war on the rocks

War and The Treacheries of Taxonomy

November 7, 2016

We are trapped. Trapped in a paradigm. Despite hard-won experience from Iraq and Afghanistan, our strategic grammar remains the same today as when I first entered the Marine Corps in 1998. This may be because we are bumping up against the inner walls of our own language system. The national security community — hawks and pacifists, sophisticated scholars and practical grunts, big-war futurists and small-war gurus — appear to share a common set of assumptions about what war is and how war works. These common assumptions are embedded in the everyday words we use to talk about war. Philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Willard Quine suggested that this is how language affects us, which is why some of our basic assumptions resist change: not because of their merits, but because they escape notice. Tacitly embedded in our everyday words, our assumptions about war feel intuitive; they seem less like contestable premises than simple common sense. It’s time we got our assumptions out in the open where we can look them over, kick the tires, and see if we want to keep driving them (or rather, allowing them to drive us).

An important example of these shared beliefs is “military monism,” the notion that every instance of war boils down to the same fundamental essence. The way we talk about war presumes that war is monolithic, that it is always (despite appearances) the same thing. Of course, we know that many actual wars fit awkwardly with our image of “real war.” Many do not fit at all. So, there’s a disconnect between imagination and data; one perceives uniformity but observes diversity. The national security community has squared this circle in two ways: formal theory and informal language.

Some folks make a formal distinction (derived from Clausewitz) between the “nature” of war on the one hand and the “character” of war on the other. When comparing wars, they attribute any differences to war’s mutable character while similarities are chalked up to war’s unchanging nature. If the nature/character idea were just a generic synonym for similarity/difference (or perhaps continuity/change), it would be banal. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to cash out in concrete terms. Clausewitzians insist that war is, by nature, always political and always violent. Yet, as Rosa Brooks points out, “violence” and the “political” are deeply contested terms, and it is unclear how a uniform nature could emerge from such variable components. Then too, some of the most worrisome forms of war — cyberwar and financial war — aren’t violent in any clear-cut sense of the word. And to spin extra-political goals — honor, vengeance, religion, or booty — as simply “political” would dilute the concept beyond use. The nature/character distinction does square a belief in a basic essence of war with the observed variety of war. Rather it substitutes jargon and anecdote for logic.

In contrast, our informal language simply begs the question altogether. We have this disconnect between our monolithic image of war and the variety of wars that don’t fit our image. Yet our everyday vocabulary buffers these anomalies, offering us two linguistic tools for coping with strange wars: terms of derivation (big vs. small), and terms of deviation (regular vs. irregular, or conventional vs. unconventional). This is the language that framed the strategic debates of the 1990s and set expectations both for the U.S. invasions in 2001 and 2003 and the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is also the language that critics continue to use to interpret those wars. Yet the assumptions behind this language imbue it with slippery logic. Terms of derivation and of deviation appear to say something substantial about war itself, but the only information they can actually carry is about the speaker’s own concerns. They foster pseudo-meaningful statements that prevent us from understanding strange wars in their own terms and mask this very ignorance as knowledge. Because they seem precise, even while lumping together unrelated wars, they keep us from making key distinctions. To avoid these pitfalls, strategists should adopt a “polyconventional” view of warfare.

When I entered The Basic School in 1998, everyone was a “maneuverist,” though American maneuverism was split into two camps. The first group was focused on large conventional conflict, with doctrinal ideas including Effects Based Operations (EBO) and Network Centric Warfare (NCW). This group’s concerns were largely synthesized in Joint Vision 2020 (JV2020) and later institutionalized in the Office of Force Transformation. The second group was concerned about small and irregular wars, the wars which had been most common in the past several decades. Clausewitz had to be completed by Callwell and Cable. The wars that followed in the first decades of the new century tested both of these viewpoints intensively. Since Iraq and Afghanistan were purely elective wars, they can be seen as instances of applied theory, as Andrew Bacevich has suggested. The invasions of 2001 and 2003 embodied JV2020’s theories of conventional warfare, just as the surges of 2007 to 2008 and 2009 to 2012 implemented an updated version of the Small Wars Manual. Events proved that both camps had valid insights about warfare, but both were also radically inadequate. It is time to trace the logic of that inadequacy.

Slippery Terms 

That logic is most obvious in the way we name strange wars. A particular image springs to mind when someone says, “war”: uniforms and bugles, tanks and explosions, George C. Scott and R. Lee Ermey. This is the sort of conventional warfare contemplated by EBO, NCW, and JV2020. Wars that fit this model are familiar to us, expected, typical, the definition of conventional. Yet, empirically speaking, a lot of wars fail to match this image. These outliers are anomalous wars, wars that we find strange or perhaps even outrageous or baffling, depending on the level of cognitive dissonance. But we don’t like to be disoriented, don’t like to think we could miss something as obvious as war. So we have names that help us domesticate the strange kind of war and tie them back to our basic image of what war really is.

