Nathan Bedford Forrest, an unlettered but practiced dealer in the market for human flesh, came to the study of war as an intelligent layman. He started as a private and rose to lieutenant general. Everything he learned about the art of war he learned on the job. This lack of formal military training freed him from some of the worst Jominian excesses of the Old Army’s officer corps (future president James Garfield, another general without professional military training, once observed “I declare that if this union goes down in blood and ruin, let it’s obituary read, “Died of West Point.”). Forrest summed up his hard-won knowledge in two memorable action hero catchphrases:
- The secret of victory was “get there first with the most men”
- “War is about fighting and fighting is about killing”
Killing is the essence of war as Book IV Clausewitz saw it. This made Book IV Clausewitz more popular with his immediate successors than Book I Clausewitz, who spouted (old school) liberal nonsense like “war is the continuation of policy by other means” which sounded suspiciously like chaining the unrivaled genius of Ludendorff and his many chins to the petty whims of Kaiser Bill, Bethmann-Hollweg, and all those commie Social Democrats in the Reichstag. But, with Book IV Clausewitz, here was a writer any red blooded Prussian with an iron backbone could respect. Seek out the decisive battle. Collide head to head with the enemy. Kill more of his men than he kills of yours. Drive him before you in relentless pursuit until victory falls into your righteous iron fist. Here was a prophet of war that any warrior would appreciate. You’ve never read Book IV until you’ve read it in the original Klingon.
This quote from Book IV Chapter IV reminded me of Forrest’s observation:
This [right after victory in battle] is the time for the victor to consolidate his gains by physical destruction – the only advantage that will be permanently his. The enemy’s morale will gradually recover, order will be restored, his courage will reurn; and in most cases only a very small portion, if any, of the hard-earned superiority will remain. In some, admittedly rare, instances a thirst for revenge and and increased surge of animosity may even produce the opposite effect. But the advantages gained by inflicting casualties, wounded, prisoners, and captured material, can never disappear from the ledger.
The truth behind the efficiency of killing and war itself has been suppressed by modern Western mores. Since the predominant skill needed for advancement in contemporary Western elites is verbal virtuosity, more emphasis is placed on changing your enemy’s mind through “constructive dialog” (since he probably just misunderstands your noble intentions) than changing it by beating the snot out of him till he gives in. In other parts of the world where slaughter is still the coin of the realm, this emphasis on heart to heart chats is seen as evil (possibly Zionist) deviousness and makes the hard-hearted tyrant yearn for the Western interlocutor to whom he can speak mano a mano without all of the righteous cant that just embarrasses those who spout it.
War works, fighting works, and killing works better than advertised.
There are two ways to get ahead in the world: extraction and improvement. In extraction, you take what you can get from the earth, nature, and other people. War is the social equivalent of strip mining. The stuff you want is buried in human flesh and you slice through whatever is in your way until everything that you want is yours and the resource you craved is exhausted. Improvement involves tending to a resource over time, folding resources into it with the hope of producing more of the resource over time than you had at the start. Book I Clausewitz seems to be an improvement guy. Book IV Clausewitz is visibly an extraction guy. It’s easy to see why the younger Moltke, the man who destroyed Western civilization, and his ilk would like Book IV. If any iteration of Clausewitz deserved the title of the “Mahdi of mass and mutual massacre” bestowed upon him by B.H. Liddell Hart, it’s Book IV Clausewitz.
Is extraction more powerful than improvement? No, it’s quicker, easier, more seductive. It will turn the well-intentioned but pouty teen Anakin Skywalker into the evil but pouty Darth Vader every time. It is easy to feast on a captive populace. However, you burn out faster. After a time, if all you do is squeeze, you will eventually squeeze them dry. Improvement is ultimately more powerful but it’s more demanding and difficult to master. It usually takes a rare breed of tyrant to promote it. Most tyrants will follow the easier and more ego fulfilling route of extraction, though some will eventually settle on a practical parasitism that feeds off a population without killing the host.
The lure of the decisive battle and permanent reducing the enemy’s voting bloc by ridding the world of a substantial number of his voters is a strong temptation. Dragging the enemy into the red while leaving us strongly in the black through a major and decisive battle seems to be the best of all worlds. It concentrates war into a compressed space and time, taking away all of those moment of inactivity and indecision that sap the will of all belligerents. Buonaparte developed a strong appetite for decision. His wars were short and decisive. As state after state fell into the hands of the Corsican ogre and his rapacious family, this appetite became more intense and decision became harder and harder to come by. Previous decisions exercised a Darwinian effect on the enemies of France. They adapted to Buonapartist warfare. The French margin of safety disappeared until, after Waterloo, Buonaparte “spent every last penny, and then fled like a beggar from the battlefield and the Empire”.
