When does mere conflict end and war begin?
Great philosophers of strategy and statecraft did not treat all conflict as war but regarded war as a discernably distinct phenomenon, different from both peace and other kinds of conflict. War had a special status and unique character, glorious and terrible:
“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. “
“When the Corcyraeans heard of their preparations they came to Corinth with envoys from Lacedaemon and Sicyon, whom they persuaded to accompany them, and bade her recall the garrison and settlers, as she had nothing to do with Epidamnus. If, however, she had any claims to make, they were willing to submit the matter to the arbitration of such of the cities in Peloponnese as should be chosen by mutual agreement, and that the colony should remain with the city to whom the arbitrators might assign it. They were also willing to refer the matter to the oracle at Delphi. If, in defiance of their protestations, war was appealed to, they should be themselves compelled by this violence to seek friends in quarters where they had no desire to seek them, and to make even old ties give way to the necessity of assistance. The answer they got from Corinth was that, if they would withdraw their fleet and the barbarians from Epidamnus, negotiation might be possible; but, while the town was still being besieged, going before arbitrators was out of the question. The Corcyraeans retorted that if Corinth would withdraw her troops from Epidamnus they would withdraw theirs, or they were ready to let both parties remain in statu quo, an armistice being concluded till judgment could be given. “
“Thus, therefore, the political object, as the original motive of the war, will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force, and also the amount of effort to be made. This it cannot be in itself; but it is so in relation to both the belligerent states, because we are concerned with realities, not with mere abstractions. One and the same political object may produce totally different effects upon different people, or even upon the same people at different times; we can, therefore, only admit the political object as the measure, by considering it in its effects upon those masses which it is to move, and consequently the nature of those masses also comes into consideration. It is easy to see that thus the result may be very different according as these masses are animated with a spirit which will infuse vigour into the action or otherwise.”
- Carl von Clausewitz
We see from the above that war was not regarded as the same as either the political conflict which precipitated it or even, in the case of the Corcyraeans, the violence done against their interests in Epidamnus by the Corinthians, which did not yet rise to be considered war in the eyes of either Corcyra or Corinth. Instead the occupation of Epidamnus was something we would recognize today as coercion. Like war itself, coercion operates by a calculus that is only partially rational; not only is the psychological pressure of coercion subject to passions of the moment, our reactions to the threat of violence -and willingness to engage in it – may be rooted in evolutionary adaptations going back to the dawn of mankind. Coercion, or resistance to it, usually is the midwife of war.
Prehistoric man lived a life that archaeology increasingly indicates, contrary to philosophical myth-making, was endemic in it’s violent brutality. Whether the violence between or within tiny paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands constituted private murder or warfare is a matter of debate, but the existence of the violence itself is not. Earliest firm evidence of a possible large skirmish or massacre dates back to 14,000 BC and definitive evidence for large-scale, organized battle dates to the end of the Neolithic period and dawn of the Bronze Age in 3500 BC. Lawrence Keeley, in War Before Civilization, describes primitive man as being hyperviolent in comparison with those noted pacifists, the ancient Romans:
….For example, during a five and a half month period, the Dugum Dani tribesmen of New Guinea were observed to participate in seven full battles and nine raids. One Yanomamo village in South America was raided twenty-five times over a fifteen month period….
The high frequencies of prestate warfare contrast with those of even the most aggressive ancient and modern civilized states. The early Roman Republic (510-121 BC) initiated war or was attacked only about once every twenty years. During the late Republic and early Empire (118 BC -211 AD), wars started about once every six or seven years, most being civil wars and provincial revolts. Only a few of these later Roman wars involved any general mobilization of resources, and all were fought by the state’s small (relative to the size of the population) long-service, professional forces supported by normal taxation, localized food levies and plunder. In other words, most inhabitants of the Roman Empire were rarely directly involved in warfare and most experienced the Pax Romana unmolested over many generations. [Keeley,33]
Simple, prestate societies probably waged “war” – a violent and deliberate conflict with rival groups and in alliance with rival groups against more distant interlopers – but the degree to which archaic and prehistoric humans culturally differentiated between this and their everyday, casual, homicidal violence remains unknown. Moreover, many academics would not accept the thesis of neolithic societies being “warlike”, much less, waging “war” as we understand the term until they rose to levels of social and political complexity generally denoted as chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires (“political” societies).
There’s something to that argument; a certain element of cultural identity is required to see the world in distinctly ”us vs. them” terms instead of an atomized Hobbesian “all vs. all” but I suspect it is far more basic a level of communal identification than the level of cultural identity typical of sophisticated chiefdoms like Cahokia or ancient Hawaii. Cultural and communal identity would tend to focus violence toward outsiders while increasingly complex political and social organization could “shape” how violence took place, molding it into recognizable patterns by regulation, ritual, taboo and command of authority. Once there is enough societal complexity for a leadership to organize and direct mass violence with some crude degree of rational choice and control, not only is war possible but strategy is as well.
Once a society is sophisticated enough to employ violence or the threat of violence purposefully for diplomacy or warfare, it is making a political decision to separate mundane and nearly chronic “conflict” and “war” into different categories. This would appear to be a primitive form of economic calculation distinguishing between conflict that generates acceptable costs and manageable risks and those conflicts that pose unacceptable costs or existential risks. This would give the relationship between primitive tribes the character of bargaining, an ongoing negotiation where the common currencies were violence and propitiation, until one party vacated the area or ceased to exist, most wars then having an innate tendency to escalate toward genocide (our current limitations on warfare, such as they are, derive from greater social complexity and political control over the use of violence).
If an economic calculus is indeed the root of the political decision to recognize some conflicts as “war”, that raises some interesting questions about modernity and advanced states. What happens when a conflict occurs with a state sufficiently complex that the ruling elite see their class interests as distinct and superceding those of the state? The calculus and what is considered “acceptable” costs or risks in a conflict vice those mandating “war” shift dramatically away from what might be considered “rational” state interest.
In a society at such an end-state, seemingly intolerable conflict might be tolerated indefinitely while full-fledged wars could be waged over what would appear to be mere trivialities to the national interest.
Ann: I understand both of you have written authoritative and charming books on war — John’s, just out, is called The End of War; and Tom’s is Sex and War — and that you’vediscussed these matters before. I also understand you disagree about war. How could you not agree? I mean, war is just nasty stuff and we shouldn’t do it, right?
Tom: Ann, you’re poking the hornet’s nest right off the bat! I don’t think John and I disagree about war, but rather about peace. Don’t get me wrong: we both prefer the latter to the former, by a wide margin. And there are many things we do agree on, I think, such as the substantial observed decrease in the frequency and lethality of war over the past several centuries, and the idea that culture is an important part of the balance between war and peace. But I think we do have a difference of opinion about the attainability of peace (John) versus the inevitability of war (me). I think this makes John a better person than me, and certainly a more optimistic one. And I really, really hope he’s right. In my mind it comes down to an argument about human nature, and whether the impulses and behaviors of war are inborn or acquired. Or at least, that’s my take. John, what’s yours? [....]