Some minor notes on a very interesting article by Williamson Murray entitled “Thucydides: Theorist of War.” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2013.
Oddly enough, I am currently reading Murray’s book, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-1945 (Air University Press, 1983)—highly recommend this book in particular for an analysis of the effect of the Battle of France on Luftwaffe operational strength; and the devastating effect of the Battle of Moscow on the Germans. Murray’s assessment which I concur wholeheartedly with:
Nevertheless, the defeat in front of Moscow represented the decisive turning point of World War II. From this point on Germany had no chance to win the war; and with her inadequate production, she faced enemies who would soon enjoy overwhelming numerical superiority in the air and on the ground. (p. 107)
Thucydides: Theorist of War
In addressing the difference between Clausewitz and Thucydides as theorists of war, Murray makes the following observation:
In fact, there is a noteworthy and important difference between Thucydides and Clausewitz: the latter focuses almost exclusively on the conduct of human conflict and military operations, as he makes clear from the beginning of On War... However, the larger issues involved—grand strategy, policy itself, morality, and the impact of war on the values of civilized states—he leaves to others to examine…
Thucydides has taken as his subject the whole tapestry of the Peloponnesian War: the origins of the conflict; the impact of war on the human condition; the inherent tension among expediency, morality, and humane behavior under the unremitting pressures on conflict; and the fundamental nature of war, including the psychological aspects of battle, where soldiers are engaged in the bloody business of killing.
(Murray, p. 32)
In his outstanding article, Murray states:
It is the purpose of this article, then, to draw out some of the more significant
theoretical observations that The History of the Peloponnesian War offers in its dark portrayal of that terrible war, which destroyed the economic and political basis of the greatest cultural and literary flowering in human history. We will begin with a general discussion of Thucydides’s basic depiction of the fundamental nature of war and then move on to areas where I believe he presents his most pertinent and thorough observations on conflict and the human condition: his examination of the factors that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (factors that have contributed to the outbreak of other great wars as well); the impact of war on human society and civilized standards, including the tensions between morality and humane behavior; and finally, the reasons why civil wars represent the most terrible of all human conflicts.
(Murray, p. 32)
In this blog I have previously discussed Book One of Clausewitz On War. In light of Murray’s article, I note the following.
In Volume II or his seminal five-volume work, Order and History, the political philosopher Erich Voegelin, discussed Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C)
Voegelin writes that for Thucydides, what was of importance was great units of events.
Thucydides gave the name kinesis [italics in original] to the type of unit created by him; the war he described was a movement, or upheaval. It was the greatest kinesis that had ever occurred, since it affected not only “the Hellenes but also part of the barbarians, one might almost say the majority of mankind.
(Voegelin, p. 351)
In this regard:
Thucydides takes a peculiar pride in the greatness of disaster … the greatness of kinesis heightened a “modern” self-consciousness in opposition to the “ancients.”
(Voegelin, pp. 351-352)
In seeking to explain history or in describing historical events, Thucydides rejected the idea of the rise and fall of existing things – such a political power (e.g., Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers). Voegelin states that Thucydides rejected Herodotus’ hypothesis of a “compensatory rise and fall of all existing things as the principle for explaining the court of human affairs.”
(Voegelin, p. 354)
Thucydides’ feat of transforming the knowledge of the craftsmen into a science, however, inevitably raised grave problems for the future of political science. The kinesis was a “disease” of political order… the political science of Thucydides was a model study of the suicide of a nation but hardly a study of successful political order.
(Voegelin, p. 357)
Murray’s article suggests Thucydides’ writings as those of statecraft.
It is deeply imbued with a theoretical understanding of war, its conduct, and the terrible consequences that it produces. The sad record of the 2,400-some-odd years since its completion is an endless repetition of the same pattern. Yet while The History of the Peloponnesian War is of great importance in the twenty-first century, the modern age is perhaps even less prepared than its original audience for its deep and abiding insights. Thucydides has provided us with an understanding of war and strategy from the highest to the lowest level.
Voegelin is more to the point. Thucydides describes a lack of order as opposed to describing what order is. And while, description may be the task of the historian, order is the mark of the statesman.
The science of Thucydides explored the idea [italics in original] only of kinesis, of the disturbance of order; Plato explored the idea of order itself … the two thinkers compliment each other: Thucydides studied a political society in crisis, and created the empirical science of the lethal disease of order; Plato created the other half of politics; the empirical science of order.
(Voegelin, p. 357)
Thucydides view of war:
When Thucydides said war he meant a movement that was more than a series of diplomatic and military actions in so far as, beyond physical clashes and conflicts of passions, it had a dimension of meaning extending into the regions of moral breakdown and transfiguration.
(Voegelin, p. 358)
He was clearly on the side of Athenian enterprise and innovating activity, but he was appalled by the moral disintegration and physical destruction which, apparently of necessity, balanced the ephemeral splendor of Periclean Athens.
(Voegelin, p. 359)
Conflict between necessity and justice, a topic very pertinent to American foreign policy in the 21st century, Voegelin writes that for Thucydides “It is immoral to let oneself become weak through changing circumstances if remedial action could maintain or restore strength.”
(Voegelin, p. 360)
This is the perennial problem of a progressive power in dealing with its slower neighbors.
Should it be considered a principle of justice in social relations in general, and in political relations in particular, that a man or society, willing to put their energies to good use, should restrain themselves and courteously keep step with the marginal stragglers and laggards?
(Voegelin, p. 361)
Voegelin adds that Thucydides sides with the former view.
Rationality and ethics. For Voegelin Thucydides is of an unclear mind with respect to these.
He would not see that the sphere of power and pragmatic rationalism is not autonomous but part of human existence which as a whole includes the rationality of spiritual and moral order. If the controlling order of the spirit and morality breaks down, the formation of ends in the pragmatic order will be controlled by the irrationality of passions; the co-ordination of means and ends may continue to be rational but actions will nevertheless will become irrational because the ends no longer make sense in terms of spiritual and moral order.
When the corrosion or reason has reached a certain depth … effective leadership in terms of reason becomes difficult and perhaps impossible … in a further degree of corrosion a man of such qualities [moral leader] will, precisely because he possesses them, find it impossible to reach the position of leadership; and in a final degree the society by its corruption may prevent the formation of a man of such qualities even if by nature he should not be lacking in gifts. This connection between corruption of society and the impossibility of rational leadership Thucydides was unwilling to admit.
(Voegelin, p. 363)
Voegelin “The development of theory as a subtle heightening of the typical in reality may be called the essence of classical culture.”
(Voegelin, p. 368)
The bottom line of all this is that war is chaotic in nature. As physicist Steven Weinberg [Nobel Laureate], notes, “A chaotic system is one in which nearly identical initial conditions can lead after a while to entirely different outcomes.”
(Weinberg, p. 36) Essentially every
simple system contains chaos which makes predictability of its outcomes almost
As the recent past has shown, it is easy to get into a war—but the predictability of its outcomes is almost impossible. Add the corrosion of weariness, waste of resources, etc., then effective leadership may be impossible—and we are still stuck in the war and its unpredictable outcomes.
Murray, W. (Autumn 2013). Thucydides: Theorist of War. Naval War College Review, 66(4), 31-46.
Voegelin, E. (1957). Order and History: The World of the Polis (Vol. II). Louisiana State University.
Weinberg, S. (1994). Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. . New York: Vintage Books.