#Reviewing War As Paradox

War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics. Youri Cormier. Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016.

War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.[1]

We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.[2]

Clausewitz. Many in political and military circles quote him, and selections of his work On War are de rigueur on war college reading lists across the globe; he is discussed in terms of strategy primarily, and tactics secondarily. He is also most commonly cited for his view that war is politics with the addition of other means and that war must be considered in relation to the political aims and within the constraints of the state and people.

In War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics, Youri Cormier sets out to consider Clausewitz's work within the context of the metaphysical debates of the Enlightenment period. Cormier argues that Clausewitz’s view of war as paradox (he cites Absolute and Real war as one paradox) is rooted in the intellectual grounding of philosophers Immanuel Kant and G.W.F Hegel.[3] He notes, “Clausewitz demonstrated very credibly that the positive doctrines (of war) were not theoretically or practically sound…,” and this fact created an ethical impasse that Cormier argues has important implications for our thinking about contemporary war.[4] Both Hegel and Clausewitz saw war as an instrument of the political order, moving away from prior identifications of war with good and evil, and for Hegel the idea of freedom becomes particularly important.[5] However, this shift eventually will raise questions about whether the idea of war as an instrument of the State is ultimately problematic and contradictory.  

To explain this argument, Cormier traces the metaphysical debates in Western philosophy during the Enlightenment period, including the theories put forward by Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume. The Enlightenment tradition framed the task of philosophy as the search for an objective reality and knowledge based upon eternal principles not rooted in religious authority, and could, therefore, provide the foundations for science, ethics, and political life. Cormier traces the Enlightenment project and shows how it shaped the work of war theorists like Jomini during the same period. Informed by this view, these theorists searched for eternal principles of war that would provide an objective understanding on which to base a positive doctrine of war, in the same way that the search for objectivity reality in philosophy was designed to ground science, ethics, and political life.

However, this project—both in war and in philosophy more generally—ran into seemingly irresolvable complications by the time of Kant and Hegel; they fundamentally upended the Enlightenment project by reshaping and reconceptualizing the possibilities and grounds for knowledge and reality.[6] Kant concluded we cannot know “things in themselves,” but can only know things as moderated and conditioned by the categories of experience (like time, space, causality) that shape our perception and knowledge of reality.[7] Hegel continued the intellectual revolution by dismantling and questioning the grounds for the distinction between objects, or reality, as out there and perceived by separate subjects. This is the so-called subject and object distinction, which was the source of the problem of skepticism (for Descartes et al.) and the foundation for much of the Enlightenment project, which is then rejected by Hegel.

The nature of war is one thing, but war as instantiated in actual conflict and combat is another thing altogether; yet, both must somehow be held together in order to understand war.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel painted by Jakob Schlesinger (Wikimedia)

Cormier suggests that given these philosophical revolutions we must rethink our reading of Clausewitz's work as a search for and a description of eternal principles for an objective understanding of war. The nature of war is one thing, but war as instantiated in actual conflict and combat is another thing altogether; yet, both must somehow be held together in order to understand war. It is in this paradox that Cormier thinks we must locate, evaluate, and apply Clausewitz's ideas.

The first two-thirds of War as Paradox follows this intellectual history in some depth, and sets up the framing of Clausewitz's work given this context and conceptual framework of Enlightenment thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much of this initial journey is rooted in the Enlightenment debates on metaphysics and epistemology; this is certainly challenging material to discuss and read, especially for non-specialists. A background in history and philosophy would be helpful to understand and stay engaged with this portion of the book and to grasp fully the complexities of the argument Cormier is making. This portion of the book may be less engaging and useful to military strategists and practitioners, but more of interest to historians, philosophers, and scholars of Clausewitz's work.

...both Hegel and Clausewitz approach war as an instrument of the State, rather than a matter of right and wrong.

