War is the conflict between two or more opposing forces. These forces represent political communities, which may be nations, governments, or other entities, such as an organized terrorist group or an internal political faction within a particular country. The conflict typically involves the use of armed forces. However, it can also be primarily political in nature, with arms held in reserve and used only as a threat. The Cold War that spanned much of the second half of the 20th century between the Soviet Union and the United States would be an example of such a war.
War is characterized by intentional violence carried out by groups of individuals trained specifically for that purpose. Wars can be fought internally between political groups with opposing beliefs and goals (a civil war) or against an external enemy. An external enemy may be a nation state or an organized group that aspires to statehood or to gain influence in a state (such as modern terrorist groups). A war may even be waged against private groups with no ambitions of statehood, such as drug traffickers targeted in the U.S. war on drugs or a small dissident group of guerillas within a country. This last group carries out a type of war known as a guerilla war (a name that means, literally, “little war”). Guerilla wars were most common during the last third of the 20th century. The key element in a guerilla war is that the guerillas, although typically facing much larger and often better-armed forces, have widespread support from the people. They attack and harass government forces to try to undermine rule by that government in an area. An example would be the guerilla war waged by the Afghan Mujahideen against the occupying forces of the Soviet Union, following their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Wars vary in motivation and goals. They have been fought for land, resources, national independence, religion, self-defense, and because of irreconcilable political differences. The Prussian military soldier and strategist, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), once claimed that “No one starts a war…without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” That point, the need to have a clear objective before starting a war, would seem to be obvious. However, some wars are started without a clear agreement on the goals of the war or how they are to be achieved. Those who study America's involvement in Vietnam, or that of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, often find that there was widespread disagreement as to the objective of each of these wars, even among government officials.
In every war, each side wishes to defeat its enemy. However, there is also lack of agreement on what constitutes a “defeat.” The defeat of an enemy's forces and its ability to wage war would seem to be a clear defeat of that enemy. That, however, may not always be the case. Von Clausewitz once said that it was not always necessary to conquer all of an enemy's territory, but there were times when, even if it were done, it might not be enough to defeat that enemy.
War is an extension of national policy. The policy of the nation waging a war will therefore play a major role in determining the “character” of the war that is waged. A similar idea has been advanced by Sir John Keegan, author of A History of Warfare. Keegan has suggested that war is a universal phenomenon whose form and scope is defined by the society that wages it. When that society holds the goals of a war to be of absolute importance, the ultimate result can be total or absolute war.
Wars can be conventional or nonconventional in nature. Conventional war consists of the use, by opposing sides, of armed forces in battle. As the size of the forces grew and the type of arms used became more sophisticated, the numbers of people killed and wounded rose drastically. Unconventional war tries to defeat an enemy using methods other than traditional armaments and may result in high death tolls among combatants as well as civilian population.
In World War I, a new type of weapon emerged with the introduction of chemical agents to the battlefield. The chief of these was mustard gas, a poison that attacked the respiratory and nervous systems. Chemical warfare was thought to be so devastating that its use was banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1929. This followed a precedent set by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which had established rules by which war was to be conducted and what weapons could be used to conduct such wars. The conventions were, in part, violated in World War II, but the ban against chemical agents on the battlefield was observed.
The age of nonconventional war can be said to have truly begun in 1945, when nuclear bombs were used to annihilate the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the same year, the cities of Tokyo, Dresden, and Hamburg had most of their populations wiped out by fire bombs targeted against each city and all of its inhabitants. Technology had outpaced the ability of “rules” to keep abreast of it.
Today, in the 21st century, conventional war continues. However, there are other means of conducting war for which each nation must prepare. This type of war is described as N-B-C: nuclear war, biological war, and chemical war using these agents in place of (or in addition to) conventional arms. Nuclear war includes devices that produce explosions through fission or fusion, but now also uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material with “dirty bombs.” Biological war uses lethal viruses to spread disease and death in an enemy country. Chemical warfare uses agents that have progressed far beyond the mustard gas of World War I. These now include agents that can cause death to millions in a short time period after a brief exposure. Anthrax has been “weaponized” to create such a chemical weapon.
The “rules” of war and codes of conduct in war have varied over time. In the sixth century, Sun Tzu wrote that “all war is based on deception.” This is the one rule that may not have changed. In the 19th century, von Clausewitz wrote that moral principles were the most important element in war. He defined these moral principles as “everything that is created by intellectual and psychological influences.” In the 20th century, while attempts were made to reduce armaments through the Washington Naval Conference and the agreements at the Hague and Geneva, wars took on the ability to end all life on the planet (see Megadeath). A question that follows from this is, can there be such a thing as a just war?
Ethicists and theologians have attempted to define what constitutes a just war. There is general agreement regarding several points that must be present for a war to be considered “just.”
Cause: The war must have a valid or just cause. Self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause.
Last Resort: War must be a last resort, used only after all other options are exhausted.
Waged by Legitimate Authority: War must be waged by a legitimate authority and not by individuals or groups.
Proportionality: The force used in the war must be a proportional response to the injury suffered.
Discrimination among Targets: The tactics and weapons used must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians.
Even with all of those rules in place, as well as in practice, all levels of leadership, both military and civilian, must demonstrate actions and decisions that are oriented toward positive virtue before the individual soldier can be expected to act virtuously and to follow the rules of war.
War exacts a cost for all parties, regardless of who wins and who loses. In addition to the financial burdens of war, recent studies suggest that many soldiers who in past years would have been said to be “fine” are, in fact, struggling with emotional and psychological scars that are a direct result of the aftermath of their participation in war. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) place a heavy toll on veterans and on their families.
Wars are ultimately decided by a number of factors. The most obvious factor is by battles won or lost. After defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon and his army were finished. The French had lost their empire in Europe. After the defeat at Petersburg, the South had in effect lost the American Civil War. After their defeat at Yorktown, the British yielded to America its independence. The fall of the Maginot Line meant ultimate defeat for France in World War I.
Some military historians and strategists (such as British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart) believe that it is not the loss of lives or military battles that cause a war to be lost. Liddell Hart insisted that the real issues of a war were decided by hope. That is, defeat came to one side because of a “loss of hope” on the part of the vanquished. He describes a progression that starts with a feeling of helplessness, then moving to hopelessness and, finally, when hope had been lost, to the capitulation of one side. Those who believe wars are decided by a loss of hope can also look back to Yorktown to explain why the British, an empire with the most powerful fleets and armies in the world, agreed to withdraw and give independence to its former American colonies.
Perhaps the attraction of war lies in the possibility of a solution to some pressing issue. The flags, music, and comradeship of soldiers all seem romantic and can be a powerful attraction. However, a balanced view of war came from Confederate General Robert E. Lee who, after seeing the slaughter that his men inflicted on attacking Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, said, “It is good that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”
See also: Megadeath; Terror Management Theory; Terrorism.
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