Even the ultimate aim of comtemporary warfare, the political object, cannot always be seen as a single issue. Even if it were, action is subject to such a multitude of conditions and considerations that the aim can no longer be achieved by a single tremendous act of war. Rather it must be reached by a large number of more or less important actions, all combined into one whole. Each of these separate actions has a specific purpose relating to the whole.
Here we are looking at the political object and its supporting military aim as being close together. The applicability of the military instrument is something of a sliding scale which increases the more the political purpose and the military aim are the same. This tracks along very well with the ideal type of absolute war. At the same time this sequence of actions/decisions is very much tied to the specifics of the political purpose and how the phenomenon of war acts upon/changes/develops it. So we have a very basic concept of contingency here, that being a sequence of purpose-driven actions/decisions being made over time and being influenced in turn by a complex ever evolving environment.
The concept of contingency as connected to the general theory does not end there however, and by referring to affinitive Weberian concepts can be even expanded upon.
In Chapter 30 of Book VI Clausewitz writes, concerning a conflict where the attacker has only a limited goal or lacks the desire or resources to achieve a decision,
. . . At that point the offensive principle may often attempt to vent itself by finding satisfaction for honor’s sake alone. Victory in any engagement of some consequence will lend a semblance of superiority. It satisfies the vanity of the general, the court, the army and the people, and thereby some measure the expectations that are always pinned on an offensive.
Thus the last hope of the attacker will center on a favorable engagement of some consequence, for the sake of the victory and the trophies alone. We are not involving ourselves in a contradiction here, since we are still proceeding on our own assumption that the defender, by his foresight, has deprived the enemy of any hope of using a success to gain his real objectives. Any hope would turn on two requirements: first, a favorable outcome, and second, that the victory actually lead on to the further objectives.
(Emphasis in bold is Clausewitz’s)
Here we have a second type of contingency, that being more associated with the ideal type of “war in reality”, but including not only limited political purpose, but indecision, confusion and even strategic incompetence (on account of the attacker going to war in the first place, mismatching the instrument to the intended purpose). So how important is this to Clausewitz?
Two paragraphs later, after providing an historical example as illustration, he writes,
These are not trivial or meaningless distinctions: indeed, we are dealing with one of the most fundamental principles of war. In strategy, the significance of an engagement is what really matters. We cannot repeat often enoght that all its essentials always derive from the ultimate intentions of both parties, from the conclusion of the whole sequence of ideas. That is why, strategically speaking, the difference between one battle and another can be so great that the two can no longer be considered as the same instrument.
Here we see the concept of contingency further developed since by deviating from the first (absolute war influenced) concept of strict instrumental (ends to means) rationality we approach more a state of balance or equilibrium, removing the tension and possibility of movement (towards a decision) from the war (the violent social interaction between two political communities), as described in Chapter 18, Book III.
One can see the interaction here between the two types of contingency closely linked with what Echevarria refers to as the subjective and objective elements of Politik. (See Echevarria’s article, “War and Politics”)
So contingency encompasses for Clausewitz not only decisions made in connection with a subjective political goal (military means to political purpose ends), but also as the result of various (“irrational” from the former perspective) decisions which can influence the individual steps (in the case of war, engagements) to such an extent that they, and the war, seemingly lose their “rational” character.
So with Clausewitz we have a useful concept, but by turning to Max Weber we add a completely new dimension to this concept of contingency which offers interesting analytical possibilities . . .
[Political] society, for the first time in modern history, more or less appears completely as human fabrication, depending on human action. This action – individual as well as collective – is neither ‘free’ in a philosophically absolute sense, nor is it determined. Though there always exist restrictions, namely the scarcity of all kinds of resources, including knowledge, choices for different human action are also always possible. Thus, contingency and the necessity to decide structure the actual context and base of human action – and the contemporary modern self-perception has become aware of this, that is reflexsive. ‘We are not only free to choose but also forced to choose’ as Sven Eliaeson writes with reference to Max Weber’s ‘value-aspect-choice methodology’. Neither religion nor natural law, neither a tradition nor a culture can any longer indisputably claim a cosmological preponderance. The irreducible plurality of views as well as the permanent contestability of normative claims prevent integration and common ground for the necessary reproduction of human relations. Therefore, the presumed fundamental unit of these relations, which has been called society ever since the writings of the early Scottish enlightenment and the appearance of a positive theory of this ‘object’ in Auguste Comte’s works, also became critical and eroded. It was already so at the time of Weber, who was among the first to avoid the very concept ‘society’ after its relatively short career. After Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Max Weber was among the most radical and consequent in bearing what Eliaeson called the ‘post-enlightenment anguish of polytheism’ and the ‘human predicament in the face of modernity’.
It is well known that he then, in the first paragraph of his Wirtschaft and Gesellschaft, puts ‘social action’ in the former place of ‘society’ as the object of sociology thus establishing a scientific program to understand and explain how ‘societal orders and powers’ become fabricated and reproduced through the networds of social actions.
Michael Greven, “Max Weber’s Missing Definition of ‘political Action’ in his ‘Basic Sociological Concepts'”, Max Weber Studies, Volume 4.2, July 2004, pp 180-1.
Consider that in modern society there is no “absolute ethic” to guide one’s decisions in every day life. Rather we all deal with a pantheon of warring gods – be they economic, political, spiritual, familial or other “interests”- all vying for our support and for special consideration in any particular decision. The conflicts are never really resolved, rather we settle for unstable compromises. In the distant past it was not so in the West. One served his or her God and that provided not only life’s meaning, but also made decisions easy, at least in regards to saving one’s everlasting soul.
Transfer this general modern situation to questions of war and peace. Everyone in a modern society at war is obliged to come to their own position concerning the war. Do they support it or not, is it just or unjust? If the threat is seen as a politically existential one, then the decision is easy, but for Western countries such threats are historically rare. This would also involve a negative purpose (that is defensive) as Clausewitz shows us. Support for armed conflict quickly erodes as the war goes on. Lies are uncovered, attrocities occur, the noble cause becomes one of sordid and even corrupt interests all the while support among the people disappears.
One can also see that in this type of contingency a war between a Western and a non-Western (read “pre-modern”) political community would be particularly problematic with the Western country at a decided disadvantage in waging an aggressive war.