Small Wars Journal

What is War? A New Point of View

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 5:30am

The historical context of the term war has left an indelible imprint on the minds of strategic leaders and the general public.  This imprint limits one’s ability to view warfare as anything other than armed conflict between nations.  This paper attempts to open the aperture through which strategic leaders view the concept of war by reviewing the traditional definitions of war, analyzing the environment in which wars are fought today, and then offering a new, more expansive, definition of the term.  This new definition encompasses the complex characteristics and nuances of war fought in a global society, a broader interpretation of who engages in war, and how wars may be fought and won in the future.

Defining War

Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes war as “a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.”[1]  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, “war should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities.”[2]  On the first page of On War, Carl von Clausewitz defines war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”[3]  Most would agree that these are understandable and accurate definitions in the general context of what the average person thinks when they hear the word war.  However, from the strategic perspective, these definitions are arguably too simplistic to convey the complexity of war and the many facets which contribute to national success in the international arena.  Today’s strategic leaders need to conceptualize and define war in a broader perspective, and the following analysis will attempt to do so by offering an expansive definition for the term war.  This new definition encompasses three attributes: the complex characteristics and nuances of war fought in a global society, a broader interpretation of who engages (or should be engaged) in war, as well as how wars may be fought and won in the future.  But first it is necessary to examine why a new definition for war is applicable for today’s strategic leaders.

What Changed?

Many might say that the world changed with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States; this was certainly the case for the majority of the American public.  Terrorism was no longer something that occurred at bus stops in Israel or in discos in Berlin.  The world of terrorism became something tangible to America.  It solidified in Americans’ minds that war can and will be conducted between state and non-state actors.  This distinction is significant in the context of the traditional perception that war was fought between nation-states (or city-states as early as the Peloponnesian War).  It also challenges the belief that war is governed by some form of decorum or rule of law, in which the belligerents agree to engage utilizing specific limitations and exclusions; whether the combatants have honored that agreement, is another discussion.  From the battlefield engagements of the Clausewitzian era, to the formal rule of law and Geneva Conventions that nation-states operate under today, there existed a certain level of restraint.  Terrorism and violent aggression conducted by non-state actors requires strategic leaders to rethink these traditional characteristics of warfare and the definition of war itself.  War is no longer limited to “conflict between states or nations,” nor is it fought solely between political communities as the Global War on Terrorism has proven.[4]  As Joseph Nye illustrated, “in today’s global information age…more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful states.”[5]  In 2006, “161 billion gigabytes of digital information were created and captured;” about “3 million times the information in all the books ever written.”[6]  This connectivity has driven globalization down to the individual and small group level; enabling non-state actors to think, act, and locate themselves globally; in some cases without ever leaving their home because of technology.[7]  Therefore, how we engage in this contest of wills must expand given this dramatic increase in globalization of the past two decades.

The Spectrum of War in the Global Era

Michael Howard summarizes the changing environment as shifting from one centered on the control of territory, to one focused not only on territorial control but the effective exploitation of the resources of that territory.[8]  This concept leads to a new approach to view and define war…within the context of globalization.  As the global finance crisis illuminated, economies can no longer be managed/controlled internally but in fact are impacted by events and decisions made across the world.[9]  One only needs to reference the so called “CNN effect,” the Arab Spring or current anti-American protests to understand the impact digital communications and the 24-hour news cycle have had on regional and world affairs.[10]  The bottom line: “interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security” demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others.[11]

One method to approach this broader perspective is to view war as a spectrum of discord, a continuum where unrestrained armed conflict and world peace are at opposing ends.  By establishing this graphic scale, it is relatively easy to conceptualize that as a nation approaches peace (or harmony) with other entities’ values, objectives, and ideals, there is an abeyance of hostilities.  War is not over, a nation’s desire to impose its will remains; it simply does not require the use of armed conflict to achieve its goals.  What might appear on the surface to be the age old argument between Thomas Hobbes’ theory of man’s natural state as one of war and John Locke’s more peaceful perspective, is actually providing the answer to that debate…both may be right.  If a nation’s will is in harmony with other entities’ then the natural tendency will lean towards world peace.  As discord develops between a nation’s will and other nation-states or non-state actors the natural tendency will increasingly lean towards more aggressive national engagement and armed conflict.  This theory purposefully focuses on nation-states and/or non-state actors versus the individual.  While one may argue it can be applied to individual interaction, this is not the author’s intent. 

This spectrum facilitates understanding that the art of war encompasses much more than the concept of armed conflict and acknowledges a nation’s capability to change their “natural state” based on the will of the people, political landscape, as well as a nation’s strength, ability, and desire to project power. 

