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On V on On Violence (The Book) pt. 2: Context

(This week we're celebrating our first full year of blogging. Today we finish our review of Hannah Arendt's "On Violence." (Click here for part 1 of our review) Tomorrow we look back at our best posts from the last year. Finally, on Friday, Eric will blow your mind with ten of the most abused quotes in the blogosphere and the military.)

International terrorism is the gravest threat America has ever faced.


Is it? Is it really? When thousands of nuclear weapons were pointed at us by the Soviet Union, wasn't that significantly more dangerous? What about the German and Japanese armies marching through Europe and Asia? No, terrorism isn't the most dangerous threat we have ever faced, but it is the most dangerous right now. Because terrorism is currently our biggest concern, it feels like it was always our biggest concern.

If you are writing philosophy, the context of your times will shape your opinions. When I read Hannah Arendt's On Violence, I was struck by the fact that, no matter how hard I try, I am constrained by my times.

On Violence (Arendt) obsesses over nuclear weapons and their effect on warfare and human violence; On Violence (the blog) obsesses over counter-insurgency and its effect on warfare and human violence. So when it comes to our philosophy, Arendt and I use two entirely different sets of data: Arendt uses nuclear weapons, WWII and the student riots of the 1960s; I use Afghanistan, Iraq, and 9/11.

The first part of On Violence (book) deals almost exclusively with the historical and contemporary context of nuclear weapons. Referring to nuclear weapons, she states bluntly that, “technical developments of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential.” Arendt understands that the creation of nuclear weapons, and the creation of a “military-industrial-labor complex,” have altered the future of violence.

Her analysis of nuclear weapons makes sense. If violence is a result of politics, then Clausewitz’s famous aphorism about war (violence) as being the continuation of politics by other means would become a “means towards universal suicide.” The invention of thermonuclear weapons allows violence to be divorced from politics and economics--and all other causes--to stand on its own.

I appreciate that Arendt acknowledges how her culture influences her philosophy (and this is my only gripe with her book) but having to slog through a whole chapter of it (especially considering the length of the book) seems like too much. Read from a distance of forty years, a good twenty pages describing the rise of violent revolutionary fervor among students and Marxists comes across as dated. She also almost predicts the rise of insurgency and revolutionary war (she writes, “the more dubious and uncertain an instrument violence has become in international relations, the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs, specifically in the matter of revolution.” Sounds like political war defined.) but then gets stuck on the actions of student activists, who in hindsight evolved into yuppies instead of toppling the government.

So while Arendt is attempting to create a philosophy behind violence--that ideally should withstand the test of time or events--she is inexorably mired to her historical context. Here at On Violence (the blog) I have the same problem. I see political violence, insurgency and terrorism as the biggest foreign policy issues today. I think this is, partly, because the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq influence my everyday life. I can't divorce my philosophy from my personal experience.

Will Eric and I rise above our culture? We try to acknowledge our culture. That is why my blog is about my personal experience, counter-insurgency and foreign policy, while my true love is the philosophy of violence.

eleven comments

Michael and I discussed this—but didn’t include it in the final post—which is how terrorism is the exact opposite of nuclear war, but neither is an extension of politics.

Thought that relationship was interesting.

but neither is an extension of politics

I would very much enjoy hearing your arguments/conclusions on this.

So much depends on your definition of politics, and to whom you ascribe agency in the defined political situation.
Maybe terrorism and nuclear war are at opposite ends of the agency continuum.
I’m with Karaka. Very much want to hear your next thoughts.

Michael and I debated including it in the post, but we’ll have to write another post on it.

@ Trish – probably a better word would have been power, if power is defined as the ability to influence people.

We’ll be writing more philosophy in the future, hopefully this is the first issue we write on. Also, we’ve started work on an article fitting COIN into Arendt’s world view.

I’m pretty excited at the idea of you both tackling some philosophical papers/positions. It’s the one area that I never see a lot of discussion of, in the more abstracted sense rather than the practical-historical-real world sense.

I found your blog posts regarding “On Violence” as I’m writing a critical analysis paper for Arendt and her text. Thanks for the review, it helps add new perspectives to my paper.

I have been reading your comments to this article and Eric C has stated nuclear weapons and terrorism are not extensions of politics. Some academics have defined politics simplistically as “the management of power”. To think that weapons or terrorism aren’t used to maintain or gain power or realign political leverage is perhaps a bit of a misunderstanding of definitions, not necessarily a misunderstanding of the concepts.

Nation-states have weapons of mass destruction to either maintain the balance of power in their favor or to deter those who might use weapons against them. When used, they tend to get everyone’s undivided attention. This is essentially a projection of power, a projection of political determination. Clausewitz defined war as “the continuation of politics by other means” and Mao Tse-Tung said “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Both were quoted in Arendt’s text. The United States use of nuclear weapons on Japan in World War II was ultimately to end the war in the Pacific, prevent Japan’s expansionist policies and to prevent further death of our troops and our allies’ troops (and a little bit of revenge for Pearl Harbor and the Death March of Bataan, but I digress here). These were political aims. We built up nuclear stockpiles as a deterrent and the USSR did so as well, creating the Cold War – both countries trying to maintain power, political power.