Despite this caveat, the efficiency of killing must not be overlooked. The Great Powers of the Earth, Great Britain, France, China, Russia, India, and United States, were partially built on a foundation of slaughtered men, women, and children. For every Walpole there is a Cromwell. For every Gambetta there is a Richelieu. For every Confucius there is a Shi Huang Di. For every Alexander II there is a Ivan IV. For every Madison there is a Jackson.
Recognizing that this is true does not make killing any more moral, as even the bloody minded Book IV Clausewitz points out. Moreover, the efficiency does not always translate into effectiveness. Indiscriminate slaughter can cause “a thirst for revenge and and increased surge of animosity may even produce the opposite effect”, denying the man of slaughter the full exploitation of his victory. In Buonaparte’s own case, it deprived the Man on Horseback of his throne, his Hapsburg empress, and his heir, leaving him a tubby Man of Romantic Myth who could only wage a war of nastygrams with his English jailer on a remote South Atlantic island.
However, ignoring the truth about the efficiency of slaughter leads to 4GW, the systemic explotation of impractical Western moral attitudes by opponents who possess a fulness of knowledge about the gospel of death.
10 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book IV: The Efficiency of Killing”
Well if “liberal democracies” do not protect their constituents from the forces of barbarism,then they will be overthrown by hard men to the acclamation or the indifferance of their citizens.
This reminds me of all of the commotion within the cloistered chattering class when perhaps the greatest Marine general since the Korean War stated that he enjoyed combat:
General Mattis is something of a warrior-intellectual. He was profiled by Thomas PM Barnett in an Esquire article called “Monks of War,” that portended the future of Counterinsurgency doctrine. Mattis is an excellent general who uttered an unspeakable taboo…that war is about killing, and that he rather enjoyed it.
In the mid-1990s, at a time when most military doctrine was about “surgical strikes,” and “influencing the mind of the enemy,” Mattis is reputed to have said,
“Sometimes the best way to influence the mind of the enemy is to put a bullet in it.”
Another excellent bio of Mattis can be found in the following AFJ article:
One question I have is this: How is our society to breed the next generations of military geniuses if we are so averse to the skills that the military profession requires?
>>The Great Powers of the Earth, Great Britain, France, China, Russia, India, and United States, were partially built on a foundation of slaughtered men, women, and children.
>>War works, fighting works, and killing works better than advertised.
You know, much as I would like these statements to be false, they just aren’t. They’re true.
There is one thing to keep in mind though, that I’m not sure gung-ho conservatives (at least in the US) often appreciate.
The rise of West over the last 600 years was based on the West’s unparalleled capacity to project organized violence over great distances using superior technology. However this dominance has no innate cause. The technologies, including steel forging techniques and gunpowder were mostly invented elsewhere. The dominance was the result of historical accident. And the military advantage of the West, while still a fact, has been eroding.
Historians tell us that for most of recorded human history, the world’s most powerful empires have been in Asia. We may be experiencing a return to the mean.
Book I was also right – war is also the continuation of politics by other means. And while the military superior power always prefers war and killing, the militarily weaker one always prefers alliances and treaties – some way to circle and enchain a superior power. It’s not clear that the US or even the West in general will be dominant international powers a generation or two from now.
I don’t think that Book I Clausewitz is a different guy from Book IV Clausewitz. Book IV is about battles. Book I is about war in general. Book IV is about what happens when the dogs of war have already been unleashed, and tearing into their prey with. He is showing what forces have been put in play by the statesman who opted for war, and by the public that supported it and sent its sons off to kill and die in it. As usual, he does not put a smiley face sticker on it.
You are right, though, that a community which is unwilling to face the reality of battle, and use wars and the battles that are part of war as instruments of policy, might find devoured by those who lack such scruples.
The United States faced existential threats from the Axis powers, and employed unlimited force to destroy them. The United States faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union, and perservered for decades in an expensive Cold War until the USSR cracked. The United States felt itself mortally threatened after 9/11, and supported the attack on Afghanistan and allowed the attack on Iraq in large part simply because we had our blood up and wanted to kill enemies we could find if we could not find the precise enemies who were responsible for the attack. Not, in retrospect, a good basis for a policy decision; but, as Clausewitz tells us, the public is the source of primordial hatred, and it must be directed rationally, and the military instrument must be employed in a way that channels and focuses those emotions in a way that leads to victories worth having. I think the vast, pitiless, nation-slaughtering beast still lurks within the American collective soul, only awaiting a bad enough enemy to wake it. I hope so.
