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With On War
Achever Clausewitz (“Finishing Clausewitz”) by René Girard (Paris: Carnets Nord, 2007) is a powerful re-thinking of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature developing from an insightful analysis of Carl von Clausewitz’s unfinished classic On War (Vom Friege), studied in every military officer school in the world. At present it exists only in its original French, but a translation should be forthcoming soon. It deserves a wide readership. Theologians, military strategists, anthropologists, any thoughtful person who cares about humanity’s future, in fact, will profit from engaging Girard.
Reviewing Girard’s book required that I read On War myself, and then some military critical literature. Furthermore, I am very familiar with Girard’s corpus. However, Achever Clausewitz is itself a very approachable book that can be read with great profit by a wide audience. It takes the form of a dialogue between Girard and his editor of Carnets Nord, Benoît Chantre, an interlocuter whose skilled questioning provides the structure of the book.
Girard, a French anthropologist whose career has been mostly spent in the United States, has earned a reputation for his theories of the scapegoat mechanism as “safety valve” for human communities in conflict. The scapegoat, innocent by nature but designated as guilty by the community, is sacrificed to bring about the diminution of hostility that threatens the survival of a community. Scapegoats are therefore the victims of an unconscious collective transference that holds them responsible for something they did not do or precipitate.
This conflict develops from what he calls the mimetic crisis. More than any other animal, human beings’ consciousness grows by imitating others. I pull an apple off the tree and eat it; you see me and do the same. No problem, until there is only one apple... As a given community enters into such a crisis, murderous hostility grows, which is then relieved when (and if) a community designates a scapegoat responsible for the crisis and kills him or her. This murder then creates a numinous moment, a sense of the presence of the sacred, as the innocent scapegoat made guilty becomes a sacrificial victim and peace suddenly returns. This murder is then ritualized into rites and myths that can become the “foundational murder” that launches a community, a society, a civilization.
Girard’s moment of truth was when he, an unbeliever, suddenly realized that the scapegoat mechanism he was uncovering in archaic societies is in fact what the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was all about. In his rejection, suffering, and death, Jesus is just another scapegoat. The Resurrection, however, is God’s word to humanity that scapegoats are in fact innocent. This then unmasks the biases that keep us from seeing the scapegoat as an innocent victim, and evacuates the ancient religions of all their power derived from the founding murders whose entrance into the sacred they encoded and enabled. Violence no longer serves a useful purpose, and has become free-floating. We will either leave it behind or die by it.
From then on, Girard explicitly became a Christian and looked more deeply at his mimetic theory. His books that followed are well-known, such as The Scapegoat, Things Hidden From the Foundation of the World, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, and Violence and the Sacred. As a result, Girard’s opus has been very influential on many theologians, such as James Alison.
In Achever Clausewitz, Girard seeks to “finish” Clausewitz, an intentional double entendre. Clausewitz glimpsed in his thinking the possibility of wars of total annihilation, replacing the “wars in lace” (guerres en dentelle) of earlier times. The phrase “Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers” (“Gentlemen of England, fire first”) from the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 is the classic (if inexact) example of this codified and ritualized warfare. After the French Revolution with its masses of conscript soldiers, the restraints of the old system were gradually thrown off. The specter of a war of annihilation, without rhyme or reason, became apparent.
For Clausewitz, this absolute war is a theoretical possibility, though his treatise, which he re-worked several times while never completing it, argues that war can never actually get to that point. His notion of war is that of a duel (Zweikraft) akin to a wrestling match, and a war is a congeries of these “duels.” For Girard, absolute war has now become a daily possibility, if not certainty, with the capacity we now possess to destroy the planet. The apocalyptic literature found in the New Testament especially is not predictive of the final cataclysm, he says. Rather, it is “Christianity predicting its own failure”, he declares provocatively, “the only religion ever to do so.”
