Clausewitz and the Clinch

This is a series of posts that I’m building into an online course on the use of metaphors to describe war and warfare. In short: what can we learn by picking apart Clausewitz’s metaphor of war as a series of duels? Mirrored at here

Clausewitz’s definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” is probably to most cited phrase in books about war (That’s the Howard/Paret translation, JJ Graham’s is “an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”). As zingy one-liners go, it’s hard to beat. But buried in the preceding, opening, paragraph of Clausewitz’s definition is a series of images and definitions that build upon the atomic unit of the duel. War is “nothing but a duel on a larger scale”, “[c]ountless duels go to make up war” and a “picture” of war as an object “can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Or, rather, by latching onto duels as the baseline unit, what are we getting wrong about war?

What I find most interesting about Clausewitz’s metaphor here is that immediately after the most quoted line in war studies, he (I’m using Clausewitz singular here, mindful of Vanya Eftimova Bellinger’s excellent work on the instrumental role of Marie von Clausewitz in the text/ideas that I’m tangling with) then goes on to pretty much throw out everything that makes a duel a duel. To wit, “self-imposed limitations” like law, custom, and morality. More to the point, force (or violence, in Graham’s translation) “equips itself with the inventions of art and science” as if there could be force (or violence) as a thing independent of either. The problem, for anyone that has done some form of combat sport or martial art is that this idea of unrestrained force is very far from anything that could conceivably be classed as a duel. Cage fights, like wrestling bouts, have rules. Duelling (in whatever form takes your fancy, be it pistols, or bareknuckle fighting) is a customary activity. More to the point, any form of duel usually requires the participants to know something about some form of fighting, and is therefore defined by both practice and technology. Of course, we could argue that the above isn’t true. Could two people do something we call “wrestling” without knowing a jot about it? Maybe. But how and why would someone who knows nothing about fighting have an “immediate aim… to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance”? For a wrestler, this aim has a number of sources: wrestling bouts are (partly) scored by throws, throws are a good pathway to a pin (also called a fall) which wins a wrestling bout. But those intentions are, in part, produced by the rules of wrestling. The duel metaphor (in its wrestling sense) smuggles in the idea of a logical or objective intention that is actually produced or constituted by the factors that Clausewitz sees as an attachment or modification to force/violence (depending upon translation). But before disappearing down the rabbit hole of pure social constructivism, while I might disagree with the wrestling metaphor, it does raise the basic question of primary objects, if the duel isn’t the atomic unit of war, then what is? If social ideas constitute the building blocks, then is there anything about war that could be said to be universal? Here, I think it’s more instructive to think about clinchwork than throws.

Clinch? What the hell is that?

Combat sports and martial arts are defined by what they ban, as much as they are defined by what practitioners focus upon doing to one another. Kicks are banned in boxing, strikes are banned in judo, and even UFC’s “no holds barred” first bouts banned eye gouging and groin strikes. That just isn’t some male pride (the UFC used to be dudes only) thing, it’s because groin strikes are about the most effective move in fighting (since kicking someone in the groin doesn’t require much training, and they’ll fell the strongest opponent in a second). The point is that groin strikes are such an effective way of stopping an opponent that any fighting format that included them would devolve, pretty quickly, into two opponents trying to strike each other in the groin, likely impeding the use of “higher” forms of fighting skills. There’s obviously a gendered aspect to this: why did Clausewitz use the metaphor of wrestlers throwing each other around, instead of kicking someone in the nuts? But I digress. If we are going in search of some kind of universal element of fighting, then the clinch is a good place to start. Clinch fighting can be loosely defined as grappling while standing up, with or without the threat of strikes. Unlike groin strikes, the clinch is not universally banned. Indeed, if we were to create a taxonomy of fighting sports, then there’s a couple of basic divisions that are important, for instance those that permit the use of a weapon, and those that permit the use of strikes. The interesting thing about the clinch is that it transcends many different forms of fighting, and this is particularly apparent in sports and martial arts that don’t use weapons. The problem with the clinch is that it is, by definition, a kind of art defined by the standard features of the human body (you know, a head, a spine, and four limbs, etc). While there are basic physical limitations inherent in this, a joint only bends so far in a certain direction, grappling reflects a personal style and way of seeing the world. In any snapshot of a grappling situation, different martial artists will be looking at, and thinking of, entirely different possibilities.

