UnClausewitzian wars

The first principle of war, von Clausewitz says, is not military at all but political: war is politics continued by other means. Every war has a political objective and must be conducted in order to achieve that objective. Once the aim is achieved and is secure, the war is finished.

What can one say about the Fourth Afghan War?

Von Clausewitz cut through the guff and bluster of war. It does not exist on its own in a cloud of brass and trumpets as a natural part of sovereignty fought for its own sake: war exists to further a defined purpose, perhaps for territorial aggrandisement or for defence or to distract the people.

The Romans may have thought differently: for them, war was an act of worship, in devotion to Mars. There was gross barbarity in their civilisation and we have suffered from giving too much acclaim of the Romans.

All this said, technically (Hobbes would remind us) all independent states are in a state of war with each other in a sense:

There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

Put more specifically, Hobbes observes:

But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet in all times, Kings, and persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War. But because they uphold thereby, the Industry of their Subjects; there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.

Popular visions of the glory of war are just means to encourage martial prowess in soldiers and to persuade the population to tolerate the depravations that come from the war effort. The mucky political business of why the war is fought is not to be discussed in polite circles, where the glint of the blade and the honourable death are celebrated. So they must be, and a soldier who fights as a true warrior deserves all the celebration he receives and far more – unless you have been there, you have not an idea of even a fraction of it.

However, politics is at the heart of it, and generals must understand it, for war is directed to an aim. If a prince lusts after the wealth of a neighbouring province and invades to seize it, there is no point in his generals’ conducting their campaign so as to destroy that province.

This point sounds obvious in the cold light of peace, but it is reads as a novel suggestion in On War. In the context of earlier works it looks like as an unwelcome sullying of the purity of the soldier’s craft.

The art of war has been studied intently in all cultures of the world across the ages, and written about in learned theses in various civilisations. In all the great writings until the Nineteenth Century, from Caesar, Sun-Tzu, Bonaparte and others, the emphasis is on how to fight – strategy, logistics, tactics and psychology. It was von Clausewitz who started with why to fight. That is of crucial importance: it shapes the whole thrust of the campaign.

In short, if a state launches an attack because a neighbour is threatening its territory or vital interests, the attack need only destroy the enemy’s offensive capacity and all is achieved. During the Falklands War a journalist asked Mrs Thatcher if Britain was going to invade Argentina – maybe jingoism would think that, but the war aims were quickly concluded on the islands and the seas about them. War must not exist apart from its aims.

Aims may change or develop, and the enemy may be deceived about the true aims of a campaign, but an actual aim is a necessity.

In the four Afghanistan Wars to date, the first was unprincipled foolishness, the second a regrettable perceived necessity, the third purely defensive. The fourth has been defensive, to destroy terrorist establishments threatening Britain and America, but that achieved many years ago, and the fighting seemed to go one just out of its own internal logic.

The phrase ‘Something must be done” is not an aim nor any reason for war.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short