War Redefined

A strategic leader’s concept of war must necessarily be more encompassing, and also more complex:

War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation’s will in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail.

As one observes from this new definition, the constant is Clausewitz’s theory of a nation’s primary desire in conflict “to compel our enemy to do our will.”[12]  What has changed is both the focus and breadth of those means within the nation which can be used to accomplish this action.  While Clausewitz advocated in a limited manner (and Kautilya more energetically) the use of diplomacy in war, this concept takes a more dramatic approach by including all means available to a nation-state or non-state actor.  It also diverges from the traditional definition of war as “armed conflict” by suggesting war is not an act of armed aggression but instead the constant desire and actions of nation-states and non-state actors to impose their will.  The rationale behind this approach is explained by examining each of the key components of the definition separately.

 War is: Like Clausewitz, the author views war as an extension of national policy; however, not as a specifically separate activity as defined by armed conflict.  The activity of war is ongoing and the participants in imposing a nations will are many, as will be examined in the next component. 

the coherent execution of all means: This expansionary phrase is derived from the author’s belief that armed conflict is one end of the spectrum of war, and as such should not (and arguably cannot) be delineated from all other means in a global era.  It also conveys advocacy for coordination between these entities in order to develop a cohesive approach to international relations and engagement, particularly in the area of conflict resolution.  Traditional definitions of war centered on a nation’s “war effort” are usually directed via the application of the armed forces and in limited cases via diplomacy (Kautilya/Clausewitz).  The proffered concept opens the aperture of conflict resolution and directs a more holistic approach to achieving national strategy and/or achieving adherence to national will.  This is not to imply the Kautilyan or Machiavellian logic of all ways to victory are acceptable.[13]  Instead, it exhorts the use of all means within a nation’s capacity to gain adherence to its national will without resorting to armed conflict.  It is inclusive of Gene Sharp’s concept of nonviolent conflict resolution in that “nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war.”[14]  However, this specific definition differs from Sharp’s by taking a more pragmatic approach and a national perspective.  As such, the means advocated for nonviolent action are not the individual-centric capabilities Sharp espouses: nonviolent protest, persuasion, noncooperation, and intervention.  Rather, it takes a nation-centric approach to power projection and advocates use of diplomacy, economic influence (to include leverage via multi-national corporations and non-governmental organizations), information operations, social influence, and educational influence.[15]  While each of these means should be coordinated and leveraged in a coherent approach, the concept does not advocate a blurring of the traditional separations of national power from the U.S. perspective.  Instead, it suggests a “one voice approach” in the international arena where each institution self-identifies those capabilities which could be applied in a synergistic manner towards achieving national objectives. 

The acknowledged challenge to democracies is how to create a structure through which to coordinate such activity without infringing upon the freedoms on which democracy is based.  This theory will surely stimulate argument as to whether it is possible to limit a democratic nation’s actions in demanding capabilities from each of these institutions and the course of due process.  The concept of free-market enterprises and unfair market advantage will be a particularly significant challenge to incorporate in this holistic approach to warfare. It could be suggested that nations already leverage economic pressure via the vehicle of diplomacy through trade agreements, restrictions, and embargos.  With a proper framework for implementation, the same types of pressure could be applied through a coordinated approach for all institutions while preserving democratic principles.

to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation’s will: in this definition war remains as Clausewitz described, “an act of policy” and the ultimate goal of war remains to impose a nation’s will on its enemies.[16]  The term “sufficient” is intentionally ambiguous, which accommodates the changing nature of national will as well as the variables in any international relations scenario.  Determining sufficiency demands a political calculation or cost-benefit analysis; for every change in the level of effort/cost of engagement what is the expected outcomes, and are those outcomes worthy of the effort.  The calculus will vary as the means available change and with the changing of a nation’s strategic vision.  A corollary to this thought is the question, at what point will a nation apply the most dire means available, military force, to achieve its national will?  Once again the answer depends on the domestic and international environment (tensions, alliances, aggression, economy, etc), the political tendencies of the government, the mood and the will of the people, as well as the capabilities and readiness of the armed forces.  This broad spectrum approach allows for the definition to be applied regardless of a nation’s ideological tendencies.  Whether one follows the thoughts of Karl Marx (war is the politics of economics), Thucydides (fear, interest and honor), Hobbes (competition, diffidence, and glory), or Locke (freedom), the calculus remains…it is up to the nation to decide the point at which it is beneficial to engage in warfare to secure its national objectives.

