Small Wars Journal

On War Modifiers (updated)

Fri, 03/06/2009 - 5:53am
Via e-mail from Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret.) on the recent SWJ discussion concerning Hybrid War and Threats:

Contrary to what my good friend and fellow Marine, Frank Hoffman, argues, I believe that this continual adding of adjectives in front of "war" is counterproductive. As Clausewitz wrote, "In war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole, for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together." Every modification of the word "war" serves mainly as fodder for un-needed conferences, workshops, and meetings where the new definitions as well as the merits of these terms are debated with, in my estimation, little value added. These new terms also help confuse our officer corps and undermine a solid professional lexicon. I remain in Professor Colin Gray's corner who maintains that "warfare is warfare"---plain and simple. At most we need only think of it in two forms, wars of fire and maneuver and wars of insurgency.

Clausewitz allowed for this with two observations:

(1) "War is more than a chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case."

(2) "We can thus only say that the aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs . . . will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character."

Our current enemies have adopted wars of insurgency as the form they use to challenge us.

Paul Van Riper


Frank Hoffman responds:

I have always been informed by the tremendous scholarship of Dr. Gray and of course have benefited over the years from my interaction with General Van Riper. But they are both wrong here (I think Dr. Gray is being misquoted out of context and not wrong). We've been arguing this particular point for some time since the Army 2003 Arm War College strategy conference where I was critical of The American Way of War, and at NDU in 2008 where General Van Riper first articulated his views.

I agree with Dr. Gray's true point that War is War. War defined as a state of violent interaction between two groups, a clash of wills AND cultures, between groups (not necessarily just States) to obtain political ends is War. As he states in his great book, my Loop choice Fighting Talk, war is a relationship. Furthermore, the nature of war is immutable (violence, chance, human dimension, etc) But Warfare, Dr Gray makes pains to distinguish as a subset of War and I agree, warfare describes the military component of War, the warmaking. I recommend his chapter "There is More to War than Warfare" for those seeking more distinction.

Warfare is not immutable, quite the opposite. Dr. Gray points out that some cultures (he means ours) have a dominant military culture that precludes understanding the distinction between war and warfare (p. 32), which often leads to tactical success but strategic failure. I think Dr. Gray is right about us, for we conflate our preferences about warfare and then mirror image our enemies with our culturally induced idea about what warfare is and isnt. We focus on the warfare, and ignore the strategic context. Regrettably, General Van Riper's comments continue that misunderstanding--undoubtedly unintentionally.

I think the bromide that Warfare is Warfare is a dangerous over-simplification and residue from the poor professional conceptualization of warfare that has marked U.S. military since Vietnam. I recall the late Harry Summer's as the first in the "War is War is War" school, in his essay by that title in the post-Vietnam era. This was central to his argument that Vietnam was a conventional fight, which remains a dubious argument that has fallen aside. This has led us to the problems in our doctrine and profession reflected in operations and the poor transition to a better peace in Panama, Desert Storm and OIF. It has truncated our thinking to a narrow professional sphere in the conflict spectrum, the most irrelevant today and for the mid-range future.

There ARE forms of warfare, and different societies and cultures have they own forms or modes of warfare. There is fighting and dying in each of them, but the rule sets or principles or what Clausewitz suggested by Grammar are different. One doesn't succeed in COIN by applying conventional warfighting capabilities and one doesn't succeed in major combat operations with t he six Logical Lines of Operation of FM 3-24. Moreover, ignoring the distinction simply continues the tragedy.

Moreover, as General Van Riper points out, and as Dr. Tony Echevarria has discussed in some length in his book on Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, our Prussian friend was very much aware that war (more accurately warfare) has an ever evolving character. Each age he said has its own conception and preconceptions, and that war is MORE than a chameleon, that is it changes more than just color, it changes its character and characteristics. I think General Van Riper, given his profound historical founding and study, appreciates this more than most of us and actually means this in his statement, but by trying to bin everything into Warfare is Warfare, he perpetuates our misunderstanding of what has changed and what has not. This will continue to leave us poorly prepared for tomorrow's fights.

