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24 June 2023

Part II of “War Becoming Phantasmal: A Cognitive Shift in Conflict Beyond Human Limits”

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Original post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/part-ii-of-war-becoming-phantasmal-a-cognitive-shift-in-conflict-beyond-human-limits-cbd05976a41c

Continued from Part 1…

Total Wars in a Westphalian Reality until Humans Split the Atom:

War has not always been in keeping with modern understanding and usage of the terms involved. In ancient times, western and eastern societies pursued natural philosophy, collective experimentation and prescientific modes of knowledge management to produce theories of war, rules and practices for warfare, coupled with the rich social context in which battles in one region in one century may be quite different from another one in a different time or locale [1]. Nobility and mythology created conditions where elites could claim special jurisdiction to lead armies and wage wars,[2] yet often such violent affairs would amount to not more than “a handful of days in actual combat. Much of the largest part of the season was always taken up by something best described as a mixture of tourism and large-scale robbery”[3]. Armies filled with conscripts were temporary and assembled only after a definitive issue had arisen, with wars arranged somewhat in compliance with the seasons and the demands for agriculture [4]. This would generally cover most all of recorded human history excluding the last few centuries.

Wars entered a new scientific age of development and expansion soon after the European Age of Enlightenment and the adaptation of scientific thinking for military affairs. Further, European societies would also shift away from ideological, often ritualistic forms of earlier warfare nested in some fulfillment of religious or moral duty, the aspirations of some eschatological (end-of-world prophesized battle) texts, and notions of chivalry and fixed rules of battle. [5] Westphalian nation-states would become associated as entities with rights just as individuals might have, where a nation would be defined by geographic borders and territory, a shared language and history, and the right to declare war and defend oneself from rivals. Wars would become larger in scale and scope, resulting in the Napoleonic Era of ‘total war’ initiatives where entire nations were mobilized across their industry, population, and policy makers into a giant war machine.

Clausewitz would theorize on Napoleon’s successes by positing that war could be understood in the framings of ancient Greek philosophers, modernized with a fusion of natural science with German Romanticism. The ‘ideal’ war is a pure, total, perfect manifestation while due to the fog and friction of human behaviors collectively and individually within an ever-changing world, only the ‘real’ wars might materialize [6]. Real war spanned from nations suppressing insurrections and insurgencies to that of near-total state warfare that would be demonstrated with increasing devastation in the two World Wars of the early twentieth century. Yet the detonation of atomic bombs over Japan would end World War II, and usher in a new period of limited war under threat of nuclear annihilation. War continued, but now these Westphalian nations faced the first context where the species might destroy entire domains such as land, air, and sea along with the entire societies locked in a struggle. Rapoport declared this as the end of Clausewitzian war logic, in that nuclear destruction could not demonstrate any winner in the earlier conceptualization of Napoleonic, nation-state warfare [7].

In the Nuclear Age, nations would assume greater tolerance for tactical defeat if this maintained nuclear deterrence and prevented terrestrial domain and societal obliteration [8] Considering long wars in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union and later still, the United States, and the U.S. war in Vietnam, the second half of the Twentieth Century is full of limited conflicts and operational failures due to overarching concerns on nuclear deterrence. The ultimate weapon to destroy an enemy totally was reached, but proliferated to produce an emergent reality where not using the weapon is more powerful than risking its application. Due to existential threats to both competitors, wars would shift to irregular and hybrid options so that deterrence could prevent potential species extinction.

Irregular War Transformed: Post-Westphalian and Post-Nuclear Organized Violence

Whether one prefers the term ‘irregular’, ‘asymmetric’, or ‘hybrid’, the distinction between these unorthodox conflicts and that of total wars are clearer since 1945 due to the emergence of nuclear weaponry and the absurdity of destroying the enemy’s will to resist if all participants are obliterated in the victory. Irregular warfare has existed since the dawn of time, arguably the first form of organized violence by various groups against rivals. The rise of the Westphalian nation-state delegated irregular warfare and non-state aggressors to a lower position, and thus by implication made state-on-state high intensity warfare the optimal exercise of organized violence. Yet nuclear annihilation complicated what previously was an ever-escalating race for greater weaponry, effects, speed, and national focus of aggression against a clearly defined opponent pursuing similar aims. Irregular war would in the Nuclear Age become the primary mode for conflict, particularly within competitors that had nuclear capabilities or were otherwise associated with nuclear powers. Modern, often termed ‘political’ variations of irregular warfare inverted earlier Napoleonic, Westphalian, Newtonian war theory from a prioritization upon decisive violence directed toward the enemy’s armies to that of education (or re-education) of targeted populations first [9].

