Whether it is a coincidence or not, it is nevertheless a fact that [our] decreasing moral sense has steadily kept pace with the growth in armament; for as explosives have gone up, morality has gone down. Treaties are now scraps of paper, war aims weathercocks which change with each political breeze; pledged words are sugared lies; honor between allies, veiled deceit, and obligations towards neutrals implements of betrayal.Major General J.F.C. Fuller
Strategy is all around us. People strategize in business, sports, politics, and war. Of course, war is one of the most consequential human activities. In his book On War, Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “Strategy is nothing without battle; because battle is the agent which it uses, the means that it applies. Just as tactics is the use of armed forces in a battle, strategy is the use of battle, — i.e., the linking of the individual battles to a whole, to war’s ultimate end.” And what is war’s ultimate end? It is, says Clausewitz, “the political object of the war.”
Strategy is tricky because your political object can change in the midst of battle. Take, for example, the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s initial political objective was to “save the Union.” As the war progressed, Lincoln realized that slavery was the South’s Achilles heel, especially as Southern independence would ultimately depend on an alliance with Great Britain (where the Slavery Abolition Act had passed Parliament in 1833). Thus, Lincoln changed his grand strategy, announcing the Emancipation Proclamation of 22 September 1862, declaring that slaves held by the rebel states would be “thenceforward, and forever free.” As a result of this proclamation, foreign public opinion turned decisively in favor of the Union. From that point forward, the South could no longer hope to receive military assistance from the British or French. (Henry Adams, whose father was U.S. Ambassador to Britain at the time, wrote, “The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy.”)
As an example of grand strategy, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation demonstrates how wars involve moral and philosophical questions. Even if we are not aware of these questions ourselves, politics is a battleground of moral and philosophical controversy around which “fighting collectivities” coalesce. In 1862 Americans were divided over slavery. In 2021 Americans are divided over abortion, election fraud, and whether the country should have a border. As politics is rife with disagreement, politics is the very ground of war. That is why Clausewitz says that the “political object” of a war is “the original motive” for fighting, and “must be an essential factor in the product.” He further states, “The smaller the sacrifice we demand from our opponent, the smaller … will be the means of resistance which he will employ…. Further, the smaller our political object, the less value shall we set upon it, and the more easily shall we be induced to give it up altogether.” The political object, noted Clausewitz, “will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force and also the amount of effort to be made.”
The nature of the disagreement leading to war, and the moral questions involved, determine the intensity of the conflict. Will it be bloody or prolonged? Will the resulting peace be lasting or of short duration? The enmity generated by war is different than adversarial relations generated by other forms of competition. This bears careful consideration. The political theorist Carl Schmitt wrote, “The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy [then] is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men … becomes public by virtue of such a relationship.”
War itself is an extremity of politics. Within war, the furthest extremity would be a war of extermination. How this might come about is not easy to foresee. But the existence of weapons of mass destruction today grants to political extremism (i.e., totalitarianism) the means to carry war toward what Clausewitz called “the utmost use of force.” Logically, if an enemy’s “political object” is morally crazy, his goal might be to wipe you out. A normal human being would not think of such a project. Yet prescriptions for mass murder can be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, in the secret protocols of the Soviet and Red Chinese militaries, and in Hitler’s private conversations (see Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944). Mass murder is a recurring feature of totalitarian regimes. In the USSR there was the eradication of the Kulaks and the Ukrainian genocide. The Chinese communists are currently engaged in a genocide against Uyghurs. Hitler massacred Jews and planned to massacre Slavs. In fact, Hitler planned to exterminate the four million inhabitants of Moscow and cover this greatest of Russian cities with a manmade lake. (Hitler spoke of this plan on 16 January 1941.) One might ask why totalitarian politicians engage in mass murder. This brings us back to underlying questions of morality and philosophy. If we study the philosophies of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao, etc., we will find an undercurrent of diabolical thinking.