in the international (global) arena: The terms international and global capture the fact that wars are fought between both state actors (international) and non-state actors (such as terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks) on the global stage.  This statement specifically limits engagement in war to the international (global) stage and intentionally excludes the concept of “civil war”.  This exclusion is not meant to discredit the impact these conflicts can have on the global stage.  The reason for the exclusion is based on national will.  During armed or unarmed conflict within a nation’s boundaries conducted by its citizens, it can be argued that a nation’s will is in flux or at least weakened to the point that the full measure of means cannot, and should not, be applied.  In such cases, a more accurate term for these events would be (armed or unarmed) civil conflict.  

resulting in armed conflict when all other means fail: This phrase acknowledges the sage advice of Sun Tzu’s teachings, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”[17]  This is not to imply that the primary policy should be one of avoiding armed conflict at all costs, but instead to leverage all other capabilities to achieve national will (or national/strategic objectives) before resorting to the costly venture of applying military force when reasonable.  It is this author’s belief that wars of the future will be fought through the exploitation of non-traditional power projection methods such as economic influence, educational influence, and information control/influence (cyberspace).  Future wars resulting in armed conflict between state and non-state actors may take place for three reasons: attempting to leverage diametrically-opposed wills on one another or one another’s allies, asymmetric power capabilities demanding the weaker actor use armed force in an attempt to impose its will on a greater power, or actions taken by irrational actors. 

How Wars End

As the proffered definition implies, there is no “end” to the spectrum of war.  Therefore, the answer to the question of “how does war end?” would be…they do not; this answer however, would be unsatisfying at best.  A more succinct question would be, “how does armed conflict end?”  In this case, the resultant response is when sufficient adherence to national will has been achieved.  The concept encourages nation-states and non-state actors to clearly define objectives for armed conflict and those actions/events that must occur in order to bring about an end to armed hostility.  This is arguably somewhat naïve, but there is potential for tangible benefits by embracing this approach.  Internally, this furthers the theory of “one voice” by clarifying the objectives to all entities.  Externally, it provides the opposition with a clear path towards peace, while allowing for modifications via negotiations, course of battle, escalation and de-escalation of hostilities.


War is no longer a discrete action of armed conflict but a continuum of engagement in order to limit the dissonance between a nation’s will and that of other state and non-state actors.  In war, nation-states and non-state actors utilize all means available; diplomacy, economic influence (including multi-national corporations and non-governmental organizations), information operations, social influence, and educational influence as well as military force in order to encourage adherence to their will.  As such wars do not end; rather imposing one’s will and maintaining harmony between national objectives and those of the international community to the level of acceptable adherence precludes the use of armed conflict. 

War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation’s will in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail.

The author recognizes that the historical context of the term war has left an indelible imprint on the minds of strategic leaders and the general public.  This imprint limits the ability of the offered definition to achieve widespread understanding and use by U.S. or international leadership and most assuredly the general public.  However, the goal of this essay was to open the aperture through which strategic leaders view the concept of war and stimulate discussion in the hopes of achieving the “acme of skill” as a war fighter of subduing our enemy and imposing our will without resorting to armed conflict.[18]


[1] “Merriam-Webster Dictionary”, definition of war, accessed September 17, 2012,

[2] Brian Orend, “War”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed September 18, 2012,

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75

[4] Merriam-Webster, War, 2012.

[5] Joseph S. Nye, The Future of Power, (New York, NY: Public Affairs), 113.

[6] Ibid, 115.

[7] Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, 2005 (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

[8] Michael Howard, The Causes of War from the Causes of War and Other Essays, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 16.

[9] United States Government, The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, January 2011, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 417-420.

[10] Jack Sine, Defining the ‘Precision weapon’ in effects-based terms, Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2006, accessed March 3, 2011,

[11] General Norton A. Schwartz and Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, “Air-Sea Battle: Promoting Stability in an Era of Uncertainty”, The American Interest, February 12, 2012, accessed September 12, 2012,

[12] Clausewitz, On War, 75.

[13] Dr. Robert C. Nation, U.S. Army War College Seminar Lecture, September 6, 2012.

[14] Gene Sharp, The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle, (Boston, MA: The Albert Einstein Institution, 1990), 9.

[15] Ibid, 9.

[16]  Clausewitz, On War, 87.

[17] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 77.

[18] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Lt Col Jill Long is currently a student at the Army War College.  Previous assignments include squadron command, air liaison officer (ALO), Chief of AFCENT’s Commander’s Action Group, A-10 pilot and KC-135 pilot.



Wed, 12/12/2012 - 4:04pm

So, if the definition of war is all inclusive, and the Army's mission is to fight and win the nation's wars, then we control everything!


