War Research Paper Example

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In general, war is the outbreak of armed hostilities within, between, or among states or other political groups and communities, in which strategic, political, economic, and other important outcomes are decided mainly by the use of military force. In international law, war is a legal condition of open and declared hostility between or among states, wherein diplomatic relations are automatically severed (if an official state of war is declared) and states may use any military force deemed appropriate or effective, subject only to the laws of war and perhaps to notions of “just war.” According to the Bismarckian realpolitik (“realistic politics”) school of international relations, war as organized political violence is the ultimate “self-help” device in the power politics of an anarchic world consisting of sovereign states. The “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), architect of Germany’s “reunification from above” during the nineteenth century, recognized the importance of war’s nation-building function, declaring in the German Bundestag that “It is not by speeches and resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided … but by iron and blood” (Barash and Webel 2002, p. 58).

According to the most illustrious “philosopher of war,” Carl von Clausewitz, a nineteenth-century Prussian army officer best known for his treatise On War, war is “not a mere act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means” (Clausewitz [1832] 1976, p. 87). In other words, war is fundamentally a continuation of a country’s peacetime diplomacy by other, more violent methods, rather than a complete break with it. It is not an act of senseless fury and violence, but an orchestrated military action with a particular strategic goal in mind—namely, disarming one’s opponents to the point where they cannot resist one’s demands. This conception of warfare as essentially political in nature is in accord with Clausewitz’s general definition of war as “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.” War, he wrote, is “nothing but a duel on a larger scale” ([1832] 1976, p. 75). In contrast, Marxist and neo-Marxist writers emphasize the socioeconomic causes of war, claiming that mankind has been historically in a state of almost perpetual warfare due to the economic interests of the dominant social classes. Since the rise of class-divided society in the Early Bronze Age (c. 35002000 B.C.E., war has been promoted by powerful members of the socially dominant classes who are seeking—out of sheer economic self-interest or imperialist ambition—to gain colonies, export markets, or natural resources abroad; political and economic spheres of influence; regional or global domination; and so on. The American Socialist leader Eugene Debs (1855-1926) told an antiwar rally in 1917: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles” (Zinn 2005, p. 27).

Quincy Wright (1890-1970), a pioneering peace and conflict researcher, considered a war to have taken place either when it was formally declared or when a certain number of troops—at least 50,000 as a minimum—were involved. Other writers have defined wars by the number of deaths incurred, focusing on a minimum of 1,000 combat-related fatalities—either per war or per year of the conflict (see Singer and Small 1972; Eckhardt 1991). Reality is, of course, much more complicated than such definitions of war. In the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779), for instance, after an official state of war had been declared, the Prussian and Austrian armies marched against each other in the field, but not a single shot was fired in anger and, as a result, no one died. In contrast, during the Korean War (1950-1953), in which nearly 3 million people—mostly innocent civilians—were killed, including more than 54,000 Americans, there was neither an official declaration of war nor the signing of a peace treaty, and the whole conflict was euphemistically labeled a “U.N. police action.” In the First Gulf War (1990—1991), not only was an official state of war never declared, nor a peace treaty signed at the end of the hostilities, but diplomatic relations with Iraq were not severed by most of its adversaries.

The sheer wastefulness of warfare in terms of human, economic, environmental, and social losses has been appalling, even without the use of nuclear weapons. For example, during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) a third of Germany’s population was killed. At least 9 million soldiers and more than 1 million civilians died during World War I (1914-1918), with approximately 20 million more people perishing during the war-driven influenza epidemic of 1918. During the Battle of the Sommes in 1916, the joint British-French forces tried for five months to break through German lines, gaining a mere 120 square miles at a cost of 420,000 British and nearly 200,000 French soldiers; the Germans lost 445,000. Military deaths in World War II (1939-1945), during which nuclear bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were about 17 million, but civilian deaths—at approximately 35 million—were many times greater than in World War I. Of the 2.9 million Americans who served in the military during the undeclared Vietnam War, more than 58,000 were killed, 3,000 became missing in action, and more than 300,000 were wounded or maimed. Yet these casualty figures convey very little of that war’s horrors, both for those who fought in the war and especially for the peoples of Indochina. In Vietnam itself, the economy and natural environment were devastated, and well over 3 million Vietnamese were killed, more than two-thirds of them civilians. Overall, at least 3.5 billion people are believed to have died as a direct or indirect result of the more than 14,500 wars that have been waged during the 5,000 years since the dawn of human civilization (Beer 1981).

