Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 2  /  

Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War

Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War
To cite this article: Smith, M.L.R., “Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2, fall 2014, pages 32-36.

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Strategy is about the linking of means to ends. The practice of war resides within the strategic paradigm, being in Carl von Clausewitz’s words, an ‘act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’.[i] The fulfilment of one’s will constitutes the end point of war and is forever associated with Clausewitz’s most cited aphorism that war is a continuation of politics by other means.[ii] The supposition is that politics – the ostensible goals and values that find their expression through political will – gives war its purpose. It is political purpose, then, that makes war instrumental as a goal-seeking enterprise through the act of combat.

Implicit within the idea of war as a political purpose is that effective strategy requires the application of skill and judgment. For war to be fully instrumental the goals sought need to be in proportion to the efforts exerted to achieve them. The further implication follows that when practiced well war is, in effect, managed in accord with pure reason. Reason is thereby often seen as a moderating element in war, constraining reckless behaviour and delineating where the application of force can be best employed. In matters of war and strategy, in other words, it is far preferable to have a calculating and careful Bismarck, than a wild, irrational Hitler.

This brief article argues that the presumption that politics performs a restraining and controlling influence in war is so deeply embedded in liberal social thought that it often obscures the energy that gives war its underlying motivation, which is passion. Liberal social thought often places a premium upon the values of diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise. These are elements that are perceived to characterise and govern politics in a mature democratic system, which is thus inclined to sometimes disparage the kinds of ‘politics’ that are associated with more visceral energies. However, the effect of the ignoring, downplaying or obscuring of the role of fundamental, motivating, element of passion, it will be contended, can impact negatively on Western appreciations of strategy because it underestimates the role of moral forces. In doing this, Western strategic discourse is often reduced to either over-simplified technical appreciations of complex political problems or a questionable ethicism that seeks to extinguish popular passions from all political calculation, seeking only the validity of a detached set of supposedly universal humanitarian ‘norms’ to sanction any kind of military action. The consequence is a lack of direction in foreign and defence policy and a loss of will to act where it might be prudent.[iii]

A Post-Clausewitzian Setting? Taming the Passions of War

An over-emphasis in liberal thought upon the tempering influence of politics on war also leads to the erroneous comprehension of sophisticated military thinkers like Clausewitz. The brutal wars of so-called ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Transcaucasia following the end of the Cold War led John Keegan to claim that these were examples of ‘primitive war’. He pronounced: ‘Such conflicts… are fed by passions and rancours that do not yield to rational measures of persuasion or control: they are apolitical to a degree for which Clausewitz made little allowance’.[iv] Here we can see clearly the supposition that politics is separate from ‘primitive’ passion and that the notion of political conduct is fashioned by rationality and restraint.

Keegan’s views were not exceptional but highly illustrative of prevailing opinion about the relationship between policy and war. The assumption that war – in its elemental form – was but one step from sheer barbarism that required taming by the rational hand of politics has been a prevalent assumption within Western strategic thought for decades, if not centuries. The response of the liberal polity to this assumption has been either that rational states should stay out of such barbarous conflicts since little or nothing can be done to manage or guide them toward diplomatic solutions, or on rare occasions that intervention can be comtemplated, this should be driven by an ostensible humanitarian impulse conducted under the aegis of a ‘responsibility to protect’.

The fear that war was always inherently in danger of assuming a visceral, and therefore, apolitical character, was a notable feature of the atomic era. After 1945 the belief that there could be any rational concept of war-fighting involving forces of such destructiveness was comprehensively disavowed. According to Senator William Fulbright: ‘There is no long any validity in the Clausewitzian doctrine of “carrying out policy by other means.” Nuclear weapons have rendered it totally obsolete’.[v] That the nuclear stand-off had established a post-Clausewitzian setting that severed the link between the practice of war and any kind of coherent, or sane, strategic conduct found its expression in the idea that superpower relations had to be managed by the dry, technocratic, apolitical war avoidance techniques embodied in theories of nuclear deterrence and arms control.[vi] To the extent that politics should exert itself it should be through be through the hand of skilled nuclear diplomacy to manage superpower tensions.[vii]

