War and truth in Libya and Palestine

Tarak Barkawi writes:

We are told that war is the pursuit of politics by other means. Attributed to Clausewitz, the thought is actually rather comforting. War may be violent but at least it’s rational. It is a sometimes necessary strategy to achieve objectives.

A world is imagined in which armed force is an instrument that can be calibrated, here a scalpel, there a hammer. Violence – the destruction of bodies and things – becomes a means to be assessed for its efficacy in attaining ends.

How much ‘punishment’ will the people of Gaza take before they get rid of Hamas? How much ‘pressure’ needs to be applied before the Gaddafi regime collapses?

Experts offer authoritative analyses. PowerPoint slides are produced, briefings given. Leaders make informed decisions. The balloon goes up. Operation Cast Lead or Unified Protector or some other begins.

Speeches follow; political, legal and moral justifications are made. Politicians and their advisors claim truth in the face of war. They speak of their rational command of force, of the effects it will have among the target populations.

Clausewitz also likened war to a wrestling match. Players in a game know it can take on a life of its own. Each move is countered, and then countered again. They are caught in a system neither side controls, each seeking a dominance that often turns out fleeting.

Like many veteran soldiers, Clausewitz well understood that the enemy always has a vote, that plans are cast aside on first contact, and that outcomes are ultimately unpredictable. Amidst the fog of war, calculations must be made with variable quantities. It was precisely for these reasons that he enjoined politicians and generals to think so carefully about their objectives in going to war.

What Clausewitz actually teaches us is that war is far more likely to make us its servants than we are to make war our instrument. War subjects us to its dynamics, it draws in ever greater resources, and it changes everything, especially but not only for those caught in the direct grip of its violence.

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3 thoughts on “War and truth in Libya and Palestine

  1. rosemerry

    Why should the Palestinians (it was not just in Gaza that the vote was for Hamas) be punished into getting rid of Hamas? Many were fed up with the corruption of Fatah, and now they can see how useless the giving in to Israel by the PA was. Democracy is supposed to be the people voting for the candidates they want.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    Doesn’t Barkawi understand the difference between a war and a UNSC sanctioned action under Responsibility to Protect? Doesn’t he understand that it always takes time and sometimes setbacks before any goal is reached? I’m sure Clausewitz did.

  3. Pragmatic Realist

    I really don’t care what Clausewitz said or taught. War is not a continuation of politics. War is the end of politics as a rational productive and (we hope) ethical social process. War is abandoning that process out of frustration and impatience and unbelief in its potential to resolve differences, and regressing to pure stupid immoral violence to get what you want by killing or inflicting such pain on your opponent that he gives in to your wishes. People believe that peaceful processes will not succeed and that in the end you will have to fight. The truth is that fighting never succeeds and in the end you will have to make peace. The failure to understand this is why we have endured more than a century of practically un-interrupted world war. This war in Libya, once started, will never end. What conceivable circumstance can create peace now out of the cycle of anger, violence, greed and revenge we have entered into?

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