When Does Conflict Become “War”?

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. “

    -Sun Tzu

“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. “

-Thucydides 

“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.

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