Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Clausewitz and Early Modern Mainland Southeast Asian Warfare

In search of general theories of warfare, to make broader world-historical sense of the historical pecularities of early modern Burmese chronicle history, I stumbled upon Clausewitz's "trinity". This trinity of forces at work behind warfare helps balance the rational manpower maximizing strategies of avoidance and flight in mainland warfare presented in Reid's magnum opus Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, with the counter-examples of often fiercely fought, high casualty warfare pointed out by Charney (2004) [Review, p. 453].

Clausewitz's "trinity" balances the rational and deterministic with more irrational and indeterministic causes at work in warfare:

"In the last section of Chapter 1, Book One, he [Clausewitz] claims that war is 'a remarkable trinity'(eine wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) composed of (a) the blind, natural force of violence, hatred, and enmity among the masses of people; (b) chance and probability, faced or generated by the commander and his army; and (c) war's rational subordination to the policy of the government.(28)...Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets."

If Reid's depiction of warfare is too rationally driven by mainland Southeast Asia's resource scarcities, namely its manpower scarcity, Charney (2004) provides counter-examples to Reid that show high casualties, ferocious, or high intensity warfare, carried out for particular important objectives. Clausewitz's "trinity" can motivate historians to search for deeper, thicker, richer descriptions of early modern warfare where the traditional chronicle historiography aimed at more static, ritualistic descriptions. The Clausewitzian "trinity" can be reinterpreted:

1. Violence or ferocity: the rational strategy of irrationality, a strategy of high casualty warfare employed towards certain important objectives
2. Rational higher order objectives, maximizing manpower accumulation, raiding easy targets for animal and manpower resources is seen frequently in the late Ava period.
3. Another element, namely the unpredictability and uncontrollability of warfare, which necessitates a continual process of adaptation to changing circumstances. For example, wars of conquest during the First Toungoo dynasty often do not work out the way they were intended to initially, necessitating a reformulation of objectives. The conquest and control of Laos was a continual problem because of the strategy of flight that Setthathirat employed. The Burmese shows how a strategy of compromise and state building (c. 1574) in response to these problems.

This paper also helps clarify the difference between 1. human agency, the butterfly effect, sensitivity to initial conditions versus 2. the Braudelian long-term influence of structure.