French Revolutionary War Theory: Conflict Between War and Peace


One of the most salient features of warfare during the present decade appears to be breakdown of the barrier between the state of war and the state of peace. As Chief of the General Staff Sir Nick Carter noted in his foreword to Army Doctrine Publication: Operations: ‘No longer is there a clear distinction between war and peace. We live in an era of constant competition and confrontation in which our adversaries exploit the grey area short of combat operations to seek advantage. There is no boundary between what happens abroad and what happens at home.’

The activities of Russia offer some of the most compelling evidence for this notion. The war that followed Ukraine’s 2014 revolution saw Moscow make use of disinformation, ‘little green men’, and other methods, as part of a deliberate campaign designed to confuse the international community and subvert norms of international conflict. The annexation of the Crimea – achieved without violent international repercussions – attested to what such an approach could achieve. The lingering scandal concerning Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election only serves to reinforce the perception that Russia has developed a system of subversive warfare, incorporating both violent and non-violent means, which gives it the capacity to strike deep into its adversaries’ heartlands.

The contemporary threat to the West from international terrorism has also contributed to this notion. Over the past few years, ISIS have capitalized on the possibilities of social media to influence minds, not just in the Middle East but in the West as well, using twitter and highly-produced videos as tools to convince young believers in their cause. This, coupled with repeated attacks in the UK, France, Belgium, and Spain, appears to have brought the terror threat closer to Western populations than ever before, eroding distance and with it the distinction between conflict abroad and peace at home. Following the Sousse terror attack in Tunisia in 2015 which killed 38 people (of whom 30 were British), then Prime Minister David Cameron went so far as to assert that Britain faced an ‘existential threat’ from Islamist terrorism.

It is tempting to see the erosion of the barrier between war and peace as a unique phenomenon of our time, conditioned in particular by the forces of contemporary globalization. Since every period of history is the product of a unique configuration of events and actions, this is – to some extent – true. Nevertheless, this is not the first time that observers have sought to explain the contemporary character of conflict with reference to the lack of distinction between war and peace.

In a new article for War in History I explore similar ideas in relation to a particular group of military theorists: proponents of ‘revolutionary war’ within the French army during the 1950s. This group of soldiers built their theory not upon the practice of regular war, but rather in reaction to their experiences in France’s irregular wars of that decade, first in Indochina and then in Algeria. Building upon the foundational work of Charles Lacheroy, who observed a system of ‘parallel hierarchies’ that drove the Viet Minh war effort in Indochina and proposed a five-stage ‘scenario-type’ for a revolutionary war, during the period 1954-1958 the revolutionary warriors developed a holistic theory which they believed pertained not only to their experiences of counterinsurgency warfare but to all contemporary war. Accordingly, French experiences in South-east Asia and North Africa were but the opening salvo in a greater subversive conflict – an insidious form of total war which encompassed both regular and irregular activity across the world – which would ultimate result in the destruction of the West, unless the citizens of Western democracies were made to understand their predicament.

One of the key drivers behind this theory was their belief that the distinction between war and peace had broken down. The revolutionary warriors found justification for this in the counterinsurgency campaigns that they fought, but also by looking elsewhere. In particular, they read a degree of continuity from the activities of totalitarian states in the 1930s through to the post-Second World War era. For them, whereas Hitler’s Germany had appeared the supreme actor in capitalizing on those blurred lines to achieve national goals in the 1930s, from the vantage point of the 1950s it was clear that the forces of world communism had revealed themselves as the true masters. What the West had to realize, they reasoned, was that they had in fact been engaged in a war since 1917 and that the forces of communism were winning. Moreover, since this war was subversive in character it was likely that the Western citizenry at large would not realize that this was the case until it was too late. Only the revolutionary warriors, armed with their understanding of the ‘true’ character of modern war, could prevent this scenario from unfolding. The fervour with which the revolutionary warriors clung to the notion of an ongoing global conflict, in which subversive elements contributed to the ‘rotting’ of metropolitan France just as revolutionary movements were unravelling the overseas empire, contributed to a theory under which ‘existential’ stakes justified brutal and illiberal means.

By the end of the decade, the power of the revolutionary war theorists to influence the course of the war in Algeria was much diminished, yet it should perhaps come as no surprise to note that several adherents would later be found amongst the ranks of the paramilitary Organisation Armée Secrète. For those individuals, belief in the great revolutionary war may not have been the only factor pushing them towards accepting terrorism as a viable course of action, but it surely played a part. If there is little or no distinction between the states of war and peace, it is easier to see everything as war, and if everything is war, it is perhaps easier to find the key to ‘victory’ in ever more radical solutions. Whilst the revolutionary war theorists represent something of an extreme case, their destructive course can still serve as a cautionary tale. If the problems of twenty-first century conflict cannot be addressed simply by denying the blurred boundary between war and peace, thinking about conflict in between war and peace cannot simply ignore restraint in favour of radicalism.

Image: Parade of the 13th DBLE through Roman ruins in Lambaesis, Algeria, c 1958, via wikimedia commons

3 thoughts on “French Revolutionary War Theory: Conflict Between War and Peace

  1. The most important fact remains unanswered. Namely, will there ever be a boy that can swim faster than a shark?

    Other than that, a fascinating piece.


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