The Taliban have seized power in Afghanistan. The insurgents stormed across the country, capturing all major cities in a matter of days, as Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies melted away. A highly costly 20-year war seems to have all been for nothing.
I could write about the now desperate situation of the Afghani people. Or maybe critique the role the West has played. But I want to focus on something perhaps a little deeper, as the whole situation has got me thinking. How has the context of war changed throughout history, if at all?
So long as there are men, there will be wars.Albert Einstein
War has been practised worldwide for centuries and in no sense seems to be at its demise. The twentieth century saw several brutal and atrocious wars. The advancement of technology has enabled greater death and destruction through the advancement of technology. In 100 years, modern human beings have managed to kill twenty-two times more people than our predecessors could do in 4,900 years.
Unequivocally, war has increased in lethality and noxiousness with the invention of instruments of mass slaughter, such as nuclear bombs. However, is the context of war changing?
What is War?
So what is war? Is it just an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will? If this is true, then war’s main aim for both sides is to make the opponent incapable of further resistance. This was certainly true of the Napoleonic Wars; it held true during the World Wars and is still consistent today. During the War on Terror, Al Qaeda’s goal was to move, incite, and mobilise to rise up to end US interference in Islamic affairs. So, is it nothing but a game of chess on a larger, more real stage?
So simple, really, if I wanted to win a war, all I would need to do is render my enemy powerless. During the Gulf War, the American government clearly aimed at the total defeat of Iraq’s armed forces. Destroying the enemy is central to the ideology.
Appearance of War
Many believe that the appearance of war has and continues to change. Sure, I can sort of agree with that, right? New weapons, new uniforms, new battlefields. However, despite the invention of new and improved firearms, which show the advance of civilisation, nothing practical to deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy has been achieved. Think about the atomic bombs that the Americans dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The rise of technology does not kill conflict because it renders it increasingly lethal.
Beatrice Heuser wrote the first book on how to read Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz is best remembered for his pronouncement that war is a continuation of politics by other means and for his observations on total war. He gave a new philosophical foundation to the art of war.
Well, Heuser stated that NATO politics decide on the necessary efforts; they determine which means are appropriate and then release them for use by the military leadership. Clearly, political objectives determine both the military goal and the amount of force required.
War is a continuation of politics by military means.General Carl von Clausewitz
War as a continuation of politics
I may not be a General or Prussian, but I too believe that war is an instrument of policy and politics. Many argue that this has been the case for centuries. Machiavelli, a political philosopher, statesman, and court advisor, wrote “The Art of War” in 1521. He stated that war is one of the Prince’s many tools for his political ends. Do you see this developing argument here that has existed for centuries? The context of conflict has forever revolved around politics. This argument generates the idea that as policy becomes more ambitious and vigorous, as will war.
This was clear during the Vietnam War. Harry G. Summers Jr., best known for his neo-Clausewitzean analysis of the Vietnam War, felt that army officers had no say in strategy but instead concentrated on procurement, training, and resource allocation. The actual strategy was made at a higher level and was budget-driven. However, throughout the Vietnam War, regardless of the military being confused by the orders given, they remained unquestioningly obedient to their civilian masters.
The conduct of war, in its great outlines, is, therefore, the policy itself, which takes up the sword in the place of the pen.General Carl Von Clausewitz
Unquestionably, war is an instrument of policy, and that policy is the guiding intelligence for the military. When studying various wars throughout history, this remains the case. Therefore, it seems explicit that to wage war without policy and strategy would be disastrous. Elder Bush’s administration demonstrated political strategy and military condition during the Gulf War, making military victory against Iraq possible. However, this is rooted within civil resistance dating as far back as 499 BCE. The context is not changing, and the fundamentals remain the same.
Since war is a branch of political activity, and that political strategy is required to be successful, the only practical action is to make the commander-in-chief a member of the cabinet.
The Austrian Emperor undertook this move in 1809, and the allied sovereigns in 1813-1815. Additionally, Lazare Carnot, “Organiser of Victory”, ran the French Revolution from Paris in 1793 and 1795. Today, there are 26 military aids to the President. This idea of an “aide-de-camp“, a military assistant to the head of state, has been documented for centuries.
