When considering military action against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, then US President Bush swore that he would avoid the mistakes of the Vietnam War. Unlike the long, drawn-out defeat in Vietnam, the 1991 Persian Gulf War was a swift and decisive victory for the US-led coalition (Ambrose & Brinkley, 1997). The conduct of wars – their aims and means – seems to have undergone a complete change into an unprecedented new paradigm. Using Clausewitz’s trinity of warfare, this essay will compare contemporary wars – wars fought after the Vietnam War – with “old wars” such as the Vietnam War, WWI and WWII. On the surface, contemporary warfare’s differing means and aims seems to suggest that it is entirely new. However, it should be noted that such a view is both Eurocentric and superficial. Hence, this essay will argue that a deeper analysis of military history reveals that not only is contemporary warfare merely an evolution of pre-existing trends but the notion of “contemporary warfare” is itself flawed.
According to Clausewitz, war consists of three elements: violence and passion; uncertainty and probability; and political purpose and effect. Clausewitz then connects each of these forces with three sets of actors: the people, the army and the government (Villacres & Bassford, 1995; von Clausewitz, 1976). This fundamental trinity of elements are common across all wars but adjust to changing contextual circumstances (Schuurman, 2010). Using von Clausewitz’s framework, this essay will highlight how contemporary warfare seems to be a new and unprecedented paradigm in military affairs.
Warfare’s contemporary form was stemmed from changes in one element of the trinity – the people. The brutal wars of the twentieth century left Western populaces suspicious and unwilling to engage in war. The end of conscription after the Vietnam War in America and its gradual phasing out in Europe has led to the decline of mass armies. Automatic support for the military began to fade as individual lives were not affected by military institutions and wars. Hence, the mass consumer societies in the West became post-military (Shaw, 2005). The decline in popular support for war and militarism is clearly manifested in manpower shortages in both the American and British armed forces today (Cox, 2016; Nelson, 2015). Both the government and the military are dependent on the people. The government needs to maintain the support of citizens who vote it into power and the military requires popular support as an essential source of recruits and the (Schuurman, 2010). Hence, the two other aspects of the trinity have changed to adapt to the changes in society.
The government has adjusted the way it wages war to maintain the popular support of the people, aiming to isolate contemporary warfare as a purely military struggle and prevent war from permeating the fields of society and economy. This was unlike the total wars of WWI and WWII where all resources at the state’s disposal were mobilised for the war effort (Best, Hanhimäki, Maiolo, & Schulze, 2008). When wars infringe on people’s lives, as the draft did during the Vietnam war, opposition to war could be strong (Shaw, 2005). While the Vietnam war was militarily limited, it was not politically and socially limited. Governments today aim to avoid this mistake, ensuring that contemporary warfare remains isolated as a military struggle and preventing it from negatively impacting normal political and economic life (Shaw, 2005). To achieve this aim, Western governments and militaries engage in what Shaw (2005) terms “risk-transfer warfare”. He conceives of war as an exercise in risk management, where governments and militaries transfer the political and military risks from politicians and combatants to other parties (Shaw, 2005). Hence, in contemporary wars, instead of mobilising all resources for the war, governments attempt to limit the social and political impact of war. To maintain domestic support for contemporary wars, Western governments and militaries isolate it by making war more calculable.
In contemporary warfare, Western governments use the latest military technology in an attempt to control war. In the process, it reduces political risks towards itself and thus maintains popular support for both the government and the war. Unlike in “old wars”, where killing civilians was part of the total war effort to defeat the enemy, such as the firebombing of Dresden in the Second World War, contemporary warfare uses high-tech precision weaponry to ensure that only enemy combatants are killed and avoid civilian deaths (Best et al., 2008; Shaw, 2005). Precision defines war and narrows it down, reducing the friction of war that causes it to spiral out of control. It reduces the fog of war and makes war calculable (Shaw, 2005; von Clausewitz, 1976). This allows war to be isolated and the political risks of war minimised. These efforts are supported by the use of the media by the military to sanitise contemporary warfare. The military believed that negative television coverage had undermined support for the Vietnam war. To avoid this, militaries frame contemporary wars in the right narrative and place restrictions on the media to ensure that nothing reported can disrupt the narrative (Shaw, 2005). Through the control of the media and the unprecedented use of precision weaponry, contemporary war allows Western governments to isolate and minimise the political risks of war.
