Monday, January 30, 2012

A Question of Honor?

The Clausewitzian scholar Dr. Andreas Herberg-Rothe has published an interesting article titled The Concept of Honor in War.

The article is exactly what one would expect from Herberg-Rothe since he is an expert on Hegelian thought as well as on the theoretical side of Clausewitz. Herberg-Rothe has charted the development of Clausewitz's theory in an earlier work which I recommend. Simply put, Clausewitz's view of war evolved over time.

Honor here acts as a motivation for participation in war. War itself as organized violence between political communities would have an existential element.

Once a war is understood as existential, a distinction must be drawn among totally different forms of existence:

a. Direct “physical,” objective existence;

b. Existence as an intact, self-aware political community, society, or nation;

c. “Aspirational” existence, meaning an identity to be created by some act of self-assertion or liberation;

d. “Moral” existence, entailing recognition as an equal state among states, or as an equal citizen within a state.

Clausewitz’s Political Declaration implies a clear ranking of these forms of existence: at the very top he placed “moral,” followed by the continued existence of Prussia as a self-aware political community. For the sake of these first two forms, he was prepared to risk his own physical existence and that of the state.

These different forms of existence also exist at different levels of the political communities involved. The soldier faces (a) whereas the patriot faces (b) and possibly (d) while the revolutionary or liberator faces (c) (and only later (d)) while the latter three also face (a) if they are involved in actual combat. The soldier can thus be politically motivated (defending his political community) or simply be motivated to save himself and those around him. Simply put, existence has both a subjective and "objective" side: the existence of the individual and the existence of the political community.

This varied view of political or even physical existence connected with war is basic Clausewitz. Once again, he is able to come up with a series of simple statements which indicate a wide range of options, or ways of looking at something quite fundamentally, but allowing for insight at the same time. For instance Clausewitz's choice of (d) over the others indicates a profound insight. The state is separate from the "nation" (b). Not only that, but for a nation state to be "free" requires it to be recognized as sovereign by other states: (d). That is it can not exist in this "moral" way as a puppet state of another. It is better to risk the very existence of the state (d) in order to safeguard the integrity of the nation (b), but the existence of that nation as a coherent political community can still exist even as a puppet state, with the nation still resisting. Thus for Clausewitz it was better for the state to go down fighting, offering the nation a proper example and even hope for the future, than surrender ignominiously. This is what happened in Prussia after 1806. Prussia was defeated by France, but Napoleon did not depose the Prussian king but rather retained him as a figurehead ruler to maintain control more easily. Prussia continued to exist (b) but as a vassal of France (lack of (d)). Spain, on the other hand, after Napoleon smashed the Spanish state and placed his brother on the Spanish throne, continued to resist as the nation (b). It was this resistance, which inspired Clausewitz to come to his basic conclusion that "war is the continuation of politics by other means". The Spanish nation essentially rejected the imposition of a French king, thus rejecting the French-imposed state. This emergence of the partisan as a political actor and savior of the nation came across to Clausewitz as the natural reaction to the existential French threat.

Up to that point it seemed that Napoleon and his army would be able to defeat all before them. Given the combination of power to mobilize resources of the French state (material cohesion) and the élan and patriotic spirit of the French soldiers (moral cohesion) they had been able to defeat every traditionally composed enemy who had come up against them. Now faced with the partisan supporting the nation, they had finally met their match. Spain in effect pointed the way to dealing with the French threat.

For Clausewitz, Napoleon was a "real enemy", one that challenged the very definition of what not only Clausewitz and all Prussia thought themselves to be, but also one that brought their entire independent political existence into question (d).

Thus in Clausewitz's original concept, wars could be bloody, but they were not questions of physical existence for one political community/nation or the other, although individuals and even states were of course at risk, this being war. With the First World War we start to see a radicalization of this approach as the full weight of a political community/nation using the consolidating/organizing/administrative powers of the state to mobilize its full potential to fight becomes a reality. By October 1917 the political conditions had ripened to usher in a new political concept of existence.

An "absolute enemy", the Leninist concept as presented by Carl Schmitt in The Theory of the Partisan I introduced in my last thread would conflate these subjective and "objective" perspectives, actually conflating a, b, c, and d, making the enemy an existential threat to the political community/nation as a whole as if it were an individual. The distinctions between individual, political community, nation and state were lost. What makes this a totalitarian concept is that one side essentially has to exterminate the other, the other portrayed as an existential threat, but falling far short of such a reality, or in some cases constituting no actual threat at all. It should be noted that Lenin's original concept of "absolute enemy" pertained only to civil - that is revolutionary - wars, but was expanded after 1917 to include not only wars within political communities, but between political communities.

The target is always an abstract identity, a mental concoction created for ideological/propaganda purposes. So no existential threat, but rather the concept is used for internal political control/consolidation. The Bolsheviks and the "Whites", the Stalinists and the "Kulaks", the Nazis and the "Jewish-Bolshevik threat", the Maoists and the Chinese "feudal lords" are all examples of how this concept was applied for totalitarian political effect.

