War: nature, strategy, methods

click above for a long but excellent lit review of concepts, definitions, and research on war


"Approximately 90–95% of known societies throughout history engaged in at least occasional warfare, and many fought constantly" (Lawrence H.Keely, War before Civilization)


The Human Security Report 2005 documented a significant decline in the number and severity of armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.


In 2008 the Centre for International Development and Conflict Management's “Peace and Conflict" study indicated that the overall decline in conflicts had stalled.


Since the early 2000-s about 120 armed clashes took place in the whole world. They comprised 80 countries and 6 million of people killed during them.




There are perhaps 4 key aspects of any discussion of war:



Definitions (needs conceptualisation)


Causes (need empirical theories)


Strategy (needs historical evidence and multi-factorial assessment)


Ethics (need normative theories)



and then there are a host of significant 'theorists' of war amongst whom arguably the most famous are:


Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 400 BC) Learn from history; fear of the power of others makes pre-emptive strike rational; human nature suggests man is aggressive and greedy. Fear (deos), honor (timê), and advantage (ôfelia) drives humans. Altogether T was a (defensive) realist.


Sun Tzu (BC 544-496) Art of War; primarily a strategy manual. the Art of war emphasises what we might call cunning - manoeverability, assessment, adaptability, taking advantage of opportunities, exploiting weaknesses in the enemy, intelligence/espionage, and not size of armies/arms, but unity of forces and purpose. very much a 'chess-player in war - and influenced the strategies of guerrilla warfare in the 20th C.


Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) more about ending the enemies capacity for war by a battle than attrition - to utterly destroy/humiliate



and in our modern age (from WW1 onwards):


Basil Liddell-Hart (1895-1970) keen on heavy armoury - tanks - mechanized warfare, fast manoevers,  and some say 'blitzkreig' tactics.


Michael Howard. (1922- ) best known for a translation of Clausewitz's 'On war' (w. Peter Paret).Howard looks at how armies reflect the character and social structure of their respective nations



Each of the above explore the first three key aspects. It is left to philosophers (and campaigners) to discuss the ethics of war of whom


Michael Walzer 1935 - (Just and Unjust wars, 1977) is celebrated.


To distinguish wars from riots and rebellions, collective violence from personal violence, metaphorical clashes of values from actual or threatened clashes of arms...we need definitions:



The root of the English word 'war', werra, is Frankish-German, meaning confusion, discord, or strife, and the verb werran meaning to confuse or perplex. War certainly generates confusion, as Clausewitz noted calling it the "fog of war", but that does not discredit the notion that war is organized to begin with. The Latin root of bellum gives us the word belligerent, and duel, an archaic form of bellum; the Greek root of war is polemos, which gives us polemical, implying an aggressive controversy.



Cicero defines war broadly as "a contention by force";


Hugo Grotius adds that "war is the state of contending parties, considered as such";


Thomas Hobbes notes that war is also an attitude: "By war is meant a state of affairs, which may exist even while its operations are not continued;"


Denis Diderot comments that war is "a convulsive and violent disease of the body politic;"


Karl von Clausewitz, "war is the continuation of politics by other means...War is interaction in which two or more opposing forces have a “struggle of wills”



and what it involves:


Rousseau: "War is constituted by a relation between things, and not between persons…War then is a relation, not between man and man, but between State and State"


and in our own time:

John Keegan - the political-rationalist theory of war; "It is assumed to be an orderly affair in which states are involved, in which there are declared beginnings and expected ends, easily identifiable combatants, and high levels of obedience by subordinates..."



Defining war 'operationally:


For purposes of research, concepts must be given operational definitions; they must be defined in terms of something that is directly observable and measurable.... in order to be able to determine what is a war and what actions belong to categories of military action short of war—like border skirmishes, for instance.


Singer and Small operationally defined interstate war as

 "a conflict involving at least one member of the interstate system on each side and in which the battle-connected deaths of all combatants together surpass 1,000."


This has become the standard operational definition of interstate war.


It may be necessary to define the concept of war more specifically in terms of the war’s severity, its magnitude, or its intensity. Singer and Small devised simple indicators for each:


severity is measured by the total number of battle-connected deaths suffered by all participants in the war combined;


magnitude is measured by the combined number of months each nation spent at war; and intensity is indicated by the number of battle deaths per nation-month.


And as Greg Cashman (What causes war? (2013)) has argued, "where we are doing an empirical analysis of the meaning and character of war, we perhaps need to test hypotheses that offer generalisations about war...but which entail the need for careful definitions of yet more terms.  So if we have a hypotheses...which leads to a general claim about under what circumstance wars generally occur e.g. war are less likely between democracies..."


