Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Clausewitz...2007 and Beyond

Major Mike

Translating influential texts from their originally penned language has been a Pandora’s box for millennia. The limitations of translation are fairly obvious if studied. Dissimilar cultures breed dissimilar lexicons. Cultural biases can subtly influence the word choices of the translator. And translators can be simply wrong in deciphering the true, intended meaning of the author. Each of these types of translational errors could be expected to occur dozens of times in a complex text. Thus the translator can, intentionally or unintentionally, skew the meaning from whence the original author intended.

The content of hieroglyphics, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bible, have all been hotly contested in the translation of their source documents. Prussian military strategist and philosopher Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” is no exception.

Originally written in Clausewitz’s native German, its interpretation is influenced by a number of factors. Widely viewed as an uncompleted work, many call into question the validity of the conclusions military strategists have derived, and have used in the development national warfighting strategies for the last one hundred and fifty years. Differences in interpretations abound simply because the author was unable to provide his own conclusions. Compounding the true meaning of the document is also its translation from German to English.

Why put “On War” in the same category as the Bible? The Hieroglyphics? “On War” has been the preeminent treatise on strategic warfighting over the last century and a half. It is likely only second to Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” in its overall influence on military thought, and such documents need to be revisited as our nation stands on the precipice of re-thinking its strategy in Iraq.

As happens in most of the works listed above, a preponderance of the overall texts are accepted as being translated as nearly to the intended meaning as possible. But as also happens there are unintended grammatical ambiguities that often find themselves at the center of the discussion as to the true meaning of the entirety of the work. “On War” is a case in point. A meaningful discussion can be wrapped around two words, in their German form, “politik” (policy, politics) and “fortsetzung” (setting forth).

Christopher Bassford offers this as a crucial point in interpreting the “true” meaning of the book. In his excellent essay “John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clasuewitz,” Bassford more clearly defines war, not as the Keeganesque “war is an extension of politics,” but more appropriately, that war can be a primordial response of violence and hatred, it can occur by chance, and that it should usually be subordinate to rational policy…politics. Not as crisp and clean as the catchy “war is an extension of politics,” but it more closely defines the types of ways that the world has found its way to war over the thousands of years of recorded history.

Primordial violence is an apt descriptor for ancient tribal warfare, inter-tribal conflicts between the native American tribes, much of the violence that fell upon Europe in the middle ages, and the dominate role of the samurai culture in Japan prior to its being influenced by western culture in the 1800s. War was the politik of the day for these cultures. Eventually the politik of continual warfare was swallowed up by the “civilization” of these cultures, and the primordial nature of warfare was muted world wide.

No better example of the idea of chance or randomness bringing societies to war exists than the onset of World War One. Rational nations intertwined by seemingly rational treaties became entangled in a deadly war that stole nearly a generation of men from Europe. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is validation alone that remote events can trigger a maelstrom of violence and war in which extrication is nearly impossible.

And lastly, it makes perfect sense that war should be subordinate to all rational policy. Rational and responsible governmental policies, by their very nature, should steer countries away from war. Rational behavior by the nuclear powers of the age, kept the looming specter of nuclear war at bay, while these same countries grew their nuclear warfighting capacity. Rational behavior ended World War One and the Korean War, even though those events were precipitated by irrational behavior.

With this understanding of Clausewitz in mind, it is appropriate to describe the motivations of the parties that have brought us to war since the release of “On War.” A close examination of the major wars since its first publication in 1832; shows that only the American Civil War, truly a war of politics, and World War One, a war derived by accident, are excepted as wars that were not about expanding power or cultural domination.

And while Clausewitz is still relevant, he failed to anticipate that the strong, martial countries of his era would become the bloated, selfish “political” entities they are today. He did not anticipate that weak governments would create power vacuums in a world that was rapidly becoming populated with cheap arms, radical political and religious ideologies, and egotistical megalomaniacs. It is easy to understand, these entities could not have been rationally envisioned in the heart of the Prussian age.

War now is about power and domination, and less about politics. It is more about the use of power, the intentions of those who seek it, and the legitimacy in which that power is viewed on the world stage. It is about politiks, not about its policies.

Wars are actually started in one of four ways…the rational use of stable, legitimate power; the rational use of stable, but illegitimate power; the irrational use of stable, legitimate power, which de-legitimizes the base of that power; and the irrational use of force by those seeking to destabilize and upend, legitimate power. It is the combination of rationality and legitimacy that helps governments or international bodies to recognize the righteousness of the conflict, and then to subsequently form a broadly supported course of action.

In the absence of rational thinking and support, countries that find that they are rationally engaging their forces in a legitimate cause, can come to view their actions as validated, regardless of whether or not they garner the affirmation of an international community that seems incapable of coherent, rational thought. Legitimate, rational engagement of forces enables nations to support the effort, even though the effort may be unpopular or protracted, or both. Rational application of legitimate power that is the moral basis for the initial incursion exists as the moral justification for continued effort, as long as the objectives and methodologies of the combatants remain moral. The American Civil War, World War II, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom serve as examples.

