Martin Shaw

Has war a future?

From New Political Economy, 5, 1, March 2000, 112-116

It is a doubtful kind of progress that whereas half a century ago Bertrand Russell (warning against nuclear war) asked Has man a future? today I can ask about the future of war. In the second half of the twentieth century, the means of warfare so outstripped any rational use for them that one could seriously propose the redundancy of war. Not that war in general was ever likely to disappear: plenty of smaller states and insurgent forces kept the charnel houses going throughout the long ‘peace’. The Cold War blocs were, however, fundamentally inhibited from using the maximum means of force at their disposal, and war involving major states and their allies was constrained by the literally catastrophic consequences of any large-scale resort to nuclear weapons.

The decade since the end of the Cold War has shown, however, new patterns of war, which have been confirmed in Kosova in 1998-99. This war raises stark questions about the renewal of warfare as a means of social and political struggle in the twenty-first century. Has the Western state reinvented war as an effective means of disciplining secondary centres of state power which threaten the emerging global order? Has the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) proved to other oppressed groups that military struggle remains, after all, a viable means of liberation? Above all, perhaps, has the defeat of the Serbian state (whose local political consequences remain unclear at the time of writing) really brought genocidal war to an end even in former Yugoslavia, let alone elsewhere in the world? Do all these developments mean that war in general has been rehabilitated – or are there still real grounds for believing that we are making progress towards the abolition of war?

Social science gives us precious few tools for answering these fundamental questions of modern society. Most disciplines either write war out of the analysis – mistaking for contemporary fact Auguste Comte’s early nineteenth-century argument that industrial society is essentially peaceful – or treat it as a regrettable fact of contemporary life, comfortably explicable within the bounds of political (hence for Marxists, also economic) rationality. But if war is a regular, recurring, indeed structural feature of modernity, it remains a profoundly troubling one, which retains its capacity to unsettle the assumptions of social and political analysis.

Nuclear war was, and remains, an ‘end’ of a certain kind of historical trajectory of warfare, which as I have tried to show (Shaw, 1988), was deeply implicated in the other major narratives of modernity. The great imperial nation-states of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries harnessed all the infrastructure of the new industrial capitalist society to a new mode of warfare - industrialised total war. This was the result of applying to war not just industrial technology, but also industrial social discipline, bureaucratic organisation, mass media and mass political mobilisation. When realised in the two world wars, this mode of war transformed social relations in turn, helping to generate the command political economies, statist and even totalitarian politics, and highly regimented mass societies of mid-century.

Classic total war was ultimately about two linked totalities, of mobilisation and of destruction. Nuclear war separated them, enhancing destructiveness to the point of counter-productivity while making mass mobilisation increasingly redundant. The result was a new stage of industrial society which while undoubtedly ‘exterminist’ as Thompson (1982) argued, was also paradoxically ‘post-military’, dispensing with conscription and mass armies while exalting the weapon system (Shaw, 1991).

If industrialised total war was the product of industrial capitalist society harnessed to the systemic rivalries of imperial nation-states, and nuclear war of a more advanced industrialism harnessed to Cold War bloc-rivalries, what kind of war is produced by a post-industrial capitalism harnessed to a global world order? The answer is more complex than this schema can suggest. There are three main elements that we need to bring into the frame.

The first is the character of the centres of state power in the contemporary world, and their relationships with society. While classic international relations analysis views states as sovereign entities, historical sociology suggests that we see them as networks of power institutions, the (problematic) unity of which is defined by their claims to the legitimate projection of force (Mann, 1993). In these terms, the state in the West is now an internationalised, post-imperial conglomerate, characterised by common projection of force (in a system of military alliances which has survived the end of the Cold War), multiple, overlapping political-economic institutions and the normalisation of democracy at the national level. Outside the West, however, state power remains largely unreconstructed, in ‘national’ forms that in the larger centres, especially, remain quasi-imperial, and only weakly if at all democratised or internationalised. The West has increasingly projected itself as a global power centre, mobilising – although uncertainly, as Kosova shows – the legitimate global layer of state institutions (Security Council, International Criminal Tribunal) in its struggles with non-Western states.

The second element essential to understanding the perameters of contemporary warfare are the social and political struggles in which these centres of state power are embroiled. A worldwide democratic revolution has been underway throughout the second half of the twentieth century, in which a wide range of national and social movements have struggled to limit arbitrary state power. Although these movements were disciplined by the Cold War, they played an important part in ending it (especially in central Europe) and have come into their own since 1989 (with major upheavals in several Asian states). In the last decade, the demand for national democracy has become closely linked to the demand for a world order in which the universal human rights proclaimed since 1945 are finally taken seriously. In this sense there is now a global-democratic revolutionary process, which challenges authoritarian states (formerly anti-Communist as well as post-Communist) to reform, and has offered a number of democratic movements (from the Czech ‘velvet revolution’ to the South African transition) the possibility of negotiated change.

