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, all gross violations of the Versailles Treaty, there likely never would have been a Second World War. It was a failure of political will to use military force when required which turned Europe into a vast abbatoir.

We see today in Iraq the continuation of this struggle over Clausewitz. The United States military in particular allowed its aversion to enemy casualties to prevent the destruction of the Iraqi army, both in 1991 and in 2003, with dire consequences. The fog over Iraqi WMD persists. We fight friction daily, with battles over body armor, jamming weapons, and the debate over armoring Humvees.

Yet on the most important Clausewitzian point---the continuation of policy through warfare, America and her allies remain quite correct. No amount of diplomacy would have eliminated the threat the Ba'athists posed in Iraq, nor would it have liberated the Iraqi people, nor at a stroke eliminated a major terrorist enclave (or did you think Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal were "retired"?)

There is a place for war. It settles intransigent political problems quickly, and for the long-term.

On this Veterans' Day weekend, ask the peace-at-any-price crowd the following questions:

- Would you prefer black Americans today were still enslaved (the centuries-old American slavery problem having been solved by the bloody American Civil War)?

- Would you rather Hitler remained master of Europe (America having entered WWII only after Hitler had conquered France and begun to roll through the Soviet Union)?

- Should America herself today be subject to the British Crown (having won our liberation only through a succession of wars)?

- Should America give California and Texas back to Mexico (huge territories gained through warfare)?

Whether the policy advanced is abolition, the concept of national self-defence, nationalism, or manifest destiny, one thing is clear---the pursuit of warfare offers more stability and quicker attainment of policy goals than all the white papers, all the blue-ribbon panels, and all the secret handshakes the effete would-be Macchiavelians of the Eternal Bureaucracy can crank out between black-tie affairs.

Clausewitz may be controversial, but he isn't wrong.

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