Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

CLAUSEWITZ: On War I (What is War?)

Reading “The Melian Dialog” seems bleak to many readers. Thucydides doesn’t waste time trying to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. In Thucydides’ world there are no good guys and bad buys. There are only the strong and the weak. The strong take what they can, the weak suffer what they must. Socrates may care about finding out what justice is like. But politicians and military commanders only care about finding out what victory is like. In the Great Books tradition Machiavelli falls firmly into this camp. He basically says that if you want to talk about justice and such things, go to church or take a class in philosophy. But if you want to know how to get power and keep it, then here’s how you do it. And then he wrote his book called “The Prince” to show how to get and keep political power.

Clausewitz does the same thing for military power in his book “On War.” He doesn’t waste time talking about the morality of nation-states fielding large armies and navies. He takes it as a given that in this world the strong powers rule and the weak powers are ruled by the stronger ones. How do nation-states get sorted out as being strong or being weak? By war. Clausewitz gets right to the point and defines war for the reader: “War is nothing but a duel on a large scale.” This is somewhat helpful. It puts fighting into perspective but doesn’t really cover the whole scope of what war is. Individual people duel. Countries go to war. So Clausewitz puts it a different way: “War is an act of violence intended to force our enemy to do our will.” This definition is better. It helps us to know that war is “an act of violence” and not a debating club. That’s why the Melians don’t stand a chance against the Athenians in Thucydides’ history. Because, as Clausewitz says: “Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the MEANS; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate END.” The Athenians want the Melians to submit to their demands. They would rather have the Melians do it peacefully. But if they need to, the Athenians are perfectly willing to use violence to subdue the Melians. So this is the main object of war: to disarm your enemies.

Of course we might make the argument that the Melian incident took place 2500 years ago. People (and nations) have made a lot of progress since then. War is no longer the best way to resolve conflicts. Clausewitz believes this is a dangerous way to think. He says that “philanthropists imagine that there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without great bloodshed...” It’s to the strong nation’s advantage not to have to use violence to subdue weaker nations. The Athenians would have preferred to do it that way themselves. It seems like a good idea; victory without bloodshed. But Clausewitz goes on to say that “However plausible this may seem it is a mistake which must be discarded; for in such dangerous things as War, the mistakes which proceed from a spirit of kindness are the worst.” There are times when we should be kind and gentle people. But war is not one of those times. Kindness and gentleness can get us killed if we have a ruthless enemy who’s willing to be cruel and brutal. Because Clausewitz points out that “the side which uses force unsparingly, without worrying about the bloodshed involved, will win the war if his enemy uses less military force. The side which uses the most military force can then dictate the law...” Modern readers may disagree with Clausewitz on the nature of war. But however unpopular it may be, Clausewitz states his own position clearly: “This is the way war must be viewed and it serves no purpose, it is even against one's own interest, to turn away from considering the real nature of war because the horror of war is so repugnant.”


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