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Modern Warfare: An Overview for World History Teachers

Wendy Lynch
Independent Scholar

Bill Bravman
The Maret School



Modern warfare is an extremely important topic for world history teachers. Many of us treat some major wars, usually the two World Wars, as stand-alone course topics. Beyond that, though, many of our courses only discuss warfare in passing, as a by-product or subsidiary topic within the usual big issues of modernity: industrialization, imperialism, nationalism, anti-colonialism, the Cold War, the making of "the Third World," and globalization. The result of this is often a piecemeal and sporadic approach to warfare that could readily be improved upon. Our aim in this paper is to encourage and help teachers with that task. We sketch out a systematic global history of modern warfare in the hope that it will provide both reasons for further integrating modern warfare into world history courses and a framework by which to do so. Still, while modern warfare could make for an effective free-standing unit topic in contemporary times, most courses will continue to fold it into presentations of the modern era's classic issues. Therefore, while this paper presents a continuous history of warfare itself, we have structured much of the essay for teachers who want to enrich their approach to warfare while nevertheless keeping it as a recurring topic within the traditional –isms and –ations.
    In our view, the logical starting point for a global history of modern warfare is to see how the regions most transformed by industrialization and massive nationalist mobilization affected the 19th and early 20th century world at large. By the mid-20th century, however, our analysis of modern warfare needs to telescope out to a wider perspective that can make sense of a seemingly infinite number and variety of conflicts. This essay is patterned accordingly: Part I concentrates on how nationalism and the industrial revolution were harnessed by a handful of countries to create a new global war system that arose in the late 18th century, matured in the late 19th and early 20th century, and ran to its logical conclusion by 1945. In so doing, this part discusses a handful of wars that were either pivotal or emblematic of broader trends. Part II approaches the post-1945 era by focusing on trends and patterns, with individual wars mentioned only as examples. These trends include the decline of inter-state war, the rise of unconventional war, and the emergence of new forms of mobilizing for and fighting war.

Part I: Modern Warfare to 1945


Starting around the turn of the 19th century, warfare began a transformation towards a modern form that would prevail over much of the world for the next hundred and fifty years. We see two key changes at the heart of this transformation. First came the rise of a new war-making entity: the massively scaled, patriotically inspired military that served to further the aims and burnish the luster of the popular nation-state. Second, industrialization made warfare far more destructive. Industrialized nation-states could usually exercise that destructive force decisively when they fought pre-industrial opponents. When industrialized nation-states made war on each other one side might (or might not) achieve a decisive victory, but the combatant militaries meanwhile wrought death and devastation on an astounding new scale.

