Understanding War’s Enduring Nature Alongside its Changing Character


Technological advances are driving “changes in the nature of warfare”, according to the New America Foundation’s Future of War program. Few would argue that the tools and methods used to wage war change with the times, but students of Clausewitz are skeptical about supposed changes in what we believe to be war’s enduring nature. According to the Prussian, war’s nature does not change—only its character. The way we use these words today can seem to render such a distinction meaningless, but careful attention to semantics can reveal real problems in how we think about war, society, and the future.

The nature of war describes its unchanging essence: that is, those things that differentiate war (as a type of phenomenon) from other things. War’s nature is violent, interactive, and fundamentally political. Absent any of these elements, what you’re talking about is not war but something else.

The character of war describes the changing way that war as a phenomenon manifests in the real world. As war is a political act that takes place in and among societies, its specific character will be shaped by those politics and those societies—by what Clausewitz called the “spirit of the age.” War’s conduct is undoubtedly influenced by technology, law, ethics, culture, methods of social, political, and military organization, and other factors that change across time and place.

Even more fundamentally for Clausewitzians, the character of a specific war is defined by the variable relationship between the three elements of the trinity: passion and primordial violence, chance and uncertainty, and purpose (or the controlling hand of policy).

Further confusion in this case stems from the Future of War team’s formulation: “changes in the nature of warfare.” War and warfare are different words with a different meaning, and we should be careful about their use. Warfare, of course, doesn’t have an enduring, unchanging phenomenological “nature,” as it is merely the way war is made.

In their discussion of changes in warfare, the Future of War team puts forward an argument that is both interesting and contentious. Do changes in warfare – the way war is waged – really “profoundly shape both the manner in which the state is organized and the law itself”? This is probably a fair statement. But it’s almost certainly more true that the manner in which the state is organized shapes the character of its wars.

There is something of a feedback cycle in play: social, political, and technological change impact the way wars are fought, and those wars often influence the way society and politics are organized. But war is a subset of politics, of human society—something that the Future of War team seems to have just as backwards as the technologists and Revolution in Military Affairs advocates who preceded them. The examples they give—gunpowder, small standing armies, and levée en masse—are a perfect illustration of this, as the way each is explained tends to misrepresent the relationship between military change and social and political transformation.

Did gunpowder warfare and small standing armies “produce” absolute monarchy, as they claim, or did the imperatives of social and political change drive people to use technology and ideas in ways that enabled their pursuit of power and control?

Did the levée en masse help to destroy monarchy, or did the crumbling of authority and the surge of liberal political ideals force governments to make changes to military organization in order to remain politically viable? In other words, was the totalization of war in Napoleon’s and Clausewitz’s age initially driven by the pursuit of military effectiveness, or by social and political change? (The Prussian’s continually frustrated reformist ambitions offer a clue. Clausewitz was first and foremost a Prussian nationalist, but his patriotism was deeply challenged when the state’s very existence was threatened—in no small part because his king deemed militarily-beneficial social reforms to be politically unacceptable.)

Getting these relationships right matters, because the way we understand technological and social change in history shapes how we approach them in the future. It’s important to be aware of the changing character of war, yes, and it’s true that the state will likely change as warfare does. But a self-confident modern democracy should seek to shape the character of war – and specifically, to shape its own forms of warfare – to its politics and society, rather than presuming that the future of our politics should be molded to the “imperatives” of technology and military adaptation.


Christopher Mewett is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the government.


Photo credit: El Bibliomata