August 1, 2008  

Clausewitz’s bad advice

Why do nations go to war? Why do their people agree to fight and risk their lives? There are several possible motivations, but we in the West have been conditioned to believe that the decision for war must be made only after certain criteria have been met. The litmus test for such decisions has been the standard set by Carl von Clausewitz.

The Prussian general’s major work, “On War,” has attained mythic status. It is not uncommon to see soldiers, politicians and pundits quoting him glibly, supposing that his ideas on war as practiced during the Napoleonic era are still relevant today. Clausewitz’s most quoted line is that “war is an instrument of policy.” Despite the frequency with which the dictum is cited, it is a poor guide for a nation’s foreign-policy makers. This is so for two reasons. First, even if all could agree on a common understanding of the Clausewitzian statement, an examination of its implications negates its value. Second, the dictum is so lacking in universality over time and place as to make it misleading and even dangerous. Many cultures do not view war as a political act at all, but rather as a biological imperative or a cultural phenomenon.

And yet, Clausewitz’s dictum has been trotted out repeatedly to explain foreign policy failures. Indeed, Clausewitz underwent a renaissance during the Vietnam War as disgruntled observers sought to explain the errors of Lyndon Johnson and his generals as a failure to heed the advice of the Prussian master. This trend continues, and military operations in Iraq often are criticized as lacking an appropriate Clausewitzian focus. Such arguments are unfounded. It has been a too-eager willingness to view world problems through the Western European prism of a man who died nearly 200 years ago that has caused us so much trouble. Assume that Clausewitz was actually arguing that war should be an instrument of policy, but too often political and military leaders fail to view it as such. Even so, this one-line adage needs further elaboration. What is meant by policy and, more to the point, what did Clausewitz mean by that term? National War College professor Christopher Bassford has defined the Clausewitzian meaning of policy as “rational action undertaken by an individual or group which already has power in order to use, maintain and extend that power.” This broad definition means that virtually any motive could be forced inside it: greed, economics, religion, irredentism, revenge, honor, fear, domestic politics or resource deprivation to name but some. Is Clausewitz saying merely that one should have a reason for going to war? If so, that is hardly a useful insight. Rather, most would argue that the dictum has a few sub-correlates that give it greater depth:

å War should be an act of state policy devised by recognized leaders and not be left to individuals or groups interested in personal gain. The good of the state should be at issue.

å The decision-making procedure should be rational and part of an established process. Leaders should perform a rigorous net assessment and not act on trivialities or whims.

å This decision-making process should include a calculus of expected results, and a country shouldn’t go to war unless it intends to achieve its goals.

å Motives for war ought to be grounded in a sense of legitimacy. Broadly speaking, the war should be just, legal or righteous — not simply “an act of naked aggression.”

å Decision-makers should have prepared the people mentally and physically for war and its sacrifices. The war should enjoy a large measure of popular support.

These five caveats make the dictum more actionable and practicable — to serve as guidelines for those contemplating war. In actuality, even these caveats and guidelines soon devolve into nonsense.

Over the past two centuries, there has been nary an instance in any war when the belligerents did not believe, when making the decision to go to war, that they were following the Clausewitzian dictum. (Granted, many states have not consciously tried to measure themselves against such a formula, but if they had done so, they would have thought they were fulfilling the criteria.) Pick a war — Napoleonic, the American Civil War, Franco-Prussian, Spanish-American, the European colonial wars in Africa and Asia, the Russo-Japanese War, both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq — and pick any side in those wars. Any and all of the belligerents thought they fit the bill. To give a few examples:

å In 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, ostensibly at the hands of Spanish colonial officials. (That is now seen as unlikely.) President McKinley used this event, along with other depredations by the Spaniards, to obtain a declaration of war from Congress. The nation responded enthusiastically. The empire of sorts that followed was seen as a natural extension of America’s manifest destiny. Spain, which believed itself unjustly accused of wrongdoing, responded vigorously to defend itself.

å All sides marched off to war in 1914 believing in the righteousness of their cause to battle — pick one — the Hun, the Slav, perfidious Albion or Gallic militarism. Colonialism, arms races and threatening alliances helped justify the decision for war. The U.S. joined three years later as a result of the “immoral and illegal” German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. A stated U.S. goal was “to make the world safe for democracy.”

å Chancellor Adolf Hitler tapped into a deep resentment within the German populace to redress what were viewed as unfair provisions of the Versailles Treaty, to reacquire German territory believed stolen in World War I and to cleanse itself of dangerous elements within its midst — Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. All who fought against Nazi Germany considered it their right and duty to defend themselves against Nazi aggression and to halt the genocide.

å Three U.S. presidents conducted a war in Southeast Asia ostensibly to defend a helpless people from outside aggression and to counter the designs of Moscow and Beijing — viewed as part of a monolithic Communist movement bent on world domination. For their part, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were striving for freedom from colonial masters and their puppets who were attempting to impose an alien form of government on an unwilling population.

