Fighting Words

Has the nature of "war" changed since the days of Clausewitz?

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl
U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl
U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl

In a 1942 case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court held that there is no First Amendment right to utter "insulting or 'fighting' words -- those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

In a 1942 case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court held that there is no First Amendment right to utter "insulting or ‘fighting’ words — those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Needless to say, this is a doctrine of surpassing vagueness (and it has been substantially narrowed since 1942), since if you don’t know the norms of a particular community, you have no way of knowing what might constitute "fighting words." Language capable of causing riots in Des Moines might be merely yawn-inducing in Manhattan, and vice versa.

So it is here in the (virtual) pages of Foreign Policy, where last week, Tom Ricks fecklessly posted excerpts from a preliminary concept paper developed by the New America Foundation’s "Future of War" project team (of which I am fortunate to be a member, together with Tom, Peter Bergen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sascha Meinrath, and a bunch of other smart and interesting people). In the concept paper, we outlined the importance of looking at "the changing nature of war."

Innocuous, you say? Not so!

To the Clausewitzian strategy community, dem’s fightin’ words. We might as well have insulted David Ortiz’s mother in Fenway Park, or informed a die-hard Marxist that there’s no such thing as the proletariat.

Within days, I received several kind notes from friends and acquaintances, informing me that to the classically-trained Clausewitzian there can be no such thing as the "changing nature of war," and urging the Future of War team to delete this phrase before anyone else noticed our terminological muddleheaded-ness.

But it was too late. The initial Future of War posts had already generated a blogospheric Clausewitzian rebuttal, posted by Christopher Mewett in War on the Rocks and soon reposted on the Small Wars Journal’s blog. Mewett takes the Future of War team to task for our lack of "careful attention to semantics":

According to the Prussian, war’s nature does not change — only its character…. The nature of war describes its unchanging essence: that is, those things that differentiate war (as a type of phenomenon) from other things. War’s nature is violent, interactive, and fundamentally political. Absent any of these elements, what you’re talking about is not war but something else. The character of war describes the changing way that war as a phenomenon manifests in the real world. Further confusion in this case stems from the Future of War team’s formulation: "changes in the nature of warfare." 

War and warfare are different words with a different meaning, and we should be careful about their use. Warfare, of course, doesn’t have an enduring, unchanging phenomenological "nature," as it is merely the way war is made.

Mewett is far from alone in his insistence on the importance of these Clausewitzian distinctions. As the military strategist Colin Gray has written (not, thankfully, in response to Tom’s blog posts), "Many people confuse the nature of war with its character. The former is universal and eter­nal and does not alter, whereas the latter is always in flux."

So did the Future of War team goof up? Should we have recognized that our reference to the "changing nature of war" would incite an immediate breach of the peace?

I’m torn. On the one hand: mea culpa, or we-a culpa, or whatever it is one says when one is part of a group goof-up. Mewett and others are quite right to call us out for rather slipshod use of terminology in the Future of War concept paper excerpts posted on Best Defense. The concept paper represented a preliminary effort to lay out a research agenda, not a polished final product; worse, it was more or less written by committee, which is never a recipe for coherence or great prose (despite heroic editing efforts by Peter Bergen and Tom Ricks). We should have defined our terms with greater care.

On the other hand: With due respect to You Know Who and his many erudite interpreters, I’m not quite ready to accept the claim that the nature of war is "universal and eternal" — or, at any rate, I’m not sure that this is a particularly useful construct for understanding what is at stake in many current debates about what constitutes war.

Mewett articulates the standard Clausewitzian understanding of war: It is, by nature, both violent and political. Its violence is what distinguishes it from other forms of conflict and contestation (games of chess, for instance, or economic competition between corporations or nations); its political aims are what distinguish it from other forms of violence (such as street muggings or boxing matches). This gives rise to the claim that war’s nature is unchanging: Weapons, tactics, and so on will change over time. But war’s "nature" will always consist of these essential components: violent means and political ends.

Up to a point, this framework is helpful: If we want to theorize about war, (as opposed to particular wars), we need some coherent way to distinguish war from non-war.

But does this require that we go a step further, and agree that the "nature of war" is eternal and unchanging? Clausewitz himself seemed less sure about this than many of his followers: On this point, admits Colin Gray, "Clausewitz, for once, is less than crystal clear." (Others might quibble with that "for once.") Notes Gray: "The great Prussian wrote, confusingly, that ‘the nature of war is complex and changeable.’" Score one for the Future of War Team!

Regrettably, as Gray goes on to remind us, Clausewitz also wrote that "all wars are things of the same nature." Being long dead, Clausewitz is not available to clarify these seemingly contradictory statements; Gray, however, concludes that Clausewitz simply erred in his first statement, but was "correct in the second claim."

