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War

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The first issue to be considered is what is war and what is its definition. The student of war needs to be careful in examining definitions of war, for like any social phenomena, definitions are varied, and often the proposed definition masks a particular political or philosophical stance paraded by the author. This is as true of dictionary definitions as well as of articles on military or political history.

Cicero defines war broadly as "a contention by force"; Hugo Grotius adds that "war is the state of contending parties, considered as such"; Thomas Hobbes notes that war is also an attitude: "By war is meant a state of affairs, which may exist even while its operations are not continued"; Denis Diderot comments that war is "a convulsive and violent disease of the body politic;" for Karl von Clausewitz, "war is the continuation of politics by other means", and so on. Each definition has its strengths and weaknesses, but often is the culmination of the writer's broader philosophical positions.

For example, the notion that wars only involve states-as Clausewitz implies-belies a strong political theory that assumes politics can only involve states and that war is in some manner or form a reflection of political activity. 'War' defined by Webster's Dictionary is a state of open and declared, hostile armed conflict between states or nations, or a period of such conflict. This captures a particularly political-rationalistic account of war and warfare, i.e., that war needs to be explicitly declared and to be between states to be a war. We find Rousseau arguing this position: "War is constituted by a relation between things, and not between personsÐ'...War then is a relation, not between man and man, but between State and StateÐ'..." (The Social Contract).

The military historian, John Keegan offers a useful characterization of the political-rationalist theory of war in his A History of War. It is assumed to be an orderly affair in which states are involved, in which there are declared beginnings and expected ends, easily identifiable combatants, and high levels of obedience by subordinates. The form of rational war is narrowly defined, as distinguished by the expectation of sieges, pitched battles, skirmishes, raids, reconnaissance, patrol and outpost duties, with each possessing their own conventions. As such, Keegan notes the rationalist theory does not deal well with pre-state or non-state peoples and their warfare.

There are other schools of thought on war's nature other than the political-rationalist account, and the student of war must be careful, as noted above, not to incorporate a too narrow or normative account of war. If war is defined as something that occurs only between states, then wars between nomadic groups should not be mentioned, nor would hostilities on the part of a displaced, non-state group against a state be considered war.

An alternative definition of war is that it is an all-pervasive phenomenon of the universe. Accordingly, battles are mere symptoms of the underlying belligerent nature of the universe; such a description corresponds with a Heraclitean or Hegelian philosophy in which change (physical, social, political, economical, etc) can only arise out of war or violent conflict. Heraclitus decries that "war is the father of all things," and Hegel echoes his sentiments. Interestingly, even Voltaire, the embodiment of the Enlightenment, followed this line: "Famine, plague, and war are the three most famous ingredients of this wretched world...All animals are perpetually at war with each other...Air, earth and water are arenas of destruction." (From Pocket Philosophical Dictionary).

Alternatively, the Oxford Dictionary expands the definition to include "any active hostility or struggle between living beings; a conflict between opposing forces or principles." This avoids the narrowness of a political-rationalist conception by admitting the possibility of metaphorical, non-violent clashes between systems of thought, such as of religious doctrines or of trading companies. This perhaps indicates a too broad definition, for trade is certainly a different kind of activity than war, although trade occurs in war, and trade often motivates wars. The OED definition also seems to echo a Heraclitean metaphysics, in which opposing forces act on each other to generate change and in which war is the product of such a metaphysics. So from two popular and influential dictionaries, we have definitions that connote particular philosophical positions.

The plasticity and history of the English language also mean that commonly used definitions of war may incorporate and subsume meanings borrowed and derived from other, older languages: the relevant root systems being Germanic, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. Such descriptions may linger in oral and literary depictions of war, for we read of war in poems, stories, anecdotes and histories that may encompass older conceptions of war. Nonetheless, war's descriptions residing in the literature left by various writers and orators often possess similarities

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