Carl Schmitt: Prophet of the Age of Irregular Warfare?

I’m referring back two posts to an item of Classic Military Books for an Age of Irregular Warfare, dealing with the idea that military academies should now be concerned more with books on irregular (partisan, asymmetrical, terrorist) warfare.  War is not essentially concerned with grand strategic conflicts between great powers, but conflicts between established power (with the United States at the centre) and marginal sources of violence concerned to destabilise institutionalised power, and strategic relations.

If time allowed, I would have got into a discussion I will now undertake of the work of Carl Schmitt.  Schmitt was not mentioned in the item to which I linked.  That might result from the awkwardness of Carl Schmitt’s high rank in the Nazi legal system from 1933 to 1936, when he was pushed away from his role as ‘Crown Jurist’ by radical Nazis, particularly those associated with the SS.  Nazi does not really sum up Schmitt’s political and legal work over time at all adequately, and even during the period of his pea involvement, his ideas were not a good fit with pure Nazi ideology.  Constitutional conservative with authoritarian tendencies would be a better summary to my mind.   A number of political thinkers across a broad political range have taken a positive interest in Schmitt. However, I can’t get into the details of that right now.

I am concerned with Theory of the Partisan, a book Schmitt published in 1962, by which time he had established a lot of distance between himself and Naziism, though I certainly wouldn’t recommend his political views to anyone of deep liberal or libertarian sensitivity.  By 1962 the Cold War confrontation between two blocs led the USA and the USSR, had produced the greatest strategic confrontation ever in human history with no general way breaking out, or likely to break out.  The sheer destructive potential of a war between the two blocs, particularly given the likelihood of thermonuclear war terminating anything like a civilised existence for either side, meant that small scale wars were already becoming more central.  This included wars against colonial powers, the French struggle against Algerian nationalists were of particular interest to Schmitt.  This was also the time of the early American engagement with Vietnam, itself resulting form the failure to maintain French colonialism in Indochina.  The Vietnam War produced a classic of asymmetrical war in which Viet Cong guerrillas, backed by a Communist state in the north were never able to defeat the American soldiers stationed in the south, in the sense of a major battlefield defeat, but were able to undermine the American will to prevent the incorporation of south Vietnam into the communist state in the north.

The Algerian War was of particular interest to Schmitt, part of which was certainly due to a desire to suggest that the French were no better than the Germans of World War Two in their attitude to fighting wars against irregular forces out of uniform.  There is also what looks like empathy from Schmitt (who was not a man of great empathic qualities) for those who fought on for a French Algeria against De Gaulle taking Raoul Salan as the example. Schmitt claims that Salan was a left republican, I can’t find any evidence for this.  Maybe Schmitt is thinking of Salan’s supprt for the Free French against Vichy in World war Two, or the Radical politicians who promoted France’s war against decolonisation before 1958.  Nevertheless salan appears to have been a man of the right or extreme right.  The absoluteness of Salan’s existential commitment to a nationalism, tinged with Catholicism, was very much in line with Schmitt’s own inclinations.  There is also perhaps respect in Schmitt for those French people (including resident foreigners, not that Schmitt mentions them) who resisted Nazi occupation, fighting out of uniform and therefore without the protection of the Geneva Convention.  The Nazis respected the Geneva convention for French soldiers as much as any one the Allies, but was of course ruthless in exploiting the lack of protection for fighters out of uniform.

Schmitt, again maybe enjoying the chance to put France in the dock, traces 20th century irregular warfare back to the German and Spanish  resistance to Napoleonic domination in the early years of the 19th century. He refers to the willingness of crowned heads to invoke a lawless war against occupying authority, a war without limits to defend the existence of the nation against occupation.  Schmitt refers to a triumph of chaotic violent force, a release of some dark elemental energy within politics and sovereignty, which shows the deep reality concealed at normal times.  This builds on earlier interest by Schmitt in the state of exception as what reveals the reality of state sovereignty, and his interest in the idea that law and sovereignty rest on a natural ordering, the customary sense of right and and justice in human communities.  The natural ordering theme is present in its negation here, as the dark forces of nature threaten to destroy law and political order of any kind.

Schmitt builds on the suggestion in The Concept of the Political, written in the 1920s, and the subtitle of Theory of the PartisanIntermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political points the reader in that direction, that politics is a life and death struggle between enemies.  That is he suggest that politics is based on the distinction between friend and enemy (enemy in the sense of an absolute threat to existence), and the willingness to struggle against the enemy which underlies constitutionalism, something necessary to the existence of an effective constitution.

Schmitt is also building on the work of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian army office who wrote the most famous comprehensive theory of war in his book On War.  On War  takes Napoleonic war as the essence of warfare, and makes of Napoleon a kind of dark hero.  The loyal subject of his Prussian Majesty, that Clausewitz was, could never regard napoleon in any other way.  Schmitt is partly undermining Clausewitz, because Clausewitz thinks of war as essentially the grand battles between huge armies on European fields during the time of Napoleon.  Schmitt suggests that the irregular war against Napoleonic forces is the real essence of war as we know it now.  He builds on Clausewitz’ concerns with the connections between political wail, strategy and tactics, to suggest a theory of war as partisan war.  Lenin plays a role here as Schmitt’s own dark hero, the enemy who understands the essence of politics discussed in The Concept of the Political.  Schmitt now argues that Lenin was a reader of Clausewitz applying his ideas of war to political struggle, and extending them to irregular war, in ways which were taken up by Mao and by Salan.

Maybe Schmitt should become more influence in strategic studies and in military academies, without his ultra-conservative political tendencies becoming more influential.



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