Handgrenade of the Month February 2018

John T Kuehn's picture

Fear—The Common link Between the Two Great Trinities of War.


“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends”

Emerson Lake and Palmer, perhaps “on war.”


Fear, what is it?   Is it an emotion? Yes, but it is more, it is also a physiological reality that activates the sympathetic nervous system designed to protect human beings and ensure their survival when the body knows better, by instinct, sometimes, than the rational mind.   Clausewitz understood this.  As did Thucydides.   It is a common link  (along with interest) that links the two great “trinities” of war, or more technically, of military theory on war.


As a reminder, here is where we can start to find fear as an element in Clausewitz’s trinity:

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.  As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity—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 the of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.  Carl von Clausewitz, On War, I:I:28. The Consequences for Theory [Howard and Paret translation].

Fear here, seems to best reside in the pole of the irrational, that is among the blind natural forces of passion and emotion.

And then, several pages later:  “To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive rather than alarming.”  Here “alarming” refers to the natural fear of death in war.   Then, more explicitly, Clausewitz states in Book Three:  “…man seeks and creates the very danger that he fears.”

Fear is thus a component, not only in the area of emotion, but in the area of chance and friction.

Enter Thucydides.   Fear is prominent in his “trinity,” or “triptych” as some call it. 

“And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in. …and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest. “  Thucydides, 1:75 , from the Landmark Edition

Enter one more “theorist”—Sigmund Freud, who argues that angst, that is a dull nagging fear of the unknown and of the future, is the fundamental emotion that drives action, or causes inaction, in humans.

Why might this be important, rather than just an academic proof of an interesting relationship?

Fear causes action, or inaction, not just by individuals, but by collectives, by societies and on and on.  It is the collective fear of the mob that makes it so dangerous.  But too often we think it is “the clear light of reason” as well as rationalizations, when in fact it is the muted light of fear that is driving us, more often toward, than away from, war.

Should we perhaps discuss fear more than we do when we discuss war?

Or do we fear what we might learn?


Coming together in groups dilutes fear, correlating also with a person's natural desire to appear courageous and resolute in a group of peers and in the presence of those in higher authority. By the time groups coalesce into states or sub-state entities fear is ever more an abstraction for those in authority. Just speculation, of course.

For those of us who have experienced combat in the air, I suggest that exhaustive training and subsequent adherence to that training and other learned behaviors tends to push fear off to one side, so to speak. Close focus on sequential tasks is a survival mechanism.

Ralph, Right...in Navy tactical aircraft we called it compartmentalization, everything goes in a bin and you "scan" between them. You still get scared there---especially landing on the carrier in bad weather at night. Sometimes I would go to bed with the distinct feeling of having cheating death for one more day.

R, John (T. Kuehn)