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Pankaj asked: What is the difference between 'nature of war' and 'character of war'?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: The nature of war (war in general) is violence. The character of a war or a category of wars is determined by how that violence is applied by the parties to the conflict in question.

    To understand this distinction, we need to go back to Carl von Clausewitz and his unfinished classic On War. The analogy through which Clausewitz sought to illustrate war is what a pair of wrestlers attempt to do – throw and pin down each other, thus making the other defenceless and incapable of resistance. In war, a political entity – be it a rebel group or a government claiming to or actually representing a people – attempts to render another political entity defenceless and incapable of resistance by defeating its military forces, thereby creating conditions for compelling the other to concede certain political or economic or territorial or theological demands.

    Given the array of objectives that political entities pursue through war, the manner in which violence is employed as well as its scope and intensity vary in each war depending upon the specific objective for which a war is being waged and the relative capabilities of the contending sides. For instance, an insurgent group is likely to adopt guerrilla tactics to attain its objectives since its adversary would be a far stronger and well organised military force of a state that cannot be defeated in a direct clash.  In the same vein, a weaker state is more likely to adopt a proxy war or grey zone or hybrid tactics so as not to bring into play the superior capabilities of a stronger power. A state seeking to conquer a piece of territory is likely to wage a limited war. In contrast, a contest between two great powers is likely to be a system-wide or world war to determine which side attains or retains supremacy. While violence is integral to war in each of these instances, the way it is applied by one or both sides varies depending upon their respective objectives and relative capabilities.

    The character of each war is ultimately a function of the complex interplay among three factors that Clausewitz identified – passion, reason and chance. As an instrument of policy, war is a rational activity that policymakers engage in to attain specific objectives. Reason consequently tends to make the application of violence calibrated, limited and purposeful. However, any conflict involving death and destruction is likely to rouse the passion of both decision-makers and the people, which tends to contribute to an intensification of violence and expansion in its scope. Finally, chance plays a big role in how a particular war evolves driven by unmeasurable and unpredictable factors such as weather, leadership, morale, and plain old luck.

    In sum, violence is inherent to war and it is war’s nature. How that violence is applied in a particular war determines that war’s specific character – guerrilla war, limited war, world war, nuclear war, hybrid war, and so on. Finally, the manner in which violence manifests itself in a particular war is a function of the complex interplay among passion, reason and chance.

    Posted on July 20, 2020

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.