Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

Transformation of War – Mortal Violence for Rational Ends

July 26th, 2017 by Mark Mankowski


War is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means Carl von Clausewitz

And the nature of the case [the war against the Persians] first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and self-interest came in afterwards Thucydides

Brigadier Field and William Lind have both highlighted the importance of ‘The Canon’. These seven books provide a military professional with an introduction to the theory of the four generations of warfare (4GW). I embarked on this journey recently, and the results and the conclusions I drew were both eye opening and disturbing.

This article will provide a short review of the Transformation of War by Martin Van Creveld, which is the seventh and final book in ‘The Canon’. Lind argues that this is Van Creveld’s ‘finest work to date’ and easily ‘the most important book on war written in the last quarter-century’. Why is this book so important and why did I find its conclusions so disturbing?

Peace of Westphalia 1648

To recap, the first generation of warfare put forward by Lind starts in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and gave birth to the modern state system. John Hauser reminded us recently that prior to the Thirty Years War, religion played the primary role in international engagement within European politics. The Treaty of Westphalia established territorial sovereignty and the right of self-determination orientated towards religious belief within recognised boundaries. With the state came the state’s monopoly on violence; thereafter, war became something waged by states, with state armies doing the fighting. This was first generation warfare and the start of what Van Creveld describes as the ‘Clausewitzian Universe’, in which war is waged by states due to irreconcilable differences in policy, as highlighted by the first quote.

The second generation was pioneered by the French in the First World War and is characterised by the coordination of firepower and manoeuvre. Lind argues that most western armies reached and maintained development to the second generation of warfare. The only true proponents of the third generation of warfare were the German Army at the end of the First World War and in the early part of the Second World War. To become a practionner of the third generation of warfare, your organisation needs to have fully adopted the tenets of mission command.

In 2004, Lind proclaimed the arrival of 4GW – a fundamental change in the conduct of war. He argues that the latest generation of warfare is the greatest change since the Peace of Westphalia, because ‘Clausewitz’s trinity of People, Government and Army vanishes, as the elements disappear or become indistinguishable from one another’. 4GW uses contemporary evidence to prove the theory set out in Van Creveld’s book The Transformation of War.

Transformation suggests that in the late twentieth century, the states lost their monopoly on war and on social organization. It predicts in the twenty-first century, as in all centuries up to 1648, many different entities will fight war, for many different reasons. By page 50, Van Creveld is arguing that Clausewitz is only relevant to certain types of war.

Stalingrad 1942

Van Creveld succinctly argues that we are entering an era which is mostly defined by warfare between ethnic and religious groups and not between states. He provides evidence since 1945 that three quarters of the armed conflicts are not waged between states. He describes these conflicts as ‘low-intensity’. Low intensity conflict is still war, even if it is not legally described as war. After all, one of Clausewitz’s most important contentions that war is a social activity.

That ‘Low Intensity Conflict’ described the majority of organised fighting was not a revelation. My travel insurer does not insure me for any event that is caused by or arises from any war or war like activities, whether war has been formally declared or not, any hostilities, rebellion or revolution, or civil war, military coup, or overthrow, attempted overthrow of a government/military power. It is clear that the insurance industry recognises that war does not need to be formally declared or waged interstate; however, the argument that Clausewitz is relevant only twenty five percent of the time is profound.

Most of Transformation is devoted to building the argument that war is transformed in the twenty-first century, but transformed back to the seventeenth century, when war was a social activity waged for fear, honour or self-interest. In the process, he highlights why armies came into being (persons licensed to engage in armed violence on behalf of the state) and the relationship of soldiers to the civilian population (the civilian population was supposed to be left alone, allowing soldiers fight it out among themselves). Warfare consisted of tournaments between armies. The established practice was that, when a battle took place in the open field, non-combatants were nowhere to be found.

The era of ‘Total War’, which came closest to fulfilment during the Second World War, started to erode this distinction between soldiers and civilians in two ways. First, the strategic bombing of cities conducted by all sides destroyed men, women, and children indiscriminately. Second, and more relevant to the West’s ongoing involvement in Iraq, there was the tendency of occupied peoples in many countries to take up arms again after their governments had surrendered.

Mosul 2017 (Reuters)

The logic that Van Creveld lays out is that the ‘Clausewitzian Universe’ rests on the assumption that war is made predominantly by states or, to be exact, by governments; however, states are relatively recent and artificial creations. States are political bodies that possess an ‘independent legal existence separate from the people to whom they belong and whose organized life they claim to represent’. Where there are no states, the threefold division into government, army, and people does not exist in the same form. The implication is that ‘trinitarian war’ is not War with a capital W, but merely one of the many forms that war has assumed. This argument has profound implications for strategy and warfare.

For instance, large armed formations are regarded as having been defeated as soon as they are surrounded and their lines of communication are severed (this is psychological rather than physical defeat). In low intensity conflict, large formations are failing because guerrillas and terrorists have no bases or lines of communication. They cannot be cut off in the ordinary sense of the word and it is challenging to persuade them that they are defeated.

Van Creveld does place some boundaries on armed conflict that constitutes war in his eyes. For him, ‘war consists essentially of the members of one community engaging in mortal violence against those of another; and that the killing is a rational means for achieving some rational end’. Importantly, ‘war does not begin when some people kill others; instead, it starts at the point where they themselves risk being killed in return’.

He also provides an excellent summary of ‘Just War’ before the start of the first generation of warfare to guide us through 4GW in three points: ‘first, a war has to be waged by public authority rather than by private individuals. Second, it has to be waged in order to avenge an injury, or inflict punishment, or redress a grievance. Third, the extent of the damage inflicted on the enemy has to stand in rough proportion to the cause for which the war was fought’. This is a remarkable work, especially when you consider that it was published in 1991. I urge other military professionals to embark on the same journey and draw their own conclusions.


About the author

Mark Mankowski is an Australian Officer posted to Headquarters Forces Command and a passionate advocate of Professional Military Education. His interests are continuously learning about the nature and character of war, developing battlefield intuition through simulation, and establishing the key factors responsible for effective Air-Land Integration. He is studying a Masters Advanced in Military History with the Australian National University.

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