There Is Only War, But War Isn’t Always Political

There is no such thing as terrorism. There is only war. Although Westerners typically do not agree because the West has narrowed its definition of war to preference certain acts while eliminating others. These preferences have reduced suffering and enforced order, but they may not be the best lens for strategists to utilize if they want to understand and anticipate an enemy.

Bust of Thucydides, Royal Ontario Museum (Wikimedia)

Western military thinking on war was not developed in a vacuum. Strategists build their ideas on a foundational understanding of how the world works informed by Western socio-political thought on the nature of war. If you ask most military strategists about the earliest wars worthy of study—aside from Sun Tzu—they will probably cite Thucydides and The History of the Peloponnesian War. From here the story of human conflict might concentrate on the Roman Empire, various campaigns around the Mediterranean and on the European Continent, and finally to the rest of the world as European colonization expanded. This predominate form of the study of war is inexorably tied to the Western experience.

War is also viewed by many as an instrument of politics. Even without Clausewitz’s famous declaration, the Western study of war could lead to no other conclusion. Wars are fought by one principality, kingdom, or empire against another. Because of this connection, the Western thinking on war is commingled with Western theories of the state. Over the last several hundred years or so this thinking has served us well, mostly because Western colonization efforts have foisted this model onto large swaths of the planet. And what the West did not convert by military conquest, more recently it converted by economics. If you wanted to be tied into the global markets, or get loans from the World Bank, you needed to look like a modern state. Because of this instrumental view, when most Westerners think about war today, they typically think about one post-Westphalian state fighting against another post-Westphalian state.

As a result of this thinking, attacks by non-state actors are generally not considered acts of war, but more simply framed as terrorism, especially when the attacks are not against military targets but against civilians. Customarily, the Western way of war involves defeating your opponent’s military. “The fighting forces must be destroyed: that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight.”[1] Without the ability to resist militarily, the enemy’s political leadership will bend to your will and capitulate to your political demands.[2] Ideally this modern paradigm of war does not involve civilians, except as collateral damage. Because of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Just War theories, civilians are not legitimate targets in-and-of themselves. Therefore, attacks against civilians by non-state actors are seen as barbarous acts of terrorism.

...war can occur without the trappings of political systems.

This thinking is largely incomplete for two reasons. First, war can occur without the trappings of political systems. Politics, in its simplest sense, is “the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group.”[3] There are, even now, groups of humans—hunter-gatherers—who live in egalitarian bands without formal decision making structures or enforceable rules.[4] Yet even hunter-gatherers engage in war.[5] So while the origins of war is still a matter of debate for archaeologists and anthropologists, war appears to be a part of our natural repertoire of violent collective activities.[6] War does not require a political entity like a chiefdom or principality to initiate or sustain it. Second, it is only within the last few centuries of human history that civilians are not considered legitimate targets; an idea largely influenced by Western thought on jus in bello. So for those groups who either have not fully accepted western political thought, or who explicitly reject it, it is very likely that their present ideas on war could align more closely with war as a natural activity for humans. For them, war is not constrained by the limitations placed on it by Western history, philosophy, and morals. War exists in its natural, pre-political sense.

With this in mind, and to help understand the actions of groups we tend to define as terrorists, it might be worth examining what pre-political “natural war” looks like. A survey of anthropologists and other academics who study war amongst modern hunter-gatherers reveals several common elements.[7] Based on these elements, I define natural war as non-spontaneous, organized, lethal violence committed by one identifiable group of people against another identifiable group of people, executed by warriors and morally sanctioned by the entire group, for some purpose other than the violence itself. There are seven elements to this definition:

  1. war is not a spontaneous act of violence like a riot;
  2. war is organized—even simple raids by one group against another require planning and preparation;
  3. from the onset, the probability of the violence leading to death on either or both sides is understood;
  4. the fighting involves two groups that have a distinguishable identity based in anything from familial relationships (hunter-gatherer bands), to ethnic identity, religious identity, national identity, or ideological identity;
  5. war is generally executed by a subpart of the group, the warriors;
  6. the killing is morally sanctioned by the rest of the group—the warriors are not viewed as criminals; and
  7. it is for a purpose other than simply violence, such as to gain resources, eliminate competition for resources, or to retaliate for attacks or territorial incursions.

