Ron Paul and Lost Lessons of War

Neocon dominance has grown so strong in Official Washington that old lessons about the hazards of ill-considered wars are forgotten and must be painfully relearned, a message from Ron Paul’s new book, Swords into Plowshares, as described by retired JAG Major Todd E. Pierce.

By Todd E. Pierce

Former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul lays out a national security strategy for the United States in his book, Swords into Plowshares, which Carl von Clausewitz, the author of On War, would have approved. Clausewitz, a Prussian general in the early Nineteenth Century, is considered perhaps the West’s most insightful strategist, and On War is his classic work on the inter-relationship between politics and war.

A close reading of On War reveals a book far more on the strategy of statecraft, that is Grand Strategy, than it is on the mere strategy of warfare. Unfortunately, very few readers have understood that. Indeed, Clausewitz’s target audience may have been principally civilian policy makers with his view that the political perspective must remain dominant over the military point of view in the conduct of war.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, answering questions while campaigning in New Hampshire in 2008. (Photo credit: Bbsrock)

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, answering questions while campaigning in New Hampshire in 2008. (Photo credit: Bbsrock)

Whether or not Ron Paul ever read Clausewitz, Swords into Plowshare restores a proper understanding of statecraft as Clausewitz understood it and today’s American leaders fail to.

Helmuth von Moltke, who became Chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857, almost immediately misappropriated and reinterpreted On War for his own militaristic purposes. (Clausewitz died in 1831.) Moltke was followed in this in 1883, when Prussian General Count Colmar von der Goltz, later known as the Butcher of Belgium in World War I, while paying homage to Clausewitz, wrote The Nation in Arms, a revision of Clausewitz’s On War and its complete opposite.

Moltke and Goltz twisted Clausewitz’s arguments in the interests of the Prussian military class that had come into full flower after Clausewitz’s time. For one, they self-servingly distorted On War by reversing the principle of civilian control to argue civilians must not interfere with military decisions. Also, their reinterpretations of Clausewitz as an advocate for total war became the stereotype which most people then accepted as Clausewitz’s thinking.

Most odiously, U.S. Colonel Harry S. Summers, Jr. would later present to a post-Vietnam War audience Goltz’s version of Clausewitz. In doing so, Summers reversed Clausewitz’s position, which was that defense was stronger than attack, an argument against engaging in aggressive war. But Summers was collaborating with neoconservative Norman Podhoretz who shared Goltz’s militarism.

These distortions of Clausewitz’s principles — and that of America’s Founders who even earlier had established the idea of civilian control over the military — continue to the present day with U.S. civilian policy makers now regularly deferring to the narrowly focused point of view of military leaders to the detriment of a sound national security strategy.

In Swords into Plowshares, Ron Paul offers a correction to this and a return to a civilian-directed national security strategy for the U.S. to adopt which would restore a proper understanding of national interests and would be consistent with Clausewitz’s own strategic theory.

Peace as a Goal

Clausewitz would have heartily agreed with Ron Paul that “Having peace as a goal is both a key component of sensible foreign policy and crucial to economic prosperity and equal protection of all people’s liberty.”

Clausewitz would also have agreed with Paul that it is not sound national strategy when the result of having the most powerful military in history means to have “Americans continue to die in a series of wars, the treasury is bare, and the US is the most hated nation in the world.”

Clausewitz made his bones, so to speak, in fighting Napoleonic France which had a similar foreign policy in the early 1800s as the U.S. has in the Twenty-first Century — using warfare and other means to achieve “regime change” — with the same negative results. France finally met its Waterloo (the original Waterloo coming to mean a decisive defeat) in 1815.

The question for the U.S. isn’t if it will reach its own Waterloo, but when. Military solutions to geopolitical problems will inevitably exhaust even the most powerful nation, depleting its resources and manpower. Only by reversing imperial overreach and achieving peace can a sustainable prosperity become possible.

