Strategy – the consideration of ways, ends and means – is an inherently practical subject, concerned as it is with translating aspirations into realizable objectives. The essential feature of strategy, as Colin Gray describes, is that it functions as the ‘bridge’ between tactics – actions on the ground – and the broader political effects they are intended to produce.[i] For this coherently parsimonious reason strategy, in both its operational and academic manifestations, concentrates on practices as physically revealed phenomena. Strategy is, thereby, revealed in clearly observable facts and things, most notably in its association with actions in war. In this regard, strategy, in its application, and in its study, is about palpable acts and outcomes: armed clashes, organized violence, plans, battles, campaigns, victories and defeats.
The purpose of this brief essay, however, is to suggest that strategy is, or certainly can be, far more than an understanding of tangible phenomena. It can be pursued further back into the realm of the intangible. This is not to imply that the non-material aspects of strategy and war have always been ignored. Far from it, serious analysts do very much consider the moral forces that give rise to war,[ii] and which in many other respects impact on values and preferences that have such a crucial bearing on the material practice of strategy. What this article intends to convey, nonetheless, is that a closer look at the un-manifested forms of strategy can reveal an interior world of war, which can be just as fascinating a source of insight into both theoretical and real-world concerns as the concrete, perceptible, realities. While an emphasis on the ethereal and the abstract may present itself as an original, even transgressive, appreciation of strategy, one suspects that the argument here is not necessarily the first to have made this connection. The figure of Clausewitz, as ever, looms as someone who may have trod this particular intellectual path before.
The Result in War is Never Final
In a short, and certainly under-analyzed, passage in On War, Clausewitz observes the following: ‘even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date’.[iv] Innocuous though these words might sound on first reading, these two concise sentences challenge wholesale the basis of many popular conceptions of war and strategy as a discernible and recognizable condition, manifested in the realm of physical phenomena. It is this challenge that leads into an appreciation that, as process and practice, war and strategy possess an interiority worth exploring in more detail than may have been the case hitherto.
Before elucidating the point, why should the argument assert that this important Clausewitzian thought has been neglected? Arguably, it has been so because strategists, be they civilian policy makers and planners, military leaders, perhaps all of us to some degree, want to believe that we have resolved problems and dilemmas. We wish to bring finality. After all, effective strategy is about constructing viable means to reach an end, a finite point. When considering the condition of war, the contention appears almost tautological. Who in their right mind wishes to have a continuation of hostilities? The desire is to devise successful ways to bring matters to a conclusion. One wants a result, preferably outright victory, to make war final.
However, in his passage declaring that the result in war is never final, Clausewitz contests such common expectations about war and strategy. An apparently definitive result – a victory or defeat – does not, ipso facto, mark a point of termination. It is not the case at all. War is not subject, he indicates, to clinical endings or for that matter, by implication, clear beginnings. Without wishing to stretch the analogy too far, in the manner that quantum mechanics questions continuum theories in the physical sciences, Clausewitz is inviting readers to engage with the thought that rather than presuming war and strategy possess wholly linear qualities that move logically from idea, to action, to completion, that, ultimately, at some deeper level of understanding, seemingly decisive outcomes in war are, in fact, inherently uncertain and unstable.
In these few lines, then, Clausewitz is intimating that, even if war does apparently end conclusively through a crushing blow inflicted by one side on another, war possesses the potential to reconstitute itself through ‘resistance’. What ‘resistance’ actually is and where it comes from, though, is ambiguous and unpredictable. Resistance is the volatile sub-atomic matter of strategy.
The Roots of Resistance
It is these general propositions that represent the beginning of an excursion into quantum strategy. The use of the term quantum strategy is not intended to sub-divide the notion of strategy into a distinctive element, which might falsely multiply entities and create confusion. The use of the term is introduced solely in order to help think and reason by analogy with the aim of showing, firstly, that there is a deeper realm of strategy that may be explored, and secondly, to illustrate that this realm is, ultimately, inseparable from the whole.
To begin this excursion by analogy, then, let us start by posing a question. In theory, could one actually secure a result in war that is final? Conceivably, it must be that if you are to truly make war final, you have to do far more than destroy the enemy’s armed forces, that is, the physically observable instruments of resistance. You have to destroy the entire means of resistance. But what are the constituents of resistance, and how might they be eliminated forever? As Clausewitz’s statement discloses, it is an aspiration that, in practice, exists beyond the realms of human possibility.
To take a perhaps not so hypothetical example: imagine a situation where one side in war has clearly prevailed over the other in terms of the exercise of physical force. With the vanquished power’s means of armed resistance destroyed the victor can impose its will via a treaty, a formal surrender, or simply by force majeure through the occupation of the adversary’s territory. The outcome is, seemingly, categorical: the war is over. Yet, Clausewitz postulates that in war the result is never final. Why so?
