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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. “


“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.


In addition to some already excellent and extensive comments in the thread, I would like to turn your attention to an interview post at The Last Word on Nothing recommended byZack Beauchamp:

Horgan, Hayden, and the Last Word on Warfare 

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? [….]

10 Responses to “When Does Conflict Become “War”?”

  1. Duncan Kinder Says:

    Whether the violence between or within tiny paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands constituted private murder or warfare is a matter of debate

    This debate itself is conflict; I trust, however, that it is not war.

  2. Bernard Finel Says:

    There is, indeed, a vast anthropology literature on this issue.

    I tend to see the issue as related to the deliberate construction of military capacity, as opposed to the endemic, but secondary use of existing modes of economic/social tools in persistent conflict. What makes something “war,” I think, is precisely the creation of a specialized body/organization to wage this type of conflict. Why do I say this? Because I think that what gives wars its particular character is the way is operates both as part of, but also clearly in opposition to, existing forms of social organization.

    This is, of course, not a novel perspective. I am merely echoing the concept defined by Turney-High about the “military horizon,” though his argument is more about capacity/organization and less about the generation of tensions between social modes.

  3. tdaxp Says:

    ” 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?”

    In such a society, labor and capital are simply seen as alternative units of production that can be traded for each other. Presumably the ruling class wishes to avoid creating stresses severe enough to threaten their own privileges. Thus, in a growing society ruled by such an elite, we shoudl see the gradual substitution of labor for capital in war, as the elite (presuming it can maintain something approaching creditworthiness) views credit as less dangerous than an enraged populous.

  4. L. C. Rees Says:

    Politics is the division of power. War is one continuation of politics with violent power added as its means of division. Defining war is yet another continuation of politics: there is always a politics of taxonomy even when there’s no war of taxonomy. The accepted definition of war depends very much on the division of power between competing parties. In one snake pit of violent politics, the weaker parties may invoke the “w”-word to draw outside intervention. Stronger parties may in turn retaliate by playing down the war angle by calling its application of violence as “law enforcement” and its targets as “bandits” or even “dead-enders”.

    At the other extreme, one party may call a run of the mill peaceful political initiative “war” to make its successful enactment and execution seem more pressing than politics as usual. In this country, Wilson appointees like FDR, Bernard Baruch, Hugh Johnson, Jesse Jones, or George Peek implemented the most totalitarian moment in American history during the real war of 1917-1919. They naturally drew on this experience of politics as unusual when they reverted to war economy measures in 1933-1934. Channeling Wilson, FDR made the Depression the new Hun and declared war on it, becoming “Dr. Win-the-War” in a time of peace 9 years before Pearl Harbor. FDR ordered the Army to run the CCC, Johnson to run the NRA, Jones the RFC, Peek the AAA, and Baruch everything. With this example before them, WWII-vintage veterans from JFK to George H.W. Bush habitually declared war on poverty, drugs, and other abstractions for the rest of the 20th century. The national liturgy of the Total Century is now so engrained that even decadent Boomers like Clinton or George “War on terror” Bush must ritually reenact the Passion of Woodrow Wilson before the altar of peacetime policy as war.

    The best documented case of warring chimp bands was war through the accumulation of murders by three or so members from the victorious band committed against one chimp from the rival band until the other band ceased to be a going concern. The purpose was not control over members the other band. It was annihilating the other band so the victor band could occupy the losers’ range to expand their foraging opportunities.

    While human bands in the wild sometimes exterminate rival bands, some discovered that selective domestication of wild humans increased their power through surplus generated from captive labor and mating opportunities. Some bands even learned that raising large herds of domesticated humans by culling the most resistent and putting the more docile to work turning grass into calories created the power to breed more warriors than their neighbors could counter. More warriors in turn meant enclosure of more free-range humans which meant even more calories for warriors. Herdsmen may call this process husbandry or law enforcement. Domesticates may call it predation or war. 

    The degree to which domestication is privatized plays a large role in what political violence constitutes war and which does not. Since the purpose of domestication is manufacturing more warriors to win a larger division of power, the right of warriors so produced to wage private war may be the unavoidable compensation paid for a surplus of warriors. In some early law codes, private war remained the primary corrective for private harm. The predominant holder of violent power only intervened to keep private war within certain bounds so it didn’t escalate. However, if the predominant holder aspired to expand its private violent power into a monopoly on all violent power, it had to selectively domesticate its own warriors by culling the most recalcitrant, thinning their numbers, and even compelling domesticates to become fighters in place of warriors. Rome largely nationalized private violence under Caesar and Augustus. The decay of the means of monopolizing violence led to compensatory re-privatization of war by the fall of the Western empire. There was a temporary abeyance under the Pepinids, followed by massive re-privatization after the fall of the Pepinids followed gradual by re-nationalization starting with Henri I in England and Charles the Victorious in France which continued until another wave of re-privatization began when another decay of the means of monopolized power set in during the 1960s.

    As this re-privatization of public violence rolls on, the definition of war may become more fluied that it is right now. Strategy was not “discovered” until Guibert first cataloged it in the mid-eighteenth century. Other elements of the taxonomy of conflict require similar discovery. War probably is only politically inspired violence between coherent rivals for power but that definition remais entirely provisional.

  5. zen Says:

    New Addendum to post…..

  6. zen Says:

    Hey gents,
    It is interesting (to me at least) to juxtapose Bernard’s comment on the “military horizon”, which is a useful concept with an arbitrary/fluid temporal border, with LC’s comment on the political nature of defining war and warfare with the article I appended. As it did not suit me, as it did the scientists at The Last Word, to go back to Australopithecus or to our chimpanzee cousins, so I arbitrarily stuck with the earliest (so far) known archaeological example of organized battle while accepting war could have been much earlier. Dr. Finel might prefer later and more advanced polities (maybe the Egypt of King Narmer or Mohenjo-Daro) as a clear-cut example of being on the right side of the military horizon.
    Incidentally, LC has a nice, rough definition, albeit “provisional”

  7. Purpleslog Says:

    Is L.C. who I think he is?

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Purpleslog,
    In the words of Francis Urquhart “You might very well think that, I could not possibly comment”

  9. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Thanks for sharing the Francis Urquhart tid-bit—I had never heard of the character.
    Hi Purpleslog,
    I don’t know who he is, but he writes good comments. 

  10. zen Says:

    Hey Scott – House of Cards is well worth watching!

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