My Life With Kant: Carl Von Clausewitz

I will be out of town for the next several days.

Thankfully I have mounds of shit that was written during the days of My Life With Kant.

Now let it be known: everything that I have ever written was written in haste. Fact checking, spell checking, re-writing…not really my thing. I know that Ernest Hemingway said something to the effect of “I’m not a good writer, I’m a great re-writer” (paraphrasing), but I don’t heed to that philosophy.

ANYWAYS, I don’t know where I was going with that.

One of my favorite episodes was the discussion on Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War. I was going through a World War I and II phase and I needed something that would combine my love of philosophy with my love of WAR. Thankfully Clausewitz filled that role.

The text below was originally recorded by me for a My Life With Kant episode. If you find any spelling and grammatical errors (or even FACTUAL errors), please forgive me. Enjoy!

My Life With Kant: Carl Von Clausewitz and Total War

It’s no big secret that I’m a nerd for history. And more specifically World War I and II history. I’m not so much interested in the technology or the specifics on the individual battles, I like to see both of these wars as just one continual story. Whenever I think of this story, I’m reminded of a Cormac McCarthey novel or a Coen Brothers film like No Country For Old Men. Josh Brolin takes money from a location of a drug deal gone wrong, then returns to help a dying man, and that unleashes a series of events where many people get killed. Although the motivations behind taking the money were questionable, there was no way that Llewelyn Moss could have predicted that his actions would result in the death of his wife, along with many other innocent people. Another unintended consequence was the retirement of the sheriff investigating all of these killings, who found himself out of place in a world that was becoming increasingly violent.

This story parallels the story of World I and II quite nicely. While the motivations behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand could be questioned, there was no way that the belligerents of this event could have predicted that this assassination would lead to two heavily destructive wars, which would culminate in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an unintended result, traditional prolonged warfare between two or more mechanized armies would become obsolete due to the newfound idea of mutually assured destruction under the guidance of the atomic bomb.

Total War, where targeting civilian resources and locations became legitimate military objectives, was now something to be avoided altogether. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, military struggles between world powers went off the battlefield and into covert operations. Instead of armies and navies conducting military objectives, it was now the clandestine operations of the CIA, MI6, and the KGB that engaged in undercover and technological warfare. These operations were cheaper than raising entire militaries, didn’t involve the entire military-industrial complex, didn’t cost as many lives, and more importantly it allowed the politicians and diplomats to maintain a sense of peace between nations.

Standard military operations were relegated to quick strike tasks, most notably Operation Desert Storm and the British invasion of the Falkland Islands. Long-term military operations were no longer between large and well-equipped armies, but were instead between a developed nation and their well-trained troops and an underdeveloped nation and their insurgent forces. These wars were often costly and unpopular with the public. Examples of these were the US engagement in Vietnam, and Russia’s (and later the US’s) occupation of Afghanistan. In short, the public and their politicians could no longer stomach the idea of prolonged warfare that could potentially cost many civilian lives. Total War no longer became a viable option.

But where did Total War come from? It would be ridiculous to think that the ancients didn’t engage in it to some degree. It’s not hard to imagine these ancient kingdoms or tribal societies utilizing all their resources to engage in warfare. But it’s usually agreed upon that the first large scale use of Total War started right after the French Revolution. After the French people abolished the monarchy, and executed King Louise XVI, the outraged surrounding European nations needed to take action against France. In order to defend itself, the newly formed Republic had to utilize the forceful conscription of it’s population. The decree enacted by the National Convention stated, quote:

“The young men shall go to battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provision; the women shall make tents and clothes, and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the old men shall repair to the public places, to stimulate the courage of the warriors and preach the unity of the Republic and hatred of kings“. End quote.

The first ever draft was enacted. As a result, armies grew massive. And out of this new army rose a figure, whose name looms large in the pantheon of military history. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte. And out of the French Revolutionary Wars came the Napoleonic Wars, as the French Army fought against the coalitions of Europe. Bonaparte found success after success, and this had devastating effects across the continent. Nationalism began to take hold in other nations, culminating in the creation of Germany later in the 19th Century. The rules of war were completely re-written, in order to accommodate the new principles of Total War.