And what might you mean (operationally) by democracies - how are you going to measure the concept of democracy so as to test your claim?





Conditions of War: fundamental factors


Economic reasons (poverty, lack of resources, low level of GDP or GDI, archaic character of the National Economy, its dependence on external factors (Coller and Hoeffler, Justice seeking and Loot-Seeking in Civil War)


Social transformations (transit from authoritarianism to democracy, creation of new nation-states.  (Keith Jaggers and Ted Robert Gurr, Tracking Democracy’s Third Wave with the Polity III Data)


Ethnic diversity: group rights, (Horovitz, Ethnic Groups in the Conflict)


Natural reasons (natural changes, natural catastrophe) (Homer-Dixon, Environment, scarcity and violence).


Political character of the states involved in wars. The Democracies are not fighting each other (Russet, Grasping the Democratic Peace).


Fear and perception (Thucydides) (link to IR theory of constructivism) This  may be both rational and irrational.



Types of Warfare:


1. Conventional warfare is an attempt to reduce an opponent's military capability through open battle. It is a declared war between existing states in which nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons are not used or only see limited deployment in support of conventional military goals and maneuvers.


2. The opposite of conventional warfare, unconventional warfare, is an attempt to achieve military victory through acquiescence, capitulation, or clandestine support for one side of an existing conflict.



3. Nuclear warfare is a war in which nuclear weapons are the primary method of coercing the capitulation of the other side, as opposed to a supporting tactical or strategic role in a conventional conflict.

4. Civil war is a war where the forces in conflict belong to the same nation or political entity and are vying for control of or independence from that nation or political entity.


5. Asymmetric warfare is a conflict between two populations of drastically different levels of military capability or size. Asymmetric conflicts often result in guerrilla tactics being used to overcome the sometimes vast gaps in technology and force size.






Explanations of war:


Behavioural: humans are aggressive...and are competitive...and are territorial...and somehow this can be scaled up to the nation state.



"National leaders who make the decisions to go to war are no different from the masses: they share with all people the same aggressive traits that characterize humans as a species. This collective characteristic of human aggression affects the process of war at the macro level of collective action".(Cashman)



OR...the root cause of war must be found in the personal, psychological characteristics of particular national leaders argue that people are not all alike. The individual makes a difference. It matters whether Germany is ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, or Angela Merkel. Aggression is seen as an individual characteristic rather than a collective characteristic, and its effect on war is felt at the micro-level of decision makers who hold in their hands the ability to choose war or peace.




Note on Freudian explanation: Sigmund Freud also believed the aggressive behavior of humans stemmed from deep-seated unconscious drives. Freud suggested that an explanation for such aggressiveness might be related to the existence of the life instinct (eros), which seeks to preserve and unite, and the death instinct (thanatos).3 This death instinct is centered inward, and the logical outcome of its potent hold is suicide—aggression directed toward the self... People live because the life instinct  counters the death instinct and channels the drive away from the self and toward others. Overt aggression is thus the result of internal aggressive drives being redirected at others. Freud argued that not only must aggression be released in some way or another but that humans gain a certain amount of satisfaction from its release. In other words, humans need to satisfy these aggressive drives.





Ethology (study of animal behaviour)


Ethologists initially saw aggression as an instinct or an innate drive that once helped to ensure the survival of the individual and the species. As such, it was passed down from generation to generation as part of our hereditary makeup. ... For ethologists the concept of aggression refers only to intraspecific aggression—fighting between members of the same species.



Konrad Lorenz saw aggression as a drive that must seek release; in other words, humans have an innate “need” for aggression. Some have referred to this conception of aggression as the drive-discharge model; aggression is seen as a drive that seeks release or discharge, thus impelling humans toward aggressive activities.


Probs of Ethological explanation.

Of course biological explanations of war and aggressive behaviour tend to come down to mono-causal explanations - 'for territory' for survival. Does not look at cultural and socio-political reasons as basic.




Albert Bandura, a proponent of social learning theory, maintains that aggression is learned in large part from the social environment.155 Aggression is greatly influenced by the socialization process that almost all youngsters encounter—in the home, among family members, with peers, in school, and in religious groups—as a natural part of growing up and becoming familiar with societal norms.



Demographic arguments: expanding population and scarce resources as a source of violent conflict





Sociological theories

The Primacy of Domestic Politics school based on the works of Eckart Kehr and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, sees war as the product of domestic conditions, with only the target of aggression being determined by international realities.




