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Defining Contemporary War - We Know It's War, But What Do You Call It?

Nothing is new under the sun. As a military, we forget that truism after every war. Perhaps, it’s because whenever the old resurfaces, the US Army calls it the new. Thus, Iraq and Afghanistan are not guerilla wars, or irregular conflicts, or terrorism, or low-intensity conflict, they are insurgencies, or fourth generation war or hybrid wars.

One could persuasively argue that the current fights, while they feel new in our American military, are not unique at all in the scheme of things. The Spanish fought a guerilla war during the Napoleonic Age, and gave that style of war a name. America fought an insurgency in the Philippines. The Marine corps gave it the name, “small wars.” The British fought countless small wars and called them “irregular war,” as if regular war was something between nations.

Yet our trend of naming the old the new continued. Thus, we now have revolutionary war, asymmetric war, insurgency, counter insurgency, civil wars, foreign internal defense, terrorism, irregular or low intensity conflict, long wars, asymmetric wars and unconventional.

Currently, the military, journalists and politicians settle for insurgency.

Lack of clarity in terms destroys debates and only complicates issues. Thus, before we venture much further into posting on this website I want to define the terms I will use, clarifying how and why I use them, explaining which ones I prefer and do not prefer and finally, offer my description of modern war and how I view it. I will not reference official Army doctrine, these are my opinions on these terms and why I use them.

But, do any of these terms truly capture why these wars occur? Do they confuse the issue by having so many terms? As a community, we counter-insurgenistas need a term that captures our current conflict, and can last into the future. That is what the next few week's posts hope to provide. (A bold, impossible goal but blogs allow us to dream.)

For the rest of this month, I plan to roll out my definitions on war in the contemporary world. I ask all readers, what terms do you think adequately capture modern war? What terms fail to do so?

three comments

I had contemplated the following effort, but perhaps it would fit well for you to do in the context of this blog series:

I was thinking of doing some type of concept mapping with the different forms of warfare terminology being used today.

The first question might be to determine which terms or concepts are synonymous. That is there is noting unique or distinctive about one to differentiate it from the other. You could also discern where there was consensus and disagreement on these issues. For example, maybe a consensus view would emerge that Unconventional Warfare and Irregular Warfare are functionally synonymous. The goal of this first step would be to cull through the redundancy to see how many distinguishable concepts remain.

You might also discern at that stage, which terms or concepts – if any- might be supraordinate or subordinate to others. For example, it might turn out that “War” (‘warfare” might be treated separately) might be a major overarching concept, of which other terms are merely “subsets” or subordinate terms

The second set of questions might begin to deconstruct the remaining terms into their defining constituent components, looking at which elements/conditions are necessary and whether any are singly sufficient. You might even be able to do this with a matrix of some sort with term on one axis and defining elements on the other.

You could probably do this with an online survey platform.

What do you think?


It’s an ambitious goal. I think especially so because many experts in warfare may not agree on the definitions of terms. You partly highlight the inability of our language to convey completely experiences and ideas. While you can tell a story about a combat experience, how I picture it and how you experience it will never be the same. In the same avenue, we can agree on a definition but perhaps have a different idea of scale or venue, etc. I look forward to more on this goal.


The Semantics are a killer. I found it funny how Obama changed the name of the Global War on Terro to Overseas Contingency Operations. In Germany politicians refuse to acknowledge Afghanistan as a war, or to refer to fallen German soldiers as “Gefallener” because of the implications that has here in Germany.