Defining War…and…Should I bother to make a distinction between War and Conflict?

The new June Esquire has an article/interview on John Yoo.

This is not a review or critique of the article which I can’t find on-line.

The article begins with Yoo lecturing his students trying to pull out a definition of what war is. There is no good answer definition presented though means, scale and scope are all discussed.

I though I could come up with a definition.

So here my pass at definitions.

Making War in the 21st century:

The non-trivial action(s) of a global actor(s) to purposefully attempt to coerce another global actor(s) to take some action(s), cease some action(s), or maintain a state of inactivity that the second actor(s) would not otherwise do or not otherwise consider beneficial to itself.

Here is a shorter version of Making War:

War is the attempted non-trivial coercion of one global actor(s) by another global actor(s).


– The use of the wording non-trivial is a bit of a cop out…it is subjective.

– War is what you do, not what you think.

– Where do perceptions fit in? Do they at all?

– My definition doesn’t distinguish between kinetic and non-kinetic coercion. Should it?

– I think global actors that think war is just kinetic are going to loose a lot of wars.

– The term Purposeful implies war is deliberate, not accidental action.

– The term Purposeful implies at least one side is aware that there is a war.

– The def is broad enough to includes all types of wars.

– Hmm…does my definition imply all interactions between actors is war? If so, it needs to be refined.

8 Responses

  1. … does my definition imply all interactions between actors is war?

    Possibly, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate your definition, especially when modified by ‘non-trivial’. Inescapably, it reminds me of Clausewitz:

    War is thus an act of [non-trivial? psychological? economic? other? any?] force to compel our enemy to do our will.

    Why global actor? Surely 5GW+ allows for local/individual action, regardless of the potential for global expansion. I would suggest that this necessitates increased subjectivity, not less.

  2. […] Purpleslog is grappling with the definition of war. […]

  3. “Why global actor? ”

    I definitely need to word that better.

    I was trying to rule in non-state actors, but to rule out criminals.

    I think I need to re-read Clausewitz again. It has been 20 years, and I understand things differently today.

  4. From:

    Defining methods of conflict is in the house! Purpleslog is defining. Abu Muqawama is defining. It’d be cool if there was a taxonomy of war. Does such a project exist? If I raised that question in a Sergeants mess (or the small wars discussion board) I’d be met with the following “War is war you jackass” and I’d be thrown out quick smart. Although, it’d be quite useful to collate the differing classifications out there. Perhaps an industrious PHD student will do such a thing one day (unless I’m completely ignorant on the subject and it already exists! If so, please link me up before I go go).

    Update on Taxonomy: I knew I’d seen something similar before. I just consulted my bookshelf of love. Harkavy and Neuman’s ‘Warfare and the Third World’ has a round up of typologies of war from a collection of sources on page 18. Perhaps fodder for a future blog post. Colin Gray’s chapter on Small Wars in ‘Modern Strategy’ also has a bunch of differing small war types. Hurrah for well stocked personal libraries!

  5. War and economic sanctions are two different things. It is one of scale, in a sense. If one nation is more powerful than the other, so that the weaker nation tolerate sanctions because it doesn’t want to wage a war about it, then is this one nation warring on another? No, it’s just blockades. It can be taken as an act of war, but it isn’t war.

    It isn’t one side attempting to exterminate or destroy the will to fight of another while the other is fighting.

  6. I think you have to broaden your view of war to include non-kinetic as well of kinetic activity.

    If an actor doesn’t think war can be non-kinetic, then they will be loosing a lot of wars in the 21st century.

  7. I like this:

    “War is a strategy intended to make the enemy conform to our political desires when it is contrary to what they would do if they had the freedom to choose and sufficient knowledge about our true political desires.”

  8. The issues is now at Zenpundit:

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