Conceptualising Modern War

Title:                      Conceptualising Modern War

Author:                Karl Erik Haug

Haug Karl, Erik (2011) and Ole Jorge Maaø, eds. Conceptualising Modern War. New York: Columbia University Press

LCCN:    2011019852

U42 .C57 2011


Date Posted:      December 8, 2015

Reviewed by Juliana Geran Pilon[1]

If modern war seems different from previous armed conflicts, this is due less to new geo-political circumstances and revolutionary technologies than to historical amnesia—a peculiarly (though not exclusively) American degenerative disease exacerbated by chronic ideological dementia considerably aggravated, if not precipitated, by the end of the Cold War. Jan Angstrom of Uppsala University, a contributor to Conceptualising Modern War, deplores the standard academic prescription for strategic confusion: a heavy dose of “conceptual inflation.” The book’s editors, Karl Erik Haug and Ole Jorge Maaø, both professors at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy and former aviators, are equally critical of useless neologisms. Referring specifically to “asymmetric warfare,” they note in their Introduction: “Confronting the consequences of its own lack of intellectual rigour, western strategic thought battened onto a concept that is falsely presented as novel but which only deepened the dilemmas created by sloppy thinking.” Blasting this attitude as “historically naive,” they note that enemies from time immemorial have always tried to surprise each other; one doesn’t have to have read Sun Tzu to know that “asymmetry is inherent in strategy.”

Straightforward prose is a refreshing quality in any academic publication, but especially anything having to do with lethal engagement. Haug and Maaø suggest that recent theoretical writing on contemporary conflicts is less about defining war than about purporting to describe its nature. While commending such analysts as Martin van Creveld, John Keegan, Rupert Smith and Colin Gray, for identifying changes in the identity of war fighters, their work does not necessarily advance our understanding of warfare. “Getting to the heart of war is both less and more complex: less because the nature of war probably changes less over time than does its character (a point derived from Clausewitz), more because defining the nature of war is a complex inter-disciplinary business.” Now there’s a conclusion not often found in most American universities, where “inter-disciplinary” is the academic equivalent of “inter-agency”: everyone pays it lip service at best, most ignore it, and many actively disparage it. In the long run, everyone loses. [2]

What follows is an interesting collection of essays by an eclectic collection of international politics and national security experts hailing from the United States, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, and Denmark, covering topics that range from guerilla warfare, insurgency, and terrorism to effects-based operations doctrine and the need for more analytical warriors. The result is a refreshing new look at man’s (if not woman’s) oldest profession: armed conflict. The contributors acknowledge the new technological and ideological landscape, critically scrutinizing fashionable theories that do little to advance our understanding.

A good example is the concept of “New Wars” coined by British political scientist and founder of the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) Mary Kaldor, to capture what seemed, at least to her, a radical new turn in human history, “Political violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” she wrote in the 2006 edition of her New and Old Wars[3], first published in 1999, “is more omnipresent, more directed at civilians, involves a blurring of the distinctions between war and crime, and is based on and serves to foment divisive identity politics.” These, she declared, “are the characteristics of “newwars,” of which terrorism was but “one variant.” To which Professor Maaø responds, apparently unencumbered by either professional or gender chivalry: “If one faces something that one finds unfamiliar, that does not mean that it is unfamiliar, that does not mean that it is unfamiliar to history”—a verdict only mildly mitigated by his acquiescence that “most militaries that [he is] at least partly familiar with spend much energy in trying to create new categories of war,” He endorses without hesitation the opinion of E.A. Henderson and J.D. Singer that “new war” is merely what used to be called Low-Intensity Conflict—with the added handicap of vagueness.

A sober, skeptical, even jaundiced view of jargon proliferation does not imply that no new conceptual approaches are possible, or desirable. Perhaps the main value of this much-needed re-evaluation of the confusions surrounding the new challenges faced by both military and civilian Western leaders trying to navigate a complex global environment that refuses to comply with neat academic theories is to remind us that we may be victims of our own blinders. These include a near-obsession with hard weapons and mirror-imaging exacerbated by an almost reflexive, half-conscious self-righteousness.

The rightly-celebrated Australian theorist of counterinsurgency David Kilcullen captures this important point in the book’s concluding essay: “Both the phenomenon of war between states and non-state actors, and the rules-based way of thinking about this form of conflict, are very ancient. At most we can conclude that an actor-based theory of warfare, focused on the nature of the combatants and in particular their relationship to the state and thereby to the international system of states, may be more fruitful than an approach focused on technological, tactical or organizational asymmetry.” Heaven forbid we might actually have to learn something about our adversaries —their motivations, ideologies, cultures. But in addition, writes Kilcullen, “we might also note that our concepts of warfare—whether of ‘insurgency,’ ‘small wars,’ ‘irregular warfare’ or some other construct-are our concepts, not those of the non-state adversaries we fight” (emphasis added). For the theories that clutter our journals and make our “National Strategies” sound impressive, do more to confuse than to help us. We would do well to heed Kilcullen’s warning that “to (our non-state adversaries], such distinctions are both opaque and largely irrelevant: war is war, and in a broader sense, life is Iife,”

[1] Pilon, Juliana Geran, PhD in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 101-102) Dr. Pilon Director, Center for Culture and Security, Institute of World Politics.

[2] From Fred Wilson: In a department of securities where I was an adjunct professor, a coup was run by political science professors, who forced out all faculty who were not political science PhDs. In my view they thought themselves to be a mini-Georgetown where a political science faculty really is big enough to bring in interdisciplinary specialties. Since the best faculty, who also happened to be non-political science professors, were forced out the program has almost completely lost its credibility, except in the eyes of the remaining minions.

[3] Kaldor, Mary (1999, 2012). New & Old Wars: Organized Violence In A Global Era, 3rd edition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [LCCN: 2015472289]

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