Tag Archives: Clausewitz

The drones club

Everybody’s heard of drones, right? They’re the latest Big Thing in western war making– pilotless-but-armed aircraft that circle for hours without refueling, allowing armies to gather information about once-inaccessible territories and attack enemies without warning. The machines are human-controlled in distant command centers, using advanced information and communications technology, but apparently they’re becoming more autonomous, with new AI capabilities. So far only the US has actually killed anyone with them. But other countries are getting into the game, and everyone seems to agree that drones are the new face of battle.

All of which raises some questions.

For now I’ll pass quickly over the most basic– namely, are the people pursuing these projects completely insane? I mean, they never heard of Terminator, Skynet, and all the other dystopian killer-robot scenarios? Who doesn’t know these stories end in tears?

I won’t say more about that side of things here, not because it’s unimportant but because it needs zero thought– any kid with video-streaming knows the score, even if the well-educated Serious People running our public institutions don’t.

But some historically-informed reflection may help in a different way, by sharpening our understanding of the pre-apocalypse arc of the drone story– meaning, how things are likely to play out before we reach a full-frontal Terminator fiasco. That’s because historians have studied the life-cycles of other super-weapons, and we can say something about where this particular instance is heading.

Historical thinking is especially worthwhile here because even the anti-drone camp seems to buy into a basic idea about them– namely, that they fundamentally change the nature of war itself. Historians have encountered that belief in numerous contexts, and up to now it’s been wrong every single time.

As an example, here’s the always-admirable-and-usually-right Ted Rall, arguing that drones put an end to war’s character as a duel between adversaries. That’s what the great war theorist Carl von Clausewitz thought war was, but now (so say Rall and others) it’s closer to a manhunt, a one-sided encounter between predator and prey, because those who have the drones operate in such complete safety, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the killing scene. “The armed drone … unambiguously allows the state to kill anyone and everyone with impunity, without the slightest physical risk whatsoever.”

Rall himself is against this mode of killing, but among the Serious People his anti-drone objections transmogrify into pro-drone justifications. You’ve almost certainly heard some of them: drones save American lives, allow the precise elimination of bad guys, and actually reduce the bloodshed and mayhem of war. Do you want another World War I, with millions of boots on the ground, or robot surgical strikes that allow most people to go about their lives and don’t wreck whole societies?  Far from being embarrassed about it, the US actually advertises the manhunt image of modern warfare– our top killer-drone is called the Predator.

Which is why historians have to step up and point out that no, actually war doesn’t change its essential nature, and Clausewitz still applies here in the twenty-first century. We’ve had a long succession of super-weapons– the machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and submarines of World War I, the radios and strategic bombing of World War II, the napalm and B-52s of Vietnam, to cite just some twentieth-century examples. Each time there’s talk of military revolution, new rules of the game, and the new technologies briefly tip the military balance to the side that first invented them. Then the other side adapts one way or another, and the essential nature of military conflict reasserts itself. It’s still a contest of wills and intelligence, and it still centers on hurting the other side enough that they yield.

I mean, in case you missed it: in the last fifty years, the low tech North Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqi insurgents all defeated the ultra-high-tech Americans. They won mostly because the wars in question mattered way more to them than to us.

Now, in most of the big twentieth-century wars, military adaptation meant imitation– the other side started making its own tanks/submarines/atomic bombs. But the Vietnam-Afghanistan-Iraq examples show the deeper reality beneath these technological arms races. In a real war, each side does what it thinks it has to to win, and that doesn’t necessarily mean keeping up with technology fads. It might mean abandoning a great city to the enemy, as the Russians did in 1812, leaving Napoleon to freeze and eventually get the hell out; it might mean suicidal missions like Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive, designed to demoralize the American public that was paying the bills; it can mean roadside bombings and terrorism, as in the Algerian and Iraq Wars, or just hunkering down, as both sides did against strategic bombing of World War II– it killed hundreds of thousands on both sides, but apparently did nothing to shorten the war.

We don’t yet know the specifics of how the drone super-weapon story will unfold. But we’ve got a long historical record telling us there’s no war in which one side gets total impunity, none that isn’t partly a test of wills– and none in which both sides don’t end up hurting.  Historically, the side that wins is the side that’s willing to take more of that hurt, not the one with the most toys.

Maybe we’ll avoid the killer robot apocalypse, but we don’t get a free pass on the nature of war.


