Academic journal article Parameters

Politics and War: Clausewitz's Paradoxical Equation

Academic journal article Parameters

Politics and War: Clausewitz's Paradoxical Equation

Article excerpt


According to his critics, Carl von Clausewitz believed war was entirely governed by reason and controlled by the dictates of policy. Martin van Creveld claims Clausewitz viewed war as little more than a "rational instrument for the attainment of rational social ends;" (1) and Barbara Ehrenreich states Clausewitz saw "war itself as an entirely rational undertaking, unsullied by human emotion." (2) Yet these assertions, viewed outside their proper context, distort Clausewitz's contribution. His ideas are more complex than these crude depictions of strict political rationalism suggest. Indeed, Clausewitz believed that logic often came to a stop in the labyrinth of war. (3) There is no simple, pithy explanation of the manner in which the political element fits into his theory; no formulaic or linear characterization will suffice.

This article seeks to reveal the depth of Clausewitz's insight into the relationship between politics and war. Ideas of politics, policy, and reason hold a number of differing implications in terms of their relationship to one another and their influence on war. Indeed, misinterpretations of Clausewitz stem from the complexity of the subject itself, combined with its somewhat limited and confusing presentation in On War. (4) This is cause for detailed analysis of the text, the logic of Clausewitz's thought on the subject, and the implications of his ideas.

War as an Instrument of Policy

That war is an instrument of policy has become something of a truism, almost to the point of cliche, in Western strategic literature, regardless of how well the complexities of the idea are understood. The ubiquity of the idea can largely bc attributed to Clausewitz; direct reference is often made to On War whenever this principle is outlined. The idea is commonly quoted out of the context Clausewitz intended, deminishing it of much of its meaning. Also, it is often mistakenly presented as representing the totality of his theorizing on war. Its most common modern usage is as a prescriptive device--one especially suited to modern liberal democracies in which the subordination of the military to civilian control is deemed a vital component of a properly constituted state, especially in the nuclear age. (5) The complexities of the concept are often diluted in the interest of doctrinal precision and pedagogical clarity. Given the profusion of critiques in relation to this aspect of Clausewitz's thought, this situation will not suffice. A more robust explanation is required.

Clausewitz wrote that war contains an "element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone." (6) This claim may appear cold-blooded and militaristic, but his assertion is descriptive, not prescriptive. This is confused by the fact that Clausewitz often draws prescriptive conclusions on the basis of this observation, and the two perspectives are often juxtaposed in the text. It is perhaps ironic that what appears to bc a morally repugnant statement, because it suggests he viewed resorting to force as an "entirely routine extension of unilateral state policy" (7)--actually leads Clausewitz to conclude that war, in a practical and moral sense, ought to be subject to policy; otherwise, it becomes "something pointless and devoid of sense." (8)

Ostensibly, the concept of war as an instrument of policy is straightforward. The use of military force is a means to a higher end--the political object. War is a tool that policy uses to achieve its objectives and, as such, has a measure of rational utility. So, the purpose for which the use of force is intended will be the major determinant of the course and character of a war. As Clausewitz explains, war "is controlled by its political object," which "will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and makes its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail. …

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