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Clausewitz and Pynchon: Post-Romantic War in Gravity's Rainbow

Nick Spencer
[email protected]
Emory University

Despite multiple claims that the era of postmodernity represents a radical shift in the epistemology and ontology of western societies, many commentators stress the continuities between postmodernism and earlier historical periods. Such a project either takes the form of discerning postmodernism avant la lettre—say in the literary texts of Cervantes, Sterne, or Joyce, or the philosophies of the pre-Socratics—or of assessing traces and residues from the political, cultural, and philosophical past which remain within contemporary western culture. In this latter respect, the legacy of romanticism has been particularly strong. Even those elements which are apparently unique to postmodernism—the technologization of experience and the decentering of subjectivity, to name but two—are partly derivative of romanticist notions such as the mystification of electricity and scientific devices, and the awareness of unconscious forces which can overwhelm and fragment the subject.

The enduring power of romanticism has perhaps nowhere been more apparent than in analyses of modern war. This is due, in part, to the fact that Carl von Clausewitz's On War, a philosophical and military treatise based on Napoleon's campaigns, has been the most influential modern assessment of military tactics and strategy. Throughout what Raymond Aron calls the century of total war, Clausewitz has continued to be the point of reference in military discussions. The British military historians J.F.C. Fuller and Liddell Hart indict Clausewitz as the ideological father of Germany's offensives in World Wars I and II, and authors such as Michael Handel describe military thinking in the post-Vietnam United States as neo-Clausewitzian. In an attempt to ascertain the extent to which the romanticist conception of war is active within postmodernism, I shall, firstly, provide a revisionary reading of On War, and, secondly, analyze Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, one of the canonical texts of American postmodernism, in terms of its articulation of romantic and post-romantic understandings of war.

Most recent and contemporary discussions of On War try to separate Clausewitz from the total wars of the twentieth-century, and then rescue him as the theorist of the limited campaigns of the late cold war and post-cold war era. Such readings invariably emphasize Clausewitz's definition of "real" war and marginalize his concomitant positing of "absolute" war. This procedure is highly problematic since it disguises the extent to which Clausewitz's definitions of war make a precise match with the definition of total war; it also obscures the romanticist sensibility of On War.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines total war as "a war to which all resources and the whole population are committed; loosely, a war conducted without any scruples or limitations." As this definition makes clear, total war refers to both the logistical deployment of resources within the warring nation, and the extent to which the warred-upon nation is subjected to war. On War was almost wholly derived from the methods of Napoleonic warfare which Clausewitz regarded as the incarnation of war's primal tendency to become absolute: "in the campaigns of Buonoparte, the conduct of War attained to that unlimited degree of energy which we have represented as the natural law of the element. This degree is therefore possible, and if it is possible then it is necessary" (Clausewitz 291). Clausewitz's notion of absolute war refers to an inherent tendency of war and therefore it accords most closely with that aspect of the definition of total war which refers to the carrying out of war upon the enemy to the point of annihilation; it seems to have scant connection with that other aspect of this definition, of total war as the marshaling of the entirety of resources, until we realize that this last was the fundamental characteristic of Napoleon's revolutionary army, from whose actual exploits the theory of absolute war was derived.

Despite the strong correlation between Clausewitz's theory of absolute war and total war, neo-Clausewitzians emphasize that it is the definition of real war, not absolute war, which is of enduring importance in Clausewitz's theory. It is true that Clausewitz's theory hinges upon the distinction between absolute or total war and real war, but the ratios between terms are misrepresented in the neo-Clausewitzian model. For Clausewitz, absolute war is a single, total movement which is unremittingly continued to the point of the enemy's destruction; in absolute war there is no pause and no neutral space. Real war consists of singular, separate encounters between which "standing still and doing nothing [are] quite plainly the normal condition of an Army. . . , acting the exception" (Clausewitz 291). The relation between absolute and real war is clearly stated in the proposition that "the first [is] to be laid as a fundamental idea at the root of everything, and. . . the latter shall only be used as a modification which is justified by circumstances" (Clausewitz 372). In other words, Clausewitz suggests that absolute war is of primary concern, whereas real war is to become an issue only in those cases where absolute war goes unrealized.

