Much Ado About Nothing: Future of War v. Clausewitz…but not really

In his latest article, Tom Ricks presents an interesting interpretation of a Rosa Brooks piece, describing it as an attempt to “smackdown” 19th century strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz and his modern disciples. This would be unsurprising as Mrs. Brooks can exhibit a disdain for the old. But the semantic debate is meant to serve a more significant argument about the expanding use of military force to address contemporary threats.

After the release of a concept paper by the Future of War team, of which Mrs. Brooks is a member, Christopher Mewett at War On The Rocks challenged the team’s reference to “the changing nature of war” and cited Clausewitz’s assertion that the nature of war does not change, “But Warfare, of course, doesn't have an enduring, unchanging phenomenological ‘nature,’ as it is merely the way war is made.” Brooks acknowledged that, “War and warfare are different words with a different meaning, and we should be careful about their use.” She challenges, however, that the nature of war is unchanging.

A better phrasing of both points would be to acknowledge that war is as Clausewitz defined it, having many shades and characters but one nature, yet also acknowledging that war is also merely one dimension of conflict. ‘Warfare’ is being used here not so much to describe war, but to describe conflict—what Brooks is really aiming at is not the way war is made but the way conflicts are fought (or perhaps, executed), in whatever realm they occur, military or otherwise.

General Sir Rupert Smith presents this view clearly when he writes:

“War no longer exists. Confrontation, conflict, and combat undoubtedly exist all round the world…and state still have armed forces which they use as a symbol of power. None the less, war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as a battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.”

Though his predictions about the obsolescence of war are certainly untrue, he understands what war is, and that other forms of conflict are becoming more prominent. Boundaries are being eroded, paradigms are being challenged, and looking at conflict in a ‘black or white’ manner—as synonymous with war—is foolish.

Unfortunately, the West has traditionally viewed conflict as ultimately embodied and principally resolved through war, as if the round hole of conflict must be refashioned to fit the square peg of war. This view is in no small part due to the influence of Clausewitz on western military though, as well as the west’s own dominance in the conventional military realm. The East, however, has often followed a different philosophy.

Lucid examples of this approach can be seen in Communism’s “shift from the battlefield of armies to the battlefield of classes” as described by J.F.C. Fuller, writing in 1961. Thirty years later, little had changed in the Soviet approach to competition, as David Glantz noted,

“…the Soviets have waged war (under war’s broadest definition) to assist in the expansion of Socialism—in essence to hasten the inevitable. Characteristically, this warfare has been primarily political, diplomatic, economic, and social and only seldom has it involved armed conflict.”

Similarly, a book by two Chinese People’s Liberation Army colonels provide a comprehensive view of conflict that includes other dimensions such as terror, cyber, financial and economic combat (or warfare). Especially relevant is the apparent Chinese strategy of denying a decisive transition to war in order to achieve its current goals in the Pacific. Putin’s Crimean and Ukrainian adventures offer further evidence.

The Western hang-up on the term “war” is echoed in Mrs. Brooks article, which highlights how it is misapplied to other dimensions of conflict. But, in this piece and several others, Mrs. Brooks still presents it as one of only two possible options for dealing with entire spectrum of conflict, law or war.

If the 19th century’s most brilliant theorist can cause readers to become lost in the trees, then the most brilliant theorist of the 20th century may be able to help them take a step back to see the forest. The late Col John R. Boyd understood and valued Clausewitz but he also took a broader view than both the Prussian’s work and the addendum offered by the Chinese colonels’unrestricted warfare. Boyd dispensed, in many cases, with the narrow focus on the term “war” and in his corpus of work the word “competition” stands out significantly more—exemplifying the understanding of conflict as much more than just war. Such an understanding is necessary if we are to escape the the indecision that accompanies confusion over what is or is not “war.”

But more than understanding conflict as more than war, the term war must not be misapplied to other phenomenon. Cavalier use of the term—as in Mrs. Brooks’ references to the prevalence of terms like “cyber war” and “financial war”—is not done to enhance the logical and philosophical understandings of the topic but largely for political motives or for lack of a better term. Just because many people inaccurately use a term in certain contexts does not redefine it. These inappropriate usages of the term are in fact an argument for a more strict and narrow interpretation of war rather than a wider one. They are an argument for understanding war in its greater context. Discrete boundaries are the key to preventing the expansion of the term and its accompanying increase the potential uses of military force and, more importantly, the effects war has on society.

Ricks quotes Brooks as positing that, “Clausewitzian strict constructionists will then respond, ‘You can blather on all you want about cyberwar or financial war, but if what you're talking about is not both violent and political, it's just not war, but something else.’” And they would be right in noting this. But Ricks goes on to note that Mrs. Brooks’ response is that, “…there are many other ways to understand and define violence. Consider various forms of psychological torture or abuse. Or consider cyber attacks that lead to loss of life as an indirect result of extended power outages. Why not view such attacks as a form of violence if they lead predictably to loss of life?"

First, because that is a slippery slope, but more importantly because such a suggestion demonstrates that a logical fallacy is at work here. If Clausewitzians say that all war is violent, it doesn’t mean that all violence is (or should be defined as) war. Further, the state may have a monopoly on violence but the military does not. The contemporary debate over responsibility for drone operations and what agency or department should be responsible for them demonstrates different schools of thought in this regard. A case for redefining war as something beyond its traditional understanding must be made, not simply assumed.