One of these new military thinkers was Carl Von Clausewitz, a Prussian General. Because of the success behind the French Army during the Nepoleonic Wars, Clausewitz understood that the national mood was critical proponent behind achieving military objectives. War was no longer an objective within itself, but an extension of the larger political aims of a nation.

In his book, On War, written after Napoleon, Clausewitz explains his own philosophy of war. In it, he describes it as “an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” with the aim to “disarm the enemy.” Clausewitz understood that there might be difficulty in navigating through the chaos that can be caused by large-scale warfare, and therefore the real genius behind a military commander would not be necessarily knowing the rules of war, but having the capabilities of navigating through “the fog of war“. Or to put it more precisely, a leader must not only know the situation and what to do, but also must have the capabilities to enact what they know. Clausewitz would go on to explain that war doesn’t belong, quote “to the province of the arts and sciences, but to the province of social life. It is a conflict of great interests which is settled by bloodshed, and only in that is it different from others. It would be better, instead of comparing it with any art, on its part, may be looked upon as a kind of trade on a great scale. Besides, State policy is the womb in which war is developed, in which its outlines lie hidden in a rudimentary state, like the qualities of living creatures in their germs” End quote. And he said this in Book II, Chapter 3 under the heading “War is part of the intercourse of the human race.”

While I couldn’t find any concrete proof on this, GWF Hegel might have had some influence on Clausewitz, most notably through his dialectical views on War. However, this could be debated. But, it is certainly possible that Clausewitz might have found some influence from the German Idealistic thinkers.

One of the more interesting facets of On War, is Clausewitz’s position that having a stronger defense is more important than an offense. His explanation of this is that the overall objective of a defense is to preserve. So he would go on to say that it is quote “To preserve is easier than to acquire“, end quote, which I presume is the overall objective of an offense. Therefore the general objective of a war should begin on the defense, and after successfully preserving, should move towards the acquiring, or go on the offense.

When I read that, I’m sort of reminded of World War II, with the Blitzkrieg into Russia. After the Russians successfully defended the homefront, albeit at a very high cost, they were able to push back, mounting a successful offense into German occupied territory, and ultimately being the first ones to storm into Berlin.

However, it could be this defense-first strategy that has caused Clausewitz to fall out of favor. There is no known defensive strategy behind nuclear warfare. The ability to quickly crush an inferior opponent with nuclear weapons would instantly nullify whatever defensive scheme that was put into place. Therefore some would argue that Clausewitz should be amended in some way. But to this point, perhaps whenever a country can successfully design a defense against nuclear weapons, that would severly tip the scales in their favor. Additionally, the idea of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction might have made itself obsolete, or at least it can be seen as compatible with Clausewitzian views. If a nation hopes to mount an offense, particularly to invade an opponents territory, it would make very little sense to deplete it’s resources through nuclear warfare. Also, if a nation hopes to gather international support for a massive offense against an enemy, it would very likely find little support with the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, should the nation actually used them, they would very likely find more enemies. Therefore the use of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction only makes sense as a defensive strategy, at least if we want to see it through the prism of Carl Von Clausewitz. That maybe neither here nor there.

Anyways, Total War may have gone out the window. But it should be noted that after the Napoleonic Wars, the European continent didn’t witness Total warfare again for over a hundred years. There was some political unrest across the continent during the 19th Century, but things for the most part remained under control. However, Total War did make an appearance during the American Civil War and in China between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.

So, although it is generally agreed upon that the threat of nuclear warfare has made Total War again an unlikelihood, it should be noted that sometimes seemingly innocent events can create unfathomable outcomes. With right-wing sentiment sweeping across Europe currently, and Britain’s exit from the EU, an organization that I presume is designed to prevent another World War on that continent, you never know what might happen. So think twice before we assess Carl Von Clausewitz as being only valuable to antiquity.

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