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The following article is reproduced with permission from "The Marxist Review of Books," Living Marxism (later simply LM, now defunct) issue 73, November 1994. Kirsten Cale is a journalist specializing in international relations. She is based in Britain. The article, written at the height of the Rwanda and Bosnia crises, was a response to the deluge of books and newspaper pieces attributing conflict to atavistic prejudices. Four years down the line, it seemed to her that Freud has usurped Clausewitz et al as the interpreter of warfare.

Today's military thinkers seem to be dedicated to mystifying the drive towards war, says Kirsten Cale

Cultural Wars

  • A History of Warfare, John Keegan, Hutchinson, £20 hbk, Pimlico, £8.99 pbk
  • War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, Daniel Pick, Yale University Press, £19.95 hbk
  • War and the Rise of the State, Bruce D Porter, The Free Press, £19.95 hbk
  • On Future War, Martin van Creveld, Brassey's, £26.50 hbk
Clausewitz's famous maxim, "war is the continuation of policy," is being written out of existence. Forget politics: the message today is that war is caused by tribal atavism or psychic self-gratification. "The real reason why we have wars is that men like fighting," asserts Martin van Creveld in On Future War (p221). "Warfare," says John Keegan in his History of Warfare, "reaches into the most secret places of the human heart." (p3)

In the new military thinking, the rational is sacrificed for the irrational. The link between politics and war is rejected, and links between conflict and human nature proposed in its place. In the interpretations of these military theorists, war is transformed from a means to an end into an end in itself, the product of forces beyond human control - whether human nature, sexual characteristics or "culture."

Van Creveld might deny the existence of a "war gland" or "aggressive gene," but he asserts that given a choice, "men might very well give up women before they give up war." (p222) And while Keegan detours into the brain's "seat of aggression," he concludes that, "half of human nature - the female half - is in any case highly ambivalent about war-making." (p75)

Are wars merely a matter of sex and psychology - or are they waged purposefully by rational men and women? Let's examine the emergence and the dissolution of the concept of war as an object of rational enquiry.

Military theory was really born in the Enlightenment --the eighteenth-century Age of Reason. Enlightenment men turned to human reason, rather than God, to understand the world. They set themselves the task of revealing the universal principles that governed natural and social phenomena, ordering and explaining the world in rational terms.

The wars of the time were often cautious and inconclusive because monarchs wanted to husband expensive manpower and scarce resources. Army manoeuvres were primarily defensive and organised around the forts that still dotted the European countryside. The speed of war was dictated by the speed of men and draft animals. Cast iron siege weapons had to be dragged to the field, accompanied by great wagon trains of supplies to feed the beasts that dragged the weapons - for example, it took 16000 horses and 3000 wagons to drag the 18 heavy guns and 20 siege mortars of the Duke of Marlborough's army in 1708.

Yet despite the economic backwardness of eighteenth-century Europe, the impact of the Enlightenment on military theory is incontestable. The most lasting legacy of the early military theorists was the military academy. The age of reason had spawned the idea that war should be studied, and academies were set up in Austria and France in 1752, in Prussia in 1765, in Bavaria in 1789. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the Royal Military College was founded in 1799, West Point in 1802 and Sandhurst in 1812. The economic and social transformations that began towards the end of the eighteenth century allowed the new military elites to put larger and more lethal armies into the field of battle.

The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, which began in 1789 and ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, sent shock waves through European societies and revolutionised warfare. When the French battalions of the revolutionary government beat a Prussian intervention force back at Valmy in 1792, the poet Goethe consoled one of his defeated compatriots: "From this place and from this day begins a new era in the history of the world, and you will be able to say, I was there."

The revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had their own enlightened interpreter - Carl von Clausewitz, the great advocate of the application of reason to conflict. As a Prussian, who spent his entire military career fighting the French - on the Rhine in 1793, then in the battles of Auerstadt (1806), Borodino (1812) and Wavre (1815)--Clausewitz was well qualified to reflect on the success of the Napoleonic campaigns.

Like others, he was astonished by the speed, mobility and mass of revolutionary warfare. The plans of generals --schooled in eighteenth-century wars of manoeuvre and drill - were useless in the face of armies inspired by patriotism and revolutionary fervour. Clausewitz spoke of the French as "a force that beggared all imagination. Suddenly war became the business of the people - a people of 30 millions, all of whom considered themselves citizens."