Stalin famously and succinctly explained why mass murder might be appealing to a dictator. He said, “Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.” Since politics is a field of moral and philosophic disagreement, many “problems” are bound to arise. For people without moral boundaries, like Stalin and Hitler, the “political object” of a major war might naturally incline toward genocide on an undreamt-of scale. Keeping in mind Stalin’s dictum – “No man – no problem,” Schmitt wrote, “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping.” The substance of the political, noted Schmitt, always involves a “concrete antagonism.” In society these antagonisms wax and wane; yet these antagonisms are always present, beneath the surface or in plain view. According to Schmitt, “all political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning. They are focused on a specific conflict and are bound to a concrete situation; the result (which manifests itself in war and revolution) is a friend-enemy grouping” which, he says, turns into an “empty and ghostlike abstraction when this situation disappears.” He reminds us that words like “state, republic, society, class, as well as sovereignty … are incomprehensible if one does not know exactly who is to be affected, combated, refuted or negated by such a term.” In their politics, people like Stalin and Hitler knew exactly who was to be “refuted and negated.”
Fighting collectivities – be they nations or political factions within nations – exist all around us. Every political disagreement between “fighting collectivities” can turn violent and devolve into open warfare. In terms of grand strategy, Clausewitz explained that war “is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” In other words, one side or the other wants to win an argument by force of arms. In the case of the American Civil War, Lincoln’s grand strategy relied on a moral argument involving slavery; but even so, the war itself was concluded by battles and killing, ending only with the surrender of the various Confederate generals.
The era of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War was very different from the era that began toward the end of World War I. We might mistakenly think of it as a more innocent time, since the advent of totalitarianism was several decades in the future. Yet the animating doctrines of the Marxist dictators of the twentieth century were then forming. The progression from chivalry to total war was gradual. Modernity’s rationalization of economics and administration encompassed a questioning of moral absolutes. Thus, the American Civil War was something of a steppingstone. In his essay, “Southern Chivalry and Total War,” Richard M. Weaver noted, “When John Pope’s Virginia campaign gave the South its first intimation that the North was committed to total war, the reaction was indignation and dismay.” The Old South was imbued with notions of chivalry, which put certain limits on warfare. The North, being modern and more “scientific” in its views, set chivalry aside. General Lee wrote, “Pope must be suppressed.” From that point forward the South saw itself fighting against “an outlawed mode of warfare.”
Weaver argued that a decline in morality began after the Middle Ages. Communism and Nazism merely represented the extreme ends in a scale of progressive moral disintegration. Sherman’s march through Georgia and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima can be tracked on this same scale of decline. If American grand strategy was not as evil as Hitler’s or Stalin’s, it was nonetheless far from being innocent. The code of chivalry challenges the soldier to superior moral conduct in the midst of the murderous passions of war. This code turns out to have great utility when making peace; for a mistreated enemy is bound to seek revenge, and then you are left with Stalin’s dictum (and Hitler’s plan to cover Moscow with a lake). Weaver noted that the depredations of generals Sherman, Sheridan and Hunter, who systematically ravaged and punished civilians, made it seem as if a fundamental support of civilization “had been knocked out.” The method of warfare pioneered by the Northern generals was, indeed, immoral.
Of the generals who waged the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was singled out for special praise by the British military historian and strategist Major Gen. J.F.C. Fuller. It is also of interest, that William Sherman was praised by Capt. B.H. Liddell Hart. In 1929, Fuller argued that Grant was the strategist who won the American Civil War. In 1929, Liddell Hart argued that Sherman won the war. Whether it was Grant or Sherman who deserved highest praise, or the unique partnership of both men, the innovations of these generals changed the nature of war thereafter. As Weaver explained, “In this war the side which more completely abjured the rules of chivalric combat won, and the way was cleared for modernism, with its stringency, its abstractionism, and its impatience with sentiment.” Weaver showed how this spirit was directly transmitted from the Union generals to the Prussian generals. “At a banquet given by the Chancellor [Bismarck] in 1870 General Sheridan, who had been with the Prussian staff in the capacity of unofficial observer [during the Franco-Prussian War], remarked that he favored treating noncombatants with the utmost rigor. He expressed the opinion that ‘the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.’ The auditor of this statement confessed himself struck by its brutality but added that he thought it might bear consideration….”
