For centauries man has tried to define and refine the concept of war. Yet from all the greatest philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to the best military minds like Clausewitz and Bonepart not one has been able to answer that most fundamental question. What is war? There are a number of factors that contribute to man’s inability to find one definition that can cover the broad usage of such a word. One of the most important is context, when and by whom a definition was written will often affect the content. There is also the broad variety of human conflict to consider, is a massively asymmetric action a war or is it simply peace keeping? Perspective also plays a role in what is decided as a war; globally there are a mass of cultural differences that affect what each nation would call a war. Finally The changing nature of war and development of new and more powerful ways for man to kill each other has actually had an impact on the very definition of the word. All of these things make it hard to pin down an exact definition, however, there have been many attempts and using these I hope to come closer to explaining the definition of war.
The style in which something is written tends to reflect the public opinion (and therefore context) of the day, granted that some pieces of literature are radical, but for the most part things are written for an audience. Following this line of thought you can draw some inferences about the context of a source simply from the way it is written. Looking at most Post–Vietnam war sources there is a very anti-war theme running through them. Personally I believe that this is due to the introduction of the media to the battlefield. “Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.” This is much different to the ancient world’s attitude to war. In Homer’s Iliad Hector, the hero of Troy, said “one bird omen is best, to fight for the fatherland”. Although the Iliad is partly fiction it does give some insight to the political thought of the day. Firstly the ancient Greeks were prepared to go to war simply on a “sign” or “omen”. This must demonstrate a stratified society where respect for the life of a common man is minimal. This is in direct contrast to the 21st Century where we mourn, as a nation, the loss of every life in Afghanistan. Secondly it talks of the “fatherland”, this nationalistic idea is something that we seem to have forgotten, especially in modern Britain and would perhaps give rise to the glorification of combat in older definitions. This must affect the way that different societies throughout history viewed both the loss of life and War, therefore having an impact on the way those societies tried to define it. This could definitely be an argument as to why some sources do become dated and no longer relevant to modern day issues. Clausewitz, one of the most aclaimed military thinkers wrote “Victory is purchased by blood”. This would not be an acceptable to a modern reader when even the smallest loss of life gives the civilian public a sense of dread. Yet contrary to this, Rousseau wrote much earlier:
Force is a means of achieving the external ends of a state because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units
This implies that diplomacy and negotiation are preferable to violence. Contextually I believe that the more empowered the common-man is the worse war is viewed in society. This is probably due to the education of the masses and also because “the people” are not being sent to war, they are choosing and it is this aspect of choice that effects definitions.
The variety of conflicts that could be described as wars also has an impact on the difficulty finding one definition. In 1999 a NATO force intervened in Kosovo as part of a peace keeping mission. For the most part they took part in bombing of civilian infrastructure to put pressure on the government to stop the internal unrest. With this level of asymmetricy it is very possible to argue that this was in actual fact not a war at all. Simply, due to the fact that the conflict was only one sided, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “state of armed conflict between different nations, states, or armed groups” cannot apply. When this is compared to WW1 however it soon becomes apparent that these two military actions are far from similar. This further links back to context; perhaps the modern aspects of war suffer from a exclusion from definitions of warfare, simply because no-body has given serious thought to the meaning post 1990 and the development of “Ultra-modern” conflicts. However both Hobbes and Thucydides speak about the “necessity of nature”. This concept centres around the need for retaliation and escalation during war. Perhaps it links into Clausewitz’s argument that “war is an act of force which theocratically has no limits.”. The variation we see between the 21st Century Warfare and older conflicts may lie with the fact that we are trying to limit ourselves, and not follow Clausewitz’s theory that inevitably leads people to either a war of attrition (from which nobody benefits) or a nuclear holocost. This is in actual fact why the United Nations was formed in 1949 to prevent another world war. This modern restriction of force may lead some of the older definitions of war to become outdated due to the evolution of diplomacy and its role in international affairs.
Perspective is also key to the understanding of war. European attitudes to war tend to stem from Augustine principles and are based on the idea of a “Just War”. Christianity started of with a very strong bias towards pacifism but due to invasion by the Moors and the Huns attack on Europe. Christianity was obliged to take arms. However they did so by laying down a moral idea of how a war should be fought with the idea of Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello. The UN follows these principles to this day and Kofi Anan’s 2004 speech was based on these ideas. Yet because our culture defines a just war, there must be such thing as an un-just war. Looking at Rwanda for an example. The Hutu’s thought that by executing 800,000 thousand civilians they were fighting a war. This is where the line between genocide and war becomes a very fine one, all based on perspective. This was a direct retaliation against the invasion of a previous ruling race. “And one [calleth] cruelty what another justice…”. In many ways it was a lot like the French Revolution, and the use of the guilloteen. It is not for Europe to judge a different culture’s attitude to war. They were fighting a war based upon their own moral values, not ours. Even if it is found by both European values and African values to be an “un-just” war it is a war nonetheless, it need to fit into the standard definitions of war. And most of these one sided genocides do not. Even looking at more recent events in Iraq we have taken to calling the suicide bombers “insurgents”. This is inaccurate, NATO forces are in their country, NATO are the insurgents. Arguably the Iraqi “insurgents” are fighting a guerilla war and not committing acts of terrorism on their own soil. Which in turn means they need to be factored into any definition of war.
Post nuclear is a key event in defining global conflict. Since the advent of the nuclear bomb Clausewitz’s definition that “war is a dual on an extensive scale” can no longer be held true. In the event of nuclear war millions of civilians that never held a weapon would be killed and ultimately the planet could be destroyed. The “Cold War” does not fit many of the definitions of a war yet arguably it is the single most significant conflict in the history of humanity. At no other time has the lives of almost everyone on the planet been in jeopardy. This surely must be a major issue with the pre-nuclear definitions, they fail to factor in this colossal increase in technology. One of the most poinient quotations on this subject comes from Einstein, the father of thermonuclear weapons.
“I do not know what weapons WW3 will be fought with, but WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones”
This implies he thought war is something to end mankind and destroy all of society. This sentiment was echoed by President Kennedy at the height of the cold war “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind”. Personally I believe that this provides a definition of war in itself.
Since the start of time war has plagued mankind. It has been described as “man’s essential illness”. Yet we for some reason retain our fascination with it. Personally I think this comes from the fact that “War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”. However there is another aspect, Dawkins suggests it is in man’s DNA to be selfish and warlike with each other. Walzer says of war, “people are killed with every conceivable brutality, and all sorts of people, without distinction of age sex or moral condition, are killed.”. Given the enormous variety of war I think that this is the only constant that presents itself across the whole world. In these modern times, with such a variety of ways to kill and maim and such a vast array of motives and justifications to do so I believe the only way to define war would be to regard it as something that should be absolutely avoided wherever practical.