Hmm. Was Clausewitz’s first statement just incorrect? Tell it to the numerous scholars, military strategists, and other commentators who speak — not at all metaphorically — of "cyberwar," "financial war," and so on.

Take cyberwar: Much of what is often spoken of under the "cyberwar" rubric is not violent in the Clausewitzian sense of the word. Cyberattacks might shut down the New York Stock Exchange and cause untold financial damage, for instance, but would we say that this makes them violent? Or, say cyberattacks shut down the electrical grid for several major cities, and as a result of the loss of power, a few hundred hospital patients on ventilators die. I’m still doubtful that most of us would call this violence in the usual sense of the word.

Some argue that activities in cyberspace cannot truly be considered war unless they lead directly, rather than indirectly, to physical destruction or injury. STUXNET, for instance, damaged computers and centrifuges. Even this, however, seems very far away from violence in Clausewitz’s sense of the word.

So, if one believes it possible to speak of cyberwar or financial war, might one not argue that the "nature" of war is indeed changing?

The Clausewitzian could of course respond that this is simply a category mistake: You can blather on all you want about cyberwar or financial war, but if what you’re talking about is not both violent and political, it’s just not "war," but something else. It may be an important something else, even a world-altering something else, but it’s still not war. Or maybe those who speak of cyber or financial war are just confusing "war" with "warfare": the latter includes, as an ancillary matter, numerous non-violent activities (logistics, planning, communications), but these do not, in and of themselves, constitute war.

These possible responses strike me as too facile, however. The assertion that war’s violent and political nature is eternal and universal — and that therefore anything that is not both violent and political cannot constitute war — rests upon the further (though usually unstated) assumption that violence and the political are also fixed, eternal, and universal.

The assumption here is that violence is (and only is) what Clausewitz deemed it to be: "physical force," directly applied. But violence, like war, is a term that derives its meaning from the broader social and linguistic framework in which it is embedded. (So too for the term "political," and, for that matter, for pretty much every other word and concept.)

Most of us think of violence as the use of physical force to damage or injure for the purpose of inflicting suffering or asserting dominance. We thus don’t view surgery as an act of violence; similarly, we don’t think using a bulldozer to destroy a house constitutes violence if the bulldozer is operated at the behest of the homeowner, but we do consider it violence if it’s operated by, say, Israeli military forces and used to destroy homes in Gaza.

But there are many other ways to understand and define violence. Consider various forms of psychological torture or abuse. Or consider cyberattacks that lead to loss of life as an indirect result of extended power outages: Why not view such attacks as a form of violence if they lead predictably to loss of life? Or what about economic sanctions, for that matter: Numerous U.N. reports concluded, for instance, that economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of malnutrition. Insofar as these deaths were the predictable consequence of the sanctions regime, why not call the sanctions a form of violence, as many critics (including many ordinary Iraqis) did?

Theorists have been squabbling over definitions of violence for a long time, struggling to draw clear and coherent distinctions between violence and a host of related concepts, such as force, power, authority, strength, coercion, and dominance. And my point right now is not that one way of understanding violence is right and another is wrong; rather, it’s that the term "violence" can itself be understood in multiple different ways, and different societies will conceive of violence in different ways at different times. The same is true of the idea of "the political."

But if this is so, then saying "the nature of war never changes" devolves into a meaningless truism. War’s nature is violent and political — but if what we place into the categories we label "violence" and "politics" can change, then what do we gain by claiming that war’s nature never changes?

Christopher Mewett’s critique of the Future of War concept paper raises another interesting issue. Our concept paper, notes Mewett, argues that "changes in the nature of warfare … (This time we said warfare!) profoundly shape both the manner in which the state is organized and the law itself." But, says Mewett, "it’s almost certainly more true that the manner in which the state is organized shapes the character of its wars. There is something of a feedback cycle in play: Social, political, and technological change impact the way wars are fought, and those wars often influence the way society and politics are organized. But war is a subset of politics, of human society — something that the Future of War team seems to have just as backwards as the technologists and Revolution in Military Affairs advocates who preceded them."

This criticism, I think, rests on a misunderstanding of our arguments (though we may have made such a misunderstanding possible by breaking up a longer concept paper into shorter excerpts posted on different days). I don’t think anyone on the Future of War team would disagree with Mewett’s characterization of the complex feedback cycle between how wars are fought and how societies are organized; we cite, for instance, Charles Tilly’s famous line, "War made the state and the state made war."