The premise makes sense: if we as a species rely on violence as a means of communal life (Girard’s essential point), and if we are now controlled by our technology rather than controlling it (Heidegger’s famous thesis), it follows that the extinction of the human race by our own hand is inevitable, as we now have the technology to destroy the planet in an act of war. Furthermore, as Christian apocalyptic literature predicts an “end of days,” this part of the Bible can no longer be dismissed merely as an embarrassment to Christians other than fundamentalists with political axes to grind. Deprived as we are of the archaic scapegoat mechanism by the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been trying to find new ways forward within a transformed religious perspective. These are bound to fail, for war is part of the essence of human life and society, not simply an aberration we fall into.
This last insight is what links Clausewitz with Girard most closely, and it provides the springboard for not only Girard’s incisive critique of Clausewitz, but also his pointing to the narrow road that only can lead to safety. This is that we take the road of Christ and live in his way, leaving behind violence as a means of resolving conflict, especially mimetic conflict. Needless to say, Girard is not optimistic that we will do so.
Clausewitz’ treatise, as Raymond Aron proved, is a genuine classic, in that its meaning proves always to be larger than specific interpretations of it. Many readers never make it past the first chapter and its presentation of “absolute war” or war of annihilation (Vernichtungskrieg) as the asymptote toward which all wars tend. This has given rise to the erroneous (or convenient) conclusion that Clausewitz actually favors it. On the contrary, he is clear that he is absolutely against such an eventuality, which for practical reasons he considers to be an unrealistic abstraction anyway.
As hostile feelings and intention between two peoples grow (the ground of war), “reciprocal actions” (Wechselwirkung) take place. In these reciprocal actions, Clausewitz fears a possible escalation to extremes (Äußersten), from “armed observation” (bewaffneten Beobachtung) to absolute war, but believes that counterweights to extreme action (such as fear of the enemy’s potential for destruction, the “friction” of real elements (terrain, logistics, commanders’ will, etc.), and the “fog of war” will always forestall such an eventuality.
Here is Girard’s eureka moment, when he realized the Prussian’s philosophical treatise had much in common with his own work. Girard draws the striking parallels between Clausewitz’ identification of reciprocal actions tending toward an escalation to extremes with his own analysis of mimetic crisis. Where he sees Clausewitz’ analysis falling apart has to do with the famous dictum, Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln: “War is merely a prolongation of policy/politics by other means.” The question of how to translate Politik (policy, politics) does not bother a Frenchman, for the word politique has the same ambiguity of meaning. It is Clausewitz’ very correct insistence that the politicians, not generals, decide whether the violence of war is necessary for their ends that Girard sees as now being superceded by the decline of the nation-state (whose existence and functioning Vom Kreige takes for granted). It is now more and more replaced by terrorist organizations, the eventuality of the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction as they become increasingly common, and the rise of new transnational irrational fanaticisms.
Clausewitz depends greatly, as a man of the Enlightenment, on the reasonableness of those leaders guiding wars for the realization of their policies. He likes to contrast what civilized nations do, in contrast to “savages” who indulge in killing noncombatants, pillage and rape. This distinction, if it ever existed, has obviously disappeared in our day. Just as Clausewitz bemoaned the end of eighteenth-century codified war, and correctly foresaw that the French Revolution had inaugurated a whole new era, so too does the rise of what are called “rogue states” and “global terrorism” signal the end of warfare as he conceived of it.
Girard does retain as useful the cardinal notion of On War: eine wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit. While Anglophone translators render this term as “wonderful” or “remarkable” trinity, Clausewitz’ French translators uniformly write it as “étrange trinité.” This “triad” (my own preference) is: “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity”; forces like “friction” and “the play of chance and probability”; and war “as an instrument of policy.” What is “strange and wondrous” is that these appear in every war, though each war presents the triad in unique ways. Thus one can have a grasp of war not as a science or an art, but as a dynamic, non-linear phenomenon with distinct features, perceivable in the long term but unpredictable in the moment of war. As Janeen Klinger argues, this notion is still relevant to the challenges facing today’s military commanders. It may also be useful to those who still think that just-war theory has any relevance to today’s conflicts.
