In essence it is possible to think of war in three ways, namely (1) as an instrument in the hands of policy, (2) as an end in itself, and (3) as both a negation and a combination of the two. Each of these ways leads to important conclusions as to the way in which war ought to be conducted.
The first, or instrumental, way of thinking about war is most often associated with the names of Thucydides and Carl von Clausewitz; today, their line of thought is represented by the so-called neorealists. This school looks at war from the top, as seen by the statesman or the commander. It considers that war is not a divine punishment, as people often thought during the Middle Ages, nor an accident that occurs without being subject to human control, nor some kind of game whose value lies in the entertainment that it offers. Instead it is, or should be, a deliberate act of policy rationally planned for the attainment of rational ends. Once the ends have been selected, one group of people, however organized, sets out to achieve them by killing the members of another group. Each side builds up its forces, arms them, trains them, and deploys them. The dictates of policy may demand that extremes be avoided, moderation exercised, and the enemy offered a way out; however, there is no room for half measures in the idea of war. The harnessing of all available strength results in the creation of a mailed fist, which is then launched in an attempt to break the enemy's will by destroying its armed forces. As a preliminary to this act of destruction, the fist may maneuver this way or that. Nothing prevents the commander from employing every possible stratagem in order to mislead the enemy and set it up for the final blow. In the end, however, and to quote Clausewitz's own words, "the best strategy is always to be as strong as possible; first in general and then at the decisive point."
Sicilian Expedition (Italy, 415 b.c.)
Cannae (Italy, August 216 b.c.)
Teutoburg Forest (Germany, a.d. 9)
Kosovo (Kosovo, June 28, 1389)
Moh[aacute]cs (Hungary, August 29, 1526)
Poltava (Russia, June 27, 1709)
Sedan (France, August-September 1870)
The Somme, First Day (France, July 1, 1916)
Singapore (Singapore, February 1942)
Stalingrad (Russia, September 1942-February 1943)
As the above already suggests, both Thucydides and Clausewitz laid very great emphasis on physical strength while at the same time suggesting that moral strength is, when everything is said and done, even more critical. Clausewitz in particular presents war as the domain of uncertainty, friction, danger, deprivation, physical effort, suffering, pain, and death--to which he might have added long periods of boredom, which can be as corrosive to the military virtues as all other factors put together. However powerful they may be in other respects, no commander, army, or private soldier who is incapable of coping with these problems is worth a fig. Clausewitz's analysis of the moral forces that are needed--courage, determination, endurance, and possibly even a certain callousness that makes soldiers able to bear the sufferings of others and their own--is as admirable as it is brief. Nowhere, however, does he enter into a detailed discussion of the origin of those qualities. And indeed such a discussion is made a priori impossible by the very fact that he represents war as a rational instrument used to attain rational ends.
The excellence of the Clausewitzian way of thinking about war is evident from its widespread acceptance in all developed countries, including both Western ones and those of the former Eastern bloc. However, its emphasis on strength leaves one question wide open: why, over the last fifty years or so, has virtually every powerful, modern armed force in the world suffered defeat at the hands of ill-armed, ill-clad, ill-organized, often illiterate and barefooted militias, guerrillas, and terrorists--the French in Vietnam and Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam and Somalia, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon (except for a narrow strip of land along the border between the two countries) and the occupied territories, and the British in any number of places around the globe. Without exception, these defeats were suffered by people who acknowledged Clausewitz as their master--even if they never read a word he wrote. Without exception, too, they took place on the moral plane. From a material point of view, every one of the armies just mentioned remained intact, and indeed many of them barely even suffered a scratch.
These facts suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Clausewitzian framework. No systematic alternative has ever been presented in the West, although hints as to the solution may be found in writers from Homer through Shakespeare all the way to Friedrich Nietzsche--none of whom is likely to be found on a modern officer's obligatory reading list. From Henry V in front of Harfleur to the [Udie]bermensch playing with danger, the starting point is the "romantic" idea that war does not consist primarily of killing; instead it hinges on the willingness to die if necessary. However, for a person to lay down his life for his interest--let alone that of somebody or something else--is logically absurd. On this obstacle, Clausewitz's entire rational, "strategic" theory of war collapses like a house of cards.