Wed, 12/12/2012 - 10:49am

Ms. Long's defination of war:
"War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation’s will in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail."
Here is another, fresh from my keyboard:
"War is an exercise in domination. It is a lethal adventure applied to expendable populations at some remove from the homeland.
It is prompted by religious, economic, and political considerations in the metropolis."


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 7:23am

good article and an interesting concept. I do however think you are playing a little with semantics. Although i agree with your ideas on projection of a nations power i think this could be defined as geopolitics,or realpolitics ,protecting or expanding of ones spheres of interest.
Essentially i feel that war is largly an economic activity, or at least the motive for going to war is generally governed by economic concerns.You could argue about wars fought for ideological purposes but i feel these to are more economically inspired than the ideological rhetoric would have us believe.
A concept by a very famous person...gunboat diplomacy....gun boats are war and this concept implies that diplomacy is war it could be called aircraft carrier diplomacy...the distinctions are ecomomic war, cyber war, cold war etc..
Was the cold war a war?....not for you guys in america or the soviet union no....but for the combatants in the many proxy wars that took place globally it sure was....i was involved in one in angola...many of the combatants in these proxy wars had no real idea what they were fighting for.....
In the last half century how many real civil wars have their been?....not as many as you would think as many if not most are instigated ,feuled and supplied by outside forces for economic,ideological reasons and are in fact not true civil wars at all.........what is really going on in syria?...i dont know ..nor do you but i dont believe it is necessarily a civil war in the true sense of the term.
There is a very interesting article on this forum about roman counter insurgency and empire,proxy wars,client states romanization (americanization, anglisization etc) and act of war?......difficult to clearly define just what is war apart from the very basic armed conflict version....thank you for a thought provocing article.


Mon, 12/10/2012 - 2:20pm

In reply to by CBCalif

War has been around for a very long time. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a natural born genius at war. "War means fighting and fighting means killing" isn't a prescription for the future, it is a description of the essential nature of war by genius at its practice. I put a lot of stock in the judgment of a man who was far better at war's practice than most of the 'master' authors so often cited. (Carl C. could write better in German, but as he wrote lousy in German according to Hew Strachan, that ain't saying much.)

The part of the blockade could be considered "non-violent" was that because of the nature of sea fighting. If one navy smashes another to pieces and there is nothing left, things tend to be quieter on the seas afterward, unless the weaker party is fond of suicide. In any event, there was plenty of violence, lots and lots of it, involved in fully establishing the blockade of the Confederacy. It took years to take the ports and harbors that needed to be taken in order to make the blockade work. It was far more than just foiling the C.S.S. Virgina. You might even argue that the campaign to control the length of the Mississippi was part of the blockade. That campaign required a bit of fighting. Overall I think the blockade was a very violent affair conducted by warships and soldiers killing or threatening to kill people, and breaking or grabbing things.

Sun Tzu spoke of having armies that were used so as to put the enemy in such a bad position they gave up without a fight. ARMIES, organized groups of armed men ready to kill people and break things were needed, not NGOs or multi-national companies. Sun Tzu is defining the acme of generalship as using armies so well as to convince the enemy not to fight. He is not saying war isn't fighting. Behind this thing he said is the spectre of war, red war. And that "...means fighting and fighting means killing."

Kudos to Ms. Long for trying but to try and define war without including death is silly.


Mon, 12/10/2012 - 1:09pm

In reply to by carl

Interesting point, but Bedford Forrest lived over a hundred years ago and fought for the loosing side. A lot can be learned from a losing side, but imitation probably shouldn't be one of them. The U.S. Navy's blockade of the South was a key factor in preventing the Confederacy from being able to logistically and economically support and therefore sustain their war effort -- and its (the blockade's) activities were overall a non-violent affair.

We, in my humble opinion, we should not limit our thought process to those of the 19th Century Prussian Clausewitz, interesting as they may be. Perhaps more concentration should be given to Sun Tzu and the other Chinese writers on the Art of War, especially his wisdom in Book 3 of his Art of War, that "Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." He is defining "war" as an activity not requiring fighting or violence.

The word 'competition' already exists and is perfectly adequate when describing affairs between countries short of war.

Any proposal to redefine the word 'war' without mentioning killing people and breaking things is silly. Bedford Forrest would laugh at this.


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 7:36am

In reply to by Bill M.

or are certain nations in a secret alliance that promote and arm diffrent sides in so called civil wars in order to carve out mutually agreed spheres of influence...........yes very orwellian and conspiratorial i know...but worth a few thoughts non the less.

Bill M.

Sun, 12/09/2012 - 6:20pm

In reply to by CBCalif

Was the Cold War a war? Maybe. Is Cyber War a war? No.

