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First, Read Clausewitz

by Daniel Johnson

This op-ed piece was written by Daniel Johnson at the height of the 78-day NATO air-war against Serbia over Kosovo. Copyright Daily Telegraph Apr 17, 1999.

THERE have been many great writers on war, among them many warriors, from Caesar to Churchill. But there has only ever been one great philosopher of war: Carl von Clausewitz. His treatise On War was unfinished when this untypical Prussian army officer fell victim to cholera. It was published posthumously by his widow, Marie, in 1832 and came to prominence thanks to Prussia's victories in 1866 and 1870. Unfairly blamed for both world wars, Clausewitz was rehabilitated in the Cold War. On War is still the only true classic of military theory.

Everyone can quote one sentence from Clausewitz: "War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means." The meaning of this dictum (repeated in slightly different words several times in On War) has been endlessly disputed and frequently misunderstood. Those who actually read Clausewitz find that he enlarges on it throughout his book. His point is that war is "only a branch of political activity; that it is in no sense autonomous." War has its own grammar, but not its own logic. What are the implications of this for NATO? Certainly not that the decisions should be left to the generals. Clausewitz specifically warns against governments asking soldiers for "purely military advice." The commander-in-chief must be in the war cabinet to keep the politicians informed, but he is there to take orders, not give them. It is the responsibility of politicians to ensure that the military means they adopt are appropriate to their political ends. This the leaders of NATO have not done.

Clausewitz's doctrine is that the task of strategy is to concentrate sufficient force in time and space to strike at the source of the enemy's strength. When the Germans launched their blitzkrieg against Yugoslavia in 1941, they deployed an entire army group, with overwhelming air support and no reluctance to incur casualties; the campaign was over in a few days. A few hundred aircraft and missiles might be sufficient for certain purposes, but not for that of driving the Serbs out of Kosovo. It may be a subsidiary political aim to minimise allied casualties; if, however, avoiding low-altitude bombing leads to unnecessary "collateral" civilian casualties, and if air power alone is manifestly failing to prevent Serb reprisals, then the subsidiary aim must give way to the primary one.

What, though, is NATO's primary war aim? Clausewitz says that real war, as opposed to the extreme case of absolute war, may either aim at the total defeat of the enemy or have a more limited purpose. Slobodan Milosevic appears to be engaged in both: a limited defensive war against NATO, and a total war against the Kosovo Albanians. The war between NATO and the Serbs is a high-tech war, but at quite a low intensity. The war between the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians, however, is low-tech and utterly ruthless. The German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger remarked this week that there is a difference of 400 years between these two wars. To get an idea of Kosovo, he wrote, don't watch CNN: read Grimmelshausen, whose Simplicissimus is a lurid depiction of the cruelties suffered by civilians in the Thirty Years' War. Milosevic's aims are constant. NATO's war aims, and hence also its war plans, seem to be fluid. Though Tony Blair invokes images of a conflict between good and evil, we are in fact fighting a very limited war accompanied by the rhetoric of total war. The disparity of strength, which favours NATO, is balanced by the disparity in determination, which favours the Serbs. And as Clausewitz demonstrated, defence is inherently stronger than attack.

Without constant war aims, the differences between the allies also become more important: there is no consensus for the use of ground troops, for arming Kosovo guerrillas, nor for any escalation of the war that might provoke the Russians into intervening on behalf of the Serbs. According to Clausewitz, the overriding war aim ought to be to disarm the enemy. In reality, it is now to preserve the credibility and unity of NATO. The means has become an end.

Unlike many soldiers, Clausewitz did not despise civilians. But he was aware that politicians sometimes had excessive expectations from war. "In the same way as a man who has not mastered a foreign language sometimes fails to express himself correctly, so statesmen often issue orders that defeat the purpose they are meant to serve. Time and again this has happened, which demonstrates that a certain grasp of military affairs is vital for those in charge of general policy."

The lack of such a grasp among our leaders struck me forcibly when I read Hugo Young in the Guardian on Thursday. He drew a somewhat artificial analogy between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and a possible peace conference based on the plan proposed by the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. He admits that a comparison of Bill Clinton with Bismarck is "hard" to sustain, but sees "closer parallels" between Mr. Blair and Disraeli.

I cannot detect any parallels in either case. Bismarckian and Disraelian high politics was not remotely Clintonian or Blairite. Mr. Young says that Bismarck and Disraeli, unlike Mr. Clinton and Mr. Blair, "despised moral considerations." But what is moral about embarking on a campaign to rescue the Kosovars that condemns them to carnage, disease and starvation? A humanitarian policy that left Kosovo a wasteland would, in reality, be more immoral than the realpolitik that inspired Bismarck's wars or Disraeli's imperialism. If our leaders will the end, they must also will the means--which may well involve defeating Serb forces in the field and even deposing Milosevic, with unpredictable bloodshed on both sides.

I do not know whether Mr. Clinton or Mr. Blair has read On War. It is, alas, unlikely. Politicians today tend to assume that war is not their domain, and that they may rely on experts to guide them through its complexities. The era when the defence of the realm was universally recognised as the most important task of statecraft, and when many politicians had first-hand experience of the Services, is now past.

All the more reason for those entrusted with authority to acquaint themselves with the rudiments of strategy, if only at second hand. The conduct thus far of the Kosovo campaign suggests, however, that our leaders lack the theoretical and practical knowledge to make proper use of the forces at their disposal.

In short: NATO needs statesmen who know their Clausewitz, but it does not have them. That is culpable negligence, and it will cost us dear.

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