The direct and indirect costs of warfare, and especially the tragic loss of human life, have elicited harsh criticism of war throughout the ages. The ancient Greek historian Plutarch (46-120) complained in the first century C.E. that “the poor go to war, to fight and die for the delights, riches, and superfluities of others” (Plutarch 1948, p. 167) According to Benjamin Franklin (17061790), one of America’s founding fathers, “there never was a good war or a bad peace” (quoted in Barash and Webel 2002, p. 12). Ernest Hemingway, a badly wounded World War I veteran and author of the famous antiwar novel A Farewell to Arms, agreed: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime” (Hemingway 2003, p. 233). And the famous British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell warned at the beginning of the twentieth century that “either man will abolish war, or war will abolish man” (Russell 1915).

The march of technology has radically altered the scope and nature of war over the centuries. Technological progress has increased the need to mobilize the entire nation for military-industrial and other production in support of the war effort (the war’s “home front”), but has also made civilian populations a legitimate target for the military in what is often referred to as “total war,” a twentieth-century invention. The technological ability to use lethal weapons at a distance has escalated from primitive warfare’s bow and arrow to today’s supersonic jet and intercontinental ballistic missile, both of which can deliver deadly munitions at a speed of thousands of miles per hour and with pinpoint accuracy. This quantum leap has been matched by similar technological advances in destructive power, from the swords and spears of medieval combat to the massive explosive force of the thermonuclear bomb— measured in millions of tons (megatons) of TNT and capable of completely obliterating even the world’s largest cities.

In the age of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, some commentators suggest that their sheer destructiveness has made war obsolete, because no rational goal could be achieved by using such doomsday weapons that are endangering the very existence of mankind and indeed the survival of all life on the planet. For example, the total U.S. nuclear arsenal in 1990 was about 3,200 megatons of TNT, whereas the entire explosive power detonated by all militaries in World War II was approximately three megatons—including the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which had the explosive force of 12 and 20 kilo-tons, respectively. Some scholars believe that the detonation of as little as 100 megatons of TNT, a tiny fraction of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear arms, could trigger a “nuclear winter”—the prolonged darkening and cooling of the planet (temperatures could plummet as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit). After a nuclear exchange, the huge quantities of smoke and soot generated by the resulting firestorms would rise into the upper atmosphere and absorb incoming solar heat and light, thereby making the Earth cold, dark, and eventually uninhabitable (Sagan and Turco 1990). Even though wars are still taking place, causing immense destruction and misery, the threat of nuclear Armageddon has fostered powerful peace and antiwar movements that are not only deterring the nuclear-weapon powers from using or even testing their strategic arsenals, but also instilling the increasingly widespread belief that war is an illegitimate method for settling grievances.


  1. Barash, David P., and Charles P. Webel. 2002. Peace and Conflict Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Beer, Francis A. 1981. Peace Against War: The Ecology of International Violence. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
  3. Clausewitz, Carl von. [1832] 1976. On War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Originally published as Vom Kriege.
  4. Eckhardt, William. 1991. War-related Deaths Since 3,000 B.C. Peace Research 23: 80–85.
  5. Hemingway, Ernest. 2003. Hemingway on War. Ed. and intro. Sean Hemingway. New York: Scribner.
  6. 1921. Plutarch Lives; Parallel Lives, Vol. 10: Agis and Cleomenes. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Philopoemen and Flamininus. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library).
  7. Russell, Bertrand. 1915. War and Non-Resistance. Atlantic Monthly 116 (2): 266–274. http://fair-use.org/atlantic-monthly/1915/08/war-and-non-resistance.
  8. Sagan, Carl, and Richard Turco. 1990. A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race. New York: Random House.
  9. Singer, J. David, and Melvin Small. 1972. The Wages of War, 1816–1965: A Statistical Handbook. New York: Wiley.
  10. Wright, Quincy. 1964. A Study of War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. Zinn, Howard. 2005. Just War. Milano: Edizioni Charta.

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