Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Our definition of war is pretty good as it is

Lt Col Jill Long, an Air Force officer and student at the Army War College, wrote "What is War? A New Point of View" that was published at the Small Wars Journal. In this piece, Long attempts to redefine war beyond our current understanding based in dictionaries and Clausewitz. She finds the existing definitions limited and finds an expanded is necessary because of today's "global society" and its resulting "[t]errorism and violent aggression by non-state actors."  Because of this, she posits that war is a spectrum beyond mere violence and rather a spectrum of states between peace and unrestricted armed conflict. She proposes a new definition: "War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation's will in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail." This problematic and maximalist view of war and the reasoning behind the need for a change in our understanding of war requires some discussion.

This discussion, like any that attempts to define war, begins with Clausewitz (the dictionary definitions that Long provides are irrelevant here as they are not used by strategists and have limited meaning to us). It would be helpful to read Clausewitz's definition of war in total from Book One, Chapter 1 (from the Howard/Paret translation of On War even though I generally prefer the Graham translation - I seem to be in the minority on this point, so Howard/Paret it is):
I shall not begin by expounding a pedantic, literary definition of war, but go straight to the heart of the matter, to the duel. War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up war, but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries to through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance.
War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.
Force, to counter opposing force, equips itself with the inventions of art and science. Attached to force are certain self-imposed, imperceptible limitations hardly worth mentioning, known as international law and custom, but they scarcely weaken it. Force -- that is, physical force, for moral force has no existence save as expressed in the state and the law -- is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare. That aim takes the place of the object, discarding it as something not actually part of war itself.
Italics are in the original.  Parenthetical comments aside (to be addressed in a moment), Clausewitz is quite clear on what war is: the use of force (I would probably use the term violence instead) as a means to achieve some political objective (from the discussion later in Chapter 1) that is the coherent statement of a group's will. One can infer that Clausewitz intends that acts of violence by political groups are war and that other non-violent acts by political groups are not war. Naturally for a treatise titled On War, Clausewitz provides almost no discussion of this latter set of actions, but based on comments throughout the rest of the book it seems he intends that political groups are at peace if they are not at war. But he does not expressly define peace as such.

Long says this is too limiting to modern war. War is, rather, "all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation's will." What would normally, but not doctrinally, be conceived as a spectrum from peace (if such a thing truly exists) to competition to conflict (non-violent) to war is, per Long's construct, really spectrum of war. She explicitly states that "world peace" (I am not sure why she included the descriptor "world" here) is an element of war, as are all political interactions up to and including "unrestricted armed conflict" (another phrase I am unsure of, but assume equates to total war). This is an extreme view of the state of human interactions to suggest that even when we are at peace we are at war. More importantly, this worldview is unhelpful in understanding war if war consists of every form of political activity. It is so comprehensive as to require specialization into the study of the many facets of war as to bring us right back to where we are today in understanding war. Further, what becomes of the study of warfare? Is the wielding of economic influence now to be considered an element of warfare? While economics can be corollary or complimentary to the conduct of war, it is by no means warfare itself. Philosophically, this combative worldview, if widely accepted, could only darken man's approach to political interactions - the last thing that should happen to the already stark interactions. For these reasons alone Long's definition should be abandoned.

Long fails to adequately describe how the world has changed or how the "Global Era" plays into this. She states that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have changed how we should perceive the world. It seems that the she believes that that day should have awakened Americans to the threat of non-state actors. Long also states that "'interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security' demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others." Both of these points are stated in defiance of history. Globalists enjoy selling the greatness and threats of our "interconnected systems" in the modern day, but that presumes that the world is newly interconnected. We know this is not true. Interconnection in today's world may be faster and easier, but it is not new. States and other political groups have interacted over the elements listed for millennia - look only to the period of global colonization to see how long we as humans have been at this. Long does not describe how today's globalization is unique and why that changes how we define war.

The issue of state versus non-state actors, as pertains to the definition of war, is a silly discussion. The idea that this new "globalization" has resulted in the rise of non-state actors is also historically inaccurate and is prima facie absurd.  Civil wars have raged as long as long as humans have fought wars (indeed, civil war comprise a significant proportion of the wars humans have fought). Who are these wars supposed to have been fought by if not by non-state actors? Insurgencies and terrorism are also not new to the 21st Century (or even the Common Era) and it would take a peculiar interpretation of history to argue otherwise.