I think its patently illogical to ignore language and its influence on our professional thinking. We already have numerous adjectives about warfare: Unconventional, Irregular and "Conventional" or Traditional. I think all of these are flawed or outdated in our thinking right now. UW is related to the SOF community and needs serious updating. Irregular has become synonymous with COIN, which is a very clear case of what Colin calls "presentism." I don't agree that our enemies have picked something called Wars of Insurgency, t hat is OUR term and its a label or adjective after the noun instead of in front of it. There are many forms of Irregular Warfare for which the Joint concept leave us utterly unprepared for. What I think most folks think of as Regular or Conventional or Traditional warfare is vague but is very Western or ethno-centric. I think we need a serious professional discourse about warfare and what assumptions and illusions we hide behind when we use the terms we have.

This is a valuable debate because we are entering an era in which our conceptualization of future conflict will influence our strategy, and the allocation of scarce resources is upon us. I trust that the debate will continue.


LtGen Van Riper responds:

Ah, it is a sad task to debate a good friend in a public forum, but in this case a necessary task. Let me say at the outset, however, that for several reasons I am surprised by Frank Hoffman's focus on a term many view as simply trendy, for in the past we have both lamented the steady degrading of the military's professional lexicon in numerous conversations over dinner. (Pity our poor wives who have to listen to such professional talks for hours on end.) Moreover, from 1995 to 1997 Frank was the very best writer at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and many of his words appeared in my formal congressional testimony and speeches. Those words were simple and elegant, unburdened by use of stylish terms.

Also, let me second Frank's words that Dr. Gray's, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare and Dr. Antulio (Tony) Echevarria's Clausewitz: Contemporary War are exceptional books that serious scholars of war, strategy, and operational art need to read and study! I might also tout Dr. Gray's latest book, National Security Dilemmas: Challenges & Opportunities, one for which I was honored to write a forward.

I took the words "warfare is warfare" from the Conclusion (page 370) of Another Bloody Century. The lead sentence to that chapter reads, "Warfare is warfare, period." Later in that chapter Dr. Gray notes that "War, and warfare, has an enduring, unchanging nature, but a highly variable character." He also observes that "The American defense community is especially prone to capture by the latest catchphrase, the new-sounding spin on an ancient idea which as jargon separates those who are truly expert from the lesser breeds without the jargon." Though Dr. Gray's words, I believe, support my case, please read the entire chapter—better the entire book—to judge for yourself. Again, I am surprised by Frank's insistence that the word "hybrid" adds to our understanding of war, for he is "truly expert" in things military, and certainly not "from the lesser breeds."

I am fairly certain that I understand Dr. Gray's distinction between war and warfare. In fact, I would have preferred to use words I believe he spoke in 2005 at the opening of an address at the Army War College, "War is war," but not having a transcript of that address I hesitated. As a nation we are too single-minded and center our attention on warfare rather than war. Dr. Echevarria has pointed this out in numerous places, noting that it is the reason we have an "American way of battle," not war. I agree! Too few Americans understand the full impact of Clausewitz's admonition: ". . . war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase 'with the addition of other means' because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs." As a Marine I am deeply interested in the "grammar" of war, but I know that it is the "logic" that is most important.

The one thing Frank and I certainly agree on is that "we already have numerous adjectives about warfare." He is also correct that my "wars of fire and maneuver" and "wars of insurgency" place the adjectives after the noun. However, my words have the distinct advantage in that they spell out a meaning; the reader does not have to guess as he or she might with words like "irregular," "unconventional," "nontraditional," forth generation," and yes, "hybrid."

Let the debate continue.

May the winner enjoy a Sam Adams and a steak at the expense of the other!



Ryan C. Bailey (not verified)

Wed, 03/03/2010 - 12:19am

Delighted to be able to read the above discussion by such astute minds, on subjects which have interested me.

Concurrent with the advent of Fourth Generation Warfare, we've marked the beginning, in the 19th & 20th centuries of what I might call a persistent declared spirital & cultural struggle, that of Globalist Communism of the Stalinist Tradition against Western Liberalism of the Christian Tradition. The spiritual nature of warfare, individually & collectively, is largey ignored by most geostrategic scholarship today.

If we analyze Al Qaeda and related groups along the same philosophical stratagems we used in the Cold War, perhaps we will decide we are in the oldest style of warfare, a philosophical struggle, made more severe by modern cultural advances & technological factors.

More significant than an evolved definition of modern warfare might I suggest that we now need an entirely new definition of Statehood, at least for military purposes. Even many Western Democracies do not meet the Aristotlean definition of The State since they are not economically independent, i.e. they import not only luxuries as in resource economies of the past, but neccessities.

Tribal cultures, separately, may be bypassing the Westphalian experience entirely and occupying the territory of global corporate conglomerate, directly.

