Charles (Chip) Hauss

September 2003

At any time in recent years, there have been between 20 and 40 wars going on around the world. Since 1945, almost all of them have occurred in the Third World and almost all of them have been extremely bloody in large part because they are fought over race, religion, ethnicity, or language, which can bring out the worst in people and have led to some of the bloodiest conflicts the world has ever seen.

What Is War?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Until recently, most political scientists defined war as an armed confrontation between two internationally recognized states that resulted in a certain number of deaths on the battlefield, typically 1,000 per year. Since the end of World War II, however, almost all wars have been civil wars fought largely within a single country and pitting the state against its domestic enemies. And with the launch of the war against terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, we are engaged in a fight that is not confined to a single region and includes a party that has no desire to gain control of any particular state. In short, we have had to expand what we mean by war to include all systematic political violence in which at least one of the parties is a sovereign state.

By that definition, there have about 14,500 wars which claimed the lives of at least 3.5 billion people throughout recorded history. Depending on where one sets the threshold for the number of deaths, there have been between 224 and 560 wars since 1816.[1]

Wars have also gotten a lot bloodier. Three hundred years ago, most wars were fought by poorly armed and poorly trained soldiers. Relatively few people died, especially in the civilian population. The industrial revolution, however, "modernized" warfare with the creation and spread of such lethal weapons as the machine gun, airplanes and missiles laden with bombs, and, of course, weapons of mass destruction. Well over 100 million people died in the 20th century's wars. Some of them were so-called "quiet crises" because they did not get much coverage in the western media, including the 1990s civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) which took 2.5 million lives.

Not all the killing involves the use of high-tech weapons. Most of the 600,000 victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda were killed with machetes. The New Yorker's Philip Gourvitch begins his book on Rwanda, "The dead of Rwanda accumulated at a rate three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."[2] Rebels in Sierra Leone routinely asked their captives whether they wanted "long sleeves or short," and on the basis of the answer cut their arms off at the wrist or the elbow. Well over half the casualties in today's wars are civilians.

Sanda Kaufman discusses the ways that people in the U.S. frame the situation in Iraq.

Last but by no means least, modern warfare typically involves parties with very different weapons and other resources. The fighting between Israel and Palestinians typically pits well-armed Israeli troops against much less well-equipped Palestinians, some of whom feel they have no choice but to resort to suicide bombings and other activities that are widely viewed as terrorism.

Why Is War Important?

This question is also not an easy one to answer.

There is no question that war has been a common feature of the human experience ever since the dawn of civilization. What is less clear is whether war still "works."

During the 1980s, the Beyond War Movement (now the Foundation for Global Community) argued that war had become obsolete. Obviously, people could go to war and did go to war with alarming frequency. However, Beyond War argued that war had become obsolete because it no longer performed the function it was invented for -- to settle disputes that people could not solve through peaceful means. Since 1945, very few wars have been fought to a conclusion in which one side won a decisive and definitive victory. In fact, when there was a victor, it was rarely the supposedly stronger side that won, as was the case for the United States in Vietnam. Far more common are the conflicts that drag on and on, becoming bloody stalemates.

It is not just peace activists who reached this conclusion. Consider, for instance, the words of John Keegan, probably the preeminent military historian of our time:

War truly has become a scourge, as was disease throughout most of human history. The scourge of disease has almost within living memory been very largely defeated and though it is true that disease had no friends as war had had friends, war now demands a friendship which can only be paid in false coin.[3]

What Can Individuals Do?

Individuals can do two main things about wars. They can fight in them, and they can oppose them.

Despite the growing consensus that wars cost too much in terms of human lives and physical destruction, it is by no means clear which of these choices individuals should make. If it were, we would not go through the intense political debates that surround most contemporary wars.

That is not true for a handful of people who consider themselves to be pacifists who oppose war in all its forms. Many countries, including those with strong military traditions such as Israel, allow certain categories of people to become conscientious objectors (COs) who are exempted from military service. Typically, applicants for CO status have to demonstrate that they hold religious or similar beliefs that bar them from participating in war. Typically, too, conscientious objectors have to perform some sort of alternative service, sometimes in the military, sometimes in the civilian sector. No country officially allows people to become "selective" conscientious objectors who would be exempted from military services for opposing only some kinds of wars. In most countries, people who are denied conscientious objector status and refuse to go into the military are imprisoned.

For the rest of society, the choice of what to do about a war is more difficult. Most are willing to be drafted (if their country has a draft) whatever their position on the war itself.

Many base their support or opposition on just war theories. There are many of these that lay out criteria that determine when and if a war can be considered morally and ethically acceptable. The best developed of them grows out of the Catholic tradition which emphasizes four criteria:

  • The cause the war is fought for must be just.
  • War must be the last resort.
  • There must be discrimination. In other words, non-combatants must not be targets.
  • The force used must be proportional to or commensurate with the injustices or other causes which gave rise to the war in the first place.