Furthermore, since Western societies are unwilling to tolerate high casualties, the military aims to transfer risk away from soldiers in contemporary wars. In the Great Wars and the Vietnam War, Western militaries actively placed troops at risk at the forefront of conflicts. In contrast, Western militaries today are loath to risk putting soldiers on the ground. They transfer the risk of fighting on the ground to local forces and rely on relatively safer airpower. For example, during the Kosovo war, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces provided air support while the Kosovo Liberation Army served as the soldiers on the ground (Shaw, 2005). To avoid casualties to pilots, Western militaries also transfer risk onto civilians. During the Yugoslav wars, NATO was unwilling to expose its bombers to the risk of anti-aircraft fire. NATO risked the lives of the civilians by relying on less precise high-altitude bombing to keep their aircrews safe, transferring the risk from the aircrews to the civilians (Shaw, 2005). The use of unmanned aerial drones in warfare is the epitome of risk-transfer warfare as no Western combatants’ lives are put in harm’s way while risking the lives of non-combatants in the vicinity (The Economist, 2016c).
Beyond the changes in means from brutal total war to contemporary limited risk-transfer war, the aims of contemporary war have also seem to have changed. In the past, old wars were predominantly fought between nation states with the aim of establishing military conditions for a political solution (Giddens & Sutton, 2013; Simpson, 2012). In the Second World War, the USA aimed for a military defeat of Germany to find a political solution to the war (Ikenberry, 2001). However, contemporary wars seek political rather than military outcomes and are usually fought in a fragmented environment against non-state actors of overlapping allegiances (Giddens & Sutton, 2013; Simpson, 2012). These wars have been termed low-intensity conflicts and they have aims such as humanitarian protection, state-building and counterinsurgency (Giddens & Sutton, 2013; Shaw, 2005; Simpson, 2012). For example, after destroying most of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the American forces’ aims became one of quelling the insurgency and building a stable Afghanistan state (Simpson, 2012).
Therefore, on the surface, contemporary war seems entirely new as both the ends and means have changed. Western governments use new technology to reduce the political risks of war by controlling and compartmentalising it. Western militaries reduce the military risks of war by transferring that risk to other actors in the conflict. The aims of war have also shifted from military victory to distinctly political concerns.
However, a closer inspection of the history of war reveals that it is inaccurate to state that contemporary warfare is entirely new. Instead, the conduct of contemporary warfare is merely an evolution and intensification of pre-existing trends in military affairs.
The desire to transfer risks is not unique to contemporary warfare. It should be noted that the Americans were extremely reluctant to enter the Second World War, initially only supporting the Allied Powers with armaments (Ambrose & Brinkley, 1997). This seems to stem from a desire amongst the American government to avoid the political risks of war in Europe. Furthermore, the trend towards minimising casualties started after the First World War (Shaw, 2005). In decisions made in the Second World War and the conflicts after that, military planners clearly seem to be transferring risk away from combatants to enemy civilians. During the Second World War, the USA transferred the risk from its combatants to the civilians of Japan by using aerially deployed nuclear weapons against Japan rather than sending millions of troops to invade. Even in Vietnam, the Americans demonstrated an extreme reluctance to committing American troops on the ground, as the Americans felt that this was a fight for the Vietnamese themselves (Ambrose & Brinkley, 1997). This demonstrates that even before contemporary warfare, both the militaries and the governments were extremely concerned with political and military risks and attempted to transfer or minimise them as much as possible. The main difference between these “old wars” and the “contemporary wars” of today is the technology available today to minimise or transfer these risks even further. Hence, contemporary warfare merely provides better means to achieve pre-existing aims and cannot be said to be entirely new.
