Written by: Michael Kravshik.
This post will investigate the origins of nation-state conventional warfare as well as its main attributes. I will then argue that conventional warfare is a dying breed, and illustrate the importance of analyzing the implications of this significant shift in the conduct of war.
The modern nation-state is the pillar in which our current international system is built. Most historians tend to date the nation-state we recognize today back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. As a ‘hobby historian’ this conflict remains one of the most complicated historical events to truly understand. Since the war itself is not really the topic of this post I won’t go into too much detail.
The war was fought between a complex web of alliances of princes, dukes, kings, etc… Not a war only fought by countries, but also regions, cities, and religious sects. You could label it, or parts of it, a German Civil War, a Religious War (Catholics vs. the various new sects of Protestants) or a good old-fashioned war for power and any of them would be correct. It consumed much of Europe since many of the belligerents were also involved with or allied to other entities fighting other wars (for example, the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch Republic and Spain). Some might even call it all part of the same war. This really only scratches the surface, and as you can see, it was not a simple affair. However, something significantly simpler seems to have emerged from it. When this gruesome war finally ended in 1648, the result was a Europe that was immensely war fatigued and even highly under-populated in certain areas due to the extreme carnage. Stability was something the people of Europe yearned for, which aided the growing nationalist movements throughout the continent. Though the causes are extremely complex and subject to debate, the outcome was what we now know of as Westphalian Sovereignty, or to most of us, just sovereignty. The nation-state that resulted was based on the importance of the state as the primary entity in the international system, whereby it had set territorial borders and complete control within its own borders. As nation-states became more stable and entrenched, and nationalist feelings grew within the populations, modern national armies began to take shape in the way we now view them. Soldiers were uniformed, trained, and armed by the state, as well as disciplined by a professional military hierarchy.
This background sets the stage for the type of warfare that most people identify with, conventional warfare. This is warfare between two or more states, who all have well-defined armies that use conventional weaponry. Conventional weaponry can be described as any weapons that do not constitute weapons of mass destruction (nukes, chemical weapons, etc…), or guerilla weapons/tactics (IED’s, suicide bombings on civilians, etc…). Conventional warfare clearly existed before 1648, but not in the way we would readily identify as such. Many times armies were pieced together using bands of mercenaries, auxiliaries, and other forces that would not constitute a unified national army by today’s standards.
The switch to the Westphalian Sovereignty system in Europe directly impacted how the state conducted itself. The state could be said to have taken on a new being, one that outlived that of the particular ruler or governing body at any given time. In an effort to grow and maintain their power, the European nations became obsessed with self-reliance. Under the system of mercantilism, European empire’s strove to become entirely self-sufficient by obtaining and maintaining colonies which could provide a source of necessary natural and human resources. These resources could be called upon and helped to ensure that the Empire was not dependent on anyone (especially their potential enemies) in times of war. Mercantilism was a major economic concept pushing and defending the concept of Imperialism, and in many respects it heralded an era exemplifying the extreme of Carl von Clausewitz’s concept that war is just an extension of politics by other means.
Today, the concept of being entirely self-sufficient is not seriously entertained. If you do manage to stay out of the global economy, you also inevitably end up lagging far behind those who do take part (take North Korea for example). Taking part in the global economy provides too many advantages in terms of wealth, technology, and educated or skilled individuals that are necessary for improving peoples’ standard of living. The implications of the globalization and integration of the economy stretch far and wide, but I brought it up to discuss its impacts on conventional nation-state warfare, that being, it’s slow extinction.
Before I go on I have to add a few caveats to that extremely bold statement. To begin with, war and more loosely, violent conflict, is by no means extinct or anything close to it. Although I’d very much like to believe that is something we can strive for and achieve. War is merely changing in nature to fit the times. In fact, this wouldn’t be the first time it has done so. Warfare has gone through many different paradigm shifts, usually as a result of a changing political environment. Examples of this include the creation of the Westphalian State discussed above, or the revolutionary (and horrifying) concept of ‘Total War’, pioneered by Napoleon and brought to its most devastating effect in the Two World Wars. The second caveat is that this pattern of diminishment is stronger in the developed world. There are still rare occurrences of nation-states conducting conventional warfare, though I would argue that the recurrence of these situations will continue to fade. Because states need to be part of the global economy, the net benefit analysis of war has been skewed significantly with potential benefits decreasing, and likely/severity of repercussions increasing. The rising power China would not be rising if it chose go to war with the United States, since the United States is the market keeping the Chinese factory running and the result of the war would wreck havoc on global markets and trade.
I would also argue that nationalism itself is finding its influence waning in many developed nations when compared to attitudes a century ago. I have argued that other ideological identifiers are becoming more important, resulting in national identity loosing its status as the primary personal identifier, and being relegated to the role of ‘one of many identifiers.’
The result of these changes is a pattern that is easily identifiable, conventional warfare is on its way out. Uniformed battalions forming up on a field of battle will be something of a bygone era, if it isn’t already. We can see the slow conversion from conventional warfare to otherwise by contrasting three important wars of the last 75 years. World War Two was an entirely conventional war until the two bombs that ended it. In Vietnam, US forces fought both a conventional military force (the North Vietnamese Army), as well as communist insurgents (the Viet Cong) who were supported by the North, blurring the lines of conventional warfare. Finally, in Iraq and Afghanistan, though the wars could nominally be considered conventional right at the start, the majority of the now decade long wars have not been fought against the national military of either country. In fact, quite the opposite, since in these wars US forces are actually trying to build and strengthen those institutions.
The idea that ideological aspirations are beginning to overtake national ones is compelling and the result on warfare has been and will continue to be significant. These modern wars have also illustrated how technological in addition to ideological and economical changes have affected the equation. Warfare is moving away from tanks and battleships and towards counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, cyber warfare, and robotic warfare. This piece was intended to establish that decline of conventional warfare, and provide a backbone from which analysis of this phenomenon can be based. Analyzing these changes and their effects are extremely important if we are to truly understand the power politics of the 21st century. Without understanding this significant evolution in warfare, the maintenance of peace and stability in the world will be much harder to achieve. Our tactics, our training, our weapons, but most importantly our understanding of warfare has to evolve if we are to avoid the military, legal, and moral quagmires we are finding ourselves in today.
Who am I talking about when I refer to ‘we’ and ‘our’? Find out here.
As a side note, anyone interested in war and military strategy should most definitely read von Clausewitz’s – On War. As one of the most influential pieces on war in the history of humanity, it provides great insight into the fundamental concepts of attack and defence, as well as the political will to war, and of Total War (‘absoluter klieg’) as discussed above.
This is my opinion. What’s yours?