Us and them
And after all
We’re only ordinary men
Me and you
God only knows it’s not what
We would choose to do
“Forward”, he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
The general sat and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side
Black and blue
And who knows which is which
And who is who. -Pink Floyd, Us and Them, 1973
Flying back to AL the other day—I was thinking, which can be clunky, awkward, and sometimes stinky. I’ve heard forever that the nature of war does not change, but the character does. So what does that really mean? Well, the study of war and armed conflict has long been a central topic in the fields of military history, strategy, international relations and honesty leadership. To better understand war, it is crucial to differentiate between the nature and character of war—which to some might feel a bit nuanced. The nature of war encompasses the universal, unchanging aspects of armed conflict that persist throughout history, such as violence, danger, uncertainty, and the intertwining of politics and military actions. In contrast, the character of war refers to the specific, dynamic features of a particular conflict, influenced by evolving technologies, doctrines, geopolitical factors, and social dynamics. Recognizing the distinction between these two concepts is essential for comprehending historical wars, as well as for developing strategies to prevent, manage, or resolve conflicts in the future.
There are some basics and of course Clausewitz has a lot to say about those. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian military theorist and strategist whose work “On War” (Vom Kriege) remains one of the most influential texts on military theory and the nature of war. Clausewitz’s ideas about the nature of war can be summarized in a few key concepts:
- War as a continuation of politics: Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” He believed that war was an extension of political objectives and that political goals should guide military strategy. This concept emphasizes the close relationship between war and politics, and it suggests that war should be understood in its broader political context.
- War as a “trinity”: Clausewitz described war as a dynamic, interactive trinity composed of three elements: (1) passion, or the emotional and irrational forces that drive people to fight, such as hatred and enmity; (2) chance and probability, which introduce uncertainty and unpredictability into war; and (3) reason, or the rational calculation and analysis of political objectives and military means. These elements interact with each other and are influenced by the unique circumstances of each conflict.
- The “fog of war“: Clausewitz acknowledged the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of war, which is referred to as the “fog of war.” He argued that military commanders must be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances and make decisions based on incomplete or ambiguous information. This concept underscores the importance of flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to cope with uncertainty in warfare (see note at the bottom of the page).
- The “culminating point of victory“: Clausewitz also introduced the idea of the “culminating point of victory,” which refers to the point at which a military offensive has reached its maximum effectiveness and further advances will only lead to diminishing returns or even defeat. This concept highlights the importance of understanding the limits of military power and knowing when to consolidate gains or transition to a defensive posture.
- Absolute vs. real war: Clausewitz distinguished between “absolute war,” an idealized, theoretical construct in which military forces would fight without constraints, and “real war,” the actual, practical experience of war in which various factors (e.g., political considerations, logistical constraints, and human limitations) limit the use of force. He argued that real war is shaped by these constraints and that military strategists must consider them when planning and conducting operations.
- Friction in war: Clausewitz emphasized the importance of understanding “friction” in war, which he defined as the many challenges, difficulties, and obstacles that arise during the course of military operations. He argued that friction is an inherent aspect of warfare and that commanders must be prepared to deal with it effectively.
These concepts form the foundation of Clausewitz’s understanding of the nature of war, emphasizing the complex interplay between politics, emotion, reason, and chance. His ideas have indeed had a lasting impact on military theory and continue to inform the study and practice of warfare today.
NATURE VS CHARACTER OF WAR
So, the nature of war and the character of war are related but distinct concepts in the study of warfare and military strategy. Both terms help to describe and understand the complexities of armed conflicts, but they focus on different aspects of war.
- Nature of War: The nature of war refers to the fundamental, unchanging aspects of armed conflict that are common across different wars throughout history. These aspects include violence, danger, uncertainty, and the role of political objectives in shaping the conflict. The nature of war is often seen as universal, as it captures the essential features of war that remain constant, regardless of the specific circumstances of a particular conflict.