The Nationalization and Industrialization of War in the West, 1792-1945

Around the turn of the 19th century, a dramatic change in how an army might be built and operated took shape in Europe. Early on in this period, the new republic of France harnessed this change to achieve a string of dramatic military triumphs against its regional rivals. Those triumphs (which a wide alliance of other European countries only barely rolled back) prompted many governments in and beyond Europe to respond to, borrow, and extend some of France's methods. The results led to enduring changes in the scale and character of the world's foremost militaries. 4
    Most scholars of the era agree that the breakthrough for the army of revolutionary France and Napoleon's French empire was one of scale and spirit. The sea-change began in the 1790s, when France's republican government responded to invasions from neighboring monarchies by declaring universal male conscription and invigorated the new soldiers with a politicized spirit of defending their nation and their revolution. France's army soon swelled to roughly 1,000,000, a force vastly larger than any before in Europe. It was also infused with a new and remarkable level of morale, discipline, and self-sacrificing commitment among ordinary soldiers. This new force, led by capable, primarily non-aristocratic officers, overwhelmed its opponents and moved quickly from defense of France to a decades-long series of offensives in western and central Europe, northern Africa, and Russia. Napoleon's gradual replacement of revolutionary fervor with a more conservative nationalism did not overturn the sweeping transformation of the French army: it was a citizen's service now, massive in size, reputable as an institution, recruiting from all walks of society, and highly motivated. 1
    Although other militarily advanced countries did not immediately re-make their armies along the lines of the French force—and though after Napoleon's fall the French army itself reverted to a smaller force that relied on stable long-termers rather than zealots—a fits-and-starts transformation began. Most notably a Prussian named Carl von Clausewitz took note of what had made the revolutionary French army so daunting. 2 Clausewitz sought to bottle the political fervor of the French army, tapping into its morale yet keeping it channeled to purposes that were determined by sober-minded political leaders. He did so by explaining warfare as the ultimate extension of politics, and soldiers as the actors who enabled a state's international policies to triumph. His vision became part of the spirit of the age in later 19th century Europe, a time of burgeoning popular (and martially minded) nation-state building on the continent. Germany's emergence as a nation and its humiliation of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71—under a general who claimed Clausewitz as a key influence—was a model of this martial nationalism. Several leading and emerging national armies elsewhere in the world sought to make similar grand and intimate reforms: while building up more massive forces and general staffs of professionally educated senior officers, they encouraged a feeling of national mission in individual soldiers. Behind these reforms lay the recognition that a soldier who was inspired to fight for his country and its aims would show less self-preserving fear in harrowing encounters: he would be more likely to follow orders and do his duty for his comrades and his country, even if it killed him. His army's and his nation's cause would thus be advanced.3
    Socially, the basis of the armies was similarly transformed. In the early 19th century, ordinary soldiers in the world's leading armies typically came from society's margins and were treated as such. By the end of the century those leading armies were seen as institutions fit for solid citizens of a country: they honed a man's spirit of nationalism, his sense of responsibility, and his virtue. It also became a commonplace to see these armies as agents of personal maturation: they took in the callow youths from all walks of life and forged them into men. This was in no small part an updating—and, typically for the modern era, a universalizing—of many ancient and medieval (and mainly aristocratic) warrior ethos: a romantic re-configuring of an older elite culture into the shared patrimony of a nation. The overall effect was to render military service in modern armies honorable and respectable to a wide range of modern national citizens, at once beneficial to the individual and a unity-building, patriotic act.
    The industrial revolution added another layer of dramatic change to warfare in the 19th century. This was not just a matter of advances in 'civilian' manufacturing being applied to the military. Rather, key innovations in the history of mass production made their debut in arms and ammunition manufacture. The militaries of the nation-states at the forefront of industrialization were not only growing larger and more motivated: by the mid-19th century, they were becoming better armed, better equipped, and better supplied. Guns with more advanced designs, made from stronger materials, rapidly reloadable and serviceable with interchangeable parts, now spun conical bullets from rifled barrels—the result being impressively deadly improvements in guns' speed, accuracy, and range. Cannons underwent similar improvements and increased their destructive power by firing exploding shells. 4 Mass production ensured that the greatly enlarged pool of faster-firing weapons was amply stocked with munitions. Steam and mass-produced metals also began to alter the "platforms" of warfare, through the development of engine-powered, iron-hulled warships. Industrial infrastructure developed for commercial purposes had military impacts, as well. Railways and telegraphs helped move mass armies and their machinery, and the factory system kept forces supplied with food, clothing, and equipment along with munitions.
    The logistics of mobilizing and supplying militaries at war became a far more complex (yet also more centrally plannable) task, and the transportation and communications infrastructures of the industrial age were bent to it. Efficient mobilization could be crucial to winning a war: Prussia's rapid triumph over France in 1870-71 owed much to an exactingly planned utilization of rail and telegraph to bring soldiers forward and keep them supplied. 5 In more protracted struggles the side with the greater industrial capacity, railroad network, and organizational ability would likely ground down its opponent over time. The US Civil War stands as a prime example of this: Grant and other graduates of West Point's technology and engineering-minded program used the North's resources and infrastructure to overcome the field élan of the Confederate officer corps. Sherman's advance on Atlanta, a crushing blow to the South, relied heavily on railway and telegraph logistics: he guessed that he would have otherwise needed nearly 37,000 wagons to keep his army supplied. 6
    Industrialization did not transform warfare in a single swoop; we would argue that the changes unfolded in three overlapping stages. A first era of industrial warfare, running roughly from the 1840s to the later 19th century, introduced of some powerful new weapons (e.g., steam powered, iron-hulled warships), improved and mass produced older ones (rifles, cannon), and applied new transportation and communication networks to logistics. If one side held a large advantage in one of more these arenas, it often triumphed quickly (e.g., the Opium War between Britain and China in 1839-42). When both sides were adequately armed with the new weapons, however, and neither side secured a quick victory through superior mobilization, the much heightened destruction, death and injury that ensued came as a shock to everyone involved (e.g., the US Civil War). Even in its earliest incarnations, industrialized warfare was far more bloody and demanding of soldiers and society than early modern wars had been.
    A second era (from the 1880s through World War One) saw major changes in gunpowder weapons and ammunition on land as well as improved naval ships and their firepower on water. On land, the speed and accuracy of guns gave defenders a decided advantage over attackers. Regular rifles now could fire every few seconds, and artillery was nearly as quick, but the machine gun captures the gruesome heart of this era best. Shooting up to 600 bullets per minute at targets up to 4,000 yards away, a well-entrenched machine gun crew created a withering field of fire that could kill thousands in a matter of minutes.7 That it ran through mass-produced bullets so quickly and required a machinist's skill more than a rifleman's made it all the more emblematic of industrial modernity. Offensive tactics against these weapons were blunt and ineffective: waves of soldiers rushed into the maw of the defenders' gunfire. Charging infantries took staggering casualties this way, and almost never successfully overran defenders. Sea warfare, meanwhile, saw an unprecedented build-up of heavily armored, engine-driven warships with increasingly large cannon, along with the rise of smaller torpedo boats and submarines. In instances where an industrial nation amassed a substantially faster, better-gunned, better-armored fleet than its opponent, it could press the advantage both on the water and in coastal combat. Japan's decisive victory over Russia's navy in 1904-05 demonstrated this and pointedly announced to the Atlantic powers that Japan had joined them in the front ranks of industrialized, militarized states.8 In the Atlantic, however, a competitive, multi-lateral naval build-up produced a standoff that did not substantially alter the military and logistical outcomes of wars between the leading industrial states.
    A third industrial transformation of warfare owes to rapid improvements in flying and land-based motor vehicles during the 1920s–40s. Mundanely but crucially, huge fleets of sturdy and reliable motorized vehicles increased armies' logistical speed and flexibility by ferrying troops and supplies anywhere a road went—and often where roads didn't go, too. More dramatically, a tank could roll through enemy lines while bringing its machine guns and cannon to bear against the opponent. Planes could carry their guns and bombs far beyond a ground front to attack an enemy state deep within its territory. The plane and tank thus broke the defensive stalemate of World War One: Germany's 1930s blitzkrieg strategy combined motorized transport and weapons to rapidly break over and past defensive 'fronts,' to sow confusion in the opponent's command and supply lines, and to overrun territory too quickly for the opponent to respond effectively.9 Navies transformed their offensive roles by building aircraft carriers that projected air power from the sea, as Japan pointedly demonstrated at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Aerial bombing and strafing became the signature offensive force of destruction in this era's warfare, as well as an important logistical and armed escort force for ground armies and ships.
    Since the 1940s several industrially advanced states have continued to improve weapons at a dizzying rate, one that amounts to a fourth, technologically defined transformation. To take one of countless possible examples, large and small missiles—self-propelled, flying bombs—have been mass-produced with increasingly sophisticated navigational abilities since their advent in the 1940s. Today's leading armed forces are very much in the midst of what military analysts and pundits call a Revolution in Military Affairs: these militaries are reconfiguring their structures, strategies, organization, and personnel around the latest technological innovations. 13