It is important to note that in his definition, Clausewitz does not describe war as act of force between states. War is engaged between enemies as the means to achieve political objectives. Of course, political objectives are not the sole purview of states as many non-state groups have exhibited and Mao so logically codified. This is not to say that Clausewitz did not intend his definition and the rest of the book to discuss war between states in the best traditions of the post-Westphalian world. He clearly speaks of states throughout the book, as indicated in the parenthetical comment in his definition of war (I did say I would return to that point). But this does not limit On War solely to war between states as mean scholars have, most prominently historian John Keegan and strategist Martin van Creveld to name a couple. It does not take that large of a leap of thought to read On War and understand that states can be any organized political group, that princes can be any leaders of those political groups, and armies can be the armed elements of those political groups. A literalist reading of Clausewitz would be as unwise as a literalist reading of Plato or Aristotle and saying their writings do not apply to the modern world because we are no longer city-states. A non-literalist exegesis of On War easily provides for the incorporation of non-state war into Clausewitz's thesis. As a last point on non-state actors, Long indicates that these offspring of globalization are driving this need for a new definition of war and yet her new definition specifies that means required are to bring about "sufficient adherence to a nation's will." This suggests that only nations have wills or that the means of war could only be used to achieve national wills. Ergo, only nations can be at war. I suspect that non-state actors would like to know how to label their activities if "war" is closed to them.

The world and the nature of the interactions of its politically organized inhabitants have not changed so much in the past 11 years as to require a new definition and view of war. Lt Col Long's proposal is at the same time both too inclusive and too restrictive and is based on this perceived change in human activity. To call activities beyond the use of force towards political ends threatens to create the view of a Hobbesian international order. The world is bleak enough without calling all state activities "war," nor is it helpful in understanding what war actually is. I assume that Long intended to broaden the focus of state activities to combat terrorism to include activities not traditionally within the purview of war, i.e., the combat. The problem with this intention is that it attributes to war activities that, while possibly conducted in support of war, are intellectually, scholastically, and philosophically outside of war. Activities we engaged in, in support of war and as elements of other means, long before 9/11. As such, Lt Col Long's proposed definition does not help us understand war or how to wage it and that Clausewitz's definition continues to serve us well.


  1. Good post.

    One thing that always confuses me as an "outsider" is the fascination with war theory without ever getting down to brass tacks, so to speak.

    What I mean is the fixation on terminology and grand theories of war and naming and renaming over, say, military history, or specifics about a certain part of the world or population. Is it a function of the "milblogs" I read or is this an aspect of military and military academic culture?

    - Madhu

  2. I did like Lt Col Long's inclusion of other thinkers-on-war (philosphers?) besides Clausewitz. It's a bit like reading tea leaves, reading people go on about Clausewitz, strangely religious and airy-fairy commentary that sounds fine in the abstract but seems to fall down in the particular messiness of real life.

    Reading about friction and understanding, too different things apparently....

  3. Madhu,

    Fascination with war theory, and specifically the definition of war, is the precursor to getting down to brass tacks. From an Aristotlian view, how are we to fully understand and execute warfare if we don't understand war and its nature? I think Long's article is a great example of why these highest-order theories are important. She argues that war encompasses nearly all political interactions (my paraphrase of her idea). How could that not change how we undertake the war itself? I think there's also an element, as far as war theory goes, of those who fight wars needing to understand why they do these things. It's such an extreme element of human activity that some philosophical substantiation is required.

    Terminology is a bit of a different subject (beyond the fundamental "What is war?"). Like any other profession, words mean very specific things. Some are similar but nuance exists. For example, seize and secure are not the same thing. It's imperative for professionals to understand these differences, especially for soliders, etc - I gave orders in fights to seize objectives and I expected my subordinates to know what that meant and to not secure the objective instead. I'm sure you have similar issues in medicine. But the point is that this need for accuracy in terms, stemming from the battlefield itself, has permeated the entirety of military studies.

    Obsession with military history is best understood by looking at chess. Serious students of the game study matches between masters, sometimes looking at games played a few hundred years ago. Obviously this is done to better understand how to play better, but more importantly to provide point of reference that suggest courses of action in their own games. (E.g, "Oh look, I'm in the same position as Euwe when he played Thomas in Hastings in 1934. My path to victory is already laid out for me.") The debates come in trying to understand what actually happened and why so we know how to apply these lessons. It goes without saying (but I'm saying it anyway!), that unlike chess, the moves in war aren't neatly written down in algebraic notation.