Others all but automatically support wars out of a sense of patriotism which leads to an attitude of "my country, right or wrong." Americans saw this in much of the early support for the war in Vietnam or the remarkable proliferation of displayed flags in the aftermath of September 11. The point here is not to argue that patriotism is or is not justified, rather simply to point out that at the early stages of a conflict, at least, it often includes an emotional, "knee jerk" reaction to an international provocation.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it is hard for individuals to unambiguously use any criteria -- including pacifism, concepts of just and unjust wars, patriotism, and more -- in determining how they should respond to most recent conflicts. It is hard not to sympathize with those millions of Americans who displayed flags and showed their appreciation to firefighters and police officers in New York who sacrificed so much. However, it is also hard not to ask whether the war on terrorism (at least after the fall of the Taliban) or the 2003 war with Iraq violated the last resort, discrimination, and proportionality criteria of a just war.

In short, today's wars are not much like World War II in which very few people in Britain or France had trouble deciding what the right thing to do was. As individuals try to determine how they should act, they increasingly find today's wars to be ambiguous in at least two respects. First, as noted earlier, they wonder if wars can fulfill their political goals. Second, they wonder ethically, if the ends justify the means.

What Can States Do?

In essence, states face the same basic choice as individuals. A state which enters an international crisis can either go to or stay out of war.

Only a handful of states stay out of war for reasons akin to those of the individual pacifist. Even in the case of Switzerland -- the country which has most assiduously avoided war over the last several hundred years -- the decision not to fight has had as much to do with national interests as with an ethical objection to war.

Indeed, the dominant theory of international relations, realism, holds that states should make decisions about going to war on the basis of their national interest. They should make rational decisions after determining the likely costs and benefits of going to war. Would fighting protect or weaken national security, including the security of its borders, population, and resources? Would it expand or weaken national power?

Despite the common belief that such assessments lead to war, a realist analysis has led leaders not to take up arms in many recent conflicts. Thus, the United States and the other major powers refused to send troops to such places as Bosnia and Rwanda because, they claimed, vital national interests were not at stake and/or the costs of fighting would far exceed any benefits they would accrue.

The decision to respond with force against the Al Qaeda network and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is but the most recent example of the way that national leaders go beyond the strictures of realism and include ethical concerns in their decisions about going to war. That is to say, there is little doubt that American and other politicians felt they had not just the right, but the duty, to launch the war on terrorism. Similarly, the debate in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate authorizing President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq was filled with references to whether or not a war against the first state accused of being part of the "Axis of Evil" was legitimate.

In the end, states also face the same kinds of ambiguities individuals do. It is simply not easy to either make those rational "cost-benefit" analyses the realists want or determine how important it is to act ethically, especially if the human and economic costs of doing so could be great, as they probably would have been in Bosnia or Rwanda.

What Can Third Parties Do

Here the situation is somewhat different.

Of course, other countries can decide to join in or oppose a war using the same basic criteria that states which are direct parties to a conflict have to use. Thus, in the aftermath of September 11, most western governments had little trouble supporting the United States in the war against terrorism on both realist and ethical grounds. A year later, however, many of them reached very different conclusions when faced with the choice about supporting or opposing war with Iraq.

But third parties -- including international organizations and NGOs as well as states -- can play a very different and potentially more constructive role. All wars end...eventually.

Sometimes (though rarely these days) a war ends when one side definitively defeats the other. Sometimes, wars end when both sides realize they have reached a "mutually hurting stalemate," at which point they begin negotiating the terms to stop the fighting.

Often, third parties intervene while the fighting is still going on to stop it and then stay on afterward to help keep and build the newfound peace. In particular, the "international community" was involved in one way or another trying to stop the bulk of the intrastate and ethnic wars that broke out after the collapse of communism. There have also been cases in which coalitions of states and international organizations have worked together to end a conflict, as was the case with the late 2002 agreement to end the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo which had taken about 2.5 million lives. However, there were many instances (e.g. Bosnia) in which third parties were not very effective, and many times when they might have intervened, but did not.

The Ambiguity of War

The bottom line here is that little is clear-cut and nothing is simple as far as war is concerned today.

Almost two hundred years ago, Karl von Clausewitz summed up the conventional wisdom about war. "It is a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means." War was something political leaders could and should turn to when diplomatic and other peaceful measures failed.

A few scholars have tried to make the case that war is rarely worth the costs, including during the periods Clausewitz concerned himself with. Whatever one's historical interpretation, it is certainly the case that since the end of the 20th century, it is hard to make an open-and-shut case about the real political or ethical justification of more than a handful of wars. Many observers have come to share John Keegan's assertion that war has become a scourge, but perhaps an unavoidable one.

[1] Karen Mingst, Essentials of International Relations, 2nd Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 166-167. I have added one war to her total, since her book was completed before the War on Terrorism began.

[2] Philip Gourevitch, We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Farrar-Strauss-Giroux, 1998), frontispiece.

[3] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Knopf, 1993), 59.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "War ." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/war-unequal-power>.

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