Clinches are shaped by rulesets and, by extension, possible threats. Take, for example, muay thai (kickboxing, with strikes permitted above and below the waist). As a general rule, muay thai fighters will stand tall, attempting to break their opponent’s posture, while retaining their own. That’s because the chief weapons in the muay thai clinch are elbows and knees, and muay thai only permits a small range of potential takedown options (footsweeps, trips, and a limited range of throws from the clinch, so a fraction of the moves that a freestyle wrestler would employ from a similar distance). While getting swept or dropped to the canvas will cost you points in a muay thai fight, a good knee will end it. People who train in muay thai spend an inordinate amount of time training to throw a knee into their opponent’s torso. It’s one of the bread and butter moves of the fighting style. It’s the threat of a knee to the solar plexus, combined with the minimal advantages of dropping your stance (for wrestling takedowns, etc) that produces the very upright form of grappling found in muay thai. The point is that the reverse is also true: clinchwork in wrestling is defined by the absence of the threat of strikes. Wrestlers don’t have to worry about someone punching them in the face every time they fight for position, or break contact.

What does all this mean for Clausewitz’s metaphor? Well, I think two points stand out: first is that the immediate goal — overpowering an opponent — is not as inherent as it first seems. While there are something like primitive activities that define fighting (like grappling/clinchwork, or striking) what people do with these doesn’t necessarily imply imposing your will on an opponent. In any fighting sport or duelling scenario there are always those that prefer to take cheap shots and win by technicality. Clinches in boxing are broken up by referees (and in cases penalised) because it is easier for a fighter to prevent an opponent from punching through clinchwork than it is to fight. The second point, and perhaps the more major one, is that by starting with the metaphor of the duel, we end up with a picture of war that conforms to perhaps idealised expectations of what war is about. Duelling combatants, instead of cheap shots and groin strikes. In this sense the duel becomes the prism through which all violence in war is perceived (or obscured) and subsequently judged. The use of violence to attack, massacre and enslave non-combatants gets neatly filed away under the heading of war crimes and “not war”. Similarly, people question whether massively imbalanced uses of violence in raids, airstrikes, and so on, count as war, which to me is only logical if one’s starting point for analysis is war as a duel.

The Theory Bit

There are profound differences between stepping into a boxing ring and shipping off to war to kill, or be killed by someone else. My point here is not to equate the two, but to point out the problems with thinking of war, and activities in war, through the metaphor and prism of the duel. That’s not to say that the metaphor doesn’t work in places. There’s clear examples in history of military forces doing battle in a way that roughly equates to a duel. But the problem lies with all the kinds of war and forms of warfare that can’t be usefully explained with this metaphor. Books like David Keen’s Useful Enemies, John Grenier’s The First Way of War, and, ahem, my new book on American targeted killings that’s out in the UK sometime this week. Perhaps the best critique of the ontology of war that I’ve read recently is Tarak Barkawi and Shane Brighton’s Powers of War: Fighting, Knowledge and Critique. In this, they note the critical importance of fighting to war itself, but that “what fighting is, how it might be understood and positioned within a fundamental theory of war, cannot be taken for granted.” The problem, as I see it, is that war does not necessarily start with fighting at the ground level, so to speak, but what we consider to be fights, clashes, battles, and an overall form of violent political interaction emerge, at some point, from forms of violent social behaviour.

One way of looking at Clausewitz’s approach to war is that by Clausewitz’s definition, war is an object with self-similar properties. That is, no matter what level you look at, there exists something (a duel!) that looks like the object itself. A good visualisation of this is zooming in on the Mandelbrot set. The point being that no matter how deep (or high level) you go, in Clausewitz’s description there is a duel. As you can probably tell by now, I don’t think this is true. So how should we think about that? And why is it important? As per the discussion of clinches above, I think a useful starting point is to look at the metaphors we use to describe and define war and warfare, and to consider alternates for our baseline metaphors and mental constructs prior to jumping to the higher-level, much more discussed bits about war, warfare, and strategy. One way we know that the duel fails, almost by definition, to describe violence in war is that duels are fought by two opponents, whereas war is a group activity. Secondly, duels are fought by combatants — you don’t win a duel by knocking out your opponent’s coach. Although it’s illegal under international law, there are aspects of warfare that involve attacking populations. This list could go on quite a while, but my point is that I think starting with the duel is wrong, and I’m not so sure that fighting is the answer either. If we want to consider war from the bottom up, then we need to consider the elements that make fights, or violent activity. The way I’m going to look at this is to consider the limits of what we can take from looking at the way humans fight one another on a one-on-one basis. The reason that this is important is that individual fighting, I think, presents us with a way of considering the interaction of physical and social factors in the use of force by humans in a competitive scenario. It’s the physical and embodied element of this that I think is important, and why this kind of inquiry might have wider importance. How humans fight is a relational expression of self, grounded in the physics and biology that determines how and when your body breaks. In the next post I’m going to look at this relationship by considering the collar-tie which, I think, is a damn good way of exploring the link between social constructivism and the physical world.