article is reproduced with permission from "The Marxist Review of
Books," Living Marxism (later simply LM, now defunct) issue 73, November 1994. Kirsten
Cale is a journalist specializing in international relations. She
is based in Britain. The article, written at the height of the Rwanda
and Bosnia crises, was a response to the deluge of books and newspaper
pieces attributing conflict to atavistic prejudices. Four years down
the line, it seemed to her that Freud has usurped Clausewitz et
al as the interpreter of warfare.
Today's military thinkers
seem to be dedicated to mystifying the drive towards war, says Kirsten
A History of Warfare, John
Keegan, Hutchinson, £20 hbk, Pimlico, £8.99 pbk
War Machine: The Rationalisation
of Slaughter in the Modern Age, Daniel Pick, Yale University Press,
War and the Rise of the
State, Bruce D Porter, The Free Press, £19.95 hbk
On Future War, Martin van
Creveld, Brassey's, £26.50 hbk
maxim, "war is the continuation of policy," is being written out of existence.
Forget politics: the message today is that war is caused by tribal atavism
or psychic self-gratification. "The real reason why we have wars is that
men like fighting," asserts Martin van Creveld in On Future War (p221).
"Warfare," says John Keegan in his History of Warfare, "reaches into
the most secret places of the human heart." (p3)
In the new military
thinking, the rational is sacrificed for the irrational. The link between
politics and war is rejected, and links between conflict and human nature
proposed in its place. In the interpretations of these military theorists,
war is transformed from a means to an end into an end in itself, the product
of forces beyond human control - whether human nature, sexual characteristics
Van Creveld might
deny the existence of a "war gland" or "aggressive gene," but he asserts
that given a choice, "men might very well give up women before they give
up war." (p222) And while Keegan detours into the brain's "seat of aggression,"
he concludes that, "half of human nature - the female half - is in any
case highly ambivalent about war-making." (p75)
Are wars merely
a matter of sex and psychology - or are they waged purposefully by rational
men and women? Let's examine the emergence and the dissolution of the
concept of war as an object of rational enquiry.
was really born in the Enlightenment --the eighteenth-century Age of Reason.
Enlightenment men turned to human reason, rather than God, to understand
the world. They set themselves the task of revealing the universal principles
that governed natural and social phenomena, ordering and explaining the
world in rational terms.
The wars of the
time were often cautious and inconclusive because monarchs wanted to husband
expensive manpower and scarce resources. Army manoeuvres were primarily
defensive and organised around the forts that still dotted the European
countryside. The speed of war was dictated by the speed of men and draft
animals. Cast iron siege weapons had to be dragged to the field, accompanied
by great wagon trains of supplies to feed the beasts that dragged the
weapons - for example, it took 16000 horses and 3000 wagons to drag the
18 heavy guns and 20 siege mortars of the Duke of Marlborough's army in
Yet despite the
economic backwardness of eighteenth-century Europe, the impact of the
Enlightenment on military theory is incontestable. The most lasting legacy
of the early military theorists was the military academy. The age of reason
had spawned the idea that war should be studied, and academies were set
up in Austria and France in 1752, in Prussia in 1765, in Bavaria in 1789.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, the Royal Military College was founded in 1799,
West Point in 1802 and Sandhurst in 1812. The economic and social transformations
that began towards the end of the eighteenth century allowed the new military
elites to put larger and more lethal armies into the field of battle.
The French Revolution
and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, which began in 1789 and ended with
the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, sent shock waves through European societies
and revolutionised warfare. When the French battalions of the revolutionary
government beat a Prussian intervention force back at Valmy in 1792, the
poet Goethe consoled one of his defeated compatriots: "From this place
and from this day begins a new era in the history of the world, and you
will be able to say, I was there."
and Napoleonic wars had their own enlightened interpreter - Carl von Clausewitz,
the great advocate of the application of reason to conflict. As a Prussian,
who spent his entire military career fighting the French - on the Rhine
in 1793, then in the battles of Auerstadt (1806), Borodino (1812) and
Wavre (1815)--Clausewitz was well qualified to reflect on the success
of the Napoleonic campaigns.
Like others, he
was astonished by the speed, mobility and mass of revolutionary warfare.
The plans of generals --schooled in eighteenth-century wars of manoeuvre
and drill - were useless in the face of armies inspired by patriotism
and revolutionary fervour. Clausewitz spoke of the French as "a force
that beggared all imagination. Suddenly war became the business of the
people - a people of 30 millions, all of whom considered themselves citizens."
careful note of the political factors that gave shape to the new warfare,
especially the mobilisation and motivation of the French army. In France,
the revolution ennobled soldiering. Men fought for the Republic and for
liberation, as citizens, not subjects: as patriotic bearers of nationhood,
not the brutalised prisoners and mercenaries of the armies of the ancien
regime. This new kind of soldier, who was less likely to desert, enabled
French commanders under the new military supremo, Napoleon Bonaparte,
to try out the tactics advocated by some earlier military theorists.