At a First-Aid Center during Operation Prairie: Wounded Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie reaching out to a fellow Marine near Hill 484, South Vietnam on October 5, 1966. (Larry Burrows/George Eastman House)

There are two points worth highlighting. First, war is morally sanctioned killing. The predominant moral taboo against killing does not apply in war. In fact, killing in war often garners prestige amongst one’s own group. Even among modern nations, there is a clear legal distinction between what is acceptable in war and what is acceptable in times other than war. If the population no longer sees the war as morally just, warriors run the risk of being viewed as simple murderers, as was the case with some American Vietnam veterans who, when they returned home from war, were spat on or called “baby killers.” Closely related is the second point; the act of killing is conducted for some purpose greater than the killing itself. This separates wars from its often indistinguishable brother, blood feuds.[8] In a blood feud atonement is the point. It settles the blood debt created when a member of one group kills a member of another group. Wars, on the other hand, may be fought to eliminate a competitor for resources or procreation, as was common in pre-modern wars, but there will always be some reason other than the violence itself that one group makes war on another. But even though war may be for other reasons, it can also serve a purpose of retribution for a perceived injustice, like trespass onto traditional lands, and therefore settle a debt owed not just to a few members of the group, but to the entire group.[9]

Terrorism, on the other hand, is a recent construct. The modern, Western, concept of “terrorism” only entered our lexicon in the mid-nineteenth century.[10] Most official definitions of terrorism will include three elements: (1) the use of violence against civilian populations; (2) with the intention of inciting fear; (3) for a political purpose.[11] Unlike war, whose true origins are lost in prehistory, the earliest known use of terrorism as a tactic has been traced back to first-century Palestine when the Jewish population rebelled against the Romans. A Jewish sect known as the Zealots used daggers to slit the throats of their enemies in crowded places, which spread fear amongst their oppressors.[12] Perhaps the most effective recent use of terrorism as war was the Madrid bombings. Conducted just weeks before an election, the bombings effectively changed the results of the election from a government that supported Spain’s involvement in Iraq to one who did not.[13] Here, Al Qaeda used violence for the political purpose of persuading Spain to remove its troops from Iraq. If, as Clausewitz stated, “[w]ar therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will,” then terrorism is war in its purest form.[14] However, in modern Western societies, terrorism is not seen as war. Instead it is viewed as a criminal act and, when terrorists are caught, they are usually handled in the criminal courts.

When comparing terrorism to natural war, many of the things Westerners tend to associate with terrorism may actually fit better into the basket of war. For example, although natural wars are fought by a limited portion of the aggressor’s population, the target of their aggression is not limited to the defender’s warriors.[15] In the world of natural war, men, women, and children are legitimate targets.[16] This can be seen in an example of conflict between Australian Aboriginals, where one group attacked another “after all the local folk, as they believed, had returned to their camps for the day’s quest for food. Men, women and children were massacred indiscriminately….”[17] Often entire groups were exterminated, although it was common for the aggressors to capture the women and bring them back for themselves.[18] A description of another Aboriginal raid demonstrated this. “Then all ran in; they speared away and speared away! They only speared the men, and perhaps some of the children. Whoever caught a woman kept her himself.”[19] So extermination of entire villages or the kidnapping of women, while blatantly barbarous to Westerners, is not out of the ordinary in natural war. It is easy to see the parallels between the actions of the Australian Aboriginals and those of al Shabaab abducting girls to be wives or ISIS genocidal attacks on the Yazidis villages.[20,21]

The realities of human nature are sometimes hard to accept. Not just Westerners, but most people like to believe that we are beyond our more primitive nature. 

