Politics in War

Carl von Clausewitz, the notorious theorist on war, is translated into English as saying that “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” That is to say, war is what is resorted when other, less violent means of achieving political goals has failed. There’s a bit more to it than that, but if I really wanted to get into that, I’d write a book already written by John Keegan.

The fact of the matter is, most people–especially Americans–think that the politics is supposed to end when the war begins. Let the soldiers do their thing, and the politicians get involved when the soldiers are done.

The difficulty, of course, is that it almost never works that way. Never has, never will.

Fact is, this even occurs when the war is one of national survival. See the 1864 Red River Campaign, which occurred during the American Civil War, and was intended to take large portions of Louisiana and Texas. This was a campaign in direct opposition to the plan developed by General Ulysses S. Grant to try and end the war by concentrating Union efforts in attacking Virginia and Georgia, as the force used in the Red River campaign was supposed to land at Mobile, Alabama, secure that port to prevent from being used by blockade runners, then move towards Atlanta, while another force, under William T. “Pyro” Sherman, moved towards that city from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

However, the purpose of the campaign was political. President Lincoln had to keep certain political elements in the North happy, and also wanted to further his reconciliation program for the South by setting up Unionist state governments in Louisiana and Texas. Unfortunately, he assigned the job to one of the worst of the generals he’d had to appoint due to politics–Nathaniel Banks–and he forgot that in order to reconcile seceding states after the nation wins the war, the nation has to win the war. The result was a miserable, embarrassing failure that might have lengthened the war by months–at best, it certainly didn’t shorten it by anything.

Not to say that letting the soldiers do their thing is always a good idea, either. Take Vietnam, where the soldiers and defense experts measured success in terms of how many Viet Cong they killed, a measurement that works only if you’re fighting conventional trench warfare. If your opponent is fighting a revolutionary people’s war, this sort of measure is only viable if you’re willing to embark upon a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Had the soldiers and the American politicians been more willing to work with the more political aspects of the kind of war they were fighting, and engaged in things like dealing with the corruption in the south Vietnamese government and the land trouble of the Vietnamese peasants, they might’ve pulled the war off. As it was, it didn’t work out so well, as we all know.

Now, what am I saying here? Well, what I’m saying is this: the degree to which politics rather than military necessity dictates strategy during a war should be directly proportional to the degree to which politics is necessary to fulfill the goals of the war. I should also point out, however, that this degree of dictation from one part of the war to the other.

Now, there’s a larger point here. The military of any country, if it is of warlike character, will resent civilian interference in its affairs. However, the military exists to protect the civilians, not the other way ’round–that way lies Prussia. Therefore, the civilians should get a say what the military should be doing, as well as how the military will do it. However, the civilians should also recognize that strategy, tactics, logistics and the like are not their field of expertise.

In other words, let the cobbler stick to his lathe, but let the person buying the shoe have some say in it, hey? It’ll be much better for everyone.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

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One thought on “Politics in War

  1. Pingback: The Politics of War | The Soapbox Guild

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