From the Musket to the Drone

Theories behind the evolution of wars.

Picture the image of opposing armies charging each other in a muddy field during the Napoleonic Wars and it’s easy to see that there has been an evolution in the way that we fight wars. It is now inconceivable to think of soldiers lining the miles of trenches that were so prevalent in World War I. Even since the disastrous Iraq war of 2003 there has been a marked turn in the UK Government’s appetite to deploy ground troops, preferring to appease public opinion by fighting its battles from the air. Enforced no-fly zones in Libya, air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and an ever increasing fleet of unmanned drones are all a far cry from the battlefields of old.

But for some the evolution goes beyond advances in technology and military strategy. London School of Economics professor Mary Kaldor has theorised that contemporary warfare, since the end of the Cold War, is fundamentally different from historical warfare. New Wars, she claims, are characterised by more political violence, more targeting of civilians, less distinction between war and crime, and a shift in their motives: from collective ideologies to divisive identity politics. For Kaldor, there is a “growing illegitimacy” of war, caused not only by the changes in the manifestations of conflict, but also more fundamental changes to its very nature.

Lessons from America

For example, it is claimed that since the Cold War there are now more actors involved in contemporary conflicts, including a greater mix of public and private actors – from state military and police, to private militia, warlords and gangs – thereby weakening the state’s monopoly over the use of violence. But evidence from the American Civil War defies this claim. In particular, Missouri witnessed a complex battle involving a mix of private guerrilla forces as well as official soldiers.

As a border region, Missouri was a key battleground between the Union forces in the North fighting for a unified country free from slavery and the Confederate forces in the south fighting for a confederation of sovereign states and the continuance of slavery. As such, its population was bitterly divided. With a shortage of regular troops (due to the limited resources of both sides) many civilians mobilised and fought their neighbours to the point that there was very little distinction between civilian and soldier. Far from a ‘traditional’ conflict with well-structured, state-controlled standing armies, there was significant inter-changeability between guerrilla fighters and Union soldiers, as well as chaotic command structures.

Since the Union and Confederate forces clashed over the future of America, there has clearly been vast evolution of munitions and military strategy: from ‘line and column’ battles to use of mass firepower and then ‘speed’ attacks exemplified in the Blitzkrieg – whereby the emphasis was on strategic manoeuvre and surprise rather than attrition. Today we see a mix of political, economic, social and military networks used as a form of insurgency to convince the opposition that their military aims are either unachievable or too costly. However, this doesn’t necessarily denote a more fundamental evolution in the underlying motivation of conflict, as proposed by New War theorists.

The Motives of War

Kaldor says that a defining feature of contemporary warfare is the shift away from ideological goals and towards “identity politics”. This sees people claiming power on the basis of their individual or group identities, rather than common ideologies; fighters are motivated by division and fragmentation, it is argued, rather than uniting behind a common political objective. This is associated with the logic that wars are motivated either by individualistic, private greed or else by the political objectives of overcoming collective grievance – and that they can broadly be defined according to this dichotomy.

According to Kaldor, increased looting and criminality are key characteristics of New Wars, thereby reflecting a progression away from political ideology and towards individualistic greed. Here, so the argument goes, the decline of state-influence and the increasing privatisation of war results in a decentralisation of the war economy – whereby criminality becomes a necessary part of financing the conflict.

But it is problematic to categorise wars (or even the motives of individual actors) according to these broad, general traits. The American Civil War often acted as a guise for the expression of private grievances which bore little relation to the main questions of union and slavery. In Missouri, revenge (rather than ideology) became the primary motive among guerrilla many fighters. Looting and pillaging was widespread, both by guerrillas and soldiers, and was sometimes officially sanctioned.

This misinterpreted assumption of a shift from ideology to identity might be particularly pronounced in relation to the Cold War, due to the strong ideological basis of the disagreement between the protagonists. Because the end of the Cold War removed the overarching capitalist versus communist ideological struggle, this gave greater exposure to the underlying complexities of war thereafter. Separating the main dispute from local motives therefore allows us to understand the complexities and factional divisions of all warfare, past and present.

We have certainly witnessed a decline in inter-state wars, an increasing internationalisation of conflict and a relatively linear evolution in military weaponry and strategy – all changes in the manifestation of war. However, the underlying nature of war remains constant. The fighting in Missouri during the American Civil War was part of a localised, chaotic conflict, where the lines between civilian and combatant were almost non-existent and guerrilla warfare rife. Looting and targeting of civilians were widespread, with the motivation of revenge and private grievance taking precedence over grand ideology or overarching political motivations.

The wars of old were no more legitimate, or illegitimate, than those of today. Perhaps it is time to consign them all to the history books.


Ben O'Hanlon

Ben has an MA in International Relations and Development studies from the University of East Anglia in the UK, where he explored power relations in the international garment industry. He has worked on a pioneering Security Sector Reform project in Lebanon, which has been successful in adopting a community model of policing as an alternative method of addressing the country's security challenges. He has also researched working conditions on banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana, and is a founding trustee of a charity which supports the advancement of better end of life care provision in the country. Based in London, Ben currently works for a human rights charity which challenges poverty and injustice by forming global partnerships and calling for systemic change.
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