Marxist theory, as a strong influence upon modern irregular warfare, began as a counter-position to western capitalism and liberal societies that prioritized the individual liberties and freedoms while also enabling some at the expense of others. State Marxism materialized first not in the highly industrial cities such as London, Berlin, or New York as Marx and Engels predicted, but in the largely agrarian and illiterate Russia. Lenin’s successful revolution spawned multiple variations upon the original Marxist themes, leading in the Interwar Period to a critical theory/social Marxist branch that began in the Frankfurt School in post-war Germany, and also in Asian adaptation of Marxist political war theory by Mao in China. Mao’s integration of Marxism with Chinese rural peasantry and ancient Chinese culture and beliefs (Daoism, Confucianism instead of ancient Greek and Roman logics) would later inspire further modification of political war theory by Fidel Castro, Ho Che Minh, and others seeking to reform the world through revolution [10].

Education, according to Mao, was the primary focus for irregular warfare (IW), or political war theory, followed by propaganda, and only then, fighting as necessary. Indeed, Marxist irregular warfare tolerated significant tactical defeats so that long-term gains might be accomplished in education and propaganda, an inversion of Clausewitzian war theory. The modern, western war frame favors direct, frontal engagement with the identification of problems and obstacles to pre-established goals. Chia explains this with: “[western methods for warfare seek to] face them head-on with the maximum concentration of effort, energy, and resources… and then decisively eliminate or overcome them in the most expedient and efficient manner possible”[11]. IW, particularly Marxist political war theory and conflicts within the Nuclear Age would present emergent developments in what war is, and how it might be waged.

To be continued in part 3…


[1] Chia and Holt, 29–47; Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy Between Western and Chinese Thinking.

[2] Siniša Malešević, The Sociology of War and Violence (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 8–14.

[3] Martin van Creveld, The Training of Officers: From Professionalism to Irrelevance (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 20.

[4] Felix Gilbert, “Machiavelli: The Renaissance of the Art of War,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), 13.

[5] Gilbert, 13.

[6] Anatol Rapoport, “Editor’s Introduction to On War,” in On War, by Carl Von Clausewitz, ed. Anatol Rapoport (New York: Penguin Books, 1968); Anatol Rapoport, The Origins of Violence: Approaches to the Study of Conflict(New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transactions Publishers, 1995), 179–80.

[7] Rapoport, The Origins of Violence: Approaches to the Study of Conflict, 267.

[8] Henry Eccles, Military Concepts and Philosophy, 1st ed. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965), 115.

[9] Balazs Forgacs, “Mao and Giap on Partisan Warfare,” AARMS 18, no. 2 (2019): 32–33; Edward Friedman, “Neither Mao Nor Che: The Practical Evolution of Revolutionary Theory. A Comment on J. Moreno’s ‘Che Guevara on Guerrilla Warfare,’” Comparative Studies in Society and History 12, no. 2 (1970): 135–37; Andrew Kennedy, “Can the Weak Defeat the Strong? Mao’s Evolving Approach to Asymmetric Warfare in Yan’an,” The China Quarterly, no. 196 (December 2008): 884–89; Craig Whiteside, “New Masters of Revolutionary Warfare: The Islamic State Movement (2002–2016),” Perspectives on Terrorism 10, no. 4 (2016): 4–18.

[10] J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, paperback (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1989).

[11] Chia, “Reflections: In Praise of Silent Transformation- Allowing Change Through ‘Letting Happen,’” 14.

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