Imperial Wars and Total War, 1840s-1945

It is no surprise that the most general rush of colony-seizing in world history happened during the 19th and early 20th century's industrialization of warfare. Scholars still debate why various European nations scrambled for some of the distant territories they claimed, though the reasons for US imperial takeovers and Japan's turn of the 20th century conquests are clearer. Regardless of motives, though, we want to emphasize here that the major imperializing nation-states of the era shared several things in common. Economically, industrialization (along with global trade and finance prospects) gave them a strong interest in access to overseas markets for some combination of investment opportunities, raw materials, and manufactured exports. Politically, they were influenced by visions of national greatness and expansionary destiny.
    Militarily, a popular nationalist martial spirit was wedded to rapid advances in weaponry and organizational capacity. Military forces in the 15th to 18th century in one or another part of the world might have an arena of special capability: for example, advances in metallurgy and ship design gave some European countries superior navies in the early modern era, while Ottoman janissaries were among the most proficient and feared users of gunpowder weapons on land.10 However, no one region or state exercised an absolute and enduring advantage over all others. Tactical and technical military innovations in one part of the world were often countered, copied, or both. The middle decades of the 19th century, however, re-weighted the scales of destructive power: countries with the new industrial capacity could often inflict decisive, even awe-inspiring violence on those who lacked it. This superiority of force usually meant that industrialized nation-states gained highly favorable political-economic outcomes in their dealings with the non- or barely-industrialized countries of the world, typically through informal domination or formal colonial takeover. Students, teachers, and many policy makers tend to take this relationship between force and outcomes for granted, but it is worth treating as a historical possibility rather than as an inevitability, for in later sections of this essay we discuss what observers of recent wars from Vietnam to present-day Iraq are keenly aware of: why the relationship no longer necessarily holds true.
    In the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, at the height of the era of industrialized nations' dominance over vast stretches of the world, the military forces of the advanced states rarely called upon the entirety of their massive armies and navies when dealing with non-industrial societies. Instead, they selectively applied relatively small forces armed with some of their newest technology, as when the British navy sent a fleet that included steam-powered ships to fight China's junks in the Opium War. There are many other examples of this trend: by doing little more than assuming a threatening posture in Edo Bay during the 1850s, the USA's steam-powered and impressively armed Black Fleet compelled Japan's government to open up its trade relations after centuries of refusal to do so. In the1898 battle of Omdurman, a British army used machine guns to kill at least 10,000 opposing soldiers and wound perhaps another 35,000 from a much larger but pre-industrial Sudanese army, while itself suffering forty eight dead and roughly 350 wounded.11
    Non-industrialized armies did win occasional encounters, and in cases like the Frontier Wars of early-to-mid-1800s South Africa or Afghanistan in the mid-to-late 1800s, the combination of favorable terrain and hard-earned experience among the inhabitants of a territory could lead to much more protracted struggles against the armies of an industrialized nation;12 in the 20th century, guerilla warfare and other versions of unconventional warfare would also sometimes prove effective against the armies of industrial nations. Occasionally, as in South Africa's Frontier Wars, the industrial armies only prevailed by learning to fight more like the locals. For the most part, however, this initial era of British, then more general Euro-American, then Japanese industrial empire-building relied on the ability to produce an overwhelming force via industrial means. Generating that force often only lightly taxed the overall war-making capacities of the expanding nation states. Again, we would emphasize that the force that industrial nations applied was often some of the most technologically advanced and tactically destructive they could bring to bear. One scholar has argued that the industrial powers refined the tools and techniques that later became part of Total War (such as aerial bombing of civilians) by first trying them out on the "savages" of the non-industrial world.13 17
    Total War itself was an early-to-mid twentieth century phenomenon, though it certainly had some 19th century antecedents, most notably the American Civil War. As a form of industrialized warfare, Total War differed dramatically from the above-described imperial wars in that—beyond the headlines from a barely-imagined, distant locale—such wars made few impositions on life in the industrialized society. Total War, by comparison, first and foremost called upon entire societies to gear up for a far-reaching struggle. Materially it drew heavily upon an industrial nation's full range of resources, while ideologically it could not be a disinterested or distant affair from people's daily life: the whole of a nation was called upon to unite and commit to combating other whole nations. Organizationally, a state's government commandeered and coordinated much of the production, transportation, communications, and manpower capacity of the society, channeling it into the effective staffing, arming, moving, and re-supplying of an enormous fighting force that ran through people and materiel at a tremendous rate. Colonial societies were often expected to supply, soldiers, labor, and resources for their imperial rulers' Total War needs, and to a remarkable degree they did so.
    Militarily, the effects of Total War were devastating. The weaponry and ordnance of Total War—the machine gun, ever-improving artillery, the tank, the aircraft carrier, the long-range bomber and its increasingly potent payload—mass produced impersonal death and widespread devastation. In the first great Total War, World War One, defensive weapons were far enough ahead of offensive ones that the result between the antagonists of roughly equal capacity on the Western front was a horrific stalemate. By World War Two, new offensive weapons could punch through a traditional front on the ground or reach hundreds of miles beyond it by air. This did not make military frontlines between mass armies obsolete, but it greatly expanded the notion of what—and who—was part of a theatre of war. If an entire opposing nation was the enemy, then anything you could do to cripple that nation's ability to wage war was fair game. Civilians were not just in the line of fire if they happened to be in a site of potential value to their country's war effort; civilians now became Total War targets in and of themselves, for the opposing military hoped to shatter their morale and break their will to fight.14 In this sense the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of a logical piece with what the Total Warring states had already done in Shanghai, London, Dresden, Tokyo, and countless other densely settled areas, in fact, only atomic bombs achieved aerial strategists' goal of pushing the opposing society to surrender. Total War death rates for military personnel (8 million in World War One, 15 million in World War Two) dwarfed the totals from any previous wars. The civilian death figures are even more telling: over 6.5 million in World War One, and somewhere between 24 and 36 million for World War Two.15
    As an instrument of the state and a means to societal gains, Total War certainly hurt more of its users than it helped. The strains and effects of World War One, for instance, brought about or contributed to the downfall of governments in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey, among others. That war's core long-term combatant states—Britain, France, and Germany—ended the war with weakened or ruined economies, massive amounts of physical destruction, shakier or utterly lost grips over far-flung colonial territories, and societies traumatized by their losses no matter which side they'd been on. Two countries' governments would be able to emerge from Total Wars in significantly stronger international positions than they had entered them: the United States (twice) and the Soviet Union. The Soviet military and society did so at an appalling cost: its army suffered fully half of the total military deaths of World War Two, plus the deaths of 10-15 million civilians.16 The USA, based far from the other industrial powers was, with the exception of the attack on Pearl Harbor naval base in its Pacific colony of Hawaii, able to keep the fighting far from its own territory. The USA emerged from this era as the only major Total War state to suffer virtually no infrastructural destruction and only a handful, comparatively speaking, of civilian deaths. 20

