Twentieth-century man is supposed to be more rational than his forefathers. He attempts to solve his problems by rational discussion. By the use of rational processes he has achieved almost unlimited power over nature. He understands the working of the universe. According to the psychiatrists he can even understand himself. Yet his greatest energies, no doubt most rationally directed, are devoted to the irrational activity of war. Twentieth-century wars have been more expensive and more destructive than all their predecessors put together. The more enlightened a government is in its social policy and the more democratic in its institutions, the more it spends on war or, as it is laughably called, defense. What is the explanation of this paradox? How does it happen that man, who can remove almost all other evils, is more entangled than ever with the worst social evil of all?

The easiest way out is to invoke original sin. Only the clever people who write history or sociology are truly rational. They know that war is evil and would like to avoid it. Their thin pipings are drowned by the roar of the multitude. Aggression and violence are intrinsic to man’s nature. The masses are captivated by irrational passions—nationalism, imperialism, class hatred. High-minded governments are swept into war much against their wills.

Of course this is all nonsense. Men do not fight in modern wars because they like it. They fight because they are told that it is their duty to do so. The clever people invent the excuses for war. The masses are, at worst, taken in by them. Usually they are not even taken in. “Better dead than Red,” for instance, was a fine slogan for those who coined it. It had no appeal to those who experienced it in practice. I was in Hungary soon after the Russian invasion of 1956. I asked many Hungarians: “Would you rather be dead than Red? Would you have liked Hungary to be obliterated with nuclear weapons?” None said yes. It is a safe guess now that all the Vietnamese ask of their liberators is to go away.

We need a more sophisticated answer. The clever people are not laggards in providing one. They reduce war to reason. They demonstrate the rational purpose of wars. They give wars a high place in political science. War, it seems, is just one of the activities of governments along with health and education. The subtlest apologists admit that wars, once started, get out of hand. Therefore they claim that the object of preparing for war is to avoid it. I can think of no other human activity where this is true. No one cooks a meal in order not to eat it. No one buys an automobile in order to stay at home. But the great virtue of guns and still more of nuclear weapons is that they will never go off. This, though maybe clever, is too clever for me.

The first clever man of this school was Carl von Clausewitz. Americans will be delighted to learn that Dr. Henry Kissinger is numbered among his disciples. Clausewitz was a Prussian general who served against the French during the Napoleonic wars. He was an intelligent observer and made sensible remarks about the conduct of battles. Whereas eighteenth-century writers on war had been concerned with the elaboration of tactics, Clausewitz insisted that the aim of battle was to win, not to perform a neat maneuver. In his view war was a contest of will. Whoever willed more resolutely and more clearheadedly would win. This view has a plausible look and has exercised great influence on generals down to our own day. Unfortunately there is a moment when determination becomes pigheadedness. This moment occurs frequently with most generals. Clausewitz did not explain how a general could tell when the moment had arrived.

Clausewitz was not alone in commenting on the strategy of the Napoleonic wars. Jomini, a Swiss serving in the French armies, did so and, in a technical way, more perceptively than Clausewitz. For that matter Napoleon himself did much commenting during his last years at St. Helena, though not very enlighteningly. The special contribution of Clausewitz was to make sense of wars not only as military operations but as political acts. War, he insisted, should have an object definable if not defined and should be pursued only until the object was obtained.

He summarized his doctrine in one of the most famous sentences of the nineteenth century: “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” Here is the cover, the excuse, for war which has proved its merit from Clausewitz’s day until ours. War, if properly conducted, makes sense—in so far as any political activities make sense. If any particular war continues to appear senseless, this must be because Clausewitz’s rule has not been observed.


The rule not only advised limited wars. It also, by implication, justified them. It provided them with a plausibly rational basis. Contemporary writers on war lament the present-day abandonment of Clausewitz’s rule and urge a return to it. Only the twentieth century, it seems, has pursued the folly of “total war.” If we look again at Clausewitz’s career, as excellently described by Roger Parkinson, we discover that he was condemning the war of his own day, not that which was to come.

The Napoleonic wars were not “total” in their methods, though they often tried to be. They were already “total” in their aims. Napoleon wanted to establish a single empire—his own—throughout Europe. The others wanted to stop him and could do so only by achieving his complete overthrow. This was paradoxically the only rational aim to pursue. A further paradox follows: the more defensive a country’s policy is, the more total its aim must be. It is no good merely defeating an aggressor. He will have another go as soon as he is stronger. Therefore the only security is to destroy him.