The rational use of stable, illegitimate power can best be illustrated by the Iranian defense against Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Even though they have been a rogue government since the overthrow of the Shah, they were certainly within their rights to defend themselves against the illegitimate, invasion of their country.

Countries such as Iran however cannot be relied on to restrain themselves with rational thought. Stable countries that advocate irrational use of their power must be contained in order to avoid the potential, irrational use of their power. International conventions and pressures must be used to harness their military power, and prevent its irrational use. When the failure of such conventions is evident, rational power can be used to minimize the potential of state induced conflict and chaos.

The irrational use of stable, legitimate power, as Japan during World War II, has the effect of diminishing the legitimacy of the power, and jeopardizes its longevity into the future. It is acceptable for stable, legitimate powers to oppose these irrational excursions in order to defend themselves. These conflicts will necessarily require replacing the regime that pursued the irrational policies, with one that is anticipated to pursue rational policies into the future. This may require a change in the style of the original form of government.

That brings us to those that use illegitimate power irrationally…terrorists, jihadists, separatist groups, must be denied any success this style of warfighting. By allowing these types of groups success in warmaking, they can evolve into stable, illegitimate governments that may be impossible to dislodge at a later time. Unfortunately, most of the violence perpetuated in the world today is induced by the irrational use of illegitimate power. This is what we need to design our strategies and tactics against out into the future.

Combating these forces requires immediate international recognition and broadly supported counter-tactics. Hollow referendums and feckless efforts will not thwart the efforts of these power seekers. It requires determination, perseverance, and a great deal of violence. It requires a stalwart approach by a stout nation, or coalition. There efforts are vulnerable to fissure and erosion of support, and it must be buoyed by the notion that the movement to war was rational and legitimate. Looking back and second guessing, will produce the results of Vietnam.

The formulation of stable governments occurs in four phases. First is the absence of any central power or authority. It is recognized by the frequent and routine changing of authority or governmental type. Its hallmark is lack of central administration and no governmental services. This is emblematic of a total governmental collapse. It is indeed chaos, and instability personified. Many African nations fall into this category.

The second phase is the attempted consolidation of weak and unstable power. This stage is characterized by the emerging presence of stable international support, the forming of some central services, a preponderance of military forces must that be used to stabilize the government, and the government being vulnerable to minor or moderate external threats. This is the typical post-revolution, post-coup phase.

Governments successful at power consolidation, move to become viable transitional powers. These powers are increasingly providing centralized services, have stable governmental practices and ideologies, and are improving their national defenses. They are still vulnerable to anarchy and chaos, induced by parties outside the organized government. These destabilizing forces can be internal, citizenry supported factions, or they can be interlopers from other nations, factions, religions, or ideologies. These are viable, but vulnerable governments.

Lastly, governments become stable with solidified central power. Their power is derived by their ability to promote stable political processes, their ability to defend themselves from outside influence and aggression, their ability to provide reliable essential services, and they receive the general support of a majority of the population.

As a guide, illegitimate entities in this century will target vacuums of power, weak and unstable governments, and viable transitioning governments. It is important for us to anticipate where they will strike next and thwart their efforts via foreign aid programs, non-governmental organizational support, and by military force if necessary. In the hierarchy of justification for the use of force, and in the true interpretation of Clausewitz’s ideals, this is the best case for the legitimate use of force in the twenty-first century. It is the basis for justification for protracted involvement in the formulation and stabilization of legitimate and rational governments.

Governments that recognize the value of the Bassford interpretation of Clausewitz, one that recognizes that rational governments can, and should, engage in wars against irrational and illegitimate forces seeking the to overthrow and destabilize legitimate or transitioning governments. The UN needs to take a focused role in providing non-military stabilizing strategies, pro-active prevention policies, an unambiguous approval for military intervention when required. Governments possessing the military capacity to do so must counter with military force if required. They also must be prepared to sustain these efforts until the anarchistic forces are neutralized…regardless of the cost in terms of time and men. Failing to acknowledge this will only result in more casualties and a more protracted engagement in the future…likely with an irrational, and illegitimate, stable government. The most dangerous kind.

Clausewitz remains…relevant in 2007.

This article was inspired by the content of Col Snodgrass’ article, in the American Thinker.

© Michael McBride 2007

1 comment:

dueler88 said...


you make too much sense. so much of our current commentary on our role in the world assumes that we are equally legitimate and rational with all other governments of the world.

it's great to approach all of one's relationships with the thought that everybody else is as legitimate and rational as you are. just as with personal relationships, however, other parties cannot always be counted on to be rational or legitimate. a stranger you meet on the street could someday become your best friend; he could also kill you and take your money. so it also is with international relations.

to continue that analogy, the current american mindset seems to be that we *deserve* to be killed by a stranger while being mugged. i'm sorry, but i believe in personal liberty & responsibility, and rewarding those who provide real value to me (i.e. paying them for goods or services rendered).

should we surrender these principles in order to "get along" with other people, or other nations?

no. we shouldn't.

offer the hand of assistance and/or friendship, but *never* diminish your own legitimacy or rationality while doing so.