The realities of human nature are sometimes hard to accept. Not just Westerners, but most people like to believe that we are beyond our more primitive nature. That we can control our lustful and violent impulses. We are not always successful, as incidents like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam demonstrate.[22] Still, using a more expansive definition of war does not justify war crimes. War, in all its ugliness, may be natural to humans, but that does not mean that we humans must abandon our attempts to limit the suffering caused by war. When we are trying to analyze our enemy as they indiscriminately kill civilians or take women for sex slaves or wives, it might be more beneficial to view these atrocities as acts of natural war rather than to try to stretch the definition of terrorism to the point that it becomes almost useless. It also does not mean that we have abandon terrorism as a crime or to treat terrorists as soldiers. Acts of violence against civilians, inside or outside the combat zone, must still be treated as a crimes. When committed outside the combat zone, even though the perpetrator might see his actions as war, it is still most appropriate to punish them under criminal statutes just as it is to punish any other war crime. The point is simply to try to see war through the eyes of our enemy; to see war through a wider lens than the Western frame of reference generally allows. This may allow strategists to better understand and anticipate our enemy without being constricted by preconceptions of war, politics, and terrorism.

Stanley Wiechnik is a U.S. Army officer who has experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, and currently works in the Strategic Initiatives Directorate of the Chief of the Army Reserve. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Obbos tribe warriors war dance, by Neuville 1867. (Le Tour du Monde)


[1] Clausewitz, Carl von, Michael Howard, Peter Paret, and Bernard Brodie. 1984. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 90

[2] Clausewitz, p.90; see also Chapter 14, “Clausewitz on War Termination” in Handel, Michael I. Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 3rd ed, 2009. New York: Routledge.

[3] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v., “Politics,” (accessed 2 November, 2016) A more expansive definition gets to the same point:  “[P]olitics is that behavior engaged in by individuals, or groups of individuals, who, in competition with other individuals or with other groups of individuals, seek to maximize their values by use of available resources. Implicit in this definition is, of course, the idea of a struggle for influence over the decisions and behavior of others….Political scientists concern themselves primarily with those power relations which are related to the social control system known as the "political system" of a nation.” Kruschke, Earl R. "Toward a Brief Formulation of a Definition of Politics." Social Science 48, no. 2 (1973): 93-96. p. 94-95.

[4] Politics and History in Band Societies.  Edited by Eleanar Leacock and Richard Lee.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[5] Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers, edited by Mark Allen and Terry L. Jones. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2014.

[6] Gat, Azar.  “Proving Communal Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers: The Quasi-Rousseauan Error,” Evolutionary Anthropology, 24 (2015): 111-126.

[7] Hass, Jonathan.  The Anthropology of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990; Ferguson, R. B. 2008. "War Before History." In The Ancient World at War, by P. deSouza. London: Thames and Hudson;  Livingston, F.B. 1968. "The Effects of Warfare on the Biology of the Human Species." In War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, by M. Freid, M. Harris and R. Murphy, 3-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Mead, M. 1968. "Alternatives to War." In War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, by M. Freid, M. Harris and R. Murphy, 215-228. New York: Doubleday.

[8] Many scholars make no distinction between war and feuding. For example, Ferguson (2008) defines war as “organized lethal violence by members of one group against members of another group,” which includes feuding.

[9]  Gat, Azar, 2008. War in Human Civilization.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[10]  Chiliand, Gerard, and Blin, Arnaud. “The Invention of Modern Terror,” in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS, edited by Gerard Chiliand and Arnaud Blin, 95-142. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

[11] Merari, Ariel. “Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency,” in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS, edited by Gerard Chiliand and Arnaud Blin, 12–51. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

[12] Chiliand, Gerard, and Blin, Arnaud. “Zealots and Assassins,” in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS, edited by Gerard Chiliand and Arnaud Blin, 55-92. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

[13] Goodman, Al. “Spain plans quick pullout of Iraq,” CNN, April 19, 2004.  Accessed October 13, 2016.

[14] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War,  translated by J.J. Graham (London: 1873) (accessed 2 November, 2016)  See also Clausewitz, Carl von, Michael Howard, Peter Paret, and Bernard Brodie. 1984. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 75.

[15] This is the principle of social substitutability. See Kelly, Raymond. Warless Societies and the Origin of War. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

[16] Gat (2015).

[17] Gat (2008), 22.

[18] Gat (2015).

[19] Gat (2015), 117.

[20] Spillius, Alex. “Al-Shabaab militia abducting teenage girls to marry fighters.” The Telegraph, February 21, 2012.

[21] Wintour, Patrick. “UN condemns Isis genocide against Yazidis in Iraq and Syria.” The Guardian, June 16, 2016.

[22] C. N. Trueman. “My Lai Massacre,” The History Learning Site, 16 Aug 2016.