CPT Robert L. … (not verified)

Fri, 08/14/2009 - 4:48pm

"What is WAR?"
There is an ongoing debate over modifiers for war. These modifiers include hybrid, irregular, unconventional and non-traditional to name but a few. The debate is interesting, and intends to help us understand the nature of the conflict we are either engaged in, or believe we will face in the future. Unfortunately we are arguing over modifiers for a term, war, that itself has not been defined. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, we cant define war, but we know it when we see it.

LTC (RET) Frank Hoffman offers the following definition in his duel with LTG (RET) Paul Van Riper as posted on the Small Wars Journal blog: "A state of violent interaction between two groups, a clash of wills AND cultures, between groups (not necessarily just States) to obtain political ends is War" ( By SWJ Editors on March 6, 2009 4:53 AM ). This definition is not entirely accurate because of the term violent. There are many forms of attack which could constitute war that are non-violent. Examples of these types of attacks could include scenarios where cyber attacks degrade or impair critical networks or infrastructure or where a nation dumps vast holdings of another nations debt.

A quick internet search of such sources as Wikipedia,,, or any other online reference will give you definitions for war very similar to the one above. Of course, any discussion of the meaning of war would be incomplete without at least one quote from Carl von Clauswitz, who stated that war is the "continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means" (On War, 1976, Princeton University Press, p.87).

Perhaps the best definition available is from The Dictionary of Military Terms (2nd edition, H.W. Wilson Company, New York, 2003, Compiled by Trevor N. Dupuy et al., p.261) which offers the following definition: War - An armed conflict, or a state of belligerence, between two factions, states, nations, or coalitions. Hostilities between the opponents may be initiated with or without a formal declaration by any of the parties that a state of war exists. A war is fought for a stated political or economic purpose or to resist an enemy's efforts to impose domination. A war can be short - measurable in days - but usually is lengthy, and some have endured for generations. War has been called the most enduring non-biological function of mankind.

While there are many non-military sources which offer a definition for war, military doctrine seems to avoid defining war. The following publications do not define war in their glossaries: NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions (2007), JP 1-02, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (12 APR 2001), DOD Dictionary of Military Terms (online at, FM 3-0 (FEB 2008), FM 1-02 Operational Terms and Graphics (SEP 2004).

How then can we agree on which modifiers are appropriate, or if modifiers should be used when we have no doctrinal definition of the term we are trying to modify? Perhaps a modification of the definition from The Dictionary of Military Terms would address this gap in our doctrine. For example: "War - An armed conflict, or a state of belligerence, between two factions, states, nations, coalitions or combinations thereof. Hostilities between the opponents may be initiated with or without a formal declaration by any of the parties that a state of war exists. A war is fought for a stated political or economic purpose or to resist an enemy's efforts to impose domination." While this is a minor modification, it addresses some of the issues fostering the debate about modifiers - not all war is between states. The United States is currently engaged in a war in Afghanistan against a non-state faction, the Taliban. The war in Iraq was initiated against another state, and became a war against another non-state faction, Al Qaeda. Both wars were fought for political purpose.

The Department of Defense or possibly even the US Congress - responsible for declarations of war - should provide a clear definition of war. The definition above would be a good place to start. Although accepting this definition does not settle the debate over modifiers, it at least gives us a term to argue about.

John Kuehn (not verified)

Sun, 07/26/2009 - 12:12pm

On Words...the Pernicious Influence of Jargon

Not having nearly the name recognition, nor the status, of either General Van Riper or Frank Hoffman in this forum (or any other for that matter) I nonetheless felt compelled to add a couple comments after reading their very useful recent blog exchange.

First, I am in Van Ripers corner on this debate (and have been I suspect for some time). Instead of using my words I would prefer to cite something the good general wrote in the exchange and then compare it to something Clausewitz said.
<em>Van Riper:</em>
<blockquote>" the past we have both lamented the steady degrading of the militarys professional lexicon in numerous conversations..."</blockquote>
<blockquote>"Again, unfortunately, we are dealing with jargon, which, as usual , bears only a faint resemblance to well defined, specific concepts."*</blockquote>

It may be the German philosophers words that Colin Gray had in mind when he wrote this which Van Riper quoted:
<blockquote>"The American defense community is especially prone to capture by the latest catchphrase, the new-sounding spin on an ancient idea which as jargon separates those who are truly expert from the lesser breeds without the jargon."</blockquote>

As long as I am name-dropping, I thought it worthwhile that we should bring someone else to the table who perhaps identifies one of the principal causal elements of these headlong dives into jargon instead of meaningful engagement with well-established concepts. In this case I refer to the Armed Forces Journal article by <a href="">T.X. Hammes lambasting power point</a>.