Moreover, conflict with non-state entities to achieve political, rather than military means also predates contemporary warfare. Weaker groups who lack the means to engage in open warfare against stronger powers have always engaged in smaller acts of violence (van Creveld, 2006). The conflict in the Palestinian Mandate before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 bears striking similarities to the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq today. Britain used its military to first put down the Arab revolt and then attempt to control the Jewish insurgency (Best et al., 2008; van Creveld, 2006). Similar to the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British were attempting to use military means to achieve political, rather than military ends. They faced non-state enemies in a fragmented environment. Therefore, it is inaccurate to state that war against non-state entities waged for political means is a development exclusive to contemporary warfare.
Furthermore, the assertion that contemporary warfare is entirely new is also an extremely Eurocentric one, drawing heavily on wars waged by major Western powers. Without high technology, most non-Western nations do not have the luxury to adopt precision warfare and still utilise brutal means to wage war. In 1982, the Assad regime in Syria brutally destroyed the city of Hama with heavy artillery – a piece of military technology prevalent since the First World War – and brutally slaughtered twenty-five thousand people to put down an uprising engendered the non-state group, the Muslim Brotherhood (van Creveld, 2006). Israel, a nation with high-tech weapons supplied by it to the West, used its weapons to engage in a brutal war in the Gaza strip in 2008 (The Economist, 2008). Non-Western powers are either incapable of or unwilling to conduct “contemporary war”, possibly because they lack a history Western liberal values and culture (Huntington, 1997). Hence, outside of wars carried out by Western powers, war is still as brutal as it was on the beaches of France or in the jungles of Vietnam. The notion that contemporary warfare is entirely new is an extremely Eurocentric one.
The argument that contemporary war is entirely new also fails to consider the possibility of inter-state wars in the modern era. Most contemporary wars that the West has fought so far has been against much weaker enemies. However, with tension in the South China Sea rising and Russia becoming increasingly aggressive in Eastern Europe, a war could still break out between major world powers (The Economist, 2016a, 2016b). Such a war would not be clean or sanitised like the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. It would be a brutal, all-out-war between opponents of similar capability, possibly resulting in the use of nuclear weapons (Apps, 2016a, 2016b). Therefore, to claim that contemporary war is entirely new would be to completely neglect the possibility of inter-state war which bears more in common with the brutal Great Wars than the clean and sanitised Persian Gulf War.
In the final analysis, it is clear that the notion of contemporary warfare is a meaningless one. Clausewitz’s trinity holds true in every war and war adapts its characteristics to the unique context of each war (Schuurman, 2010). The means and aims of the war are still fundamentally determined by the people’s appetite for war, the military’s means of making war and the government’s aims in going to war. To make an arbitrary distinction between “contemporary” and “old” wars is meaningless (Schuurman, 2010).
In conclusion, on the surface, contemporary war seems completely new. It uses new means – risk transfer; it combats non-state rather than state actors; and it achieves primarily political, rather than military aims. This change in military affairs stemmed from the reluctance amongst Western publics to go to war following the bloodshed of the “old” wars. However, this is a shallow perspective. The desire to transfer risks in war has existed since the Second World War. Fighting non-state enemies to achieve political aims also predates “contemporary” warfare. Furthermore, such a perspective is also Eurocentric and limited, failing to take into account non-Western states that wage brutal wars and the possible threat of modern inter-state wars between great powers. Hence, the very notion of “contemporary warfare” is a meaningless one as it places an arbitrary divide where there is none. Thus, contemporary warfare cannot be considered entirely new but is instead an evolution of pre-existing means and aims to fight wars in contemporary contexts. Bush’s efforts to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in the Persian Gulf War through new means was a manifestation of war’s evolution, not evidence for its complete change.
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