Idio-thetic theory (Individual+ their Psychology but with some socio-political constraint)... (sort of an Elites theory of war)


The Primacy of Foreign Politics approach of Carl von Clausewitz and Leopold von Ranke argues it is the decisions of statesmen and the geopolitical situation that leads to peace.


The basic assumption at this level of analysis is that individuals do make a difference. It matters that Vladimir Putin (or Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin) sits in the Kremlin instead of Josef Stalin; it makes a difference whether Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office instead of George W. Bush.


It matters because in most cases wars are precipitated by the decisions of individual leaders and their advisers. One would be hard-pressed to find examples of war that occurred without a command decision from the highest level of government authority. Thus, if we want to know what caused the outbreak of war, we need to understand the individuals who were responsible for those decisions.



So...can we reduce the causes of every war to the psychological makeup of individual leaders?



Any individual leader is constrained by a great number of important factors: by the international and domestic environments, by the role of governmental bureaucracies in policy formulation and implementation, by formal and informal decision-making processes, and so on.



 Under what circumstances might we expect individual leaders to be able to rise above the normal organizational constraints? In such situations individual level characteristics may be decisive.





But if war (and aggression) is the result of psychological dispositions...


Power orientation, coupled with self-control and a sense of responsibility, may have positive effects.


If power orientation is not restrained by a sense of responsibility or selfcontrol, the results can be rather nasty.


These power-oriented people tend to dominate others, to be argumentative, to be paranoid, and to have very little humanitarian or moral concern, and they may be impulsive and prone to taking extreme risks in the pursuit of prestige.


Studies find that high need for power is associated with a leader’s suppression of an open decision process.


The individual’s need for power is also linked to a tendency toward exploitative, conflictual, and aggressive behaviour and a disposition toward the advocacy of war or the use of force in foreign policy decisions.





Emotions: while emotions may aid decision making at some levels, extreme emotions can interfere with rational choice. Emotions unrelated to the outcome of the decision may be present as individuals make decisions. During the choice process individuals may experience anxiety, compassion, shame, pride, awe, admiration, anger, regret, panic, desperation, love, and hate—any of which might influence choice.



role of Historical Memory: key episodes etched in the memory of decision-makers may produce bad decisions about situations today. Leaders often apply analogies superficially, indiscriminately, and inappropriately. Fear of appeasement still over-shadows decisions about war especially in UK.


Group think: Eden's conduct of the Suez crisis in 1956






Rationalist theories of war assume that both sides to a potential war are rational, which is to say that each side wants to get the best possible outcome for itself for the least possible loss of life and property to its own side. This is based on the notion, generally agreed to by almost all scholars of war since Carl von Clausewitz that wars are reciprocal, that all wars require both a decision to attack and also a decision to resist attack. Rationalist theory offers three reasons why some countries cannot find a bargain and instead resort to war: issue indivisibility, information asymmetry with incentive to deceive, and the inability to make credible commitments



Expected Utility theory: necessary (but not sufficient) condition for war is that the gain in expected utility for winning the war should be greater than the expected loss in a defeat.



Can we be rational?: the work of Kahneman and Tversky has shown that we cannot. In terms of their Prospect theory perceptions of losses outweigh the value of gains (we more quickly normalise gains) - and thus war leaders try to regain losses and irrationally spend effort and lives doing so.



The central implication of prospect theory is that war is more likely when decision makers on each side believe that they are defending the status quo and therefore

believe that they will suffer significant losses if they do not fight to defend it. Wars are presumed to be more commonly motivated by the desire to prevent perceived losses than to attain future gains. Fear, not desire for expansion, is the most significant motivator.









Economic Theories: War can be seen as a growth of economic competition in a competitive international system. In this view wars begin as a pursuit of markets for natural resources and for wealth. “Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?" (US. President Woodrow Wilson, September 11, 1919, St. Louis




War and the big IR theories: Realism, Liberalism Constructivism:





Anarchy of states


States are Primary actors


states seek to either maximize their power or - at the very least - maintain it



Important to realists—the difference between the goals held by different kinds of states: status quo states and revisionist states. Status quo states are satisfied major powers who wish to maintain the nature of the current global distribution of power, rights, and status. As such, their goal is to maximize security rather than power. Revisionist states are dissatisfied major powers who seek a revision of the rules of the

current system as well as a redistribution of power and status in the system.  historically, they have attempted to achieve their revisionist goals through imperial expansion. This in turn requires that they maximize power rather than security; indeed, sometimes power is maximized to the detriment of security.


and the 'realist' security dilemma is a result:


States see themselves as insecure and they take actions to increase their security; they build up their military machinery and they create alliances. Other states are likely to see this as threatening to their own security; they feel less secure and take actions on their own to increase their security. This creates a spiralling on all sides towards war. And this carries forward for neo-realists who take a more systems view of the International balance of power.




