2012/03/25

What's war?

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Carl von Clausewitz
Von Clausewitz' definition appears to be the most widely accepted definition of war, and to date it appears to be a most insightful one:

Der Krieg ist [...] ein Akt der Gewalt, um den Gegner zur Erf├╝llung unseres Willens zu zwingen.
(War [...] is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.)
("Vom Kriege", Carl von Clausewitz, 1832, Book I, Chapter I, §2)

It's not a perfect definition, of course (even though I have certainly used it many times before).

Let's attempt to improve on a classic:

Problem (1): The scale is not given, even though he wrote "unseres" ("our"). A clash of two pimps and their loons, would meet the definition as well.
Solution (1): Let's add "organised" in front of "violence"; that's not perfect, but at least short.

Problem (2): This is the real problem. CvC was writing as an officer of a great power of his time, his definition does not describe war well for small powers. Let's look at Finland in 1939/40, defending its freedom (independence) against Stalin's Soviet Union. Was the Finn's point to compel Stalin to do fulfil their will? That would have been somewhat over-optimistic, as what the wanted was most likely the status quo ante. The Finnish motivation was another one IMO.
Solution (2): Scratch "compel our opponent to fulfil our will" and replace it with "reach an acceptable outcome in a conflict."

"War is an act of organised violence to reach an acceptable outcome in a conflict".

Yes, the stroke of genius of pointing at the importance of will would be lost. I believe it's still a more accurate definition. It works for both aggressor and defender, superior and inferior power.

There's no hint at the importance of will any more, but another important hint; war has to end once an acceptable end can be reached. Greedy warmongers will probably have a very high threshold for acceptance, but for some others the alternative definition will point the way towards the minimum net damage.

The "in conflict" ending might furthermore provoke some thoughts about violent/non-violent conflict. Yes, non-violent ones would not be war, and assuming the others don't turn violent it's usually better to pursue an acceptable outcome the non-violent way. Some people need a reminder about this as well (I don't really believe it helps with these people).

Why did I write this?
Repeated reading of more or less accurate CvC quotes in English left an impression on me that people think too aggressively. Too many people who discuss war and peace issues have the state of mind of a bully who wants to subdue someone else with superior strength and force him to surrender. Yes, that includes to break his will, but it is not what war is about on the receiving end. It's not an understanding of war, but only of at most one side of the coin.

On top of that, many wars aren't even about compelling others, some are simply about eradicating others. The Afghanistan conflict (OEF) with its de facto intent of eradicating Taliban and AQ is just one example. It wasn't about the will of the Jews on Masada when the Romans besieged them or about the will of the Phoenicians of Tyre when Alexander besieged them. In both cases it was about establishing a reputation in order to compel a third, bigger party. The razing of Grozny might be such a case as well. The "acceptable outcome" definitions does fit in these cases (an end of the siege would have been the acceptable outcome for the besieged), while CvC's "compel" part does not fit.


Wars of (semi-)nomadic people as described in the bible or known from Asian steppe, African or Native American tribes don't fit well to CvC's definition. These wars were quite often simply about booty. The invader sometimes didn't care about the other's will or behaviour; he just grabbed booty, killed or maimed who resisted and then left. Sure, sometimes they (especially the Asiatic steppe tribes) aimed more at making tribute arrangements, but other times it was about no such thing.
Again, "acceptable outcome" fits well. You just need to keep in mind that the greediness of the people raises the threshold for what's acceptable.


Maybe people would discuss war with more self-restraint if they used my alternative definition of war. CvC's definition lends itself too easily to extreme war goals and is simply not comprehensive and not exclusive enough at the same time.

S Ortmann
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18 comments:

  1. Sven-

    Clausewitz introduces a whole series of definitions of war in Ch 1 of Book I. You're only using one of them, so of course you find it wanting. A very unClausewitzian approach . . .

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  2. I understand what you're getting at, but I dont think this will do it. Amongst other things:
    >>Was the Finn's point to compel Stalin to do fulfil their will? That would have been somewhat over-optimistic, as what the wanted was most likely the status quo ante. The Finnish motivation was another one IMO.<<
    I & many will argue that this WAS to compel Stalin to fulfill their will, in this case to leave them alone.