Clausewitz fully understood that reality, which is why he was an advocate of diplomacy and of restoring peace as soon as costs exceeded the benefit of whatever political object the war was being fought over. Clausewitz would be aghast at arguments that a war must be continued to “show resolve” or other such nonsensical purposes.

An expert on Clausewitz, Michael Howard, wrote that Clausewitz was a scholar as well as a Field General and knew and respected the works of political philosopher Immanuel Kant. Accordingly, Clausewitz would no doubt have been aware of and influenced by Kant’s 1795 tract entitled Perpetual Peace. Paul’s Swords Into Plowshares is in that tradition and applies the lessons to today.

Defense, Not Offense

In Clausewitz’s time and place, he had to fight a war of national survival against Napoleon, who could be viewed as the predecessor of today’s American neoconservative idea of using war as the means of imposing political change on other countries.

Clausewitz first fought France for his native country, Prussia, and when Prussia was defeated, he volunteered his services to Russia, serving until Napoleon’s final defeat. Clausewitz then began compiling what he had learned of statecraft and warfare with the experience he had gained.

But this was not for the purpose of encouraging aggressive war but only as recognition that “war” was used as a political tool which had to be addressed in a book of statecraft. “Subordinating the political point of view to the military would be absurd, for it is policy that has created war,” he wrote.

Ron Paul demonstrates a full understanding of that principle as he challenges the neoconservative euphoria for what they claim is now a “perpetual war.” But Paul does not write as a pacifist and Swords into Plowshares is not a pacifist tract.

As Paul writes, “When a people are determined to defend their homeland, regardless of the size of the threat, they are quite capable. Americans can do the same if the unlikely need arises.” That is not the voice of a pacifist but rather of one who has drawn the same lesson as Clausewitz had.

Clausewitz was surely not a pacifist either. His profession was the military. But he wasn’t a militarist, unlike what the Prussian officer class would later become. Clausewitz would not have called for civilian control over military decision-making if he had been a militarist. That was a key point that von Moltke would later repudiate (or ignore) as he ushered in German militarism.

But the purpose of Clausewitz’s profession as a soldier in the early 1800s in central Europe was to defend his native land, Prussia, against a foreign attacker. When he later joined with Russia to fight Napoleon, it was to fight a common enemy, France, which was not a prospective enemy but an actual foreign invader on their respective territories.

Along those lines, Ron Paul suggests that the U.S. model its foreign policy after Switzerland, which has a military to defend itself but not one to wage offensive war outside its borders.

“Switzerland has done rather well with its streak of independence,” Paul writes. “Reasonable fiscal and monetary policy, along with the rejection of foreign intervention, have been beneficial to her.”

Perpetual War and Militarism

The only flaw in Clausewitz’s view that civilian policymakers must prevail over the military is that Clausewitz did not foresee the development of hyper-militarism, or what was called Fascism in the last century. Under Fascism, a sufficiently large number of militaristic civilians took over policy in Germany and Japan in the 1930s, paving the way to World War II.

An analysis of militarism prepared for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in 1942 by Hans Ernest Fried, entitled “The Guilt of the German Army,” describes three types of militarism which had developed in Germany. They were characterized as glorification of the army, glorification of war, and the militarization of civilian life. Fried’s book is disturbing because it could be describing the United States of today with the prevalence of the same three features.

Clausewitz did not anticipate the rise of a civilian political class in the 1930s which was as narrowly militaristic in its attitudes as was the military, another pattern that is repeating itself in the United States of the Twenty-first Century. We are seeing the political dominance of neoconservatives and like-minded “progressive” interventionists who are eager to advocate war, often more so than the U.S. military.

One reason for this reality is that many of these ideological advocates for “perpetual war” are far removed from the actual killing and dying, i.e., they are “chicken hawks” generally from privileged classes and don’t even know many real soldiers.

These “chicken hawks” follow in the footsteps of former Vice President Dick Cheney whose physical safety was sheltered by five deferments from the draft but who still celebrated when other men of his generation were marched off to the Vietnam War. Cheney was again eager to send a new generation of men and women off to the strategically catastrophic Iraq War on the basis of lies that he and President George W. Bush spread.

