220 – Is war still possible?

Posted on March 8, 2013 by


(A history of war in two easy pages including an outlook on its future)

Hunter-gatherers only had portable goods. Raiding between such groups was probably for women and children – their main “wealth”.

Agriculture led to durable stocks (food and artifacts). Neighbors raided each other for them. Extractive elites emerged to strike a (leonine) bargain with local self-governing agricultural communities: they demanded yearly exaction and offered protection against destructive raids in return. Such elites defended territories congruent with their military skills. They demarcated the territory and destroyed raiders crossing the boundary. Extractive elites battled each other for control of their respective territories – warfare emerged. Warfare was an ordeal about elite property.[1] Subject agriculturalists were quite indifferent to the outcome, even though they disliked the collateral entanglements. Religious ideologies underpinned the elites through sacralization. In the main, extractive elites were interchangeable. They dominated agro-literate polities or even a multi-ethnic empire.[2]


The horse allowed nomads to project power long-distance. First they raided, emerging suddenly and then absconding afterward in the steppe beyond the reach of the sedentary elite. Emboldened by experience, nomads destroyed extractive elites and took over their territories – the Mongols were the best in this respect. Success brought about sedentarization and acculturation.

Industrial societies rely on cognitive and economic growth for survival.With industrialization elites merged into a “homogenous world, subject to systematic indiscriminate laws, and open to interminable exploration”: the new society was “morally inert and, on the other side, unitary.” (Pg. 22-23) As industrial societies replaced pre-industrial tributary (and commercial) empires they attempted to redraw the boundaries they found so as to fit the new mode of production. Nationalism and secular ideologies drove the process. It was most bloody. The verdict is clear: economic strength, not military aggressiveness, is the irreplaceable foundation of a dynamic industrial state.

Warfare – an industrial society’s attempt militarily to impose its will on another – is coming to an end (even though unresolved conflicts or belated colonial adventures may linger on). Territorial conquest is no longer an option. Only total war may bring regime change about, as it happened in WWII. “Shock and awe” – as a proxy for total war – has failed to change “hearts and minds”. Regime change is effective only from within – as the failure, in this respect, of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown. Globalization accelerates the process. Regional conflicts may still emerge when a country demands special recognition.

Globalization has weakened the effective sovereignty and fiscal capacity of some states. “Buying off social aggression with material enhancement” (Pg. 22) may no longer work. Dissolution may loom ahead – this is usually peaceful, if not easy. Unresolved ideological and ethnic conflicts within the state may lead to violence and secession. Traditionally states have repressed secession attempts militarily. Secession is frowned upon in international relations. No multilateral doctrine has emerged in this regard.

Emergent dissident groups have fallen back on nomadic tactics in their struggle against sedentary societies. Raids have been carried out against them. They were politically but not strategically successful. Terror is no more able to bring about regime change in a foreign country than a sedentary society. Sedentary societies struggle in their response to such terrorism. For, the foot-lose groups use foreign territories as their base of operations. Received principles of territorial sovereignty hamper “surgical” military operations on foreign soil by the targeted country. Assent and cooperation of the state on whose territory cells of these groups are located,  is uncertain. Collateral damage in the “host” country worsens the situation.

Any expectation that military expenditures will reflect the profound changes that have swept the contemporary world is unwarranted. Fear drives military expenditure (Rumsfeld’s 1% rule). One may factor in the inner logic of a self-regarding military-industrial complex and the competitive logic of reciprocity. These forces can drive an involution toward a needlessly militarized societies. Danger looms in this respect.

[1]           James Q. WHITMAN (2012): The verdict of battle. The law of victory and the making of modern war. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

[2]           Ernest GELLNER (1983): Nationas an nationalism.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca. „the most striking trait of pre-modern, pre-.rational visions: the coexistence within them of multiple, not properly, united, but hierarchically related subworld, and the existence of special privileged facts, sacralized and exempt from ordinary treatment.“ (Pg. 21)