Bearing that in mind, however, the last third of the book—in which the author turns to the ethics in war, revolutionary warfare, and the implications of these arguments for contemporary war—will be of broader interest due to its compelling arguments. In particular, Cormier turns to the ethical impasse he thinks is caused by Kant, and especially Hegel, as new conception of the ethical and its relation (or lack thereof) to the political has to reshape how we read Clausewitz.[8] In Hegel’s view the idea of the ethical must now be conceived of in relation to the political and to the State, as opposed to an individual pursuing virtue or discerning the moral law.  This means that both Hegel and Clausewitz approach war as an instrument of the State, rather than a matter of right and wrong. This ethical shift is important for Cormier with respect to how Clausewitz's ideas impacted revolutionary thinking, beginning with Karl Marx and developing into the various forms of communism, including an interesting discussion of Mao and these ideas.

The substantial epilogue considers the implications and applications of this intellectual journey in terms of contemporary war and ethics, at least ethics as conceived through the Hegelian tradition (as opposed to ethics in the Just War Tradition). Cormier is interested in how the idea of freedom in contemporary war, rooted in both Kant and Hegel, becomes the primary, and perhaps the only legitimate Just Cause for war—both from the point of view of state or non-state groups and actors (such as the Islamic State).[9] “Dying for freedom therefore has something personally irrational to it, but something nonetheless heroic, selfless and consequently, perhaps even more existentially meaningful in the the balance.”[10] This is interesting to compare to Just War theorist Michael Walzer’s claim in Just and Unjust Wars that the only thing that justifies war is response to aggression, since that violates rights.[11]

Carl von Clausewitz, painted by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikimedia)

These discussions also intersect with the question about state-centrism in Clausewitz’s work (Clausewitz is less state-centric than one usually thinks) and the role of catasphrophic weapons in making war a rational (or irrational) tool to achieve political aims. “We thus sustain warfare as an ever-tighter paradox to manage, but we choose to manage it because the alternative is the end of statehood and the deconstitution of the individual as citizen—and the loss of actualized freedom.”[12] Cormier argues the contribution of Hegel and Clausewitz is using the dialectics of war to reveal a new understanding of war. Clausewitz does this by stripping it of tradition and convention. This is perhaps why Cormier sees these connections to revolutionary warfare and contemporary contexts, outside of strictly conventional war, as a major contribution of Clausewitz's work.[13]

This book does not necessarily address (nor, I think, has it any intention of trying to do so) how this discourse of freedom, ethics, and war rooted in Kantian and Hegelian thought connects with discourses like Realism in international relations or Just War thinking. But this journey with Clausewitz, led by Cormier and his framing, is clearly rooted in these two powerhouse philosophical figures. While this will be a challenging read for most, the final third of the book has interesting and important arguments that ought to be seriously considered by strategists, military practitioners, and political scientists alike, especially in terms of freedom and the rationality, or irrationality, of war as an instrument of policy. Scholars of Clausewitz, historians, and philosophers will find this volume a fascinating argument about the influence of Kant and Hegel on war theory generally and on Clausewitz's work in particular.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, social and political philosophy, and history of philosophy. She is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, philosophy of law and applied ethics. She was also a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: "Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, 27th October 1806" by Charles Meynier (Wikimedia)


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War  Book 1, Section 2  https://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/BK1ch01.html#a

[2] Ibid., Book 1, Section 24.

[3] Youri Cormier, War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics p. 24.

[4] Ibid., p. 99. He is referring most prominently to Jomini.

[5] Ibid., 149ff.

[6] For further discussion, see Fredrick Copleston, History of Philosophy Volumes 6 (Kant) and 7 (Hegel).

[7] For more information see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/

[8] Youri Cormier, War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics p. 143.

[9] Ibid., p. 276.

[10] Ibid., p. 279.

[11] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: An Argument with Historical Illustrations. (New York: Basic Books, 1977) p. 21-33.   

[12] Ibid., p. 272.

[13] Ibid., p. 292.