War is a social phenomenon that has its distinctive feature in the armed violence between organized groups. In its traditional meaning, war is a conflict between sovereign states or coalitions for the resolution, usually as a last resort, of an international dispute more or less directly motivated by real or presumed, but in any case partial, conflicts of ideological and economic interests.
The term is said to derive from the Old High German word werran meaning melee. In international law, the term was replaced, immediately after the Second World War, by the expression “armed conflict”, applicable to clashes of any size and type.
The war as a social phenomenon has enormous repercussions on culture, religion, art, customs, economy, myths, collective imagination, which often change its essence, exalting or condemning it.
Archaeological evidence indicates that war has been part of human life since time immemorial: according to past theories, early nomadic (hunter-gatherer) peoples were presumed to be more peaceful than their sedentary (cultivator) counterparts in later years, but findings of mass burial sites around the world have led scholars to revise this theory. A mass burial site at Jebel Sahaba (known as Cemetery 117) in northern Sudan, for example, contains the remains of 61 adults and children; about 40% of whom died violent deaths and show severe wounds or arrowheads embedded in their bones. This site dates to about 11740 BC.
As an armed struggle between organized human groups, war is closely connected to politics, since an organized human group, however elementary, constitutes a political unit. The links between war and politics can be investigated from the strategic point of view, i.e. as relations between politics and military operations, and from the historical-politological point of view, i.e. by analyzing war as a complex social phenomenon.
The aim of strategy is to indicate from time to time the best ways to use military means according to the political goals that are intended to be achieved. As such, it has been conceived since ancient times: already between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. C. for example, the Chinese Sun Tzu was the first to elaborate in his Art of War (the oldest text on strategy that has come down to us) the war-political relationship, arguing that the first is subordinate to the second: war is one of the instruments used by the State to achieve its goals and is therefore a set of political actions, so that a general is not ultimately only a technician who commands armies, but a person responsible for acts with political purposes. Only in modern times, however, the strategy has reached its full conceptual autonomy.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century to define with theoretical clarity the links between war and politics was Machiavelli, for whom the strength and cohesion of a state and a people are the basis of any conduct of war. Machiavelli’s intuitions were the starting point of the greatest modern theorist of the relationship between war and politics, the German general K. von Clausewitz. In his Vom Kriege (Of War, 1853) he conceived war in two ways. In a purely logical and abstract sense, war would be freed from any restraint and induced, by its very essence, to go to the extreme of the total annihilation of the enemy.
In the concrete historical experience, the war is instead limited, as well as by technical and material factors, primarily by politics: in fact, the logic of war is always a political logic, which binds and conditions the use of war violence and prevents the latter from freeing up its natural tendency to the destruction of the opponent (such is the true meaning of the famous Clausewitzian formula “war is nothing but the continuation of political work, which is intermingled with other means”).
In war, therefore, the reasons of politics play a primary role, understood by Clausewitz, in harmony with Machiavelli, not only and not so much in the sense of the will of the sovereign, but also and above all in the sense of the ideological passions of a people. The importance assumed by the latter, in the period from the French Revolution to the Napoleonic campaigns, indicates the great novelty of modern warfare with respect to the traditional one, namely the role assumed by the masses and the armies of conscripts, of citizen-soldiers inflamed by ideology.
After Clausewitz, strategic thinking has not substantially produced anything new. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the conviction that war should free itself from politics, leaving even the strictly political aspects of the conduct of war operations completely in the hands of the military, spread first in Germany and then, during the First World War, throughout Europe. Things changed with the Second World War, when the military game was always directed by the heads of state and governments, and especially after 1945 with the global opposition of the two ideological blocs communist and western and the advent of the so-called “cold war”. The idea that, overturning Clausewitz’s formula, in the bipolar world it was politics that constituted the continuation of war by other means made its way.
