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.