Rethinking Political Supremacy in War: A Review Essay of Clausewitz and Huntington

Below is an old paper I wrote as a master’s student four years ago on Clausewitz, Huntington, and political supremacy in war. It was fortunately published a year later in Pointer: Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2009).

Here’s a snippet:

Clausewitz does not say much about civil- military relations in On War. Where he does address the subject, [he] is not talking about not politicians or civilians, per se.

Antulio J. Echevarria

Clausewitz did write a lot about civil- military relations. Even in On War.

Peter Paret

In the realm of modern civil- military relations literature, Samuel P. Huntington, who recently passed away on Christmas Eve 2008, and his book, The Soldier and The State has been said to be the cornerstone of the subject as he advocated military professionalism and “objective” control by civilians. Huntington however, was influenced by Clausewitz’s work on political supremacy in war as a foundation of his own thesis. He claimed that Clausewitz “contributed the first theoretical justification for civilian control”, hence, giving a special privilege to Clausewitz’s argument that war is the “mere continuation of politik by other means”. This most frequently quoted passage from Clausewitz’ s On War, however, should be understood within the shadow of the Cold War. The uneasiness of a nuclear threat and major conventional wars had induced scholars to stress the role of policy in limiting war. Additionally, the liberal-democratic values of Clausewitz’s interpreters had an effect too, as they saw civilian control as a prerequisite to safeguard individual liberties. These notions however indicate that scholars like Huntington might have fallen into the standard mistake of only quoting those chapters or passages to justify their own choices or preferred policies. Obviously, this is ultimately misleading.

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Ways of War or Ways of Battle?

 Singapore, 1 April 2008 

Today, I had a class on “The Revolution in Military Affairs”, where I had to present a summary of this week’s readings on the ways of war–these include John Keegan’s History of Warfare, Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture, along with smaller pieces by US military strategists.

What was interesting about today’s class was the argument that war, contrary to my Clausewitzian mind, was nothing more than a “cultural expression” (Keegan). Granted that Keegan clearly either misintepret Clausewitz or didn’t actually read On Waror both. But the idea that “culture” defines war and warfare is an intriguing argument.

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