Later, with the growth of nuclear weapons and the so-called “balance of terror” (summarized in the acronym MAD: mutual assured destruction), it was thought that politics could no longer be considered a continuation of war, since the latter risked turning into an apocalypse (“pantoclastic perspective”, as it was defined by the greatest Italian polemicist, F. Fornari). Although in this case too things went differently and politics continued to rule over war even in the era of the atomic bomb, war-political relations became even more problematic after the collapse of communist regimes and the advent of so-called globalization.
The growing planetary economic interdependence seems in fact to imply a loss of sovereignty by individual states in favor of a single military superpower, the U.S., guarantor of world equilibrium, with the consequence of subordinating the political goals of each state to the war decisions of one.
This brings us to the second way of considering war, the historical-politological one, aimed at investigating its causes, effects and evolutionary mechanisms in the context of international relations and the history of socio-political aggregates that are protagonists of war events and are modified by them. From this point of view, both in antiquity and in modern thought, war has been judged by some philosophers as a natural and objective condition, independent of the will of individuals.
So thought Heraclitus and Empedocles, so still in the XVI century Hobbes, according to whom the state of nature is a state of permanent war between men, and so still in the XIX century Hegel, who saw in war a tool by which the Absolute Spirit assigns to a certain people a position of predominance over others.
In the climate influenced by the Enlightenment persuasion of the imminent possibility of peaceful conciliation of international disputes, the founders of economic science (A. Smith, D. Ricardo, J. S. Mill) believed instead that the development of free trade would lead to the decline of war. The same was initially believed by sociology, which underestimated the war judging it a residue of the pre-industrial past. Subsequently, theories of war have developed that have referred to extra-political or political causes.
The first type includes: the biological theory, which basically considers war a manifestation of man’s innate instinct of aggression; the psychoanalytic theory (a variant of the previous one), which interprets war as the unleashing of aggression monopolized by the state; the demographic theory, according to which it is the growth of the population that triggers the war event (with the consequence that war would periodically re-establish the demographic balance through the physical elimination of a part of the population); the economic theory, which explains war as the result of the clash of economic interests (the best known variant is the Marxist one, which has given rise to various theories on imperialism).
The explanations that privilege political factors as the origin of war can be distinguished between those that identify the causes in the international system and those that find them instead in the internal dynamics of states. The first type of interpretation includes three strands: realistic, geopolitical and systemic. The realist line goes back to the classic doctrine of “reason of State”, dominant from 1500 to 1800 and still present in the XX century by some historians and political scientists who studied its evolution (L. von Ranke, O. Hintze, L. Dehio). The basic idea is that, in a framework of anarchy of international relations, the clash between the political interests of nations is composed periodically in certain assets of political balance (bipolar or multipolar) that is broken, however, with the war moved by one or some states to improve their position at the expense of others.
Another version of the realist strand argues instead that the international order does not depend on the system of balance, but on the hegemony of a single power and that, consequently, war breaks out when this power declines, in political or economic or technological or security terms, or when the strength of a rival state previously subordinate or weaker increases for the same reasons.
The second perspective, the geopolitical one, emphasizes in turn the decisive importance for war of geographical factors (in a broad sense: territorial dislocation of states, relations between regional areas, spheres of hegemony, spatial effects of power, migration, spatial distribution of resources, etc.), sharing with the realist strand the idea of the anarchy of the international order.
The third interpretative strand is systemic, in the sense that to explain the genesis of wars does not look only at interstate relations but at the globality of political, economic-transnational, cultural, military, etc. relations. A first version (elaborated by G. Modelski) sustains the primacy of political-military factors over economic and cultural ones, so that war in the modern age would be the result of the imposition of the hegemony of a leading military power, cyclically undermined by another leading power.
A second version (of the neo-Marxist sociologist I. Wallerstein), on the other hand, assigns primacy to the economic-commercial sphere, whose dominance would ensure to the hegemonic power also the political-military predominance; so that at the end of each of the global wars of the modern era (the Thirty Years’ War, the wars born from the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the two world wars of the 20th century) three powers would have conquered in succession the control of the world economy: first the Netherlands, then Great Britain and finally the United States.
