Napoleon harnessed unlimited enmity to transform wars from limited ones to unlimited ones. Accordingly, Clausewitz developed the Trinity to describe this source of power. However, the increasing destruction due to interstate wars has led to a decrease in this type of conflict. At the same time, there has been an increase in partisan wars. The Trinity cannot explain partisan victories or state defeats. Using social psychology to explain the relationship of the partisan to the group, this research shows how partisans harness unlimited enmity to engage in existential wars. Furthering Clausewitzian philosophy, a new analogy, the singularity, is created to describe this power. Implications and conclusions drawn are at the end of the paper.
- regular war
- irregular war
Carl von Clausewitz is not dead, not any more than Aristotle or Confucius. The innumerable articles and books describing new wars and old wars and providing the obituary of Clausewitz have forgotten the General’s dictum (Clausewitz 1976; On War, p. 581) that “war can be a matter of degree.”
This research attempts to deconstruct Clausewitz’ philosophy, primarily as described in his
This article draws from Peter Paret’s and Sibelle Scheipers’ works, but limits the deep contextualisation of those authors (Paret, Clausewitz and Scheipers, Small Wars). Instead, I attempt to retain a few basic thrusts of Clausewitzian philosophy as it can be applied to the security environment of the twenty-first century. As Scheipers points out (48), over-contextualisation of Clausewitz can remove Clausewitz too far from contemporary security studies, as the reader falls further and further into German intellectualism with its
In what became Clausewitz’ opus, he developed a succinct model of war which he called the Trinity.
One of the problems is the skitterish nature of Clausewitzian philosophy as evidenced above, and to which rubric Clausewitz is applied: normative or practical? A student of, and a participant in, the Napoleonic wars, Clausewitz built his theory around the idea that society was an integral part of war, which made war “a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” (Clausewitz 1976, On War, p. 87). The best example of this is his famous dictum: War is a mere continuation of… by other means “the German word Politik can take on at least three meanings for which English provides distinct words. If one translates Politik with “policy” … one is likely to conclude that Clausewitz is making a normative argument… if however, one translates Politik with “politics” or “political affairs” as suggested by scholars such as Antulio Echevarria, Clausewtiz’s dictum seems more appropriate understood as a descriptive statement.”
War is a mere continuation of… by other means
“the German word Politik can take on at least three meanings for which English provides distinct words. If one translates Politik with “policy” … one is likely to conclude that Clausewitz is making a normative argument… if however, one translates Politik with “politics” or “political affairs” as suggested by scholars such as Antulio Echevarria, Clausewtiz’s dictum seems more appropriate understood as a descriptive statement.”
The problem with the first translation is that it elevates Clausewitz away from his descriptive work on the character of war. If one accepts that policy is normative, then one must search in his works for a meta-theory of war that privileges the state as paramount, that is, a state-centric version of war. However, the partisan victories in Vietnam in and Afghanistan require a different definition. The advantage of the second definition is that it allows for flexibility, something which Clausewitz understood when he wrote that war is a chameleon, and efforts must be adapted to the times. Understanding war as a continuation of the
Fast forwarding to a twenty-first century filled with low-level conflicts where highly technical state war machines continue to fail, and this definitional issue has caused layer upon layer of conflicting analysis, with the likes of Michael Howard and Peter Paret on one side, and Mary Kaldor and Martin Van Crevald on the other side, as strategists divide themselves between Clausewitz’s military and political philosophies. This divide is not new: Leading to the First World War, the French concentrated on Clausewitz’ idea of mass which produced the stalemates of the First World War. The Germans achieved high success by using Clausewitz’ ideas of speed in 1871 and during the early period of the Second World War. Other theorists adopted Clausewitz political polemics: Lenin understood Clausewitz’ admonishment that war was fought for political objectives. In the U.S., much has been made of Colin Powell’s conversion to Clausewitz’ political theory after the Vietnam War which is said to have led directly to the Powell Doctrine (Strachan 2007, p. 23).