The point of this rather hectic flurry of quotations abetted by hyperlinks is to get across the bottom line: Jargon is the problem., The search for the simple bullet or bumper sticker stands in the way of developing and fielding meaningful and flexible doctrine, and in my own situation, useful educational curricula. As for systemic operational design, that particular jargon will have to await another time or another forum unless you want some first thoughts on it <a href="…;.

VR (Very Resiliently), John

John T. Kuehn, Ph. D.
Department of Military History
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

*Carl von Clausewitz, 1827, from "Two Letters on Strategy," ed. and trans. by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, p.37.

What a great dialog! Glad to see General Rip still dedicated to the fundamental meanings of words, and that Frank is stretching the envelope of innovation.

The reference to Carl von is particularly apt, especially since the gang at <a href="">Chicago…; is concluding their "Clausewitz Roundtable" just this week (and soon to be published by Nimble Books LLC).

What struck me during this deep dive into <b>On War</b>, even moreso than during my Naval War College "Joint Maritime Ops" course way back when Frank was a junior officer, was how mischaracterized Clausewitz's dictum "War is a continuation of politics by other means" has become.

At its core, as Dr. Gray notes above, war is "... defined as a state of violent interaction between two groups" -- Clausewitz's "duel on a larger scale." But at its core is the imperative of <i>violence</i>. If it ain't violent, it ain't war....

Similarly, war is not the <b>only</b> "continuation of policy by other means". Much of what is characterized as (insert clever adjective here) Warfare (e.g., Information Warfare) is not really war -- it's simply another means of influencing the opinion and will of another. (O.K., O.K., J39ers are probably apoplectic that I'm discounting the 5th pillar of IO, "Physical Destruction", which connotes violence. So I'll concede IW is only 20% war.).

Nonetheless, I still think that General Rip ought to buy Frank that steak. And a Sam Adams. :-)

Semper Fi,


Bill Jakola

Wed, 03/11/2009 - 7:51pm

War as an extension of politics is incomplete

Lieutenant General van Riper refers to the Clausewitz idea of war as an extension of politics; and, I agree that this is often the case. However in the 1993 book "A History of Warfare", the historian John Keegan demonstrates, clearly and repeatedly, that war is a human endeavor that often does not involve political association in any manner or form. For example, Keegan argues that "war antedates the state, diplomacy and strategy by millennia." Moreover, he provides examples of mankind conducting warfare for entertainment, sport, and cultural connectivity.

I see Clausewitzs explanation of war as incomplete because, as Keegan writes, it "presupposes a high level of military discipline and an awesome degree of obedience by subordinates to their lawful superiors. It is expected that war would take certain narrowly definable forms... " Because humans conduct a wide variety of war, limiting our definition limits our ability to defend against those forms outside our conceptual model of war. Further, the Clausewitz model of war makes assumptions that may not necessarily be true, for example, that war has a beginning and an end. Whereas, our current war of persistent conflict does not easily support such an assumption.

Moreover, Colin S. Grays 1999 book "Modern Strategy" uses the Clausewitz model to define the application of policy through "the use of engagements for the object of war." In the 1987 book, "Nuclear Weapons, Policies, and the Test Ban Issue", Dr. William R. VanCleave, a strategic thinker of cold war atomic policy, argued that United States weapons testing and development did not follow policy due to budget limitations, alliance politics, and domestic politics. Additionally, both Dr. VanCleave and Dr. Gray would likely agree that strategy uses instruments of power to achieve policy goals as Clausewitz assumes; however in this case, the United States, with its otherwise close approximation of the Clausewitz model of war, still broke the strategic link between policy and war.

In conclusion, I disagree with Lieutenant General van Riper that defining war is counterproductive but General Dempsey is at least partially correct when he says the enemy gets a vote. But to understand a voting foe means to understand the all the types of war. Therefore, there is value in defining war.

Martin Dempsey

Tue, 03/10/2009 - 9:47am

I'm entering the discussion about "defining" war late. Nevertheless....

Dissecting war and placing it into various "bins" may seduce us into believing that we have somehow discovered a way to make it coherent. However, we'd be wrong. War is war. The threats we face are always hybrid threats. Military operations always require capabilities across the spectrum of conflict.