Having used the example of the American Civil War to briefly illustrate how grand strategy and military strategy are deeply connected with moral questions, and having derived a few insightful quotes from Clausewitz and Schmitt, we are ready to dive into the grand strategies of Lenin, Stalin (and their epigones, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin). According to Clausewitz, the “political object” is the “original motive” of a given war and shapes the very way in which the war is to be waged. With regard to the so-called “socialist camp,” the “political object” has always been world revolution. This “object” was first proposed in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. It was updated and further elaborated by Lenin and Stalin, and then by Mao Zedong in China. Essentially, the “political object” of the communists has always been to violently eradicate the legal, moral and religious structures of Western “bourgeois” civilization. Because their “political object” included, from the outset, the eradication of morality, communist grand strategy has always relied on terrorism, mass murder, bad faith and outright lies. In other words, their grand strategy admits of no moral limitations (on method) whatseover. The evil nature of the communist bloc (i.e., socialist camp) has been brought into focus by George Orwell (in 1984), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (in The Gulag Archipelago), by Igor Shafarevich (in The Socialist Phenomenon), and by Eric Voegelin (in Science, Politics and Gnosticism). (Also see, The Black Book of Communism.)
It can be argued that Western strategists, in reckoning their Eastern adversaries, have forgotten with whom they are dealing. The communists in Russia and China are part of a global network of political crime and subversion. Whatever their internal squabbles in the past, they are working together, even now, for socialism on every continent. They are coordinating their policies in Africa, Latin America and inside the United States. Their inhuman ruthlessness was best characterized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who described Soviet socialism as a “sewage disposal system” for disposing of human beings. As George Orwell said of man’s socialist destiny, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – fore ever.” Igor Shafarevich concluded, at the end of his book on socialism, that “one could regard the death of mankind as the final result to which the development of socialism leads.” And then there is Eric Voegelin, who described Karl Marx as a charlatan and a liar. “Yes,” noted Voegelin, “Marx was an intellectual swindler.”
The Soviet State, founded by Lenin and built by Stalin, was a criminal enterprise. The grand strategy of the Soviet Union shared with its instigators a criminal character, and must be viewed in that light. One might ask how the Soviet regime managed to get away with so many crimes for so many decades; but this is not hard to understand. As Hannah Arendt explained, “The reason why totalitarian regimes can get so far in realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvey world is that the outside nontotalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges also in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity.”
As crazy as Moscow or Beijing’s “political object” may sound, the madmen in question are nonetheless shrewd. The concepts which they inherited from Stalin and Lenin may be immoral and crazy, but there is method in what they have done. And we can see, quite clearly, that their bag of tricks is far from empty.
The question for the strategist, at this juncture, is that which Robert E. Lee might have asked himself on seeing General Pope’s conduct in the Civil War. Does a breach of morality in warfare logically drive out all moral considerations in grand strategy? Is global politics trending toward a war of mass destruction and mass extermination? Does the wickedness of Beijing’s policy, for example, require a reciprocal wickedness from ourselves? Is there a way to oppose the logic of progressive moral corruption in policy? Or is civilization doomed to descend into genocidal violence and barbarism?
I leave these questions for Part II.
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Notes and Links
J.F.C. Fuller, Armaments and History, p. 182.
Carl von Clausewitz, Strategy, p. 27 and later, p. 109.
Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 28-32.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book I, Chapter 2. (Anatol Rapoport translation, Penguin Classics paperback.)
Richard M. Weaver, The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, 1987), p. 166, 168-169
J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (London: 1929).
B.H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (New York, 1929)
Igor Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (USA: Gideon House Books, 2019) , p. 306.
Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1968), p. 19.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovnovich, 1951), Vol. III, p. 135.
Note to the reader: American policymakers and leading academic experts have often been clueless when it comes to Russian and Chinese grand strategy; for example, in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, his discussion of Soviet strategy is not only lacking in imagination, but completely ignores the importance of Marxism-Leninism in the formulation of Soviet grand strategy. In a section titled “Nuclear Dissuasion in Europe,” Luttwak acknowledges that NATO’s conventional forces were inadequate to the defense of Europe. Therefore, NATO had to rely on tactical nuclear munitions to stem the tide of a Soviet armored advance. He then argued that even larger NATO armies would have simply led the Soviets to build more tactical nuclear weapons of their own. He noticed, correctly, that the West’s grand strategy was “unreliable” because “dissuasion by [nuclear] punishment” was “riddled with baffling uncertainties.” But it never occurred to Luttwak that Soviet grand strategy, with its readiness to fight and win a nuclear war, was secretly preparing a way out for both sides – a way that would disarm the United States for good.