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Who Thinks War is War?

Posts in the "War is War" series so far:

- Who Thinks War is War?

- Why “War is War” Is Bad Rhetoric  

- War is War is Clausewitz

- Fighting! Killing! Death! Destruction! War is War, isn't it?

- What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of

- We Are Holier Than Thou

- War is War is Vague

- Bill Simmons, "The Secret" and War is War

- War is War is Heinlein?

- "War is War" and Violence

- War is War is No Solutions

- War is War is Politically Unfeasible

- War is War is More Stimulating Talk Radio

- War is War is Starship Troopers

- War is War is Film Part I

- War is War is Film Part II

Since I first started thinking about Violence--way back in the ROTC program at UCLA--I encountered an intellectual crowd that was vehement and irreconcilable, armed with a resolve like that of religious fanatics and Ayn Rand Objectivists. Their thinking, despite the research into counter-insurgency over the last few years, still dominates the philosophical thinking of the Army and most national security fields. Last year when I started writing posts for On Violence, I encountered the same crowd again, sounding off in the echo chamber that is the internet, via blogs, in forums and on comment threads (Particularly a small but vocal minority on the Small Wars Journal’s forum--the main reason I don’t visit forums anymore.).  If you are a casual reader of our blog, you might not know who this crowd is, but they sometimes attack our posts on Marcus Luttrell or the Rules of Engagement.

This small but loud cabal is what I call the “war is war” crowd, or "war-is-war"-iors. "War-is-war"-iors uses the phrase “war is war” to emphasize that war is about fighting and killing. By emphasizing the violent nature of war, proponents usually then complain about either population-centric counter-insurgency or limited rules of engagement.

Because my co-blogger Eric C frequently reminds me to not create straw men in the pursuit of an intellectual point, today I am going to show how pervasive the “war is war” comment is in military strategy discussions before I take it apart. In later posts, I am going to provide a more accurate definition of war, show the fallacy of the “war is war” argument, and argue that being more ethical than your enemy is not a bad thing.

So who or what is the “war is war” crowd?

- As with all things over-quoted, General William Tecumseh Sherma said it first. It was linked to on this blog, and can be found on wikiquotes. “If [Georgians] raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war." Gen. William T. Sherman (1864)

- Amongst the living, Colonel Gian Gentile, a professor of military history at West Point and former battalion commander in Iraq has used this phrase. In this forum post at the Small Wars Journal, he perfectly captures the thoughts of the “war is war” crowd.

- Of course, Colonel Gentile quoted an article by Colin Gray on irregular warfare in the Strategic Studies Quarterly (an article I will review in depth in a later post).

- Colonel Gentile isn’t the only Small Wars Journal forum participant who believes that “war is war”. Perhaps the most prominent is William F. Owen, who has said, “War is war. There are varying types of warfare, but defeating an irregular enemy is rooted in some fairly well understood methods of applying military force...You do not out-govern the enemy. You kill him.” This quote from a post perfectly captures the position of the “war is war” proponents while showing the logically fallacies of their position.

- In this blog post on the Small Wars Journal, General Paul Van Riper embraces the “war is war” concept as well.

- But the "war is war" topic isn’t relegated to those embracing it as an intellectual position. Sometimes authors or bloggers will just throw it out casually because it is so ubiquitous. In this interview on Abu Muqawama, author Greg Jaffe does just that in answering one of Andrew Exum’s questions.

- "War-is-war"-iors dominates comment threads too. Check out the third comment down on this article.

- The second to last paragraph in this article gives a perfect statement of this sentiment of the “war is war” crowd.

On Wednesday, I will elaborate on the intellectual problems of the “war is war” crowd, and why the phrase “war is war” is intellectually vapid and ethically bankrupt.

seven comments

Let me emphasize: we disagree with this position and there will be more coming.


Thank you for some thought provoking material and the promise of more. I’m sharing this in class today.


Frustrating topic…

War can be war when you can clearly identify and attack the bad guy. Sure, that happens…but it isn’t happening now.

It makes sense to me to base our maneuver on the only clearly identifiable and stationary group- the population.


Yeah as I will get into, most definitions of war by academics start with Clausewitz, and emphasize the people. When viewed like that, total wars of armies against armies where the population like in WWII are rare. But all of the people we cited above love to ignore the politics and focus on the battle, to the study of war’s detriment.


I think population-centric COIN is too ‘artsy’ for many…too abstract from the art of maneuver.

The abstraction requires far too much decentralization (for decision making and risk taking) for many to trust.

I’d wager that many dislike it because pop-centric COIN doesn’t LOOK like war. It calls for more costly and lengthy training for troops and less money for acquisitions. Instead of having Soldiers riding in some new FCS vehicle supported by F22s…we should have Soldiers with more extensive knowledge of culture/language using off the shelf equipment ($9mil for a Super Tacano vs. $150 for an F22)…


I’m not sure I fully understand the sentiment of the “war is war” crowd. Is the statement meant to convey that war is essentially violent and thus death is implyed? Or is the statement that war is violent and because there is violence one should expect innocent lives to be lost? Or, and even darker, is the statement implying that because war is inherently violent civilian casualties are permissible because they are unavoidable? I’m sure it’s more of an array of all three but from the links provided, it appears to be a phrase used to refute ROE.


To be clear, the “war is war” crowd isn’t usually allied on their points. It just happens to be a rhetorical device tons of people use about war. I think your first iteration is what most people mean when they say “war is war.”

As for ROE, it isn’t that they are against ROE—as I have said before every army has ROE—but most people who say war is war tend to loath restrictive ROE that put a priority on properly identifying your target.