For a soldier or army to lay down their lives they must be convinced, not merely in their brains but to the marrow of their bones, that the cause for which they fight is just. But it is impossible to be strong and just at the same time; to "fight" against the weak is unjust because it is not necessary. Under such circumstances he who kills is a criminal, whereas he who allows himself to be killed is merely a fool. As Vietnam and other examples have demonstrated, this dilemma is quite capable of making an army, even the richest and most powerful one in history, disintegrate, frag its officers, and go home in disgust.
The decisive question, then, is what makes the troops--who represent the vast majority of those involved--prepared to lay down their lives. To this question there can be only one answer: many of the greatest works of art of all history, as well as the entire field of sport and games, prove that coping with danger is a source of joy, and that war, which is not subject to rules and in which anything is permissible, is the greatest joy of all. To quote Nietzsche, a just cause does not make a good war; a good war makes a just cause. A good war, by definition, can be waged only against an enemy at least as strong as oneself--and the longer the conflict, the more true this becomes. The secret of victory is to wage war in such a way that soldiers can fight while at the same time keeping, even increasing, their self-respect as human beings. Only after that do numbers, organization, strategy, technology, and so on enter the picture.
These frameworks, the expressive and the instrumental, are diametrically opposed. Truth must combine them both--and, at the same time, negate them both. That is the achievement of the greatest of all writers on war, the Chinese Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu, who may have lived during the second half of the first millennium b.c., belonged to the school of thought known as Taoism (from tao, best translated as "cosmic harmony"). Taoism knows neither ends nor means, justice nor injustice, let alone joy. The world is the product of necessity. The perfect philosopher's understanding-without-understanding is identical with the world. The latter floats his way, as it were, with no action on his part.
And now, to the real nature of war. It is neither a matter for self-expression nor an instrument, but an evil, not in any moral sense but because it disturbs tao. Nevertheless, owing to the willful actions of people who do not understand this, it is sometimes necessary; thus the question as to what makes the troops prepared to fight scarcely arises. From commander in chief to common soldier, everybody will do what is necessary, necessity being the one force that can make people prepared to risk their lives and at the same time justify their deaths. However, necessity is not for individual soldiers to judge on their own. When the emperor's concubines, whom he had formed into an army, disobeyed his orders, Sun Tzu had the chief concubine beheaded. Without iron discipline, backed by drastic punishment, no army can exist. Discipline is the commander's way of imposing necessity on the common soldier.
The most important questions having been both evaded and answered, the conduct of operations may now be discussed. The objective should be to restore tao by using the least force necessary, which presupposes "perfect knowledge of oneself and the enemy." "The best way is diplomacy; if you cannot use diplomacy, resort to dirty tricks [for example, assassinating the enemy commander]; if you cannot use dirty tricks, maneuver; if you cannot maneuver, fight a pitched battle; and if a pitched battle won't work, lay a siege [which is the most stupid way of all, since the enemy has every advantage on his side]." Contrary to Clausewitz, Sun Tzu states, "All warfare is based [less on strength than] on deceit"; it is a question of deliberately confusing reality and appearances to the point that the enemy no longer knows which is which and then of "throwing rocks at eggs." Needless to say, this requires immense intellectual and, even more so, moral gifts. On the other hand, the mere fact that one is constrained to fight proves that one's gifts were inadequate to maintain tao, the only perfect state.
Of the various frameworks for thinking about war, Sun Tzu's is the best as well as one of the briefest. Though there are four different English translations of The Art of War currently available, the book is ill understood, particularly by those who have accepted On War as their frame of reference. The impotence of the Russian Army in front of a few ill-armed Chechen is merely the latest proof that the developed world's "strategic" view of war is bankrupt. Sooner or later, those who cannot fight will find themselves forced to do so; let those who have ears to hear, listen!
MARTIN VAN CREVELD
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1976); Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (1991); Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (1966); Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Thomas Clancy (1988).
The Reader's Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
How to Cite this Page:
War. (2013). The History Channel website. Retrieved 5:01, December 11, 2013, from http://www.history.com/topics/war.
War. [Internet]. 2013. The History Channel website. Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/war [Accessed 11 Dec 2013].
“War.” 2013. The History Channel website. Dec 11 2013, 5:01 http://www.history.com/topics/war.
“War,” The History Channel website, 2013, http://www.history.com/topics/war [accessed Dec 11, 2013].
“War,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/war (accessed Dec 11, 2013).
War [Internet]. The History Channel website; 2013 [cited 2013 Dec 11] Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/war.
War, http://www.history.com/topics/war (last visited Dec 11, 2013).
War. The History Channel website. 2013. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/war. Accessed Dec 11, 2013.