RePost: Clausewitz Destroys Social Science











I have copied here some of the important passages of Clausewitz’s great treatise, ‘On War.’ These particularly focus on the nature of military and political analysis as Clausewitz saw it, a very Roman view of the world: Things make sense, sometimes. To a point various variables can be measured and objective measures discerned, but after that point nothing is certain or quantifiable, and it take the wise eye of the commander to determine the proper course. This, I think, is the best way to analyze politics and indeed all things human. It also goes very far in attacking the postmodern and constructivist views of human politics (that nothing is measurable) and the social scientific views of human politics (that everything can be measured) and thereby provides a realistic appraisal of politics centered upon prudence and vigor. This theoretical basis is a better one to use as a baseline to understand politics, I think, than any other, and thus Clausewitz is required reading for all those seeking to properly understand political processes.


The Art vs. the Science of War


…Creation and production lie in the realm of art; science will dominate where the object is inquiry and knowledge…

We therefore conclude that war does not belong in the realm of arts and sciences; rather it is part of man’s social existence. War is a clash between major interests, which is resolved by bloodshed- that is the only way in which it differs from other conflicts. Rather than comparing it to art or science we could more accurately compare it to commerce, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities, and it is still closer to politics… Politics, moreover, is the womb in which war develops, where its outlines already exist in their hidden rudimentary form, like the characteristics of living creatures as embryos.

The essential difference is that war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter, as is the case with the mechanical arts, or at matter which is animate but passive and yielding, as is the case with the human mind and emotions in the fine arts. In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts. It must be obvious that the intellectual codification used in the arts and sciences is an inappropriate to such an activity [and such must be the case, too, in commerce and politics….]


On Planning (and Plotting)


Since in war too small an effort can result not just in failure but in positive harm, each side is driven to outdo the other, which sets up an interaction.

Such an interaction could lead to a maximum effort if a maximum could be defined. But in that case all proportion between action and political demands would be lost: means would cease to be commensurate with ends, and in most cases a policy of maximum exertion would fail because of the domestic problems it would raise.

In this way the belligerent is again driven to adopt the middle course. He would act on the principle of using no greater force, and setting for himself no greater military aim, than would be sufficient for the achievement of his political purpose. To turn this principle into practice he must renounce the need for absolute success in each given case, and he must dismiss remoter possibilities from his calculations.

At this point, then, intellectual activity leaves the field of the exact sciences of logic and mathematics. It then becomes an art in the broadest meaning of the term- the faculty of using judgment to detect the most important and decisive elements in the vast array of facts and situations. Undoubtedly this power of judgment consists to a greater or lesser degree in the intuitive comparison of all the factors and attendant circumstances; what is remote and secondary is at once dismissed while the most pressing and important points are identified with greater speed than could be done with strictly logical deduction.

To discover how much of our resources must be mobilized for war, we must first examine our own political aim and that of the enemy. We must gauge the strength and situation of the opposing state. We must gauge the character and abilities of its government and people and do the same in regard to our own. Finally, we must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect the war may have on them. To assess these things in all their ramifications and diversity is plainly a colossal task. Rapid and correct appraisal of them clearly calls for the intuition of a genius; to master all this complex mass by sheer methodical examination is obviously impossible. Bonaparte was quite right when he said that Newton himself would quail before the algebraic problems it would pose.

The size and variety of factors to be weighed, and the uncertainty about the proper scale to use, are bound to make it far more difficult to reach the right conclusion. We should also bear in mind that the vast, unique importance of war, while not increasing the complexity and difficulty of the problem, does increase the value of the correct solution. Responsibility and danger do not tend to free or stimulate the average person’s mind- rather the contrary; but wherever they do liberate an individual’s judgment and confidence we can be sure we stand in the presence of genius.

At the outset, then, we must admit that an imminent war, its possible aims, and the resources it will require, are matters that can only be assessed when every circumstance has been examined in the context of the whole, which of course includes the most ephemeral factors as well. We must also recognize that the conclusion reached can be no more wholly objective than any other in war, but will be shaped by the qualities of mind and character of the men making the decision- of the rulers, statesmen, and commanders, whether these roles are united in a single individual or not.

A more general and theoretical treatment of the subject may become feasible if we consider the nature of states and societies as they are determined by their times and prevailing conditions. 

…We want to show how every age had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own particular preconceptions. Each period, therefore, would have held to its own theory of war, even if the urge had always and universally existed to work things out on scientific principles. It follows that the events of every age must be judged in the light of its own peculiarities. One cannot, therefore, understand and appreciate the commanders of the past until one has placed oneself in the situation of their times, not so much by a painstaking study of all its details as by an accurate appreciation of its major determining features. 

But war, though conditioned by the particular characteristics of states and their armed forces, must contain some more general- indeed, a universal- element with which every theorist ought above all to be concerned.

The age in which this postulate, this universally valid element, was at its strongest was the most recent one [the Napoleonic Wars] when war attained the absolute in violence. But it is no more likely that war will always be so monumental in character than that the ample scope it has come to enjoy will again be severely restricted. A theory, then, that dealt exclusively with absolute war would either have to ignore any case in which the nature of war had been deformed by outside influence, or else it would have to dismiss them all as misconstrued. That cannot be what theory is for. Its purpose is to demonstrate what war is in practice, not what its ideal nature ought to be. So the theorist must scrutinize all data with an inquiring, a discriminating, and a classifying eye. He must always bear in mind the wide variety of situations that can lead to war. If he does, he will draw the outline of its salient features in such a way that it can accommodate both the dictates of the age, and those of the immediate situation.

We can thus only say that the aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs, must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character. Finally, they must always be governed by the general conclusions to be drawn from the nature of war itself.


The Trinity


War is merely a continuation of policy by other means…

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity- composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people, the second the commander and his army, the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends upon the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of the government alone.

These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship with one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.



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