What is ‘war’ and ‘conflict’ today? It is increasingly fashionable to differentiate between ‘war’ and ‘conflict’, drawing some sort of imaginary line between pure combat and social terrorism in a country that seems to function as a modern state such as Mexico or India, a country riven by a variety of below-the-radar insurgencies.
The answer in the past was simple: read On War by the Prussian warrior and worrier, Carl von Clausewitz, written getting on two hundred years ago. The content of this 600-page block-buster is timelessly fresh, stimulating, and relevant and is still widely accepted as the ‘sacred text’ of conflict; no doubt the admirers of Sun Tzu’s Art of War would reverse the pecking-order, and while there is a doughty band of ‘On War’ detractors they are left under no illusions about their minority status even though one of them, Martin van Creveld, turned this process of controversy to his reputational advantage via The Transformation of War.
However, to cite ‘On War’ as the sine qua non of the understanding of war, as some military theorists can and do, is like saying that an understanding of wine can only be achieved through a thorough appreciation of ‘grappa’ or ‘brandy’, being the pure distillation of turning of grapes into something drinkable which to most people means wine; what is more, many people dislike ‘grappa’ but do like wine.
Also there are several key differences between war/conflict today and Clausewitz’s Napoleonic era. Firstly, back then huge armies and navies engaged in equally enormous battles, with appalling casualty rates; secondly there are those drivers of modern war/conflict referred to in the previous ‘post’; and thirdly, the few books prior to Clausewitz that addressed war concentrated on tactics, with any deeper reflection a by-product.
Would Clausewitz have recognised today’s wars and conflicts, with their IED’s, suicide-bombers, and drones? Most probably he would have, but there is another fundamental difference between Clausewitz’s era and today which is that violence today erupts anytime, anywhere: it is what political geographer, Professor Derek Gregory, calls ‘Everywhere War’, with no front-lines, bases or overwhelming necessity for heavy weapons or hi-tech gizmo’s.
Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre