May 27, 2012
War as Will and Presentation
"War ... is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will." Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1874). Sounds a simple enough statement for a "plain language" understanding but it is one of the most densely packed modern definitions of war one will ever read.
The notion of "will" was part of the cultural vocabulary in 19th century German when Clausewitz wrote On War. In Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation (1818, 1848), "striving," "wanting," "urging” … or Will as being a non-rational instinctual urge was at the foundation of our personal drive to act. In a world understood as will and presentation, the Will to Live was central to the human experience as individuals. But if let loose to run amok the Will to Live would produce a world of strife. However, Schopenhauer's concept contradicts risking one's life in combat. So enter the concept of the "will to power” in Germany’s cultural vocabulary.
"A living thing seeks above all to DISCHARGE its strength -- life itself is a WILL TO POWER; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent RESULTS thereof.” -- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1885).
As a corrective to Schopenhauer's Will to Live, the Will to Power certainly explains why individuals are willing to place themselves in harm's way where they may sacrifice their lives in combat. However, the Will to Power is not a justification for war. For Nietzsche, seeking to discharge one's strength can create something out of nothing or creatively destruct something into nothing is beyond good and evil.
While I sincerely doubt Clausewitz knew of, let alone read, Nietzsche after the publication of his classic treatise he did not have to. With "Will" in the cultural air, changing "one’s will" to "our will" by way of the Prussian military concept of duty was a given; it also was a ethical ideal shared generally in German culture by way of a diluted understanding of Kant's "moral imperative."
What is critically important to remember is that the 19th century was the age of the unification of Germany under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck. He provoked a series of short victorious wars to create a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership, one sufficiently powerful to dominate Austria and France in central European affairs.
Today, one might define war as the resolution of political disputes by armed conflict. That holds the same meaning as Clausewitz’s in a work that is required reading in just about every military academy where future military leaders are educated. MacArthur's 1962 Duty, Honor, Country speech at West Point, for example, resonates in the Clausewitzian-inspired 19th century rhetoric on war.
Historical stats on warfare clearly indicate that the aggressor nation is much more likely to win a war because it is better prepared than its opponent. For this reason, I prefer the below part of General Schwartkopf's 1991 West Point speech to the Corp of Cadets after Desert Storm over MacArthur's speech. And do so in no small part because tomorrow is a day of remembrance of the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country and the families would live with that sacrifice every day. [JH]