Scraps of Consciousness, Vol. 451: Dylan Amongst the Strategists

You learn something new every day. In the last while I have been doing a lot of research on the intersection of connectivity with revolution and war. I mentioned some of this in an earlier post on ‘Connectivity, War and Beyond Cyber War‘. I am, like most people in War Studies, an instinctive Clausewitzean. I tend to frame things in accordance with the precepts of his theory of war. I’m wondering what happens to war when you wire up human society as densely as we have done (and are continuing to do).

  • How do armed forces operate when (or, rather, if) sensors and information systems banish uncertainty from the battlefield? What role has the commander if dealing with the ‘interplay of chance and probability’ is no longer the hallmark of the art of war?
  • How do governments make war ‘work’ as a tool of policy when the major sources of threat and alarm are organised in wispy networked forms that are difficult to touch with the kinetic blows of a conventional military campaign?
  • And, I think most interestingly, what role do the forces of ‘hatred and enmity’–the passion supplied by the people which is meant to sustain the war–when as a result of connectedness people’s identities and the things that they feel passionate about are no longer defined primarily by physical territoriality?

If you think those questions are important too you might be interested in a just published paper of mine ‘Cyber Power in Strategic Affairs: Neither Unthinkable, Nor Blessed‘ in the latest issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies. (I’ll see if I can get a free access version available from the publisher. At the moment, you need a university library subscription to access it). The point of this post is rather to share with you something else I found interesting. On something of a whim I picked up Dorian Lysnkey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. It’s not the sort of genre that I normally read but if you’re interested in how social movements work, narratives are framed, and resonant messages are constructed it’s really a terrifically useful piece of work. To paraphrase Comrade Trotsky ‘you may not be interested in revolutionary music, but revolutionary music is interested in you.’ I also liked the title, which to me has a certain Paul Virilio-esque Speed and Politics ring to it. Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions per Minute blog is also worth a browse. This post ‘Endless war: A few thoughts on on-line debate‘ struck me as very agreeable, whether or not I agree with his politics. (In similar vein this recent episode of This American Life: Red State, Blue State is also worth a listen).

Anyway, one of the many intriguing tidbits in the book included these lines about Bob Dylan’s classic song ‘Masters of War’.

In Lynskey’s account the song originates from early 1962 when Dylan visits England,

…where he played a few shows, appeared in an ill-fated TV drama, and lapped up the country’s folk music. He quickly managed to aggravate Ewan MacColl but befriended a younger, less severe English folksinger, Martin Carthy, who taught Dylan some folk melodies that he would later appropriate. Another Dylan tune encountered was the bizarre and unsettling ‘Nottamun Town’, in an arrangement by American song-collector Jean Ritchie. He applied the melody to a lyric he had been working on about those who profited from war. as he explained later, ‘It’s not an antiwar song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex.’ It’s an important distinction, because no pacifist could have written ‘Masters of War’. As a boy, Dylan had been so fascinated with the army that he considered applying to West Point Military Academy. In New York, he imbibed the classic military theory of Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz.

Well, that surprised me. At first, at any rate. But then again, when you think about it, why should it? Angry young men and women should read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. Marx and Engels did–Clausewitz, not sure about Sun Tzu.

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4 thoughts on “Scraps of Consciousness, Vol. 451: Dylan Amongst the Strategists

  1. While we are on Clausewitz, quick question. Is there a recommended (English) version of “On War”? Looking for something that is more digestible; I remember borrowing a version from a local library, and getting stuck after a short while. Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Lee,

      Welcome to a growing list of readers who find Clausewitz heavy-going – including academics such as Colin Gray: a staunch Clauswitzianado. Do not feel despair – the man was a genius, but wrote on war as if everybody else was one too.

      There are to my knowledge two main translations of On War: that of JJ Graham and that of Peter Paret and Michael Howard. I personally prefer the Graham version, (in much the same manner as I prefer the 1812 Overture to be performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker), but have copies of Paret/Howard and the original German text as well.

      Part of the complexity is the requirement to understand the context within which Clausewitz wrote – regrettably, he does not offer much in the way of clues on this within the body of his treatise. However, there is a robust cottage industry around writing about the man himself. Paret has been prolific, and Strachan, Heuser, Howard and Aron (and others, I’m sure) have published good titles on the topic.

      It is also useful to read as much as you can about European warfare and wars since the French Revolution at least – possibly as far back as Frederick the Great… a central figure in the debates in Prussia at the time of Clausewitz. There are (as both Heuser and Gray will point out) tensions within Clausewitz’ thinking and writing and this background will highlight these.

      Since Von C was influenced by Hegel and Kant, it may be a good idea to have a background on them too. Sorry – there is no silver bullet in studying the man.

      Attempting the above reconstruction within my own reflecting on the man and matter, I can imagine that his ideas were met with a great deal of suspicion and contempt by his contemporaries. The Prussian military culture was cored around a small and expensive professional force, with an emphasis on firepower. Given the limitations of the weapons, this would naturally lead to very specific applications of force. It is only during the Seven Year War and much later, during the latter part of the Napoleonic Wars that the Prussians would temporarily draw on the “French Model” regarding recruitment and conscription, but as soon as it was possible or no longer required, they would fall back on the “Prussian Model” (the small professional force) again.

      Clausewitz was convinced of the superiority of the “French Model”. That worked for a number of reasons – the one obvious reason being his observation that, whenever the “Prussian Model” was adopted, the ordinary Prussian in the street would view war as an affair of the monarch – something that had nothing to do with the common man. However, whenever the commoners were compelled to become involved on a broad scale (as with the “French Model”), then national passion would ensue.

      To that extent, his statements relating to public opinion (I always think of that as an early form of “hearts and minds”) in his Principles, as well as his statements on passion in On War are not as much steeped in observation of the Prussian military machine, as being prescriptive. That is Clausewitz (in my opinion) wagging his finger at his monarch, telling him: “this is how it should be done”.

      Naturally, the Junkers (aside from being a traditional bunch), would have viewed Clausewitz’ statements as self-serving. He was a commoner and he argued for a greater involvement of commoners. And here the situation lends itself to a merging with the revolutionary thoughts and ideals associated with France at the time. To what extent should the commoners be part of the business of the monarch? To the point where they storm government buildings and execute him?

      If this is indeed the case regarding passion, then we can, within reason, ask: what else was Clausewitz being prescriptive on? It helps to keep that in mind when reading him.

      Good luck. And remember, On War is not Gospel (and for that, I may just be burnt at the stake).

  2. Julie says:

    Yes, Paret is enlightening on Clausewitz. If you want something “more digestible”, go to: http://clausewitzforkids.wordpress.com/ and enjoy this imaginative, sophisticated,and well illustrated blog project of explaining Clausewitz to children (or the uninitiated) that he has been pursuing for nearly 2 years.

  3. KLE says:

    The Howard and Paret edition is considered superior by many, but any version is going to be hard going given the unfinished nature of the majority of the text.

    I would recommend staying away from Gray as a guide to Clausewitz. His own work is worth reading, but even though he considered himself a Clausweitzian many think he does not fully “get” Clausewitz.

    I might also recommend keeping Michael Handel’s “Masters of War” on hand.

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