In view of this historical fracture over Clausewitzian philosophy and the fact that
Clausewitz’ examples of partisan war, the Spanish and Swiss of the early 18th centuries were translated by Carl Schmitt into the 20th century guerrilla of the jungle and mountain communist vanguard. The 21st century denizens of Islamic State and Al Qaida are triggered by the same existential threat to their tellurian identity (Schmitt 2007, Theory, p. 20). The tellurian nature of these partisans is triggered by the existential threat of change to their identity, i.e. their land, their language, religions, marriages and norms and values. The modern partisan has moved on from the ‘real enmity’ which ends up with the ejection of the invader from the sacred homeland. That territorial anchor has been translated from the physical to the abstract through the threat to identity, which being existential is absolute (Schmitt 2007, p. 13). The partisan reaction to Napoleon that Clausewitz observed was a response to territorial occupation and the threatening change portended by his revolutionary puppet governments. This changed war from those of limited observation, to those of political nationalism. Napoleon’s wars threatened the existential
The key to understand this transformation of the partisan in the twenty-first century starts with Clausewitz’ descriptions of the wars of Napoleon in the nineteenth century. Before Napoleon, war was limited in scope, seeking only to change components of the international system. Napoleon sought to change the system itself. The key enabler of this change was unlimited enmity powered by early French nationalism. Clausewitz intuited that the feelings powered by nationalism would work in a similar way on the partisan (Clausewitz 1976, On War, pp. 479–483). Clausewitz (Clausewitz, p. 89) theorised that politics was a process, of which war was both a part and a product, describing this in On War as a ‘remarkable trinity’ of passion (people), genius (the military commander) and reason (state). That trinity (Clausewitz, p. 89) in war was “primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability and its subordination as an instrument of policy, and reason.” The product of the trinity working on each other – power in its potential form, force in its kinetic form – was meant to separate the trinitarian components of adversarial states, thus collapsing resistance. War was a composite of these three elements in which all activities in conflict are influenced by hatred and aggressiveness and tempered by the reasonable polices of government which extract the energy that is used to animate the army (Paret 1985, The State, p. 369). The trinity collectivised war on a national scale that reflected the great change in the eighteenth century where personal enmity was redirected onto state policy with military power is seen as the key way to achieve policies. The partisan directs her own energy into action
Clausewitz saw Napoleon as the
Clausewitz understood the potential of people’s war to harness passion, the strongest element of the trinity in a strategic defensive, writing (Daase and Davis 2015, p. 196) that ‘few people have a clear understanding of the full extent of this fearsome decisive measure…’. The wars of the twenty-first century, spreading Liberalism through humanitarian interventions and the imposition of social control, have not surprisingly, generated resistance groups that reject the neoliberalist model. These groups, bound together by identity, convert their knowledge of self into an advantage that translates into winning strategies that nullify the Clausewitzian advantages in the distribution of military power (Vasquez 2009, War Puzzle, p. 59). The true partisan acts, and acts violently; she is an army of one. The magnet of the trinity is unbalanced in the face of partisan violence (Clausewitz, p. 89). One can increase the power of the three poles, as is the instinct of the state, or one can reduce the distance between the poles and the magnet, as in the case of partisans. The latter has the effect of collapsing the poles until a
These systemic insurgents do not labour under a trinity of passion, government and military. Instead, all three are centred in the individual and produce an unlimited enmity because their adversary – states that spread neoliberalism through humanitarian interventions – require a change in the potential partisan’s life (social) modality which is an existential threat. One can no longer separate the trinity and force defeat. Only destruction of the singularity can achieve the state war machine’s goal of a transformative peace. In a Trinitarian war, disarming the adversary by destroying the army allows one to dictate peace. However, the partisan fights for her existential self, completely committed to her goal. The control of state war machines, honed ceaselessly through feedback loops, carefully delimit how war is supposed to be waged. The protagonist in partisan wars rarely achieves that level of control (Reynolds, Identity, mss). However, partisan war is not about the layering of bureaucracy or weapons. It is about the relationship of means to ends and how social conditions – Clausewitz’ moral factors – facilitate the group mobilisation required to sustain conflict against a more powerful adversary. This is the practical application of Clausewitz’ moral factors, only applied to the partisan’s cause. How else to describe the willingness to engage in war under vast power differentials? This is the problem the Trinity, as it is in