With 8 years of experience behind us and the prospect of persistent conflict before us, the task at hand is to find an "aim point" along the spectrum of conflict against which to organize, train, and equip our formations and develop our leaders. What the nation needs is a balance of capabilities that can be applied by agile leaders when we confront an adaptive enemy. Or, if you prefer, a balance of capabilities that can applied by adaptive leaders against an agile enemy.

The point is that when we go to war the enemy gets a "vote" in how he confronts us. We can only consider ourselves truly prepared for war when we have achieved balance in our capabilities and in our leaders to overcome that vote.

Mr. Gray stated in his book, "Another Bloody Century" that strategic thinking is practical and the question that matters most concerning strategy is "Will the idea work?" Or in this case (the debate on this blog), is the idea useful?

The argument that warfare is warfare cant be argued on one level, but on another level this line of reasoning is misleading. Clausewitz advised it was critical that the policy maker and commander establish/understand the "kind of war" on which they are about to embark, indicating that Clausewitz realized that the statement warfare is warfare is not overly helpful. Most military and operational strategic planners in the U.S. have been exposed to this idea, and yet we continue to stumble through wars that dont conform to our doctrine.

Another passage from Mr Gray, "To present an emerging American way of war as the exemplar of future warfare would be to commit the same mistake as to confuse a new Ferrari with the future of motoring. Most people will not drive Ferraris, and most soldiers and other warriors will not pursue their deadly quarrels in ways prescribed by an American way of war." Further explained by Mr. Hoffman above, "It has truncated our thinking to a narrow professional sphere in the conflict spectrum, the most irrelevant today and for the mid-range future."

This mindset contributed to a less than stellar performance in numerous irregular conflicts, thus the defense community of practice and interest developed new terms and concepts such as 4th Generation warfare, irregular warfare, complex war, 4 block war, hybrid war, etc in an effort to help clarify and frame the problems we are faced with today, but most agree that most of the terms simply had to the confusion.

I am not sold on the term hybrid warfare (looks like WWII, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, etc.), because I dont see how it helps inform our understanding of conflict or provide a context to inform planners. On the other hand, while we may all agree that irregular warfare as defined is flawed; it does serve the useful purpose of getting DoD to look at warfare from a broader perspective, and hopefully will provide the framework to enable to be better prepared to manage these "so called" irregular threats.


Thu, 03/05/2009 - 2:59pm

At the risk of supporting the probability of an un-needed conference, I'll argue that Frank Hoffman has it right with a basic modifier like "Hybrid War" for the pragmatic reason that our government is not filled with Clausewitzian thinkers of the caliber of Dr. Colin Gray and LTG.Paul van Riper.

While semantic debates are irritating, it is useful to give politicians, legislators, journalists and the public a reminder that "war" is seldom easily or neatly disentangled from other aspects of conflict. WWII, which helped make warfare a compartmentalized subject in the American mind, was a historical anomaly. A more representative example of the difficult complexity large-scale conflict involves would be China's civil war period 1911-1949. Or Lebanon during the 1980's. Or many of the "small wars" studied at SWJ. Those are the historical "normal".

I recall that Clausewitz wrote that politics shaped the general character of a war - just as they shape the peace that follows. A judicious use of a clearr and easily understood modifier before "war" helps keep the eyes of decision makers on those other variables.


Thu, 03/05/2009 - 10:33am

Sir, your choice of the word modifier hits it square on the head. When seem to be trying to desribe our enemy as opposed to trying to describe War.


Could not agree more. I like what appears to be a double meaning title: Are we talking about the modifying words about war or are we talking about trying to modify "On War"? Clausewitz got it right. "War is more than a true chameleon" but I think we have to add the next sentence that Clausewitz wrote that truly explains the essence of war and explains every "on war modifier" out there: As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity - composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are regarded as blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and the element of its subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone."

To me this paradoxical trinity explains every "on war modifier" out there from Conventional War to Irregular War to Hybrid War to Complex Operations (for our non-military counterparts). To all the pundits chasing the holy grail of trying to coin a new term (or a new term for COIN!!) or popularize a new concept (which just become "pop concepts" like "pop culture"), when you have done the research and study that will produce a 731 page tome (as in the Howard and Paret translation) that will stand the test of time and explain the nature of every war before and since Napoleon (whether those are world wars, irregular wars, hybrid wars, or complex operations), then you might be able to begin to compete with Clausewitz.