Consequently, as Keegan’s statement indicated, any residual sense of war as the reasoned expression of goal-seeking activity was further denuded by the seeming prevalence of identity politics below the level of the state in the post-Cold War era. In the minds of many analysts the outbreak of war among ethnic or religious groups represented ‘new war’ that did not yield to established conceptions of war as an extension of rational action.[viii] In this new dispensation, for those like Martin Van Creveld: ‘If any part of our intellectual baggage deserves to be thrown overboard, surely it is…the Clausewitzian definition of war’.[ix] The ostensibly new age ushered in by the end of the Cold War was to be reinforced by the post-9/11 epoch, which was to see the practice of apocalyptic and ‘apolitical’ violence underline how far modern conflicts were perceived to have moved beyond the Clausewitzian paradigm.[x]

If we look closely, however, at Clausewitz’s actual writings about war, rather than the constructions that others have – often erroneously – placed upon them,[xi] we find a theorist who is profoundly aware of the moral, emotional, and primordial forces at work. He is explicit that ‘Military activity is never directed against material forces alone: it is always aimed at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated’. Furthermore, in an extended comment on the essence of military activity Clausewitz highlights the primal elements that war inevitably embraces:

Essentially combat is an expression of hostile feelings. But in large-scale combat that we call war hostile feelings often have become merely hostile intentions. At any rate there are usually no hostile feelings between individuals. Yet such emotions can never be completely absent from war. Modern wars are seldom fought without hatred between nations: this serves more or less as a substitute for hatred between individuals. Even where there is no national hatred and no animosity to start with, the fighting itself will stir up hostile feelings: violence committed on superior orders will stir up the desire for revenge and retaliation against the perpetrator rather than against the powers that ordered the action. That is only human (or animal, if you like) but it is a fact. Theorists are apt to look on fighting in the abstract as a trial of strength without emotion entering into it. This is one of a thousand errors which they quite consciously commit because they have no idea of the implications.[xii]

Interestingly, then, far from emphasizing that war is an expression of detached, reasoned, action Clausewitz accentuates the very opposite, that war may be an expression of aggressive, animalistic energy. While some wars may indeed, due to their circumscribed aims, be governed by pure calculation, many are not. As Anders Palmgren’s recent study has observed, Clausewitz felt that to understand strategy effectively, one has to comprehend that moral force, physical exertion and political purpose merge in a warlike act.[xiv] In other words, in complete contradiction to Keegan’s assertion, a fairly basic reading of Clausewitz reveals that he made every allowance for the fact that ‘primitive’, ‘passions and rancours’ are central in war.

Clausewitz, we might surmise, would have seen those like Keegan and the other ‘New Wars’ advocates as symptomatic precisely of those ‘Theorists’ who are inclined to conceive war as something to be waged out of pure calculation and without emotion. War could not, as Clausewitz well knew, be reduced to a clinical act of dispassionate and restrained purpose shorn of passion. Indeed, the very notion of war undertaken without the motivating force of passion would, contra Keegan, constitute a more truly ‘apolitical’ understanding of the act of combat in war.

Reconnecting with Moral Forces

Contrary, then, to liberal understandings, the scale and intensity of war is governed not by codes of humanity, science, ethical, legal, or educational knowledge or by a cold cost-benefit calculus but by the depth of hostile intent. The operation of the political element in war is thus a fusion of emotion, violence and purpose. Effective strategy should therefore encompass the attempt to understand and where necessary harness these elements in an act of intelligent calculation, being neither an act of blind passion, nor of pure reason.[xv]

In exploring what constitutes efficacious strategy the contention of this assessment is that it is necessary to reconnect Western traditions of war with Clausewitz’s appreciation of the proper role of passion. This reconnection should begin from the understanding that the desire to achieve something in relation to someone else, be it at the level of the individual or the state, springs from an emotional urge: passion, or as Clausewitz saw it, hostile feeling. Depending on the depth of hostile interests, passion may find its material expression in physical force.

The intensity of any clash of arms, in Clausewitz’s classic formulation, is governed by a trinity of popular passions, the play of chance, and political purpose. ‘As a total phenomenon’, Clausewitz observed, war comprises ‘a paradoxical trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam: and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone’.[xvi] The politics of war is thus a combination of all these elements, they exist in tension with each other, and which Clausewitz likened to a magnet suspended between these three different poles of attraction.

