Saturday, 19 October 2019

On Clausewitz’s Philosophy of War

The wars of ancient and medieval periods were mostly localized conflicts as the nations didn’t have large standing armies. The scope of their wars, fought mainly through mercenaries and aristocrats, was constrained by all kinds of rules and the ideas of chivalry. But the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the rise of nationalism led to a transformation in warfare. When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 his Grande Armée had a strength of 685,000 men. This was the largest land army that Europe had ever seen.

Carl von Clausewitz was serving as a military officer in Jena when Napoleon invaded Prussia in 1806 and defeated the Prussian army, taking more than 25000 prisoners, including Clausewitz. After being held in France for two years, when Clausewitz returned to Prussia, he participated in several other military campaigns. His book On War (which he wrote between 1816 and 1830) is a systematic and philosophical examination of modern (or nationalist) way of warfare.

Along with being an officer in Prussian military, Clausewitz was also versed in German philosophy. He takes a Kantian approach to warfare and defines two kinds of wars: a real (empirical) war and a pure war. A real war, he says is continuation of state policy by other means and is an act of force that compels the enemy to do our will; whereas a pure war is concerned with only the military aspects of war—deployment of troops, topography of the area where the battle is fought, the arms and ammunitions to be used, the strategies, the maintenance of supply lines, and so on.

The two, real war and pure war, he says, have to be analyzed separately because if political considerations behind the war are mixed with the methods used to fight the war then the military analysis may turn out to be faulty. Real war, he notes, is political, which means it is motivated by political considerations, but a pure war is not concerned with politics—it is focused only on the militaristic considerations that can lead to victory.

Clausewitz makes an important political point—he notes that the success of Napoleon’s war machine in European conflicts is a sign that in future the wars will tend towards being pure wars, because the resources that the nations will pour into the war effort will be much greater than what was possible in the Ancient and Medieval periods. This will lead to the wars become less chivalrous, more violent, and less concerned with political considerations.

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