    I dont think changing this definition will cause the hyperaggressive to be less aggressive, that seems rather putting the cart before the horse - i.e. they are distorting this definition to rationalise their preexisting predilections. If you get this changed, they will simply find other grounds to proceed to keep on as they were.

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  3. DaA; the common interpretation of CvC suggests that the Finns' will was not to lose. They lost, and the achievement of a minor defeat was the point of their fight. CvC does not include such a scenario in my opinion.

    seydlitz: The location of the quote is extremely prominent (on page one). Page one is among the polished ones that he seemed to have refined already while many other parts of the book are still in draft stage. I think it's a good choice of a quote.

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  4. Would police actions then be war? The police have used organised violence to subdue suspects. Should scale and mission/intent be used to define war?

    In the Los Angeles Riots back in 1992, the military was used to help the police, while responding to a domestic dispute the police had two shotgun rounds fired at them from the house so the police shouted to some marines to "cover me" so the marines started shooting as they were trained to do, but what the police meant was to point your weapons and be ready to respond if needed.

    Tom

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  5. Police actions can better be described very differently, but the "organised" thing is a problem. The range goes from poorly organised warbands right up to multimillion men bureaucracies.
    Many violent conflicts at the lower end of organisation are not warfare, such as raids by political or hired thugs on a labour union meeting, for example.

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  6. Sven-

    Section 2 of Chapter 1 is simply his initial definition. He has to start with something and here he also introduces the initial trinity. Also "force" is used to introduce the three tendencies to the extreme which follow (sections 3-5). It is all of Chapter 1 which is in the "polished state" you mention. The whole chapter answers the title question which is entitled, "What is war?"

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  7. War is simply the absence of freedom.

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  8. Sven-

    Actually it is all of Chapter 1 of Book I which is "among the polished ones". Clausewitz has to start with something, so defines war in section 2 in terms of "force" which sets the stage for the three tendencies to the extreme introduced in Sections 3-5. Actually the whole Chapter is his answer to the question as to What is War? Hence the name of that chapter. I would also point out there is a very good reason for not having the "force" "organized" at this point in his presentation . . .

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  9. Seydlitz, I can only take on one point at a time without exceeding the patience of many visitors.

    CvCs 4th § is nonsense, for example - and the argumentation would be quite along the lines of this post.
    His 11th § doesn't hold much water in regard to for example biblical warfare either.

    Moreover, there's a difference between definition and discussion of a term. The two-liner is his definition, the chapter is his discussion. Nothing in the discussion seems to address my issues with the definition adequately.

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  10. Sven-

    I was attracted by the title of this post, which is "What's War?", which is the same name as the Chapter I'm talking about. I'm simply pointing out that you have to take the entire argument as a whole to understand what Clausewitz is doing here. This Chapter forms the basis for his general theory of war.

    Section 4 is about coercion which is a very important element of force, at least if you wish to think "not too aggressively".

    I'm not a Bible literalist, so expecting Clausewitz's general theory of war to cover wars sanctioned by a jealous God is something I'd not expect or even consider necessary for strategic theory, but then that's me.

    Btw, your example of wars of plunder are covered by the general theory.

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  11. Sven-

    I was attracted by the title of this post, which is "What's War?", which is the same name as the Chapter I'm talking about. I'm simply pointing out that you have to take the entire argument as a whole to understand what Clausewitz is doing here. This Chapter forms the basis for his general theory of war.

    Section 4 is about coercion which is a very important element of force, at least if you wish to think "not too aggressively".

    I'm not a Bible literalist, so expecting Clausewitz's general theory of war to cover wars sanctioned by a jealous God is something I'd not expect or even consider necessary for strategic theory, but then that's me.

    Btw, your example of wars of plunder are covered by the general theory.

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  12. Again; I don't discuss the general theory, I wrote about the definition.
    The vast majority of those who cite CvC and especially this definition (in its many mutations) have never read the book.

    The definition is either OK and stands a test or it fails the test and is unsatisfactory.

    A two lines-long definition that needs to be interpreted with a 300 pp lecture into something that means something very different is a useless definition.

    Some forgotten paragraph in the book may mention wars of plunder; CvC's definition of war does tell us that wars of plunder are no wars. I bet a couple billion people would readily disagree with such an assessment.

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  13. Finland did wish to compel the soviets to comply swith their will, their will was to be left alone.

