War-Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity

By Gray, Colin S. | Parameters, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

War-Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity


Gray, Colin S., Parameters


War can only be understood holistically. If one focuses on continuity in change, one is near certain to undervalue the change in continuity. One has to be bifocal. Carl von Clausewitz is uncompromising on this matter:

   But in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking
   at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part
   and the whole must always be thought of together. (1)

The subject of most interest here is future war, all of it. Future war will include both change and continuity from the past. Many people have difficulty understanding the relationship between continuity and change; this article will try to provide some useful guidance. Similarly, satisfactory comprehension of the connection between theory and practice is frequently missing. (2) These deficiencies in intellectual grasp can be important and damaging to national security.

The core problem for those who are charged with the strategic function of conducting defense planning for national security is the need to prepare prudently for a future about which almost everything in general is known, but nothing is known in reliable detail. We know everything that there is to know about war, unsurprisingly, since we have variable access to at least 2,500 years of bloody history. But we know nothing, literally zero, for certain about the wars of the future, even in the near-term. There are question marks everywhere as to why war, with whom, when, where, how, and with what? The same circumstance exists regarding outcomes. Obviously, the further away from today one peers and tries to predict, the foggier the course of future events becomes. Crystal balls that work reliably are hard to find, while astrology, alas, is apt to disappoint also. But, ignorant though they are, defense planners are obliged to make guesses about the future. (3)

So, how does one attempt to improve guesswork for the future concerning war, warfare, and strategy? The most basic answer is that one can only educate in the hope that judgment will be improved so that good, as opposed to poor, strategic choices will be made. You cannot know today what choices in defense planning you should make that will be judged correct in ten or 20 years' time. Why? Because one cannot know what is unknowable. Rather than accept a challenge that is impossible to meet, however, pick one that can be met well enough. Specifically, develop policy-makers, defense planners, and military executives so that they are intellectually equipped to find good enough solutions to the problems that emerge or even erupt unpredictably years from now. And, one has to emphasize, develop and maintain capabilities sufficiently adaptable to cope with a range of security challenges, since particular threats and opportunities cannot be anticipated with high confidence.

The article presents nine major points, or claims, and concludes by offering some observations on the major current and near-term future characteristics of war and warfare with caveats appended.

The Argument

War has a constant nature, but an ever-changing character.

War comprises more or less, but always to some degree, organized violence motivated by political considerations. War is about politics, and politics is about the distribution of power--who has how much of it, what they do with it, and what the consequences are. It is essential to distinguish war and warfare, singular, from wars and episodes of warfare, plural. Thus far, there is no general theory of war that is very helpful in explaining the "why" and the "when" of particular wars. The theory of war also has to be the theory of peace. The concept of war only makes sense in relation to its opposite. If your favorite general theory of war seems good enough to explain why wars occurred in 1914 and 1939, how good is it at explaining persuasively why great wars did not start in 1913 and 1938? Many people confuse the nature of war with its character.

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