A Wider Audience

Gaining an understanding of U.S. foreign policy and American militarism by reading Swords into Plowshares is important for the future of the United States and should not be confined to Ron Paul’s usual “libertarian” audience. Instead, it should be studied by those seeking to understand why it is that the more wars we fight and the more Muslims we kill, the more attraction groups like ISIS have.

ISIS and similar militant groups maintain their ability to recruit because they are resisting what they call U.S. imperialism, a war against Islam. This appeal is even reaching into the U.S. and Western Europe as the continuing bloodshed in the Middle East increases the anger and enmity of its victims and their sympathizers. Killing more Muslims does not resolve these hatreds, it exacerbates them, strengthening the political will to resist, as Clausewitz would have understood.

Similarly, Paul understands that U.S. policy is a “combat multiplier” for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

And, as if ISIS and Al Qaeda aren’t trouble enough, the U.S. has now identified a new enemy, nuclear-armed Russia. Neoconservative militarists led by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and her war enthusiast Kagan family in-laws have revived the Cold War through their nefarious machinations in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Furthermore, foolish U.S. Generals such as NATO Commander Philip Breedlove, with a name and military policy suggesting he is a real-life character straight out of “Dr. Strangelove,” seems to be doing all in his power to create a hot war with Russia, even at the risk of a nuclear exchange.

But Paul explains that this “incitement to perpetual war has been achieved without an actual threat to our security. We have not engaged in hostilities with any nation since 1945 that was capable of doing harm to us . . . . Our obsession with expanding our sphere of influence around the world was designed to promote an empire. It was never for true national security purposes. To keep hatred and thus war alive, the propagandists must stay active.”

Resisting Interventions

Clausewitz would have understood Ron Paul’s reasoning as expressed here: “The more US interventions caused deaths, incited and multiplied our enemies, imposed extreme costs, and jeopardized our security, the greater my conviction became that all foreign intervention not related to our direct security should cease as quickly as possible. The neoconservatives want an open license to go anywhere, anytime to force our ‘goodness’ on others, even though such actions are resented and the ‘beneficiaries’ want no part of it.”

Clausewitz not only theorized against interventions of that type; he helped defeat Napoleon, who practiced the Nineteenth Century equivalent. Knowing how Napoleon’s wars ended, Ron Paul sees the U.S. as on the wrong side of history.

Paul, consciously or not, has drawn on the strategic insight of Clausewitz, which should be no surprise as it was a frequently expressed truism in the military before 2001, echoing Clausewitz, that wars were so expensive and unpredictable that they were to be avoided if possible. And if unavoidable, they were best kept short.

Cheney and other neocon hawks of the Bush-43 administration threw that wisdom overboard even before 2001. But 9/11 created so much hysteria in today’s military officers, who never had to experience how wars can go sour, that those bitter lessons are being relearned the hard way by a new generation of officers. They would serve the military well by reading Swords into Plowshares and reacquiring that wisdom.

What might turn out to be the tragedy of this book is that its readers will be limited to self-identified “libertarians.” But Paul has shown himself capable of joining liberals such as Democrat Dennis Kucinich in opposing the transformation of the U.S. into an advanced form of militaristic state and resisting the wars which make that possible.

But every attempt at forming antiwar coalitions between libertarians and other political groupings or even co-sponsored forums, in the experience of this writer, go no further than about five minutes before one side or the other insists that before militarism is discussed, the other side has to concede to their respective economics ideology. More times than not, that comes from the libertarians who insist that any taxation is as repressive as military rule. It’s reminiscent of the early 1930s when the Nazis’ political opponents were happiest squabbling amongst themselves, while the Nazis were preparing Dachau and other prisons for members of each of the non-Nazi political parties.