Likewise, sub-national actors attempt to use fear to realign power in their favor. They lack the power to control nation-state politics and by utilizing terrorism they hope to tip public thinking towards their cause; eventually having their political objectives met (or not). Many entities, from the State Department, FBI, the DOD, DIA and even the UN, define terrorism through the lens of politics. Most definitions of terrorism include the word political or politics as the primary goal of terrorism (see Jonathan R. White’s “Terrorism and Homeland Security, 5th ed.”, Chapter 1 for a variety of US and global definitions). I believe the State Department’s definition of terrorism is the most accurate to me, “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” (White 6).

I would submit that nuclear war and terrorism are not opposites either (as stated by Eric C) – these are both weapons or actions in the arsenal of a group to support or commit war or violence (depending on how you define violence and war, of course). The greatest Western fear in this uni-polar world is that a sub-national, terrorist actor will acquire nuclear weapons and use them on a legitimate nation-state. This would be an act of war without a nation-state to retaliate against (though one would assume that this sub-national actor had some support in acquiring a weapon). Opposites of nuclear arsenals and terrorist activities would be diplomacy and peace, but I think the point was that they are vastly different. However, a terrorist with a nuclear weapon makes that point moot.

Ultimately, by using some agreed upon definitions (through the viewpoint of a US political scientist or national security expert), I would submit that nuclear weapons and terrorism are weapons that can be used as a potential or kinetic threat to maintain or realign the balance of power – an extension of political ambitions by a sub-national group or nation-state.

Ultimately, I think the point was that nuclear war through the view of the Cold War is perceived as “traditional” or what we’d refer to as symmetrical – two international powers going at it with the same technologies, forces, and war strategies in place. However, terrorism is asymmetrical – when used in an insurgency, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan or the overall GWOT. But again, even though these are two types of violence or potential violence, both are used to gain or maintain power – which, as noted before, is what many consider to be the heart of politics.

Let me amend my original statement: Terrorism isn’t nuclear war (which is different from nuclear weapons) opposite, but its negation. Both are violent acts but Nuclear war means the death of everyone; terrorism virtually no one.

Neither is a particularly effective extension of politics—meaning neither has nearly the political influence of other means of violence. Nuclear war is useless because it demands a global suicide, terrorism because it is so rarely effective at producing change.

I’m not a troll, I promise. I seek knowledge and understanding (on many diverse topics) and I truly enjoy a good dialogue (not a debate because I despise verbal conflict) and exchange of ideas. So, let me ask or attempt to understand through words here.

Nuclear war, as I understand your meaning, is through a Cold War lens of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), whereby the super powers would essentially eradicate each other if we started exchanging nuclear weapons (presumably ICBMs, bomber delivered nukes, and sub delivered nuclear missiles – the “Triad”). If this is a misunderstanding of your definition of nuclear war, please let me know. I think this, in context, is also Arendt’s viewpoint. To say it is the death of “everyone” is a misnomer, as most of the world would still be functional (China would be the super power, but what good would that be). It would essentially be the end of two great empires – the once looming USSR and the United States. Even in America, some states would receive fallout, but the US would cease to be functional as a nation-state. Thankfully those fears are, for the most part, behind us for now. Although the PRK has a nuclear weapon – the true critically of said weapon is suspect – and the Iranian Republic has, what appears to be, a plan to seek out and build a weapon… although many would debate that point. And one can’t ignore Syria’s secret nuclear ambitions, as well (as usual, I digress). But again, in the Cold War context for “East vs West” it would appear to be mutual suicide.

Terrorism is an action by a sub-national group trying to influence another group’s opinion, normally to gain political influence by attacking non-combatants (i.e. civilians). Whether one agrees on that definition or not, I’m okay with that. As long as we can agree it’s an illegal act meant to do harm in order to influence opinions and gain political power, I’m happy. If we can’t agree on that definition, I’m open to discuss it further.

I think you’re looking at the application of terrorism and MAD and the outcomes moreso than considering anything else (i.e. strategy, intent, objectives, etc.). Essentially, saying one act generates deaths on a Megadeath scale (MAD) and the other can only create a few thousand (terrorism). The strategic use is more of my consideration, but for this discussion, I understand that body count matters. To say that neither is effective as an extension of politics ignores the strategic aspect of both, but if we focus on body count that eliminates political objectives when considering MAD – so that debate becomes moot.

So, looking at body count and terrorism and saying that it is not particularly effective is somewhat near sighted. Terrorism is used throughout the world to strike terror in the hearts and minds of governments and organizations. While it is very ineffective, in most cases, it is used in order to influence others to do what you want, when you want. Ask Spain if terrorism has had an impact on their participation on the GWOT and you have negated this argument through modern application. Obviously there are other examples where terrorism has created political outcomes, as well. Ask the PLO if terrorism has had an impact on their cause in the Middle East. These are two modern examples, but there are others. Of course debate about guerrilla warfare and terrorism are also open for discussion (Israel’s actions against the UK prior to the modern formation of Israel might be a good consideration, depending on the side you’re talking to.)