    And you suggestion that there is a bit of a cult around Clausewitz is not unwarranted. The problem with other thinkers, such as those mentioned by Long, is that they deal with why people go war or what they do once war has begun. Clausewitz is, so far, the only philosopher who has asked and answered "What is war?" and has had his answer stand the test of time (the Lt Col Longs of the world not withstanding).

  4. "Fascination with war theory, and specifically the definition of war, is the precursor to getting down to brass tacks. From an Aristotlian view, how are we to fully understand and execute warfare if we don't understand war and its nature?"

    That's all well and good but I never see the getting down to brass tacks part in a way that satisfies. (This may be a function of my slapdash reading, and, so, not a fair criticism.) How does getting hung up on this stage help? Didn't Clausewitz exist in the real world and have real experiences and observe the world, and then think about it?

    I guess I'm saying the theory may be fine but the execution is way messed up and maybe that is because a lot of time is spent on only one aspect of understanding, that of general principles over specific, well, passions, to be very trinitarian.

    The understanding of worldly passions is way this, Lt. Col Long's piece is very good. Others view themselves at constantly in competition with the US (war has different meanings in different cultures, in a way) and we miss that part of it in a big way. It's clear to see recent strategies failed to account for the nature of Washington outside of, "how do we keep Washington on board with our long drawn out military strategy?" But influence agents, good and bad statecraft both, abound. I still don't understand why planners based plans on changing things that showed no evidence of change over years and years and years.

    I don't know.

    1. I disagree with a couple of your points here. First, plenty of theorists and practitioners "get down to brass tacks" - people who study warfare, operational art, and tactics. I don't write about them much here because I find them to be even more inside-baseball than the highest levels of war theory.

      Related to this, I don't think what I presented here in any way contradicts the nature of culture and other worldviews around the globe. The term "will" is very ambiguous and can be based on any political objectives. The nature and validity of "will" (or the causes of war) is a whole other area of study. But that doesn't negate the fact that political will, and the drive to use violence to obtain that will, is the very nature of war itself.

      You last point about strategy is well placed, however. I suspect that Clausewitzians would look at Afghanistan and immediately draw the point that the strategy does not align with the policy. Many would go further and say that the strategy is logically incapable of achieving the political objective. I've written about this before. And I think that if strategists understood the nature of war better before resorting to "brass tacks" we wouldn't be in this mess.

      As for planners and their assumptions, well I don't know what to say. We haven't found a way to institutionalize adequate assumption creation in the planner world. And that is a big, big problem.

  5. Oh dear, lost a comment. Better that way, it didn't really add to the conversation.

  6. Oh, one more. I've been reading a lot about the subcontinent after partition. I am continually astonished at the really lousy writing by the standard bearers of Washington SA policy on the subject. The quality of understanding of that region has to improve a lot. No pivot to Asia will be successful with the poor quality understanding of that region currently demonstrated by decision-makers and their consultants.

    I mean, it's not that hard to read up on the history of the region, first person memoir stuff, serious non-Western, non-NATO historians, and realize that a lot of what is written is blatantly wrong. It's basically justification-as-scholarship for what decision-makers want to do for domestic reasons.

    Sorry to dump this stuff on this blog. The well is poisoned and will remain so for me, just as Iraq poisoned the well for others, so this topic has almost permanently made me deaf to the bleating of the military scholarly world. Deeply unfair, but I won't change.

    1. Your argument here is spot on and lamentable. But as I mentioned before, failure to understand the linkage between political objectives and military strategy is a huge problem. Here is another symptom (and cause for that matter).

  7. Nice rebuttal. I have a number of problems with the Long article as well. While a spectrum is a useful device and I'm sympathetic employing such cognitive tools (there's nothing wrong with a continuum from absolute peace to absolute war), it doesn't follow that conceptualizing war as a spectrum of violence means that CvC's definition of war is wrong. Or for that matter, that the prevailing legal definition of war under international law as "a state of armed conflict" is wrong.

    More importantly,Long's underlying premise that simple definitions are narrow and complex ones are broad is epistemologically backward. What she has offered up as a definition also includes a highly subjective, culturally loaded moral assumption of war "as a last resort" that is neither "global" in character nor historically valid.

    1. I totally agree (obviously) on both counts. Of note, I think spectra are useful, but only when they are accurate. The "Spectrum of War" does not include peace. The "Spectrum of Conflict" might. I think if the terms used in her article had been thought through a little more it would be more clear and maybe she would have provided something more useful (other than to start a discussion).