Consequently, American militarists probably need not fear that Swords into Plowshares will interfere with their militaristic plans and war profiteers need have no concerns for their future profits. But perhaps my prognostication is incorrect. Maybe Americans will realize that our militarists are leading us to the strategic abyss and that we’re already close to the edge.

Americans should find that Paul’s national security strategy is sound regardless of whether they agree with other aspects of his libertarian ideology. There is surely common ground among Americans who recognize that perpetual wars will also mean the suppression of constitutional rights and other encroachments on liberty.

Todd E. Pierce retired as a Major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in November 2012. His most recent assignment was defense counsel in the Office of Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions. In the course of that assignment, he researched and reviewed the complete records of military commissions held during the Civil War and stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

16 comments for “Ron Paul and Lost Lessons of War

  1. RuthieTruthie
    September 12, 2015 at 19:09

    Ron Paul’s lost lessons of war…. blah, blah ,blah. War is for profit. War makes more money than peace. We have a war economy. Research Smedley Butler’s “War is a racket.”

  2. Bill Bodden
    September 2, 2015 at 14:00

    If only Ron Paul’s son would use his platform as a presidential candidate to amplify his father’s position.

    • Discerner
      September 5, 2015 at 18:27

      Well, I think Rand’s chances of getting anywhere in this election cycle would be even slimmer if he echoed closely his fathers ideologies. Actually, under the surface of his main positions (like instituting a new “fair” tax system which I do not agree with) he is still very much about smaller government, and the only candidate who is. But, don’t think there are any honest elections anymore, so it hardly matters!

  3. dahoit
    September 1, 2015 at 16:55

    And I would say the American people are quite sick of all this crap,but the leader to take US to a better place has not yet arisen.
    A systematic fault of money equals votes,and no money for any real nationalist.
    I like Dr. Paul,and his honor and his sense of justice,but ideology rubs me the wrong way.
    But i did vote for honor and justice,last election,I wish his son had the same timber.

  4. Abe
    September 1, 2015 at 02:51

    Pierce proclaims that “Paul understands that U.S. policy is a ‘combat multiplier’ for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda”.

    In reality, groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda function as “combat multipliers” for U.S. policy in Eurasia.

    Of course, the periodic ritual sacrifice of a few thousand dead and wounded Americans, and the token libertarian bloviator who “opposes” war, are all necessary to keep up appearances.

    • Todd
      September 1, 2015 at 12:33

      “In reality, groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda function as “combat multipliers” for U.S. policy in Eurasia.” I don’t disagree; what would we do without them, we created them after all. And our policies continue to add to their numbers.

  5. Bill Jones
    September 1, 2015 at 00:56

    Ron Paul of course has been right for decades. Only now is is right for the big government war mongering liberal filth to acknowledge that.

  6. Zachary Smith
    August 31, 2015 at 23:44

    I haven’t read Clausewitz’s book, and so I can’t comment on that aspect of this essay. My readings of a few brief commentaries about it suggests to me that the man definitely had his act together.

    Ron Paul is another matter entirely. The man is a racist isolationist. Using Clausewitz’s dictum that defense is stronger than the offense to justify Paul’s isolationism doesn’t strike me as being a good idea at all.

    Paul is on record as saying the Civil War was an “unnecessary” war. That tells me the man doesn’t know his history. It’s my impression Paul was also against the US fighting Hitler in WW2.

    I’d suggest people read Robert Parry’s 2012 essay about Ron Paul before giving the man very much credit for anything.

    • dahoit
      September 1, 2015 at 16:49

      Ron Paul’s take on the civil war was credible,that there were other ways of freeing the slaves other than violence,one way being in monetary compensation,which to the southern slave owner,was his due.They were his property.If someone tried to take your property,I think you’d have an issue.
      And of course,slavery was and is repugnant and evil,I’m just stating an issue.
      And show me the pure man,without any racial baggage,and I’ll show you Jesus Christ?And I’m not concurring Dr.Paul is a racist,just saying those wo sin cast the first stone.I bet he works and serves all his constituents better than Chuck Shumer.

