Understanding War

When it comes to understanding War, few thinkers have had as much influence as Carl von Clausewitz. His On War is widely viewed as the classic text on the subject.

Clausewitz defines War as a continual and systematic use of collective physical violence between at least two organised groups, and that it is always intended to cause maximum harm. Compared with quantitative definitions of conflict and war (such as those that refer to a threshold of 200 killed soldiers), this qualitative approach has an advantage in that it focuses on the inner logic of the violent actions rather than their external consequences.

Modernising European states hoped that they could make their wars more civilised, less destructive, and more controlled by a system of military ethics and a rationalisation of the objectives of belligerents. They were also able to expand their diplomatic contacts and thus become better informed about the world beyond their borders, making their resort to war more of a calculated decision, rather than a spontaneous reaction to perceived threats.

Nonetheless, even the most modernising European states could not escape the fact that War was still an intrinsic part of human nature. Whether they wanted to or not, they could not avoid a struggle against their neighbours and with people half-way around the world, as long as they lived in a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

This basic truth has not changed since, and it applies to all modern societies and countries, from the tyrannical dictatorships of Africa to the fractious alliances between democratic and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Some of these wars are ambitious, requiring massive effort and evoking huge destruction; others seek only marginal advantages and show little hostility; and, if fought between nuclear powers, can be an existential threat to the very survival of humanity.

To understand these different types of conflict, it is necessary to break down the concept of War into its component parts and study their inter-relationships. This is not easy. On the one hand, there are those on the far right of the political spectrum who, like fascists, argue that a strong nation is entitled to whatever it can take by force; and there are those on the left who, like Marxists, see war as an expression of economic interest. Both of these approaches are flawed, because they do not take into account the many other ways that human beings cause and suffer from war. This article argues for a third option, based on contextual common denominators that can be applied to all types of warfare and all states. It is not easy to test this theory of course, but it will be a valuable tool for historians and other students of War. A PDF version of this essay is available here. David Harvey, 2017. All rights reserved. This work may be reproduced for educational purposes only with attribution to the author and a link to this website. Please request permission from the publisher for any other use.