What Is War? A Debate (Or … Something You Wish You’d Read before the Comp)

There was an interesting piece published in the Small Wars Journal Wednesday on the potentially changing nature of war (sound familiar?). In “What Is War? A New Point of View” LtCol Jill Long, a student at the Army War College, argues that “[w]ar is no longer a discrete action of armed conflict but a continuum of engagement in order to limit the dissonance between a nation’s will and that of other state and non-state actors.”

Jason Fritz, Army vet turned consultant, counters LtCol Long in a post over at Ink Spots (a blog you should add to your regular reading, btw), arguing “[t]he world is bleak enough without calling all state activities “war,” nor is it helpful in understanding what war actually is.”

Since this question of the enduring nature and changing character of war hits center mass of one of your comp questions from last week, I wanted to share this exchange with you. First, these questions are important and smart people can disagree in their responses. Second, the level of discourse and depth of reasoning found in these two (very brief) pieces is where we’re moving you this year. (Yes, I know that’s passive voice, CG1; I did it on purpose.) Don’t just read these pieces for their arguments; take a minute and look at how they structure their logic and develop their positions.

Dr. Johnson

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One thought on “What Is War? A Debate (Or … Something You Wish You’d Read before the Comp)

  1. Great reads, Dr. J! (for the content value as well as the structure example).
    What I find fascinating is not the specifics of the definition that each writer chose, but rather the importance placed on the need FOR a definition. As i continue to slog through the multitude of social science (political, behavioral, anthropological, etc.) theories, I find one constant: Humans have a compelling need to organize. Chaos and anarchy–whether social, economic, or ideological–seem to be unacceptable. Therefore, when confronted with observable phenomena we focus our energies on identification and classification (problem framing?) so that we can select an “appropriate” reaction and allocate resources (cognitive, material, social capital, force, etc.). Rather than free us, this process actually restrains us.
    What’s interesting about the word “war” is that it is hard to divest it from the concept of military (or military-like) force. So…when we debate the definition we need to understand how that particular framework structures the resulting arguments. The use of “war” in the current discourse (on terror, on drugs, on poverty, etc) is specifically chosen in order to focus resources on DEFEATING a particular phenomenon and as a result it conjures up and sustains a win-lose paradigm. This paradigm makes it difficult for us to enter into any discussion of issues outside of this dichotomy (look at our cultural resistance to compromise).
    Long’s argument (which is essentially a more-nuanced articulation of the whole-of-government thing) and Fritz’ counter (war is the realm of the warfighter and therefore should not be conflated with “soft” stuff) are both rightly concerned with bounding the term within a certain spectrum of action and understanding. In my opinion, they miss a key point: Its not what definition of the term does FOR us, but instead what it prevents us from seeing, understanding, and doing that is the real issue.

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