Some aspects of the nature of war include:
- The use of organized violence to achieve political objectives
- The interplay between politics and military actions
- The uncertainty, unpredictability, and complexity inherent in warfare
- The impact of war on societies, economies, and individuals
- Character of War: The character of war, on the other hand, refers to the specific features or attributes of a particular conflict that distinguish it from other wars. The character of war is dynamic and can change over time as new technologies, doctrines, and geopolitical factors emerge. It captures the unique circumstances, strategies, tactics, and conditions of a specific conflict, which can vary widely between different wars.
Some aspects that can define the character of a war include:
- The objectives, strategies, and tactics employed by the belligerents
- The participants involved in the conflict (nation-states, non-state actors, coalitions, etc.)
- The types of weapons, technologies, and communication systems used in the conflict
- The geographical, climatic, and environmental conditions of the conflict zone
- The duration and intensity of the conflict
- The adherence to or violation of international law and ethical considerations
Quickly, the nature of war describes the universal, unchanging aspects of armed conflict, while the character of war refers to the specific, dynamic features of a particular conflict. Understanding both the nature and character of war is crucial for analyzing war and developing strategies to prevent, manage, or resolve conflicts in the future.
DEEPER INTO THE NATURE OF WAR
The nature of war is complex and multifaceted, encompassing various dimensions, including political, social, economic, and psychological aspects. While there is no universally agreed-upon definition, war can generally be understood as an organized, armed conflict between two or more groups, often characterized by violence, aggression, and destruction. The nature of war can be analyzed through several perspectives:
- Political: Wars often emerge due to political disagreements, power struggles, or territorial disputes between states or factions. In many cases, war serves as a means to achieve specific political objectives or resolve conflicts that cannot be settled through diplomacy or negotiation.
- Economic: Wars can be driven by economic interests, such as competition over resources, trade routes, or market access. Additionally, war can have significant economic consequences, both for the countries directly involved and for the global economy.
- Social: War can lead to significant social upheaval and disruption, affecting population displacement, social cohesion, and cultural practices. The social fabric of societies can be deeply impacted by war, with consequences that may last long after the conflict has ended.
- Psychological: The psychological aspect of war encompasses the motivations, emotions, and mental states of individuals participating in or affected by conflict. War can generate feelings of fear, hatred, and dehumanization, as well as camaraderie and patriotism.
- Technological: Advancements in technology have continuously shaped the nature of war, from the development of weapons and military tactics to the use of intelligence and communication systems. Technological innovations can both enable and constrain military actions, with profound implications for the conduct and outcome of wars.
- Ethical and Moral: War raises numerous ethical and moral questions related to the justness of its causes, the conduct of combatants, and the treatment of non-combatants. International humanitarian law and just war theory are two frameworks that seek to address these concerns and establish norms for the conduct of war.
The nature of war is constantly evolving, influenced by changes in technology, geopolitics, and societal values. Understanding the multifaceted nature of war can provide insights into its causes, consequences, and potential solutions for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
MORE ON THE CHARACTER OF WAR
The character of war refers to the specific features or attributes of a conflict that distinguish it from other wars. These features may include the objectives, strategies, tactics, participants, technologies, and environments involved in a particular conflict. The character of war is dynamic and can change over time as new technologies, doctrines, and geopolitical factors emerge. Some aspects that can define the character of a war include:
- Objectives: The goals and desired outcomes of the conflict can shape the character of a war. Objectives can range from territorial conquest, regime change, resource control, or self-defense to ideological, religious, or ethnic motivations.
- Strategies: The overall approach that belligerents use to achieve their objectives can define the character of a war. Strategies may involve conventional warfare, asymmetrical warfare, guerrilla warfare, or hybrid warfare, among others.
- Tactics: The specific methods and techniques used by combatants on the battlefield can also contribute to the character of a war. These tactics can include the use of infantry, armor, artillery, air power, naval power, special operations forces, or a combination of these elements.
