Carl von Clausewitz offered his “paradoxical trinity” as a tool for thinking about wars and their various manifestations. His trinity was:
Composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.
As a practical matter the United States and the West today pay little attention to the first component of this trinity. True, some analysts are willing to see “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity” playing a role in the behavior of some of our enemies — the Islamic State and al Qaeda, for instance. However, when it comes to looking at our own forces and operations, we like to imagine that “primordial” violence plays no role because our violence is calibrated and precise, hatred is tantamount to racism, and enmity is merely a matter of politics because all people are fundamentally the same.
One American defense analyst wrote in 2006, for instance, that:
Combatants are trained in the skill to kill and the will to kill, but discouraged against the thrill to kill. … The will to kill involves those psychological preparations that respect human life, but that in war focus on survival and self-preservation. The thrill to kill, however, is psychotic. It’s rejected by war, but embraced by terrorism. The thrill to kill represents the cowardly insanity of terrorism and hate.
This sort of opinion is a relatively new phenomenon, however. Consider this 1943 U.S. Army document brought to my attention by my colleague Dr. Kevin Woods. It was written by Pvt. Frank Sargent of the 34th Infantry Division and came to the attention of his division commander, who liked it so much that he sent it up the chain. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower liked it so much that he had it published for the U.S. forces under his command in North Africa. When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall saw it, he “ordered it distributed to the Army at large.”
Sargent’s work has a rather soporific title: “The Most Common Short-Comings in the Training of Battalion and Regimental S-2 Personnel, and Some Suggestions to Overcome These.” However, starting on page 15 he discusses “psychological preparation for combat.” He notes that American soldiers arriving in theater “never had any reasons to hate anybody.” A lack of hatred, he says, induces carelessness and heightens fear of the enemy. He writes:
We are prone to regard the Italians with a mixture of contempt and pity. But the boys I knew, who were blown to bits by Italian hand grenades would not think so. If they could come back to life again they would not feel pity for the poor, coerced Italians; they would go after them until they had killed every last one. So would the medical orderlies I knew, who wanted to treat German casualties and lost their arms by booby traps.
Sargent says that “hate is like gin. It takes a while, and then, suddenly, it hits you.” In words reminiscent of George C. Scott’s in Patton, he goes on: “after you see bodies, or what’s left of them, piled up for burial; when you realize they are after you, too; when it finally connects in your mind that moral code does not exist in this way, then you will begin to hate and want to retaliate.”
Why does this document seem so shocking today? Perhaps Clausewitz can help us with the answer. He associated particular entities with each of the three parts of his paradoxical trinity. Reason and policy he associated with the government; chance, probability and the creative spirit he associated with the general and the army; and “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity” he associated with the people. Sargent, for his part, said “until John Doe learns to hate, he will be no good.”
Today, however, we have largely removed the people from military affairs. John Doe, that everyman who represents all American males, does not join the Army any more. Nor does Britain’s Joe Bloggs or France’s Jean Dupont, or Germany’s Max Mustermann. Western militaries are small professional organizations in which only a small slice of the population serves. Perhaps professional soldiers can live, function, and succeed on the battlefield without hate. Perhaps modern, Western militaries don’t need hatred because their members are more distinct and more disconnected from vast swathes of the population than they were in a nation mobilized for war. But if so, the question that remains is whether the era of Clausewitz’s “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity” has truly come to a close, or whether we’re only in an interlude, sooner or later to once again need to hate in order to win our wars.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.