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The Exciting Conclusion to Defining Contemporary War!

(The article concludes our four part series on "Defining Contemporary War." For new readers, please read part 1, part 2, and part 3)

Clausewitz called war, “politics by other means” and generally I agree with him... with a few caveats.

All war is political. Violence executed on massive levels requires the organization of mass numbers of people. To tie them together they must have a reason, and that reason--even if cultural or religious--is ultimately political.

I go further than Clausewitz. Clausewitz wrote his theory for nation-states and standing armies. To him, warfare was the extension of politics because it began after diplomacy ended. In current military conflicts raging around the globe, diplomacy, fighting, and reconstruction all go on simultaneously. Clearly, warfare is now between groups, not states, and our terminology defining warfare must reflect this. 

And the groups waging violence are political. Frankly, in contemporary warfare violent groups can no longer stay apolitical. Politics and warfare go hand and hand. Whether it is a standing army or a transnational terrorist group, each has to use politics--either persuasion or coercion--to coordinate and organize limited resources to achieve a political result. We need to bring Clausewitz into the fourth generation.

The difference between modern, 4th generation war (as characterized the wars in Somailia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Mexican drug wars) and the previous generations of war (epitomized by the Civil War, World War I, and World War II) is that large standing armies no longer meet in a decisive battle. Large armies may meet on the field of battle, but that rarely solves the conflict. Warfare continues long after major combat operations conclude. Without the decisive battle, the solution to violent conflict is political.

War has gone from nation states fighting each other to nation-states fighting political groups, ethnic factions, religious affiliations, economic classes, or even individuals fighting each other. Of course, war has always included sub-national actors, but until the Cold War they could never dominate the fight. As America has learned repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan, non-government actors can hurt you as easily as another nation can. Though smaller, they will fight for longer and harder. Their motivation is always the same: political ends through violent means. War is political; and once the warfighter understands that, then the key to unlocking the dilemma of contemporary warfare presents itself.

We fight political war.

For Clausewitz, warfare was the extension of politics into a new realm, a transformation of diplomacy into something else. For the insurgent, the counter-insurgent, the revolutionary, or the fourth generation soldier, politics is warfare. Warfare is political.

Calling conflicts political war aids the warfighter at every level. Strategically, leaders must set clear political goals. Wavering on the goals will cost the commander support, or create a politically tenuous situation at home. Operationally, in political war the greatest gains on a battlefield come from securing the support of key leaders and the support of the population. This political support goes much farther than killing or capturing the enemy. Tactically, allowing needless civilian casualties (whether or not your army caused them) is bad politics, and thus ineffective warfare.

Political war.

The contemporary operating environment can be called all sorts of things, but we prefer political war. Using terms like low intensity, irregular or unconventional cloud the kernel of truth about warfare. Political war describes the root causes of every insurgency, civil war, revolution, or guerilla struggle waged on our planet today better than any other term.

eigthteen comments

Political war it is then…but- if all war is political then you’re back to naming it. Are we fighting a guerilla political war, small political war, 4G political war…etc. WWII would be a conventional political war.

Well Jon, you beat me to my first comment — all war, from the beginning of time is political and could be called political war. This term doesn’t do anything to distinguish the current world conflicts from any other in the last 10,000 years. I would argue that “political war” doesn’t define anything, it just states the obvious.

I would also argue that not all participants in the current conflicts would consider their objectives political. While they may be, I would imagine the radical Islamic terrorists truly believe that the religious ideology of Islamic hegemony is beyond politics and it the will of God. They would argue that calling God’s will political is blasphemy and would summarily discount this term.

Since I started writing with Michael, my first instinct is to usually discount new definitions he comes up with, as he often does with mine. My first reaction to “political war” was the exact same. Didn’t Clausewitz say all war is political? Reading what Michael came up with though, I think the term works. Some thoughts.:

1. Clausewitz doesn’t have the monopoloy on defining war.

2. Clausewitz said war was politics by other means. But to disagree with Michael, and I think he did disserive writing this in his post, not all war is political. All war today is politics.

3. To me the main difference between past wars, and the wars of today is that in past wars the goal was to kill the enemy, today we hope to kill the enemy and/or convince him not to fight anymore. The political will of the populace is what matters.

@ Will – Islam is political, according to Islamic people. Read this article from FA.