å The invasion of Iraq in 2003 enjoyed great support among the U.S. population and both parties in Congress, and worldwide sympathy. The rationale for war: a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to dispose of a dictator who murdered thousands of his own people and threatened his neighbors with weapons of mass destruction. This U.S.-led invasion in turn resulted in thousands of Islamic warriors pouring in from neighboring countries and an uprising within Iraq to throw out the infidel invaders.

All of the belligerents mentioned above, plus dozens of others during the past two centuries, could be deemed to have followed, even if unconsciously, the five precepts that comprise the Clausewitzian dictum that war ought to be an act of policy.

Unfortunately, the decision for war often looks bad in hindsight. Usually, it is the losers who fear that their motives were neither as pure nor as rational as first supposed. The populace instead believes the leaders who took the nation into war (Napoleon III, Czar Nicholas, Mussolini, LBJ, George Bush, etc.) were either illogical or incompetent. Often, the population and opposing politicians claim they were deliberately misled regarding motives and possibilities of success. But, of course — and this is the nut of the issue — such complaints and reservations were seldom heard at the war’s beginning. Moreover, it is generally only the losers who later harbor such regrets. Would the Russian populace in 1917, the Italian in 1945, the American in 1968 or the Israeli in 2006 have been as vocal (and in some cases violent) regarding a war’s policy if the war they were fighting had been a success?

If it is possible for nations and peoples in such widely diverse places, times and circumstances to claim they went to war only after fulfilling certain preconditions regarding rationality, legality, practicality, consequences and domestic support, then the criteria demanded by Clausewitz are useless. If so many nations, at so many different times, and in such diverse circumstances, can construe the decision for war as “an act of policy,” then the dictum loses all utility as a guide to decision-makers.


The second major problem with Clausewitz’s aphorism is that it simply does not apply to much of the world. Clausewitz was a 19th-century European soldier who had just witnessed war between other Europeans. Thus, he viewed war through an extremely constricted prism. Although partisan warfare occurred — in Iberia, America and Russia — Clausewitz largely ignored it to focus on the major conventional battles fought by his contemporaries. That myopia courses throughout “On War,” and the problems such a limited purview entails are with us today.

For much of the world and for much of its history, policy was not the prime motive for going to war. To most humans over the past several hundred thousand years, war has been a distinctly biological or cultural phenomenon.

To understand this, we must first look at our closest cousins — the great apes who share 98 percent of our DNA. It is only during the past several decades that in-depth research has been conducted on orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild, and the results have been startling. It was long held, for example, that only man had evolved to the point where he would routinely rape or kill his own kind. We now know differently. Beginning with the ground-breaking work of primatologists such as Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, we now realize that perhaps one-half of all couplings that occur between orangutans are forcible and brutal — they are rape. Worse, in a bizarre logic, a male gorilla without a mate often will entice a female to join him by killing her baby. The mother will then often go with the murderer, seemingly deciding that her previous mate was unable to protect her offspring: Perhaps she’ll have better luck with this obviously aggressive male. It is estimated that female gorillas will experience at least one infanticide of their offspring during their lifetime.

And then there are the chimpanzees, the cute primates most like humans genetically, who are the subject of humorous films and television commercials, and whom we enjoy dressing up in silly costumes. Primatologists have discovered that chimps in the wild are extremely violent and aggressive. Small groups of males periodically will venture outside their territory and into that of another group looking for other chimps. If they find a single male chimpanzee, they will surround him; some then will hold him down while the others bite and beat him, usually to death. If a single female is sighted, they will generally gang-rape her, and then either leave her for dead or bring her back with them as a concubine.

Why? There seems no rational reason: They are not threatened, it is not a question of food, there is no contest over hunting grounds and there are plenty of females in their own group to ensure propagation. It appears that such behavior stems from the nature of the male-dominated chimpanzee society in which great importance is placed on pride. Male chimps raid, fight, rape and murder to display their malehood. They do it in response to slights or a lack of respect from others; they do it to be recognized as dominant. The implication of this premise is apparent: If man’s nearest relative kills and rapes over matters of prestige, then perhaps we have inherited that same affliction. We may make war not for rational reasons of policy, but out of the dictates of biology.

A related interpretation of how biological factors affect war comes from Stephen Peter Rosen, who examines psychological and physiological studies regarding human responses to various stimuli. He argues that status is a key element in human relations and is present in groups, as well as in individuals. Thus, status plays a key role in foreign policy in some countries where leaders place a major role on perceived slights, snubs or inequalities — as do chimpanzees.