Perhaps the oldest and most familiar of these names are “terms of derivation.” The logic goes like this. If war is a monolith, is always (despite appearances) really one thing, then there is a pure form of war, “real war.” Wars that seem weird or surprising — strange wars — are just incomplete or partial derivatives of that true war. This logic yields diminutive terms such as “small war,” “low-intensity war,” or “guerilla war.” Guerilla, of course, is just the Spanish diminutive form of guerra: it translates literally as “little war” or “tiny war.” The most recent addition to his lexicon has been the “gray war,” instead of a black-and-white war. These terms are absurd. They reference a definite scale of size, bulk, magnitude, or dimension. They imply a precisely measured threshold beyond which any reasonable observer would agree that a given war is no longer small, low, little, gray, or tiny but instead big, high, black, large, immense. In reality, of course, no such measure exists. Nor is one possible. In every conceivable metrical term — financial cost, duration, numbers of participants, numbers of victims, geographic extent, etc. — many “real” wars have often been smaller than many “small” wars. World War I, for instance, was undoubtedly a big war while the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been small-ish. Yet, in terms of financial cost, the GWOT is at least four times bigger than World War I ($1,146 billion in 2010 vs. $334 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars), and in terms of time cost the GWOT is at least seven times bigger. Ask about percent GDP or body count, however, and the picture changes. The point is that, for every concrete case, it is possible to find terms of comparison which flip the scale. The only constant scale is magnitude of concern: bigger or smaller intensities of worry, more or less interest, higher or lower priority, or perceptions of relative significance or gravity or ambiguity. Terms of derivation don’t tell us anything substantial about war itself. They provide no information about war qua war. Rather, they tell us about the  perceptual angle of the commentator.

The same can be said about “terms of deviation.” Go back to the basic idea of military monism: war has a core essence. If so, then that essence will be normative, and strange wars will be deviations from that norm: abnormal. This monist logic yields a family of terms with negative prefixes: “Unconventional war” denotes a war that deviates from a familiar war-making convention; An “irregular war” fails to comply with a familiar conventional norm or rule (“regula” is Latin “rule”). Similarly “other than war” (OTW) is an activity which may be war-like but fails to meet someone’s legal or doctrinal definitions. It is possible to declare such preferences bluntly, but that would be unpleasant. We might have to admit that the world is less clear-cut than thought, that others’ preferences could be equally legitimate. But terms of deviation allow us to side-step such thoughts. Use a couple of negative prefixes, and voila! Our local preferences look like universal norms.

Differing Differences

This is, of course, naïve. For any concrete case, it is possible to imagine (and probably to locate) conventions, norms, rules or definitions under which our own preferred rules of war appear abnormal, unconventional, irregular, or otherwise out of the ordinary. Logically, then, terms of deviation, like terms of derivation, can only be self-descriptive. If the latter denote our own concerns and priorities, the former declare our own organizational preferences, legal practices, and doctrinal commitments.

Yet, in our everyday jargon of war, they do not seem self-descriptive at all. Terms of derivation and terms of deviation both appear to address a different topic than they actually do. They are two-faced, functionally self-descriptive while allegedly war-descriptive. They transpose subjective concerns into faux-empirical statements. It follows that attempts to describe war in these terms lack real meaning. When we use them, we become self-deceived in important ways. To avoid muddled thinking, we should be trying to avoid such terms instead of joining in on the games of buzzword bingo.

Using these terms, from “gray wars” to “operations-other-than-war,” introduces another flaw because of their generality. Terms of derivation and terms of deviation encompass many sorts of war within their bounds. This generic, grab-bag quality prevents them saying anything precise about the topic of war at all. They are conceptual catch-alls, linguistic dust-bins labeled “put all the weird stuff here,” but our national security community treats them as scientific descriptors. They very clearly mark anomalous wars as divergent from our preferred norms, but having marked the fact of strangeness, they stop. They add little constructive beyond that simple and normally quite obvious observation. One is left to wonder precisely how strange they are and in exactly what ways.

Strange wars may, of course, differ differently, deviating from our preferred rule in various ways and to varying degrees. More to it, they may differ from one another in various ways and to varying degrees. Each could have unique dynamics, textures, rhythms, and it’s these particularities, not our preferences, that would set the terms of our involvement. Recognizing those particularities could help us decide which kinds of war to avoid, to discern which kinds we may be incapable of making. Considering these harder questions, rather than simply the classifications of deviation or derivation, is what actually contributes to strategic thinking. Our inability to move beyond the jargon that is the currency of most western security thinking is at the heart of our security challenges in the 21st century.

Dropping the Assumptions

As a way past the pitfalls of jargon, to bring the assumptions embedded in our language into the open, we must adopt a “polyconventional” view. We should accept that the observed variety of wars is real, that it does not mask any underlying unity. This does not mean that the history of war is a garbled jumble of data. This is not an all-or-nothing issue, total uniformity or total incoherence. Rather, as Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us, there is

a more polythetic notion of classification (in opposition to a monothetic one) that employs phrases such as “family resemblances,” “connotative features,” “fuzzy set,” “cluster concepts,” among others.

There have to be ordered patterns in war because war is a form of human activity, and human activity is always governed by convention. In other words, there is no such thing as unconventional warfare because all wars are inherently conventional. There could be as many conventions of warfare as there are war-making communities, and these conventions may be more or less commensurable with one another. Some may actually be incommensurable. The U.S. military’s shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan may not have been avoidable. They may have been the inevitable result of tripping over the conventional boundaries. In other words, the various wars that we observe around the globe and across history may be “wars” only in the sense that soccer and chess are both “games.” And our efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan may have resembled FC Barcelona trotting onto Kasparov’s chessboard for a corner kick.


Tim Feist served in the U.S. Marines from 1998 to 2007, during which time he led Guns Platoon, B/1/11 (“The Beastmasters”) and taught history at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Image: The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae by John Trumbull