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Cameron versus Clausewitz

David Cameron responded to the concerns of his defence chiefs about the capacities of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force while fighting a war in Afghanistan and intervening in Libya by telling them: ‘You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking’.

Is this an appropriate division of labour at time of war? And if not, what should the Prime Minister do?

I am currently writing about current counter-terrorism strategies, and in particular whether critical approaches are wrongly ignoring the lessons of traditional thinkers, and in particular the work of the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz and his 1832 book On War.

Clausewitz is an often-quoted and influential thinker who wrote his philosophy of war in the light of his experience fighting Napoleon during the early nineteenth century. On War has been a key text in military staff colleges and university politics departments ever since.  Clausewitz has even made his way into popular culture, most clearly in the phrase “War is a continuation of politics by other means”.  His acceptance into the mainstream is neatly illustrated by this discussion in the 1995 movie Crimson Tide.

In regard to strategic planning Clausewitz’s most significant contribution is that of the concept of the Remarkable Trinity which stipulates that in order for a war to be conducted effectively it is necessary to maintain a balance between Government, the Military and the Public.  Therefore it is possible to read Cameron’s “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking” as the Prime Minister trying to stabilise the Trinity and stop the Military from encroaching into the arena of Government and upsetting the Public.  Instead Cameron wishes the generals, air chiefs and admirals to focus on their job and fight.

However (to paraphrase the Crimson Tide discussion) what Clausewitz actually argued was a little more complicated.  The Trinity of Government, Military and Public is a simplification of Clausewitz’s original idea.  For Clausewitz wrote:

As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force [Public]; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam [Military]; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone [Government].

This was simplified by Colonel Harry Summer in his influential analysis of the Vietnam War On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Yet, while this new Trinity is a useful tool to help illustrate the complexity of war, it loses the nuance that is necessary to truly understand it.

Clausewitz’s pithier and better well-know remark is similarly more complicated.  Rather than being ‘a continuation of politics’, a place where soldiers fight and stop talking, war is rather a continuation of ‘policy’.  Some may think this a semantic distinction but when viewed in conjunction with the Trinity the role of political leadership is altered significantly.  And it places the words of the defence chiefs into a different light.

This is because, so far as Clausewitz is concerned, in time of war the Military and Public are subordinate to the realm of reason, that is: Government.  It is not government’s role to talk the talk, but rather to think the thought.  Having determined the policy, government needs to win public approval and ensure the military are able to carry it out.

When Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, made their concerns known, they were carrying out their roles as Clausewitz envisaged.  As an instrument of policy it is the military’s duty to obtain the resources necessary to carry out the job asked of them.  Whilst it is not Cameron’s role to pander to these requests, he does have an obligation to listen.  In short, whilst it is the military’s job to fight, the government’s primary task is to think, and ensure that any military action to which they commit the armed forces is both necessary and has a clear, achievable objective.

As the operations in Libya escalate it is important that each part of the Trinity (the public as much as the military and other politicians) scrutinise what is happening, and ensure that Cameron is thinking – and not just talking.

Liam McCarthy

Published inBritish Politics

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