Girard elucidates his own theory with his critical grasp of Clausewitz in his analysis of the Franco-German conflict, which in fact Napoleon exacerbated immensely by beating the Prussian army at every turn, and making Prussia a vassal state. He evokes Germaine de Staël, exiled by Napoleon for her love of things German, trying to create a dialogue between the French classicist mindset and German romanticism to forestall the development of a powerful ressentiment against France. Her attempt at getting to “the essence of Europe” failed, as both nations developed a reciprocal mimesis of the other, a “motor of undifferentiation, the opposition of two great cultures who almost disappeared due to that very opposition.” (p. 283) From the Prussian feeling of victimization of 1810 springs the seeds of the war of 1870, which begins on the French side by returning to Napoleon’s concept of making war in order to finally have peace. For it is always the attacker who wants peace, and the defender who wants war, and whose counter-attack usually succeeds in the long term. From the French desire for revenge after 1870 and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine rose the German need to prevent that, in light of a possible two-front war.
In this escalation to extremes we see more and more the phenomenon of “undifferentiation,” as the two mimetic rivals increasingly come to resemble each other. The notion of “total war” in the Schlieffen plan of 1914 is matched by the French doctrine of l’offensive à outrance. After the French victory in 1918 comes the seed of defeat sown in the treaty of Versailles. In order to enforce Germany’s payments, France occupied the Ruhr in 1923, against the wishes of its allies. Hitler, with a bankrupt treasury and a paper-tiger military, reoccupied the Ruhr in 1936 without a shot, in the teeth of a France whose military was then the largest in the world, with the heaviest battle tanks, superior fighter planes and a large navy including one hundred submarines, but which does nothing.
Had France intervened then, Hitler could well have been deposed and a massive tragedy averted, not just for France but for all Europe (though there would have been others, of course). Girard points to the alliances that prevented France from undertaking this action, namely, the strong opposition of Britain and the United States. Moreover, the pacifist Front populaire, France’s first socialist government, came into power in the same year. France would have attacked Germany alone, and had it gone badly (remembering 1914’s disasters), would have lost the war.
But not attacking only made things worse. Deferring an attack only made the escalation to extremes even more inevitable. In this Girard posits that “bellicisme” and pacifism are two sides of the same coin, mimetic doubles. If both sides want to attack, peace can be made, à la Mutually Assured Destruction. But if one wants to attack more than the other, the other will have a tendency to refuse to attack more and more.
Quoting Clausewitz, Girard sees the utility of the “strange triad” again. It is the “nature of the masses” that defines the political objectives they are willing to accept—and thus enforce, if need be, by war. This explains the calm of 1939 into 1940, the drôle de guerre or Sitzkrieg, that period of “armed observation” which became the Blitzkrieg as the French refusal to attack increased the German will to attack. Once the attack happened, the French army did fight, and fought hard, taking 300,000 casualties in two months. But their political leaders and therefore their military commanders had already sowed the seeds of that battle which the Germans in their amazement called “the miracle.” And the French still call la debâcle.
But this is a case of the last paroxysms of nation-states. Today the French-German alliance is proof that peace can really happen (this writer is the first of his lineage since the eighteenth century not to fight Germans). No one in Europe is spoiling for a fight. National identities are weakening, as the rise of the concept of Islam as Umma, a world-state requiring greater loyalty than national identity, demonstrates. Its double arguably is the rise of a class of people known as “third-culture” people, who have lived extensively in many parts of the world, exemplified by the President-elect of the United States. Thus the strange triad continues to perdure in the “war on terror,” but with a much larger portion of its first leg, the widespread feelings of hatred. Suicide bombers and child soldiers are signs of the decrease of rational politics that can have any chance of directing war as continuing those politics “by other means.” Christian fundamentalists who work to replace the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem with a new Temple of Solomon to provoke the return of Christ are mimetic doubles of Shia terrorists trying to provoke Allah into sending the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, who will enforce God’s will on all the earth.
The signs of impending catastrophe are there, says Girard, the same signs that people saw briefly at the French Revolution, the beginning of the twentieth century, right after September Eleven. Something had happened, something significant. But these were re-interpreted in terms of the past. Denial always replaces perception.
Thus the Bush administration turned back to the Second World War, not as the combatants remembered it, but as national myth had re-interpreted it, and tried to fight a “war on terror” by bringing democracy to the world. This is the meaning of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in a fighter to proclaim “Mission accomplished” in Iraq. The French and German generals of the First War fought in terms of the American Civil War, which they had assiduously studied. Napoleon’s opponents applied the tactics they had learned during the “wars in lace.” And great were the slaughters.
