What is War?


Prof. Jeremy Black studied at studied at Queens’ College Cambridge, St John’s College Oxford, and Merton College Oxford before joining the University of Durham as a lecturer in 1980. There he gained his PhD and ultimately his professorship in 1994. He joined Exeter University as Established Chair in History in 1996, and is currently a Templeton Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His recent publications include War in Europe: 1450 to the Present, Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance and A Century of Conflict: War, 1914-2014. This post is drawn from a forthcoming work, War and its Causes, which will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in late-2018. 


What is war? There is no agreed definition today among the multitude offered, and none that works across time and cultures. And that is simply if we are thinking of conflict between groups of humans with some organisation and not that with other species. The situation is complicated by the whole host of what could be seen as “non-traditional conflicts” to which the term is applied and has long been applied. Some have overlapped with killings, others not. The classic instance of the use of the term war across much of history is that of conflict over religion, both between religions and, more profoundly, between good and evil. A different and far more recent instance of a use of the term war that very much overlaps with violence is that of “war on terror.” With an overlap, but less of an overlap, there is “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” let alone cancer, poverty et al. This flood of “wars” leads to a normalisation of the term in English.

There are many types of conflict that are rarely murderous, including class warfare, culture wars, the battle of the sexes, generational conflict, and history wars. That is not a complete list. Moreover, it can be expanded but also complicated if other languages and cultures are considered. In addition, any and every description and/or analysis of relationship as focused on power, confrontation and force, extends the extent to which the idea and language of war play a major role in linguistic usage. Indeed, the language of war has come to be applied to everything and anything held to require an effort. Similarly, strategy is now applied to everything requiring a plan, whether running a business or a life, “process management,” planning for a party or deciding how to spend the morning, also often what does not require a plan.

Lack of linguistic precision, however, helps keep words valid, or at least in use, for the particular contexts and meanings of the past may change. That remark may appear preposterous in the case of large-scale conflict, but war to be war no longer requires an origin in the sovereignty of the state, nor a formal process of declaration, as in some definitions in the past.

Whether or not current linguistic usage is appropriate, this situation means that the language of war is far from conterminous with warfare as generally understood. For the sake of clarity, it is appropriate to offer a more restricted working definition. To do so accepts the consequent difficulty with boundaries with “non-war,” and the extent to which any definition inevitably raises questions of authorial subjectivity and cultural specificity. Nevertheless, the process is necessary in order to offer some clarity, a situation also seen with other words whose meaning has been infinitely extended such as revolution and strategy.

In functional terms, war can be seen as organised large-scale violence, both organised and large-scale. This definition separates war from say the actions of an individual, however violent the means or consequences. It also separates war from non-violent action, however much, as in “direct action,” it can be an aspect of coercion. The definition also opens a gap with large-scale violence in which the organisation is not that of war, for example football hooliganism. Hooligan groups plan for “battle” with each other. Each of these points and caveats can be detailed and qualified, but they draw attention not only to fundamental issues of definition, but also to real difference.

War can also be approached in cultural, social and ideological terms, namely as the consequence of bellicosity. These aspects repay examination. They focus on the importance of arousing, channelling, and legitimating, violent urges and of persuading people to fight and, crucially, kill and run the hazard of being killed. People need to agree to put themselves at risk, to resist attack, and to advance across the “killing ground”; and others need to be confident that they will do so and thus preserve armies from dissolution. Without this, there would be no war. The willingness or, rather, large number of willingnesses, is crucial to the causes of war. They are a conflation of long-term anthropological and psychological characteristics with more specific societal and cultural situations. Whether, and to what effect, these propensities to organised conflict have altered over time is an historical question and one made more complex (and simpler) by recognising that there is no single situation at particular moments. For most of history, the nature of the sources is, generally, at best suggestive as to motivation. Detailed work on the pressures and goals affecting conduct is often limited. This ensures that it is still possible to debate the causes of many conflicts.

Today, we witness a growing reluctance today to fight in many societies, certainly in comparison to the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, partly thanks to growing professionalism and the abandonment of conscription in many states, the military is less integrated into society than when most men could expect that they might be called-up. As a related, but separate, process, there has been a process of civilising of the military, or, rather, a degree of civilianisation. It is more difficult than before for militaries to act as a semi-independent adjunct of society able to follow its own set of rules. Instead, militaries are expected to conform to current societal standards of behaviour. This is a pressure that has caused scandals and court cases in the United States and Britain. Moreover, this process can be seen to lessen bellicosity.

The suggestion that the “West” has become less bellicist might also appear ironic given its nuclear preponderance, the capacity of its weapons for mass-destruction, and the role of its industries in supplying weaponry to the rest of the world. Indeed, it might almost be argued that this strength is a condition for the decline of militarism. A decline in bellicosity could also be seen as owing something to the prevalence and vitality of other forms of “aggression,” for example what might be seen as economic and cultural imperialism. This approach does not match the desire for some, generally observers, for war to be conflict between warriors, rather than soldiers. Warriors are strong individually as opposed to soldiers who offer organised force. Film depictions of war often focus on the former, on “one man armies,” and greatly misrepresent capability.

As a difference in bellicosity between cultures in the present world can be stressed, then that suggests that continued vitality of a model of transcultural variations. This point underlines the culturally-contingent nature of definitions of war, as of other points. The notion of each state as having a distinctive strategic culture is in part a reflection of transcultural variations, albeit in a different fashion to those generally understood as cultural being, instead, more overtly political. Cultural factors play a major role in assessments of relative power.

An emphasis on cultural contexts within which war is understood, even welcomed, as an instrument of policy, and as a means and product of social, ethnic or political cohesion, is, also, in part, a reminder of the role of choice. As such, this approach is a qualification of the apparent determinism of some systemic models. A denial of determinism also opens up the possibility of suggesting that the multiple and contested interpretations of contemporaries are valuable. This underlines the importance of integrating them into the explanatory models. As far as an emphasis on intentionality is concerned, bellicosity leads to war not through misunderstandings that produce inaccurate calculations of interest and response, but, rather, from an acceptance of different interests and values, and a conviction that they can be best resolved through the use of force. As such, war can be the resort of both satisfied and unsatisfied powers: those who do not want a change in the system and those who do.

We therefore move to the slippage in the description of warfare referred to earlier. Bellicosity is reformulated, away from an aspect of sovereignty and, instead, as a problem in others and, conversely, a necessity in terms of international order and systemic norms. This is a background to modern ideas about the undesirability of warfare and, paradoxically, to support for interventionist warfare, as with Western action against Iraq and Serbia in the 1990s. These concepts are not new, and some are the secularization of earlier religious beliefs about the undesirability of conflict between co-religionists, but their application is very much so. It is unclear, however, that these ideas help us in understanding the values of those, in past, present and future, for whom compromise is unacceptable, force necessary, and even desirable, and war crucial to identity, mission, and self-respect.

Image: Defeat of the Ashantees, by the British forces under the command of Col. Sutherland, July 11th 1824, via Wikimedia commons

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