While the theories mentioned so far explain war starting from the international system, others interpret it as a consequence of the internal socio-political dynamics of States. From this point of view, war can be a result: either of the necessity of the rulers to divert the attention of the population from internal conflicts that risk dissolving the social and political cohesion of a State (a theory known today as scapegoat theory, but already enunciated in the 16th century by Machiavelli and J. Bodin); or of the internal imbalance within a country between the demand and the supply of goods. Bodin); or of the internal imbalance within a country between the demand for economic well-being and the limitation of national resources, for which the government would be induced to try to satisfy that demand by turning to the outside and entering into conflict with other states; or of the national political tensions generated by the incongruence between a high rate of economic development and a position of political weakness in the international scenario (or vice versa by the imbalance caused by the considerable international political strength of a state in phase of internal economic decline).
From antiquity to the 17th century
At the beginning, war was identified with the elementary struggle between the first family nuclei to obtain the goods necessary for daily life. The hordes were thus replaced by armies and developed the military art that, after the Homeric age, in which war was conceived as a duel between mythical figures of “heroes”, and the formation of the first organized troops in Egypt and Assyria, marked a turning point at the time of the Greek city-states and Alexander the Great, with compulsory military conscription and the formation of stable armies.
Of these, the basic unit was the phalanx, which gathered the mass of infantry (hoplites), divided into light infantry and cavalry. The cavalry was in turn divided into heavy (armed with lance, sword, helmet, shield and riders and horses equipped with defensive armor), median (armed with lance and sword) and light (with only javelin and bow). From the seventh century BC also appeared the first warships, consisting mainly of triremes equipped with rostrum for boarding.
A further development to the discipline and military organization impressed the Romans. Initially, in the royal era, only the original tribes had to provide foot soldiers and horsemen, but with the first wars of conquest (reform of Servius Tullius, 550 BC) the population was divided into six classes (with compulsory military service) each of which had the obligation to provide foot soldiers and horsemen (except the last, of nobodies, which procured only craftsmen and players). From the beginning, the Roman army was structured on the legion, taken from the Greek phalanx and formed by 3000 infantrymen, 300 cavalry and 1200 velites (light infantry). The poor maneuverability of the legion, however, soon caused radical changes: the mass of the infantry was divided into three major specialties, based on seniority and military skills of the individual, and was introduced a tactical unit elementary, the maniple, more flexible and mobile, consisting of two centuria (50 or 100 men). In battle, the legion was arranged on 3 lines of maniples, while the cavalry gravitated on the wings of the deployment together with the troops of the allies (partners). In the oxidional war, the Romans built ramps of access to the walls (agger), in wood and stone, on which they started the columns of assault formed by frontal maniples, with shields placed vertically to mo’ of wall, and maniples back with shields in horizontal position to compose a roof (testudo).
After the Punic Wars were changed the criteria for recruitment and staff of the army: with the reform of Caius Marius (108 BC. ) the obligation of service was extended to freedmen and those with no property, the specialties of the infantry were suppressed and instead of maniples was established the cohort, composed of 6 centurie arranged on 6 lines of depth, the light infantry was then integrated with Cretan and Ligurian archers and slingers of the Balearic Islands, while the cavalry with Thessalian horsemen, Numidians and Gauls. It was essentially with such formations that Caesar conquered Gaul, Britain and Spain, establishing himself as one of the greatest leaders of all time. From the third century BC, the Romans also adopted for maritime warfare the triremes, to which they added a hooked bridge (crow) for boarding, and later used the quinqueremi and the more manageable galleys (with a single order of oars).
