War or Warfare?

John T Kuehn's picture


War versus Warfare—The Problems of Conflation

By  John T. Kuehn

Handgrenade-Thrower-in-Chief (HTINC)


War and warfare are not the same thing.   Too many writers today—including military historians-- conflate their use of these terms.  For example, you might read this any number of times or something like it:

“War is changing in ways that we have yet to fully apprehend.”[1]

 Thankfully, writers like Colin Gray, Peter Paret, Michael Howard, and Tony Echevarria tend to not do this and to warn their readers against making this error.   However, either people do not accept their judgments or they simply do not understand the difference or…they are lazy and continue to conflate the two terms.   So let us define these terms.

For me the best definition for war remains that proposed by Carl von Clausewitz after his extensive dialectical reduction that began with “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” (Book I:1:2):

 War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.  As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war an oddly whimsically, profound trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and the of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.  Carl von Clausewitz, Book I:I:28. “The Consequences for Theory” [Howard and Paret, except for translation of wünderlich which is mine].

Note   [subsequent numbers are chapter and subsection]

 Readers will do well to remember the title of Book I is “On the Nature of War” and Chapter 1’s title is “What is War?”

So much for a definition of war.  Or rather the nature of war, they are, for all practical purposes, the same.

As for warfare, I use a much simpler definition, it is the practice of war—the practice of those whimsical verbs in Clausewitz’s definition-- in a particular time, space, and context.  For example it is the practice of violence and passion against other people's on a large scale. Now this term is subject to change because contexts change, time passes, and space itself changes as objects move around and within it.

So “get with the program” as my Marine Corps drill instructor use to say, do not conflate or confuse “war” with “warfare.”

That is all.


[1] “The Changing Nature of War,” Gregory F. Treverton at https://www.smawins.com/news/the-changing-nature-of-war/ (accessed 04-29-2019).  For other similar statements see  https://www.ausa.org/articles/changing-nature-war-wont-change-our-purpose (accessed 04-29-2019).

Keywords: war, warfare, Clausewitz

You should also be cognizant of the use of "warfighter" and "warfighting." This seems to collapse the definitions of battles and campaigns. Our armed services once upon a time did know how to make war - we seem to have confused war making with "warfighting." At least this is what I observed in my own checkered career.

It's probably just me, but I get the feeling that hairs are being split here. Simpleton that I probably am, I suspect war (and all suffixes to that word), well, isn't it something like that long ago Supreme Court justice who made no attempt to define pornography, but he "knew it when he saw it."

What I saw and experienced in Vietnam, long ago (in a galaxy far away) left no doubt in my mind that it was a war. Thankfully, the term "warfighter" hadn't been invented, or come into popular use. I was just an Air Force guy doing my tour of duty, & saw no need to overthink it.