In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section War

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Causes of War
  • Diplomacy

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International Relations War
Cathal Nolan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0049


Modern war is often defined as armed conflict within, between, or among states, although other political communities partake of war: ethnic and religious groups, ideological movements, terrorist organizations, large drug gangs, and other “non-state actors.” The narrowest meaning used by historians is war as the art and science and record of military operations. More general discourse sub-classifies war according to an ascending scale of participation—rebellion, insurrection, insurgency, guerrilla war, civil war, and regional war—culminating in three synonyms for armed conflict at the largest scale: systemic war, global war, and world war. War is also categorized by the types of weapons used to conduct it, as in the terms “conventional war” and “unconventional war.” A controversial distinction is made between limited war and total war, in which wars are typed by scope, the declared or discerned objectives of participants, and the degree to which militaries target civilians, enemy morale, or economic infrastructure. Social science literature defines a minimal threshold of mass political violence as war, as opposed to riot or other communal use of force, if deaths reach one thousand. That is an arbitrary definition, not universally accepted or normally employed by historians.

General Overviews

General literature on war can be split into two types: classic works that any serious student of war must know, and contemporary works written during the 20th century. Each category may be subdivided into theory and works seeking a more empirical understanding. Classic works focused on optimum strategies and obstacles to operations in a given time and place. A few from greatly varied times and locales produced traditions of strategic thought that retain influence. Eminent 20th-century military historians wrote new histories of war discrete from the rise and decline of civilizations. Some recent histories are theoretical rather than straightforwardly narrative. Post–World War II social science compiled systematic statistical surveys of wars, then identified “correlations” within datasets. Raw quantitative compilations were well-received at first, but theoretical work to which they gave rise is not seen as adequate. Efforts to identify general laws and erect predictive “models” of war and peace dominate the agenda of social sciences still.

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