We throw the word war out loosely, such as the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on drunk driving. This list is endless. What do we mean by war in these cases? In general we're implying we're going to be more serious about resolving the problem. Is this really war? In my opinion it isn't, but in cases where we may need to apply covert or overt force to achieve an end, such as against some drug cartels or terrorist groups we probably need a term short of war that captures or intent.

The term war may have little utility outside of a nation state construct, since "a declaration of war", is a legal action that empowers the government to take any measures needed to wage the war against another state (e.g. control the food supply, implement a war tax to pay for, etc.). We have been in numerous conflicts where we have lost thousands of men where war was not declared. From a grunt's perspective it was war, but from a strategic perspective not always.

The Cold War is interesting, since we never declared war (Cold or otherwise against the USSR), but it was generally accepted that we were waging something short of war with the USSR globally through diplomacy, information, military, economic, finance, and intelligence. Some of those battles looked a lot like wars (Korea, Vietnam), but we didn't declare war against the Soviets directly, we just attempted to blunt their expansion (successfully in the end). If we actually went to war the USSR as we almost did twice I suspect there were be no debate over the difference between war and a sub-war conflict is. Maybe we should replace efforts short of war with a new term other than Cold War that means conflict short of war? We obviously have something like that going on with Iran, but it isn't currently a war. It is mostly a diplomatic, economic, information and intelligence effort from what I'm reading.

I think a more interesting case is our recent intervention in Libya. Was that a war? We used military force to compel a change in the political status. Our use of force was limited, but it enabled the rebels to remove the regime, does a degree of separation or flying above 10,000 feet mean we're not at war, but those guys on the ground are?

As for Cyber, I see that as a means and ways to achieve an end. I agree that a nation may be able to wage a war principlely using cyber coercively eventually, but for it to be war there still must be an intent to wage war to accomplish something. Does it really matter if their primary means is missiles, nukes, cyber, air power, terrorism, using armies to invade, etc.? These define the character of the war, but not the nature of war. Maybe the nature of war is changing also, but I recommend caution on the proposal to call everything we do war. Much of what we do is intended to prevent war. That includes the use of military force.

We can, have, and should continue when necessary to conduct covert operations and overt military operations (the threat of or the actual use of violence) to achieve our ends, and when possible we should use them short of what we call war. We have significant threats to our national interests that require an aggressive response, but they still don't cross the threshold of being a war. When a terrorist group eventually conducts a biological or chemican attack on one of our cities, we should do whatever is necessary to find, fix and finish them off, but is that really a war? Does calling it a war give us any advantage or does it disadvantage us?


Sun, 12/09/2012 - 12:50pm

Was the so-called "Cold War" a war? Is the "Cyber War" a war? Does a war between nations or alliance (if they truly exist today) require violence or is it the objective of the competition between opposing forces that determines whether the parties are engaged in a war? Businesses compete for market share for a given product or set of products. They are not interested in destroying their opponents or significantly weakening them because they know that consumers (to be available) must be employed and earn money somewhere. However, when nation's compete with the objective of so severely weakening another nation so that the victor takes control and renders the other essentially insignificant on the influence, capabilities, and economic scales such that the victor effectively controls the future of the other -- are the nations competing or are they at war?

The question again, does war require violence or does the definition depend on the objectives of the competing parties? If this nation's enemies are intent on relegating the US to the status of a second or third rate power using means other than engaging in direct conflict with our armed forces and we fail to recognize the nature of that war and respond effectively then our defeat will be the result. The Cold War was a war, just one without historical conventional battles occurring. For those old enough, remember Krushchev's (perhaps misquoted) statement to the West of "We will bury you."

Again, if one wishes, they can read the freely available (CIA translation of) "Unrestricted Warfare" by two PLA Colonels in PDF and HTML format on the Web. Two PLA Colonels who believe war is more than just violence and other activities on conventional battlefield. The Chinese have a history of defining war to suit the conditions of their time and available capabilities by considering their own strengths and weaknesses versus those of their opponents,

"War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about the sufficient adherence of a nation's will in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail."

Some thoughts:

a. Armed conflict may not be undertaken only when all other means of convincing/compelling fail. Rather, armed conflict may be undertaken today, as in the past, simply because a unique opportunity, advantage, opening and/or difficulty presents itself. Likewise, armed conflict today, as in the past, may be undertaken when such is thought to be (a) cost/benefit acceptable and/or (b) a more expedient, decisive and/or long-term remedy to certain problems or situations.

b. In the author's paragraph above, we may also wish to eliminate the word's "nation's will" and substitute therefore the word's "entity's will;" this, to accommodate those cases wherein individuals and/or groups choose to go to war inside and/or outside their own country. (Thus, such resort to armed conflict not resulting from the acts, ambitions or decisions of, per se, "a nation").