To give practical illustration, we can assert that the act of force constitutes the military part of Clausewitz’s concept of war. Political leadership has the first responsibility to manage hostile feelings and, if so chosen, set goals accordingly, determining whether force is necessary to achieve them. It is the armed forces and their commanders who are charged subsequently with giving hostile feeling direction, seeking to apply violence effectively in the face of friction. In other words, the military task is to steer passion towards something that has meaningful political effects. The politics of war is, accordingly, to give passion – derived from the popular passions of the people – its ultimate purpose. In summary, we might say that politics is the purpose of passion, while the military is the efficient application of force to passion.[xvii] Thus, we can further disclose that there is something about strategy that reconciles the will to act (passion) with the capability to act (instrumental means) that seeks to bring these two dimensions into harmony.

Escalating and De-escalating Passions

Breaking down this construction further, we can recognize that politics in war is fundamentally about manipulating passions. We can see that the operation of strategy in war itself comprises two choices involving either escalation or de-escalation. First, one can choose to up the ante of popular passion in order to generate sufficient public sentiment to support one’s goals. There are numerous historical examples that illustrate the point. Passion can be stirred by highlighting specific short term warnings or threats, such as the appeal by the government of prime minister Tony Blair ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which invigorated public support by accentuating that Britain was potentially threatened by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that could be launched at 45 minutes notice. That this warning turned out to be knowingly exaggerated is beside the point: the intention was purely instrumental, to galvanise public support behind the controversial overseas military intervention. In contrast, more totalitarian polities, from the Nazis to Al-Qaeda linked jihadists, focus upon ongoing preparations to stoke the passions: an idea embodied in notions of total war propounded by those like Erich Ludendorff in the 1930s who thought that popular will should be continuously heightened even in, or especially in, in periods of peace to prepare the population for the coming struggle.[xviii]

The second, de-escalatory, view is that passions have to be lowered to prevent populist rage from getting out of hand, which might endanger the principle of proportionality. This was the overriding concern during the Cold War following the nuclear stand-off of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. De-escalating passions emphasised superpower summitry, arms limitation agreements and confidence building measures in order to reduce tensions. Worries about where popular passions might lead, however, very much pre-dated the Cold War. The particular anxiety from the late nineteenth century was that a confrontation among the great powers of Europe would explode in convulsive war unless popular sentiments were controlled. Such apprehensions can be seen in military writings leading up to World War I, from Colmar von der Goltz in Germany, Ferdinand Foch in France, and Julian Corbett in Britain, to Ivan Bloch in Poland.[xix] (A slightly different but complementary view pre-1914 was that military preparations were so advanced and highly developed that a small incident could ignite the ‘powder keg’ – regardless of popular passions). The view reached its most piquant expression when the former German Chief of Staff, Ludwig Beck, from 1938 onwards challenged the Nazi/Ludendorff idea that passions should be unrestrained.[xx] For those like Beck, excessive passion led to war for war’s sake, detaching war from its ostensible purpose to attain specific goals and outcomes.

Two Strategic Traditions

The faultline evident in these debates – passion as motivation versus passion to be controlled – corresponds to the two great strategic traditions since 1945. The first tradition emphasizes the interior aspects of war, and was exemplified most graphically in Mao Tse-tung’s conception of protracted people’s war. As the phrase suggests, war is the people, an expression of people’s passions. The whole point is to empower strategy by harnessing popular will to the cause. Such thinking was prefaced in Clausewitz’s dissection of the reasons for Prussia’s defeat at the hands of the forces of French revolutionary armies led by Napoleon. He discerned a social actor’s commitment to war was the product not of some set of clinical principles of military conduct, but a reflection of motivating values, such as ideas of patriotism, identity, freedom, honour and dignity that animated hostile intent.[xxi] Clausewitz, of course, had seen how France mobilized its people for war and argued that Prussia had no choice but to do the same.

