Today was the first day of my War Studies class ‘Approaches to War’, which is a compulsory module which outlines strategy and military history from roughly the age of Frederick the Great to the present day (1750-now). The class began with a rough overview of “what is strategy?”, and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the fact that this is a eurocentric interpretation, defined strategy as Clausewitz did in book one of On War. The essential soundbite of course being “war is the continuation of policy (or politics) by other means”. The Prussian’s definition of that other mean is the use of force to coerce an enemy to do your will.
This is not groundbreaking, and certainly not the first time I, or you, dear reader, have heard this. It should be fairly obvious that war is not carried out for it’s own sake, though sometimes it seems that way when you read Cormac McCarthy novels, and I am a believer in the old Deep Throat school of “follow the money” (with a very wide interpretation of money) when it comes to how and why societies and states go to war. But it was that concept of coercion which fascinated me when I read Clausewitz, because it takes the rationalizations which govern complex societies and breaks them down to arrive at a pure exercise of force with a will to subjugate and intimidate. It works between Taliban warlords and villages in rural Afghanistan and between drug cartels on the streets of Baltimore and Kingston as much as it does between nation-states at war.
This was on my mind last week when I walked the halls of the British Museum, which, among being a foremost depository of the collected cultural heritage and wealth of antiquity, is a massive show of the benefits of being a global subjugator (Cough, cough, Elgin Marbles, cough cough, Rosetta Stone, cough). Among their trove of historical treasures is the reliefs of the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud, Sennacherib, and Nineveh, and these are my personal favorite for their intricate depictions of the terrifying Assyrian war machine, which does to me what I imagine it did to foreign embassies over a millennium ago with depictions of burning cities, piles of heads, and arrow-struck lions vomiting blood.
But one image struck me in particular. It was one of a large group of slaves pulling on ropes to move a giant sculpture, and above them was a figure raising a stick as if about to strike down. And the effect of being quite close to the very large reliefs suddenly induced a shudder as I looked at the static figures of a long-passed civilization. And I shuddered because I feared the blow of that rod.
And there it was, clear to me as it hadn’t been underlining Clausewitz. The threat of inflicting pain, the ability to strike those unable to resist, drives much of war. And it wasn’t even multiple figures in the relief. Just one, grabbing the hair of a slave and about to apply the element of pain and, perhaps more, the threat of pain, to a far larger population. But he had the rod and he had the control. The idea, in principle, is the same were the United States to launch an airstrike against the Assad regime to prevent the further use of chemical weapons. It all comes down to control by the threat of force and its attendant brutality.
The idea is visible throughout human artistic endeavor and throughout history. The threat of pain, and the deeper psychological and pathological fear associated, broke the spirit of Winston Smith in Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. The image of the baton-wielding policeman strikes an immediate cord among those who shriek of institutionalized brutality, and is a rallying cry for those who demand resistance. It finds echo in Milosevic’s immortal words to the protesting Kosovo Serbs in 1987, on the eve of the collapse of Yugoslavia: “You will not be beaten again! No one should ever dare to beat you!”.
The threat of the rod is one with authority. You can see it in the depictions of Pharaohs, often depicted about to strike kneeling captives, and you can see it in batons the hands of European Commanders well until the time of Napoleon. You more often see this ceremonially on parade grounds, but descended from the Mace of Authority held by rulers and academic establishments alike. I officially graduated by being struck on the head with a piece of cloth belonging to an esteemed historical graduate, but the master who doffed me was surrounded by 4 very heavy ceremonial maces, which I couldn’t help being slightly nervous about. The role of punishment and defining authority, right and wrong, by striking with a blunt instrument seems immemorial, defining the role of master and subject. We innately recognize the power of the blow of the heavy object, with its power to stun and kill. The blunt blow of a bone constituted the great leap forward of the ascendant ape-man in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even in realms of supposed liberal education the disciple learns from the hand of the elder and the learned teacher, often identified, and daresay armed, with a ruler.
And this underpins further concepts of war and peace into the realm of the civil society, where we break down conceptions of states that so underpin our civics education in the west and descend into the realm of control by violence. Increasingly you hear less of war and more of conflict, which has less connotation of armies, but is not divorced from the concept of mobilizing coercive forces in order to establish control. Syria may be at war, even theoretically a Civil War, but it is a Syrian conflict over who will control one area or population that really emerges upon reading or witnessing it via the media. The question of subjugation and subjection among slave to master, civilians to law enforcement, populations to governments (even governments supposedly corporate of that population), and even children to parents often comes down at length to who wields the rod and who breaks the baton. This is the point where the irrationality of personality and brute force meets the reasoned world of political and societal goals and ideals (envisioned by Clausewitz as forming a trinity with the creativity of the means by which conflicts are waged), and this point that I feel I must endeavor to further comprehend and incorporate in my academic and professional thinking. And despite the liberal positivist that I am, I do not discount the role that intimidation and swift punishment still plays in governing the affairs of all humanity.