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 4:04pm

In reply to by G Martin

"I, personally, would rather we not define war- but attempt to capture all the different ways in which war is defined by others. That might allow us to best understand things- make sense of them. That, IMO, is the goal- not to make a definition fit what we wish something to be." posted by Grant Martin

Nice job Grant! That is shear genius IMO! We keep wanting to define everything based upon some American standard as if that will be the way the World views the situation or as if that will be the way our Enemies and or Competitors will view the situation. Many Enemies will enjoy the fact that they understand that they are at War with us but we(USA) keep trying to rationalize somehow that we are not at War....just a big misunderstanding! It's like an old Miami Cop once told me about Vodoo, if people believe it exist and people act on that belief that it exist than trying to convince everyone that logically that Vodoo doesn't't exist really doesn't matter.

G Martin

Sun, 12/09/2012 - 9:27am

"War is"

I advise us to avoid saying war "is" something. It "is" a lot of things to different people- defining it in such a deterministic fashion IMO limits our own understanding of it.

"the coherent execution"

lots of "wars" to me seem incoherently executed.

"of all means to bring about"

again- as other have noted- this makes war mean almost everything.

"sufficient adherence"

And what about those wars that do not aim- either practically or theoretically- in a "sufficient" manner to bring about any adherence to anything?

"to a nation’s will"

I think it is naive to think a nation's will really drives things- I'm not sure what a nation's "will" is- and I would submit war is normally divorced from such a concept- if the concept actually exists (I don't think it does- I think it is a chimera we have attached to war to make it seem more just). In reality there is no such thing- or it is so ephemeral that it means nothing practical.

"in the international (global) arena"

I would submit that the will of the people is always in flux (and thus doesn't help us to imagine it)- and to pretend that during war "the nation" or a "non-state actor" is carrying out some monolithic "will" will not assist us in understanding different nuances of the environment of "war."

"resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail."

I, personally, would rather we not define war- but attempt to capture all the different ways in which war is defined by others. That might allow us to best understand things- make sense of them. That, IMO, is the goal- not to make a definition fit what we wish something to be.

War- 1) armed conflict between groups of people, 2) state on state armed conflict, 3) declared state of armed conflict between states or pseudo-states, 4) all activities that encompass competition between groups- usually states- that attempt to bring about change, 5) attempts at cultural change, 6) the natural state of the world, 7) an extreme state that is not natural- but exists during times of conflict in which natural and civilized norms are suspended, 8) an organized attempt to force unwanted change on others, others---?

Bill M.

Sun, 12/09/2012 - 12:09am

In my view this article doesn’t little more than articulate what we do already at the strategic level with diplomacy, information, military, and economic power, but then goes off the deep end by calling all this war, and further arguing we’re in a perpetual state of war. If we buy into LtCol Long’s proposed definition of war the rest of the nations in the world would assume we’re in perpetual state of war with them since we have now redefined normal competition between nations for influence as war. Too many military members assume our nation’s less than stellar performance in Iraq and Afghanistan implies we don’t do strategy and we fail to synchronize efforts across DIME or DIMEFIL to influence a desired outcome. The sooner we put these conflicts behind us the sooner we’ll be able to a more coherent and relevant discussion on national security.
War does involve the application of violence and the decision for a nation to declare war on another nation or even a non-state actor shouldn’t be made lightly. Applying coercive means such as economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, information, etc. doesn’t mean we’re at war, in fact they may be an attempt to prevent going to war.
I agree with the author we need a new and/or expanded lexicon for national security as a whole, but I don’t think we want to get to the point where we’re calling it war when we try to influence a country or countries to support a trade agreement. Nor do we want to 85% of our diplomacy perceived as part of our war effort. On the other hand if we’re actually at war and in support of that effort we lobby in the UN for sanctions against that country then that is part of the war effort, but it isn’t anything new, we have done this for decades. Our national leaders have always applied all elements of national power in various ways to achieve their national security ends.
None of the above doesn’t mean we shouldn’t redefine war, but defining it as everything and perpetual does not help. In fact the proposed definition and recommendations do little at all to help us address security challenges effectively.
We still struggle with how to address the threat from piracy, terrorism, WMD proliferation, etc. Many would prefer to see these stay in the police lane, even when they’re beyond their capacity to address. They don’t rise to the level of war in most cases, so there is a gray area in the middle that we lack a lexicon and authorities to effectively address.