- Participants: The nature of the parties involved in the conflict, such as nation-states, non-state actors, or coalitions, can also shape the character of a war. The involvement of international organizations or third-party interventions can further influence the dynamics of the conflict.
- Technologies: The types of weapons, communication systems, intelligence capabilities, and other technologies employed by the belligerents can have a significant impact on the character of a war. Technological advancements can lead to new forms of warfare and shifts in the balance of power.
- Environments: The geographical, climatic, and environmental conditions of the conflict zone can also shape the character of a war. Conflicts can take place in various environments, such as urban, desert, mountainous, or maritime settings, each with its own unique challenges and opportunities.
- Duration and Intensity: The length and intensity of a conflict can contribute to its character. Wars can range from brief, intense conflicts to protracted, low-intensity insurgencies.
- Legal and Ethical Dimensions: The adherence to or violation of international law and the moral and ethical considerations surrounding the conduct of war can also contribute to the character of a conflict.
Bottom line, the character of a war is shaped by a multitude of factors, which can vary widely between different conflicts. Recognizing and understanding these elements is crucial for analyzing historical wars, as well as for developing strategies to prevent, manage, or resolve conflicts in the future.
The nature of war is generally considered to be constant and unchanging, as it encompasses the fundamental aspects of armed conflict that have persisted throughout history. These aspects include violence, danger, uncertainty, and the interplay between politics and military actions. Regardless of the specific circumstances, technologies, or participants involved, these core features of war have remained largely consistent over time.
However, while the nature of war may remain constant, the character of war does change. The character of war is influenced by evolving technologies, doctrines, geopolitical factors, and social dynamics. As new weapons, communication systems, and tactics are developed, the way wars are fought and their specific attributes will change.
For example, the rise of cyber warfare, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence has significantly altered the character of modern conflicts. Similarly, changes in the global political landscape, such as the emergence of non-state actors and the diffusion of power among multiple players, have also impacted the character of war.
So essentially, the nature of war—the fundamental aspects of armed conflict—is generally considered to be unchanging, while the character of war, which encompasses the specific features and circumstances of each conflict, evolves over time.
HOW DOES THE NATURE AND THE CHARACTER OF WAR INFLUENCE INNOVATION
The nature and character of war have a significant impact on innovation, both in military technology and in broader areas of society. The constant, unchanging aspects of war, as well as the dynamic, evolving features of specific conflicts, drive nations, military organizations, and individuals to innovate in order to gain a strategic advantage, respond to new challenges, and mitigate risks. The influence of the nature and character of war on innovation can be observed in several ways:
- Adapting to new challenges: The character of war, with its evolving strategies, tactics, and technologies, requires nations and military organizations to continuously adapt and innovate to address emerging threats, vulnerabilities, and opportunities. The development of new weapons, communication systems, and intelligence capabilities is often driven by the need to counter adversaries’ innovations and maintain a strategic advantage.
- Pursuing competitive advantage: The nature of war, with its inherent uncertainty, danger, and the pursuit of political objectives through violence, incentivizes nations to seek innovative ways to gain a competitive edge over their adversaries. This competition can lead to rapid advancements in technology and military doctrine as nations strive to outmaneuver one another.
- Cross-pollination of ideas: The pressures and challenges of warfare often lead to innovations that have broader applications beyond the military context. For example, advancements in fields such as communication, transportation, logistics, and medical technology have often been driven by military needs and have subsequently been adopted for civilian use.
- Encouraging collaboration: The complex nature and character of war can also drive innovation by encouraging collaboration between different branches of the military, government agencies, private companies, and research institutions. This collaboration can lead to the development of new technologies, strategies, and tactics that might not have been possible in isolation.
- Spurring investment in research and development: The importance of maintaining a technological and strategic edge in warfare can drive governments to invest heavily in research and development. This investment can lead to breakthroughs in various fields, such as materials science, artificial intelligence, and aerospace engineering, which can have wide-ranging applications both within and outside the military context.