Charlie and Carl

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about last week’s shootings at the Paris satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. They raise a whole series of issues that I care about, a lot– general issues about free speech in a pluralistic world, and more specific ones about Frenchness. France has been a huge part of my life since I first ventured there at age nineteen, and the Charlie Hebdo story brings forward elements of French life that I want eventually to discuss.

But there’s another angle that I want to start with, namely, the warfare context.

Because like it or not, that is the setting in which these events took place. The killers themselves (we’ve been told) wanted to fight in Iraq; one of them left a posthumous video statement linking his actions to ISIS and its war efforts; in turn, France’s prime minister responded to the shootings by promising “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” Anyway the French have been at war elsewhere for the last few years.  They didn’t sign up for our original Iraq venture, but they’ve been enthusiastically fighting in Libya and Mali, and they’ve pushed for more direct war in Syria.

If two opposing sides tell us they’re fighting a war, we should take them seriously.

And talk of war brings us back to Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s foremost philosopher of war. As I tried to explain in my last post, what makes Clausewitz the top guy in the war-philosophy business is the combination of qualities he brings to it: real life experience in world-transforming battles, faith in the value of war itself, absolute intellectual seriousness, sensitivity to moral complexities.

That last post centered on one of Clausewitz’s fundamental insights about war: he tells us that it’s an infinitely complex social reality, which will always generate unpredictable results and which is never subject to full human understanding or control; it’s the realm of chance and limited information. Another Clausewitz point, which I didn’t say much about last time: there’s also, always, an opponent, who’s trying as hard as we are to win and who wouldn’t be on the battlefield if he didn’t think he had a reasonable chance.

Our responses to the Charlie events suggests how deeply we in the prosperous and protected west have blocked out these realities. We’re stunned to learn that war can actually touch us directly, disrupt the course of our own lives– that the other guy will fight back in ways that hurt. We understand (at least some us– for a counter-example, check out the New Yorker‘s sweetheart profile of America’s UN ambassador Samantha Power) that our military interventions may not go as planned, and that our troops may suffer losses. But the worst we can envision is the failure of our policy objectives– ok, maybe we won’t get the democratic and stable Iraq/Libya/Syria that our leaders promised, maybe there’ll be cost over-runs. The idea of an actual fight that would hit us where we live, in which we mind-our-own-business citizens would actually suffer or die– that’s apparently beyond our comprehension.

Now, at some point in pretty much every discussion of the Charlie events, there’s a moment of obligatory moral declamation. Commentators note that the shootings were horrific, that violence of this kind does not reflect the real nature of Islam, that European and American crimes in Asia don’t justify gunfire in Paris. The Charlie victims were satirists not soldiers, and targeting civilians is a war crime, now matter how just the war. The perpetrators were anti-social misfits, thugs, moved by confused resentments, not the high moral purposes that would justify their claims to warrior status.

Much of that rhetoric is reasonable, but it’s also irrelevant– and self-serving. Irrelevant, because injustice and unmerited suffering are built into the nature of all wars, the good ones and the bad, and we should never go to war without understanding that reality. Self-serving, because we understand injustice and suffering well enough when they befall others. We know that there will be errors and collateral damage in drone bombings and midnight raids. We know that wartime experiences erode everyone’s morals, and that there’s thuggish behavior on every battlefield. We punish some extreme forms of our own wartime criminality, but mostly we forgive and forget. It’s Chelsea Manning who’s in jail because of the Collateral Murder video, not the American soldiers that it shows machine-gunning rescuers. What we can’t seem to make sense of is the idea that collateral damage like that might befall us, as we go about our own basically decent, basically peaceful lives.

Until we can widen our moral focus enough to take in that truth, we’re not going to understand what’s going on around us. Strangely, it’s the amoral Prussian tough guy Clausewitz who’s there to teach us that fundamental moral lesson.


My man Clausewitz

Some weeks ago, I described my admiration for the mid-Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. I fall way outside Trollope’s target demographic, which was conservative, Church-of-England-style Christians. But I find myself re-reading him often, and learning from him. It’s been a lesson in the limited importance of literary intentions, both authors’ and readers’. We don’t know what books are going to matter to us, just as authors don’t know whom they’re going to reach, or how.

Today, I want to discuss another literary enthusiasm I’ve recently developed, which has surprised me just as much: it’s for Carl von Clausewitz, the early nineteenth-century Prussian military philosopher.

Clausewitz was a theorist who also walked the walk. He joined the Prussian army at age twelve, and for the next twenty years he fought in all its wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France– the biggest, bloodiest wars Europe had seen up to that time. But he made his superiors jumpy, and they eventually parked him in the Prussian military academy, where he taught future officers, honed his theories, and worked away at his enormous book On War. It still wasn’t done when he died, but his devoted widow assembled the pieces, and it became an instant classic. It’s still taught at military colleges around the world, including our own West Point.