In his earliest writings, Clausewitz focused on the philosophical underpinnings of the trinity, looking to explain the interplay between reason and passion. Clausewitz was very clear that the individual was decisive in war and his thought experiments explored the form and use of the individual in war. As Scheipers points out, Clausewitz understood that in freeing a nation from domination and foreign oppression, politicisation of the individual was the starting point of partisan war. This was opposite of, as later analyses on the trinity would have it, the monolithic reliance on battle, reason or genius. Indeed, Clausewitz would praise the power of the individual, seeing the difference between local regiments and those of his Prussian home: ‘The troops that are passing by give a truly aesthetic impression, but one that is quite different from our military parades. While the [Prussian] display rigid formations, here you can clearly discern the individual in all its
The Trinity’s problem lay in the fact that it was the reason and genius that ameliorated the limitless enmity of the people. Without reason, it was simply mob violence. Clausewitz struggled with the variable of partisan motivations and how to integrate them into his meta-theory (Schiepers, p. 48). Clausewitz turned to Immanuel Kant’s (2007) (1724–1804) understanding of freewill: Man existed in a world of communicative cognition, in which the explanation of objects created the understanding of the object. Kant could not simply leave the unexplained laying on God’s doorstep. There could be no supra-natural (God-given) rules by which opposing forces could predict actions. Kant’s ‘free play’ of imagination and understanding meant that the elements of conflict could only be known at the moment of discovery (Kant 2007, Critique, pp. 38–39). Significantly for our understanding of identity-conflict and the problems the war-machine has therein is, if free will exists, then war derived from identity is essentially unknowable. In other words, the unknown in war is an expression of humanity’s free will. Troubling for us, Clausewitz did not complete the logic: if humanity is truly free and imaginative, then conflict is essentially unknowable and unpredictable. These elements of imagination and understanding, of surprise and possibility, were strongest in the partisan. In his lecture notes of 1810–1811, Clausewitz wrote (Daase and Davis 2015, p. 23) that ‘the individual… rifleman has a spirit of initiative, confidence in himself and in his fortune of which those who held the line can hardly imagine’. Harnessing this energy of the individual was to be done through the partisan, with Clausewitz cautioning that in small wars, this psychology (Paret and Moran, Political Writings, p. 282) must not be subordinated to the Army which seeks ‘to defeat the enemy with mere form and affords the individual the least possible opportunity to use his intellectual powers’.
Clausewitz was writing that the moral forces underpinning military action was stronger than simple material means any state could bring to bear. He wrote (Paret 1985, State, p. 177) in 1809: “The modern art of war, far from using men as simple machines, must vitalize their energies as far as the nature of its weapons permits...” Clausewitz attributed this animating function, the image of the soul, to the people. This is where he found that the passion that powered the mobilisation of the state empowered the genius of the military. This created a knotted locus through which his theory which cannot pass without some transformation. The elements of the trinity cannot be separated, but he allowed that the power of passion meant that it would overcome the force of the other two. Passion collapses reason and genius into his
It is through the political act of violence that passion is operationalized. This is illuminated through the counter-example of the man in prison. He may well be full of passion, but he lacks the freedom to effect action. What transformed the mob into a weapon of war was for Clausewitz, the idea that the act of violence in support of the goal of freedom was an expression of freewill. In the partisan, freewill could replace the genius and reason of his trinity. This theoretical somersault into practicality is very clear in his
Why is all this important? It provides a glimpse into Clausewitz’s basic emotional response to the problems of war, particularly partisan war. I am
The strength of the partisan lies in the intersection of Clausewitz’ friction of war and the superiority of the moral factors, which triggers the passion of the fighting spirit. This is the difference between a regular army and the partisan force. The willingness to sacrifice accounts for the decision to fight when the distribution of power is overwhelmingly in favour of states. Alexander Wendt (1992, pp. 391–425) called this as the ‘distribution of knowledge’ based on expectations of return for loyalty to the group. The partisan creates the conditions of identity through the social construction of meanings they prescribe to themselves. This knowledge is the product of the constant kneading actions and boundary crossings and is so deeply rooted in the concepts of identity and security that social institutions must make way for individuals’ conception of self and group identity.