Part II: War since 1945


The end of World War II marks a major break in the history of industrialized warfare, but scholars are divided about how best to characterize the post-45 era. Some, noting the absence of war between leading powers and the relative rarity of "major war" between any nations, claim a general decline of war. On the other hand, given that we could run through several alphabets' worth of bloody strife (e.g. Angola, Burundi, Chechnya, etc.), emphasis on the decline of war seems myopic at the very least. War, understood as combat between the regular armies of two or more nation states, may have slowed to a trickle, but "unconventional war" -- civil war, insurgency, ethnic strife -- is endemic to the post-45 period. Small-scale, comparatively low-tech, fought by irregular forces using guerrilla tactics, these "wars" could hardly be more different from the industrial wars discussed above. Thus, other scholars prefer to mark this era as a radical transformation in warfare. 21
    Proponents of the "decline of war" school incorporate post-45 unconventional warfare into their thesis in one of two ways. First, they argue that some "wars" are not really wars at all; rather they are forms of organized crime, a pathology to which weak states have been susceptible throughout history. Examples would include ethnically-charged massacres as in Rwanda or Bosnia and warlordism in Somalia and Columbia. Others are real wars, but transitional in nature. They arose from now-defunct world-systems -- colonial empires, the Cold War -- and are, therefore, increasingly rare. 22
    On balance, we think "transformation" is the more accurate term. While the differences between conventional and unconventional war are substantial, there is one, fundamental continuity connecting them: their embeddedness in an international order. Modern unconventional war is not merely, or even primarily, the effect of weak states. It simply could not take the form that it does were it not, at bottom, an international construct. Post '45 wars are so deeply enmeshed in transnational events and institutions that it is hard to find even one without the fingerprints (and weapons) of the developed world all over it. As a consequence, we think that unconventional wars emerged from a still-existing world-system and are, therefore, unlikely to be the last of their kind. Nevertheless, we want to highlight both points: a world-record peace and a historical record that is anything but peaceful. 23

The Decline of War

Peace is a nonevent, unlikely to make the papers even on the slowest news day. For that reason, the absence of war among the leading powers since 1945 –"perhaps the single most striking discontinuity that the history of international politics has anywhere provided –"is little discussed outside of certain rarefied academic circles.17 Given the widespread expectation that World War III will inevitably arrive, however, this is a nonevent worth noticing and explaining. 24

    Simply put, some combination of the bloodletting experienced during World War II and the killing potential of nuclear weapons convinced political leaders that full-scale war was too deadly to be rational. Major post 45 rivals -- the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- chose to forego direct warfare with each other, instead dividing the world into heavily fortified zones. By the time China reached a position of regional rival, it too avoided head-on confrontation with the others. While this peace was not foreordained, neither was it accidental. That various crises in Cuba, Berlin, the Middle East, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc. passed without turning into war, shows restraint on the part of world leaders. During the Cuban missile crisis, for example, President Kennedy rejected his generals' recommendation of direct military action, even though General Curtis LeMay argued, "I just don't see any other solution except military intervention right now."18

