The New Era of Warfare

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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The New Era of Warfare


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE world is moving into a new era of warfare. The new era is characterized by less conventional warfare and the avoidance of a central nuclear war. Instead, it is an era of guerrilla warfare. This means that much of the money that nations now devote to conventional military expenditure is wasted. Governments would be better off finding out why guerrilla groups commence operations and try to address the underlying economic and social causes of violence.

The oldest form of fighting is guerrilla warfare, which requires the least amount of training. People (both men and women) fought as guerrillas, usually in a part-time capacity, in small bands, with each person knowing the rest of the group. The weapons were unsophisticated and based on everyday implements (usually farming tools).

The Roman army was the exception in the era of guerrilla warfare. It had large, organized fighting formations, professional soldiers, and distinctive uniforms. In retrospect, it was a pioneer of modern warfare. As an ill omen of modern warfare: it was not always successful in its campaigns against guerrilla forces.

For about the thousand years of the European Middle Ages, there was little attention given to the Roman military model. The wars of that era consisted of small battles (by modern standards) and sieges of fortified positions (especially castles). There were few full-time soldiers. Knights, for example, ran feudal estates as their main source of income and recruited their own workers as troops when required.

Warfare changed around the 17th century. There is no one single explanation for the change. It was more a matter of different events influencing each other. The nation-state system (which international lawyers date from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, with the break up of the Holy Roman Empire) meant that the basic unit of governance shifted from a small tribal area to the nation-state, which gave rulers more people from whom taxation and conscripts could be drawn. The industrial revolution meant that industry could develop more destructive weapons. Also, fighting formations could be transported over longer distances: Europeans could now fight each other over colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The new form of warfare became so common that it acquired the title of 'conventional' warfare.

Fighting formations became larger and it was necessary for all troops to have distinctive uniforms to distinguish them from the enemy. Armies also became more specialized in their work: they were to defend national security. This meant they were taken off the maintenance of law and order and that task was given to a separate force (the police).

Armies and navies became more professional. Defence personnel were set apart from the rest of the community; they lived in separate buildings and were controlled by legal codes usually more extensive than that of the civilian legal system. Restrictions were often placed on civilian access to weapons -- warfare became the exclusive right of the government. The international humanitarian law of armed conflict (the Geneva and Hague Conventions) applied only to military personnel.

For the first time, there were professional soldiers who spent large chunks of time without fighting. Previous personnel were recruited for specific campaigns and then demobilized as soon as the fighting stopped. Now personnel were in permanent employment but fighting only consumed part of their time.

During the first half of this century, the nature of conventional warfare changed. It used to be about humans killing humans. Beginning in World War I, land warfare became far more mechanized. Warfare became a matter of machines killing machines.

The last Allied cavalry charge was on November 8, 1917, when units of the Canadian army defeated a German cavalry regiment. There were few horses used at all in World War II except for transport. In 1941, the UK had 100,000 vehicles in the Middle East.

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