Monday, November 28, 2005

Clausewitz and the War on Terror

I am reading Clausewitz's book "On War" on line. I've only read the first chapter, but now I see why it is a favorite among military members and aficianados. As a "theory" on war, it is applicable in every war, including the general war on terror and Iraq. I can also see how officers who subscribe to different war doctrines may refer to this treatise and claim that their doctrine is supported. That is, if you conveniently leave out or reject some of Clausewitz's theory in favor of specific comments. Of course, that is always the problem with theory; taking or leaving, building on or rejecting parts to create a "new" theory.

This book was written in the early 19th century and published after Clausewitz's death in 1832. I note from the website's introduction page that this book was not officially adopted by most of the military "war colleges" until the 70's and 80's:

adopted as a key text at the Naval War College in 1976, the Air War College in 1978, the Army War College in 1981. It has always been central at the U.S. Army's School for Advanced Military Studies at Leavenworth (founded in 1983). The U.S. Marine Corps's brilliant little philosophical field manual FMFM 1: Warfighting (1989) is essentially a distillation of On War, and the newer Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications (MCDPs, c.1997) are equally reflective of Clausewitz's basic concepts.

The writer notes that Clausewitz has always been "in fashion" among many individual professional soldiers, but:

It is, however, the first time that the American armed forces as institutions have turned to Clausewitz. While the philosopher had insisted that war was "simply the expression of politics by other means," the traditional attitude of American soldiers had been that "politics and strategy are radically and fundamentally things apart. Strategy begins where politics end. All that soldiers ask is that once the policy is settled, strategy and command shall be regarded as being in a sphere apart from politics."*2 The sudden acceptability of Clausewitz in the wake of Vietnam is not difficult to account for, for among the major military theorists only Clausewitz seriously struggled with the sort of dilemma that American military leaders faced in the aftermath of their defeat. Clearly, in what had come to be called in scathing terms a "political war," the political and military components of the American war effort had come unstuck. It ran against the grain of America's military men to criticize elected civilian leaders, but it was just as difficult to take the blame upon themselves. Clausewitz's analysis could not have been more relevant:

    The more powerful and inspiring the motives for war,... the more closely will the military aims and the political objects of war coincide, and the more military and less political will war appear to be. On the other hand, the less intense the motives, the less will the military element's natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives. As a result, war will be driven further from its natural course, the political object will be more and more at variance with the aim of ideal war, and the conflict will seem increasingly political in character.*3

    When people talk, as they often do, about harmful political influence on the management of war, they are not really saying what they mean. Their quarrel should be with the policy itself, not with its influence. If the policy is right—that is, successful—any intentional effect it has on the conduct of the war can only be to the good. If it has the opposite effect the policy itself is wrong.*4

What I think was missing from Christopher Brassford's analysis is that, not only do war fighters wish to remain separate from politics, but, frequently in the last 50 years (I say it begins with the Korean War), politicians and even common citizens have tried to separate themselves from the wars for various reasons. As if, some how, even if they (congress members) authorized the use of force by voting for it, they can pretend to be separate from the war by criticizing it. I think that Clausewitz actually makes this point when he said:

On the other hand, the less intense the motives, the less will the military element's natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives. As a result, war will be driven further from its natural course, the political object will be more and more at variance with the aim of ideal war, and the conflict will seem increasingly political in character.*

"The less intense the motives" I believe is the key phrase. In which case, one should honestly ask what were the motives of those who voted "yea" on the authorization of force against Iraq that now it is an issue of political discussion and dissension instead of the will to win?

Some other points from chapter one:


War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.

Violence arms itself with the inventions of Art and Science in order to contend against violence. Self-imposed restrictions, almost imperceptible and hardly worth mentioning, termed usages of International Law, accompany it without essentially impairing its power. 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 object. In order to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed; and this is, correctly speaking, the real aim of hostilities in theory. It takes the place of the final object, and puts it aside in a manner as something not properly belonging to war.