Whilst absolute war is of greater theoretical importance, real war is in practice more common, a point seized upon by neo-Clausewitzians. Clausewitz is thus led to ask "Why is the philosophical conception not satisfied?" (Clausewitz 368). The mournful tone of Clausewitz's prose indicates his severe regret that real war is overwhelmingly prevalent (Clausewitz 293), and his despondency leads him to "doubt whether our notion of its [war's] absolute character or nature was founded in reality, if we had not seen real warfare make its appearance in this absolute completeness just in our own times" (Clausewitz 369). Clausewitz is brought back from the brink of abandoning the concept of absolute war by the reality of Napoleonic war, and he is consequently exultant that the actions of Napoleon have replaced the cautious emphasis on contingency and chance with a proud and reckless spirit of intrinsic force and the will to power. Driven by this exultation, On War is a call to emulate Napoleonic total war. Clausewitz speaks scathingly of those "Brahmins" who propagate "the illusion" (Clausewitz 344), destroyed by Napoleon, that battles may be limited or even avoided, and he will accept no reason for not unleashing the "annihilation-principle" (Clausewitz 342) of total war (Clausewitz 305, 328, 345).

To the neo-Clausewitzian, Clausewitz's references to absolute war are simply part of his Kantian baggage, echoes of an ideal category which is an occasional nuisance in his analysis of practical, limited war. However, such a reading totally misunderstands Clausewitz's romanticism, which is centered on the realization that, in absolute war, an ideal category has been made manifest: it is the incarnation of the annihilation-principle of absolute war as the French revolutionary army under the autocratic leadership of Napoleon which defines Clausewitz's romanticism. Clausewitz was aware that Napoleonic war was enabled by political factors, namely, that total war was made possible by the total involvement of the population. Moreover, he theorized that a clear assessment of the political objectives of war was necessary for the assault to become absolute (Clausewitz 374). Clausewitz's advocation of political clarity is not, therefore, due to his realization that most wars are real wars and thus it is they which are to be steered towards obtainable political goals; on the contrary, a clear political objective, as maintained by the visionary genius of the military leader, is advocated as the crucial means by which absolute war can be manifested. Paradoxically, Clausewitz believes that in order for the absolute essence of war to be realized, the military point of view is to be subordinated to the political; once again this should not lead us to conclude that Clausewitz perceived the political in terms of the pragmatics of limited and real war, but that the political is fundamentally identifiable with the essence of war (Clausewitz 402, 403). In this sense it is the very strength of the martial forces which requires Clausewitz to insist so gravely on the need for political control, as exercised by the "genius" (Clausewitz 184) of the military general.

The individual genius of the leader; a mass, revolutionary army which supports itself by looting as it goes; the tendency towards the complete destruction of the enemy; the importance of politics in attaining these ends: such are the elements of Clausewitz's romanticist military theory. If we wish to examine the postmodern legacy of this theory, we may be tempted to follow the neo-Clausewitzian emphasis on limited or provisional engagements such as Libya, Panama, or the Gulf War, an emphasis which bears a striking resemblance to Rorty's neopragmatism and Lyotard's advocation of "paralogism" and micro-narratives. However, this is to wildly distort the perspectives of these philosophers and to neglect significant relationships between Clausewitz's romanticism and postmodernism. It is more fruitful to assess how the terms of Clausewitz's analysis have mutated under the pressure exerted by various forces within the century of total war. As John Keegan, Lewis Mumford, and numerous other commentators have observed, the greatest difference between war as witnessed by Clausewitz and the total wars of the twentieth century was due to the technological and organizational changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Ironically, these changes meant that, in total war, the destruction of the enemy's army was less important than the destruction of industrial centers. Similarly, the arena of war had itself "rapidly shifted from the battlefield to the rear; from war to pre-war preparations in peacetime; from the soldier to the worker, inventor and scientist" (Handel 55). According to William James, this change did not mean that battles decreased in extent or number (in fact they increased) but that their structural importance within the overall operations of war was reduced.

