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Conflict, security and the transformation of war

In the tragedy describing Xerxes’ confrontation with the anger of the Athenian gods, Persians, Aeschylus pays careful attention to describing the war scenes: “Those Men, […],/Some on horses, some on ships, and those on foot/ Making war’s dense column as they marched-/”. The lengthy, yet vivid, Aeschylian war imagery speaks of the warring times of the battle, of the conquest and of the reward. Contemporary war, however, is no longer ‘marched’. Contemporary war has changed, has transformed, has lost its rigidity and has moved towards a point in which “war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in the field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists” (Smith, 2007: 1).

It has become a rule of thumb that when conflict is not talked about in terms of causality, conflict is talked about in terms of transformation. And in recent years, the unit of measurement of transformation has been the label: new wars, old wars, asymmetric wars, cyber wars, neocortical wars, proxy wars, Third World wars and wars of the third kind. And this is just the start of the long terminological battle. There is a particular syndrome of the label, a pure logo-mania that affects research with a peculiar set of symptoms driven by a showbiz-like desire for academic recognition. Take, for example, the case of ‘new’ and the concept of ‘new wars’. The versatility of the word indicates the term’s capacity for introducing the unprecedented. A claim that the security environment is witnessing the emergence of new forms of war implies that the changes from one form to another are revolutionary, radical, or drastic. It, thus, intends to speak of shifts at the core of warfare when what it really highlights is a degree of unawareness towards phenomena notable in the eagerness to renounce the previously accepted terminology.

But if war is yet another product of transformation laws, where does change lie? To answer this, one first has to break away from recurring practices of gatekeeping within academic debates. Researchers such as Edward Rice, Martin van Creveld, Kalevi Holsti, Mary Kaldor, and to an extent John Mueller, are the Transformers. Making use of the rhetoric of irregularity and unconventionality, their research saw the emergence of a ‘new wars’ discourse which highlighted, on one side, the intricate nature of contemporary warfare, and on the other, its changing character. The core idea was that conflict had transformed so radically that old forms of conflict would soon be gathering archival dust.

However, the same archives paint a different picture: that change in conflict is everywhere, but not in the nature of war. Categorical, daring and against the tide, this is a historically accurate assessment of change. From an arrow to an axe, and from a bow to a bomb, the essence of war has remained the same: to destroy and compel the other. Hobbesianly brutish and Clausewitzianly harsh, wars follow the same logic with regards to the finality of the enemy. What differs is the narrower and more particular rational, as well as the mode of fighting, elements that form not the nature of warfare but the character of warfare. Claiming there has been no substantial transformations in the nature war, Errol Henderson and J. David Singer labelled such characterizations of contemporary warfare as deleterious and, saw them as “inaccurate and inefficient”. Their empirical research, carried out through the Correlates of War project indeed pointed to a decrease in the prospects of total war, but saw the ‘new wars’ as a hybridization of the existing models of conflict.

At the ‘Transformation of Western and Asian Military Forces‘ conference in June 2013, the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism, in joint collaboration with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, bridged the two understandings of conflict and debated transformation from an interdisciplinary and multi-focus perspective. Reuniting academics, practitioners and early career researchers, the conference became the forum for discussing contemporary conflict, as well as the role of the military in the globalized security environment. With the same goals in mind, the new Conflict & Security section on Ballots & Bullets aims to following in the steps of the success of the conference and, thus, become a point of convergence for security research. For this reason, it seeks to cooperate and collaborate with academics, doctoral researchers, MA students as well as with non-institutional parties manifesting an interest in research into contemporary security issues.

Vladimir Rauta is the Editor of ‘Conflict & Security‘. He is a second year doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the phenomenon of contemporary forms of warfare, namely proxy warfare. Civil wars and private military corporations are also topics of interest that overlap with his main research.

Published inConflict & Security

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