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Fighting! Killing! Death! Destruction! War is War, isn't it?

(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

Look at the following four quotes and see if you figure out the common theme:

“Hence we don’t need terms like ‘armed politics’ or ‘armed social science’ to help us understand Coin [sic] which at its essence is still war with its basic elements of fighting, death, and destruction.” Colonel Gian Gentile

“Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war,
right?  If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?” Colonel Gian Gentile

“If you inflict military defeat on the enemy, you remove his ability to use violence as a political instrument...You do not out-govern the enemy. You kill him.” William F. Owen

“I think the military gets it,'' Canetta said. “I think they do the best they can do, but within the context of a war...War is about killing, right?” Carl Canetta

Pretty easy to spot isn’t it? The idea that in war, all that matters is killing your enemy, by whatever means necessary. As I have been researching the “war is war” crowd, this theme popped up a couple of times. It’s not the first time I ran across this sentiment; the “anti-Rules of Engagement” crowd thinks this way too.

This branch of the “war is war” crowd--the populist side--isn’t even aware of their argument. They tend to be more realist in their foreign policy, conservative in their politics, and vehemently oppose restrictive Rules of Engagement--which is why I call them the “anti-ROE” crowd. The same ethos inspires them inspires the "war-is-war"-iors.

Take this quote from a Los Angeles Times article on the Rules of Engagement, "Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is not what's best for America...We are at war. The rules of engagement must be to empower our soldiers, not to give aid and comfort to the enemy." [Emphasis mine.] Over and over in articles criticizing counter-insurgency strategies, or lambasting the Rules of Engagement, this idea pops up: wars are about fighting, killing, death and destruction, not political reconciliation or humanitarian assistance.

Only they are. The most common definition of war--Clausewitz’ definition--is that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War has two parts: the political and the violent. His definition doesn’t specify which should be primary--the politics or the violence--but from what I understand, he views politics, or grand strategy, as the most important factor in war. I definitely have my issues with Clausewitz, but he is right about the balance in warfare between politics and violence.

For example, in the American Revolution, the colonists had to choose between supporting the king or joining the revolution. I say “had to choose” because the violence and culture forced people to take a side, and the king lost. A People Numerous and Armed, a fantastic book on the American Revolution by John Shy, gave me the idea to define our current wars as political wars. In it, Shy argues that, in wars where the population is the key, the biggest event on the battlefield is when people make decisions related to power. Making decisions about power is perhaps the definition of politics. Saying “war is war” is frequently a plea to ignore this reality in the vain hopes that warfare can be simpler, more about killing than decision-making. But it’s not--and that is why politics will constrain warfare until the end of time.

And politics aren’t the only restraint on war. Morals and ethics determine our every move. Laws restrain both soldiers and nations. Culture restricts our thinking and actions in ways we don’t even realize (for this last point read A History of Warfare by John Keegan).

This unsaid idea that pervades debates on ROE and counter-insurgency--that war has no rules except to win--just isn’t true. Any student of war knows that war has legal, ethical, moral, political, cultural and social restrictions. Every war has always had those restrictions, and the war fought without them will be our last.

twelve comments

if only war were so simple…


The “anti-ROE” and “war is war” are victims of their own limited imaginations. As far as I am concerned Unrestricted Warfare put to rest the notion that warfare and violence are inextricably linked. The violent, military approach is only one method that can be employed to submit or crush an enemy; trade wars, cyber attacks, currency manipulation, etc, are forms of warfare as well. The notion that warfare, that defeating an enemy, must include, or be dominated by, combat operations is ridiculous, especially in the context of today’s globalized world. In fighting an insurgency you can turn the tide on your opponent, limiting his (her?) ability to maneuver politically, through intense psychological operations augmented by increased security and only very limited combat operations. Fighting is certainly involved, but establishing combat as the primary facet of your strategy, under which psyops, civil affairs, ect are secondary, only subordinates winning to a singular, essentialized notion of what warfare “is”.


The “anti-ROE” and “war is war” crowd


I love Joseph’s first sentence above because it’s so true. I agree completely with the assessment that acts of war require violence to be naive. In particular, especially with our current conflicts, information operations are essential and non-violent methods of destabilizing support for our enemies as are relief operations that gain support for our forces and agenda. This does not, of course, negate the fact that violence will continue in the overall conflict.


And Matty P, in a global context, the idea that wars are fought with violence alone drastically limits our ability to fight extremism—be it global Takfiri Islam, or something else.