Even if you haven’t read Clausewitz, you’ve probably heard some of the snappy phrases he invented, like “the fog of war” and “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” There are dozens of other one-liners that aren’t as well known but ought to be. In fact he was something of a literary genius– he carries you along as you read, and you find yourself reading longer stretches of the text than you’d planned. Like other great writers, he forces you to look at the world in new ways.

That literary oomph turns out to be more common than you might expect among history’s great generals, and Clausewitz himself explains why: war “may appear to be uncomplicated,” he tells us, but actually it “cannot be waged with distinction except by men of outstanding intellect.” To make his point, he tosses in some startling comparisons. In some ways, he says, the good commander resembles the poets, painters, scholars, and intellectuals. Like them, he has to use imagination and insight into the human condition, as well as the specific skills and disciplines of his art.

Clausewitz’s reasons get to the heart of his ideas about war– namely, that it’s a really, really complicated business, which even the geniuses can’t fully master. The mediocrities don’t stand a chance.

Sure, he tells us, from a distance “everything looks simple: the knowledge required does not look remarkable,” the strategic options look obvious; anyone with a good map can figure out how best to encircle a city or cut off opposing troops. But the reality is unimaginably complex, because it involves thousands or millions of individual human beings, all acting on the basis of their own emotions and will, all enduring maximum stress. The physical environment poses its own difficulties. Simple acts become complicated in the smoke, mud, dust, and exhaustion of combat; geography takes on strange new shapes; chance events assume enormous importance. As he puts it in another of his sharp formulations: “War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder.”    (The quotations come from On War, in the spectacular translation put together by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.)

In these circumstances, Clausewitz’s commander is on a quest for knowledge, trying to find the truth when “all information and assumptions are open to doubt, and with chance at work everywhere.” Courage amidst dangers, training, equipment, faith in the mission– in war all those count, but the indispensable qualities are intellectual: “first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.” For Clausewitz, truth about situations and the people involved in them is the ultimate war-making tool.  That’s why the commander needs elements of the humanist’s mindset.

There’s lots more to Clausewitz, of course, some of which maybe I’ll write about in the next few weeks. But for now let’s stop and think a minute about how his vision of military knowledge fits with what we encounter here today, in twenty-first-century America.

Because we also have lots of ideas about war. We ought to, because over the last generation war has been the main constant in American life. The War in Afghanistan has now lasted longer than the Trojan War, and twice as long as World War II. Some retired general pops up on TV pretty much every night, and most weeks you can find op-eds by thoughtful experts pushing for American military intervention somewhere in the world. Most of us don’t go to war ourselves, but we’ve come to view war-making as a normal part of American political life.

We can do that partly because our American ideas about war differ so wildly from Clausewitz’s. He talked about chance, uncertainty, inadequate information, and the need for imaginative brilliance to get at the reality of any military situation. We describe war instead as knowable, predictable, and manageable. Our favorite war terminology is medical– we speak of surgical strikes and interventions; we describe our enemies as cancerous growths that need to be excised; we call many of our interventions humanitarian acts, life-saving missions. And in modern war as in modern medicine, we’ve got technologies that Clausewitz never dreamed of; drones, night vision goggles, computers– these allow our soldiers to overcome war’s information gaps. Of course technology doesn’t eliminate all uncertainty. Unexpected problems still arise on the battlefield, as they do at the hospital– but now we can address them effectively.

So given that we live in a different technological world, is Clausewitz basically a museum piece, or is he someone we should be listening to?  How seriously should we take a voice from the horse-drawn, muzzle-loading era?

One reason for listening is that Clausewitz gives us the voice of a hardened Prussian officer, who’d fought in high-level battles, both victories and defeats, without losing his faith in either war or the army. When he tells us about the unknowability of war, he’s talking as a believer, not a pacifist dreamer or bleeding-heart do-gooder. He doesn’t doubt the value of war– he just wants us to know what it really is.

The other reason concerns us, not Clausewitz. The brutal fact is, American conventional wisdom about war doesn’t look so good these days. We’ve got the biggest, best-equipped army in the world, but we’re on a fifty-year losing streak– against a series of much weaker enemies. (Ok, we looked impressive against Grenada and Panama, but you get the point.)  Our humanitarian interventions have typically made situations worse, not better.

Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to this most serious of human activities– and we could do worse than starting with Clausewitz.