    Nor is OEF about "Eradicating the Taliban"

    No one has ever suggested every single member, associate or employee of the taliban must be hunted down and killed.
    It is, possibly, Americas will that the Taliban chooses to halt its attacks on the US.

    "It wasn't about the will of the Jews on Masada when the Romans besieged them"
    Of course it was, it was the will of Rome that submitted, it was the will of Sicarri that they did not.

    The same can be said of Tyre


    "The "acceptable outcome" definitions does fit in these cases (an end of the siege would have been the acceptable outcome for the besieged), while CvC's "compel" part does not fit."
    But the reason for walls ands seiges is compulsion.
    It is to compel the attacker to leave you alone, by making the price of conquering you excessive.

    "These wars were quite often simply about booty. The invader sometimes didn't care about the other's will or behaviour; he just grabbed booty, killed or maimed who resisted and then left. "

    Which would be a perfect example of using violence to compel someone to bend to your will

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  14. Finland wanted that Stalin takes away Karelia from them?

    The Americans want that the taliban stop attacks on them? Why then attack them in the first place, for Talibans did not attack the US until it got into AFG.

    Masada and Tyre; sure, a bunch of new slaves would have been a nice side-effect (though the Romans would probably have crucified, not enslaved). Problem is, that was not the point. Those huge ramps were not built because of the besieged people or their will. Those ramps were built to break the will of other people, even those who were not foes yet. These sieges were a statement that resistance is futile and the resisting populaces were largely uninteresting.

    Booty-focused wars; I wonder why the ability to withdraw in time with the plunder was so dominant in these if the point was top break the opponents will to oppose. Wouldn't a success in the latter regard mean that you've got plenty time for withdrawal?
    The point of such raiding wars is to steal, andfew thieves care about what their victim thinks as long as they safely get away with the booty.

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  15. "Finland wanted that Stalin takes away Karelia from them?"

    Of course not, thats not what I said.

    The Violence forced both to accept compromises.

    "The Americans want that the taliban stop attacks on them? Why then attack them in the first place, for Talibans did not attack the US until it got into AFG."
    The Taliban hosted people who attacked the US, its long been an accepted form of IR that you are responsible for actions within your territory.
    The Taleban refused to opunish those within their territory who attacked the US, that is frequently justification for war.

    "Problem is, that was not the point."
    So the Romans had no wish to bring the siccarri to heel?
    That there were further gains beyond the siccarri is not relevent.

    Rome demanded they submitted, and used violence on them until they did so.
    Fact.

    "Booty-focused wars; I wonder why the ability to withdraw in time with the plunder was so dominant in these if the point was top break the opponents will to oppose. Wouldn't a success in the latter regard mean that you've got plenty time for withdrawal?
    The point of such raiding wars is to steal, and few thieves care about what their victim thinks as long as they safely get away with the booty."

    You're throwing your lines out too far.
    This isnt about subjugating the other sides will entirely and for all eternity.

    Thieves are very interested in what their victim thinks, especialy in regards to things like, where the silver is buried.

    The raider has to be able to provide enough violence to compel the villager to reveal the location of the treasure, the village has to provide enough violence to delay the raiders until reinforcements can arrive who will compel the raiders to withdraw, or die.

    The raider must force the village to reveal the location of its treasure, but even if it manages that, it cant occupy the village and fight a war against the neighbouring town.

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  16. @TrT:
    You believ that something is war and then iterpret the definition to fit what oyu observed.

    A definition has to work the other way as well, and CvC's would fail to do so quite often.

    "The Violence forced both to accept compromises."
    Indeed, it led to an "acceptable outcome" not to the fulfilment of the will of either side.

    I could pick just like that on your other interpretations/points, but the opinions are set and our points were made. That won't change.

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  17. I think while the goal is worthwile, your attempt to reconquer "the definition of war" has failed Sven.

    Clearly this direct attack on Von Clausewitz was a strategic error that has gotten you bogged down in a semantic battle over point of prestige rather than an intellectual issue of strategic importance.

    I would suggest a withdrawal and concentrating on building your arguments for your own "definition of war", bypassing CvC completly.

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  18. SO
    Wills change...
    Wars are unsuccessful.

    War is an attempt to bend the other to your will, no the success of such.

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