Girard turns to the Revelation of John, the apocalyptic passages in the Epistles, as well as the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13 and its parallels. Christ said he did not come to bring peace. It is, says Girard, the “old world he came to destroy.” And this by kicking out from underneath our legs the crutch of the scapegoat. Sacrificial violence now becomes ineffective, because God in Christ has submitted to it and broken its power to deceive by creating numinous but idolatrous peace through sacrifice. Our age is only the witness and locus of the intensification of violence, free-floating because it is no longer able to make peace at all. Now that technology is reducing dramatically the “friction” that restrained total war, and politics has lost its control over the means of war, as terrorism becomes the warfare of choice for all concerned, absolute war as realistic planetary catastrophe looms. The destruction of the environment is the mimetic double of this escalation to war’s ultimate extreme. What the apocalyptic literature predicts is that the preaching of the Gospel by the Church will fail to convert enough to stop the process. “To say that chaos is near is not incompatible with hope, quite the contrary. But this hope must measure itself by the standard of a stark alternative: either total destruction or the coming of the Kingdom.” (229)
One cannot say that Achever Clausewitz is a work of theology or anthropology or philosophy. “Metaphysical Christian anthropology” is the chimerical classification one can give to his book. It is far-ranging indeed. I have not described Girard’s analysis of Friedrich Hölderlin’s retreat from the world, Hegel’s influence on Clausewitz, the place of Emmanuel Levinas in his thought, and many other aspects of his argument, else this review would itself become a book. Achever Clausewitz will not satisfy those who want Girard to spell out the details proving his theories. Nor will its exegesis go unscathed. The overall value of René Girard’s work, perhaps, is that he makes one think about things in a large historical, anthropological and literary perspective, from the emergence of Homo sapiens from other hominid species less than 100,000 years ago to today.
There are two points to make, in closing. First, Clausewitz makes a often-ignored observation that Girard underlines: commerce is a low-grade form of war. For example, Jack Welsh, the former General Electric CEO and management guru, recommends reading On War in order to learn business. In the Eighties, at the height of Japan, Inc., “business is war” was often bandied about as the Japanese philosophy of trade. The utility of the “strange triad” as analytical tool remains valid. In the present crisis, the financiers are the military commanders, subject to the politicians, who must rely on them to know “warfare.” National feeling is critical to the conduct of an economy, and in the global economy, national interests still perdure (think China, for example). “Friction” still applies of course. But stupid financiers, overcome by their egos and with free rein given to their incompetence, can be as destructive as any general or admiral. Violence in the end always escapes the control of the government, fiscal as well as military.
Finally, what struck me when I initially read this book is that the mimetic process applies to the church as well. The current conflict in the Anglican Communion has all the earmarks of it. Opposing groups square off. Ressentiment develops, as one group gains power and starts to impose its will. The other reacts. Mimetic doubles appear, as the rhetoric of one side mirrors that of the other. I am thinking of some people on the Left saying that we do not need Canterbury or the Communion, and exactly the same words coming recently from people breaking ranks. “Irreconcilable differences” are proclaimed—a declaration of war, not of faith. Finally there is a schism, one side proclaiming that it will supplant the other, the other side saying if they depart, they leave the church’s assets behind. The courts become a battleground.
Here as elsewhere, there is hope that this will end other than an ecclesial equivalent of a war of annihilation, but that hope must measure itself by the standard of the Kingdom of God. Girard’s closing line is pertinent: “To want to reassure is always to contribute to the worst.”
Clausewitz comes out in translation, read it. Better yet,
read the original. Learn French if you have to. It is that urgent.
 Raymond Aron, Penser la guerre. Clausewitz, vols.1 and 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976)
 Issues of translation plague interpretation of Clausewitz, even for Germans, who apparently often prefer an English version.
 Janeen Klinger, “The Social Science of Carl von Clausewitz” Parameters—The U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2006, pp. 79-89.
The RIGHT REVEREND PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. He welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at email@example.com.