The point I am attempting to make is the nature and character of war play a significant role in influencing innovation by creating an environment where nations, military organizations, and individuals are continuously pushed to adapt, improve, and respond to new challenges and opportunities. This dynamic interplay between war and innovation has shaped the course of history and will continue to impact the development of new technologies, strategies, and tactics in the future.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE
There is indeed a difference in how the nature of war influences innovation compared to the character of war, as each concept focuses on different aspects of armed conflict. As noted, the nature of war encompasses the unchanging, fundamental aspects of warfare, while the character of war refers to the specific, dynamic features of a particular conflict. These two concepts can influence innovation in distinct ways:
- Nature of War: The constant aspects of war, such as violence, danger, uncertainty, and the interplay between politics and military actions, create an environment that necessitates continuous improvement and adaptation. The nature of war drives innovation by:
- Pushing for the development of new technologies and strategies to maintain or gain a strategic advantage over adversaries
- Encouraging innovation in areas that help mitigate the dangers and uncertainties of warfare, such as intelligence gathering, communication, and logistics
- Influencing broader societal and economic factors, as the need to prepare for and respond to potential conflicts can spur investment in research and development, infrastructure, and education
- Character of War: The dynamic features of a specific conflict, such as the objectives, strategies, tactics, participants, technologies, and environments involved, can shape innovation in more targeted ways. The character of war drives innovation by:
- Motivating the development of specialized technologies, tactics, and strategies to address the unique challenges and opportunities presented by a particular conflict
- Encouraging adaptation and flexibility, as the character of war can change rapidly due to new technologies, geopolitical factors, and social dynamics
- Leading to cross-pollination of ideas and collaboration between different branches of the military, government agencies, private companies, and research institutions in order to address the specific needs of a given conflict
Basically, the nature of war influences innovation by creating a general environment of competition, danger, and uncertainty that necessitates continuous improvement and adaptation. In contrast, the character of war influences innovation by shaping the development of specific technologies, strategies, and tactics in response to the unique circumstances and challenges of a particular conflict. Both aspects of war contribute to driving innovation, but their impacts on the process differ in terms of focus and scope.
Wrapping up, understanding both the unchanging nature of war and the dynamic character of specific conflicts is essential for comprehending the complexities of warfare and how they drive innovation. The constant aspects of war create an environment of competition, danger, and uncertainty, necessitating continuous improvement and adaptation, while the evolving character of war prompts the development of specialized technologies, strategies, and tactics to address unique challenges and opportunities. As we move forward in an ever-changing world, it is crucial for policymakers, military strategists, and researchers to stay informed, adapt to new developments, and collaborate across various fields to foster innovations that not only enhance security and effectiveness in armed conflicts but also contribute to broader societal advancements. The call to action is for stakeholders to engage in proactive dialogue, share knowledge, and invest in research and development to create a safer, more secure future for all.
NOTES ON THE FOG OF WAR
While Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas about the uncertainty and unpredictability of war have been popularized through the term “fog of war,” Clausewitz himself did not use that exact phrase in his seminal work, “On War” (Vom Kriege). The concept, however, is rooted in his writings, particularly in his discussions of friction, chance, and the many challenges and difficulties that military commanders face in the heat of battle.
Clausewitz emphasized the role of chance, probability, and uncertainty in war, which often stems from incomplete or ambiguous information, the actions of the enemy, and the complex interplay of various factors on the battlefield. These ideas laid the groundwork for what later became known as the “fog of war” concept, even though the term itself was not used by Clausewitz.
The term “fog of war” is often attributed to the 19th-century Prussian military theorist, but it was actually popularized by later military strategists and analysts who built upon Clausewitz’s ideas and sought to describe the challenges of decision-making in the context of war’s inherent uncertainty.