Could we include "Islamofascism" to this list of abstract identities?

So what of Honor? It is the title of this post and I have not said much about it. Part of the value set that makes up the individual's motivation to service is the concept of honor. I think we can see honor in at least two distinct ways. We have honor as egotism: It's all about me and if you cross me, you pay the price. The other type is honor as responsibility: I hold a certain place in the community and am honor bound to act in a certain way. To fail to act in this way would be by definition, "dishonorable". An excellent film that portrays both senses of honor is the 1977 film The Duellists . . . In the film we see both types of honor in action and how one can feed on the other, the egoistical fanaticism (the Harvey Keitel character) continuously met by the traditional acceptance of the obligations imposed (the Keith Carradine character).

What can this tell us today? Egotistical "honor" is timeless, existing in every age and culture, whereas "honor" as responsibility requires a traditional culture in which to exist. This may sound like a radical statement, and I suppose it is, but only to make the distinction between traditional communities and modern societies. In modern societies, we don't really have honor as it exists in traditional communities, but rather "civic duty" or "virtue". That is not to say that honor does not exist in modern families, it does, but that is how they are more similar to traditional communities than they are to modern societies. I would also point out that one of the main causes of family breakdown is the lack of a concept of honor, but then I'm a small town Southern conservative, so what else would you expect from the likes of me?

While honor as responsibility requires a community of like minded individuals to exist, since it is all about the meaning behind the action, not the result (value rationality in Weberian terms), modern civic duty or virtue is a means to an end (instrumental rationality). We pay our taxes and vote because they are necessary legally or for political stability, a means to an end. Honor as responsibility simply exists since a life without this concept itself would be meaningless, the action itself is embedded in a whole world of meaning and the result stoically accepted as being unavoidable, something akin to fate. If we connect this concept of honor as responsibility to our four forms of existence above we get a clearer notion of the motivation behind political commitment in not only traditional communities, but also modern societies.

If "honor" as it exists in traditional communities is of both types whereas in modern societies predominately egotistical (especially in consumerist societies), we get something of an idea of the disadvantage these modern societies have in fighting wars with more traditional communities. While the modern side enjoys a quantitative and qualitative advantage in terms of material it operates at a disadvantage in terms of motivation and meaning in regards to "existence".

This entire article is filled with interesting analysis. The points that Herberg-Rothe makes in regards to torture are important as well. It deserves a proper discussion.


Carl Schmitt writes in regards to "absolute enemy":

Lenin shifted the conceptual center of gravity from war to politics, i.e. to the distinction of friend and enemy. That was significant and, following Clausewitz, a logical continuation of the idea that war is a continuation of politics. But Lenin, as a professional revolutionary of global civil war, went still further and turned the real enemy into an absolute enemy. Clausewitz spoke of absolute war, but always presupposed the regularity of an existing state. He could not conceive of a state becoming an instrument of a party, and of a party that gives orders to the state. With the absolutization of the party, the partisan also became absolute and a bearer of absolute enmity. Today, it is not difficult to see through the intellectual artifice produced by this change of the enemy concept.

The Theory of the Partisan, 1962

This idea of the state as serving as an instrument of the party is common among scholars of Totalitarianism, such as Hanna Arendt and Hermann Rauschning.


  1. Seydlitz,
    this is my 1st exposure to the absolute enemy concept. my fascination is that it's a leninist concept. i need to think on this ,but lately i've been thinking that the WOT is a SOCIALIST endeavor.
    every body screams about socialism here in the US of A and our policy on this topic is socialism.
    your essay here gives me some traction for thinking this out.

  2. Mmmm...well, perhaps in the sense of a formed concept. But I'd venture that the notion of an "absolute enemy" is as old as human disputation. The Persian Empire wasn't a faceless totalitarian juggernaut, but you'd never had guessed that reading Athenian political speeches. I think that the notion of some sort of fearful threat to personal life and political liberty was as much the rule as the exception EXCEPT during the brief period of European cabinet wars between about 1600-1800. And that was the environment that Clausewitz came to manhood in, so he saw the change as a massive shift in worldview - which it was, but back to the more typical-human one rather than a ground-shift into a new paradigm...

    Interestingly, we (in the West, anyway) have RETURNED, in my opinion, to cabinet wars but have retained that "absolute enemy" mindset. Explains much of our cognitive dissarray.

    And as for honor...

    Western honor - social honor - was a literal vestige of our pre-nation-state tribal status. It sprang from the personal "honor" of a warrior caste and was warped into the social "honor" by the feudal and then post-feudal governments trying to make their aristocratic fighting elites into something other than a bunch of maddened sword-swinging ironheads. The kings and the Church forced their nobles and aristos to accept social "responsibility" in return for their honor.