In Clausewitzian terms, the increasing technologization of war enabled the inherent tendency of war to become absolute to override political control, but this position was attained via a decreased structural significance of the battle and an increase in the importance of economic and technological factors: war's absolutist tendency, it would seem, was to burst the banks of traditional warfare and seep into the entire societal field. Using the example of the immobilization of the German and French war machines on the Marne, Anatol Rapoport states how the "now senseless slaughter must be ascribed to the systemic properties of the war itself rather than to the use of war as an instrument of policy" (Clausewitz 47). However, to say that this form of war is no longer Clausewitzian, as Rapoport does, is only partially true; total war of the sort witnessed on the Marne may have nothing to do with Clausewitz's idea of a clear and authoritative political objective to war, but, as we have seen, this political dimension was only of interest to Clausewitz in so far as it facilitated the manifestation of absolute war. The catalyst of politics, as well as the leader-principle and the concept of a nation-in-arms, could be jettisoned when technological factors became a more reliable means for ensuring that absolute war, in the guise of total war, would be manifested.

In Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, technologization and bureaucratization further threaten the romanticist components of Clausewitz's definition of war. Khachig Tölölyan, in his `War as Background in Gravity's Rainbow,' discusses the routinization of war in the context of both the V-2 program and the IG Farben cartel, which represent the interfacing of science, business, the military and the political hierarchy and bureaucracy within the Nazi military-industrial complex or any other modern war state. The program and the cartel are, for Tölölyan, the means by which Pynchon evokes war as a state of power which is designed to endure beyond the limits of total war. War is utilized by those power structures embodied in the program and the cartel "to blind us to their own existence" (Tölölyan 60), an existence which remains precisely the same in periods of war and non-war.

Tölölyan's analysis is limited because the complexity of the dynamic between war and non-war in Gravity's Rainbow needs to be examined more fully. This dynamic is not simply one of continuity, where the differences between war and non-war are erased, but one involving the phase of total war as a preparatory moment in the manifestation of the power structures of war, so that the later phase of non-war, or simulated war, marks the moment when such structures become fully operational. Therefore, total war in Gravity's Rainbow is one stage in the emergence of the structures of war which only come to be realized under the sign of simulated war.

War is nowhere in Gravity's Rainbow in the sense that the phenomena of the total war of World War 2—battles and other military ensembles—are utterly bypassed, since the novel's narrative lines are patterned around rather than within zones of conflict. On the other hand, war is everywhere because Pynchon repeatedly makes use of the term but does so according to a reconfigured meaning in which total war is intensified by being made invisible. Two key images from Gravity's Rainbow will illustrate this point. Firstly, Pirate Prentice's dream of evacuation, which opens the novel, encapsulates Pynchon's martial dynamic whereby the attempt to escape from war is actually a return to the site of war: "not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into" (GR 3): this movement informs the entirety of Gravity's Rainbow, where the post-VE day geopolitical reconfigurations constitute a deepening of rather than an evacuation from the state of war. Secondly, one of the tenets of Pavlovian conditioning in Pynchon's novel is expressed by Ivan Petrovich as "a silent extinction beyond the zero" (GR 85). Referring to the continued existence of an experimental effect in the absence of any cause or stimulus, this notion encapsulates how war goes transmarginal in Gravity's Rainbow, its disciplinary and control structures being maintained without reference to actual military conflict.

