Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

4 Aspects of War and Warfare
in Western Philosophy and History

Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they
rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon
it when made; we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us…
(Thucydides V: 105, 2)

DAVID WARBURTON


Western philosophy of war: 1000 BC-1900 AD

In the Melian dialogue, Thucydides (46O?-395? BC), one of the first European observers to comment on the character of war, has the Athenians state the laws of international relations. Obeying this law in the 5th century BC, the Athenians pursued a war of conquest in the Aegean. The Melian dialogue ended when the Athenians massacred the adult men and sold the women and children into slavery; the war ended when the Spartans destroyed the Athenian fleet.

In the 19th century AD the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831 AD) viewed war as an act of political violence, with the object of imposing one’s will on the enemy (Clausewitz 1991; 1989). Political organisation, goals, territorial borders, strategic method, hostility and violence were basic to warfare as understood by Thucydides and Clausewitz. Of equal significance for Clausewitz was the concept of reciprocity: that both parties observed the same reciprocal and symmetrical attitude to war. The limits on violence were the character of the political goals and the activity of the enemy. The political goal of compelling the enemy to obey one’s will was fundamental. The method was the utmost use of violence; the clash of armies.

Clausewitz realised that this ideal form of warfare was never achieved. Among the principal reasons given in the published form of the book were the importance of intelligence, logistics, friction and luck. Obviously, these had an impact, diminishing the pure violence in warfare. Clausewitz was also conscious of other forms of warfare, and the ‘limited war’ in particular, where the goal was not total victory and thus the total application of force was not required. This did not play a major role in the book as published. Before his death, however, Clausewitz had begun to develop a dual approach to the analysis of war, assuming that it would be possible to view two types of war, one with the object of total victory, and the other with the object of limited conquests. He intended to revise the entire work, taking account of this dichotomy, distinguishing ‘total’ and ‘limited’ war (Clausewitz 1991: 179).

Thucydides (V: 89) has the Athenians state that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ As Clausewitz’ book stands, it formulates the principles this implied, and Thucydides’ categorisation of war as the utmost use of force for the pursuit of political goals was his testament to his heirs, as the European philosophy of war for more than two millennia.

-37-

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