Clausewitz made careful note of the political factors that gave shape to the new warfare, especially the mobilisation and motivation of the French army. In France, the revolution ennobled soldiering. Men fought for the Republic and for liberation, as citizens, not subjects: as patriotic bearers of nationhood, not the brutalised prisoners and mercenaries of the armies of the ancien regime. This new kind of soldier, who was less likely to desert, enabled French commanders under the new military supremo, Napoleon Bonaparte, to try out the tactics advocated by some earlier military theorists.

They abandoned the rigid lines of troops used by other armies of the period. They skirmished in open formation, and attacked in great masses. They developed efficient mobile artillery that could support infantry at all phases of combat. They broke armies up into smaller units that could operate more flexibly and independently. And they solved the problem of supplying huge armies by getting soldiers to live off the land. Napoleon became the master of initiative, concentration and surprise.

These changes prompted Clausewitz to ask: what is war? By setting the European wars in the context of political and social change he arrived at the insight that guided his theory: war was not a thing in itself, but was shaped by politics. As he wrote in the first chapter of On War, published in 1832, after his death, "war is nothing but the continuation of policy by other means."

After the carnage of Verdun in 1916, it seemed that the Gatling, the Browning, the Lewis and Maxim machine guns had snatched the lethal initiative from soldiers, generals and planners

Every war is the product of deliberate, calculated decision. No war is ever conducted without political purpose. Men do not fight because they are of a particular culture or sex, but because they are the instruments of reasoned and deliberate policy. If you want to understand war, look at politics.

The Enlightenment belief that war was a rational human activity has been superseded by the twentieth-century prejudice that war is guided by the inhuman and the insane. It is not hard to understand why modern theorists want to deny the deliberate character of modern warfare. Unlike the revolutionary wars of the past, modern warfare has nothing positive about it.

Instead of fighting for the liberation of nations from the ancien regime, warfare in the twentieth century has put millions into the field in the interests of Great Power rivalry and the domination of weaker nations. In the first half of the twentieth century, international competition between the major economic powers laid the basis for a cycle of world wars, colonial domination, and almost continual slaughter.

From the Accrington Pals wiped out on the Western Front to the fleeing Iraqi conscripts caught in what one US airman described as a "turkey-shoot," twentieth-century warriors can be forgiven for thinking that warfare is indeed inhuman and insane. But the appeal of the modern theory of war as something beyond rationality is that it excuses the policy-makers and generals who make the decisions.

Theories which summon up the rage of the unconscious, the spectre of willed machines and "smart" missiles, the march of human automatons, and the rapacious and self-generating "military industrial complexes" have contributed to the belief that war is beyond human comprehension and control. Without a rational guiding principle, war can be presented as an unstoppable technological vortex of violence and mass destruction. Machines appear to govern men in combat. The experience of Ypres and the Somme showed, as John Ellis notes, that "man himself was no longer the master of the battlefield...all that mattered was the machinery of war" (The Social History of the Machine Gun, 1993, p142).

After the carnage of Verdun in 1916, when a French general noted that, "three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes," (quoted in War and the Rise of the State, p149), it seemed that the Gatling, the Browning, the Lewis and Maxim machine guns had snatched the lethal initiative from soldiers, generals and planners. During the Cold War, the Bomb was seen to dominate issues of war and peace. Today, the Patriot missile, "smart" bombs, satellites, and guided mini-nukes appear to reign over conflict in the post-Cold War world.

The unstoppable-technology theories have the practical effect of denigrating politics, and absolving those responsible from blame. Wars do not start by themselves: they start because external political interests decide war is expedient to the powers that be. As the conservative British military historian Michael Howard rightly notes, "However inchoate or disreputable the motives for war may be, its initiation is almost by definition a deliberate and carefully considered act and its conduct...a matter of very precise central control. If history shows any record of accidental wars, I have yet to find them" (The Causes of Wars, 1983, p12).

These theories also have the effect of displacing aggression away from the aggressors and on to pieces of machinery. Who incinerated 200000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The nuclear weapons named Fat Man and Little Boy (not Harry Truman). Who killed 200000 Iraqis? "Smart" bombs (not American and British pilots).

The loss of rational principle in war also enables the military thinkers to present war - at least the wars of which they disapprove - as the activity of crazies governed by deep-seated atavistic impulses. This is especially true since the end of the political divide of East and West that used to suggest at least a semblance of ideological differences. Today, wars are invariably seen in anthropological terms. Conflicts which have been spawned by Great Power realpolitik are redefined as wars caused by ancient tribal and ethnic animosities. Culture, not politics, is taken to be the well-spring of militarism.