Sat, 12/08/2012 - 6:52pm

In reply to by Nate F.

Just a thought, but many of us in the Western, i.e. Europe Centric, world (including the US) have pent too much time reading the incomplete thoughts about war written by an 19 Century Prussian Army Officer while conducting almost all our significant military operations on the continent of Asia. Remember, the Middle East is an Anglo term popularized by A.T. Mahan for Western Asia.

While Asian military men, and some so called non-state warriors of that area of the world, may have read / studied Clausewitz and others may have been indoctrinated into the Western Post-WWII Way of Warfare, most in the Asian World view conflict in a totally different cultural manner. A philosophy of life and war better exemplified by the writings of Sun Tzu and many others from that continent.

Perhaps that dichotomy explains why we have performed so poorly strategically (and that in the end is what matters) in that part of the World since the Korean War. US success in Korea resulted more from the fact that most of the fighting was on a Peninsula and the attacking North Koreans were lead by someone previously a member of the Soviet Army, schooled in their tactics, and leasing a force structured and equipped by the Russian military, and somewhat similar was Saddam Husein's disastrous attempts to imitate the Western way of warfare.

Can the US afford more Vietnam's with us trying to sustain thieving and incompetent (other than at national level theft) dictators and their cronies in power, another trillion dollar Iraqi style strategic debacle with meaningless Western style tactical successes, and to spend another 600+ billion to keep a few hundred (or few thousand -- not likely) non-State terrorists from having a base of operations that can easily be destroyed by far less costly massive air strikes and Ranger style battalion raiding parties while once again financing another corrupt dictator?

As Admiral Mullen noted while Chairmen of the JCS, our Nation's national debt is the greatest threat to our security -- no small part of which has resulted from our country engaging in strategically meaningless conflicts and employing costly tactics in those theaters.

There are too many of Sun Tzu's statements about war that should have guided our executive and our military to repeat here, but as Col. Long noted quoting Sun Tzu, "Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence, supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting," and "he will; win who know when to fight and when not to fight." Sun Tzu also notes that warfare is like water which has no constant shape, "so in warfare there are not constant conditions."

Clearly, at lest in my opinion, after the last decade of a costly on-going war in which the US has committed to many tens of thousands of conventional forces (regardless of their tactical mission) against a comparatively small number of non-State terrorists, and having helped drive up the nation's national debt, we have failed to heed Sun Tzu's advice that "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." Instead of determining whether their planned for tactical victories our military brass should have developed a definition of victory meaningful to the national level strategic needs of this country instead of replacing Vietnam War body count statistics with Iraq violent acts count and claiming victory for those meaningless results. Once that strategic definition was determined, then our brass should have followed Sun Tzu's statement that "if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding.

Lt. Col Long's emphasis is correct, we need a new definition of war. If the military doesn't develop one more in concert with our nation's actual military requirements and budget problems, than the current administration is going to subtly do it for them. Does the US military not see that the Obama Administration is down sizing the military -- especially the ground forces and concentrating on use of the SF and SOG in small units to fight a counter terror effort sized to the number of actual terrorists there are in this world? This administration is subtly, but surely, ending the era of large scale COIN/ Nation Building efforts having written off their value in the same manner the Nixon Administration did over time with our pacification and conventional efforts in Vietnam -- all the while allowing the winding down fighting to continue to the end. Changes in force structure and mission the military never seems to notice up front.

Just my continuing thoughts.

If someone finds the redefinition of warfare interesting, and I personally believe there is a lot to it and certainly worth consideration, they might review Unrestricted Warfare by Colonel's Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of the Chinese PLA, (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999) which in many respects redefines warfare perhaps i the same way. A version of their writings is available on the web at and in PDF format at Even though it is available and over priced in commercial form, it is available free on the web. The comments at Amazon are interesting.

justin kelly

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 10:24pm

I think there is potential here to confuse 'war' and 'competition'.
What is it that differentiates 'war' from the normal commerce of nations? Similarly, why do we attempt to limit war to 'nations' - does that mean that we can't fight wars against the Taliban or AQ or that the Civil War was not?
I also have concerns with limiting the use of force definitionally to a last resort. This rests on a number of presumptions about the nature of strategy which are probably untenable.
The demand for coherence flies in the face of Clausewitz and is without historical foundation.
Armed conflict is a legal term that enables the categorisation of conflicts to determine the legal frameworks that are applicable. Current definitions of armed conflict are reasonably comprehensive (although they still tend to take a georaphic perspective in deference to the historical sources of laws). However, any definition of war needs to at least encompass the various meanings for armed conflict. The one proffered above does not.

