In Book 2 of On War Clausewitz attempts to clarify the reasons why formal theories of war are no help to a commander-in-chief. He criticizes contemporary theorists as being too mechanical, too reliant on material factors. Clausewitz reminds us that war takes place in a social space, with social conventions that are fluid and cannot be pinned down by static “rules of war”. However, he fails any attempt at social analysis. Rather, he spends his time trying to differentiate between “knowledge”, “intellect” and “judgement”. This muddles what is otherwise a brilliant observation: “War is an act of human intercourse” (pp. 149).
The theorists Clausewitz lambasts were preoccupied with the material factors of war which led to mathematical equations and other detached abstractions. One is reminded of the books found in the bargain bin at the mall: How to make friends or Get a girl in 5 minutes or less. These types of social guide are obviously a sham. Clausewitz similarly regards the Jominis of the military strategy world. “Get a date” books are no substitute for real experience, something that Clausewitz emphasizes ad nauseuam throughout On War. Social skills are a result of years of interaction, aka “combat” experience. Dating, like war, is a social act.
First, we must differentiate between social and material factors. Material, or “brute” facts, are those given by nature, and remain true regardless of ideational beliefs. One often used example is of a golfer being hit by lightning. Whether or not the golfer believes in electricity, he will be electrocuted. Brute facts are contrasted with social facts, which are dependent on human social beliefs. Money is the classic example of a social fact.
Material factors in war are those that deal with the physical aspects of fighting. Considering warfare between human groups in only these terms is short-sighted. Rules based on material factors could include:
- always fight with your back to the sun
- never fight uphill
- take South America or Australia first and collect your cards before moving on to other continents
Social factors are conventions based on cultural norms decided through social interaction. These social rules are often the root of the sense of a “fair fight”. Some examples include:
- do not target medical staff or members of the press
- do not execute POWs
- wait for the other guy’s turn before moving your next chess piece
Clausewitz cannot seem to differentiate these two groups. In fact, he lists the material factors of time of day, terrain and weather (pp. 142-3) alongside the social rule that “withdrawal from the battlefield is the sign of victory” (pp. 142).
Social factors can play a pivotal role in an engagement. During the Kamakura period the Japanese style of one on one combat with longswords was forever changed after facing a Mongol cavalry charge and a wall of Chinese spearmen. Furthermore, social factors abound in the first Book of On War where Clausewitz lists the general variables of war (see my equation for examples). Part of Clausewitz’s military “genius” could be “social intelligence”. This type of intelligence plays an important role in understanding personal relations, navigating and influencing politics, and affects interpretive skills such as those needed in intelligence analysis. As in the Mongolian example above, social rules periodically clash with changing times or new enemies. A military “socialite” would have the attuned social intelligence to not only detect these changes but to be able to react to them.
Clausewitz was correct to identify the social dimension as a weak point of the materialists. His only fault was being 250 years ahead of his time, before social constructivism had an established framework to deal with the problem.