    The war that could not rationally be fought stamped its character on the military. Through various doctrines, strategic thinkers could not find a version of even "limited" nuclear warfighting that didn't pose unacceptable losses. The only form of war that could conceivably be fought (rather than suffered as a mutual massacre) was conventional, non-nuclear war. All scenarios of conventional war, however, led to nuclear war. Most Western analysts believed that the Soviets, enjoying conventional superiority, could only be stopped by using tactical nuclear weapons. Similarly, it was hard to credit a scenario in which either side losing a conventional war would choose not to employ its nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the 1967 strategic doctrine known as "flexible response" committed NATO to preparing for a wider range of conventional warfare scenarios in Europe and elsewhere. This provided pragmatic options for dealing with relatively small-scale events like the Berlin Crisis. However, Martin Van Creveld, noting the scale of conventional-only preparations—massive investment in successive generations of surface ships, submarines, tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery tubes, fighter bombers, and attack helicopters—argues that the major thrust of Western military planning "amounted to a gigantic exercise in make-believe." In other words, flexible response became a platform to prepare for a protracted, large-scale conventional war in Europe, "as if the threat of nuclear escalation did not exist." 19 As if to underscore the impotence of all that weaponry, "deterrence," never before considered to be part of military strategy, became its centerpiece. 26
    Focus on the Cold War's mutual fear of Armageddon masks an equally significant cause of global peace: the formation of the western security community. After 1945 most former rivals for great power status -- France, Great Britain, Germany, the U.S., and Japan -- abandoned war as a means to win their rivalry. Instead, they joined together in a "security community" under U.S. guarantees of military protection. By most historical measures, this is an astonishing turnaround. Each combatant had just buried the dead from the most horrific war in memory -- arguably, the most horrific war ever -- and, in each case, some of their new allies were responsible. On a whole other timescale, the European peace since 1945 is nothing short of spectacular. Not since the days of the Pax Romana has Europe been so free of war. While at first this peace was the result of security calculations (better to cede power to the U.S. than to continue the old pattern of rivalry and risk another war), over time it has settled into a way of life. It is not just that there has been no war between these former rivals -- there has been no thought of war between them. In effect, there is currently no possibility of such war. 27
    In the absence of war and of the need to seriously contemplate war, some scholars claim, a profound cultural shift has occurred within the security community: European countries and Japan have demobilized and are "postmilitary" societies. Here, the soldier has lost his cultural relevance. No longer a hero, or a symbol of his nation, the soldier is a professional. The exception is the U.S., which provides the security guarantees, but it shares a general "war aversion" with the others. Something more than pragmatism is at work here. War, to the West, is not just too costly to be rational; rather, like slavery and dueling, it is a form of institutionalized violence that has become moral anathema.20 28
    Most of the conventional warfare that did occur after 1945 can be seen as transitional events within the framework of an evolving world peace order. Decolonization wars obviously have a limited shelf life; having fulfilled their purpose they basically disappeared from history after 1980. Also, decolonization marks the end of a highly war-like global system (rival empires) and its replacement by another, less war-prone system (the superpower-bloc system). The crux of this argument is that the formation of blocs slowly spread the superpowers' nuclear standoff across the globe. Because any conflict across blocs threatened to become another worldwide war, gradually much of the globe was incorporated into the superpowers' armed peace. There were wars within zones (or to maintain zones); the Warsaw Pact was the only military alliance to conduct actions against its own members. However, these tended to be short, decisive conflicts that, once ended, produced a stable bloc. The division of Europe and Asia into permanently fortified zones of influence (manifested by the Berlin Wall and the division of Korea, respectively) left only two places where large-scale conventional war could reasonably take place: the Middle East and the India/Pakistan border. And indeed, the largest and most politically significant conventional wars of this period are the Iran-Iraq War and the wars between Israel and neighboring Arab states. (Africa is not included in this formulation, because it didn't have the resources to make its warfare large-scale.) 29
    The Cold War era did host several major unconventional wars fought by leading powers (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Taiwan, China/India, China/Vietnam) as well as the so-called "proxy" wars in Africa and Latin America. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, such wars were rendered obsolete. Indeed, with the removal of Cold War era-support for insurgencies, the 1990s saw a precipitous decline in internal war. 30
    This is a double whammy. First, the Cold War marginalized and shrank warfare. Second, with the resounding triumph of the West, even this smaller form of war was rendered all but obsolete. What is left -- massacres as in Rwanda and Bosnia -- is, according to John Mueller, war's "pathetic remnants."21 31
    To sum up: the year 1945 stands as the high point of a 150 year trend of rising scale and scope to war. Starting with the Napoleonic wars, armies got bigger, casualty lists more enormous, militarization penetrated more deeply into society, and warfare increasingly blurred the distinction between combatant and noncombatant. Since that year all the trends of industrial warfare have been reversed. Rather than seeming to engulf the entire globe, post-45 wars have all taken place at the (shrinking) margins of the industrialized world. Total mobilization of all participants reached 65 million in World War I and 105 million in World War II. By contrast, mobilization for the Vietnam War -- a smaller war by almost every measure and still one of the largest fought after 1945 -- reached maybe 4 million on both sides. There is simply nothing after 1945 that approaches the magnitude of damage inflicted by World War II. Taken together, the nearly 200 wars in the 55 years since account for probably between one-half and three quarters of World War II casualties alone.22 These smaller wars also appear to be less significant on the world stage. Unlike Great Power wars, they "do not permeate all facets of international politics, [do not] structure state-society relations, [nor do they] represent a struggle for dominance in the international system."23 Thus, according to this line of argument, war is on its way to being irrelevant in world affairs. 32

