Monday, May 28, 2012

On War, a New Edition?

The time has come, it seems to me, for some latter-day Carl von Clausewitz to write a new book on war. This came to mind as I read this morning a story in the New York Times about an ongoing debate about U.S. war-doctrine at West Point, particularly regarding counter-insurgency—described in the story as “the troop-heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools, and government.” Can the latter part of that description be shortened to “nation building”?

I had an occasion the other day (May 15) to mention Clausewitz’s famous saying that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Our political aim in pursuing war appears to be to rebuild other nations. In the old days the object of war was either defeating an organized opponent, followed by extracting tribute while leaving it otherwise alone or the incorporation of the conquered realm into the victor’s own. Nation building is a kind of intermediate result. We remake the conquered into another kind of nation; after that happy outcome, they act in concert with us without requiring direct administration.

Where does counter-insurgency come into the picture? It enters for the paradoxical reason that our might is so great, conquest, per se, is a forgone conclusion. No effective conventional defense is possible. Insurgency arises, however, because in the modern world, where everything is so connected, it is possible to “continue war by other means,” thus by terrorist disruptions of the new order, by blowing up people, buildings, pipelines, and what have you. To which, under the Petraeus doctrine, the proper response is bribing the locals with roads and schools while “training” soldiers and police and “educating” the carefully selected governing elite by frequent harangues against corruption (the stick) and offers of greater subsidies (the carrot).

Neo-Clausewitz might begin by examining the rationale for nation building as a sufficient cause for war. The old Clausewitz characterized war as “a fascinating trinity” made up of violence (hatred and enmity, resident in the folk), chance (which governs the activities of generals and soldiers), and political aims (in the hands of government). In modern war the attacking government produces the first of these by fear-mongering and propaganda (weapons of mass destruction, etc.) else the war would have no backing. Insurgency, in turn, is aimed at the attacker’s population as well—making the people back home wonder if this disaster will ever end. The happy conveyor of both is the Media, with opportunities to underwrite it all with advertising.

Neo-Clausewitz has his work cut out for him or her. That it might be a her is obvious from another story today (in the Washington Post), suggesting that the fate of many female veterans, thrown back into our nation’s loving care, is to be homeless. As we celebrate the heroes today, pondering such matters might be proper as hands rest over hearts.

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