Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak recently said that “war is not a picnic”. He should know. Barak was a distinguished commander in the Israeli army, fighting in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Unlike Barak, most Western politicians and their officials have not served in the armed forces, let alone fought in a war. Israel, with its history of conflict and conscription, is arguably the sole exception. Yet politicians are the people who decide whether a country goes to war and for what reasons. If they haven’t seen war at first hand, then at least they should be under no illusions about what it involves.
Perhaps they should read Clausewitz and On War? Clausewitz saw long periods of active service during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of the late 18th and early 19th century. He experienced the brutality of war at first hand in numerous campaigns, including Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, when he fought under the Russian flag. In Book 1, Clausewitz strives to convey what war is like, based on his war experience and a close reading of military history.
His language is plain, hard and uncompromising. “War is such a dangerous business”, he writes. It is a duel, a gamble, saturated with danger and destruction, hardship and hazard, chance and uncertainty. It is a situation where much is at stake, and where things can go badly wrong very quickly.
This is the atmosphere of war, and it is enduring. It is not for those of faint heart, weak mind and languid temperament. The lesson for the politician is that one should think hard before deciding to go to war. But once the decision is made, the commitment must be total. There is no place for moderation in war, Clausewitz wrote. You can’t afford to be a nice guy when you are confronted by a determined foe.
For this reason, Book 1 of On War should be required reading for all politicians and officials charged with national security decision-making. It should also form part of the curriculum of undergraduate politics, history, commerce and law courses, where budding politicians are often found. Those who decide to send men and women to war must first understand that war, being “such a dangerous business”, requires clear thinking about objectives, strategy and risks.