Joseph, its funny you mention Unrestricted Warfare, because I was just rereading it, and the authors use the phrase “war is war” and then use a very expansive view of warfare. However, I think that work should be required reading for military officers. Even if someone doesn’t personally think that book is a game changer, they should read it to see what the PLA thinks about future warfare.


I only see an issue where two sides, Taliban and US, for example, are fighting using a different set of rule.

A better quote:

“If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Not sure who said it. Franklin Roosevelt, John Wayne, or Gen. MacArthur.


According to wikiquote, the quote you have above is from Charles Colson in All the President’s Men. He may have been quoting John Wayne, an actor who portrayed soldiers and cowboys in several movies but himself never actually served. Wayne also attended USC on a football scholarship but, like most of their athletes and students, never graduated.

My question is, how specifically do we grab the Taliban by the balls?


Unfortunately, I’d have to use another “war is war” quote which is inelegant to say the least:

“Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

I think, in that case, civilian casualties would be quite high and it would be tough to win their “hearts and minds.”

But the Taliban seems to be a lot like a Doritos factory in that they keep making more so I guess Generational War is the only answer.


I know you are making a joke Harrison, but you touch on an issue I am trying to get at (albeit slowly) in this series. Basically, too many “war is war“iors say they want less restrictive rules of engagement, but then don’t get specific.

We have all joked about bombing Afghanistan/Iraq out of existence. That is soldiers venting. My question is what specifically do we do to “grab the enemy by the balls”? What do we specifically do to “inflict cruelty on the enemy” (not your quote but one I have heard countless times)? I have heard people say we need to “get all Sherman” on the Taliban. Well how? I want specific TTPs and policies, not vague quotes and platitudes.

Sorry for going off, but I hate debating an opponent (not necessarily you, but “war is war“iors) who hide behind vague ideas and don’t provide concrete recommendations themselves.


To be honest, you’d have to go back to the Romans, Greeks, or Persians to find a strategy which would essentially be to burn all the crops, salt the land, destroy the villages, kill the enemies, their children, fathers, grandfathers, mothers, cousins, and enslave all the rest.

These tactics did produce the desired result of subduing the populace through genocide, however I don’t think it would play very well on CNN.

The point of your series is a good one, and I get the objective.


Two points. You said:
“The most common definition of war—Clausewitz’ definition—is that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War has two parts: the political and the violent. His definition doesn’t specify which should be primary—the politics or the violence—but from what I understand, he views politics, or grand strategy, as the most important factor in war.”

Clausewitz defined war as “an act of violence to compel the enemy to do our will” He also said that warfare has three elements, not two. Those elements are policy (or the nation), violence (or the military) and the people. He said these three elements were a “paradoxical trinity” and that a theory which ignores any of the three isn’t much of a theory. Clausewitz said any one of them might be the most important at any given time, but that they all play a part.

Second point. Clausewitz first defined war (as stated above) within the context of “total war.” In other words, what is the true, unconstrained nature of war? It is violence and death to the last man. However, he later defines war as a “a continuation of policy” as an acknowledgment that war always serves a political objective, and is therefore constrained. Clausewitz stated that defining the political objective was the first and most important question to be answered before starting a war, however, that doesn’t mean that politics is the most important part of the “paradoxical trinity.”

So, back to the central question, what is the nature of war? Its pure nature is violence and death to the last man. However, we constrain war to serve political objectives. Discussions of armed social science, ROE, et. al, are questions of how far we constrain war to meet political ends.


I’ve had my share of disagreements with “the war is war crowd” on SWJ; I also think they have some valid points, which may be slightly misrepresented here.

Respectfully discounting rhetorical eccentricities like “war on poverty”, war involves armed force, or it isn’t war. It may involve other things as well, but armed force is what defines conflict as war.

I have to agree with “the war is war crowd” that the only useful role for a military force in war is in the employment of armed force against an armed enemy. There may be other factors involved in the conflict, but those are not a military affair and should not be a military concern. Armies are not equipped and trained to govern, they are equipped and trained to kill enemies.

Efforts to install governments, build nations, or fix economies are counterproductive and self destructive at best. Assign these functions to a military force and they become catastrophic. That’s not meant as criticism of the military: asking an army to do development work is like asking an engineer to perform surgery. or a surgeon to build a bridge.

Somebody generally pops up at this point and says that we have to assign these functions to the military because we haven’t anyone else to perform them… but if we haven’t the capacity to perform these functions, why are we taking them on in the first place?