The Rise of Unconventional War

If we tilt the focus away from leading industrial powers, quite a different pattern emerges. Rather than a decline, the end of World War II ushered in a sharp rise in warfare for Africa, the near East, and the Middle East. While each case is unique, there is a general pattern of a decolonization war followed by some form of deadly and destructive armed conflict: border wars, secessionist crises, and civil wars. 33
    Even when not at war, most Third World24 countries have militarized to a large degree since 1945; they have built armies, bought weapon systems, and forged military industries. Doing so was often a function of "modernization" rather than warfare, but the end result has been a highly militarized state. As opposed to the West and the Soviet Union, where the military is viewed as "an armed professional adjunct" to civilian economic and political efforts, the Third World "rests on the military determination of power." It is the military that "delineated what form the economy would assume and what the established political system would tolerate."25 Thus, for teachers of world history the "decline of war" thesis is simply untenable. For us, it is much more useful to explore the notion of a seesaw: war and militarization rising at the peripheries of global power while declining at its centers. 34
    This global scope casts many of the larger claims discussed in the previous section in a new light. First, the suggestion of a Western moralistic "war aversion" that may be responsible for the historical epoch of peace might well seem ludicrous to military scholars in Africa and Asia. Only Japan has foresworn war. France, England, and the U.S., in particular, have been among the most active war-fighting nations in the years since 1945. One only need think of the French technique of forcible resettlement in Algeria or the American use of napalm in Vietnam to realize this. At best, the West may be said to hate war in the same manner that Thomas Jefferson hated slavery: it is considered a moral evil, but as a practical matter, often a lesser one. Western nations can more reasonably be said to be comparatively averse to casualties—an aversion that extends to some degree to enemy noncombatants. This huge change from the total war ethos has had an important role in the conduct of war (to be discussed below), but has done little to create peace. 35
    Second, war is not exactly shrinking; rather, it has decamped to smaller places. Because of the differential resources brought to bear on war by center and periphery, an age of peripheral war will of necessity produce smaller mobilizations and fewer casualties. Similarly, warfare undertaken by those who don't dominate the world system cannot possibly be a struggle to do so. Still, such wars have been enormously significant in the world history of warfare. 36
    The notion that warfare is mostly irrelevant to world history now is based on the presumption that conventional, interstate warfare is the only kind of war that really matters on the global stage. In contrast, historian Martin Van Creveld has argued that unconventional war ("low intensity conflict" in his parlance) is "by far the most important form of armed conflict in our time." He notes that the low intensity variety of war accounts for at least three quarters of wars fought since 1945. Generally speaking, the poorly named "low intensity" wars are much deadlier than (post-45) conventional wars. Finally, low intensity war is the most politically significant form of war, having been "perhaps the dominant instrument for bringing about political change" in the Third World.26 A form of activity that has produced so many new nations, so many regime changes, so much land transfer, so many dead, and so many refugees across the world can hardly be considered unimportant at a global level. In fact, unconventional war is the kind that has really mattered for the past 50 years. 37
    The rise of unconventional war has created new patterns of warfare. As opposed to the "pattern of spontaneous, systemic conflagration" that characterized the first two world wars, warfare in the Third World is a "smoldering burn that increased and spread continuously, and at an almost constant rate, throughout the world system."27 These are wars that don't seem to end. Either they blow hot and cold for decades (fighting in the Sudan has been sporadic since the 1970s) or they seem to mutate from one form to another. As soon as the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan, for example, the Mujahidiin turned on each other. Like a fire, these wars can also spread to neighboring countries, creating regional "bad neighborhoods." 38
    Unconventional war is very different from industrial warfare. Because at least one side of the unconventional war is a non-state actor, there can be no traditional meeting of two regular armies. Lacking the tools of conventional warfare -- a draft, taxation, major weapon systems -- non-state actors use irregular forces outfitted with light weaponry. Rather than strategizing successful meetings with large-scale concentrations of conventional forces, unconventional war uses tactics designed to find a way around conventional forces. Military activity is dispersed and the goal is to "sap the morale and efficiency of enemy forces."28 39
    If these wars were merely an opportunistic assault in the face of weak states, then industrialized nations would be immune from the problems experienced by weak states at war. This has not been the case. From the standpoint of military history, perhaps the most significant difference in warfare before and after 1945 is that the 150-year-old alchemy that allowed industrial nations to transform military might into political power gave way. In other words, military effectiveness has been transferred from industrialized militaries to those of the developing world. Wars have not shown themselves to be irrelevant to world history so much as they have shown themselves to be costly and ineffective means for industrial powers to achieve their political aims. 40
    Consider the post-45 record of "asymmetric" war undertaken by major powers against much weaker militaries: empires have fallen, regional aggressors have been chastened, and the superpowers have often been unable to (militarily) impose their wills on much smaller nations. France lost Indochina and Algeria, despite its years-long efforts. Great Britain lost Kenya, India, Palestine, Cyprus and Aden. The Dutch lost Indonesia and the Portuguese were eventually forced to capitulate in Angola and Mozambique. It is a pattern that has continued for the U.S. in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Vietnamese in Cambodia, the Indians in Sri Lanka, Israel in Lebanon, South Africa in Namibia, and Ethiopia in Eritrea. Without exactly losing these wars, in each case the militarily superior power gave up, finding the cost of the war to be incommensurate with the perceived strategic ends of fighting it. Even in cases where the industrial power won the war, victory proved hollow. Shortly after putting down a Communist insurgency in Malaysia, for example, Britain abandoned its colony there. 41
    This is not to say that the less industrialized nations have wrested power away from the first world. In fact, the great powers have proven themselves to be very adept in achieving their aims by other means. That is one reason why it is so easy not to see the transference of military effectiveness. Another reason is what we're calling "military effectiveness" doesn't look like much to those whose notion of effective warmaking come out of the industrial military traditions discussed in the first section. Simply put, guerrilla warfare cannot project force. All it seeks to do is to harass and exhaust enemy forces. Effectiveness produces a retreat, never a surrender. 42
    Military scholars seeking to learn lessons from asymmetric wars tend to emphasize the difficulties presented by an unusual battlefield. Large, inaccessible places like the jungles of Vietnam or the mountains of Afghanistan create unforeseen difficulties for the heavy equipment designed for relatively open battlefields. Tanks can't follow irregulars into the mountains, bombers can't see their targets through all the trees. 43
    Ultimately, however, it is not terrain but unusual military organization and strategy that weight against an industrial power's overwhelming technical superiority. After all, often the real heart of the war begins only after the official military has been easily defeated. The Soviet Union defeated the regular army in Afghanistan in a matter of days; the much more significant war only began afterward. Guerrilla warfare operates on the same terrain but presents a different battlefield. In these cases, there is no obvious front, rear, or supply lines. Traditional strategy -- cut the army off from its supply lines and encircle it -- simply does not apply. Lacking that, industrialized militaries don't quite know how to win. 44
    Finally, the basic asymmetry is in political calculation. In the larger picture, unconventional war does not appear to be conceived on a politically rational basis. There is no cost-benefit analysis, no governing political power to pursue its "interests." Instead, winning the war is the sole aim of battle.29 Industrialized nations, by contrast, must always measure the cost of war against the strategic aims of winning it. In particular, industrialized nations must limit casualties. Unconventional war operates without those constraints. This is the final reason that military effectiveness looks so hollow; military failure has not been catastrophic for the great powers, whereas military "success" against an industrialized power often involves an appallingly costly disaster. In every case of asymmetric war, for example, the number of casualties on the side of the lesser power has exceeded those of the industrialized nation by at least one order of magnitude. France lost 22,000 soldiers in Algeria; Algerian casualties have been estimated anywhere from 300,00 to one million (in a population one-third the size of France's). These are the ratios that bought those colonies in the first place. Yet in 1962, it was France that blinked. 45

