War and Philosophy of Violence: Girard on Clausewitz II

[Politics and war intertwined, mimetic violence and literary studies, Clausewtiz’ trinity and its political meaning]

Girard’s engagement with Clausewitz suggests that a complete philosophy of violence must include the more general issues of military studies, so that a complete social and political philosophy comprises the philosophy of war. Foucault acknowledged this in Society Must be Defended when he suggested that Clausewitz’ famous dictum ‘war is the continuation of politics/policy by other means’ be reversed so that politics is the continuation of war, a view reflected in his discussion  of ‘race war’ in those lectures, along with the discussion of military institutions and particularly of waw as a part of a social war in Discipline and Punish.

Clausewitz’ dictum is more than the truism that war serves some political end, as it may seem when circulating out of context as it frequently foes, as what he is arguing is that military strength rests on political will, apparent in the battle field through the determination of troops; and that we cannot make a clear distinction between even detailed objectives in military operations and the political activity of the state behind those operations, determining what the objectives should be and the acceptable means for obtaining those objectives. Military operations are a form of political activity with the goal of imposing the will of one state upon another as a basic political activity, even at the limits of politics and because it is at the limits of politics, which for Girard converges with and anticipates all the discussions of recognition, ressentiment, descralisation and violence in the nineteenth century, including Hegel, Hölderlin, Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. The contingency of violence in Clausewitz outruns the rationalisations offered from Hegel onwards, though Girard is maybe open to accusation of finding his own way of rationalising violence by giving it a goal in the Christian Apocalypse, always present in the constant immanence of violence (including ressentiment) in Clausewitz’ discussion.

Clausewitz was familiar with Enlightenment philosophy and he also had some familiarity with German Idealism and Romanticism, and at time explicitly tries to bring a dialectical approach into On War, but the Idealist references may at least in part be through commentaries rather than a close engagement with Kant, or later figures, though he did go so far as to write a letter to Fichte. Together with that partly secondary reception of German Idealism and Romanticism, On War, brings earlier Enlightenment approaches to the history and nature of civil society, which influenced Kant et al, into that rather uncivil area of war which has nevertheless permeated all civil societies.

The great majority of what Girard has to say about Clausewitz refers to Book One ‘On the Nature of War’ from On War (about one hundred pages in the most authoritative translation, Michael Howard and Peter Paret). The  most important theme in Girard’s discussion of Clausewitz is the struggle for recognition through the use of violence as it relates to Girard’s own work on mimetic violence.

A second theme for Girard, connected with the first one, is that of the trinity in On War, discussed in a passage that takes up less than a page and forms part 28 of Chapter One, ‘The Consequences for Theory’. The three elements of the trinity are: primordial violence (der ursprünglichen Gewaltsamkeit), a blind natural force; hatred (dem Haß) the play of chance and probability in which creativity appears; enmity (der Feindschaft), which is subordinate to political reason. They correspond, though not in a completely discrete way (and the categories of the trinity are to be understood as interactive and ‘dialectical’ rather than as discrete concepts) with: the people (Volke), the commander (Feldherrn) and the army (Heer), the government (Regierung).

The primordial violence-people pole relates to passions inherent in the people. The enmity-commander and army pole relates to the play of courage and talent which itself comes from both probability and chance and the character of the commander. The enmity-government pole related to politics. The three parts of the trinity all have their own laws, but also interact and Clausewitz himself seems to struggle with how this might work, being oddly insistent that  politics is the business of government at the end of the passage for example, and appropriately at the beginning of the passage he refers to a ‘paradoxical trinity’.


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