How is this state of affairs related to Clausewitz's descriptions of war? Since war in Gravity's Rainbow refers to a post-military phase, the romanticist notions of the individual military genius and the nation-in-arms have clearly become redundant. The agency of the political has also been undermined in Gravity's Rainbow. Power is invested in the increasingly autonomous multinational corporations and supra-military rather than in national governments or political leaders. According to Paul Virilio, this transpolitical era of global communications technologies and transnational pacts and policies defines postmodernism; it is also the direct outcome of increased technologization which, for Virilio, is always driven by military needs.

In Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon represents the transpolitical by extrapolating the implications of historians' speculations, and suggesting that both war and politics are ruses or fronts for the reconfiguration of power. Both Joseph Borkin and Richard Sasuly, two of the most prominent historians of the IG Farben cartel in the Nazi era, make reference to the possibility that IG Farben was pursuing a "transmartial" policy whereby war was simply a means of preparing and reconfiguring power which was to be attained in the postwar phase. Borkin notes that even though IG plants were frequent targets of Allied bombing raids, it was suggested that such raids must have been aimed at German heavy water facilities rather than IG plant since there was an agreement between heavy industry in Germany and abroad that the former's synthetic gasoline plants would not be destroyed (Borkin 130). Sasuly documents that in addition to the shadowy possibility of transnational industrial pacts, the potential existed that IG plants would remain operative into the postwar phase. Sasuly graphically describes the IG munitions installations built by the Nazis in the Bavarian forest towards the end of the war. Construction on one such factory was commenced in August 1944 and was never completed, a situation which Sasuly interprets as indicating that the plant was simply "waiting" (Sasuly 5) to be transformed into a munitions factory; this facility was to be a "completely bombproof factory" (Sasuly 5), like the Bavarian Motor Works in Munich which was externally destroyed by Allied bombing yet which remained internally intact and never ceased production until the war's curtailment.

The textual hypothesis of Gravity's Rainbow is that war structures are not simply extended into the phase of pure war, but that they are fulfilled in the absence of combat. Actual war may be declared, but as some form of alibi, aimed at suggesting that war is an exceptional rather than a typical state of affairs. In Gravity's Rainbow, this dynamic is exemplified by Enzian's illumination in the disused and decrepit Jamf Ölfabriken Werke AG (a Nazi oil refinery), an experience which intensifies Sasuly's ruminations on the IG munitions installations and Motor Works in Bavaria. Enzian realizes that the factory has in fact been reconstituted in perfect working order rather than destroyed by the Allied bombing, and he concludes that the functioning of the refinery during wartime was simply a preliminary operation which is now facilitating its true, intended functioning in the postwar phase. Accordingly, total war is not `war' at all, it is, for Enzian, the preparation for the ultimate state of war, the state of simulated war:

This serpentine slag-heap he [Enzian] is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery...is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on...modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides - "sides?" - had always agreed on [...] if what the IG built on this site were not at all the final shape of it, but only an arrangement of fetishes, come-ons to call down special tools in the form of 8th AF bombers...the bombing was the exact industrial process of conversion, each release of energy placed exactly in space and time, each shockwave plotted in advance to bring precisely tonight's wreck into being (GR 520).

In every respect, then, Gravity's Rainbow points towards a phase in which all the components of romanticist, Clausewitzian war have been abandoned. However, Pynchon always refers to this process of supercession as "the War." As I have emphasized, Clausewitz also defines his particular military terms as vehicles, as the means by which absolute war is to be manifested. Is "the War," as described by Pynchon, equivalent to Clausewitz's absolute war? Virilio is helpful in clarifying this relationship: his concept of "pure war" is identical to the state to which Gravity's Rainbow tends, and this is defined as the animating principle of absolute war:

Pure War is neither peace nor war; nor is it, as was believed, `absolute' or `total' war. Rather, it is the military procedure itself, in its ordinary durability. The balance of terror, the nuclear coalition, peaceful coexistence—in short, the dissolution of the state of war and the military's infiltration into the movements of daily life—reproduce the metamorphoses of the hunter: from direct confrontation of the wild animal; to progressive control over the movements of certain species; then, with the help of the dog, to guarding semi-wild flocks; and finally to reproduction, breeding (Virilio 35).