It is also seems as though Ricks is implying that when competition exceeds the boundaries of war, the military is still the best arm for executing policy in these realms:

“Then Brooks gets all neo-Westphalian on their asses. ‘It is the state that creates and defines the role of the military....It is also the state that defines the legal contours of war.’ So, for a truly subordinate military, war might be war, but war is what your civilian superiors say it is.”

But, as has been previously noted, there is no need to redefine violence or war to understand that “non-military” conflict exists and must be addressed. Such redefinition merely muddies the waters and extends a concept’s meaning far past its usefulness. Semantically changing the meaning of war to envelope the whole, or a much larger, area of competition will do little to solve our current problems and is likely to cause far more of them. The military is raised, organized, equipped and trained for war as it has been defined by our Prussian theorist—not as ‘whatever policymakers decide’ to call war. We have recently witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan what occurs when the military is asked to do everything, especially those things which are outside the purview of “war,” and especially without adequate interagency support. We have also seen that, even within the military realm, shifting focus from one method of warfighting to another tends to detract from the capability to conduct the former (look to the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War or to some outspoken U.S. commentators who have warned of this as well). The capability to fight and win wars is still very much needed and must be maintained. As the saying goes, “When you try to do everything well, you end up doing nothing well.” This does not mean that the military cannot or should not engage in, say, the cyber realm. It simply means that we must identify which framework or frameworks a conflict is operating under and determine the appropriate tools and methods to address each. Setting aside the cyber warfare discussion and looking instead at “financial warfare” helps illustrate this. In realms outside of war, we may be better served by designing appropriate tools and responses for those arenas, rather than trying to tell the hammer that to hammer now means to screw, drill, and grip as well.

Mrs. Brooks points out that the state may choose which wars to fight and how to fight them, but this is merely defining a war or number of wars, not the essence of war itself. Mewett’s argument is still valid—as history has shown that the state is often in a reactionary mode rather than a directorial one when it comes to fighting—war influences the state as much as the state directs a war.

Brooks accedes to this, describing it as a feedback loop and notes that war, “can change the relationship between individuals and the state—by altering ‘rights’ for instance, or altering the degree to which the state's use of power is subject to internal checks and balances. Ultimately, by adding more to the war basket, the state may set in motion a cascade of changes that end by transforming the state itself.”

Indeed, the prosecution of the so-called War on Terror has fundamentally changed American society in many ways, redefining how we think of both liberty and security.

In Ricks’ own column, an excellent piece by COL C. Anthony Pfaff notes the dangers of doing inherent when these changes result in expanding the concept of war: 

“However, given that the debate over the nature vs. character of war is largely a linguistic exercise (I don't mean to trivialize it—words do matter), there is at least some utility in favoring the view that war's nature doesn't change and that it is inherently violent. Otherwise, metaphorical uses of the term could conceivably be employed to justify the use of military force in response to non-military "acts of aggression." Such a situation could set conditions for increased violent conflict, which under our current understanding of war would not be justified.”

Rather than an orchestration by the state, all conflict—especially war—must be viewed not simply as a struggle between two adversaries but also as a struggle between each and the act of war itself. One can win victory but lose oneself in the process. Mrs. Brooks often seems to be advocating for approaches that would actually result in this outcome.

In some ways, the Clausewitzian understanding of war could be viewed as a guide for when military force should be used, or even as a constraint against its excessive use. In this view, discarding it or saying it does not apply is likely to facilitate the very expansion and redefinition of war Mrs. Brooks claims to fear.

In fact, the semantic tug-of-war (pun intended) about defining war and violence is unnecessary, unless one is trying to expand it, and justify an escalatory, one-size-fits-all military response, as Brooks hints at: “Tell it to the Marines, or the Hellfire missile, whichever comes first.”

The Marines or a Hellfire may very well be the appropriate response but, as practitioners know, the application of violence tends to be a bit more nuanced than academics imagine.

The idea that there are only two choices, between law and war, between liberty and security, is a false dilemma that will lead to both being distorted in order to address problems for which they equally inappropriate. When this is done, not only does efficacy suffer but dangerous consequences emerge, as we have noted previously:

“But these pre-existing models [the legal framework and the military framework] emerged to address different challenges than those to which they are now being applied. If these conflicts are not truly crime and not truly war and neither approach can sufficiently address the problem when the threat does not fall fully into either category. As such these approaches have been expanded, modified and essentially stretched. The result has been confusion, indecision, and usurpation. On the one hand, the excessive prohibitions of the war framework hamper our effectiveness in combating non-state actors outside our boundaries, as seen in the failed raid in Somalia, rendition programs and the continuing problem of how to handle Guantanamo detainees. On the other hand, the legal framework is being perverted by increasingly oppressive measures, such as the classification of citizens as enemy combatants, drone killings of citizens, and unbridled government surveillance— clearly undermining civil liberty within our borders.”

The current situation, embodied in the debate about how to address current threats, is the result of the nation not being able to choose between two equally bad options. Brooks thinks we need to just pick one and accept the consequences. Instead, we need to create another option.

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