Understanding War’s Enduring Nature Alongside its Changing Character

January 21, 2014

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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

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9 thoughts on “Understanding War’s Enduring Nature Alongside its Changing Character

  1. While I agree that there is a distinction between War’s Nature and its Character, it saddens me to see the author falling into the straightjacket of believing that War’s Nature is political. War’s Nature is social; its character may be political. The author even acknowledges this in his reading of Clausewitz’ trinity where the essence of war — the primordial passion of the people that allows one man to kill another – with its purpose: the controlling hand of policy. War exists in a natural state without politics. As long as we continue to believe that war must be political we will fail to understand the nature of insurgency.

    1. I’m not entirely sure this distinction is warranted. If we reduce the argument that all human group activities are social in nature, then war as an element of politics doesn’t take away but rather adds to understanding of war. After all, politics by definition is the pursuit and establishment of power and war is that pursuit with group violence to boot. Whether the war is embarked upon to cement the ambitions of the few or to assuage the bloodthirst of the many is a detail…no?

      1. I have two issues with the “war is political” mantra. First, it is taken on its face too often to require a political play or purpose. People cannot simply hate Assad and wish t see him hang from an olive tree, they must be FOR something else. That is not the case. Syria is a prime example. There are a multitude of groups who all feel aggrieved by Assad and will fight to the death to see him ousted, but they are not jointly FOR anything. If they win, then the real fight starts. Making war political assumes that if it is against one thing it is for something else. Second, making a war political traditionally requires a political leader rather than an ideal. When the Athenian’s found out that a Spartan was going to be placed on the throne they besieged the Acropolis for three days until the usurper agreed to depart. There was no organization. It was a spontaneous act by a population. By limiting our thinking to war being political we negate the possibility of war being spontaneously started within the population based solely on the acts of other (most notabley, our mistakes).

      2. I may not have made it clear, but in the two examples I cite below “the establishment of power”, your definition of politics, is not required. All that is required is a motivation to destroy the existing power base.

        1. I guess I don’t draw much meaning from that distinction. It seems that the destruction of an existing power is always an act of opposition and replacement. Therefore, it is political. The fact that the opposition may not be coherent or unified doesn’t dismiss the fact that the opposition is asking for something different, even if it itself doesn’t know what that is. The net result, however, would be indistinguishable from a formed political opposition. War, then, would be the use of violence in that struggle to force submission.

          Indeed, besieging the Acropolis was an act of war against the establishment. The fact that the establishment chose to capitulate instead of quelling the rebellion is incidental. It seems the salient element, that of a political struggle to secure power, is unchanged. We may in fact benefit from a typology of the different varieties of opponents a political power may face, but does that change the political nature of war?

          1. The problem with the idea that war is political is that it is taken as gospel (straight from Saint Carl) and is inevitably construed quite literally. It works neatly in the case of interstate war. It must be stretched almost beyond recognition in many intrastate conflicts. We would do better to recognize that war does not always have a political aim or purpose. It could be the result of a desire for revenge or justice; it could be religious (unless you are saying that all religion is political too); or it could be simply to survive. When we add that it must be political we create a number of preconceptions that may not hold true in every situation. You yourself have had to strain the definition of “political” to make it fit every situation. Better to limit the gospel to where it applied rather than to continue to attempt to force it into situations where perhaps it does not really apply.

            Perhaps it is best that we simply agree to disagree, and leave it at that.

  2. I have heard this idea before, and I agree completely with the idea that war has some timeless qualities. The problem I have with the “nature” and “character” argument is that they are synonyms, and in common usage there is little difference.

    Let us look at common definitions from Webster’s:

    “Nature: the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people: the natural forces that control what happens in the world: the way that a person or animal behaves : the character or personality of a person or animal”

    “Character: the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone’s personality: a set of qualities that are shared by many people in a group, country, etc.: a set of qualities that make a place or thing different from other places or things.”

    There is a slight difference, and the word character is even used in the definition of nature.

    There are of course patterns and trends, but in my mind, we cannot lose sight that war is a human-made phenomena.

    While we are looking at definitions, let us look at the definition of self-fulfilling prophecy: self-fulfilling prophecy:

    “A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person unknowingly causes a prediction to come true, due to the simple fact that he or she expects it to come true.”

    People choose how and why they wage war. These that have the will to wage it define it. As with ISIS, these people do not have to play by our preconceived notions or the established rules of the state system.