As a faculty member some years ago, I sat in on a graduate readings course known as “Studies in Military Thought.” It was like visiting the an old friend, since I had taken the course as an undergraduate and audited it as a grad student. The subject du jour was Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose unfinished magnum opus, On War, is widely admired as perhaps the most perceptive discussion of the subject ever written. Around the table the sentiment, at least among those who voiced an opinion, was that Clausewitz’s analysis was so robust as to be universal. Thus, when I asked whether On War was applicable to non-state as well as state societies, everyone agreed that it was indeed applicable. That went for every group from Al-Qaeda to the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, a group that lives and makes war in a fashion little removed from neolithic times. Why? Because violent conflict always has a purpose, and that purpose can always be defined as “a continuation of policy by other means.”
I didn’t really buy that. More precisely, I didn’t think this was an insight that deepened our understanding of non-state conflict. But I didn’t argue because a) it was someone else’s class, I didn’t want to hijack it; and b) the question mattered far more than the answer. As far as I’m concerned it remains an open question. In any event the discussion moved on–centered thenceforth, quite quickly and perhaps tellingly, on modern nation-states. I thought no more about it. But late that evening, as I sat down to address the reading for a course I was then auditing on women and colonialism, I saw that the first article was entitled, “‘Aba Riots’ or Igbo ‘Women’s War’? Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women,” by Judith Van Allen. [Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, eds., Women in Africa : Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976)].
It describes an episode in southern Nigeria in 1929. Thousands of Igbo women converged on Native Administration centers (established by the British and run by Nigerian “Warrant Chiefs” appointed by the British). They chanted, danced, sang songs of ridicule. In sixteen instances they attacked Native Courts and in most cases destroyed them. In a handful of instances they broke into prisons and released inmates. The “disturbed area” covered 6,000 square miles and contained two million people. The number of women involved was estimated in the tens of thousands. The threat posed to British authority was serious enough that British District Officers called in troops to deal with it. The troops fired upon the women, killed more than fifty, wounded about as many more.
Afterward the British called the episode the “Aba Riots.” Among the Igbo, however, the event was known, then and later, as the “Women’s War,” a name Van Allen invites us to take seriously. I’m glad to do it, but would Clausewitz? Does it fall within “war” as he would define it? And if not, does that serve as confirmation that definitions of war are inherently politicized (as Van Allen argues), or does the term have some objective meaning? Was the violence employed by the women “a continuation of politics by other means”? How meaningful could a Clausewitzian analysis be in the context of a society in which, as one analyst explains, “the polity or political system [was] not . . . a concretely distinct part of the social system, but rather a functional aspect of the whole social system?”
My own view, then and since, is that it isn’t meaningful, that the Clausewitzian concept of war was created in the context of wars between nation-states. It is, I concede, a durable concept that can also apply to many internal wars, but scarcely all wars. This raises a second question that has also exercised me over the years: What are the proper intellectual parameters of our field? Are they essentially defined by conflicts that fit the Clausewitzian paradigm? If not, do they extend widely enough to include an episode like the “Women’s War” If so, why? If not, why not?