After the birth of the Empire and the consequent enlargement of the army (subject to further reorganization) the Roman military art had its last glow thanks to the expeditions of the Emperor Julian the Apostate against the Germans in Gaul (356 AD) and against the Persians (363 AD). In the Middle Ages, with the birth of the aristocracy of the sword linked to the sovereign, it returned to the individual combat on horseback, often supported by infantry generally disorganized, consisting of crowds of peasants variously armed with bow, spades or pitchforks.
Exceptions to this situation were first the expedition of Charlemagne in Italy (773-774), conducted with the march of two columns of infantry and cavalry, then the Crusades, which highlighted the limits of cavalry against an enemy anchored to permanent fortifications or camps, and finally the municipal militias of the Lombard League, which resurrected the infantry fighting against the units of knights of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Exceptions to this situation were first the expedition of Charlemagne in Italy (773-774), conducted with the march of two columns of infantrymen and knights; then the Crusades, which highlighted the limits of cavalry against an enemy anchored in permanent fortifications or camps; and finally the municipal militias of the Lombard League, which resurrected the infantry fighting against the units of knights of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
Particularly relevant in the 14th century were the Swiss formations fighting for the independence of the cantons, organized in battalions made up only of infantrymen (in practice a return to the Roman phalanx), arranged in a vanguard, battle group and rearguard, and deployed during combat in a “square”, with the pike-armed at the sides, the sword and halberd-armed at the center and the archers and crossbowmen at the top of the quadrilateral in advancing groups called sleeves.
The successes achieved by the Swiss battalions led most European armies to hire someone and imitate the organization: so were born in Germany the lanz-keneet (servants-lancers), in France the lansqueenets, in Italy the lanzichenecchio lanzi. It was then again the battalions to form the backbone of the first royal armies arose in Spain, France and England, while in Italy developed the companies of fortune, armies of mercenaries led by skilled leaders hired by the various states of the peninsula fighting each other.
A decisive turning point in military art was, of course, the introduction of firearms: the first bombards and the first rifles (“schioppi”) appeared in the thirteenth century, while already in the descent into Italy of the French king Charles VIII (1494) mobile artillery towed by horses and arquebuses were seen. Later the artillery specialized in wall (siege) and field artillery, while the cavalry was equipped with pistols and muskets, starting the new tactic called “caracollo”, generally followed by the assault with a white weapon.
The mentioned descent of Charles VIII in Italy marked the beginning of sixty years of continuous wars for European hegemony (ended in 1559) that saw as protagonists France and the Habsburg Empire, whose undisputed military superiority reflected the greater territorial, political and economic-commercial strength compared to other states. In the same period of time, in concomitance with the great geographical discoveries, the maritime war could take advantage of the use of the sail (caravels, then vessels, galleons, frigates, corvettes, etc.., soon equipped with artillery), decisive factor for the development of the guerradi corsa (i.e. conducted with the forms of piracy) practiced especially on transoceanic routes by French and English against the fleets of Spain, but in the Mediterranean also by the Turks.
In the conduct of land warfare progress was made in the seventeenth thanks to the King of Sweden Gustav II Adolphus, who reorganized the army on the basis of conscription, introduced a strict discipline through the establishment of regiments, used less numerous armed forces and deployed in length rather than depth (with the advantage of being able to use all the forces simultaneously) and adopted different types of armament for the cavalry and muskets less heavy for the infantry.
The innovations of Gustav II Adolphus were soon imitated by other European armies, which however continued to be mainly formed by mercenaries (mainly Swiss and Spanish) whose high financial cost determined the numerical containment of the staff and the need to minimize losses in battle. The result was an offensive strategy in fact prudent because forced to avoid open conflict with the enemy in the absence of high probability of success.
From the 17th to the 20th century
The Thirty Years’ War was the first real conflict of the modern age. Involved, in addition to the traditional powers of the continental chessboard, also the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, provoking, in spite of every tactical shrewdness, enormous losses of human life, both military and civil, to the point to affect the general demographic decrease of the seventeenth century.
