Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

CLAUSEWITZ: What is War?

The first great work in the Great Books tradition is Homer’s Iliad. It’s about the anger of Achilles and the long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. So it seems that war has been around for a very long time. People have been waging war all over the planet for as long as anyone can remember. Why? Karl von Clausewitz was a German soldier who joined the Prussian army when he was twelve years old and ended up fighting against Napoleon. Writing as a professional soldier, Clausewitz asks a simple question: what is war?

War is one of the great tragedies of human existence. Many people have devoted their lives to preventing it. They were not successful. Clausewitz was highly skeptical about these efforts to prevent war. He states that Philanthropic souls might easily imagine that there was an artistic way of disarming or overthrowing our adversary without too much bloodshed and that this was what the art of war should seek to achieve. Pacifists have good intentions. They mean well. It seems logical that diplomacy would be a more effective way of resolving conflicts. And it would be much more humane and much less expensive. Unfortunately, according to Clausewitz, the world doesn’t work that way. Clausewitz says that However agreeable this may sound, it is a false idea which must be demolished. In affairs so dangerous as war, false ideas proceeding from kindness of heart are precisely the worst. We can’t just wish war would go away. For Clausewitz pacifists are not only wrong, they’re dangerous. There’s no shrinking away from the facts: As the most extensive use of physical force by no means excludes the cooperation of intelligence, he who uses this force ruthlessly, shrinking from no amount of bloodshed, must gain an advantage if his adversary does not do the same. This is what makes war so brutal and the reason it continues: people can’t trust the other side not to be brutal once they get the chance.

And chance is another element in defining what war is. Clausewitz puts it this way: Chance – there is no human activity that stands in such constant and universal contact with chance as does war. Thus together with chance, the accidental and, with it, good luck play a great part in war. War is a human activity. People can be gullible, greedy, loving, jealous, creative, courageous or a thousand other things. But when they’re at war they turn their attentions to one objective: killing the enemy. How can a civilized nation fight a war and remain civilized? Fighting men live hard lives. How can they turn away from brutality and back to peace?

There’s an old Roman proverb that says if you want peace, prepare for war. But even if we seek peace by preparing for war, what kind of war are we talking about? There’s the catch. Clausewitz tell us that The greatest and most decisive act of the judgment which a statesman and commander performs is that of correctly recognizing in this respect the kind of war he is undertaking, of not taking it for, or wishing to make it, something which by the nature of the circumstances it cannot be. This is, therefore, the first and most comprehensive of all strategic questions. Who are we fighting, and what are we fighting for? We’d better be clear on that point, for as General Sherman once said, War is hell. For this reason Clausewitz warns us that War is no pastime, no mere passion for daring and winning, no work of a free enthusiasm; it is a serious means to a serious end. War is one of the most serious activities a human community can undertake. And because The art of war has to do with living and with moral forces; from this it follows that it can nowhere attain the absolute and certain… Once the shooting starts no one knows for sure what will happen. Homer knew all of this long ago when he first told the story of the Iliad. It was not a pleasant story then. It’s not a pleasant story now.


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