It is not at all clear to me that the kind of “gloves on” approach our military employs now would survive a true existential threat. We fight wars of legalism and compunction because they are, or seem to be, optional wars. The public’s response to such wars in the past (Mexican War, Spanish American war, the occupation of the Phillipines, of course Vietnam) has usually been ambiguous, with an active anti-war faction. That is not a bug, it is a feature of American political life. I should probably generalize that to Anglospheric political life, remembering the strong anti-war movements in Britain against the Crimean War and the Boer War, and in favor of Irish Home Rule despite or because of various “Fenian outrages”. In the long run, this has served us well. The British and American communities are composed of people with middle class values who prefer work and production and trade to fighting, and only fight when the need is strongly felt — or delegate the small wars to small, professional militaries who deal with the Sioux or the Zulus or the Pathans or the Moros without coming to the public’s attention. This model works for us.
Part of the solution to our current troubles is the same one our imperial forebears the British knew well. Move the actual killing part of the program, to the extent possible, to the trusty hands of local allies, who have their own grievances and grudges to rectify.
To local people with a much more serious stake in the game, doing something like destroying the local Al Qaeda affiliate is much more likely to seem worth the cost. Some kid from Milwaukee has a bigger stake in seeing the local gang bangers hunted down, since after all his Mom lives three blocks from the crack den.
But, I still agree with the basic thrust of this post. For sure, every community that wants to survive (some do not, oddly enough) has to be willing to send its sons into battle and live or die by the results.
This will never change, nor can it.
I was talking to one of my kids about the fall of the Roman Empire once, and the kid said, well, that won’t happen to us, right? Without thinking about it, I responded that someday, some group of people who want what we have here, and who are serious and ruthless and aggressive, will find a way to take it away from us, end the United States, if it is still called that, and enslave our descendants. Probably not soon, but certainly some day.
I see nothing in the historical record to suggest that anything else is possible. Our day will eventually end, and when it does, there will be wailing and lamentation, and the cutting of the throats of the men, and the carrying off of the women and children into slavery.
If our descendants are not willing to die to the last man, woman and child to prevent it, if they do not love freedom more than life, they will deserve neither, and they will lose both, and they will deserve their fate.
Life and the world are for the strong, for people who are realistic about the basic depravity of humanity, and willing to respond forcefully to that reality — at least until Jesus Christ returns in glory, to wipe the board clean, and renew the face of the Earth. My planning assumption is that this happy termination of History will not happen for a very long time. There is plenty to do in the meantime.
Polybius (among others) speculated that democracy would always degenerate into mobocracy and that mobocracy would be replaced by monarchy, perhaps of the “hard men” to which you refer, which in turn would degenerate into tyranny which would be replaced by aristocracy which would degenerate into oligarchy which would be replaced by democracy and on and on ad infinitum. Polybius, as well as our Founding Fathers, speculated that a constitution, such as that of the Roman Republic (consul==monarchy, senate==aristocracy, plebian council==democracy) that mixed all three would endure. However, the mixed constitution of the Roman Republic did not prevent the rise of universal despotism and I fear the same is true of the American republic.
@Nathaniel T. Lauterbach
I’ve heard Gen. Mattis’ quote. I thought about working it into this post but I had a surplus of honest quotes about war (same reason I didn’t include quotes from Sherman’s exchange with the mayor of Atlanta and John Bell Hood. I do use it here in a similar vein:
I suspect we may breed the next generation of military geniuses as a side effect of a general breakdown of the post-WW2 world order and a return to the more limited prosperity that my grandparents remembered from their youth in the 10’s and 20’s. Much of our current social decay comes from a disconnect between the wealth we take for granted and what it took to create it in the first place.
I think the difference between the West and the rest boils down to three causes:
1. Sheer bloody mindedness – the Christians of Europe sometimes showed an appetite for slaughter that surprised even jaded observers from other cultures.
2. The need to move cargo over unfriendly seas as a regular part of trade. The Chinese moved freight through a system of inland rivers and the Great Canal. The Indian Ocean is also much balmier than the North Atlantic. The poor Europeans, facing a malevolent sea, had to create rugged sea going vessels like the carrack to face the storms of the Little Ice Age.
3. Geography that resisted the establishment of a unifying and hegemonic power. Ming China, Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Persia, Muscovy, and Mogul India all used the nascent power of artillery to smash independent feudal power centers around the turn of the sixteenth century. Europe resisted unification under Charles V and Phillip II, the most promising proto-hegemons. The tiny Netherlands resisted the power of Spain for eighty years.
Based on other sources and my own reading of it, I’d assign Book IV to an earlier stage of Clausewitz’s intellectual development than Book I and VIII. I don’t know if Clausewitz, had he lived, would have substantially disagreed with his earlier conclusions, especially the focus on the primacy of decisive battles of annihilation, but his recognition that there was a wider range of ways to use armed conflict than the Buonapartist super engagements suggests that the mature Clausewitz might have applied more caveats to his argument in Book IV than an earlier incarnation.
