Saturday, January 15, 2005

On Defining War

Following on from this, I've decided to post up a transcript of an essay I received back yesterday. The culmination of the van Creveld/Clausewitz course involves producing a 1,500 word assessed essay under the title "What is War?". It's a difficult question and I was surprised to discover yesterday afternoon that I managed to get the highest possible grade. Woo. Hoo. Anyway, I offer it up here because it builds on some of the things I talked about in the van Creveld piece.

What is war?

‘War is…the continuation of policy by other means.’
- Clausewitz, On War

‘War is not the continuation of policy by other means.’
- John Keegan, A History of Warfare

‘“War” for fun is not really war; it is a form of recreational bondage.’
- James Wirtz
The juxtaposition of the above quotations only begins to hint at the complexity of the subject at hand. Definitional questions are inherently tricky and unlikely to produce entirely satisfying results, except as an intellectual stimulant. No work of 1,500 words can possibly provide a definitive answer to the question of what is war. It must inevitably be more or less inadequate. However, it is possible to isolate certain elements, the presence of which may be necessary in order for a certain form of activity to be legitimately categorized as a war. Obvious though the answer may seem, we must ask ourselves whether war must involve violence. We must ask ourselves whether war must be inherently political – or at least rational. We must ask whether war must involve states as primary actors and, if the answer to this question is no, we must try to deduce at what level a war ceases to be a war and becomes something rather more minor – gang conflict (to refer to it as gang warfare is an almost instinctive reaction!) may be entirely rational, conducted for a purpose with means/ends calculations and organized groupings on both sides and it is certainly likely to be violent, but does that mean it is a war? Answering these questions may not tell the whole story but it will certainly result in getting closer to the answer.

Must war involve violence? Certainly it must involve the threat of violence and in practice it is difficult to think of a non-violent conflict that can be categorised as a war, except in a rhetorical sense. Clausewitz is clear on this issue: Though referring to force rather than violence he makes the point that the force must be physical, as opposed to moral.[1] Sunzi is often hailed as an advocate of winning without fighting but while coercion and various indirect ploys is key in his work it is also clear that the willingness to employ violence must exist.[2]

While thinkers from opposing intellectual camps may agree on violence, the question of politics is more vexed. Clausewitz would have it that war and policy are inextricably linked. His two most prominent critics in this regard are John Keegan and Martin van Creveld. Keegan takes the line that war is – and has been throughout history – often fought for its own sake.[3] His attempt to locate culture as a key determinant in the history of warfare is entirely welcome but his success as an opponent of Clausewitz perhaps rests too much on the assumption that Clausewitz’s formulation the war is inherently political is tied to time-sensitive factors such as the existence of states with a monopoly on violence and clear national interests. This is certainly one line that Martin van Creveld has taken, attacking Clausewitz’s trinity of people, army and government as outdated in a world of, often intra-state, low intensity conflicts.[4] If one accepts van Creveld’s reading of Clausewitz then his case is compelling. If, however, Clausewitz’s trinity is defined as violence, chance and reason, it can be questioned whether it has really lapsed into obsolescence.[5] State-centrism will be dealt with later, but while different cultures and actors may make decisions based on different –seemingly alien – norms and values this does not mean that for them the decisions are not rational, not purposeful and not involving of cost/benefit calculations – though this may be difficult to recognise for those viewing actions and processes through the distorting prism of modern Western liberal democracy.[6]

Mary Kaldor identifies the breakdown of vertical social structures, cultural alienation, identity politics and violent nationalism as key components of “new wars”, but there is little evidence that any of these factors represent the departure of reason and purpose from war.[7] In his landmark essay The New Warrior Class, Ralph Peters identifies “warriors” of the type we are likely to face in the new century as being drawn from one of five “pools”.[8] The first category is the “loser” – the underclass that has no stake in peace. The second is the company seeker, young, male, with little experience of anything other than war who finds affirmation in the company of other men in uniform. The third category consists of entrepreneurs, opportunists and profiteers. The fourth is the patriot or true believer who fights for a genuine cause. The fifth is the mercenary. Three of these categories (3-5) unequivocally act for a purpose and are thus susceptible to coercion and cost/benefit analyses. Peters also adopts the stance that while the methods required may be more violent, the first two categories are largely rational at least to the point of not being suicidal – which is fortunate as otherwise the only solution available must presumably be to create a desert and call it peace.[9] Politics as we recognise it may not be applicable in all cases, but reason surely is. The key is to understand the context in which decisions are being made, not to assume a form of violent nihilism is in evidence.