They abandoned the
rigid lines of troops used by other armies of the period. They skirmished
in open formation, and attacked in great masses. They developed efficient
mobile artillery that could support infantry at all phases of combat.
They broke armies up into smaller units that could operate more flexibly
and independently. And they solved the problem of supplying huge armies
by getting soldiers to live off the land. Napoleon became the master of
initiative, concentration and surprise.
These changes prompted
Clausewitz to ask: what is war? By setting the European wars in the context
of political and social change he arrived at the insight that guided his
theory: war was not a thing in itself, but was shaped by politics. As
he wrote in the first chapter of On War, published in 1832, after
his death, "war is nothing but the continuation of policy by other means."
After the carnage
of Verdun in 1916, it seemed that the Gatling, the Browning, the Lewis
and Maxim machine guns had snatched the lethal initiative from soldiers,
generals and planners
Every war is the
product of deliberate, calculated decision. No war is ever conducted without
political purpose. Men do not fight because they are of a particular culture
or sex, but because they are the instruments of reasoned and deliberate
policy. If you want to understand war, look at politics.
belief that war was a rational human activity has been superseded by the
twentieth-century prejudice that war is guided by the inhuman and the
insane. It is not hard to understand why modern theorists want to deny
the deliberate character of modern warfare. Unlike the revolutionary wars
of the past, modern warfare has nothing positive about it.
Instead of fighting
for the liberation of nations from the ancien regime, warfare in
the twentieth century has put millions into the field in the interests
of Great Power rivalry and the domination of weaker nations. In the first
half of the twentieth century, international competition between the major
economic powers laid the basis for a cycle of world wars, colonial domination,
and almost continual slaughter.
From the Accrington
Pals wiped out on the Western Front to the fleeing Iraqi conscripts caught
in what one US airman described as a "turkey-shoot," twentieth-century
warriors can be forgiven for thinking that warfare is indeed inhuman and
insane. But the appeal of the modern theory of war as something beyond
rationality is that it excuses the policy-makers and generals who make
Theories which summon
up the rage of the unconscious, the spectre of willed machines and "smart"
missiles, the march of human automatons, and the rapacious and self-generating
"military industrial complexes" have contributed to the belief that war
is beyond human comprehension and control. Without a rational guiding
principle, war can be presented as an unstoppable technological vortex
of violence and mass destruction. Machines appear to govern men in combat.
The experience of Ypres and the Somme showed, as John Ellis notes, that
"man himself was no longer the master of the battlefield...all that mattered
was the machinery of war" (The Social History of the Machine Gun, 1993,
After the carnage
of Verdun in 1916, when a French general noted that, "three men and a
machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes," (quoted in War and the
Rise of the State, p149), it seemed that the Gatling, the Browning,
the Lewis and Maxim machine guns had snatched the lethal initiative from
soldiers, generals and planners. During the Cold War, the Bomb was seen
to dominate issues of war and peace. Today, the Patriot missile, "smart"
bombs, satellites, and guided mini-nukes appear to reign over conflict
in the post-Cold War world.
theories have the practical effect of denigrating politics, and absolving
those responsible from blame. Wars do not start by themselves: they start
because external political interests decide war is expedient to the powers
that be. As the conservative British military historian Michael Howard
rightly notes, "However inchoate or disreputable the motives for war may
be, its initiation is almost by definition a deliberate and carefully
considered act and its conduct...a matter of very precise central control.
If history shows any record of accidental wars, I have yet to find them"
(The Causes of Wars, 1983, p12).
These theories also
have the effect of displacing aggression away from the aggressors and
on to pieces of machinery. Who incinerated 200000 people in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki? The nuclear weapons named Fat Man and Little Boy (not Harry
Truman). Who killed 200000 Iraqis? "Smart" bombs (not American and British
The loss of rational
principle in war also enables the military thinkers to present war - at
least the wars of which they disapprove - as the activity of crazies governed
by deep-seated atavistic impulses. This is especially true since the end
of the political divide of East and West that used to suggest at least
a semblance of ideological differences. Today, wars are invariably seen
in anthropological terms. Conflicts which have been spawned by Great Power realpolitik are redefined as wars caused by ancient tribal and
ethnic animosities. Culture, not politics, is taken to be the well-spring
of conflict was an intermittent feature of the past century. In War
Machine, Daniel Pick notes that the 1870 Franco-Prussian War gave
rise to extensive debates about the raw, virile Teutons and cultured,
effete French (pp97-106). Throughout the Second World War, the Japanese
and Germans were accused of militaristic instincts inculcated by generations
of Junkers and Samurai - if not through harsh toilet training. Today,
though, the backdrop of cultural typecasting that used to run alongside
the political explanations of conflict has become the whole case for war,
as the Rwandans and the Serbs are accused of imbibing hatred with their
of war to cultural traits is by no means confined to foreigners. The "nationalist"
masses are regularly accused of "forcing" the Western elites to march
to war - a shameless inversion of reality. During the Boer War, the liberal
John Hobson denigrated the masses for "the democratic saturnalia of Ladysmith
and Mafeking Days," when people celebrated British victories, and condemned
"the black slime of [the jingoist's] malice" (quoted in War Machine, p113).
