Suddenly, thanks to the patient and effective work of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman John Murtha—the first national office holder to argue for an end to American involvement in
Clausewitz remains the indispensable reference on matters relating to war, and this is no exception. To understand what is happening today, we can begin with one of his more famous, but also more misunderstood passages—his definition of war as a “paradoxical trinity.” I quote:
“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant characteristics always make war a remarkable trinity--composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”
I shall stop there for a moment, saving the few sentences—which have created a lot of confusion—for the time being. Essentially, Clausewitz is defining war the way the fire triangle defines fire. Just as fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen, war needs 1) primordial violence, passion and hatred; 2) a battlefield on which the two sides try to make things happen (the real meaning, the book makes clear, of “the play of chance and probability”); and a political or policy objective (the same word, politik, has both meanings in German, the language of Clausewitz’s work.
Applying this to the
And that leads us back to the second part of my Clausewitz quote, which follows the first directly:
“The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of the government alone.”
These two sentences have given birth to the widespread misconception that Clausewitz’s trinity is composed of the people, the army, and the government. It isn’t—the actual three elements are those identified above—passion, the battlefield, and policy. But Clausewitz expected to find the passion within the people of the warring state, he counted upon military leaders to try to win the war on the battlefield, and he expected the political leadership rationally (see above) to design the goals of the war. Unfortunately, life is not always that simple. President Bush has often identified himself as a man motivated more by “instinct” and by faith than by reason, and he now seems motivated more by a passion to prove himself right than by any reasoned appreciation of the facts. Moreover, his rhetoric increasingly makes the American troops he has kept in
The American people, meanwhile, have lost their passion for the war and, as in
Clausewitz’s goal in On War, indeed, was to help reason rule conflict, even though he understood that passion would play a key role. Indeed, near the beginning of the book, he wrote that civilized peoples were ruled by reason, barbarians by passion. That, in my opinion, was too optimistic a view. But in an attempt to prepare his contemporaries for the kind of situation we face today, he explained exactly how nations should react when their goals have become too expensive to achieve.
“Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by the political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”
That is a simple, logical statement. It is also what Clausewitz, borrowing from contemporary philosophers, would have called an ideal type: it expresses how things should work in theory, but not how they always work in practice. He wrote his book to try to close that gap. It is a never-ending task. Yesterday the House of Representatives did its part.