Politics ultimately rests on the will and ability to employ force in its defence. War is and has always been a continuation of politics by military means.
The Principles of War
War has always had a collection of warfare rules independent of time, place, and situation. Sun Tzu documented the earliest known principles of war, circa 500 BCE, and Chanakya in his Arthashastra circa 350BCE.
John Alger, the author of “Quest for Victory“, suggests that the principles are nothing but a “catalogue of commonplaces that has served generations of soldiers as an excuse to not think things through for themselves”. So, I have analysed some wars; there are several consistent principles.
This is the idea of having an offensive and effective action. One particular example of this, during the German attack in May 1940 of WWII, in taking the initiative and retaining it during the entire campaign, rendered the launch of effective counter-attacks difficult for the French troops and allies.
Maintaining Flexibility and Freedom
The principle of maintaining flexibility and freedom of action has been prevalent within many ancient and contemporary military operations. Angstrom and Widen, in their book “Contemporary Military Theory: The Dynamics of War“, demonstrate this principle with the example of German General Erwin Rommel. He succeeded in forcing back by defeating his British opponents in North Africa in 1941, despite being numerically inferior, through flexible use of the weapons systems and units available to him.
Ability to Concentrate
One of the most critical principles in warfare is the ability to concentrate. The real art of war could be reduced to the ability to concentrate.
Rooted in war’s strategic thought is the principle of manoeuvrability. Being mobile on the battlefield is crucial. The World Wars portrayed this principle. A more modern example is the US-led ground war against Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
The principle of surprise is no guarantee of success, yet it undoubtedly increases the prospects of a successful result. An example of a successful surprise at a strategic and operational level is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. A similar example is al-Qaeda’s attacks in September 2001, consequently enraging the War on Terror.
Both ancient and contemporary generals and military thinkers have often stressed the importance of morale for effective warfare.
The final principle that lives throughout all wars is the principle of time. Time is a factor that affects almost all activities in war. Militaries organise their activities so that the time factor favours their side and ensures that the opponent ends up pressed for time. A modern-day example is the Kosovo War. The sustained bombing of Serbia put pressure on the Serbian leader to conclude that time was against him. A truce was the best way to avoid further losses.
It is unequivocal that common principles surround a multitude of wars. Therefore, producing the idea that the art of war is timeless.
Wherever war goes, violence follows. Conflict means intense violence or mass killings. Death and destruction has and will continue to remain an integral part of the conduct of war. As mentioned previously, war aims to make the enemy defenceless as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.
Some scholars argue war is becoming more detached from violence; however, this is not the case in any form. The total tally of twentieth-century deaths caused by organised violence constitutes nearly 75% of all war deaths for the last 5,000 years. After all, the modern era is responsible for the invention of mass-slaughtering devices, from nerve gas to nuclear bombs. Not to mention the use of torturing techniques, such as the abhorrent use of concentration camps and gas chambers.
Throughout history, there is an overwhelming, continuous theme of civilian casualties. WWII remains the most significant and violent conflict ever fought on this planet, resulting in 55 million deaths. Entire cities were carpet-bombed; no distinctions were made between the military and civilians. The Thirty Years’ War had entailed widespread atrocities against the civilian population. Furthermore, guerrilla warfare tactics deliberately target civilians. At least 244,000 Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani civilians have died violent deaths due to the War on Terror.
It is unambiguous that the context of war is not changing. In its essence, it has never changed. Our mate Clausewitz argued that it has remained “an act of force to compel our enemy into doing our will”. It is clear that all wars have been only a branch of political activity and are self-governing in no sense. Western countries continue to deploy their militaries to the Middle East to secure policy objectives, such as spreading democracy and peace, with the threat of force. It makes sense, right?
The principles of war remain unchanged, which the new generation of soldiers learn. You may claim it has changed in terms of mobilisation and motivation or with the rise of the internet and especially social media. However, the very context is still unchanged. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, textbooks expressing the principles and art of conflict emerged and have since proven timeless.
Moreover, violence is an intrinsic part of the conflict, and that fact will sadly never change. Unfortunately, war ceasing to exist is and will remain a utopian dream. Despite furthering technology to deter conflict, the death of civilians and military personnel and the destruction of cities is inevitable.
The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower. But war never changes!