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Mar 24, 2007 8:15 pm

Pelosi and Clausewitz

Yesterday's vote in the House of Representatives may usefully be analyzed from a Clausewitzian perspective. The Democratic majority, in essence, was observing one of his critical dicta: that once the cost of a war outweighs the possible gain, "the object must be renounced, and peace must follow."

Suddenly, thanks to the patient and effective work of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman John Murtha—the first national office holder to argue for an end to American involvement in Iraq—the United States faces a political crisis over the Iraq War. Yesterday’s events took everyone by surprise (including me), and to judge from today’s Times, the major media are reacting very slowly and failing to recognize how serious the situation is. Because continuing the war requires more money, the House of Representatives can, if it chooses, exercise a veto upon it. After the Senate fails to pass this bill (as it surely will, even if a majority of Senators, as is quite likely, would vote for it), the appropriation will have to go to conference, and the House would have to agree, and then pass, a measure that fund the war without a withdrawal deadline. They may not do so, all the more so since the country, to judge from polls, stands squarely behind them.

Clausewitz remains the indispensable reference on matters relating to war, and this is no exception. To understand what is happening today, we can begin with one of his more famous, but also more misunderstood passages—his definition of war as a “paradoxical trinity.” I quote:

"War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant characteristics always make war a remarkable 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.”

I shall stop there for a moment, saving the few sentences—which have created a lot of confusion—for the time being. Essentially, Clausewitz is defining war the way the fire triangle defines fire. Just as fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen, war needs 1) primordial violence, passion and hatred; 2) a battlefield on which the two sides try to make things happen (the real meaning, the book makes clear, of “the play of chance and probability”); and a political or policy objective (the same word, politik, has both meanings in German, the language of Clausewitz’s work.

Applying this to the Iraq war—and critically, to both sides—tells us a great deal. The Iraqi contestants have plenty of passion and hatred and do not shrink from primordial violence, either against the American-led occupation or against each other. But passion has lagged in the United States, and President Bush, sadly, is now spending more time trying to arouse passion against the Democratic opposition to the war than against our various enemies in Iraq. We certainly have a battlefield, which includes the bulk of the Iraqi Arab population, but our troops have never been numerous enough to control more than a fraction of it at any given time. But our policy objective—a free, democratic, friendly, pluralistic Iraq—has proven to be a mirage. A new article by George Packer in last week’s New Yorker on the fate of Iraqis who have dared to work with the United States shows beyond any doubt that we trust no Iraqis and have established no lasting political foothold in the country. (The article is a must read; I mention now merely that the American authorities are hiring fewer and fewer Iraqis to work with them at all—they are importing Jordanians into the Green Zone instead.) It is madness, of course, to fight for an impossible political objective, and that is what Speaker Pelosi, a real American hero, means when she declares, “The American people see the reality of the war; the president does not.”

And that leads us back to the second part of my Clausewitz quote, which follows the first directly:

“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 on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of the government alone.”

These two sentences have given birth to the widespread misconception that Clausewitz’s trinity is composed of the people, the army, and the government. It isn’t—the actual three elements are those identified above—passion, the battlefield, and policy. But Clausewitz expected to find the passion within the people of the warring state, he counted upon military leaders to try to win the war on the battlefield, and he expected the political leadership rationally (see above) to design the goals of the war. Unfortunately, life is not always that simple. President Bush has often identified himself as a man motivated more by “instinct” and by faith than by reason, and he now seems motivated more by a passion to prove himself right than by any reasoned appreciation of the facts. Moreover, his rhetoric increasingly makes the American troops he has kept in Iraq, not broader foreign policy considerations, the stake which, he claims, we are fighting for. That is actually a very dangerous attempt to rouse the passion of some Americans (those with ties to the military) against others (those who oppose the war.) That worked for Richard Nixon, but only because he was winding down his war, not escalating it, at the same time. And yesterday, one of the most moving speeches in the House came from a recently returned veteran of the Iraq war, who echoed John Kerry’s famous statement in 1972 and defied the House to explain to the men who had fought and died under his command why we should continue indefinitely to do for the Iraqis what they will not do for themselves.

