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  • War and Politics:Clausewitz and Schmitt in the Light of Girard's Mimetic Theory
  • Wolfgang Palaver (bio)
    Translated by Gabriel Borrud

My thoughts on the relationship between war and politics will follow three distinct steps. First off, in an exposition of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and German political philosopher Carl Schmitt, I will attempt to illustrate that politics, as such, is rooted in war and that the latter can never be understood as a mere instrument of the former. A second step will highlight, using above all Schmitt, traditional manifestations of the religious containment of war, with particular emphasis on the interconnectedness of duels and divine judgment. And finally, this essay will delve into Schmitt's desperate wrangling with how biblical revelation effectuated a dissolution of conventional law, and how these thoughts converge with René Girard's apocalyptic reading of history, without, however, being identical to it. [End Page 101]


The innocuous and ultimately trivializing interpretation of war that exudes from Carl von Clausewitz's seminal work On War can be summed up in essence by his famous aphorism: "War is the continuation of policy with other means."1 It follows that war is a mere subordinate means of the political apparatus and thus a harmless and calculable entity, insofar as it can be fundamentally confined and controlled by politics. Clausewitz also incorporates the concept of the "paradoxical trinity"2 to express this aspect of his work; he describes an interactive set of three forces that include "primordial violence," comprising hatred and enmity, the "play of chance and probability" and its "element of subordination" as an "instrument of policy."3 Girard's view of Clausewitz's great work, presented in Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, robs us of any possible form of tranquility because he stresses that mimetic reciprocity—also observed by Clausewitz—is the essence and anthropological precursor to war. There is a dynamic interwoven in this reciprocity, Girard argues, that leads to an escalation of violence, an "escalation to extremes."4 Clausewitz himself speaks of the "violent nature" of war, a "fermentation process" that characterizes it.5 The remarkable trinity, according to Girard, is simply not able to retain control over this explosive substance politically.6 Clausewitz remains so interesting for Girard precisely because he pinpoints the anthropological preconditions for war in the human propensity for mimetically driven conflict; for the Prussian military theorist, war is "nothing but a duel on a larger scale," with each opponent trying "through physical force to compel the other to do his will."7 Where Clausewitz speaks of the reciprocation that dictates war, he describes the conflict as a mimetic relationship between two rivals that ultimately surges toward escalation:

War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes. This is the first case of interaction and the first "extreme" we meet with.8

The essence of war, Clausewitz argues, is found in its propensity for absolute engagement, the escalation of violence to extremes. On the surface, he conjectures that we may assume civilized nations elude this impassioned dynamic of violence because the wars of "civilized nations are far less cruel and destructive than wars between savages," and that "savage peoples are ruled by passion, [End Page 102] civilized peoples by the mind."9 However, Clausewitz is quick to add that these differences are far from the essence and source of war, namely impassioned violence, and further that they arise merely from the external circumstances and institutions in place in those cultures. Between "civilized" and "savage" peoples, Clausewitz posits, there is no fundamental difference with regard to the impassioned dynamic of violence because "even the most civilized of peoples … can be fired with passionate hatred of each other." On the contrary, by means of technological advancement, which increases directly with higher learning, the scope of violence only widens. "The invention of gunpowder and the constant improvement of firearms are enough in themselves to show...


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