So, ultimately, in this narrow discussion, we can’t look at MAD in its pure application as having any political objective other than extinction and terrorism’s application has indeed influenced political decisions. I was hoping we could discuss the strategic aspect of both (I’m more of a strategist than a tactician), but we can look at this through another future post, perhaps.

Again if I misunderstand the topic or question, I apologize. Additionally, if my logic is flawed (most of the time it’s not always on target), please let me know. I’m hoping to further the discussion for mutual understanding and to perhaps learn more. Many misunderstandings in the social sciences, I believe, are by not agreeing on definitions. Just like defining terrorism in historical and modern context, Arendt’s work “On Violence” was her attempt to more clearly define violence and power through a different viewpoint. Whether one agrees or not, she did try to further debate and understanding on the topic.


On nuclear weapons, lets throw away US vs. Russia, and go with India vs. Pakistan. Were the two to go to nuclear war, the devastation and catastrophe would ruin both countries. Point is, it is MAD (both meanings) for any country to engage in nuclear war.

Terrorism may be meant to induce political change, I don’t think it does. I could attempt to win public office by throwing puppies in a blender with the words “Vote for Eric” on the side. It would be a political act, but so ineffective as to be useless. Terrorism is akin to this.

Did 9/11 effect America? Certainly, it changed the political landscape. In the way Al Queda wanted? Hell no. Even Osama himself limited the size of the attacks, because he was afraid of the blowback. If it truly is an effective political tool, why limit yourself?

MAD in its essence limits options… all of them, really. But regional super powers follow the thought that if my neighbor has a bigger gun, I must get that same gun, but with a prettier pearl-handled grip and gold inlay. Regional super powers normally hold that mantle for short periods of time, until their competitors have the same toys. Pakistan has a nuke because India has a nuke. Syria and Iran want a nuke to “balance” Israel’s nukes (one would assume, but I could provide you with some compelling essays on Iranian/Shia eschatological viewpoints that would scare “civilians”). The PRK wanted nukes to balance power in their region and to essentially use it as a gambit. Crazy leaders do crazy things sometimes (whatever happened to Saddam and the good old days?).

To say that terrorism doesn’t produce political change is to ignore Spain, the PLO, etc. But I think your point is that terrorism 99.9% of the time DOES NOT make political change. However, when a group of like-minded, passionate, disenfranchised individuals get together, weird things happen (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and Al Qaeda are good examples). I would debate that terrorists may know history and the lack of impact of terrorism, but everyone thinks they’re going to score big on the intrastate lotto because “someone’s gotta win!” Additionally, we have to separate the driving ideological forces behind terrorist activities – not all terrorism is the same size and shape, there is no “one size fits all” (just ask Jonathan R. White, as referenced in an earlier comment). The rise of Salafi jihadists in the last half century intends to install a final caliphate. That mission is driven by a deeply driven religious viewpoint. For the PKK, it’s a new homeland. For Hamas, it’s to either eradicate the Jewish state or establish their own nation-state (depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them). Their strategical aims ultimately limit their goals and activities (curse me for bringing up intent, actions, and strategy!!).

As you mentioned, and a great point that many don’t consider, is the strategic communications that a “terrorist event” delivers to an audience. If Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia kills Muslim babies in strollers, they lose their base of support. If the Taliban kill American GIs in Afghanistan after a drone attack has caused significant collateral damage, it can extend their base and encourage an increased flow of funds in the Hawala system. Terrorism is a message intended to influence, delivered by people who are willing to inflict destruction to achieve their goals. When that message is not delivered correctly, as you point out, blowback can occur. Obviously, in the greater context of COIN (“Glocal”), controlling the message is part of the overall strategy, not piling up the body count. When terrorists commit acts, they don’t necessarily realize their actions may have the opposite effect than they intended (Syria’s recent targeted campaign in Lebanon, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and, as you mentioned, OBL in 9/11).

But to answer your question (If it [terrorism] truly is an effective political tool, why limit yourself?), terrorists are limited by objectives, messaging, finances, and tactical support. If terrorists had unlimited budgets, unlimited supplies of personnel, logistical support, and no concern about their message and audience we would be in a perpetual state of “not awesome”. But there are constraints on terrorists, and knowing what their objectives are, what their strategies and tactics are and what limitations are in place is essentially the beginning of the creation of a loose counterterrorism strategy. However, terrorism does have a payoff; history has proven that every now and again an organization does get what it wants even if the odds are similar to winning the lottery. And that mentality of “someone’s going to win, why not me?” drives them forward. Their belief in a cause is probably the ultimate driver, but if they did study history they would see that the odds are low that their ultimate objectives can be achieved through terrorism.

Two things on terrorism:

1. The PLO is the example I would use to illustrate terrorism not working. As for Spain, it was already wanted out of Afghanistan. And numerous NATO countries untouched by terrorism have pulled their troops and support w/o terrorist attack prompting. But looking at terrorists like McVeigh, or Al Queda, they’ve achieved next to nothing.

2. Second is the philosophical, existential meaning of terrorism. Essentially it is the last resort of a defeated movement, and really if you think about it consists of randomly attacking another country/entity. It is so nihilistic, I have trouble taking it seriously as a political avenue.