Against this understanding has been the contending tradition that passions should be controlled through outward technique rather than interior popular will. In contrast to Maoist and other totalitarian ideas about war, the subordination of passion to technique represents the classic liberal-capitalist way of war that in advanced democracies is averse to high casualties, and thus seeks often to minimise popular involvement through technocratic solutions. Here, the efficient application of force through such techniques as small professional armies, elaborate operational doctrines, and most obviously, the employment of high-end war fighting technology substitutes for populist energies.[xxii] Indeed, the emphasis of this tradition is the attempt to reduce war to pure reason. The price, however, is that policymaking disengages itself from any sense of popular struggle because democratic societies allow people to preserve their interiority, thus relegating the ‘the people’ to mute onlookers in a game of what Colin McInnes has called ‘spectator sport warfare’.[xxiii]

The Dangers of a Liberal Neglect of Moral Force

In effect, the liberal polity neglects the preparation of the ‘home front’ with the potential consequence that it fails to commit the necessary resources to fulfill the task, or worse, permits the interior space for people to dissent that leads to the undermining of war aims. Popular passions, in this sense, become diverted down avenues that are unaligned to the goals of decision makers resulting in mass protests that were witnessed, for example, in the US against the Vietnam War in the 1960s or demonstrations in Western capitals against the prospect of invading Iraq in 2003.

Plainly, these potentially negative strategic impacts are a result of the liberal-democratic polity, which does not seek to control the personal realm (stressing the ‘potentially negative’ impact is important here – the US might, of course, have done better in terms of its national interest by heeding the calls of protesters against the Vietnam War and withdrawing years earlier). Western states have tended to ignore the interiority of war because, being liberal societies, they do not wish to mess with people’s private space: that would be Orwellian. Yet, to overcome this strategic deficit democratic politicians, learning from episodes like the Vietnam era, indulge in practices that seek to manipulate passions through other techniques: news management, spin, and soundbites, or else they attempt to subordinate passion to universally acceptable ‘feel good’ ideas of humanitarian intervention.

The cumulative impact of the neglect of moral force is that some have come, in the view of Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign policy advisor Lord Powell, to doubt the ‘West’s will to act’ with the consequent decline of the quality of strategic thinking. For Lord Powell, the ‘false doctrine of soft power’ and ‘creeping legalism’ have made it increasingly ‘hard to galvanise democratic societies to meet new threats’. In other words, the West ‘has gone soft’, lacking the ‘ability to convey a sense of the West’s destiny to lead in world affairs’. Further, he lamented, ‘we lack a strategy, a clear sense of direction’. Significantly, Powell noted:

There is none of the passion, none of the moral sense that inspired foreign policy in the time of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. We are not driven by the desire to see freedom triumph. We can’t articulate the need to respond to the challenges we face, and, as a result we can’t make the sacrifices that have to be made of our global needs are to be advanced.[xxiv]

In contrast, the Maoist model and its variants from al-Qaeda to Putin’s Russia are keen to stir the passions, often displaying an inordinate concern with interiority: wishing to abolish the private sphere, get into the mind, and present people with absolute truths. Twentieth century totalitarians, from the Bolsheviks, to Ludendorff, and Goebbels in Europe, from Mao to Kim Il-sung in Asia, have consequently been hugely interested in the moral arena as a battlefield. For them tracts like Orwell’s 1984 function not so much as a warning, but as a strategic blueprint.

The problem for authoritarians is that they need massive resources and organization to sustain North Korean levels of social control. Moreover, lacking the ultimate power to enforce a Disneyland of the Mind,[xxv] an authoritarian system is liable to break down, as evidence from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria recently testifies, when people begin to perceive dissonances and start to question things. Stalin asked contemptuously ‘how many divisions does the Pope have?’ But, in the end, a Polish Pope helped bring down Communism in Europe precisely because the Kremlin lacked the ability to control the interiority of a vast empire, whereas the Catholic and other churches had far more purchase over people’s minds.

Conclusion: Interiority Matters

Political power – to use Tom Hill’s intriguing counter-Maoist phrase – does not grow out of the barrel of a gun.[xxvi] Political power is about creating legitimacy to rule, and violence in the service of politics serves this end as much as any other tool of statecraft. Totalitarian systems seek to assert their legitimacy by controlling the private realm and inserting absolute truths. Yet, at the same time, this very attempt to abolish interiority transgresses notions of legitimacy. Why? Because as Clausewitz recognised, ‘the result in war is never final’:[xxvii] we fight our wars in the mind in order to secure our values against those of others. This is a point echoed by Thomas Schelling who argues that rarely in war is ‘complete extermination’ of the adversary the principal goal, instead ‘winning in a conflict does not have a strictly competitive meaning; it is not winning relative to one’s adversary. It means gaining relative to one’s own value system’.[xxviii]

