Reflections “On War”

As a part of prescribed reading on strategic thought I did finish reading Clausewitz’s classic On War. Firstly it is not as easy as I have thought it will be going by size of the book, it was roughly 140 page transliteration by Charles Keller and David Widger. The conceptual strength is indeed staggering. Though it touched so many aspects of warfare, I will reflect on some of the important things which in my view have a contemporary relevance rather than a commentary or a review for every chapter or concept because that will be a different exercise altogether.

War as an extension of state policy:

Living amidst modern democracies it is easy for us to opine that states go to war to fulfill their political objectives. But to say this during the days of aristocratic rule was indeed remarkable, hence Clausewitz stands out. Since in those days world had no multilateral forums to resolve disputes with peaceful resolution mechanisms, war was the only and in other words a tempting option if there was no output through secret diplomacy, hence going to war was considered as a rational decision. It is important to note that the state policy does not always mean welfare of subjects. At least in modern days a unilateral war is seen by the civilized world as some kind of taboo and there are so many ways to resolve a dispute under the auspices of United Nations and through other bi-lateral and multilateral forums. To check the belligerent we also have checks and balances like the article of collective self defense, Humanitarian Intervention in UN Charter, imposing sanctions and other means. Thanks to Kant for his democratic peace theory, else much of the world would have been in a perpetual war instead of perpetual peace, ie., his theory of Democratic countries don’t go for war to resolve their differences.

Disarming the enemy’s army once it is defeated:

Once enemy is defeated his army should be disbanded completely, so as to make sure that it does not pose any danger again. After US attacked Iraq and defeated it, the first thing Americans did was to disband Iraqi army. Though India fought a defensive war with Pakistan more than once it could never reap any benefits of its victory, thus helping Pakistan to come back and haunt it. Hence it becomes important that opponent’s fighting machinery be made completely dysfunctional, so that it does not pose any danger after victor has claimed a victory.

Limited War:

It is true that often the object of war is not a complete defeat of opponent, but only a specific objective or a small concession as a part of grand design. The objective of Indo-Pak 71 war was not a complete annihilation of Pakistan but to halt the atrocities committed by the state of Pakistan on people of East Pakistan (ie., current day Bangladesh), once the objective of liberating that territory is complete we have halted the war, eventually Pakistan declared its surrender or defeat. Clausewitz asserts that at times spending forces beyond a specific objective might turn out to be a disaster rather than a victory.

Reserve Forces are useful only when they are strategically placed not otherwise:

Clausewitz discussed in detail difference between tactic and strategy. In a war the decision of committing number of troops and how many should remain as standby as a reserve force is a strategy because you might want to involve all your divisions at one point to overwhelm the enemy unless you are sure of victory. When few divisions are exhausted, the reserve forces must be placed strategically i.e., most of the time it means placing reserve forces nearby to the theater of action so that it can quickly reach the battle field.

Dangers of War theories:

To follow a principle prescribed by an untested theory in the enterprise of war which is an unpredictable business without any thought is indeed ill advised. Instead it must be primarily based on the military genius of Army generals and planners which they have acquired over the years by their active engagement in combat. Clausewitz says that there was a period when theory builders of war tried to explain every aspect of combat in geometrical terms, which is not only impractical but dangerous too. Geometry was a part of curriculum in every military school of Europe those days. At some point most of the explanations sought were mathematical let it be a victory or defeat. Hence these theories are not useful at all times.

The Trinity: People, Army & Government:

After the first reading if there are three concepts that stunned me, they are these

1. Limited War
2. War as an extension of state policy.
3. Trinity of People, Army and Government.

The execution of war will be smooth only if there is a frictionless synchronization between people, the state and army. Being at the top of hierarchy the state, i.e., the political executive takes a final decision on whether a country as a society should go for a full scale war with its opponents, after weighing in other alternatives.

Though it is normally expected that the military without any reservations shall execute the will of political executive, this is not possible or at times becomes a great challenge in non-democratic societies. For example in “Pakistan” the civilian executive does not have a say in decisions related to war and foreign policy, so is the case with countries like Burma and Egypt. At times to give the military leadership civilian sanctity generals take up civilian positions often through questionable means. Musharraf of Pakistan and Than Shein of Burma are glaring examples.

Thirdly and most importantly wars won’t succeed without the active support and/or participation of subjects/citizens. Hence often belligerent nations i.e., their leaders spend most of their energies in convincing their peoples in their rationale behind the decision to go to war. Because it is people who have to forego resources for the sake of war, for example by paying more taxes.

One of the primary reasons for French revolution was that subjects did not support their king’s war abroad while they were enduring enormous sufferings at home.

Probably when I read “On War” second time I hope that my understanding will be further refined.

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