Both Virilio and Pynchon define war as "the military procedure itself" which lies beneath and beyond Clausewitz's definitions of absolute and real war. The annihilation-principle of absolute war as the essence of war is absent from Gravity's Rainbow. In this sense, war in Pynchon's novel is post-romantic, although we must qualify this by saying that Gravity's Rainbow witnesses the final manifestation of "the military procedure itself" which, according to Virilio, is the actual basis upon which Clausewitz's romantic conception of absolute war, and with it real war, was founded.

We must also qualify this analysis by saying that actual military encounters are evident in both Gravity's Rainbow and postmodern culture at large. How are these wars related to the military procedure itself? Limited military engagements are reflective of the state of simulated war, as defined by Baudrillard in his writings on the Gulf War. Immediately prior to the commencement of Operation Desert Shield Baudrillard wrote, in an article translated as `The Reality Gulf,' that the Gulf War would not take place, perceiving the immanent conflict as a "weak" or "non-war" (Baudrillard 1991 25) which has been entirely fabricated, in which nothing is at stake, where the outcome is completely pre-determined and which is devoid of a formal declaration and thus also of a formal armistice; as such, it is a "spectacle of excess" (Barthes 15) (as Barthes defined wrestling), and it bears the same relation to "real" war as wrestling does to "real" sport. Civilians and soldiers will certainly die, but the basic reality of rational, political, Clausewitzian war is swallowed up in the simulations of media saturation; similarly, in Gravity's Rainbow, populations are subject to Control and Death but, even where war is invoked, this term lacks denotative substantiality and instead is simply a connotative ruse of power:

[A] war is not any the less heinous for being a mere simulacrum - the flesh suffers just the same, and the dead ex-combatants count as much there as in other wars ... What no longer exists is the adversity of adversaries, the reality of antagonistic causes, the ideological seriousness of war—also the reality of defeat or victory, war being a process whose triumph lies quite beyond these appearances (Baudrillard 1983 70).

For both Baudrillard and Pynchon, populations are hostages to believe in the reality of war so that they will differentiate this from the everyday experience of deterrence. In this respect, Baudrillard's Gulf conflict and Pynchon's simulated war are "deterrence machine[s]" which simulate war just as Watergate simulates scandal and Disneyland simulates the imaginary:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the `real' country, all of `real' America, which is Disneyland ... Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle (Baudrillard 1983 25).

In Gravity's Rainbow, war refers to the post-romantic military procedure itself, and actual military conflict is a simulation designed to disguise this procedure. By taking military theaters such as the Gulf War as their object of analysis, neo-Clausewitzians mistake the ephemera of Clausewitz's theory for its essence and, in so doing, they are party to this simulation. Pynchon, like Virilio and Baudrillard, seeks to expose this simulatory state of affairs and to suggest that it is absolute war, rather than real war, which has been the engine of armed conflicts in the twentieth-century. Under the conditions of postmodernism, war has finally dispensed with absolute war, the last vestige of its romanticist inheritance, by trading the external annihilation of military conflict for the internalized domination of social control.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Paladin, 1973.

Baudrillard, Jean 'The Reality Gulf.' The Guardian 11 Jan. 1991: 25.

---. Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Borkin, Joseph. The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited with an Introduction by Anatol Rapoport. London: Penguin, 1968.

Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1969.

Handel, Michael I. "Clausewitz in the Age of Technology." Clausewitz and Modern Strategy. Edited by Michael I. Handel. London: Frank Cass, 1986. 51-92.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. London: Random House, 1993.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1947.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

Sasuly, Richard. IG Farben. New York: Boni & Gaer, 1947.

Tölölyan, Khachig. "War as Background in Gravity's Rainbow." Approaches To Gravity's Rainbow. Edited by Charles Clerc. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983. 31-67.

Virilio, Paul. Popular Defense and Ecological Strategies. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.