All naming and defining fundamentally puts limits on warfare. What I tried to do is come up with a term that describes the vast majority of wars since World War II. They have their roots in inter-political struggle either within a state or groups of states. I feel if we call contemporary conflicts political wars than we understand the basis behind those wars. Keeping this in mind, I understand the massive audacity I am exhibiting by trying to define all wars since WWII.

Some more minor points. Will, as Eric mentioned, in Islam the religion is political and their politics are all Islamic. Trying to create an Islamic state is a political goal with religious motivation. Jon, in the post about terms I liked I tried to choose the terms that could describe the operational aspects of a war. In those cases, civil war, revolution, guerilla or insurgency describe the tactics or strategies employed to achieve the political war’s objectives.

As for the wars like World War II, World War I and the past European wars. I don’t have a term for them, but I have a feeling it will lie somewhere in inter-state war or maneuver war. I love the phrase maneuver warfare because it captures the essence of those wars so well.

Thanks for all the comments. I in no way have a monopoly on naming conventions for these conflicts and I would love to hear more opinions and comments on this term.

Eric — the link didn’t work.

I get that Islam is political, as are all religions, but I still think the truly radical would consider calling their objectives political blasphemous, arguing that God’s Will is not political, not subject to debate and differing opinions. Now I’m not saying you need a one size fits all term that all sides in all conflicts would agree on but I am just pointing out something I think some participants in the current world’s conflicts might think.

And just to clarify, I don’t mean to say that the leaders of radical Islamic groups would disagree that their objectives are political, quite the opposite. I am talking about the average foot soldier that they recruit to do their dirty work. I am talking about the poorly educated, brain-washed suicide bomber/sniper/cannon fodder who would be told that God’s Will is non-negotiable — therefore not political.

I’ve never tried linking in our comments before, but there is an extra http: in the link, just delete it and you are coolio.

Think all those above were expecting a great revelation from the veteren of our current conflict. But like Will said, war has existed since the first single cell mutated into something slightly different and needed to compete for the same resources as its predecessors. That cell either survived, died, or retreated to another niche. It’s always been political: about the survival of a way of life. Granted the scope of how we define that way of life has vastly expanded, but I believe expecting to put new names on warfare so we can better understand it is presumptuous. I think Michael goal was to show war for what it is rather than deluding ourselves into believing we are creating a better world for everyone. Rather, we create a better world for ourselves and those who live like us and believe like us. We fight to ensure OUR better world. War is just another form of competition. And competition exists when two entities attempt to ensure their static existence. Now that can mean that we fight so my nation can consume a disproportionate amount of resources, or so that we are free of fear, or so that my religion is vastly glorified above all the others; it’s all political and it’s all compeditory. And yes, for that exstremist cannon fodder guy, doing god’s will is a political goal. His belief that it isn’t doesn’t make it less true.

Hey there,

I found you linked off of milblogs.com.

I’d like to invite you to the beta of a conservative grassroots news site, rightriot.com. The site isn’t strictly military but a number of our members are past or present soldiers. You can join and link to your blog there, or just post a blurb about rightriot.com on your blog so that your readers will see it.

We’re fighting political war every day and we want to provide the tools for others to join in the fight against global socialism.

Bill Wilson

Because we believe Foreign Affairs and Military Affairs to be essentially non-partisan, On Violence is also non-partisan. We will not endorse democrats or republicans, liberals/progressives or conservatives, left-wing or right-wing.

For any future comments, please include personal links in the personal URL section.

Ok – it isn’t the actual naming of current conflicts that bothers be…it’s more the assumption that war has fundamentally changed. I really don’t think war has changed. TTPs change, but war doesn’t. Mao talks about the different levels of his war – ranging from similar fighting we see in Iraq and Afghanistan to the contemporary conventional battles of the day. You can say the same for Lawrence, Tzu and any number of other military leaders and their conflicts.

Plus, there are decisive engagements that are purely military. Desert Storm, Grenada, Panama, OIF 1 and most importantly (and most over looked) the South Ossetia War that took place less than a year ago. The Georgian’s decisively accomplished their goals in South Ossetia…and quite successfully fought a conventional war against Russia. Of course they couldn’t maintain it past several days – but it was very conventional. Both sides used CAS, UAVs, ADA all deployed in depth..etc.

Yes – South Ossetia did have a strong civilian force fighting fairly well against the Georgians…but they were much more akin to Tito’s fighters than Osama’s.

People tend to overlook the fact that other military actions are going on around the world.