Liberalism:  what causes war?


First, the nature of the international system (anarchy) is a problem. Thus, if the lack of an overarching global authority to keep the peace is the problem, liberals are likely to support international organizations, the creation of international regimes based on legitimate norms and international law, and ultimately world governance as a solution to the problem.


Second, the nature of certain types of states is problematic. Wars are not due to the evil nature of human beings but to the existence of bad institutions that corrupt human behaviour and foster conflict. Nurture democracy.


Third, the lack of self-determination for ethnic and religious communities is a source of conflict. The unjust denial of political and cultural rights for minority nations (including the right to create sovereign states) fosters internal conflicts that can spread throughout the region.


Fourth, the pursuit of “power politics”—the building of war machines, arms races, and the use of foreign policies that emphasize coercion—can also lead to war. Thus, militaries should be subjected to constraints, states should forgo the establishment of military-industrial complexes, leaders should refrain from coercive bargaining and other attempts to bully their rivals, and arms races should be reined in.


Fifth, countries that trade with each other are unlikely to go to war with each other..Protectionist policies that inhibit trade and penalize potential commercial partners limit the potential for cooperation and sow the seeds of conflict between states. Trade wars can lead to real wars. Thus, states should pursue free enterprise capitalism at home and free trade policies abroad.






How would constructivists examine the problem of war (or its absence)? A constructivist explanation of war would try to show how the social and ideational structure of the system— the international system, a regional subsystem, or a dyadic system—would make violence possible by endowing (constituting) actors “with certain identities and interests and by endowing material capabilities with certain meanings.” A constructivist explanation of war would be highly contextual, individualistic, complex, and highly contingent. Each war would have a

unique explanation.


Constructivists like cognitive theorists, are interested in ideas and beliefs.


But  the cognitive approach focuses on the ideas, beliefs, and perceptions of individuals,


constructivists emphasize how the interaction of individuals (and the interaction between states and their leaders) co-create these things.


They don’t really care about individuals per se, but rather the discourse, the identities, and norms that individuals draw on when making sense of the world and when making policies.


Constructivists see individuals as embedded in social institutions and are interested in how institutions shape them and vice versa.


If individual perceptions, beliefs, and worldviews are created through social interactions, then several types of social interactions might be important for constructivists.


For constructivists, War is more likely if political leaders have developed—due to their interactions with their peers and with other states—certain identities and views of other states (as rivals, enemies, threats) and certain techniques for dealing with such states (brinkmanship strategies, escalation strategies, pre-emptive strategies








Note on Clausewitz's classic: On war


Carl von Clausewitz is taken to be THE main man in the analysis of war. His classsic  'On War' consists of eight volumes..so presumably Clausewitz has something to say. Thus we had better offer a rough outline of his thinking.



Clausewitz famously holds that war is the "continuation of policy by other means". The conventional approach..holds that Politik drives war, but not vice versa. Actually the German word we translate as "continuation" (Fortsetzung) means literally a "setting-forth." This term does not require a sense of leaving something behind in the process; only our linear preconceptions lead us to imagine a norm in which the conduct of war is insulated from policy. Clausewitz believes war is not linear: war is a subset of the political context, and, furthermore, politics and military action interact in a complex, continual feedback process...every act in war is the "setting forth" of politics/policies. " (Beyerchen)


Clausewitz argues that the behaviour of each nation and its capacity to wage war depend on three groups of factors: the people, the military, and the government. When considering the people, one must examine, for example, their motivation, dedication, and support of their government. Of the military, one should ask how good their leaders are, whether they obey government orders, and whether they develop suitable doctrines and are well organized. And as for the government, it is wise to investigate how rational or realistic its policies are, and how effective it would be in mobilizing the people's support for a prolonged war.

For an interesting debate over what Clausewitz meant by his 'trinitarian' formula see this article

Clausewitz's text


War is thus more than a mere chameleon, because it changes its nature to some extent in each concrete case. It is also, however, when it is regarded as a whole and in relation to the tendencies that dominate within it, a fascinating trinity—composed of:

1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force;

2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and

3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.

 The first of these three aspects concerns more the people; the second, more the commander and his army; the third, more the government. The passions that are to blaze up in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope that the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.






1. The Maximum Use of Force. (Physical force).

2. The Aim Is To Disarm The Enemy. (The objective of war; or war as a zero-sum game)

3. The Maximum Exertion of Strength. (Intangible factors; or non-material force multipliers, or what he refers to as "moral forces")