War: An Owner’s Manual — Chapter 1

Canadian_Mounted_Rifles_posterIn order to understand your military and know whether it is operating properly you need to know why you have one.

This isn’t a vague philosophical question whose answer is inevitably “End war now.” I, along with every soldier I’ve ever met, would love to live in a world without war. Unfortunately we don’t. The question of why we have a military is actually a very important real-world question which the Pentagon itself asks and then answers every four years in its Quadrennial Defense Review.

In order to figure out how many of those tanks, sailors, nuclear war heads, fighters etc., we have to answer one very simple and complex question: What do we want the military[1] to do?

The answer at first seems obvious. Nations have militaries in order to protect themselves, right? That’s part of it, but what is it protecting us from? In some cases this is easy to determine. Israel, for example, needs protecting from neighboring states which would like it cease existing. India wants its military to protect it from its neighbors to the north, Pakistan and China, as well as rebellious groups which pop-up from time to time.

Defining protection can be quite complex and India is a perfect example of this. India has at different times fought with both Pakistan and over control of some or all of India’s northern province of Kashmir, which borders the other two nations. What’s odd about that is there is little there to fight over. Kashmir consists mostly of a part of the Himalayan Mountains. It is a beautiful, inhospitable area. It’s barely populated and so far few, if any, valuable resources have been discovered there. Not only is there little if any reason to fight over Kashmir, it is also a terrible place for military operations. It is distant from everywhere, making resupply difficult even for the nations bordering it. With the possible exceptions of the South Pole and Siberia in mid-winter, it is likely the most difficult place on the planet to conduct a war. Not that has stopped any of the three nations from trying. To this day, the armies of India and Pakistan occasionally fire artillery shells at each other just to see if anyone is paying attention.

You get the feeling that the nations themselves know this. Consider the war between India and China in 1962. It lasted about a month and resulted in about 2,000 deaths. The cause both sides claimed to be fighting for was territory, a resource both nations have in abundance.

In which case, why did they fight? At the time of the war both nations were relatively young as independent, unified political entities. India had become a free nation in 1947 when the British, who had ruled India as a colony for more than a century, handed control of the government to the indigenous people. China had become a nation united under a government of its own people at roughly the same time, after the Communists kicked out the Japanese, the Nationalists and the various colonial powers which had controlled the nation for the past century.  In 1962, China was perceived as having an expansionist foreign policy because it had conquered Tibet a few years earlier. Just before the conflict the Indian government set up some border posts on parts of the land no one really wanted but which the Chinese considered to be on their side of the border. So China attacked in order to push them back to the correct part of the land no one really wanted. In other words, two young nations/governments wanted to prove that they couldn’t just be pushed around and so 2,000 people died.[2], [3]

So we can see from this example that militaries are not just used for protection.

Certainly directly protecting the borders of the nation isn’t why the United States has such an enormous military. The U.S. is ideally situated defensively. In the east and west two oceans separate it from the rest of the world. Its two other borders are with Canada and Mexico, neither one of which have ever posed even a nominal military threat to the nation. It has been 200 years since a foreign power directly invaded the U.S.[4] The only real direct threat to the nation’s existence was 150 years ago and that came from other Americans. It is this splendid geographic position that has allowed the U.S. to develop almost entirely unmolested by nations which were much more powerful than we were for the first 150 years or so of our history as a nation.

Although national security is frequently cited when justifying the huge amount we spend on the military all it would take to defend our borders is our nuclear submarine fleet to deter anyone from launching a nuclear strike against us, a few warships to help protect our import and export capabilities[5] or attacking us at sea, some fighters and bombers and a land force perhaps the size of the Marine Corps. Except for the nuclear weapons the military would then be reduced to size and role it had prior to both World Wars I and II.

The other reason that nations in general – and our nation in particular – have militaries is to prevent other nations from telling us what to do and get them to do what we want. To understand how this works it’s necessary to look a little deeper at what war is and what it is that nations get from it.

onwarWe will begin with a book called On War by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Clausewitz lived during the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement which hoped to wean society from irrational beliefs and superstitions.  This movement came about as part of the great scientific revolution which happened at the same time. The Enlightenment was, among many other things, an attempt to apply the scientific method to how people thought and acted and especially to their philosophies. In On War, Clausewitz tried to examine and define the theory of war; to look at the why of it and determine what, if any, universal rules and laws it operates under.[6]

He was the first Westerner to look at war in such a broad and methodical way. Because of that – and the strength of his observations and reasoning – he had a huge influence on the militaries of the Western nations who were already using their technologies to dominate much of the world.

If you have heard of Clausewitz before at all it is for one sentence in the book: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

It appears early in the work and is 24th on a list of 28 statements and explanations about “What is War.” Today it is a frequently quoted by politicians and the pundit class, most of who haven’t read the rest of the book. [7] It is often used as the definition of what war is, which is exactly not how Clausewitz used it.[8]

In the book he makes it clear this definition describes what war is for governments, what purpose it serves them. This is very different from what war is and that is an essential distinction.

Clausewitz’s definition of war is the first item on that list: “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” The rest of the list is refining and explaining this idea. That is why the basic definition of war includes a key idea missing from what he wrote about war and government: Violence.

For a book about armed conflict On War is an all but bloodless book. There are no descriptions of battles or their aftermaths. This is in part because of his desire to write in a scientific manner and also because of whom he was writing for and when he was writing.