The anthropologisation of conflict was an intermittent feature of the past century. In War Machine, Daniel Pick notes that the 1870 Franco-Prussian War gave rise to extensive debates about the raw, virile Teutons and cultured, effete French (pp97-106). Throughout the Second World War, the Japanese and Germans were accused of militaristic instincts inculcated by generations of Junkers and Samurai - if not through harsh toilet training. Today, though, the backdrop of cultural typecasting that used to run alongside the political explanations of conflict has become the whole case for war, as the Rwandans and the Serbs are accused of imbibing hatred with their mothers' milk.

The attribution of war to cultural traits is by no means confined to foreigners. The "nationalist" masses are regularly accused of "forcing" the Western elites to march to war - a shameless inversion of reality. During the Boer War, the liberal John Hobson denigrated the masses for "the democratic saturnalia of Ladysmith and Mafeking Days," when people celebrated British victories, and condemned "the black slime of [the jingoist's] malice" (quoted in War Machine, p113).

John Keegan especially exemplifies the view that modern warfare has been so barbaric precisely because of its popular character. In A History of Warfare he puts a malevolent twist on Clausewitz's doctrine. Writing about conscription, Keegan argues that it was Clausewitz's "single powerful idea," the idea of militant nationalism that "turn[ed] Europe into a warrior society" in the period from 1813 to 1913:

"This rite de passage became an important cultural form in European life, an experience common to almost all young European males and, through its universality, its ready acceptance by electorates as a social norm and its inescapable militarisation of society, a further validation of Clausewitz's dictum that war was a continuation of political activity. If peoples voted for conscription or acquiesced in conscription laws, how could it be denied that war and politics indeed belonged together on the same continuum." (p21)

Keegan's version of the relationship between militarism and democracy stands reality on its head. As he sees it, democracy puts government at the mercy of the machismo of the masses. But militarism came straight from the top of European societies that were trying to head off the democratic challenge to their rule. Far from acquiescing to conscription laws, electorates resisted conscription, and during the First World War rank-and-file infantrymen mutinied on many fronts, while rebellions in Ireland, imperial Russia and Germany frustrated the war efforts of the great powers.

The relationship between war and democracy is all the more questionable today, when most governments are uniquely unpopular and the old nationalist symbols have been discredited as a consequence of the unravelling of the politics of the Cold War. Back in the days of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher could whip up a degree of popular support by waving the flag for "our boys." Today, as the debacle over the D-Day commemoration demonstrates, such old-fashioned patriotic tub-thumping will not work for John Major.

If Keegan's assessment were correct, conflicts in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti would be the result of popular mobilisations. Indeed they are presented as such: the popular mobilisations of third world nationalists like Saddam, Aideed and Milosevic. But the real record is that contemporary militarism is a policy generated in the West in an attempt to redeem the authority of unpopular governments. Bruce Porter, predicting an unravelling of the American state, says "we can expect growing public disdain for the political process, rising unrest in the inner cities, proposals for radical constitutional change, third-party movements, one-term presidents and a serious national identity crisis over what it means to be an American" (War and the Rise of the State, p295). It is this crisis of political legitimacy, rather than technology or mass demand that provides the backdrop to contemporary militarism.

Time and again, Western leaders have sought out the international stage to promote an impression of decisive action. Standing up to third world leaders with little fire-power and even less support is a cheap way for Western politicians to walk tall in the world. Military intervention overseas provides a less intractable arena for policy-makers than domestic politics, where politicians and their programmes are held in contempt by electorates.

Despite having been elected on the basis of concentrating on America's domestic problems, Bill Clinton has been at the forefront of military intervention in the third world. But even here the American electorate have been pointedly unenthusiastic about Clinton's sabre-rattling. The current intervention in Haiti has been marked by a distinct lack of public support.

As to the popularity of third world nationalism, the Haitian intervention demonstrates that there is little enthusiasm for that either. Although the Organisation of American States intervention was supposed to take on the Haitian military rulers, the US forces' principal activity has been to defend Colonel Raoul Cedras and his supporters from the vengeance of the Haitian people. Even in the Balkans, where the image of profound nationalist movements seems to have some content, the reality is different. Few of the nationalist movements that emerged after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact command much support. Once portrayed as the new Nazis, the rump Yugoslav republic of Slobodan Milosevic has little stomach for conflict and has sued for peace with the West.

Where current conflicts call out for a clear explanation, the academics' mystification of the war drive only serve as an apologia for Western militarism. Every conceivable variable, from the biological to the cultural and psychological is invoked to explain war - every variable except the interests of those capitalist powers that have been at the forefront of promoting militarism. In the spirit of Clausewitz, we should relocate the drive towards war where it belongs - in the realm of the political machinations of the Western elites.

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