Friday, December 05, 2008

Comments on Bosquet and Clausewitz at Complex Terrain Lab

I’m guest blogging at Complex Terrain Lab over the weekend in a symposium on Antoine Bosquet’s The Scientific Way of War. I just put up something about Clausewitz and friction, and noting the relationship to LIncoln and the Second Inaugural Address. It’s a terrifically fun symposium, check it out. Here’s what I posted:

My congratulations to Dr. Bousquet for a highly insightful and readable book that engaged me with a historically shifting body of metaphors for war and conflict. I want to focus briefly on one subchapter, the end of chapter three, devoted to Clausewitz and the metaphors of thermodynamics. I was much taken, and am generally strongly in agreement with, both your intellectual history of Clausewitz's thought and its rootedness in a certain scientific world view as well as your reading of the famous "friction" metaphor. I wonder if the the friction metaphor might not be broken out still further, in four ways.

First, the famous Clausewitzian undermining of the army-as-clockwork mechanism, undermined by the friction of the clash of two armies. Second, the concept of friction as expressed in the technologies of thermodynamic weapons and war - explosions and counter-explosions. Third, Clausewitz's also famous dictum of friction as created by the accumulation of errors in the system of war, located in failures of communication, delivery, and execution that accumulate, again to undermine the army-as-clock from within.

Fourth, what I suppose we might call the friction created by the 'ghost in the machine of war': friction that arises not from a clash of two armies, nor from errors internally accumulating, nor from explosions meeting explosions, but instead from the clash of two fundamentally different conceptions of conflict, the inherent clash between, on the one hand, the mechanism that enables a vast array of people and things to act with a single will, deterministic and mechanistic and, on the other, the animal passions that are both unleashed but relied upon particularly in battle. It is not precisely that the mechanism tames the beast; it is, rather, a dialectic in which the machine needs the animal spirits and the animal spirits need the discipline of the machine.

Anyway, for what it's worth, it seems to me that those are all separable as readings of 'friction' in Clausewitz and beyond, and that some parts of those distinctions are picked up later in your discussion.

But I was also struck by your reading of Clausewitz in this way - correctly focused on friction as the central concept rather than the 'other means' trope - in part because of work currently on my own desk on a reading of the moral psychology of Lincoln's Second Inaugural. One or two phrases in that address express a profoundly Clausewitzian sentiment: "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph , and a result less fundamental and astounding."

This passage is sometimes read as a sort of Clausewitzian sentiment about war as politics by other means. I have not thought that the best reading, and your chapter in this regard gives me stronger reasons for thinking so: it seems more emphatically, on the contrary, an expression that war, as its own social life, and driven by its own frictional forces, frictional forces that are internal to war itself, can independently lead politics rather than necessarily the other way around.

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