When this identity is under attack, perceived or real, the partisan elevates their cultural worldview from its already central position to one of sacredness in the face of mortality (Chatard et al. 2011, p. 226). Perceived threats, like the uneven distribution of resources, would cause partisans to identify more strongly with their identity group. In other words, this
In the partisan singularity, the personal becomes political (van Stekelenburg and Klandermans 2013, p. 888) through the sharing of grievances across the group. The partisan’s connection to his or her identity is amplified by the belief that connection to the group ensures a type of immortality. This would make the individual hew more tightly to ethnic identification and support the actions needed to win the conflict. This is a key to the identity-mobilisation that partisans often achieve in conflict. The partisan’s strategic will and purpose is tied up in the simple structural connections between early self-identity, ethnic identity and political ideology. Threatening situations drive life-conservatism, i.e. conflict draws ethnically self-identified individuals closer together. Conversely, states can rarely achieve full mobilisation when combatting ethnic conflict; the citizenry is too diverse to consider threats from small partisan groups existential in nature.
Clausewitz addressed the difference between the power of the trinity and the singularity through his principle of polarity. He used the phrase ‘calculation of probabilities’ to describe the process of determining what level of risk would be acceptable to political objectives (Clausewitz 1976, On War, p. 80). Polarity of goals is easily recognisable in regular war. If it is advantageous for one side to attack, it is equally advantageous for the other to defend; if one side is victorious, then the other is defeated. If the objective of the attacker is worth little to the defender, the defender will only make a small effort to deny it. The greater the objective, the greater the resistance. States, rational and seeking stability are always willing to accept less, while invariably the partisan’s goals are bound up in protecting identity. This is what Clausewitz meant (Clausewitz, p. 87) when he wrote “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation of their [goal].” In partisan war, the polarity of adversaries lies in their relationship to the political object. For states, and particularly the great powers, the desire is for systemic control, flipping the indigenous to a neoliberal free-market patron. For the partisan, the goal is social stasis, with calls for independence to guarantee it and the redistribution of resources to provide human security for her people.
The operative mode of the singularity means that the political cannot be overcome through violent military action. If political polarity is a real thing, and it seems it is, then a goal mismatch perforce
Time is on the side of the partisan, who only attack when the strength of knowledge is in their favour. Herein the singularity comes to the fore again, overcoming Clausewitz’ friction, the bane of his
In partisan war, while in theory, partisans allow themselves unlimited action to achieve their objectives, many states constrain their methods through humanitarian law, or,
Polarity also influences force, which paradoxically, is driven by fear. Fear can become a motive element that turns latent animus into kinetic action. Generally, the use of fear of the
This provides a theoretical basis for escalation that would naturally lead to an extreme point, what Andreas Herberg-Rothe (2007, p. 76) called the “disinhibition of force.” This
The partisans which lack resources are militarily weak groups and this may provide the incentive to strike early against soft targets (Posen 1993, pp. 27–47). Terrorism, the only escalatory offensive strategy available to the partisan, is not a dominating strategy, but the committed partisan can propel a group into the position of
The link between Clausewitz’ passion and identity are now uncovered in modern combat, wherein soldiers are trained to task, employed by the state to achieve state objectives. This truly is the difference between armies of regular war and partisans. Operating under the singularity, passion rules the partisan, which drives war to the extreme. The partisan connects his acts of violence to the protection of his identity, a concept foreign to professional soldiers. ISIS, AQ, the Taliban, the Tamils, the Mujahedeen, the Viet Cong and the
The most part of the essay’s in
Clausewitz understood the risks inherent on relying on this kind of force only, which could lead to establishing the wrong political objectives for the war, which could lead to a disastrous strategy. Not understanding the
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