In the eighteenth century, the uninterrupted succession of wars for dominance between hereditary monarchies and the sudden enlargement of the armies resulted in the end in a renewal of the principles and forms of military art. The first great innovator was Frederick II of Prussia: he reorganized the army by placing it under the unitary command of a General Staff, rigorously selected officers and non-commissioned officers and introduced a strict discipline and an inflexible training practice, such as to make the troops suitable to perform the maneuvers with a speed unknown to other armies of the time. Also in this case the innovations were taken up by other armies and in particular by the French one. The latter, however, following the Revolution of 1789 and the consequent advent of the mass conscription characterized by the participation of the entire population in the defense of the homeland, transformed the geometric Prussian evolutions on the battlefield in simpler and looser actions, supported by new technical departments (such as the genius).
On this structure, Napoleon inserted a series of organizational improvements: he created the army corps, bringing together two or three divisions (organic and inseparable composite units of the French army dating back to 1770, but definitely organized during the Revolution), the army (large strategic and logistical unit bringing together two or three corps, established in 1812 during the Russian campaign) and the service to the troops (warehouses, depots, hospitals, etc.). But Napoleon distinguished himself above all in the strategic field, brilliantly managing to reinterpret the traditional postulates of military doctrine.
As in Alexander the Great and Caesar, strategy and politics in him interpenetrate to the point of merging. The principle of the offensive, with the intent to surprise the opponent, was realized in the perpetual search of the battle in order to annihilate the physical and moral energies of the enemy, but always commensurate with the size of the objective. It was in the Napoleonic age that the military maritime art began to renew itself: the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) marked the end of the dominance of sailing for the great military fleets set up, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by the major European powers engaged in trade with the colonies (Spain, France, England) and the Ottoman Empire.
The first steam-powered ships (1807), however, due to the vulnerability of their propulsion system, the wheel, did not interest the navies, which instead quickly adopted steam locomotion after the introduction of the propeller: thus were born the submarine, the torpedo, and then to follow the battleship, the torpedo boat and the cruiser.
As far as land warfare in the post-Napoleonic era was concerned, the spread of mass conscription in the various European states was not applied to the end, resulting in armies with a large volunteer base supplemented by mercenaries (in France itself there were still mercenaries in 1830). An exception was Prussia, which added the obligation of reserves to the compulsory conscription. With regard to strategy, the school of the Swiss general H. Jomini, according to which success depended on the formulated plan and the genius of the leader, was opposed by K. von Clausewitz, based on the Jacobin and then Napoleonic idea of the participation of an entire nation in the war and the link between military art and politics.
Clausewitz’s doctrine found its best interpreter in the Prussian general H. K. B. von Moltke, who, conceiving war as a test of strength between nations before that between armies, defeated Austria at Sadowa (1866) and France at Sedan (1870) thanks to quick and decisive attacks, in the heart of the enemy country. After Sedan, Prussian doctrine and tactical procedures had a wide resonance in Europe and the wars that followed (Russian-Turkish, 1877-1878; Anglo-Boer, 1899-1902; Russian-Japanese, 1904-1905; Italian-Turkish, 1911-1912) did not change these guidelines. On the contrary, strategic science accentuated offensive ideas, while giving due weight to permanent fortification as a cover.
In Germany this approach, after General C. van der Goltz (author of the famous work The Armed Nation), found its leader in Field Marshal A. von Schlieffen, promoter of linear strategy inspired by the tactics followed by Hannibal at Canne. Von Schlieffen foresaw a deployment of the troops on a wide front and a successive advance tending to get around the adversary to hit him from behind.
In France, De Grandmaison asserted the theory that the enemy had to suffer the battle, so that the wide initial deployment had to be immediately followed by a rapid march on the objective, without seeking too many guarantees of security provided by the advance itself. In reality, since the beginning of the First World War, these doctrines revealed all their fragility on the battlefields, leaving the field to the substantial innovations of means and strategies that characterized the Second World War.