Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Clauswitz and the ghost in the machine of war

I mentioned in an earlier post the new Gary Becker - Richard Posner blog, and its discussion of preventive war, here. Notwithstanding my respect for both of them, I did not think it was that useful a discussion. In effect, it introduced some very basic concepts about probability of outcomes in a purely utilitarian, consequentialist discussion. The issue, as the blog entries saw it, is uncertainty in predicting outcomes. That is surely not all there is to it, morally, politically, or legally - even if, for example, one is a thorough-going consequentialist, and the rights of sovereign communities don't matter, there is a question as to whether the doctrine of preventive war is about the total consequences to everyone, or just those that affect my interests and those of my community. Even in consequentialist terms, there is more to consider - and I say this as someone who thinks that preventive war is a very good idea, thought it was a good idea in Iraq, and can think of some of other places where it would be a good idea as well.

One might look to Clauswitz, however, for a deeper sense of the uncertainty of war. I do not mean the famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. I mean, instead, his writing on the ways in which war becomes unpredictable and carries events in unintended, previously unimaginable directions. Clauswitz (it requires some parsing through his immensely mixed up prose) suggests two quite different ways in which uncertainty arises in war.

The first is that memorialized by von Moltke - strategic plans do not survive first contact with the enemy, and hence must be always open to revision. The point being that the clash of armies and forces produces contingencies and indeterminacies that cannot be anticipated fully in advance. This is approximately what Lincoln refers to in the Second Inaugural, when he notes that in going to war neither side anticipated the extraordinary political reshaping occasioned by the Civil War itself.

But Clauswitz also describes a second, and quite different, source of indeterminacy in war, a source that lies within an army itself. The nature of an army going into war is double. On the one hand, it seeks to operate on a purely instrumental, rationalist basis - a war machine, an infernal machine, efficient and wholly instrumental as a tool of political will. But on the other hand, winning war requires unleashing passions within men that are not machine-like, but which are organic and animal. Reason and passion struggle with each other within an army, within each army, and that struggle also introduces vast possibilities and indeterminacies that cannot be predicted and tamed. It is, so to speak, the passionate ghost within the war machine, the ghost that animates the machine.

UPDATE (Saturday, December 18, 2004): A good place to read about this concept of "friction" in Clauswitz's thought is Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalization of Slaughter in the Modern Age (Yale 1993), chapter 3. The book is a kind of intellectual history of the concept of instrumental rationality in modern thought. It is not about theorists of war and strategy, but instead about intellectuals such as Cobden, Proudhon, Engels, De Quincy, Ruskin (to whom I earlier made reference in one of the posts re Walzer and the justice of war), and then the psychoanalysts. It has a noteworthy discussion of the correspondence between Freud and Einstein on the nature of war - noteworthy for how empty it is. Pick is best on the 19th century intellectuals, and his discussion of Clauswitz is especially good. I wrote a review of it back in 1993 for the Times Literary Supplement (a review so old, alas, it does not even show up on the TLS archive). It was at a period when I was working on the international ban landmines campaign for Human Rights Watch. I was given it by the TLS sub-editor at a conference sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, dealing with very practical issues about landmines, and I'm afraid I was (in retrospect) far too uncharitable, completely impatient as I was with any book dealing with the abstract and high level theory of war and rationality. I was wrongly contemptuous of the whole approach and very dismissive - whereas, in fact, within the ambit of what it is trying to accomplish, it is a very good book, and I say this despite my reservations about the long term value of Freud or Engels except as intellectual archaeology of dead religions.


Anonymous said...

The “Passionate ghost in the war machine,” a metaphor reminiscent of Plato’s theory of the soul, per Socratic dialogue in the Republic. Though the two metaphors aren’t completely symmetric, the similarities are worth exploring. There is one oddity that stands out in “the passionate ghost in the war machine,” and that’s that it implies a collective unity (of military personnel in the field or zone of war), homogenous both vertically and horizontally, in that it draws a parallel to the way in which “a ghost” occupies a “Cartesian” corpus.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog...
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