Rosen argues that testosterone plays a major role in human events. Testosterone is present in all humans, although its level varies greatly depending on age, sex, situational factors and culture, and it equals aggressiveness and dominant behavior. This has been common knowledge for decades, but it is Rosen’s contention that states and their leaders are similarly driven by such biological phenomena and that some societies specifically cater to their more aggressive elements. Such societies tend to permit tyrants to lead them. These tyrants punish perceived challengers and are unwilling to coexist with rivals; they rule by fear rather than consensus; and they are more interested in short-term gains and prestige than in long-term, rational calculations.

Recently, anthropologists and military historians have picked up on this theme. Rejecting a Rousseauite dream of primitive man in a state of nature, writers such as Lawrence Keeley, Steven LeBlanc, John Keegan and Azar Gat have argued that “the state of nature” is a hellish place marked by violence and death. The archaeological record is increasingly showing that primitive people — and this term encompasses Homo sapiens who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago while also including some hunter-gatherer societies still in existence — fight more frequently, involve a higher percentage of their male population in warfare, employ particularly deadly weapons (arrows and spears tipped with poison so that even a scratch may cause death), are especially brutal to women and children, and generate higher casualty rates than do the vast majority of “civilized” wars. These experts estimate that death rates as a result of violence in these societies routinely approach 20 percent — an astonishing figure.

What are the reasons for this deplorable level of violence? It seems that primitive peoples often go to war in retaliation for previous acts of violence or disrespect. This leads to a vicious cycle in which tribes make war against each other for untold generations, with the original casus belli long forgotten. War becomes ingrained in their culture. It is thus interesting to note that the raiding parties conducted by the present-day Yanomamö tribesmen of Venezuela are remarkably similar in size, duration, motivation and results to the chimpanzee raids described above. The dominant motivations of revenge, honor and respect are similarly familiar.

In some warrior societies — Cossacks, Samurai, Vikings and Plains Indians, to name but some — war was a virtual constant; without beginning or end it simply continued, as did hunting and procreating. War was a way of life. Thus, the Clausewitzian aphorism regarding war being a political instrument is a modern, Western phenomenon that seems peculiarly out of place in many societies. The significance of this revelation is not that primitive peoples engage in violence for reasons that we might consider quaint; rather, if such primal motives are present in those peoples they are likewise present in all of us — much like the testosterone imperatives noted by Rosen. Moreover, even if we are able to put such dark urgings behind us, it is possible that we will someday be engaged with societies who have not. They will not have read Clausewitz and will not realize that war can only be a rational act of state policy.


Of course, that “someday” came in 1941 when Samurai-influenced Japanese leaders took the seemingly insane step of attacking Pearl Harbor to challenge the U.S., a country far more powerful than Japan in virtually every category. For their part, Americans did not understand the fanaticism of the Japanese military that saw 95 percent of its soldiers fight to the death rather than surrender. Americans did not understand the culture that produced suicide attackers — kamikazes — who sacrificed their lives in hopeless attacks.

The “someday” came again in Vietnam when a small, technologically backward people dared to make war on the greatest military power in the world. Americans did not understand what motivated men and women to fight against impossible odds for decades, seemingly with little hope of victory, for the goal of simply being left alone to form a government that limited what to us were the basic human rights of its populace.

And the “someday” occurred Sept. 11, 2001, when modern-day kamikazes flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon for reasons that we still do not fully comprehend. Americans, Europeans and Israelis continue to puzzle over the motivations that drive men — and, increasingly, women — to sacrifice their lives to become suicide bombers, doing so with shouts of encouragement from family and friends. We also are willing to die for a cause — and have done so in great numbers in our nation’s wars — but the culture that now confronts us is beyond our ken.

Yes, we must continue to view war as an extremely serious undertaking, and yes, we must approach it with a clear purpose and turn to it only as a last resort. Even so, we must also realize that despite all precautions and due deliberations, we still may be making a huge mistake.

The most recent example of such an error was the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The national security team assembled by President Bush was seemingly top notch, including two former secretaries of defense, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and noted academics. And yet, we now realize that team moved slowly, deliberately and inexorably toward a bad decision. The team did its homework; it pursued for months a diplomatic solution through the United Nations, and it secured the support of the U.S. Congress and the American people. If we could go back to March 2003 and do it again, however, we would not do it again.

A large part of this failure was that American leaders (and British as well) did not understand that the warriors of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban and other sects that fight us do not view war as an instrument of policy. Other cultural, biological and religious factors motivate them. They are not following the script of “On War.” They are not Clausewitzians. We need to understand what motivates them and not rely upon an outdated dictum for policymaking that belongs to another place and another time. We must cease mirror-imaging, expecting all cultures to think, act and react as we do ourselves — as rational policymakers who see a resort to force as a calculated political decision. If we do not broaden our view of war and its causes, we will continue to be caught by surprise at the hands of cultures we do not understand.

PHILLIP S. MEILINGER is a retired Air Force colonel and former defense analyst with a Ph.D. in military history.