Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book IV (and VI): Contingency

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.

Chapter 3

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.

9 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book IV (and VI): Contingency”

  1. Weber’s damn brilliant on every subject he touches. It’s been a long time – too long – since I last read him. If memory serves, he was a patriotic booster of his homeland in WWI and wrote contemptuously of Swiss neutrality. Thomas Mann wrote similarly. Without knowing much about the reasonings of either of these supremely subtle thinkers on that particular subject, I speculate whether they had a somewhat disturbing inclination to see in war an alternative or curative for ills troubling the modern spirit – intellectual malaise, bourgeois uninspiringness, the iron cage of society – all the usual suspects in the souls of highly strung men of that period, with one foot planted in the Romantic age and another in a world from which the gods have departed. I can grant that war is sometimes necessary and just without wanting to invest it with such significance, which seems rather more Germanic (old-style Germanic) than Anglo-English in spirit.

  2. KJ Webb-

    Agree as to Weber’s brilliance.

    “he was a patriotic booster of his homeland in WWI and wrote contemptuously of Swiss neutrality.”

    To this I would say first that the Max Weber of 1894 was quite different from the Max Weber of 1919. Second, Germany was a great power in Weber’s day, so it would have been impossible for the Germans to try to be “Swiss”. That was Weber’s point.

  3. My recollection of Weber’s remarks on the Swiss is a little different from yours. I remember a very sharp tone of sarcasm. I don’t think the point was so much that Swiss neutrality isn’t possible for a great power like Germany as that neutrality of the Swiss sort is inherently contemptible – even in the Swiss. There are to my mind troubling implications in that attitude, though I tend to agree that the moral preachments of little preening self-satisfied states are suspect. The Swiss could prate of neutrality only because the great powers of Europe permitted them that luxury. It irritated Weber that the Swiss, so situated and privileged, saw themselves as giving ethical lessons to their neighbors. Canada likes to do this today.

  4. “The Swiss could prate of neutrality only because the great powers of Europe permitted them that luxury.”

    Not exactly. The Swiss had the luxury because they could forcefully defend their country and no one was willing to pay the very steep price to conquer the place, which would have yielded little for a huge cost in blood and treasure.

    The Canadian case is a little different. They are secure behind a security shield provided by the USA, so they can talk big and suffer no consequences. Even so, their military quietly works with ours and is composed of realists and grownups.

  5. KJ Webb-

    I would refer to Weber’s article, “Between Two Laws”, in Max Weber, Political Writings, pp 75-77. It dates from 1916.

    Here there is no sarcasm, no haughty Prussian attitude, rather seeing the Swiss rejection of the “Machtstaat” in a positive light, and positive for Germans as a whole, since “Only communities which renounce political power are able to provide the soil on which other virtues may flourish: not only the simple bourgeois virtues of citizenship and true democracy, which has never yet been realized in any great Machtstaat, but also much more intimate and yet eternal values, including artistic ones.”

    This referring to German communities outside the Reich.

    Later he writes, “It would be a grave error, however to suppose that a political unity like the German Reich could simply decide voluntarily, to embrace a pacifist policy of the kind adopted say, in Switzerland, limiting itself, in other words, to the maintenance of a sturdy militia to counter any violation of its borders. In principle at least, a political formation like Switzerland is not an obstacle to anyone’s plans for political power – although she too would immediately be exposed to Italian ambitions for annexation if we were to be defeated. This results both from her powerlessness and geographical position. The very existance of a great power like Germany, however, is an obstacle in the path of other Machtstaaten, particularly Russia . . .”

    Geography and resources, not to mention the intentions of one’s rival Machtstaaten dictate the necessity of being a Machtstaat. The Swiss have the option of rejecting it and given their resources would not be able to act like a Machtstaat even if they so desired. Germany on the other hand had no such option.

    Weber’s other references to Switzerland in other articles concern democracy, so I suspect that it is this particular article that you refer to.

  6. Thank you, Seydlitz. That sounds pretty definitive and makes me think, presumptuously, all the better of Weber. I was relying on the memory of something read (or perhaps said) over 40 years ago in the “History of Western Civilization” course at the University of Chicago. That section was taught by Christian W. Macauer, of whom it seemed to me then and seems now that there could be no finer product of the German educational system. A raw lad like me from the American hinterlands could have found no more gifted and impassioned explicator of the great themes of history. Macauer almost literally vibrated with excitement on these great subjects. Weber was his hero of heroes, whose thought he managed to work into almost every era.

    Now that these tremendous figures of the pre-war diaspora are no longer to be found at American universities, I wonder – but fear that I know – who and what has filled the void.

    Could it have been Treitzschke rather than Weber who dissed the Swiss? And then Macauer bringing Weber in to put things straight, as he always did?

  7. KJ Webb-

    It must have been an interesting course. Btw, the article in question, “Between two Laws” ends with this paragraph . . .

    “That old sober empiricist, John Stuart Mill, once said that, simply on the basis of experience, no one would ever arrive at the existence of one god – and, it seems to me, certainly not a god of goodness – but at polytheism. Indeed anyone living in the ‘world’ (in the Christian sense of the word) can only feel himself subject to the struggle between sets of values, each of which, viewed separately, seems to impose an obligation on him. He has to choose which of these gods he will and should serve, or when he should serve the one and when the other. But at all times he will find himself engaged in a fight against one of the other gods of this world, and above all he will always find that he is far from the God of Christianity – or at least from the God proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

    Notice how this fits well with the Weberian view of contingency as I described it in the above post. . .

  8. Lexington, aren’t you perhaps remembering the Swiss of yore, the fabled pikemen and whatnot, the tough guys in leather britches and fancy headgear who, when they weren’t defending the mountain passes, hired themselves out as mercenaries to the Pope and other great powers? Agreed that the Swiss have a sturdy independent honourable history and through those deeds of yore earned respect enough to start down the path that brought them to where they were at the time of the world wars. But by then, did they still have the martial spirit, manpower and armaments that would have made them capable of repelling the big battalions? Weren’t they let alone by the bullies (and those bullies were a lot bigger by then than they were in the 17th century) more because their neutrality made them a useful clearing house and because there was by then a sort of holy aura around the concept that “the Swiss are neutral”.

    There must be many differences between the Swiss and the Canadians, peoples with varied and admirable traits, as nations and as individuals. I do think an awfully lot of Canadians – and I am one – aspire to the condition of being sort of inoffensive and international (peacekeepers, not warriors) as if they were ersatz Swiss. That self-image is a big part of the national identity, and, yes, sometimes leads to “prating”.

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