Clausewitz fought against the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who came to power in the wake of the French Revolution and eventually named himself Emperor.  He was the greatest general of his age and likely one of the greatest ever. His abilities were so great that just the rumor that he himself[9] was in command of an army could demoralize his opponents. In addition to his ability to inspire his troops, Napoleon was brilliant[10] at planning and preparing for battles and he also had the rarest gift of all: an uncanny ability to understand what was going on once the battle was joined and both sides plans had fallen apart[11] (as they always do).

France and Napoleon were also responsible for creating the first mass armies of the modern era. Since the end of the Roman Empire about a thousand years earlier most armies in Europe had between 5,000 and 50,000 men. Indeed in the decades prior to the Revolution Europe’s wars were fought by small, professional armies. The leaders of the French Revolution changed all that with what is known as the “levee en masse,” a mass conscription which, at its peak, allowed France to field an army of close to 1.5 million men. Once France had done this, the other European powers followed suit.

As a result the Napoleonic Wars (1793 – 1814) were more destructive and lethal than any Europe had seen before. Given that Europe had barely seen a peaceful day for at least the preceding millennia that is a sadly impressive statement. The conservative estimate is that at least three million soldiers and civilians were killed during Napoleon’s wars and many historians argue the total was far greater.

Clausewitz was writing in the aftermath of these wars. By the time he died in 1831 (On War was published posthumously in 1832), Europe was at the beginning of a record era of peace between its major powers. For more than a thousand years before this, some part of Europe – frequently a very large part was suffering through war. Along with the carnage on the battlefield these wars also devastated the general populace. Armies raped and murdered civilian populations with abandon, stealing whatever they pleased. In some cases the soldiers were let loose on the opponent’s population to “reward” the low-paid, badly treated soldiers. In other cases armies sometimes went on a rampage against whatever civilians were around, with no concern about whether someone lived in enemy or friendly territory. No one, certainly no one among the officers he was writing for, had to be reminded about.

That is the bloody truth behind Clausewitz’s antiseptic definition of war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” That is the means by which politics is continued.

This is essential to remember in order to understand the military and the men and women who serve in it. We – military and civilians – cloak it in various terms when talking about it as a society. Our public rhetoric, whether it’s from politicians or advertising for a charity which supports veterans or at an event like the Super Bowl, uses words like “sacrifice” and “duty” to say why it is we “honor our brave men and women in uniform.”

As the U.S. General S.L.A. Marshall put it, “We are reluctant to admit that essentially war is the business of killing.” Killing and of course dying – the former being what is done to the enemy, the latter what happens to those on our side.

But that is what makes the military a unique institution in any society. They are the only group which we expect to both kill and risk their lives in the regular course of their duties. While a police officer may kill someone while doing her job, it is a rare event and not an expected outcome. Likewise a police officer or firefighter may die violently but that isn’t what she is hired to do. As long as a soldier[12] kills someone who is believed to be armed on a battlefield it is OK and frequently praise worthy. If someone dies of a gunshot on a city street he or she is a murder victim. If the same thing happens on a battlefield or because the person was a member of the armed services it is also a tragedy but a nobler one. They are not victims killed by chance but someone who gave their life defending their nation. We hold this to be true no matter how mundane or heroic an activity they were engaged in and whether or not it had no connection whatsoever to protecting the U.S. A soldier is just as much one of the honored dead if he or she dies rescuing a child on a battlefield or drunk out of his or her mind in a bar where a bomb goes off.

This shows what a different place the military holds in society. The knowledge and reality of this is at the root of the military and its soldiers view themselves

Government exists to do things which we as individuals can’t or won’t. Sometimes that is building roads, fighting fires, collecting garbage and running schools. Sometimes it isn’t. H.L. Mencken, the smartest, most acid-tongued observer the U.S. has ever had, noted, “All decent men are ashamed of the government they live under.”

[1] The military itself describes its job as “the management of violence.” This is as close to clarity as a giant bureaucracy gets.

[2] This explanation is supported by the fact that neither side used either their air forces or navies, which would have escalated the war dramatically.

[3] A peace agreement, of sorts, was finally signed by the two nations in October of 2013.

[4] The Japanese did land a few troops on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands during World War II. This was a mistake. Perhaps the most notable thing about the Aleutians is the presence of the largest bears on the planet.

[5] I say help us because it is also in a lot of other nations’ self-interest to protect international shipping.

[6] Imagine someone describing a cat by starting at the atomic level.

[7] It is safe to assume nearly all the people who quote this line haven’t read Clausewitz. I have some sympathy for them. “War is the continuation …” is one of the few simple declarative sentences in the book. One of Clausewitz’s strengths is his attempt to define every term and concept he uses. It also makes him close to unreadable to most people. It is like describing a cat by starting out at the sub-atomic level.  To put it simply, the man never used one subordinate clause when he could use three. I am told it reads better in the original German. It has to.

[8] “The famous hardheaded definition of war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” – Bill Keller, 3/23/2003

[9]“Napoleon’s presence in the field is equal to forty thousand men in the balance.” – The Duke of Wellington.

[10] He could also turn a phrase pretty well: “Never interrupt your opponent when he is making a mistake.”

[11] “Great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character.” – Clausewitz.  Not a simple declarative sentence, but still an impressive one.

[12] I am going to use the word soldier as a stand in for members of all the services so I don’t have to write out “soldiers, sailors, air men and Marines” each time. I hope the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will understand.


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