      • Bill Bodden
        September 2, 2015 at 13:58

        They were his property.If someone tried to take your property,I think you’d have an issue.

        The slaveowner’s property was stolen property that he had no moral right to.

    • Discerner
      September 5, 2015 at 19:20

      O.k. I don’t know who Parry is, and I’m going to make this comment w/o reading his essay… simply to say, that it is clear to me that various people have sought to discredit Ron Paul even label him a whaco in order to marginalize him (even more than the media did, or as part of that campaign against him) during his presidential runs and probably before. Thus marginalized who will listen to his ideas (like, only other ‘whaco’s’ right?) What a successful tactic that has been! On that note, however, I believe that one of his greatest contributions as a presidential candidate, and u.s. Rep. was in very vocally speaking out everywhere possible so as to educate people about the monetary system, and many other things. Because of this I think there are a lot more people today who understand the need for much less government, even no government, and who are beginning to imagine what kind of world we could live in without government – the state – constantly forcing us (often violently) to comply with their rules and demands (rules & demands of the “majority”?).

      Another point I wish to make here concerns the civil war. It’s not a subject I study all the time, so I cannot easily come up with links to support this, but I think if you dig a little deeper into the topic you will not find it difficult to discover that the Civil War was not about freeing slaves at all! it was an economic war, and the freeing the slaves thing was used as a way to enlist those in the north to get behind the war, in addition to the economic issues they had with the south.
      This would be why Ron Paul said that the war could have been avoided. But, then as now, that was not the objective! It was the somewhat hidden political agenda that pushed it forward, and that having to do with the enslavement of the entire population, not the alleged freeing of slaves (See this on the 14th Amendment:
      Many of these details are in G. Edward Griffin’s 600 page book: The Creature From Jekyll Island which covers a lot of history (war, economics & central bank creation) of the last 3-400 years, & is fully referenced.

      Finally, I have to say, in all the times I have listened to Ron Paul speak I have never heard a racist thing come from his mouth, therefore I completely question the assertion that he is a racist. But, perhaps he is as racist as Gandhi – who of course was not regarded as a racist b/c we have not been told about that, but he was a racist (against the black race). So look that one up, and for starters try Googling Stefan Molyneux’s analysis on YouTube called: “The Truth About Gandhi” part of his “The Truth About…” series. It’s eye-opening. The crap we have been fed about popular figures and the slanting of history has no end!

  7. Paul Harvey
    August 31, 2015 at 18:15

    Here is a link to the original 95 page article mentioned in the first comment:

    By William C. Bradford

    An interesting ‘outbreak of the fascist mind’ article by associate law professor and former army Intel officer:

  8. Mortimer
    August 31, 2015 at 16:03

    Fascism from West Point. US “Treasonous” Antiwar Lawyers Categorized as Terrorists
    By David Swanson
    http://www.Global Research, August 31, 2015
    http://www.Washington‘s Blog 31 August 2015

    Theme: 9/11 & ‘War on Terrorism’, Militarization and WMD

    This headline in the Guardian is completely accurate: West Point professor calls on US military to target legal critics of war on terror.

    But it hardly covers to content of the 95-page paper being reported on: see the PDF.

    The author makes clear that his motivation is hatred of Islam. He includes the false myth of origins of Western Asian violence toward the United States lying in antiquity rather than in blowback. He includes the lie, now popular on all sides, of Iran pursuing nuclear weapons.

    He announces, after the recent U.S. losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, that U.S. armies always win. Then he admits that the U.S. is losing but says this is because of insufficient support for the wars and for making the wars about an “economic system, culture, values, morals, and laws.”

    The key weapon in this war, he says, is information. U.S. crimes are not the problem; the problem, he writes, is any information distributed about U.S. crimes — which information is only damaging because the United States is the pinnacle of support for the rule of law. It wouldn’t matter if you spread news about crimes by some more lawless nation. But when you share news about crimes by the United States it hurts the U.S. cause which is upholding the rule of law and leading the world to lawfulness. The United States is the all-time world champion of the rule of law, we’re told, in a 95-page screed that never mentions the Kellogg-Briand Pact and only belatedly brings up the United Nations Charter in order to pretend that it permits all U.S. wars.