The New Globalized War System

That industrialized and developing countries seem to experience opposite patterns of war ("peace in the West, war in the rest") and two very different modes of warfighting (conventional and unconventional) does not mean that there are functionally two separate worlds of war. Above those very real differences in the experience and conduct of war, there is a new global war system that provides a framework within which wars are waged. Outlining the dimensions of this framework allows teachers to put individual wars into a much larger and longer history of war itself. 46
    Before 1945, the nation state was the hinge point of the global war system. On one side, it was interstate relations -- nation interacting with nation -- that produced most wars, and on the other side, it was a nation's domestic processes -- its manufacturing sector, its economic practices, it's army, military traditions and strategies -- that set its conduct in war. The centrality of the state still underlies our basic categories of war: internal and external. 47
    Since 1945 new forces have eroded the centrality of the state to the point that there is a new war system, one in which the distinction between internal and external is analytically inappropriate. Generally speaking, war is not fought state to state, but state to nonstate group. In the case of low intensity war, both internal (civil) war and external (occupation/insurgency) war are much more like each other than they are like classic interstate wars. Ho Chi Minh modeled his military strategy against the French and the U.S. on Mao's warfare against the Chinese Republican government, for example. As a historical matter, civil war and insurgency against a foreign occupier also tend to elide into each other (e.g. the anticolonial/civil wars in Afghanistan, Angola and Mozambique). Even Mao began his campaign against the Japanese. 48
    Before 1945 only a state -- and a relatively strong state, at that -- could put forward a reasonably well equipped army. By contrast, most post-45 wars are a complex assemblage of the domestic politics and personnel of the warring locality in conjunction with money, materiel, and strategic aid from afar. Predatory and institutionally weak states, like Mobutu's Zaire or Siad Barre's Somalia depend as much on outside backing as the insurgencies against them do. Such wars are clearly both internal and external. 49
    Giving material support to an insurgency for strategic ends is nothing new. France aided North American insurgents during their war for independence from Britain in 18th-century. But after 1945, as the structure of the great power peace discussed above took form, such support took on a new importance. While great powers still had a great interest in controlling other countries, the technique of interstate war was mostly off-limits, for the reasons discussed above. So, the formerly secondary military technique became primary; arms sharing that had been an intermittent, fairly insignificant form of militarization before 1945 now became a major component of the modern infrastructure of war. The practitioners of this form of war par excellence were the U.S. and Soviet Union. However, it is not a product of the Cold War alone, but of a more general world system. Sponsoring an insurgency (or its counter) has been an instrument of statecraft both for the superpowers and for regional powers as well. South Africa sponsored the MNR and UNITA in Mozambique and Angola respectively during the 1980s; Pakistan has supported Kashmiri rebels in India; Israel, Lebanon, and Syria have all engaged in this practice. So, too, with Iran and Iraq. 50
    The significance of such "outside" support to the history of war becomes clearest after the end of the Cold War. In discussing "new wars --" ethnically-inflected violence by an armed group against an internal population -- Mary Kaldor identifies a new war economy based almost entirely on external funds (e.g. external government assistance and the diversion of international humanitarian aid). Unlike the total war economy, which was mobilizing and production-oriented, the new war economy (which she calls "an extreme form of globalization") destroys local productive capacity.30 51
    Outside support for insurgency (or for its suppression) is often described as the "internationalization" of internal wars. While we recognize the supranational character of this phenomenon, we think it is the wrong emphasis. These are not wars between nations. In the short run, outside "advisers" may be an effective means of fighting a war by proxy. In the long run, however, the outcome has been the creation of an armed, experienced, independent war-maker. Insurgent irregulars or the predatory remnants of a state army do not really constitute an instrument of state on behalf of a strong, industrialized nation. Rather, what happens is the militarization of a non-state entity or a state so weak that it lacks much of the apparatus of a state. In effect, industrialized nations have joined together with (often ethnically or religiously identified) sub-national groups to break the industrialized states' 150-year old monopoly on the tools of warfare and to create a new form of war. 52