What matters is the primary motivating force in social conduct, which is the spirit, as philosophers from Marx to Nietzsche maintained. Ultimately, ‘we’ – that is the liberal West – win or lose in places like Afghanistan or Iraq on the basis of thoughts. As Lawrence Freedman observes, wars are ‘won in the cognitive (intellectual and emotional) sphere rather in the physical domain’.[xxix] As a consequence, the key challenge of strategy, broadly defined, is how to link physical effects with political/cognitive results. For if we think we have gained in relation to our values – our interior world – then in one’s own terms we have been successful, regardless of how this might appear to any other external audience.

Consequently, we return to the idea of the centrality of moral forces in war: those intangibles, which can be just as important as material combat power and technical proficiency. Moral forces boil down to passion, the motivating spirit that animates war. In this realm, mass interiority matters. Clausewitz gets this in a way that Western liberal societies often do not.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret (trans. and ed.) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 75.
[ii] Ibid., p. 75.
[iii] For a recent discussion of this broad point see David Martin Jones, ‘Politics, Statecraft and the Art of War’, Infinity Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2014), pp. 18-25.
[iv] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Vintage, 1994), p. 58.
[v] J. William Fulbright, ‘The Foundations of National Security’, in Morton Halperin (ed.), Great Issues in International Politics (Chicago: Aldine, 1974), p. 255.
[vi] Edward Kolodziej, ‘What is Security and Security Studies? Lessons from the Cold War, Arms Control, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1992), p. 2.
[vii] See Peter Moody, ‘Clausewitz and the Fading Dialectic of War’, World Politics, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1979), pp. 417-433.
[viii] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 13-30.
[ix] Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1994), pp. 57-58.
[x] See Bjørn Møller, ‘Faces of War’, in Håken Wiberg and Christian P. Scherrer (eds.), Ethnicity and Intra-state Conflict: Types, Causes and Peace Strategies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), p. 15.
[xi] Christopher Bassford, ‘John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clauswitz: A Polemic’, War in History, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1994), pp. 319.
[xii] Clausewitz, On War, p. 137.
[xiii] Ibid., pp. 137-138.
[xiv] Anders Palmgren, Visions of Strategy: Following Clausewitz’s Train of Thought (Helsinki: National Defence University, Department of Tactics and Operations Art, 2014), Series 1, No 2/2014, pp. 235-268.
[xv] Ibid., pp. 339-372.
[xvi] Clausewitz, On War, p. 89.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 89.
[xviii] Erich Ludendorff, Der Totale Krieg (Munich: Ludendorrfs Verlag, 1935); English translation, The Nation at War, trans. A.S. Rappoport (London: Hutchinson, 1936).
[xix] The classic text here is Jan Bloch’s, The Future of War in its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations (trans. R.C. Long) (Boston: Ginn, 1899).
[xx] Nicholas Reynolds, Treason was No Crime: Ludwig Beck, Chief of the German General Staff (London: Kimber, 1976).
[xxi] Palmgren, Visions of Strategy, pp.131-162.
[xxii] Philip A. Brown and M.L.R. Smith, ‘The Rise of Gulf War Paradigm 2.0’, Orbis, Vol. 58, No. 1 (2014), pp. 83-103.
[xxiii] Colin McInnes, Spectator Sport Warfare: The West and Contemporary Conflict. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002).
[xxiv] Lord Powell, The West will Pay for Losing its Backbone in Iraq and Ukraine’, Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2014.
[xxv] To use Christopher Hitchens’s phrase, Letters to a Young Contrarian (New York: Basic Books, 2005), p. 20.
[xxvi] Tom Hill, ‘Political Power Does Not Grow Out of the Barrel of a Gun: The Problem of Measuring Progress in Counterinsurgency and the Social Context of Civil War’, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners, New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel, The Loews New Orleans Hotel, New Orleans, LA, Feb 17, 2010, available at (accessed 29 June 2014).
[xxvii] Clausewitz, On War, p.80.
[xxviii] Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 4-5.
[xxix] Lawrence Freedman, ‘The Counterrevolution in Strategic Affairs’, Deadalus, Vol. 140, No. 3 (2011), p. 25.