War and Philosophy of Violence: Girard on Clausewitz III

[mimetic violence in literature and anthropology, rationality and politics in Clausewitz’ theory of war, Clausewitz’ contemporary relevance, limits of Girard as reader of Clausewtiz]

The Clausewitzian trinity is one way for Girard to continue his earlier work on the distinct status of a Christianity as an escape from mimetic violence, sacrifice, and myth. The most influential instances of this in Girard’s output are his work on the novel in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structures [Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque/Romantic lie and novelistic truth], and his later work of social and anthropological philosophy Violence and the Sacred. In the earlier work, desire is seen as structured by competition with an other who is also ourself. This conditions the nature of novelistic love, sometimes leading to overt violence and always structured by a destructive attitude to both the competitor and the object of desire, also structuring an associated quest for authenticity in French literature which cannot be achieved because of the mimetic nature of desire, except in a more or less disguised moment of sacral escape from ambition and earthly love into altruistic self-abnegation.

In Violence and the Sacred, the structuring of society around recognition of similarity in which recognition means a comparison in which we wish to become and destroy our opposite produces scapegoats and myths of punitive divinities, from which human societies only escape through the idea of a God who sacrifices himself, so ending the idea of a scapegoat, so introducing a way of limiting mimetic violence that does not resort to the murder of someone assigned the burden of enemy status. Girard’s interest in Clausewitz may suggest some instability in this notion in that Girard recognises in a him, or attributes to him a Pascalian sense that without divine justice there is only force, and also finds an apocalyptic force in Clausewitz, which leads us to the topic of recognition and violence in Clausewitz, war as a duel to determine the dominant will.

In the first book of On War, Clausewitz builds up the idea of a war as the imposition of will through violence in a rivalry of two wills, a duel between two nations. Clausewitz is not just assuming an essential will of a nation, abstracted from difference and conflict within that nation. The capacity for a provisionally single will to be created from the elements of a society and a state is necessary for the conduct of war, and therefore for the continuation of the state and the people of that state so long as the social world is a world in which state interests are pursued through violence.

Though Clausewitz is deeply concerned with the strategic and tactical analyses, which aid an army at war on behalf of a state, the outcome of war can never just be a technical issue or an issue of the quality of the education of senior officers. The intellectual  capacities of the military commanders and the state leaders can only make the most of an existing level of willingness for soldiers, and the people from which they come, to endure sacrifice. The most dubious interpretations of Clausewitz (including remarks by Girard who should not be read as a commentator on that author) tend to assume that the war as the extension of politics remark and the rational role of politics in the trinity mark Clausewitz as a thinker only able to deal with very contained forms of war between uniformed armies on clearly demarcated battlefields under the command of relatively rational generals, themselves under even more rational political direction. From these assumptions come the claim that Clausewitz’ thought is not adapted to the age of nuclear weapons (as Hannah Arendt presumes) and irregular warfare (as Carl Schmitt presumes). Clausewitz does not however presume that war is rational and contained, even if he does focus on battles of that kind between distinguished generals like Napoleon Bonaparte and his own mentor Gerhard von Scharnhorst. Clausewitz does allow for a war which is ‘savage’, that is not contained by reason, so that the primordial violence of the people destroys everything in its way. Clausewitz certainly has no idea of weapons capable to destroying whole cities, and maybe human society of any kind if used in large enough numbers, but he had the idea of a war of absolute destruction, which can be extended to include nuclear war.

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