The rise of industrial warfare created a break with the past and a new division among nations. Those countries capable of inflicting previously impossible carnage remade global relations while pushing military operations to a logical end point: the devastating total war of World War II. In the following 50 years that kind of war dwindled to near insignificance, while unconventional war came to the forefront. 53
    Most scholars believe that the end of the Cold War order will once again reshape the world of war. It is too soon to say whether that will be a decline of unconventional war, a coming "clash of civilizations," or something else. On the one hand, without Cold War era props, many seemingly unresolvable Third World wars finally ended in the 1990s. On the other hand, since the end of the Cold War we have seen two U.S.-Iraq wars, the U.S. at war in Afghanistan, the first-ever NATO war in the remnants of Yugoslavia, and the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia. Of these, only the first U.S.-Iraq war fits the general model of a classic interstate war. All the others have at least some elements of what military planners call a "revolution in military affairs." Between war as international policing (Bosnia), the increasing privatization of military functions (U.S. operations in Somalia and Iraq II), new forms of combat based on space-based reconnaissance and unmanned aerial vehicles, increasingly technical "information war," and the changing world political order (no longer bipolar, but an almost medieval collection of states, substates, and suprastate entities rubbing against each other), there is evidence that such revolution is underway even if we don't know which way it will fall. 54


Biographical Note: Wendy Lynch earned her PhD in American History and History of Science at Stanford University. Bill Bravman teaches World History and African History at the Maret School, in Washington, DC.


1 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (NY: Vintage Books, 1994), 349-353. Keegan is but one of many scholars to see the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era in this light. For instance, see also Andrew Krepinevich, "Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions," in The National Interest, Fall 1994.

2 Again, several scholars have noted this connection; see for instance Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (NY: The Free Press, 1991), 36-37; and Keegan, A History of Warfare, 15-18.

3 Theodore Ropp points out that Prussia's army took considerably heavier losses than France's at the outset of the Franco-Prussian War, but it continued its disciplined advance anyway and soon enough triumphed decisively. Theodore Ropp, War in the Modern World, New Revised Edition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1962), 172-173

4 "History of Shell Design," R. Graystone,

5 Ropp, 170-171. France had similar transportation and communication capacities at the start of the Franco-Prussian war, but did not utilize them nearly as well.

6 Ropp, 193.

7 Spartacus Educational, "The Vickers Gun," While the Vickers was a British weapon, German soldiers had machine guns of similar capacities. See

8 For a detailed look at the naval war, see The Russo-Japanese War Research Society website at For a more general overview, which explains the decisive role of the naval campaign, see's account of the conflict, at

9 Keegan, 369-371.

10 William H. McNeil, "The Age of Gunpowder Empires, 1450-1800," in Michael Adas, ed., Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 107-113, 125-127. Also see Philip Curtin, The World and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ch 2.

11 Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (NY: Basic Books, 2003), 264-268, provides a brief but effective account of the horrifically one-sided encounter, quoting the battlefield reports of a young journalist, Winston Churchill, on the effect of the machine guns. By one estimate, 95% of the Sudanese force suffered casualties.

12 For South Africa's frontier wars, see J. B. Pieres, The Dead Will Arise (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), and Noel Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (New York: Knopf, 1992). For Britain's 19th century difficulties in Afghanistan, see Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (NY: Counterpoint Press, 2000).

13 Sven Lindqvist, "Bombing the Savages," in Transition #87, 2001.

14 For an extensive account of the logic of targeting civilians, see Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (NY: The New Press, 2001).

15 Perhaps the most thorough statistical source readily available for casualties from recent conflicts is the section on "Death Tolls for Man Made Mega-Deaths of the 20th Century," in Matthew White, Historical Atlas of the 20th Century at For the wartime statistics, see

16 White, "National Death Tolls for the Second World War," in Historical Atlas of the 20th Century,

17 Robert Jervis, "Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace," American Political Science Review 96:1, 1.

18 Quoted in Lindqvist, History of Bombing, 151.

19 Van Creveld, 13.

20 Mueller, John, "The Remnants of War: Thugs as Residual Combatants", (paper given to the International Convention of the Central and Eastern European International Studies Association and the International Studies Association Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, June 26-28, 2003; downloadable at, 3.

21 Meuller, 19.

22 Casualty numbers for these wars vary widely not only because of the difficulties of counting, but because of the difficulties of knowing who to count.

23 Jervis, 2.

24 We recognize that "Third World" is a problematic term, and use it here only as a shorthand for language that would be more cumbersome.

25 Irving Louis Horowitz, Beyond Empire and Revolution: Militarization and Consolidation in the Third World (Oxford University Press, New York, 1982), 92-93.

26 Van Creveld, 22-23.

27 Marshall G. Monte, "CSP Global Conflict Trends,"

28 Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era (Cambridge: Polity, 1999), 97.

29 Van Creveld, 142-143.

30 Kaldor, 81.




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