John Keegan especially
exemplifies the view that modern warfare has been so barbaric precisely
because of its popular character. In A History of Warfare he puts
a malevolent twist on Clausewitz's doctrine. Writing about conscription,
Keegan argues that it was Clausewitz's "single powerful idea," the idea
of militant nationalism that "turn[ed] Europe into a warrior society"
in the period from 1813 to 1913:
"This rite de
passage became an important cultural form in European life, an experience
common to almost all young European males and, through its universality,
its ready acceptance by electorates as a social norm and its inescapable
militarisation of society, a further validation of Clausewitz's dictum
that war was a continuation of political activity. If peoples voted for
conscription or acquiesced in conscription laws, how could it be denied
that war and politics indeed belonged together on the same continuum."
of the relationship between militarism and democracy stands reality on
its head. As he sees it, democracy puts government at the mercy of the
machismo of the masses. But militarism came straight from the top of European
societies that were trying to head off the democratic challenge to their
rule. Far from acquiescing to conscription laws, electorates resisted
conscription, and during the First World War rank-and-file infantrymen
mutinied on many fronts, while rebellions in Ireland, imperial Russia
and Germany frustrated the war efforts of the great powers.
between war and democracy is all the more questionable today, when most
governments are uniquely unpopular and the old nationalist symbols have
been discredited as a consequence of the unravelling of the politics of
the Cold War. Back in the days of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher
could whip up a degree of popular support by waving the flag for "our
boys." Today, as the debacle over the D-Day commemoration demonstrates,
such old-fashioned patriotic tub-thumping will not work for John Major.
If Keegan's assessment
were correct, conflicts in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti would be the
result of popular mobilisations. Indeed they are presented as such: the
popular mobilisations of third world nationalists like Saddam, Aideed
and Milosevic. But the real record is that contemporary militarism is
a policy generated in the West in an attempt to redeem the authority of
unpopular governments. Bruce Porter, predicting an unravelling of the
American state, says "we can expect growing public disdain for the political
process, rising unrest in the inner cities, proposals for radical constitutional
change, third-party movements, one-term presidents and a serious national
identity crisis over what it means to be an American" (War and the
Rise of the State, p295). It is this crisis of political legitimacy,
rather than technology or mass demand that provides the backdrop to contemporary
Time and again,
Western leaders have sought out the international stage to promote an
impression of decisive action. Standing up to third world leaders with
little fire-power and even less support is a cheap way for Western politicians
to walk tall in the world. Military intervention overseas provides a less
intractable arena for policy-makers than domestic politics, where politicians
and their programmes are held in contempt by electorates.
Despite having been
elected on the basis of concentrating on America's domestic problems,
Bill Clinton has been at the forefront of military intervention in the
third world. But even here the American electorate have been pointedly
unenthusiastic about Clinton's sabre-rattling. The current intervention
in Haiti has been marked by a distinct lack of public support.
As to the popularity
of third world nationalism, the Haitian intervention demonstrates that
there is little enthusiasm for that either. Although the Organisation
of American States intervention was supposed to take on the Haitian military
rulers, the US forces' principal activity has been to defend Colonel Raoul
Cedras and his supporters from the vengeance of the Haitian people. Even
in the Balkans, where the image of profound nationalist movements seems
to have some content, the reality is different. Few of the nationalist
movements that emerged after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact command much
support. Once portrayed as the new Nazis, the rump Yugoslav republic of
Slobodan Milosevic has little stomach for conflict and has sued for peace
with the West.
Where current conflicts
call out for a clear explanation, the academics' mystification of the
war drive only serve as an apologia for Western militarism. Every conceivable
variable, from the biological to the cultural and psychological is invoked
to explain war - every variable except the interests of those capitalist
powers that have been at the forefront of promoting militarism. In the
spirit of Clausewitz, we should relocate the drive towards war where it
belongs - in the realm of the political machinations of the Western elites.