The Concept of War


The word War has long conjured up images of a bloody, destructive struggle. In modern times however it is possible to think of war in a much more nuanced way. This new interpretation of war reflects the fact that it is now often fought between non-state actors (such as terrorist and criminal networks) on the international stage. It also recognises that modern warfare involves far more sophisticated weapons which allow for a greater variety of violence than could ever have been imagined by Clausewitz.

Nevertheless this definition of war remains relevant today. It recognises that a nation’s ability to wage war depends on its capacity to bring about sufficient adherence to its will. This means that the aims of the state must be clearly articulated and understood by those who would take up arms against it. This is not to dismiss the importance of other factors which may influence a decision to engage in conflict but it is to say that these must be balanced against the need for national will to prevail.

One of the reasons why this is important is that it helps to distinguish real war from the kind of violence which might be regarded as something else – for example, football hooliganism. In order to engage in a war the belligerents must agree to put themselves at risk, to run the hazard of being killed, and must therefore have a large enough number of willing participants for the battle to be worthwhile.

The nature of the will which a state wishes to impose on its enemies must therefore be taken into account in terms of what it is prepared to do and how it will go about doing it. This includes the use of military and political tactics which are designed to disarm the enemy by making it impossible for him or her to resist acquiescence. This is a practical necessity because the simplest form of war is an exchange of blows which will quickly end with either victory or defeat.

In the last analysis any war which is a matter of national will will ultimately be a contest between major interests. It is a clash between major powers and, as such, it is inevitable that the outcome will be bloody. It is therefore important to realise that any victory will be temporary and that defeat as a consequence of war will always be a transitory evil for the defeated country.

This concept of war is an essential component of the thinking of many strategic leaders who have a great interest in understanding and predicting future strategic developments and the implications of these for their own organisations. It is also recognised that unfamiliar strategic developments can lead to a misreading of the situation and a consequent reliance on unsuitable analogies.

There is a sense that it is vital for democracies to be constantly alert to the rationale for going to war, as politicians and leaders often choose to fight wars for less than noble purposes. This requires vigilance from citizens and a free press which is ready to question all justifications for military action.