What is War?
In order to describe what war is one has to define it. According to The Collins Dictionary war is
1. open armed conflict between two or more parties, nations or states… 2. a particular armed conflict: the 1973 war in Middle East. 3. the techniques of armed conflict as a study, science, or profession. 4. and conflict or contest: the war against crime. 5. (modifier) of, resulting from a characteristic of war: war damage; war history.
This is obviously straight to the point, but does not go into enough detail to fully describe what war is. Clausewitz chooses not to follow the definitions put forward by, what he calls, “publicists”, in ‘ Vom Kriege’. Instead he puts forward his own view that it “is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” To fully understand what war is you have to look at the four main factors in war; force, the agents involved, intensity and duration, and teleology.
The use of force and the violent nature of it is arguably the most obvious feature of war. However, one has to consider what force actually is, the answer to this creating significant disagreement. When talking about the use of force as a feature of war one immediately considers this force to be of military form, whereby weapons are used to strike down their opponents. This is of course true to an extent, but is not the only force used in war. Force can also be political or ideological force, as seen in the beginnings of the Cold War. Here, the Soviet Union uses their ideological ties with other countries in Eastern Europe to force them to reject the Marshall Plan in their war against the United States of America (US) for dominance.
Clausewitz’ ‘Total War’, whereby the nations uses all of their wealth and resources, putting them on the line, in order to destroy their enemy’s armies, property and even their citizens, ties in with this use of force. Here, force is everything that the attacking group can muster together in order to destroy the other group’s will to fight and bring a quick, decisive victory, and can involve killing soldiers as well as destroying important buildings.
Wars are not always like this, and with the introduction of nuclear weapons, Van Creveld believes that ‘conventional war’ is effectively at its end. Also, if this ‘Total War’ was true then more groups would use nuclear weapons in order to win the war, but they do not. This is due to mutually assured destruction and the risk of a backlash from other nuclear powers. There has been plans to try and incorporate nuclear weapons into conventional war, but this was unsuccessful.
When considering what is war, it is not simply a case of the use of force by the attacking party, but one has to take in account the opposed force. Without this opposed force it would not be war, it would simply be a massacre or perhaps genocide. The form of opposition force, like an attackers force, can vary, whether they respond in an offensive or defensive manner. If they are defending the war will be restricted to their own turf and their forces concentrated on preventing attack and protecting certain people or buildings. However, the offensive force of the attacking party can be met with similar offensive force. The war will ultimately begin on their turf as they are being attacked, but they will attempt to remove the threat and then attempt to destroy them as in Clausewitz’ ‘Total War’.
If force is indeed the use of weapons, then one has to consider what sort of weapons are used in war. Weapons have changed through time, becoming increasingly high-tech to the point of nuclear weapons that could remove all humans off the face of the earth, but they have not been used to their full extent as of yet. The larger powers tend to use weapons such as aircrafts with bombing and firing capabilities, tanks and battleships, whilst the soldiers involved will carry such things as guns and grenades.
Martin van Creveld puts forward his thesis that in future wars weapons will become less sophisticated due to the types of groups involved. With this, he believes the production of high-tech weapons will stop and cheaper, but still effective weapons, will be used. This is already happening in the war between Al-Qaeda and the West, where they are trying to bring down the US and the whole western system. They did not kill people with high-tech weapons in their most devastating strike against the US, which killed thousands of people, but took over two aeroplanes around New York and flew them into two buildings, which were among the most important in the West, showing it does not have to be all guns and bombs in wars.
Another important part of war is the agents involved in it. In today’s world, since the Peace of Westphalia, one would find it very tempting to say that war is a game played out by states. However, it is increasingly emerging to be not just a game played by states, but other groups are emerging that take refuge in sympathetic states that wage war on other states or groups. One such group is Al-Qaeda, which took refuge in Afghanistan in their fight against the West.
If it is states fighting wars then this will be very similar to Clausewitz’ ‘Trinitarian’ war, which is made up of a trinity of the government, the army and the people. In this situation, the government decides whether to go to war but they do not fight it. The army are strictly the players in the game and the ordinary civilians are not allowed to join in at all. If indeed this is true then all wars in the world would be an army versus an army.
However, in today’s world we see wars break out between armies and a group of civilians, like the situation in Iraq at the moment and the ‘War against terror’. Wars can even break out between two non-army organisations, such as a gang warfare between Mafia groups, although obviously the scale will not be as big as van Creveld’s ‘conventional war’. These wars which do not occur between armies does not fit into Clausewitz’ ‘Trinitarian’ war, but is more an element of van Creveld’s ‘non-Trinitarian’ war. He sees a decline of the state and with this the liquidation of boundaries between the trinity. This means that it will not only be armies that fight wars, but also groups of civilians, as seen with groups like Al-Qaeda.
This arises another important part of war, which is how intense or how long it has to go on for in order for it to be classed as a war and not a skirmish of any other act of violence that is not a war as such. A war cannot simply be a single gun fight between two gangs as this is just a one off event. It has to be a series of events or battles between two or more groups for a certain cause. The saying “you may have won the battle, but you have not won the war”, although is a very dramatic saying, is perhaps the most obvious quote that war cannot just simply be one battle, that would be a skirmish. War is number of these skirmishes and would ultimately be more than two. The intensity is another matter, and this varies from war to war depending on the strength, nature and will to destroy of the groups involved. Wars do not necessarily have to be high intensity, although Clausewitz’ ‘Total War’ would be, where as Van Creveld’s ‘Low Intensity Conflict’ would not.
War would not happen if it was not fought for a certain reason, for that fact one has to understand what means war is fought for. This can be seen in Clausewitz’ definition that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. War is not always going to be fought for political reasons and can in fact be due to such things as ideological and economic factors.
In conclusion one can see that the definition of war in a dictionary is not explicit enough. Saying war is an “open armed conflict between two or more parties, nations or states” is much too thin an answer to discuss what war is in who is involved. Discussing fully the four factors in the introduction brings about a clear definition of war, which cannot really be put into a few sentences as it varies a great degree and is ever changing through time, whether it be who is involved, the weapons used or the means of which it is fought for.
Martin van Creveld – Transformation of War
Carl von Clausewitz – On War
Lawrence Freedman – War
The Collins Dictionary