Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 06, 2013

CLAUSEWITZ: On War II (Studying War)

In his treatise “On Happiness” Aristotle said “Our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter. For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike…” Readers of Clausewitz might do well to ask: how much clarity and precision can we reasonably expect to find on the subject of war? In this week’s reading Clausewitz approaches the subject of war from several different angles.

Clausewitz claims that “War is never an isolated act. The will is no wholly unknown quantity: what it has been today tells us what it will be tomorrow. War never breaks out quite suddenly, and its spreading is not the work of a moment.” From this perspective war sounds like a branch of psychology. This may seem a little strange but the U.S. Department of Defense has a whole branch of operations dedicated to PSYOP programs. PSYOP deals with the psychological aspects of war by breaking “the will” of the enemy and reducing their mental strength to resist.

Of course all the mental strength in the world won’t help if a country doesn’t have the physical strength and resources to fight. What exactly are those physical resources? Clausewitz believes the three basic elements of war are these: (1) military force, (2) the country (geography), and (3) allies. Reading Thucydides tends to confirm Clausewitz on this. The Athenians dealt quite differently with two island enemies, Mytilene and Melos. They spared the Mytilenians but destroyed the Melians because the Athenians calculated that (1) Mytilene was much harder to defeat, (2) Melos was much closer to home, and (3) the nature of their alliances with Sparta.

These factors make war seem like a cold and calculating business. In some ways it is; but in some ways it is not. Clausewitz points out that “The result of war is never absolute: the probabilities of real life take the place of the extreme and absolute solutions demanded by theory.” Real life, including war, isn’t mathematics. We can control a mathematical equation. We can’t always control what will happen in a war. Clausewitz says “the actual situation supplies the data for (1) determining what is to be expected” and (2) “the unknown which has to be discovered.” This sounds suspiciously like an algebraic equation such as 2x=y, where x and y are variables. If we know what x is, we can solve the problem; if we know what y is, we can solve the problem. But how can we know for sure what the variables of war will be? Do we know what the weather will be like? Do we know how strong the enemy’s will to resist will be? Do we know how strong our own country’s will to win will be? No, we don’t.

So let’s look at the second part of Clausewitz’ theory and try to factor in “the unknown.” Armies always confront the unknown. Sometimes fighting it out is the only way to find out what x is or what y is. Because some things are unknown and aren’t “discovered” until the fighting starts. Is it worth going to war to find out? How far are we willing to go? Clausewitz says “it is left to the judgment to determine the limits of effort.” One of the basic questions of history is always: whose judgment? Who determines a country’s limits in waging war or seeking peace? In Thucydides the Melian leaders wouldn’t let the Athenian envoys speak directly to the people. They didn’t want the Athenians running a PSYOP program and demoralize the Melians. But Clausewitz would have told the Melians: you will lose. And he would have told them why: the calculations of war just don’t add up for you. Clausewitz shows that we can’t always predict war with mathematical precision; but war isn’t just blind chance either. Aristotle would say that in studying the subject of war this is about as clear an explanation as we’re ever going to get.


Post a Comment

<< Home