    But when the peasants and the bourgeouis forced their way into the government after 1789, "honor" as a social contract had to go. The plebs were outside the honor system, and either the aristos had to accept them as equals and fight them (which they, and to some extent their lower-class rivals, didn't want or couldn't accept) or the whole business had to get 86ed. So duelling hangs on for a century or so but eventually becomes illegal and dies out.

    And as for the present collision between central Asian "honor" societies and Western "post-honor" societies, well...could one significant factor in the "disadvantage" the Westerners face by that the fight is really NOT existential for them (us); our world will go on, largely unchanged (or wholly unchanged, for 99% of us) regardless of who "wins" in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    For them? Not so much, or not at all. Because if the West wins, and Westernizes their culture, their traditional tribal/warrior "honor" HAS to go - it can't exist in a modern, mass-democratic Western Westphalian state.

    So they have a huge incentive to fight harder. For them, defeat really DOES mean a death of honor.

  3. jim- Yes, it's a very useful concept.

    Chief- I think you conflate the "absolute" with the "real". How was Persia for the ancient Greeks an "absolute" enemy? I would argue they were clearly a "real" enemy . . . since the distinctions a-d apply, they are not all drawn together as one, for political/ideological reasons, that is in pursuit of some future utopia, essentially a secular religion.

    Had the Persians conquered Greece, would they have annihilated all the Greeks, or simply imposed their rule over them? That is simply (d), but would not (b) have remained?

    Please consider what makes this a unique concept . . . from the examples I have given . . .

  4. OK, let's:

    The Bolsheviks and the "Whites": the Czarists were, had they won, no less an existential enemy for the Reds than the Persians were to the Greeks. They didn't, and we now remember them as a joke, but the fact that the victorious Communist government then used the bogeyman of White revanche to justify their show trials and oppression doesn't change the fact that they were at least notionally a military threat.

    "the Maoists and the feudal lords": here I think you need to make a distinction between the genuine "feudal lords" - that is, the Kuomintang and the PuYi Japanese puppet - and the straw men that the Mao government set up to activate the Cultural Revolution. The former presented an actual military threat, the latter did not.

    But the remaining three - the kulak peasants for Stalin, the Jews for Hitler, and the "Islamofascists" the usual gang of GOP baiters and wingnut radio shouters - are and were never a genuine existential threat. They were boogeymen invented to raise the Three-minute Hate and rally the supporters.

    But what, then, makes this a "unique concept"? What differentiates this from the hate we were supposed to have for the Spanish back in Armada times, when the Dons were going to murder us all in our beds or make us Catholics, whichever was worse?

    Demagogues use demagoguery to con the mugs. Yep.

    Not sure how that ties into the whole "honor" concept, or how these demagogued "absolute enemies" serve as an actual threat to (a), (b), (c), or (d).

  5. I mean, I think I get that you're saying that since WW1 we have this concept of "absolute enemy" that allows the demagogue to cast some hokey idea of the Scary (Fill-in-the-Blank) People as Why We Fight while in fact they're not a tiger, not even a mouse, but the paper image of a mouse casting a big shadow in the demagogues' words.

    But, again, how does this differ materially from what demagogues since Demosthenes have done, casting their enemies as the Utmost Depraved Terror That Ever Was? I mean, we have better means than we did then, but the ends, and in many cases the reasons, are not all that different...

    I think I get that you're saying that these "absolute enemies" (really, REALLY misleading name, BTW) aren't "real" but are used to lead the crowd where the demagogue wants them...

    But since when has there NOT been a polity that uses some sort of this propaganda to whip up war fervor? How many rulers will actually say something like "For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must"?

  6. Chief-

    I think it interesting that you bring up the Melian dialogue since it is the rhetoric which is about the only thing the ancient Greeks and the various 20th Century Totalitarian movements I've listed have in common, although the one is persuasion and the other cynical manipulation. The political contexts of the Greeks on the one hand and the moderns on the other are very different, especially in how they deal with the individual.

    I would remind you of an earlier dialogue - the Mytilenian debate - which had initially gone Cleon's way, but the very next day the demagogue was unable to sway the Athenians a second time and a second ship was sent to cancel the order of the first . . . his ravings had no effect on the outcome and he was powerless to overturn the will of the new majority.

    What you are referring to here is a very pure form of democracy and political involvement which takes place within a rich context of interlocking meaning - religious practice, festivals, shared history, courts operated by the citizens, in fact a lack of active participation by a citizen was grounds for expulsion from the polis.

    What allowed for the rise of the political ideologies I speak of and their use of the concept of "absolute enemy" was the opposite of a rich and meaningful political/cultural context shared by a political community and much more the collapse of a discredited or exhausted social system . . .

  7. Chief-

    This is an honor.

    As to "honor" as an aristocratic mixed concept of chivalry . . . I think it that and even more Nietzsche's "morality of mores" . . . a set of values "holding" a political community together. A collected set of traditional value-rational responses . . . aristocratic or not . . .

  8. Massive war propaganda against Iran. Worse than in 2003 imo.

    "Absolute enemy"! ?

    Yea, about as close as you could get . . . funny that.