|War may dismantle old truths and political orders, but it creates new ones at the same time [GALLO/GETTY]
We are told that war is the pursuit of politics by other means. Attributed to Clausewitz, the thought is actually rather comforting. War may be violent but at least it's rational. It is a sometimes necessary strategy to achieve objectives.
A world is imagined in which armed force is an instrument that can be calibrated, here a scalpel, there a hammer. Violence – the destruction of bodies and things – becomes a means to be assessed for its efficacy in attaining ends.
How much 'punishment' will the people of Gaza take before they get rid of Hamas? How much 'pressure' needs to be applied before the Gaddafi regime collapses?
Experts offer authoritative analyses. PowerPoint slides are produced, briefings given. Leaders make informed decisions. The balloon goes up. Operation Cast Lead or Unified Protector or some other begins.
Speeches follow; political, legal and moral justifications are made. Politicians and their advisors claim truth in the face of war. They speak of their rational command of force, of the effects it will have among the target populations.
Clausewitz also likened war to a wrestling match. Players in a game know it can take on a life of its own. Each move is countered, and then countered again. They are caught in a system neither side controls, each seeking a dominance that often turns out fleeting.
Like many veteran soldiers, Clausewitz well understood that the enemy always has a vote, that plans are cast aside on first contact, and that outcomes are ultimately unpredictable. Amidst the fog of war, calculations must be made with variable quantities. It was precisely for these reasons that he enjoined politicians and generals to think so carefully about their objectives in going to war.
What Clausewitz actually teaches us is that war is far more likely to make us its servants than we are to make war our instrument. War subjects us to its dynamics, it draws in ever greater resources, and it changes everything, especially but not only for those caught in the direct grip of its violence.
What then of those who would speak truth about war?
They test themselves against a reality beyond their control. Worse, there is a devious opponent behind the scenes, manipulating things for their own purposes. Bomb Gaddafi's armoured vehicles, and now he moves his forces about in cars and light trucks, indistinguishable from civilians and rebels. With a stroke, NATO's chief advantage and only instrument – air power – is decisively attenuated.
The command of force is exposed as partial, fraught. With each untoward event, each instance of 'unprotected civilians', the ground begins to shift. NATO becomes that much less a mighty alliance providing 'unified protection', and that much more a club of squabbling countries.
The armed embodiment of the West cannot produce eight extra warplanes, much less determine the course of events in Libya. Is it the Libyan rebels who lack a unified command structure or the principal Western military alliance?
Instead, those events begin to force shifts in NATO's identity and in the fates of its political leaders. War, Heraclitus tell us, makes some men gods and others slaves.
Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama, heroes of the moment as their air forces saved the day in Benghazi just a few weeks back, now appear feckless. The more they say Gaddafi must go and the longer he stays, the more impotent they look and the more impotent they are. The West is already in a self-inflicted economic crisis, what now of its vaunted military power?
War is a train that once boarded is very difficult to get off at the station you prefer, and which is headed to a new and unknown destination.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it did so as the sole superpower whose high tech forces could exercise an enduring global dominance. It was the unipolar moment. Even the old rules about insurgents tying down regular armies had apparently been overturned in Afghanistan.
No one talks like this anymore.
At the same time, as war dismantles old truths and the political orders they sustained, it creates new ones. The victorious order of battle from 1945 still sits on the UN Security Council. Israelis have been so marvelously successful in defeating Arab armies and in crushing and dividing the Palestinians that they came to believe that military power alone could secure the future of Israel.
With so much faith in the military instrument, the Israeli right forgot about the realities of the political context in which that instrument is used. They have condemned themselves to a great anti-apartheid struggle for a civil and democratic state on the land of Palestine, in which they will go down in history as the last Boers. This struggle will cost Israel its Jewish identity and majority as surely as would have a military defeat.
Violence is not an instrument that can be applied in laboratory conditions, only just so much more bomb tonnage on these particular targets and you get the result forecasted by theorists of coercion. It is rather the most diabolical and active ingredient in war's cauldron. In a blinding flash that no one escapes, you can become a different person living in a different world. As Mike Tyson once said, "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."
War consumes and reworks that which is taken to be true, in the lives of individuals as in the lives of nations. It does so because it is intimately bound up with politics, in recurring cycles of cause and effect that shift the ground on which we stand. This is what Clausewitz meant when he said that war was a continuation of politics.
Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. He is author of Globalization and War, as well as many scholarly articles.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.