Where van Creveld’s thesis undoubtedly holds greater purchase is regarding the idea that a rigidly state-centric definition of war is obsolete. Michael Howard’s insistence on the state’s monopoly on, if not violence then at least warfare seems shaky in the face of half a century of insurgency and other low intensity (so-called) conflicts. It is certainly possible to argue that states are still the key actors in the military sphere, but to cut anything below the state level out of the picture appears unsustainable. A Small War is, after all, still a war of sorts. Interestingly, this is a point on which van Creveld and Clausewitz need not necessarily be at odds. Like Sir Michael Howard, Colin Gray has vigorously defended the corner of the state as key actor.[10] However, he has also produced an interesting and highly convincing attempt to fit a Clausewitzian template to the issue of small wars, insurgency and terorrism.[11] The Godfather of modern insurgency, Mao Zedong, it should be noted, was also somebody who found nothing glaringly anachronistic in Clausewitz’s work.[12] While one may choose to quibble over the relative importance of the state as an actor in warfare past, present and future it increasingly seems unduly restrictive to brandish inter-state activity as the ultimate arbiter of whether or not a particular violent conflict deserves to be classified as a war.

This leads to perhaps the most difficult category to explore, namely at what level below that of violent inter-state conflict a war ceases to be a war. As pointed out earlier, the tongue is naturally habituated to refer to such things as “gang warfare”. But can it really be said that a conflict between gangsters over a local drugs trade is a war? Violent, yes, organized, yes, purposeful and rational according to the lights of those involved, yes. But – a war? To accept this definition seems to run the risk of war meaning everything and therefore by extension effectively meaning nothing. At this point it may pay dividends to return to the key bones of contention – politics and the state. One possibility is to allow for war to be conducted by non-state actors but to link its status not to actors but to ends. Thus a conflict becomes a war if it is conducted to influence the nature of a state or the high-level policy of a state. This would seem to square the circle up to a point though it is undoubtedly far from perfect and distressingly inelegant.

A conclusive – or even satisfying - dictionary-style definition of war remains elusive. This situation will persist for as long as people are still thinking about war. Some tentative points can be made, however. Although Clausewitz’s theories have come under sustained attack in the past decade and a half, his work remains the best guide we have. While semantic arguments over the context in which politics or policy is applicable are perfectly legitimate, if we accept Clausewitz’s primary trinity of violence, chance and reason (as opposed to the secondary trinity of people, army and government) we are presented with a road map that may lead us slightly off course but is unlikely to see us tumbling over a cliff or skipping our way into quicksand. All war is violent, though not all violence is war. War is also a reasoned activity – though the reasoning involved (which will often be imperfect) will be distorted through various cultural prisms. While war as politics may increasingly come to be seen as a conceptual atrocity of a similar magnitude to the idea of a Global War on Terror, wars happen for a purpose and are regulated by calculations of value, risk, cost and benefit. War for war’s sake – if it exists - is certainly pas magnifique and, paradoxically, c’est ne pas le guerre.

[1] Clausewitz (1984), p.75
[2] Chailand (1994), p. 221-238
[3] Keegan (1993), pp. 24-46
[4] van Creveld (1991), pp. 35-42
[5] Clausewitz (1993), p.89, Heuser (2002), pp. 52-56, Gray (1999), pp. 91-92
[6] Lynn (2003)
[7] Kaldor (2001), pp. 69-89
[8] Peters (2001), pp.32-47
[9] Peters (2001), pp. 48-69
[10] Gray (1999), pp. 101-102 & Gray, Colin “World Politics as Usual After September 11th: Realism Vindicated” in Booth &Dunne, eds. (2002)
[11] Gray (1999), pp. 273-296
[12] Heuser (2002), pp. 47-48
Booth, Ken and Dunne, Tim (2003), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (London: Palgrave Macmillan)
Chaliand, Gerard (1994), The Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age (Los Angeles: University of California Press)
Clausewitz, Carl von, transl. & eds., Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter (1984), On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Creveld, Martin van (1991), The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press)
Gray, Colin (1999), Modern Strategy (Oxford: OUP)
Handel, Michael (2004, 3rd edition), Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (London: Frank Cass)
Handel, Michael, ed. (2004, reprint), Clausewitz and Modern Strategy (London: Frank Cass)
Haslam, Jonathan (2002), No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations Since Machiavelli (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Heuser, Beatrice (2002), Reading Clausewitz (London: Pimlico)
Howard, Michael (1983), The Causes of Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
Kaldor, Mary (2001, 2nd edition), New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era (London: Polity Press)
Keegan, John (1993), A History of Warfare (London: Pimlico)
Lynn, John A. (2003), Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview)
Peters, Ralph (2001), Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books)
Sawyer, Ralph D., transl. (1994) Sun Tzu: The Art of War (Boulder, CO: Westview)


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