The American people, meanwhile, have lost their passion for the war and, as in Vietnam, have reached the conclusion that the chance of reaching our objectives does not justify further sacrifices. In my opinion, they were right about that in Vietnam and they are right now. The House of Representatives reflected the conclusion of those who elected it in its vote yesterday. Clausewitz lived in the early 19th century, a great age of rationality (as I pointed out in Politics and War,) and he was accustomed to political leaders who could calculate rationally. We have learned to our sorrow that many cannot, especially in the midst of war.

Clausewitz’s goal in On War, indeed, was to help reason rule conflict, even though he understood that passion would play a key role. Indeed, near the beginning of the book, he wrote that civilized peoples were ruled by reason, barbarians by passion. That, in my opinion, was too optimistic a view. But in an attempt to prepare his contemporaries for the kind of situation we face today, he explained exactly how nations should react when their goals have become too expensive to achieve.

“Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by the political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”

That is a simple, logical statement. It is also what Clausewitz, borrowing from contemporary philosophers, would have called an ideal type: it expresses how things should work in theory, but not how they always work in practice. He wrote his book to try to close that gap. It is a never-ending task. Yesterday the House of Representatives did its part.

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More Comments:

R P Bird - 3/28/2007

In every human activity, including war, there are standard practices that lead to success. Ignoring them courts failure.

Our president has chosen to ignore everything history has taught us about war. He and his advisors ignored the good advice of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Liddell Hart, and the history of the twentieth century. The negative results are evident. Here are a few things he should have paid attention to:

1. Never willingly engage in a war on two fronts. Hitler did it and he failed. Japan attacked the US Pacific Fleet and Hitler declared war on us, we had no choice.

2. "Always talk-talk before fight-fight." -- Winston Churchill
It's better to negotiate than to make war.

3. Nothing is certain in war. It is not a trivial endeavor. Ask Stalin after he invaded Finland in late 1939. The Soviet army outnumbered the Finns 4:1 in men, 100:1 in tanks and 30:1 in aircraft. Their goal was the complete eradication of Finland. They failed. The Finns retained their independence, though they did sacrifice about ten percent of the their land for peace (not one Finn was turned over to Soviet authority). Who could ever imagine such a thing?

4. Never fight a war in cold blood. President Johnson tried this in Vietnam. He chose not to bring the passions of the American people into the war, for fear of political consequences. Since the American people had never been committed to the war, they had no compelling reason to stay in the war. Instead of a call to arms, President Bush asked the American people to go shopping.

5. Countries are easy to take, but hard to hold. Just ask the Germans. They employed techniques vastly more heinous than we have in Iraq, yet they could not eliminate resistance to their rule. Generally, a successful occupation will employ about one soldier for every fifty people in the population. This comes to about 500,000 troops for Iraq. Even with a surge, we can't field half that number.

Don't get me started. President Bush, his advisors, and the generals he picked have committed at least a hundred serious strategic blunders in the Iraqi war. Is it any wonder the American people have grown tired of his leadership?

Mark E. Rowan - 3/25/2007

As usual, too many words from a liberal to justify the unjustifiable. The only outcome for the war in Iraq that is in the best interest of America is to actually put aside all the politics and WIN THE WAR.

As far as Pelosi and Murtha, they will go down in history as two of the worst liberals to ever take up space in the House.

Now to your statement "The American people, meanwhile, have lost their passion for the war and, as in Vietnam, have reached the conclusion that the chance of reaching our objectives does not justify further sacrifices."

The American people you are referring to are too ignorant to know what is best, they get their information from unreliable sources like CNN and they are thinking what they have been told to think.

Average everyday Americans who do not follow the liberal slant in the network news, and actually look at both sides and make up their own minds, are very aware of the situation we are in, and know that we need to win this war and demonstrate that terrorism will not stand and that we will not back down.

Your final sentence, "Yesterday the House of Representatives did its part." You are correct. The House did its part to further erode American interests and minimized the sacrifices that many young people in the military have made over the past 5 years!

Average Everyday American

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