In a strict sense, Tilly, too, could presumably be taken to task for his terminology: If war is eternal and universal, the state can shape "warfare" or war’s character, but not "war" itself, since war predates the state. And the specifics of Tilly’s historical argument do indeed relate to modes of warfare, rather than war as such.

The state chooses which wars to fight and how to fight them. But the modern, neo-Westphalian state does more than that. It also defines war, from both a legal and institutional perspective. It is the state that creates and defines the role of the military (defined, more or less, as "that state institution designated as responsible for the activity called warfare"), for instance, assigning it certain tasks and assigning certain other tasks to non-military entities. It is also the state that defines the legal contours of war.

To put this in terms of current issues, the U.S. government can decide to create a military Cyber Command and recruit cyberwarriors, or it can decide that cybersecurity should be the sole province of civilian agencies and that it has nothing to do with war. Similarly, as a legal matter, the state can decide to treat cyberattacks as acts of war, subject to the laws of war, or it can decide to treat them as crimes, subject to criminal law.

In other words: Clausewitzian verities notwithstanding, it is the state — the putative monopolizer of the means of legitimate violence, and the ultimate war-making entity — that literally makes war. It is the state that chooses to place some things into the institutional and legal basket labeled "war," and place other things into different baskets.

This matters. Consider a hypothetical: Let’s say that al Qaeda forswears the traditional tools of physical violence and focuses solely on cyberattacks designed to bring down America’s financial infrastructure. If the state decides — through legislation or executive fiat — that such cyberattacks constitute "war" in a legal and institutional sense, then a teenage al Qaeda hacker would be a "combatant." If he’s a combatant, he can be captured and detained indefinitely without trial or charge. (Not so if cyber___ is not a war.) In fact, if he’s a combatant, even if only in the cyber domain, he can be targeted and killed by the military using non-cyber tools: a missile fired from a drone, for instance.

War, as Clausewitz emphasized, is a social phenomenon; it is inextricably bound up with and defined by choices that are made in the political realm. And there is indeed a feedback cycle: When the state adds more to the basket labeled "war," it can change the relationship between individuals and the state — by altering "rights," for instance, or altering the degree to which the state’s use of power is subject to internal checks and balances. Ultimately, by adding more to the war basket, the state may set in motion a cascade of changes that end by transforming the state itself.

I said a moment ago that the state "chooses" what to put in the war basket, but this of course is to anthropomorphize the state. States are made up of people, and the choices of the people who make up the state are influenced and shaped by arguments made in military schoolhouses, Congressional hearings, academic journals, Sunday talk shows, and yes, even blogs and Foreign Policy articles. That means that we’re part of this, too: Colin Gray and Christopher Mewett, Tom Ricks and I, and everyone else who takes part in conversations and arguments about the nature and definition of war.

Arguments about the definition of war are always, in some sense, efforts to shape, constrain, or channel violence and power. The words we use to define war are always "fighting words." When our words are adopted by the state itself, those words can be transformed — via state institutional arrangements and via the law — into violence; they can literally inflict injury or cause a breach of the peace.

But, you ask, where does this leave our Clausewitzian aficionado?

Take my hypothetical teenage al Qaeda hacker — and imagine, if you will, that he is a Clausewitz aficionado. Informed that the United States considers him a combatant who can be detained or targeted under the laws of war, he declares firmly that this is definitionally inappropriate. 

"As all Clausewitzians know," explains the young hacker, "war’s unchanging nature is both violent and political. My own cyberactivities are aimed at toppling the U.S. financial infrastructure, and while the United States naturally objects to these activities, they are clearly not ‘violent’ in the Clausewitzian sense. This means that whatever I and my fellow al Qaeda hackers are doing cannot possibly constitute ‘war.’ And since there is no war," the precocious, Clausewitzian al Qaeda hacker concludes triumphantly, "the laws of war are not applicable in this situation. I therefore cannot be a considered a combatant, and I cannot be detained without due process of law. I most certainly cannot be killed by the U.S. military."

To this, our anthropomorphized state might respond with an icy shrug: "Tell it to the judge."

Or: Tell it to the Marines, or the Hellfire missile, whichever comes first.

Author’s note: This article is too long, but still not nearly long enough to do the subject full justice. Don’t worry, though: The Future of War project is going to get it all figured out, tout de suite — with your help! If you think I got everything dead wrong in this piece (or that the Future of War project has it all wrong), you can email me at, or submit an entry to Tom Ricks’s Best Defense Future of War Essay Contest. If you are interested in war and language, there’s a lot out there by people who really know what they’re talking about, but my own arguments in this column are amplified here, here, and here, as well as in some of my longer academic articles, which you can find here.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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