Clausewitz and the unchanging nature of war

As I pointed out in our little introduction post, I am continuing to read and try to understand Clausewitz and his applicability in the modern world.  Now we turn to the first major issue raised by modern critics.

The first issue raised by these ‘new war’ strategists is the changing nature of warfare itself.  Given the recent experiences of conflict in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East a school of thought has emerged where the era of large-scale conventional nation-state warfare has ended, raising not only the issue of war’s utility in the international environment, but also what groups or entities can wage war.  

The conflicts cited by many proponents of this new war theory have two significant surface characteristics that set them apart from war in Clausewitz’ era-- they are often driven on the surface not by traditional politics but religion, race, ethnic or tribal rivalries and are waged by a convoluted amalgam of conventional militaries, militias, local gangs, criminal organizations and even modern day mercenaries.  These new methods of warfare create a great deal of skepticism of Clausewitz’ theories as applicable only to nation-state war and no longer useful in the age of counter-insurgency (COIN), counter-terrorism (CT) and non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.1  

These new conflicts also bring into question Clausewitz’ views on the relationship between war and politics and the issue of ‘limitless’ warfare where violence escalates beyond the ability of an established government to control.  Part of this confusion stems from the word ‘politik’ and how it is applied by Clausewitz.  In his thinking, politics and policy are intertwined--war not only affects the policy of international relations, but is affected by domestic politics, with all the attendant limitations on how wars are waged.2  

Several critics point to the notion of gangs and militias waging war not for the sake of political gain, but to maintain instability or conflict to further some economic or ethnic grievance or to maintain some level of autonomy without actual political control, for example, Al Qaeda in Yemen and Iraq.  In addition, these critics point out that ethnic conflicts often become mindless killing efforts, where activities such as ethnic cleansing occur independent of a greater political goal.3

While several authors point out Clausewitz’ seeming contradictions on the issue of limited and unlimited warfare, at its core, the theory of war as violence for some political purpose still offers the best framework for understanding conflict, even between ethnic or religious groups.  As several analysts point out, any organization that controls territory, population or resources and has some means of inflicting violence on their neighbors can be considered an entity waging war, whether an insurgent group, drug cartel, or a more organized international group like Al Qaeda.

This point will also be applicable to the later discussion of Clausewitz’ trinity and its continued utility. 

Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are more amorphous in this concept since they do not occupy territory or control populations per se, although they do use violence for political objectives.  Clausewitz does offer a more ethereal description of limited versus unlimited warfare by explaining that all warfare ultimately has its limits on what the population and military will accept in terms of death and destruction, no matter how much passions are raised, therefore all warfare has some limits imposed by the realities of human and societal endurance. 

 Iraq offers several examples where sectarian warfare was waged on the surface between Sunnis and Shias or between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds for ethnic or religious motivations, but underneath the conflict was ultimately about political and economic dominance over the country’s vast oil and water resources.  Iraq also offers an excellent example of the limits of warfare, even highly emotional sectarian warfare where the Sunni tribes eventually turned to the Americans against fellow Muslims in Al Qaeda when their traditional political power is was threatened.4  

So has warfare really changed?  Hmmm, not so much.  Organizations or countries still use violence or the threat of violence to further some end, usually power or financial gain, and even the bloodiest of tribal wars aim to have something standing for the winners to rule, even if it is a burnt out pile of rubble.

   1 Colin Fleming, "New or Old Wars? Debating a Clausewitzian Future," The Journal of Strategic Studies (Routledge), April 2009: 213-241;  Colin Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (New York, NY: Phoenix Press, 2007), 30-31.

  2 Hugh Smith, On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas (New York, NY: Palgrace MacMillan, 2004), 98-99.

  3 Andreas Herberg-Rothe, "Primacy of 'Politics' or 'Culture' Over War in a Modern World: Clausewitz Needs a Sophisticated Interpretation," Defense Analysis (Taylor & Francis Journals) 17, no. 2 (2001): 175-186.

  4  Clausewitz, 77-78; Bing West, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq (New York, NY: Random House, 2008), 24, 28-29, 64-69; Bart Schuurman, "Clausewitz and the "New War" Scholars," Parameters (U.S. Army War College), Spring 2010: 89-100.