Warfare: Art, Science or Discipline?

Why we are driven to create and apply systems and categories to the conduct of warfare? What is the nature of military power and what function does it serve within our culture? I am reminded of some thoughts of Michel Foucault on the changes of power relationships in western culture that took place toward the end of the enlightenment. Foucault focused on the transformation of our concept of punishment and how that led to the birth of the prison system. I think this could apply to warfare and its relationship to culture. This may provide an alternative approach to the question of why we continually utilize a systematic approach to the conduct of war.

In his book, Discipline and Punish; the Birth of the Prison (1975) Michel Foucault suggests a dramatic change in our notion of punishment that occurred in the later part of the eighteenth century. This change applied across the culture and has close parallels changes in the military and its strong drive to develop a systematic approach to warfare. Foucault describes the gruesome spectacle of public torture and execution of Damiens in the Place de Grève in 1757 and contrasts that to Leon Faucher’s structured formalized daily schedule for prisoners in the Paris prison of the next century. He argues that the transition from viewing punishment as a violent spectacle to viewing it as the application of rigorous structure and confinement was not motivated by a concern to make it more humane, but rather because it provided a greater degree of social stability and control.

The initial impetus for the change was the fear that the conjunction of large excited crowds with the application of extreme violence witnessed in public torture and execution might someday be used against the King himself. The complete transformation, as Lydia Fillingham describes it in her introduction to Foucault, was motivated more by the realization that “control of every aspect of life can represent a more complete exercise of power than the massive display of death.” Punishment should become a school of submission rather than a festival that threatens to glorify the criminal.

In the approach discipline replaces violence as the general formula for domination. The burden of enforcement is no longer on the ruling elite but has been transferred to each individual. The benefit to the state is that each person, as they become disciplined, they are simultaneously more useful through increased aptitude and more obedient through increased subjugation and conformity. This change from the scenic and social public execution to the coercive and corporate confinement was not just a transformation of punishment but appeared in all aspects of culture including education (schools) and labor (factories and cubical farms). It seems especially relevant to the transformation of war and military activity we see happening at the same time.

Foucault himself describes this change as it applied to the conduct of warfare. He points out in Discipline and Punish that in the seventeenth century a soldier was recognized by his innate qualities. He possesses pride, strength and valor. By the eighteenth century the qualities of good soldier are no longer the result of his innate character but are a product of his training and his discipline. He no longer owns his martial character; instead his training and discipline have been given to him by the state.

Foucault also describes the methods used to achieve discipline as spacialization, minute control of movements, repetitive exercises, detailed hierarchies, and the use of normalizing judgments. This program is remarkably similar that described in Jomini’s Précis de l’Art de la Guerre, a system that details movements, formations, drill, orders of battle and command hierarchies.

Discipline as a mechanism for exercising military power and the systems that make it possible are probably even more important to a nation’s leadership than winning wars. An enemy can be defeated with superior force, but that same superior force can also be used against a state’s own rulers. Without the coercive and corporate control possible through systematic discipline strong military leaders like Caesar, Sforza, Wallenstein or Napoleon can easily threaten or usurp governing institutions through the application of their power. When military power is founded upon discipline and the systems that make it possible, an army and its leaders are less likely to be turned upon its own government. A military method founded upon systems, principle and rules are more likely to focus on external enemies and less likely to be a problem for a state’s non-military rulers.

It is interesting to note that Clausewitz seems to represent a return to the older approach to war. He places emphasis on honor, uncontrollable forces and the massive and violent display of death. His best soldiers are not made but possess innate qualities like intellect, courage, coup l’oeil and determination.


~ by severalfourmany on September 24, 2007.

2 Responses to “Warfare: Art, Science or Discipline?”

  1. Sep 24 10:53:36 2007
    Very interesting line of thought; I am happy to see you bringing Foucault to the table.

    I think your focus on discipline as an answer to why we “continually seek a systems approach to the conduct of war”, specifically as a means of control of his own army misses Foucault’s greater argument. The far more interesting subject are the changing power relationships beneath all these transformations that Foucault discusses in Discipline and Punish, Birth of the Clinic, and History of Sexuality.

    These changes of power in turn create the reality and rituals of truth. For Foucault, these changes in punishment created the individual, norms of the day, and the very notion of delinquency for those individuals who fall outside the norms. This power relationship serves to discipline society without the sovereign having to lift his hand; the “panopticism” is permeated throughout society in new sciences and institutions. In this particular case, punishment turns from the punishment of the body to the punishment of the soul. This requires the creation of the soul.

    So, beneath the particular values of the soldier, and the way he is trained, the whole idea of what a soldier is and what war is, changes.

    The very categories we use to divide war (operational, strategic, tactical etc) define for us what war is and make us play and think by certain rules. I think Clausewitz’s return to the older approach and to war is due to his focus on friction and recognizing the best way to overcome it is not through mechanization and discipline, but, like you said, the intellect and coup d’oeil.

  2. I’m glad you found it interesting. You are correct that I neglected to mention the changes in power relationships that occur throughout Foucault’s work, which is certainly fascinating.

    The “panopticon” is the perfect metaphor for what is happening around us—the creation of a society where a central authority can view everyone yet still remain hidden and anonymous. I tried to limit my discussion to how this might effect the operation of the military and its approach to war, but as you mention this is all-pervasive within the culture. It really sets the stage for the totalitarian vision of the communist and fascist states and even the mass culture we see in democratic societies.

    And it does lead us to think and act in certain ways. When reading Jomini, I remain focused on the particulars and their execution. Only with some distance does it occur to me that there might be other possible explanations than improved training and better discipline, or what that rationale might mean in a larger context. It would be worth exploring how social norms, especially the idea of the individual and delinquency, could inform our desire to create systematic approaches to war or to military strategy in general.

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