This was already true of the Napoleonic wars and is equally true of the two world wars in the twentieth century. The Allies of Napoleon’s time had no aim except to overthrow him. Once this was accomplished, they could make a moderate and seemingly generous peace, for which they have been much praised. Similarly the Grand Alliance of the Second World War had no aim except to overthrow Hitler. Once he was dead, they soon discovered that they had no aims against Germany as such and labored, each in its own way, to restore her as a flourishing power.

In the First World War there was more of a muddle. The Allies could not decide whether the aggressor was the Kaiser or the German people or perhaps nobody. For this very reason they made a harsher peace or tried to do so. After all you cannot pursue total aims when you do not know against whom you are pursuing them.

The modern disciples of Clausewitz therefore find themselves in an insoluble dilemma. They want limited wars. They are devoted to defense either of their own country or of some idealistic cause. Yet if they ever encounter a real aggressor, their only remedy will be to destroy him. So far we have escaped a third world war. This does not vindicate the teachings of Clausewitz. It is thanks to the fact that world conquerors are rare. At the present time there are no full-blown aggressors in the world—only spooks created by our own imaginations. If one ever turns up, we shall be as much at a loss how to deal with him as others have been in the past. The only remedy will be another total war, which this time may turn out to be total in the destructive sense as well.

The problem is demonstrated in the collected essays which Michael Howard has brought together. Howard began his career as a military historian. His traditional skill is shown in such essays as his account of the battle of Waterloo and of Wellington’s later influence on the British army. His fate has been that of the handloom weaver. He had just perfected his craft when it became out-of-date. Very wisely he therefore turned from history to strategic studies. The transition comes with his reflections on the First World War, when the generals had no idea what to do. Michael Howard confesses that he is equally at a loss: “It is difficult, even with all the wisdom of hindsight, to see that there was an easier path.” Then he draws back and hints that there was an easier path after all if strategists had listened to Liddell Hart. Limited war and tanks instead of men would have provided an answer.

Liddell Hart is supposed to have been disregarded. In fact British strategists followed his precepts and conducted in North Africa a campaign of which he highly approved. When Liddell Hart wrote his ponderous history of the Second World War he devoted more space to the North African campaign than to anything else. There was one flaw in his success: the North African campaign, though technically interesting, was pointless. It had at best marginal importance in the Second World War and contributed nothing to the total warfare by which a decision was reached.

Michael Howard does not linger over limited wars. He faces the fact that the truly Great Powers in the world are relentlessly preparing for a war that will be far from limited. He parades with seeming rationalism all the arguments that I have heard ever since I campaigned for nuclear disarmament twelve years ago. The bombs, you see, may not go off. Indeed the more of them there are, the less likely they are to do so. This is on a level with a teetotaler stocking up with wine and whisky in the belief that the more he has, the less tempted he will be to drink it. More bombs and better bombs mean that the balance of terror is that much more stable. This balance of terror would have to be preserved at each stage of disarmament. If there were no bombs, there would be no balance, and an unscrupulous power could win easily merely by making a few.


Weapons, though perhaps not nuclear weapons, also secure internal peace and stability. Without them we should have violence and social revolution. Most of all, a country that renounced the bomb would be at the mercy of another that did not. I have never understood this argument. Apparently men are prepared to risk annihilation in order to prevent the bomb being dropped. Yet they would not be prepared to do so in order to preserve their freedom.

I am sure that Michael Howard is deeply sincere. He is deeply concerned to preserve world peace. I am also sure that he is entirely wrong. If weapons exist they will one day be used. The deterrent will work ninety-nine times out of a hundred. At the hundredth time it will not. One side will judge that it can win or, even worse, that without immediate action it will lose. Such is the lesson of history, and I see no reason to suppose that the present situation is fundamentally different from past ones.

Nuclear weapons, if used, will cause the total destruction of civilization and probably of mankind. Therefore give them up. It is as simple as that. This was the program on which we campaigned for nuclear disarmament. We thought, perhaps very foolishly, that a renunciation of nuclear weapons by one power would set an example that others would follow. Not enough people agreed with us and we gave up. Now, as Michael Howard rightly says, concern for disarmament “has evaporated with quite remarkable rapidity.” He also states:

Whereas ten years ago the pressure was to abolish war at whatever cost to international order, today it is rather to secure justice at whatever cost to international or internal peace.

I question the truth of this contrast. Men, it is said, “have learned to live with the bomb.” Actually they try to forget it. There is a Galician story of a beggar waiting at the gate of a great house. He was asked why he did not go in. “There is a fierce dog.” Then why does he not go away? “Perhaps the dog will die.” So it is with the bomb. Perhaps it will die. It will not, but those who rely on it will.

This Issue

November 4, 1971