War and Philosophy of Violence: Girard on Clausewitz I

As promised last two posts on issues around French military history, negative American perceptions, and the real deep influence of French military methods and technology, including counter-insuregency strategy, connects with some more philosophical posting.

I’m posting a paper I gave at the Society for European Philosophy-Forum for European Philosophy Conference on New Frontiers, University of Dundee (Scotland, UK) earlier this month. The title of my paper on the conference program was ‘European Frontiers and Philosophies of Violence’, but the title of this post is a more accurate reflection of the content. I’ll post the paper in approximately 800 word chunks. I won’t post the whole paper on academia.edu as I think it is really an occasional paper for an event. The ideas will be taken up in later papers which I will probably post on academia.edu and hopefully use in publications. The presentation and therefore what I am posting here reflects my work on philosophy of war, political and social philosophy, philosophy of Europe in the context of interests in the history of European philosophy, and its context in the history of Europe.

Girard’s work on Carl von Clausewitz is presented through conversations with Benoît Chantre, in Achever Clausewitz, translated into English as Battling to the End. The change in title is unfortunate in concealing the original tribute to the importance of Clausewitz and more generally to the philosophy of war as part of social and political philosophy. The conversations are wide ranging and loosely focused on Vom Kriege [On War] edited by Clausewitz’ widow Marie (von Brühl before her marriage) after his death in 1831. Unlike his wife, Carl was not from an aristocratic background and first fought in a battle at the age of 12. That is at the battle of Valmy, where the army of revolutionary France first showed a capacity to stand up to the armies of the old European monarchies. The battle was not very large and was a stalemate (though often presented as an outright victory), but nevertheless that an army raised from the people and inspired by the ideology of a new republic (officially proclaimed two days after the battle), could stand up to the army of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s army largely officered by the hereditary aristocracy, was a shock as great as the many that resulted from the process of the French Revolution on though the republican and imperial phases.

In his politics, Clausewitz remained loyal to the Prussian crown and monarchism. While sympathetic to republicanism as an ideal, and and admirer of ancient republics, he thought of republican ideas as better achieved of it in monarchies that allowed citizen participation in public affairs rather than what he regarded as a political loyalty based on terror, which was how he regarded the nascent French Republic, views in line with Montesquieu’s analyses of republics and monarchies in the mid-eighteenth century, which is probably not an accident. Raymond Aron’s lengthy commentary on Clausewitz, which is one of the major points of reference in Girard’s discussion, puts him in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth century French liberalism.

Despite Clausewitz’ scepticism about modern democratic republics, there is something inherently democratic in idea that war can only be prosecuted most vigorously on the basis of popular will, and that is one of the themes of his monumental work in the theory of war, which as we shall see forms part of the key passage on the trinity of war. Clausewitz himself aimed for a dialectical approach to the life of concepts as we shall also see in the ‘trinity’ passage, so we can think of the ides of the ‘people’ he has in the trinity itself as owning something to revolutionary democratic  republicanism, particularly remembering Tocqueville’s suggestion in Democracy in America that democracy arose as such an irresistible an idea through European history, so that even the opposition to democracy became part of the growth of democracy.

As Aron notes, On War belongs in a class of maybe two, along with Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War as a book universally read in military academies, and this carries on  globally amongst all groups engaged in war, so that copies of On War have reportedly been found in the former safe houses of Al Qaeda. Girard’s main concern in these discussions of Clausewitz is, however, not his contribution to military studies, but rather how his thought about war can be taken up from the point of view of Girard’s previous work on violence, sacrifice and mimesis in anthropology, literary studies and theology. Girard has very little indeed to say about military theory, military history, or military technology, though  was not a prime concern for Clausewitz himself. There is one brief and not very well focused discussion of the role of tank design in the Fall of France, along with the place of Charles de Gaulle at that time in military and political affairs, and that is about it.

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