I think your discussion of the fall of the Roman Empire with your kid is one of the best things that anyone can do in an attempt to prevent or even mitigate the coming cataclysm, whenever it arrives. Earlier generations of Americans were immersed in the master narratives of European civilization. They knew that states rose and fell and that civilizations have similar narratives of internal decay. The transmission of that narrative has been disrupted for various reasons. Restoring that master narrative will be a valuable corrective to our current self-indulgent and willful ignorance of our past.
Preparing for the Day of the Lord, as you suggest, is also immensely useful.
Nice post. You captured a couple of concepts especially well:
“Ludendorff” . . .
“leads to 4GW, the systemic explotation of impractical Western moral attitudes by opponents who possess a fulness of knowledge about the gospel of death.”
Kinda like standing “Total War” on its head.
There is one thing to keep in mind though, that I’m not sure gung-ho conservatives (at least in the US) often appreciate.
Kinda of a funny observation to make in a post on a non-leftist blog in a series dedicated to analyzing military theory. More generally, if you had to a equal population of contemporary leftist and non-leftist, which group would more likely to have served in the military and more likely to have studied military history?
What your really showing is your own cartoonish stereotype of conservatives in which conservatives are ignorant , shallow people who support military action because they don’t have you’re profound understanding of just how awful war is. Frankly, I don’t think that “reality-based” thing is working out like you’d hoped.
The rise of West over the last 600 years was based on the West’s unparalleled capacity to project organized violence over great distances using superior technology.
This is a very common perception but it is wrong. The West held no significant military advantages over people of the old world until the mid-1800’s and even then challenges of disease and local conditions often canceled these out. The conquest of the New world had more to do with accidental disease and fragility of New World political systems than technological superiority.
However this dominance has no innate cause.
This too is incorrect although time precludes explaining why. I’ll do a post on it later. Suffice to say that Europe’s innate cultural advantages of organization explain its dominance. The technology plays a secondary role and is itself dependent on culture and organization.
The idea that the West is a uniquely violent culture is dogma on the left but it is not true. Pre-industrial warfare is far more bloody and harsh on non-combatants than industrial warfare. The wars of European colonial conquest were less violent than wars fought between natives. Europeans treated the masses of subject people’s better than native rulers (who were usually foreigners anyway). Europeans wiped out slavery where ever their power reached.
It’s kind of sad to see how people like you will ignore history to score some immediate political gain. It is more frightening to see you taking a wrecking bar to the institutions and principles that raised Europe up from the oppression, stagnation and poverty that most humans lived in and in which most continue to live in.
the Christians of Europe sometimes showed an appetite for slaughter….
I take it by not just saying “the Europeans” you mean to draw attention to the atrocities committed by men like Wilberforce, John Paul II, and St Francis, or at least to suggest a causal relationship between Christian belief and an appetite for slaughter. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing.
>>What your really showing is your own cartoonish stereotype of conservatives in which conservatives are ignorant , shallow people who support military action because they don’t have you’re profound understanding of just how awful war is.
Guilty. Don’t think that conservatives are ignorant or shallow but yes, I do think they overestimate the effectiveness of military solutions. And yes, that is a prejudice.
>>The idea that the West is a uniquely violent culture is dogma on the left but it is not true.
There is a certain strain of left wing thought that reflexively criticizes existing dominant powers, including the US, whether or not the criticism is justified. It’s not a position that makes any sense. It’s also not a mainstream one in progressive circles i.e. it’s more ANSWER and less Daily Kos.
As to whether the West is a uniquely violent culture – this isn’t dogma as far as I know, or even much thought about. It doesn’t appear to be a “framing” issue for the left e.g. along the lines of social justice or abortion rights, of the kind that rises to the level of dogma. Off the top of my head, I can’t see why it would be true. My point was that the West has (recently) had far superior military technology. Not that the West was more inherently militaristic or violent.
>>It’s kind of sad to see how people like you will ignore history to score some immediate political gain. It is more frightening to see you taking a wrecking bar to the institutions and principles that raised Europe up from the oppression, stagnation and poverty that most humans lived in and in which most continue to live in.
I’m sorry you feel that way. Really, no snark intended. I felt exactly like that during pretty much the entire Bush administration. It made for a remarkably unpleasant 8 years. I shouldn’t inspire fear – you give my blog postings far too much credit. If you and the other admins really want me to stop posting, this is your blog – just ask, I’ll stop. And if you feel this way about Obama’s agenda, think what I thought when it came to Bush – this, too, shall pass.
Brilliant post! You may be correct in assessing Book IV as coming earlier in CvC’s maturation than his refined and polished “Realpolitik” of Books I and II. And I would love to see the Klingon translation of _On War_! :-)
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