The third element is the socio-political organisation and technology of warfare itself. If society in the West is post-military - with electorates exposed to ‘raw’ footage assumed by their leaders to be unwilling to pay the price of serious war - society in much of the non-Western world is much more easily mobilised in quasi-total war fashion. Moreover when seriously oppressed, many people are still willing to support military-revolutionary struggle. However, the ‘revolution in military affairs’ has allowed the West, and especially its American centre, to project aerial force in a manner which reduces the risk to its own soldiers to an extraordinary degree. The application of computer technology has produced weapons which are relatively very discriminating. The end of the Cold War removed some of the political constraints on war between the West and (at least the smaller) non-Western states; the new technologies of war have enabled the West – and at the other end of the scale, insurgent forces – to fight in new ways.

Classically, analyses have distinguished between interstate and civil wars, and between war and revolution. Patterns of linkage have been recognised: defeat in interstate wars often produces revolutionary upheavals, and revolutions often produce interstate instability as well as leading to civil wars. Today, the categories themselves are less robust. Kaldor (1999) has suggested that ‘new wars’ are interstate and civil at the same time. These wars contain, moreover, revolutionary dynamics: the wars in Yugoslavia arose in part from the threats to elites from democratic change, and the attempt by leading groups to manipulate this change by reinventing their rule in nationalist guises. In Kosova, the 1990s situation was defined by what was, in effect, Slobodan Milosevic’s counter-revolutionary coup, suspending legitimate autonomous institutions and excluding the majority of the population from the state. The Kosova Albanians’ strategy, for most of the decade, was the kind of peaceful mass resistance which worked in South Africa and Czechoslovakia, but which met from no positive response from the Serbian regime.

Analysts have also distinguished between war and genocide. The latter has been seen as a phenomenon internal to states, although the classic cases (the Armenians in 1915, the Jews in 1941-45) occurred in the context of war - indeed the concept and international law of genocide rest on the Second World War experience. Nevertheless, even in the Nazi case genocide was a secondary thrust of a war against conventional state enemies. Only in the 1990s have we recognised genocide as the principal rationale and process of wars, from Bosnia to Rwanda.

One side of the contemporary mode of warfare is thus a degeneration of war into counter-revolutionary genocide, on the part of both state elites and parastatal groups. In this kind of war, as Ignatieff (1998) has pointed out, on many sides any idea of ‘the warrior’s honour’ is wiped out – the soldier as rapist and robber becomes the norm. The questions posed by Kosova (and many other wars of the 1990s) are whether different kinds of war are possible, which uphold better values and work by better means, and the balance between military and non-military means of projecting legitimate global power.

I say different kinds because clearly there is a ‘new insurgency’, a la KLA, as well as a ‘new Western way of war’. However, the former seems mainly the continuation of an old politics, the limits of which are well known (and increasingly recognised by former insurgents themselves, from the African National Congress to the Irish Republican Army). The KLA’s success in producing NATO intervention and de facto autonomy from oppressive Serbian rule needs to be balanced by their role in provoking genocidal massacres and expulsions. Nevertheless, others will doubtless be tempted down their road, now that armed struggle has been seen to pay.

The new Western mode of warfare is a more serious proposition. Although this was the first war fought by NATO, a similar array of military and political power was projected by the US-led coalition in the Gulf, and by similar means. Neither was ‘humanitarian war’ in any simple sense, although humanitarianism became a factor in the intervention into Kurdistan after the Gulf war (see Shaw, 1996) as well as being a core element in the politics of Kosova. Neither was a ‘surgical’ war, either, but the losses of civilian lives by Western bombing were small by historical standards and within the scope of media management (unlike, for example, the killing of civilians by the US in Vietnam). In both cases, the most serious civilian suffering as a result of Western action has been (or is likely to be) as a result of the damage to infrastructure in societies already impoverished by a decade of war.

Nevertheless, in both cases the Western state has been in action, relatively homogenously, self-confidently and with a huge projection of physical force. In both cases it has achieved its main immediate ends, the liberations of Kuwait and Kosova. In both cases too (particularly in the recent case) it has achieved some degree of protection of civilian society in threatened areas, so that there has been some (however uneasy) congruence between the West’s aims and those of local liberation movements.

These are important shifts, but they are hardly grounds for a general re-evaluation of the politics of war. On the one hand, it was clear in the recent events that war caused serious short-time instability between major centres of state power. The projection of military force always, almost by definition, has serious negative consequences in political as well as human terms. On the other hand, it is clear that while a war between the West and Iraq or Yugoslavia may be possible, war between the West and Russia or China (or that matter between the major non-Western states themselves) must remain inconceivable in any rational scheme.

The politics of global order cannot be opposed, Canute-like, by the invocation of yesterday’s idea of an absolute national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the West would be well advised to invest more in the political and legal – and for that matter, the social and economic - institutions of a global order, and to build up their legitimacy, rather than to rely on its new-found success in projecting military force. Global order probably needs the united military power of the West to back up its development, but it is a force that should be sparingly used. Given the fragility of world order and the continuing danger that war can bring to a post-nuclear world, war is always an admission of political failure.

Back to top/The global site/The war site