The implications of the “war is politics” statement can deeply impair the faith of a lot of people including myself who believe in some form of a “Just War” theory (though I know the belief has been abused since its inception). It is often not some notion of a political goal, but fear, a general feeling of a threat, and ultimately the belief that this war is absolutely necessary that gets masses to support a war. I´m sure you´ve seen this often used qoute from Goering:

“Why of course the people don’t want war … But after all it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

You´ve attempted to define war, and you´ve done so to your perspective, but what you´re wandering into is another nebulous grey area of what is politics and how do you define that?

Would defending yourself against an aggressor be a political goal? Certainly not at a personal level, but when it starts becoming slightly larger, more coordinated, and more organized, is forming a group to defend your neighborhood from a group intent on pillaging your town a political activity?

Saying war is simply the use of violence to accomplish political ends carries immense Machiavellian connotations, and removes any illusion of being champions of justice and defenders of the nation that people need to feel to justify something as horrible as war. Maybe its just because politics is a loaded word and calling motivations outright political goals makes people feel as if the word debases their beliefs. To me I am against the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan because they ARE tied to political goals; I do not feel they are tied to self defense or any of the pillars of a “Just War”.

War and politics will of course always be tied together. An aggressor always fights for a specific goal, a defender may just be fighting for survival which I wouldn´t place in the realm of politics. Sometimes the roles of aggressor / defender aren´t clear and may only come to light after the dust settles if ever. To further blur the line most of the time the defender has done things to provoke, bluff into a preemptive strike, or force the hand of the aggressor in which case for the defender as well: the war is political.

South Ossetia someone mentioned earlier has been a perfect example of this. Whether it was Georgia or Russia that really started things off still isn´t clear, they still point the finger at one another. Tension was and still is extremely high between Russia and Georgia. Georgia wanted closer relations to the west and wanted to have clear control over its sovereignty, and Russia still wants to exert influence over its former sattelite. South Ossetia and the Ossetian people were to a degree nothing but poker chips in a higher level game and were used as little more than excuses and a hotbutton to push to start a war. In the end the international spotlight on Russia made it look bad for invading such a smaller nation, and Russia withdrew from everywhere except for its peacekeeping force in S. Ossetia. By in large they did not withdraw because they were militarily beaten, but because it made them look bad to the international community, and the Russians had also made their point very clearly to Georgia: “NATO countries did not come your aid with much more than words, and you are no match for Russia alone.”

Its not quite “War is a Racket” but I´ll take “War is Political”. Good post.

Also to make the point clear Ossetia never got to the long occupation stage you call 4GW. The Russians withdrew before it got to that point.

Jon- You may be right that war has not fundamentally changed. But, after reading The Accidental Guerilla and The Sling and the Stone, and reading and studying it, it sure seems like it has. Technologically, socially and internationally, seems just don’t seem the same. Now are the philosophical underpinnings of war and violence still the same? I would say they are. As for your examples of decisive maneuver operations, I believe they are just that. In the long run, OIF 1 caused an insurgency, the first desert storm didn’t achieve any poltical results and hence OIF 1, Panama and Grenada had just as many issues with non-combatants but were not extended conflicts (thus political war planned and executed properly, but we know a lot more about Latin America than Asia). I haven’t studied the Georgia/South Ossetia conflict, but in total that was one maneuver war that ended fairly quickly while numerous insurgencies dot the globe.

Chris- So you know we love Just War theory here. By calling war political, I am trying to get at its nature. Having said that, as we live in a democracy, I expect my leaders to lead ethically and morally. Whether or not they do when it comes to war, that is another issue…

Isn’t T.X. Hammes a retired USMC colonel? In part three you refer to him as a Lt. General…

I’m confused who exactly is being given credit for Hybrid Wars. Hybrid Wars is largely Frank Hoffman’s work from what I understand. His work seems to suffer from what you lamented at the very beginning of the series: the application of a new non-descriptive label to warfare.

Also, Killcullen seems to have attracted a fair amount of interest in his global insurgency framework.


@ Luke – I fixed the rank error.

Luke- You might be right about Hoffman coining Hybrid wars, all I know is that Kilcullen agrees with the use of the term hybrid warfare. He places his globalized insurgency within the hybrid warfare context.

Thanks for the spot on the rank error. He was a colonel when he published the sling and the stone and I read him referred to as a general, so I assumed he got promoted. My bad.

I should say this series was quite thoughtful.

If anything, it reads much better as a single post, or the expression of thoughts on a single topic.