The German philosopher and the Gaza Strip

Gaza and Clausewitz came together on Friday morning in my seminar room.

This isn’t remarkable.  I teach a lot of Carl von Clausewitz because that particular Prussian had a lot of very sharp things to say about war.  He soldiered from the time he was a teenager, observed keenly throughout his life, and wrote his thoughts down for the book he would write some day.

Because Clausewitz observed clearly and thought about what he witnessed, his ideas still provide important practical advice to soldiers 200 years later.

One of the things Clausewitz wrote about was a trio of things that are always important in war.  He called these things the Remarkable Trinity to emphasise their importance in understanding war.

The three things are described differently in various places in his notes, but they can all be brought together:

  • The government (the king in Clausewitz’s time), which ought to provide the rationale for going to war;
  • The armed forces (the Army in Clausewitz’s Prussia), which operates in a foggy realm of uncertainty, chaos, friction and interaction with the enemy; and
  • The people, who provide or withold their passion from a conflict.

The three come in no particular order, and their importance varies wildly depending on the situation.

Now, this can be dry for any student of military theory.  For Sandhurst cadets who have been deprived of sleep an early morning of Teutonic philosophical abstractions can be positively soporific.

So on Friday morning I told them about my blogging colleague Zahava.

On Monday Zahava blogged about her impatience for her government to counter-attack Hamas’s rocket attacks into southern Israel.

Right away this piques a British officer’s interest.  We are an army that is used to being sent to fight in the absence of passion.  Politically engaged young British women no longer present the white feather of cowardice to young men who have not joined up to do their bit against the Taliban as their sisters did a century ago.  As rotation after rotation of British brigades have gone into Helmand Province over the past eleven years whatever passion there might have been after 9-11 has long since dissolved.

For the British Army as an institution fighting is about ‘just doing our job’, and for the British public the Army are called heroes in the Murdoch press, but generally sent rather coolly to fight in hot places.

And then I told them about Zahava’s blog the day before.  Zahava blogged about her son’s phone dropping off the network, about the sick feeling that churned her guts at the thought of her boy going into battle.

Now, my students had been training far too hard to read newspapers or listen to radio news.  They had no idea what was going on in Gaza or Beersheba or any of that.  They did, however, instantly understand where Zahava fit into Clausewitz’s Remarkable Trinity:  the young mother with a younger son fired up enough to demand that her prime minister send her boy off to war.

That is the passion of the people.

Armed forces operating in the chaos of modern war they understood:  they have lived an breathed that for months.  Opposing sides seeking to manipulate the information space was also familiar ground for them.

They quickly grasped that Hamas needed to escalate the conflict in order to achieve their objectives:  an old soldier in the room (a sage of nearly 30 with parachute wings and a diver’s badge) could practically quote the Hamas charter.

The corner of Clausewitz’s triangular analysis we all had trouble with was the rationale.  Why would Hamas escalate from shooting Kassam rockets into Sderot to shooting Grad rockets into Beersheba? Why would they provoke an Israeli response now?

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks had accidentally offered his analysis that morning on the radio before coolly back-pedalling, and connections can be drawn with events in Egypt and Syria as well.

Trying to draw Israel into gruelling combined-arms operations in Gaza (again) would draw attention away from the Assad regime’s artillery blasting Syrian cities, but there has been every indication that Hamas has been backing away from Assad for months.  Why would they take a pounding for him?

Enraging the crowds in Cairo might draw attention away from the constitutional conflict over Egypt’s parliament.  But Hamas has never before shown much appetite for being anyone’s catspaw:  not the Iranians, not the Syrians and not the Egyptians.

Because Hamas are terrorists, it is tempting to see them as mindlessly aggressive.  To believe this is to misunderstand the group’s ruthless single-minded pursuit of their aims.

Here is a difficulty.  When passion is awoken, it is difficult to switch off.  Without a clear understanding of rationale, war can continue beyond the rational into the horribly absurd.

The Israeli response has been a little bit thin on rationale, as the editor of this web site has written.  Whether the IDF intends to stop rocket attacks for a while, retaliate to establish conventional deterrence or destroy Hamas as an institution is unclear.

Hamas forced Netanyahu to act, but for the sake of Zahava’s kid, of the unfortunate citizens of Gaza, and of the third holiest site in Islam; everybody involved needs to know why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Otherwise they won’t know when to stop.


About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.