What if, despite a condition where one side has clearly triumphed over another, producing a result that is definitive, a solitary individual flings a rock at a patrolling armoured vehicle of the occupying forces? Or perhaps a lone figure merely stands, shopping bags in hand, in front of a tank, preventing it moving, if only for a few seconds? Let us recall the centrality of Clausewitz’s most renowned aphorism that war is a continuation of politics. Is the private moment of defiance a useless act of futility or a deed full of underlying political meaning? We can speculate that following Clausewitzian logic that these seemingly tiny, discrete, actions of the disaffected contain an essential moral force: the most basic form of resistance and therefore comprise acts of war in their purest theoretical and elemental sense.
If these singular acts of moral will are the most basic constituents of resistance then we can contemplate that, as such, they are purposeful, and intended to achieve or signal something. To that extent, they are significant because through such resistance, as Clausewitz noted, the opportunity is always there to remedy the ‘transitory evil’. Symbolic deeds of individual resistance are the basic units of quantum strategy in action and always the precursor to full-scale war as a physical, collective and organized manifestation. Thus, may be others will see the youth throwing their rock and be emboldened to start throwing rocks themselves. A rudimentary escalation process is thereby initiated and perhaps a self-contained exploit culminates in a sustained armed campaign. Nor should we understand that such postulations exist only in the abstract if we consider, for instance, how a solitary act of self-immolation on the part of a Tunisian stallholder escalated into the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
War and the Mind
If, to continue the analogy, an individual’s apparently inconsequential action represents the atomic particle of strategy, then it may be posited that the sub-atomic matter of strategy resides in the mind of the individual who chooses to throw the rock or immolate themselves in the name of resisting an apparently settled political condition. Here, we can uncover another layer of meaning. To truly make war final in a theoretical sense it is necessary to change, or conquer, the mind of every individual who might conceivably constitute an adversary.
It is in the practical improbability of conquering the mind that Clausewitz’s observations assume evident plausibility. Not that it has stopped some from trying. A generation of twentieth century totalitarians, Soviet Communists, the Nazis in Germany, and Maoists in China, were all deeply interested in contesting the private realm – something rendered explicit in the writings of those like Erich Ludendorff, who not without reason titled his 1930s book Der Totale Krieg – total war – the notion of total war being applied as much to the fight for control over the minds of people as the actual instruments of the state apparatus.[v] Totalitarian constructs represent the ultimate attempt to make war final. But, according to Clausewitz, the result in war is never final. And so it turns out. Stalin asks “how many divisions does the Pope have?” Yet, in the end, a Polish Pope helps bring down Communism in Eastern Europe precisely because the Kremlin lacked the ability to the control the interior world of a vast empire.
Political Power Does Not Grow Out of the Barrel of a Gun
Pondering Clausewitz’s observation in the light of the failure of totalitarian attempts to make war final leads to an interesting, counter-intuitive, conclusion: political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao would have it; it grows out of the inner world, the passions and moral forces, of the individual. With this understanding it is possible to see Clausewitz’s notion that the result in war can never be final is full of practical insight for the careful policy maker wishing to think ‘strategically’. Given that war, as Clausewitz maintains, arises out of social forces at work in the minds of those in society then, logically, that is where a long-term solution to war should ultimately be sought. War arises from political conditions, so it has to be settled by political conditions that address the interior world if there is to be any expectation that a result in war will be of lasting significance.
To give an example, the destruction of Nazi Germany’s armed forces in World War II was wholesale. Undoubtedly its people were ground down to defeat: the country invaded, occupied and dismembered. The fact that it had come to this, however, testified to the hold that Nazi ideology possessed over the minds of vast swathes of the population. Arguably, it was not the physical ruination that Nazism necessarily wrought that reconciled Germans to the post-War settlement. What reconciled most people over the long term in the West was the construction of a functioning independent state, West Germany, and the development of a liberal democratic polity which provided the means of economic empowerment and personal political expression. Clearly, this was a situation that even the vanquished came to see as a more virtuous than the condition that preceded it, something that for most people satisfied that society’s interior world. In the East, where a conscious attempt to gain control over the private realm of thought was prevalent, it was, as we have noted, a different story.
Thus, we can discern pragmatic wisdom in the view that the result in war is never final. Even in conditions where a social actor may be fighting for its very survival, when the war is over, and one side has secured victory, it pays to allow the adversary to survive in some sort of dignity. The governing assumption is that the winner should not take all. In the end, the winner has to live with the people it may have defeated and to keep them in permanent subjugation will be a lot more costly in the long run. The relentless attempt to extinguish resistance and keep a defeated people in subjection will, in all likelihood turn out to be self-defeating in the long run: it will keep the flames of grievance alive, only for the ‘war’ to be reconstituted through resistance at a later date in order to remedy the present ‘evil’. The only alternative is to seek to wipe out every single adversary, and potential adversary, which is something likely to be disproportionate in cost and effort,[vi] and thus something utterly at odds with a proper strategic understanding of political conduct.
