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This is an attempt to identify the key aspects of war.

Almost everyone agrees that war is bad, something to be avoided if possible, but we are not very clear what the ‘if possible’ might consist of: whoever you talk to, the responsibility for avoiding war seems to rest with someone else.

War can be fought on the land, on the sea or in the air: usually the territory being fought over is on the land so, for the sake of simplicity, we can talk about armies, soldiers and battlefields, but the same considerations generally apply to a navy or air force.


The nature of war

War is a state of violent physical conflict between nations.

We often use the word ‘war’ to refer to other forms of conflict (people talk about a ‘war on poverty’ or a ‘war on terrorism’), but this is just a metaphor: actual war involves physical violence, whether it involves swords, arrows, guns or missiles.

It is a distinct state, a mode of operation where the usual rules and standards no longer apply: sometimes the beginning and end are marked formally by a declaration of war and the signing of a peace treaty, and sometimes the participants just start and stop fighting.

It is a physical and violent conflict: the usual aim of war is to defeat the enemy’s army and, thereby, defeat the enemy’s leadership. Sometimes the conflict is almost entirely restricted to the armies; at other times, civilian lives and civic infrastructure are attacked, usually in an attempt to reduce the morale and effectiveness of the fighting forces.

It is a conflict between nations: it starts when the leaders of one nation decide to use physical violence to impose their will upon the leaders of another nation. What constitutes a ‘nation’ is another difficult question, and sometimes one party will believe they are fighting a war while the other party sees it as a ‘police action’ or putting down a rebellion. A civil war happens when two different parties each claim to be the legitimate national leader.

War is always a costly, dangerous and destructive activity.

It is costly because weapons, ammunition and people all get used up and need to be replaced; it is costly because all the resources, time and energy we put into war are not being put to better use; it is also costly because of the emotional and psychological impact of war on the participants and victims.

It is dangerous because people get killed and maimed, both deliberately and accidentally; it is also dangerous because war is one of the most unpredictable activities humans engage in – no matter how confident you may be, you never know the outcome in advance.

It is destructive, possibly the only deliberately destructive activity humans engage in: outside war, we are mostly trying to build and create, and the rest of the time we are relaxing, having fun and being entertained; but when we are at war we deliberately aim to kill and destroy; and as we aim to kill and avoid being killed, we are often traumatised. People do not return from this experience unchanged.

The start and end of war

War starts when the leaders of one nation decide to use physical violence to impose their will upon the leaders of another nation, but this is rarely the first option.

Because war is a costly, dangerous and destructive activity, a sane leader will generally try to exhaust alternative strategies before initiating a war. Of course, there are different perspectives on what constitutes a ‘sane leader’, and different views on which leaders qualify as sane, but starting a war is usually a carefully considered activity.

There are many possible reasons for starting a war: they only need to make sense to the leadership, and they may have little to do with the public message. Amongst other possibilities, you may have been backed into a corner (or talked yourself into it) and will lose face if you don’t act; you may need to get some military figures out of the way for political reasons; your military may be feeling the need to justify their existence, or just to use all the training and toys they have been given; you may feel the need to unite the nation, or gain the respect which comes from being a successful wartime leader; you may need access to the resources of the other nation.

For each of these possible reasons, there are various factors which feed into the calculation, and few of them are clear and objective. And leaders – especially dictators – are often protected from inconvenient facts by the people around them, so the decision can easily be based on an inaccurate and partial understanding.

You only need to impose your will upon the leaders of another nation when they will not comply voluntarily: it is much easier and far cheaper to ask and negotiate, both directly and through international relationships. When these don’t work, you may seek to persuade through bribes and economic sanctions, again with the support of other nations where possible. When these don’t work, you have the explicit threat of war – which may well have been implicit in all the previous activity – and it may be possible to support (or create) a rebel group operating within the enemy territory.

Sometimes, for strategic and political reasons, the nation which wants to start the war will deliberately goad the other nation into starting formal hostilities, in much the same way as you can start a pub brawl with someone by insulting their mother, girlfriend or manhood. But, however it is started, and whatever the reasons, stated and unstated, war is generally a desperate last choice, an option taken by leaders when they feel there is no alternative.

War is usually initiated by leaders against the wishes of the people, although once war has started the people normally strongly support it. Once the justification for starting the war is accepted, then the nation believes it has the ‘moral high ground’; and the nation which is attacked, of course, easily believes that it is justified in resisting the enemy. This difference in perspectives makes it almost impossible to have any productive discussion of the morality of fighting any given war.

War rarely ends with the total destruction of the vanquished side: it usually ends either with a negotiated peace, or when both armies get worn out and go home. In pre-industrial wars, armies would often go home because it was harvest-time, and the men were needed to gather it in, so battle had to be postponed until they were ready to fight again.

Fighting war

Throughout history, wars have been mainly fought between conscripts, although this has rarely had a formal and legal basis: the local lord decides to go to war, usually because the king requires their support, and rounds up all the eligible young men to go with him: their status depended to a large extent on how many men they could muster.

These conscripts might receive a small wage, but they fought, partly to stay alive, and partly for the rape and pillage they were allowed afterwards. Standing armies did exist in the ancient world, when the state was large and powerful, but they were mostly comprised of conscripts and peasants; a professional standing army is essentially a modern development.

War has always been fought by young men, mainly between 15 and 30 years old. Some of them are keen to join the army to see the world, or because it is work which is respected, or simply to escape from their family or home town. Some of them want to fight because they crave excitement and adventure, or they want to test themselves and prove their bravery. A few want to hurt and kill others, and conflict provides an opportunity. Many do not want to fight, but recognise that they must.

The fighting of war exists on the border between civilisation and chaos, between the rule of law and the rule of power. War is legitimised violence: in a war, you are allowed (or encouraged. sometimes required) to do things you would not be allowed to do in peacetime.

A standing army has its own laws; until very recently, it has been accepted almost universally that these trump civilian laws. Military justice is primarily aimed at maintaining discipline and order, while civilian law is broader in both its scope and objectives.

There have been laws concerning the conduct of war since the first laws were recorded: they mainly act to protect non-combatants and as a reminder that the land you are fighting over will later be land you want to use; and they generally make the assumption that the people you are fighting and culturally very similar to you, so you can expect that restraint on your part will be reciprocated. It’s very easy to decide the laws don’t apply when fighting a culturally inferior enemy; and when wars are fought between culturally dissimilar groups, there may be a perception (on both sides) that the enemy is fighting in a brutal and dishonourable way.



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