Friday, August 12, 2011
Part One: The Wondrous Trinity
After that rather ostentatious introduction, let’s move on to our basic concepts before applying them, and testing them, keeping in mind that the application of Clausewitz is always fraught with peril, so these are all just introductory ideas that I am exploring and may shape up over time in a more scholarly manner. At this stage I’m mostly cherry-picking key Clausewitzian concepts and determining their applicability to 21st century conflict and in particular to the Afghan context. There is a large and fascinating scholarly literature debating this notion. I’ll be referencing some of this scholarship though, again, this blog is not intended to produce full scale scholarly treatment, rather to incubate ideas I hope people find interesting and helpful. I’ll get a bibliography together soon.
As a reminder, the two concepts driving my analysis are (1) Clausewitz’s (paradoxical) Trinitarian warfare and (2) the neo-medievalism defining key areas of the international system, as opposed to the Westphalian, state-centric system that continues to be the dominant paradigm among great power policymakers. Each establishes a context within which individuals and institutions operate with emphasis on political and military matters. The question is about their compatibility (or lack thereof), and the degree to which (in)compatibility between the two is determining the events and trajectory of the war in Afghanistan.
If I were to identify one truly fundamental principle underlying On War, in spite of the ongoing debates over translating and interpreting and applying Clausewitz, it would be the unpredictability of war. It is the changing nature of war that inevitably conflicts with the strategists’ expectations. As Clausewitz points out, it’s not just the skin-deep alterations of a chameleon we’re talking about. Rather, often changes twist and turn at variable speed with outcomes indicating change in the very nature of war, confounding commanders and their political masters confronted with a new generation of warfare.
Trinitarianism – what I hereby define as the belief that there is an objective, singularly correct interpretation of Clausewitz’s discussion of three interdependent factors that comprise the sovereign engagement in warfare. I’m not throwing my hat into that ring, rather, since there are close similarities among the translations and interpretations, I’ll go along with Air Force Col. Larry D. New, who published a succinct summary and analysis of the contemporary relevance of Clausewitz’s trinity in Air Power Journal in 1996
Trinitarian war consists of “the inherent linkage between the nature of war, the purpose of war, and the conduct of war. Clausewitz called this linkage a paradoxical trinity with three aspects: the people, the commander and his army, and the government.3 The people have to do with the nature of war, the military with the conduct of war, and the government with the purpose of war. This paper addresses how Clausewitzian theory applies to America's recent history and how the theory that holds true may be applied to future situations in which the military instrument is considered or used in foreign policy.” (New 1996)
What this useful summary skips over are the many discussions of exactly how Clausewitz stated these propositions, with considerable discussion of the emotion indeed, rage, of the people, the chaos of the battlefield and the necessary creativity of the combatants, and the problematic assumption that the policy that is determining military action is rational and not subject to political calculations, though Clausewitz (an experienced officer) knew better, as mentioned in this analysis of the trinity's relevance to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
As quoted and elaborated upon by Col. New in Air Power Journal: The trinity is “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....” (emphasis added). This set of elements is usually labeled
‘emotion/chance/reason’; sometimes “violence/chance & probability/rational calculation”; or, even more abstractly, “irrationality/nonrationality/rationality.”
Let’s just stick with the nature of war, the conduct of war, and the purpose of war as linked, respectively, to the people, the combatants, and the government. Tomorrow I address the second contextual variable, the neo-medieval challenge to the sovereign state system and thus to policies made from that perspective.