A definition that is working its way into Australian joint doctrine at present is that 'war is an attempt to redistribute political power by the application of destructive force'. It would be possible to adorn this definition in a number of ways: to accommodate the negative purpose ('preventing the redistribution of political power')or to acknowledge that the use of force could be latent rather than actual for example but, notwithstanding that, it is reasonably fit for purpose.
In its favour, the definition is comprehensive - covering all actions that could ostensibly be characterised as war - speaks to the view of wars as an extension of politics (stoutly Clausewitzian) and, by recognising the role for destructive force, differentiates war from political or other forms of competition.

I think the Australian doctrine is closer to the mark than is LTC Long.

Yes, "A strategic leader’s concept of war must necessarily be [much] more encompassing" than it is today, and "War is the coherent execution of all means to bring about sufficient adherence to a nation’s [strategic goals] in the international (global) arena; resulting in armed conflict only when all other means fail."

In concert with the above, the US military must understand that tactical victory and land occupation in the current world environment are neither necessary nor a cost effective strategic objective required for achieving today's national level strategic goals. The military must change its orientation to war away from employing a military strategy of land occupation and population molding to the one based on the minimum employment of US resources be those military personnel or weapons systems capabilities. We must begin to develop an understanding that the costs of a conflict above that of sunk costs must produce material benefit to this nation or preclude a future major conflict of devastating proportions to worth the added costs. Tactical success as the objective must be reevaluated as in the current world economic and conflict environment it is not always the path to strategic success and instead may help to economically cripple a country.


Wed, 12/05/2012 - 11:21am

I understand the points made. However, other less knowledgeable authors on the topic worry that we've made "war" a steady-state activity within our society (war on drugs, war on poverty, etc, etc), and when armed conflict is required, there is a seamless transition to killing and blowing-stuff-up. We're lowering the bar and our belief that we're always at "war" has a corrosive effect on society in general. Already we put up with intrusive security that we would have found intolerable less than a generation ago for counter potential actions with a very low risk of occurrence.

Isn't what Lt Col Long is aching to describe as war really a form of 'competition?' We openly admit that competition is necessary and healthy for free-markets to exist but if we act competitively in a national sense this need not rise to the level of war. If we are at war with China, I shouldn't be able to get on an airplane to Hong Kong and enjoy High Tea at the Mandarin Oriental. Open, even brutal competition is a healthy endeavor as long as it subscribes to mutually agreed international norms. Those that act outside those norms are not combatants but criminals. We have means and institutions for dealing with criminals and a growing body of international law to which we can subject them.

Let's keep "war" as a term that requires a societal commitment to compromise -- temporarily -- our freedoms to fight off something which threatens our way of life. I admit there may be times in the future when this doesn't require killing and blowing-stuff-up, but for now I understand the threshold as just that.

Bill C.

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 10:44am

The main error that may be being made here is to consider things from a "national" perspective.

Thus, for the sake of my argument/discussion below, note importantly that "states" are to be seen simply as "instruments of a society" and, thus, simply as tools by which a society acts to achieve its ends. (Strategy, etc., -- and in the case of all sides of the conflict -- to be understood accordingly.)

Now to begin:

"War" today can be described as the attempt -- using all means available to a society -- to convince and/or compel other societies to adopt one's foreign way of life and one's foreign way of governance. Herein, for example, the western world using the United States and British versions of DoD, State, AID, private enterprise, etc., to achieve its societal ends (to wit: the assimilation of "the other").

The concept of "Wars Among the People" likewise being better understood within a "war between societies" (but, importantly, this must be "writ large") rather than a "war between nations" context.

Thus, "societal success in the international arena" to be determined by whether one society has been able to successfully convince/compel other societies to (1) abandon their way of life and way of governance and (2) adopt the way of life and way of governance of the foreign society.

The criteria noted immediately above also addressing the author's latter question re: "How do (today's) Wars End?"

Thus, the Huntington argument?

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 8:13am

Interesting essay. Unfortunately she does not discuss Clausewitz' trinity which surprises me because if you are going to critique a "Clausewitzian definition of war" you probably need to begin with the idea that war is "more than a true chameleon" (Howard and Paret translation, p. 89). Perhaps since she is only focusing on the definition of war and thus by not discussing the trinity she is at least tacitly admitting that the nature of war is enduring and only the character of war is changing therefore postulating that a new definition is necessary. But I think it is always good to debate this because the more discussion we have (even if we do not agree) the more people will have the opportunity to understand the nature of war and determine for themselves how it is defined. But in the end of course there will likely never be universal agreement on these ideas.