War and policy

by Samson Simon Sharafsamson

In war colleges all over the world, war an instrument of policy is the most romanced, flirted and oft quoted concept of Carl Von Clausewitz. For the past century, this quotation has been misused to justify violence, aggression, militarism and wars in the name of nationalism, revolutions, internal instability and camouflage personal ambitions.

Due to a crude mixture of hate, historical predispositions and memories of prolonged German conflicts from Wars of Unification to World War II, biases and distortions created by translators, Clausewitz came to be seen as a devil’s disciple, a blood-thirsty villain and, in the words of Liddell Hart, the ‘Mahdi of Mass’.

Ambitious statesmen and generals were quick to grasp his concepts to justify violence. In a matrix of illogical ends-means relationship, nations plunged into needless bloodshed and prolonged misery.

Jehuda Lothar Wallach sums up this disconnect as: “Many people who have never read a single word of Von Clausewitz’ teachings, know by heart and quote without hesitation the passage ‘war is merely the continuation of policy by other means’. But only a few know that with this statement, they have embarked upon a very controversial subject, which constitutes the principal part of Clausewitz’ whole theory.”

According to Michael Handel, a civilian-military strategist, Clausewitz’ greatest contribution to the study of war and his Copernican Revolution was his emphasis on the centrality of politics in war earlier seen as an exclusive and discreet activity by generals. Clausewitz demonstrated that war as an extension of political violence is only logical if it flows out of a logical political action.

Julian Lider maintained that politics is an activity of choice and opportunity on a perspective of relative equilibrium bonded from cooperation to coercion in which violence is exercised in rare and extreme cases. He goes on to explain that nations exercise an array of mostly peaceful and sometimes violent methods to restore the political equilibrium in their favour. Therefore, modern war is not an independent phenomenon, but an instrument that statesmen must handle with political acumen balancing the ends-means relationship.

Limiting the coercive application of policy, Clausewitz insists that policy must not promise itself a wrong effect through military means. He writes: “Either the objective of war is to overthrow the enemy, to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent, thus forcing him to sign whatever we please; or merely use them for bargaining at peace negotiations.”

Julian Lider explains this further by writing: “The western view on the impossibility of peaceful solutions to the anarchic realm of international affairs, regarded war only those armed conflicts, which are waged by legitimate authorities.”

Domestic policy also has an effect on the decisions to go to wars. This is more pronounced in revolutionary governments, military dictatorships and military dominated nation states. German wars of unification and the urge of Prussian Army to attack France through neutral Belgium arose from the military spirit and not state policy. Yet in contrast, proved repeatedly in history, such policies after escalating conflicts have ended in embarrassments and defeats. Hence, to attain the correct political logic and ends-means relationship, the right foreign policy is essential to a correct military application.

As technology and modern nation states continue to evolve, Clausewitz’ trinity of people, army and the government, according to Michel Howard, has evolved into a dynamic rectangle of operational, logistical, technological, and social dimensions bonded by a single dynamic political spectrum. The induction of nuclear weapons has given rise to the school of nuclear absolutists, who opine that wars can be won by the use of nuclear weapons to proponents of the use of nuclear deterrence to preserve peace, to yet those who see a possibility of a limited conflict under a nuclear shadow. It is Pakistan who showed the way to such limited conflicts through Kargil.

Even in this nuclear age, Clausewitz’ theory of limiting conflicts remains relevant. He states: “Wars have, in fact, been fought between states of very unequal strength, for actual war is often far removed from the pure concept postulated by theory. Inability to carry on the struggle can in practice be replaced by two other grounds for making peace; first, the improbability of victory and second, its unacceptable cost (nuclear destruction).”

An armed military conflict being of a limited nature and not absolute or total is theorised by Clausewitz in ‘friction’, ‘aim of war’ and ‘culmination point’. Theoretical objectives are always likely to fall shorter than perceived, due to the intangibles of the fog of war. Limited aims set by the Egyptian policymakers in 1973 Arab-Israel War is a manifestation of this concept. Since it is also impossible for smaller armies to pursue absolutism, Israel has always remained content with limited victories to win peace on its own terms.

Policy is the mind that converts the overwhelming destructive muscle into a mere instrument of rationalised conflict. War is, therefore, a continuation of political activity in concert with other means.

Cluasewitz sums it up as: “The main lines along which military events progress and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into subsequent peace…….Do political relations between peoples and their governments stop, when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged…….Is not war just another expression of their thought…….Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”

In his book, The Nature of War, Lider attempts to identify the policy that transits to war. He theorises that the decision to go to war must be rational and deliberate for the cause of national interest. The follow up phenomenon is a cognitive process, based on psychological approximation of all tangible data picked and sifted through a maze of clutter.

The transition itself is a continuum in which hostile action graduates from non-military to military. It is difficult to determine the point of departure towards the conversion and is chosen arbitrarily. By implication with the same national aim, a change of method takes place. This unity and continuity lie in the paradigm that war is only a branch of political activity and not autonomous.

The fact is that Lider’s theory is a test of the civilian control of a conflict proposed by Clausewitz, who wrote: “There are many political means, which might be used to achieve one’s political object, both, before military action is resorted to and also during a war itself – for there is no reason why political action should cease merely because military action has begun.”

This German departure from the Clausewitz’ concept advocated by Ludendorff, Moltke and Bismarck during the German wars of unification translated to defeat. Moltke asserted that during wartime, political concerns should be subordinated to military matters. This rivalry was to later manifest itself in the Schlieffen Plan with its wilful disdain of political and diplomatic realities and the subsequent German defeats in the two World Wars. Hence, in view of JFC Fuller, ‘the Moltke-Schlieffen Plan created by the General Staff was liquidated by the General Staff because Generalship was bankrupt’.

The recent Kargil controversy needs to be seen in the context of this theory. Talk shows by the vitriolic and non-professional media on it will only complicate issues for Pakistan. The sooner Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments come to terms with Kargil, the better it will be. Unlike commissions that produce no results, Pakistan’s civilian establishment needs to follow the examples of developed nations to breed a new generation of civilian-military strategists, whose expertise, research and inputs would help them attain civilian control of the choice of conflicts. The Department of Defence and Strategic Studies of Quaid-i-Azam University and National Defence University Islamabad through groups of civilian and military scholars could be the starting point for such an analysis and review.

The writer is a retired army officer, current affairs host on television and political economist.

Email & Twitter: samson.sharaf@gmail.com

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