    You can pack a lot of existing lies about U.S. wars and some new ones into 95 pages. So, for example, Walter Cronkite lost the Tet Offensive (and by the logic of the rest of this article, should have been immediately murdered on air). The mythical liberal media is busy reporting on the U.S. killing of civilians, and the worst voices in public discourse are those of treasonous U.S. lawyers. They are the most damaging, again, because the United States is the preeminent leader of lawibidingness.

    The treasonous antiwar lawyers number 40, and the author hints that he has them on a list. Though whether this is a real list like Obama’s kill list or something more like McCarthy’s is not clear.

    I lean toward the latter, primarily because the list of offenses run through to fill up 95 pages includes such an array that few if any lawyers have been engaged in all of them. The offenses range from the most modest questioning of particular atrocities to prosecuting Bush and Cheney in court. Nobody doing the latter has any voice in U.S. corporate media, and a blacklist for Congress or for the U.S. Institute of “Peace” would hardly be needed if created.

    The 40 unnamed treasonous scholars, their supposed crimes include:
    failing to concede that violations of the Laws of Armed Conflict by Muslims permit the waiving of those laws for the U.S. government;
    interpreting the supposed standards of “distinction” and “proportionality,” which the author admits are totally open to interpretation, to mean something the author doesn’t like;
    opposing lawless imprisonment and torture;
    opposing murder by drone;
    supporting the supposed duty to warn people before you kill them;
    counting dead bodies (which is too “macabre” even though the U.S. is supposedly devoted to “minimizing civilian casualties” not to mention Western scientific superiority);
    upholding laws; pointing out facts, laws, or counterproductive results;
    filing suits in court;
    or criticizing war advocates.
    The heart of the matter seems to be this: opposing war amounts to supporting war by an enemy. And, nonetheless, among the reasons offered to explain CLOACA joining the enemy are “anti-militarism,” and “pernicious pacifism.” So actual opposition to war drives people to oppose war, which amounts to supporting war for the enemy. I think I’ve got it.

    The prescriptions to heal this illness center on waging total war. The author proposes both dropping nuclear bombs and capturing hearts and minds. No doubt as part of his leading support for lawfulness, he demands that there be no restraint on U.S. warmaking against Muslims. That means no limit in time or place, a rewriting of any laws of war by the U.S. military, and no trust in the “marketplace of ideas.” The U.S. must use PSYOPS, must impose loyalty oaths, must fire disloyal scholars from their jobs, must prosecute them for “material support of terrorism” and for treason, and must proceed to murder them in any time and place.

    I suppose that when I point out that this illustrates the madness of militarism I should breathe a deep sigh of relief that I have no law degree.

    Copyright © David Swanson, Washington’s Blog, 2015

    • F. G. Sanford
      August 31, 2015 at 17:22

      Neither of the links would work for me; I was curious to find out whether CLOACA is some kind of an acronym, or if it is used in the sense of its actual biological definition. As I recall, a cloaca is the organ in birds which combines the anus and the urethra. That would be a fitting analogy for a guy that wants to institutionalize fascism as part of the West Point curriculum.

    • Brad Owen
      September 8, 2015 at 05:25

      This is a land of severely divided loyalties, as the Civil War can attest. The theme is STILL Patriots and Tories here, and we came here as Parliamentarians and Royalists, from the Motherland, although in thrall (until 1776) to Royally Chartered Trading Companies. In the Civil War we were Federal Unionist republicans and neo-feudalist Confederates. Today it’s the 99%ers and the 1%ers along with their economic royalist Loyalists (probably more-like 66% opposed, to 33% who stand with, the 1%ers). All that this Prof. has managed to do is loudly broadcast his loyalties, thereby putting HIMSELF on someone else’s list.

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