Clausewitz and “The Women’s War”

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?

One thought on “Clausewitz and “The Women’s War”

  1. 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.

    While I feel very strongly that Clausewitz’s analysis is relevant and useful to non-state conflict, the consensus you’ve recounted on why exactly this should be true is indeed problematic. The “continuation of policy/politics” line so often identified as the basis for Clausewitz’s continuing relevance is in fact one of his least original and least interesting insights—in fact, it’s really not much more than a simple observation. It’s also the source of a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion.

    A close reading of On War reveals that Clausewitz manifestly did not view war as only the purposive extension of rational policy, but as a phenomenon that was characterized in all cases by some balance or interplay between the forces of his “fascinating/wondrous trinity” (wunderliche dreifaltigkeit)—of which “its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy” is only one element alongside the “blind natural force” of “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity” and “the play of chance and probability.” In other words, war comprises rational, irrational, and non-rational elements. (This is Christopher Bassford’s formulation.)

    Clausewitz made it quite clear that “the task, therefore, is to keep our theory [of war] floating among these three tendencies, as among three points of attraction.” (Bassford translation. In the more widely-known Paret/Howard version, it’s put it like this: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.”)

    The confusion on this point is due largely to one seemingly small error in the Paret/Howard work. Clausewitz writes of war’s “element of subordination, as an instrument of policy… wodurch ur dem bloßen Verstande anheimfällt”; the translators render this latter bit as “which makes it subject to reason alone” when a more precise translation reads “whereby it is subject to pure/mere reason.” (The famous “chameleon” analogy that opens the discussion of the trinity is often misunderstood for a similar reason: Paret/Howard’s translation of “Der Krieg ist also nicht nur ein wahres Chamäleon” as “war is more than a true chameleon” is both less conceptually clear and less literal than Echevarria’s “war is thus not only a genuine chameleon.”)

    What I hope I’ve made clear is that the one-dimensional understanding of Clausewitz as a prophet of rationalized violence does a great disservice to the complexity, empiricism, and sociological completeness of his characterization of war. To which you might say: ok, so what?

    I’m not going to go take up the task of drawing boundaries between war and not-war, though it’s obviously an interesting and potentially fruitful debate. But I will argue that no such clear lines are necessary in order for Clausewitz’s analysis to be usefully applied. Hostility, chance, and purpose are present in all wars and most forms of political violence, though the relationship among the three is variable (and dynamic); if we’re discussing a phenomenon that entirely lacks one of these elements, then Clausewitz will not be useful. But the case of the “Women’s War” seems to fall well within his parameters: a group of people took violent (hostile) action against another in the service of a contested political intention, and the outcomes and effects of those acts included an element of chance and uncertainty. Does the fact that one side in this contest was not a government (or even an army) render the tenets of Clausewitz’s theory inapplicable? I can’t see why it should.

    As to the question of intellectual parameters: I’m not a professional military historian, so I’ll leave definition of the field to those who are. But my instinct would be to describe military history as “history that involves militaries”—we needn’t restrict that to “history that involves two militaries in conflict.” (After all, Clausewitz didn’t!)

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