This article deals with what are termed descriptive and normative understandings of war. Descriptive accounts attempt to capture and describe the most salient and essential features of warfare as it is experienced by its participants (and victims). Normative accounts, by contrast, attempt to provide theories about when, if ever, the kind of activities in those descriptive accounts are justified (permissible, excusable, or unavoidable). Normative accounts of warfare also attempt to develop theoretical frameworks within which appropriate and inappropriate means and methods of conducting war can be distinguished. Such justificatory accounts of war and its conduct may be purely political in nature (political “realism”), but are more often framed as moral and ethical arguments about the permissibility of resorting to armed force to resolve conflict and the sorts of methods and tactics which may be permitted when doing so (“just war” theories). This article concludes with recent developments that challenge conventional theories concerning justified war and its proper conduct in the light of new military technologies for waging war, as well as the increased resort to terrorism and forms of “asymmetric” warfare by individuals and organizations not officially representative of existing nation-states.
The Conceptual Origins of Modern Conventional War
War—conventionally understood as the opposite of peace, tranquility, security and stability—represents a form of conflict among nations and peoples in which armed force, or the threat of armed force, is employed by a nation’s political leaders and elites in order to further their nation’s (and perhaps also their allies’) political or economic interests. War, in particular, is thought to represent a form of political conflict between adversaries in which less violent and dramatic modes of conflict resolution—such as diplomacy, negotiation, economic sanctions, and political compromise—have proven ineffective or futile. The final resort to armed force is intended to compel the recalcitrant adversary to comply with the militarily victorious nation’s will or ambitions Clausewitz 1976 provided the classic summative assessment of war in the early 19th-century as precisely such a “continuation of political intercourse, . . . with other means” (p.87). The goal of armed conflict in pursuit of a nation’s political objectives is, he argued, to defeat the enemy’s armies, occupy his cities, and break his will to fight or resist. Orend 2009 maintains that such general descriptive accounts of warfare as a political phenomenon focus primarily (though not exclusively) upon a public, state-centric conception of armed conflict, also known as “conventional” warfare. Raising, training, and equipping armies and navies and using these for political purposes in the manner described above by Clausewitz is an enormous undertaking, feasible only for politically powerful and economically well-resourced states. Likewise, states have long been thought to be the only legitimate agents of such power and authority. It has only been since the 17th century, however, that this conventional public account of warfare has been understood as the sole legitimate description of this activity, as distinguished from various forms of what were once termed “private war.” The latter encompassed other categories of armed conflict between rival principalities, political factions within states, large criminal or even corporate or religious factions, or among ethnic or tribal groups within regions or territories lacking a strong central government. This broader distinction between public and private war was first codified in Gentili 1877, as destructive wars of all of these different kinds raged throughout Europe, ostensibly fueled by religious sectarian concerns for Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Gentili’s distinction was incorporated within Grotius 1625, from whence it was increasingly recognized in international law.
Clausewitz, Karl. Fundamental Principles of War. Translated by Hans W. Gatzke. Washington, DC: Military Services, 1942.
Originally published in 1812. Sometimes mistakenly treated as a preliminary outline for Clausewitz’s mature work (Clausewitz 1976), this summary is a lesson outline for Clausewitz’s pupil, the Prussian crown prince, Friedrich Wilhelm, written just prior to the tutor’s departure from Berlin to join the Russian Army in its fight against Napoleon. Contains useful reflections on military strategy and tactics as practiced during the Napoleonic Wars, and the campaigns of Frederick the Great.
Clausewitz, Karl. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Originally published 1830. Widely respected as the most thorough and systematic treatment of the origins and proper waging of conventional war ever written. The author’s analysis is deeply indebted to Newtonian mechanics, describing war in terms of opposing vector forces operating on a political or geographical center of gravity, seeking to move people and events into the final configurations desired by the military victors.
Gentili, Alberico. De juri belli, libre tres. Translated by T. E. Holland. Oxford: Clarendon, 1877.
Originally published in 1589. Pioneering analysis by one of the founding figures of international law, introducing categories and distinctions of conflict that established many of the fundamental principles of warfare and the law of armed conflict as understood today.
Grotius, Hugo. De iure belli ac pacis libri tres. Paris: Buon, 1625.
Sets forth several conditions for justification of use of force, well beyond those found in earlier discussions in medieval philosophy. Outlines laws pertaining to conduct of hostilities, including differentiating between combatants and classes of noncombatants who should properly be immune from attack; mandating proper treatment of prisoners of war; and for the first time proscribing use of weapons (even against otherwise-legitimate targets) whose destructive powers are wholly indiscriminate, or can be shown to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.
Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Respected classicist and military historian describes key military conflicts from Salamis to Vietnam, arguing that the rise to dominance of European militaries has as much to do with their common grounding in the shared values of Western culture (democracy, capitalism, individualism, and political freedom) than with accidents of environment or geography.
Kagan, Donald. On the Origins of War. New York: Anchor, 1995.
An exhaustive historical account of the origins and causes of conflict from the Peloponnesian War to the Cuban missile crisis by a venerable classicist and respected American intellectual.
Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
An authoritative survey of wars and methods of warfare, from the Neolithic era to the Battle of Waterloo, by a world-renowned military historian.
Orend, Brian. On War: A Dialogue. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
Lively, thoughtful, and unpretentious treatments of the nature, origin, and causes of war, together with an account of the rise of philosophical and moral reflection on how to restrain it.
Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Contributing authors examine battles, strategy, tactics, and military technologies from Marathon to the First Gulf War, tracing the rise to military dominance of Western culture over two millennia.
Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Arguably the most influential and widely studied of the “Seven Military Classics” of ancient China, attributed by tradition to a military general and Confucian sage (Sun Wu; c. 512 BCE), although many scholars challenge this view. Underlying thesis is that war itself is to be avoided if possible, or else fought expeditiously in the shortest time and with the least use of force possible. Effective military strategy involves applying these principles to the unanticipated and ever-changing nature of conflict.
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