From the next paragraph, "Powell Doctrine" of using over whelming force from the onset of battle may have originated:

3. Utmost use of force.

Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are just the worst. [snip]

This is the way in which the matter must be viewed; and it is to no purpose, and even acting against one's own interest, to turn away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair, because the coarseness of its elements excites repugnance.

If the wars of civilised people are less cruel and destructive than those of savages, the difference arises from the social condition both of states in themselves and in their relations to each other. Out of this social condition and its relations war arises, and by it war is subjected to conditions, is controlled and modified. But these things do not belong to war itself; they are only given conditions; and to introduce into the philosophy of war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.

And yet, we do impose serious conditions on the warrior, the tactics and even objectives of war. Even the Korean War had slipped into this realm. It could be said that the Korean War was the beginning of wars with limited objectives and even the beginning of limited tactics. This is completely political because wars of the last 50 years are all under the cloud of World War II and every war for centuries before where the agressors were painted as "evil" and their opponents (western democracies and their allies) claimed to be the "moral".

With limited wars where the lone super power (the US) is acting as an agressor and where the threat cannot be seen like the large armies and arsenals of once traditional enemies, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish, what many see as simply political cover, the enemy as the immoral. An interesting side effect is that large swaths of our population have decided that they are too "civilized" and that war is unnecessary. Even in the face of direct attacks, such as those on September 11, 2001, instead of rising immediately to defend of the nation, preparing for action against an enemy and calling the enemy out, it seems like the very next day the first action was not preparation for war, but questions of "why"? Why did it happen? Why would someone attack us?

The explanations were basically identifying the US as the agressor, as the responsible party, it was our policies. Now, this may or may not be true, but the reality is, when attacked, war has already begun and, as Clausewitz indicates, the cessation of conflict only comes in two flavors:

If two parties have armed themselves for strife, then a feeling of animosity must have moved them to it; as long now as they continue armed, that is do not come to terms of peace, this feeling must exist; and it can only be brought to a standstill by either side by one single motive alone, which is, that he waits for a more favourable moment for action. Now at first sight it appears that this motive can never exist except on one side, because it, eo ipso, must be prejudicial to the other. If the one has an interest in acting, then the other must have an interest in waiting.

Victory, obtaining the objective of disarming the enemy and forcing them to fulfil our will. Or, the cessation of conflict because one side is waiting to begin attacks again when they are better armed or the enemy is lulled into believing war is over. Conflict continues, even if it is under the radar, so to speak, of most citizens or is largely fought in the political arena, where political tensions maintain the conflict until one side or the other is ready or willing to resume the physical battle.

This is why the "War on Terror" will continue to be a long war, with moments of peace or low level tension between moments of conflict, whether small or conducted with large armies. Our own tendencies as the "civilized" tie one hand behind our back when fighting the war, putting limitations on the war which means that while we as society are conditioned to look for the big "climactic" victory, like the surrender of the Japanese on the USS Missouri, because of the limitation we have placed on our selves, we are not going to see any such "victory". In which case, it will be increasingly harder to engage the public's opinion and will in the war, unless or until another strike takes place on our own soil.

Even strikes against allied targets, like the Bali bombings that killed 200 or the London bombings that killed 57, seem to raise our consciousness very little or raise the level of "tension". This seems to be, not only a product of our "civilized" society, but also because the enemy has taken refuge in the last defendable redoubt: anonymity. The non-state actor; a secret army among civilians who bears no resemblence to enemies of the past. Or does he?

We should recognize now that the non-state actor is really a proxy for states to excersize their aggression without actually committing their own armies or state to the battle. While these non-state actors may claim their own reasons for striking, they cannot exist without the support of states or citizens of a state. In which case, it is likely that, while some actions may continue to be low intensity, small actions between small military units or may even regress to types of "police actions" using intelligence and assassinations or incarcerations, it is very likely that these tensions will flare again to a state on state action.

