From Clausewitz to Clinton and Bush

On the first page of Vom Kriege, Clausewitz defines war as “an act of violence engaged to force an adversary to submit to one’s will”. And war is indeed the ultimate proof of power, submission or death. And, this being so, war is also the ultimate refusal to submit. Freedom and Death” chant Kazantzakis’ Cretans as they kill and die. Clausewitz goes on to explain (1.1.24) that war is simply a continuation of politics by other means”, that it is a way of achieving a political end. If submission is not obtained by demands or by threats, it can be imposed by military might.

Clausewitz (1780-1831) grew up in a world where power politics and total war were being reintroduced by Napoleon Bonaparte. Neither was new as all empires are built this way. Nevertheless, the courts of Europe were taken by surprise. They had been accustomed to submitting the less “developed”, more “primitive” peoples of the planet, some still living in the Stone Age. While limiting their internal fighting to perpetual skirmishes, mostly in the plains of Saxony and Flanders. Napoleon turned this around. After his triumphs in Italy came the Egyptian fiasco. And, from then on, he seems to have ignored the wide world and concentrated his energy, and that of the budding French nation, on the conquest of continental Europe. (He did, however, restore slavery in the dwindling French colonies, after it had been abolished by the Republic. Probably at the bidding of his first wife, Josephine, her family being plantation owners in Martinique.)

Total war is an industrial process. A nation’s productive forces are organized for just one purpose, military power. Eisenhower warned of the danger this represented for civil society, but it was Orwell who dissected and described the workings of the military-industrial world and the reasons for its perpetuation. Power is control. And control is more easily accepted in an anxiety prone situation. Only war maintains this constant tension and the submissiveness of nations to their leaders. Only war and total war in particular, can justify the control needed for absolute sovereignty.

Ultimately, total war leads to total destruction. Moscow (1812) and Atlanta (1864) were tactical destructions, and Dresden (1945) may have been a mistake. But there is no doubt that the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were carefully calculated acts of wanton murder. Killing has become a science and an industry, ranging from the “surgical” strikes to the multi-megaton ones. Total war may also cover up more selective destructions, such as the Jews of Europe, or the Communists of Indonesia. These also have recourse to science and industry to provide them with the means to their ends.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons meant that total war could no longer be “total”. The two remaining adversaries at the end of WW2, the USA and the USSR, could not attack each other directly. They built up vast arsenals as threats and counter threats, but striking at the heartlands was out of the question. The so called Cold War merely outsourced the fighting to the rest of the planet. The slightest social disturbance in one zone of influence was immediately armed and financed by the other side. Insurgency and civil war spread like wild-fire over Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. By the late 1950’s, China had joined the field as the third contender, making the fiction of Nineteen Eighty Four a reality. The leaders of the three super powers moved their pawns and their dominos, changed alliances, rewrote the past and controlled the future of the whole human race, and of all the other species into the bargain.

Something was lacking, however. The threat of mutual nuclear destruction was so apocalyptic that it ended up by having a numbing effect. The imminent end of the world is a thought that is best repressed. This absence of future, obliterated by a mushroom cloud, could also be countered by a hedonistic way of life. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when a whole generation seemed to be dropping out, were an ideological low point for the power-mongers. Orwell had imagined that homeland hysteria could be maintained at a high level by, among other things, frequent public executions of enemy war criminals (sic) and regular haphazard explosions of bombs. He was thinking of WW2 type rocket bombs, the V1 and V2. But, in his film Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam strikingly brought the story up to date. Homeland security is threatened by an Irish looking truck driver and a foreign sounding plumber. While package bombs explode in shops and restaurants.

When the USSR finally went into insolvency in 1991 and could no longer pose as a credible menace, everything was in place for a new era, a new world order. Global war on terror was declared by Bush in 2001, after the September attacks. But we know that the Patriot Act had been prepared by the Clinton administration, following the Oklahoma bombing. Terror is the ideal foe, if one admits that war has become a spectacle. More than the continuation of power politics by other means, war has become a low intensity daily struggle of all against all. The terrorist danger is so protean, so multifarious, so persistent, and so easy to fake or to instigate, so hard to stamp out that, once instated, it is here to stay. The USA, Russia, China and their satellites need no longer confront each other to maintain a bellicose environment. They have found a common enemy, the axis of evil.

Orwell’s fictional character Winston Smith is allowed just enough rope to hang himself with. Or, more precisely, to bring him to Room 101. And so it is today with opposition wherever it comes from. The Thought Police is back in power with a vengeance and Big Brother is watching our every step, reading and listening to our every word and, as far as is possible, profiling our minds and intentions. Winston learns the hard way that the Party controls matter because it control minds. “Reality is inside the skull.” Or, as Chomsky has pointed out, “There Is No Alternative” is the totalitarian thought structure of the new millennium.

Ken Couesbouc can be reached at