The past, moreover, testifies to examples of such practical wisdom. For instance, we can see such understandings at work in Count Otto von Bismarck’s restraining influence on his generals during the wars of the German unification in the 1860s. Bismarck was determined to teach Prussia’s enemies a lesson but never to humiliate, let alone exterminate, them. Likewise, we may see such applied virtue in a succession of so-called British counter-insurgency campaigns in the later twentieth century that, from Malaya to Northern Ireland, sought to placate one time adversaries with promises of independence, economic progress or a voice in government. Such examples can be said to make a result in war long lasting by addressing the interiority of war.
A Warning About Self-Limiting Strategies
Therefore, as well as offering pragmatic utility, the reflection on the lack on finality in war may also be seen to provide a warning that the remedy to political problems cannot be settled through self-contained technical and doctrinal solutions that seek only the defeat of the enemy through force of arms. For those tempted to argue that such a warning is merely commonsense, will find historical evidence in plentiful supply that demonstrates how easily commonsense is ignored in favour of military conduct that seeks to make war final: from the Schlieffen Plan that sought to address Germany’s ‘two-front’ problem prior to World War I, to the American preference for technology and firepower over any real understanding of the interior motivations at work in the Vietnam war. Continuing failures to address what may be said to constitute the interior world of war have also been seen in arguments that allege degradations in the quality of contemporary British and Israeli strategic thinking that in the recent past have demonstrated a pronounced emphasis on inadequate operational solutions to complex problems, be they against the Taliban in Helmand province, Afghanistan, or the Hezbollah in the Lebanon, to the detriment of serious consideration of what enduring political effects need to be achieved.[vii]
Conclusion: The Ubiquity of War
In conclusion, perhaps it is true that a concern for the interior world of war reflects merely that which is obvious for anyone who thinks about war and strategy in a systematic way. Even so, a consideration of Clausewitz’s short statement on the result of war not being final is important, for it yet again re-connects war with politics. War is politics and it is at the level of politics that war is eventually resolved: a point always in danger of being forgotten by policy planners and military professionals, enamoured as they have so often proved to be, by self-limiting technical solutions that seek, impossibly, to bring an end to all resistance. Successful strategy in war is bringing a situation about that is better than that which preceded it, and this challenges ideas that military victories are the key to political victory – they are not. It is in an understanding of the interior world of war that a long-term result may more likely, and preferably, be found. In sum, applying a few basic precepts of quantum theory leads to an appreciation of what it is in the science of war, and in the study of ways, ends and means more generally, that is inherently uncertain, or even unknowable and uncontrollable. Such an appreciation, in the words of George Musser, ‘enlarges our capacity to reason’, which therefore facilitates the ability to think strategically.[viii]
For those who might still insist that beneath all the talk of quantum strategy such thoughts are still just re-statements of self-evident truths, let us return to what might constitute the most radical implication of the claim that the result in war in never final, which is that it defies popular conceptions about where war begins. The lasting spirit of war is not, according to this understanding, necessarily an act of violence. It does not begin with armed force, organized or otherwise. It begins in the mind with an act of mental resistance, and it is in the mind that the ultimate goals of war are achieved or lost. The result in war can never be final, therefore, because, philosophically speaking, war is everywhere. Like the forces of economics, the quintessence of war is all around us. The impulse to war is ever present. It has no beginning or end. Physical warfare may burst out into the open at various points when certain interests and tensions culminate, but essentially war is always incipient, being latent in all social conduct. Not only does the ubiquity of war clarify why the result in war can never be final, it also, thereby, explains why strategy, as the title of this journal declares, is itself truly infinite.
This article was completed under the auspices of the Sino-British Fellowship, which the author was awarded between 27 January and 8 February 2013. The author extends grateful thanks to the British Academy’s Sino-British Fellowship Trust and the Department of Political Science, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.
[i] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp 15-53.
[ii] See Carl von Clausewitz’s discussion of moral forces in war, in Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 184-186.
[iii] See M.L.R. Smith and John Stone, ‘Explaining Strategic Theory’, Infinity Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2011), pp. 27-30.
[iv] Clausewitz, On War, p. 80.
[v] Erich Ludendorff, Der Totale Krieg (Munich: Ludendorrfs Verlag, 1935); English translation, The Nation at War, trans. A.S. Rappoport (London: Hutchinson, 1936).
[vi] Arguably, this is something that authoritarian military regimes, most notably those in Latin America during the 1970s, have attempted. See M.L.R. Smith and Sophie Roberts, ‘War in the Gray: Exploring the Concept of Dirty War’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 31, No. 5 (May 2008), pp. 377-398.
[vii] See for example, James Pritchard and M.L.R. Smith, ‘Thompson in Helmand: Comparing Theory to Practice in British Counter-Insurgency Operations in Afghanistan’, Civil Wars, Vol. 12, Nos. 1-2 (2010), pp. 65-90; Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (London: Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 60-106 and 109-134; Gur Laish, ‘The Second Lebanon War – A Strategic Reappraisal’, Infinity Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2011), pp. 22-25.
[viii] George Musser, ‘Humans Think Like Quantum Particles’, Scientific American, available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=humans-think-like-quantum-particles (accessed 12 February 2013).