Some have recognized this by noting "terrorist supporting states". While parts of our population will continue to be unable to or choose not to recognize this reality as if some concept of war has changed (which Clausewitz rightly notes is "absurd"), the politicization of each war will continue, regardless of who is in power over the state, who chooses to commit to larger wars and who chooses to maintain the cessation of conflict for a "more favourable moment for action".

The difficulty will be in determining "victory" if the war is maintained at its current level to the very end. In which case, I believe that Clausewitz notes the likely outcome:

The smaller the sacrifice we demand from our opponent, the smaller it may be expected will be the means of resistance which he will employ; but the smaller his are, the smaller will ours require to be. Further, the smaller our political object, the less value shall we set upon it, and the more easily shall we be induced to give it up altogether.

Since the main enemy is not a state, the groups and leadership are dessiminated, submission or surrender in the classic sense cannot and will not be recognized unless the war becomes a war between states. Because our society does not see our real political objectives as disarming or conquering individual states, changing their governments (for the most part), the war will be very long indeed. Further, as Clausewitz noted, even if we did go to war with these states, our "civilized" war, moderating and modifying the efforts, will never truly result in the sumbission of the state or the people. Instead, it will be never ending war.

It seems that Clausewitz rejects this kind of war because it means the resources of the state, financially, materially and human, are chewed up without reciprocal results and can result in the state becoming vulnerable to its enemies, quite possibly "induced to give it [the objective] up altogether".

So, through all this discussion, the question must be, what are our objectives in the "war on terror"? Are they as limited as some have hoped to make them: search and destroy bin Laden and Zawahiri in hopes of destroying the exact enemy responsible for the attacks on 9/11? Is this single objective reasonable in the face of the current conflict around the globe? Would this actually create the circumstances for "victory", as in the end of violence, disarming the enemy and forcing them to fulfil our will (what is our will?)? Or would that be one action that would result in a cessation of violence, but not the end while the state supporters and the dessiminated groups wait "for a more favourable moment for action"?

This returns to the point I made several weeks ago concerning the two views of the war.

How do you see this conflict and who is the enemy? Is it a few men with limited resources or is it a proxy war involving many proxies and many states?

Who is the enemy and who are we expecting to surrender?

Without a decisive vision from the state as a whole as to who the enemy is, their objectives and ours, not just from one party or the other in charge of the state, the political will to continue will always be in question.

For additional reading, check out "Net War" at the Belmont Club.

The key challenge is whether America, in the sense of a shared idea, can be expansive enough to permit subordinate threads which can truly "take on a life of their own", and so become agile enough to engage the Jihadis at the lowest level. We are some of us familiar with the idea of multithreaded applications which can leave the main program and be re-entrant at an indeterminate point. Max Boot had hoped in 2003 that decentralized decision making would be part of the "new American way of war", multithreading within a larger architecture. Yet no sooner had those tendencies appeared when they were reined in by an American Left determined to impose all the blessings of the bureaucratic state upon networked warfare: oversight, endless hearings, legalisms -- the clanking apparatus of the unitary Sovereign -- to 'aid' in the pursuit of nimble bands of modern Mongols contemptuous of boundaries.

Update: Hat tip Mudville

From Phil and Becky Decisive Operations:

If combat is not the decisive operation, then what is? The decisive operation, in my view, is a toss up between governance and build-up of the Iraqi security forces. I'll call it a toss up for now, but I lean towards governance. The strategic objective as I understand it is to create a functional liberal democracy in the Middle East because citizens with hope, dignity and the promise of a better tomorrow don't fly airplanes into buildings or strap suicide vests onto themselves to blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces. The plan is to win the culture war by spreading freedom. Will it work -- winning the culture war against radical Islam by spreading liberal democracy? I don't know, but at least it's a plan. :) We definitely won't win the culture war solely by killing the radical Islamofascists because they are so good at the disinformation campaign in the Middle East that our kinetic action will inevitably create fodder for recruitment. It is impossible to fight an effective war where no innocent people get hurt. The enemy is very good at exploiting this with the receptive public in the Middle East. That is why the governance piece is so important -- it complements the combat action piece.

Read the rest.

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