Saturday, May 26, 2012


INTRODUCTORY COMMENT: As a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer in the former Strategic Air Command, U. S. Air Force, I remember the first time I saw a nuclear bomb: A B28FI with a 1.1 Mt warhead. (Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vo1. 1: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities. Ballinger, 1984, p. 42). My first thoughts were “This is it? This is all there is to it?” I can say without doubt that this remains the most anti-climatic experience I’ve had as an individual. Yet even then I knew that the “wimpy” visual belied a truly awesome and frightening possibility: If ordered by national command authorities, we would fly and drop this thing; which would destroy the assigned target…

As I developed professionally, the answer to those questions grew ever more complex and meanings more shaded. But its basis remains: What is war? What is the meaning of war in the nuclear age? The answer begins with Carl von Clausewitz, On War.  Ed. and Trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.  Princeton University Press, 1976.

On War by Carl von Clausewitz

It’s important to note that only Book One of “On War” is the only book that Clausewitz considered as complete. Peter Paret considers Books Three (On Strategy in General) and Eight (On War Plans) as the most beneficial and integrated with respect to Book One.


Chapter One: What is War?

Definition. War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up war, but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance.

War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.[italics in original] (On War, Book One, Chapter One, § 2, p. 75)

COMMENT:  Clausewitz does not believe in international law and custom as a means to limit war:

Attached to force as certain self-imposed, imperceptible limitations hardly worth mentioning, known as international law and custom, but they scarcely weaken it. Force—that is physical force, for moral force has no existence save as expressed in the state and the law—is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare. That aim takes the place of the object, discarding it as something not actually part of war itself. (Book One, Chapter One, § 2, p. 75)

The Maximum Use of Force. COMMENT:  Interesting comment particularly apropos to those who dismiss Clausewitz in favor of the (apparent) bloodless wars advocated by Sun Tzu as the epitome of military art.

Kind-hearted people might of course there was some ingenious way to disarm of defeat and enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war.    Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed:  war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.  (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, p. 75)
Extremes.  COMMENT:  Clausewitz’ concept of each side driving the other to extremes.  From the 20th century forward, the development of nuclear weapons thus their possible and/or probable use,  forces us to grapple with the theoretical concept of extremes.
If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.  That side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent toward extremes, and the only limiting factors are the counterpoises inherent in war.  (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, pp. 75-76)
Incompatibility of Moderation in Theory of War.   COMMENT:  Clausewitz does not contend that moderation does not exist in war.  These are the forces that give rise to the war, and likewise “circumscribe and moderate it.”  Rather he says that these forces cannot be part of the theory of war—because these forces exist before the fighting starts.
If wars between civilized nations are far less cruel and destructive than wars between savages, the reason lies in the social conditions of the states themselves and in their relationships to one another. … To introduce the principle of moderation into the theory of war itself would always lead to logical absurdity. (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, p. 76)

COMMENT:   Given the horrific destructive global wars of the 20th century, one can surely debate the culturally-affected opening sentence of the paragraph above. However, it is clear of what Clausewitz is referring to—social conditions affect the methods of war. What he did not predict is the effect of technology on wars as a destroyer of worlds.

Two different motives make men fight one another: hostile feelings and hostile intentions. Our definition is based on the latter, since it is the universal element. … Savage peoples are ruled by passion, civilized peoples by the mind. The difference, however, lies not in the respective natures of savagery and civilization, but in their attendant circumstances, institutions, and so forth … Even the most civilized of peoples, in short, can be fired with passionate hatred for each other. (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, p. 76)

COMMENT:  The Nazi experience speaks for itself on this point.

Consequently, it would be an obvious fallacy to imagine war between civilized peoples as resulting merely from a rational act on the part of their governments and to conceive of war as gradually ridding itself of passion, so that in the end one would never really need to use the physical impact of the fighting forces—comparative figures of their strength would be enough. That would be a kind of war by algebra. (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, p. 76)

Theorists were already beginning to think along such lines when the recent wars taught them a lesson. If war is an act of force, the emotions cannot fail to be involved. War may not spring from them, but they will still affect it to some degree, and the extent to which they do so will depend not on the level of civilization but on how important the conflicting interests are an on how long their conflicts lasts. (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, p. 76)

First Case of Interaction and First Extreme.

The invention of gunpowder and the constant improvement of firearms are enough in themselves to show that the advance of civilization has done nothing practical to alter or deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy, which is central to the very idea of war.

The thesis, then, must be repeated: war is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side, therefore, compels an opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes. This is the first case of interaction and the first “extreme” [italics in original] we meet with. (Book One, Chapter One, § 3, pp. 76-77)

Aim is to Disarm the Enemy: Second Case of Interaction and Second Extreme.

The worst of all conditions in which a belligerent can find himself is to be utterly defenseless. Consequently, if you are to force the enemy, by making war on him, to do your bidding, you must either make him literally defenseless or at least put him in a position that makes this danger probable. If follows, then, that to overcome the enemy, or disarm him … must always be the aim of warfare. (Book One, Chapter One, § 4, pp. 77)

War [says Clausewitz is not between a living force and a lifeless mass – total non resistance is not war] but always the collision of two living forces.  The ultimate aim of waging war, as formulated here, must be taken as applying to both sides.  Once again, there is interaction.  So long as I have not overthrown my opponent I am bound to fear he may overthrow me.  Thus I am not in control:  he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.  This is the second case of interaction and it leads to the second “extreme.”  (Italics in original)  (Book One, Chapter One, § 4,  pp. 77).

Maximum Exertion of Strength. Third Extreme.

If you want to overcome your enemy you must match your effort against his power of resistance, which can be expressed as the product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will … Assuming you arrive in this way at a reasonably accurate estimate of the enemy’s power of resistance, you can adjust your own efforts accordingly; that is, you can either increase them until they surpass the enemy’s or, if this is beyond your means, you can make your efforts as great as possible. But the enemy will do the same; competition will again result and, in pure theory, it must again force you both to extremes. This is the third case of interaction and the third “extreme.” (Italics in original) (Book One, Chapter One, § 5, p. 77).

COMMENT:   The idea of total war approaches Clausewitz’s concept of extremes in war.  As the entry for “total war [sic]”in the Oxford Companion to Military History states:  “total war is one in which the whole population and all the resources of the combatants are committed to complete victory and thus become legitimate military targets.” (The Oxford Companion to Military History.  Richard Holmes, ed. (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 915.)
Next Entry to Follow:   Modifications in Practice [from abstract extremes].

1 comment:

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