IDF, Twitter, and the Myth of Declarations of War

by Scott Manning on November 15, 2012

There is some hubbub over the tweet by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) yesterday, announcing attacks against targets in Gaza.

Some folks dubbed it the “First Twitter war declaration.”

In reality, it is not a declaration of war, at least not one notifying an unsuspecting, peaceful neighbor of imminent hostilities. The IDF shot first and then declared, which makes the tweet simply an announcement after the fact.

This brings up an interesting topic though, as the Western World has a strong memory of its declarations of war. Who can forget FDR’s speech to Congress on December 8, 1941, asking for one against the Empire of Japan? Americans were beyond indignant at the notion that Japan would attack without first providing a declaration of war.


Since then, many have lamented the notion that declarations seem to be a thing of the past. I cannot recall how many times I have heard folks quote Robert De Niro’s character in Wag the Dog (1997), “We’re not declaring war. We’re going to war. We haven’t declared war since World War II.”

Yet, the lack of declarations of war is not a new development nor was it some sort of taboo on the part of Japan in 1941.  The reality is the history of warfare rarely includes an official declaration preceding hostilities.

The Channel Tunnel and War Declarations from 1700-1871

John Frederick MauriceIn 1882, Britain and France were in discussions to build what would become the Channel Tunnel, measuring roughly 31 miles under the England Channel. However, concerns arose over the notion this would weaken Britain’s secure, watery barrier, as the French or someone else may choose to use such a tunnel as part of a sneak attack.

British Lieutenant Colonel John Frederick Maurice (1841–1912) received a commission to determine “whether a country living in peace with all its neighbors has any reason to fear that war may suddenly burst upon it.”1 At the time, he was a veteran of several wars and a budding historian. He turned to history, focusing on the wars of Europe and North America, excluding American Indians.2

The results shocked him.

A year later, after examining 171 years of warfare (1700-1871), he published Hostilities Without Declaration of War (1883). Before he began his research, he believed,

that here and there a casual case might be discovered in which the ambition of Napoleon or of Frederick, had led to some breach of established usage. The result is to show conclusively that there has not been, unless in mere theory, and in the tone adopted by historians as to what ought to have been, any established usage whatever on the subject.3

Instead, less than 10 wars began with an official declaration of war, providing warning to an unsuspecting country that an attack was imminent.

Conversely, there were 107 wars initiated against a country living at peace with its neighbors.4 Maurice said he was startled by “the popular excitement, the indignant remonstrances, the sense of wrong” found in each attacked country.5 The attacked countries just never saw it coming or at least played up their indignation.

So why attack without a declaration of war? Anyone who has studied Sun Tzu knows the answer to that riddle. Maurice concluded that out of the 107 wars started without declaration, 41 of them occurred in hopes of securing “advantages by the suddenness of the movement and the consequent surprise of an unprepared enemy.”6 The remaining cases varied, but included unofficial wars, apathy toward declarations, and preemptive strikes toward what were considered hostile neighbors. Regardless, wars began more often with hostilities than with declarations.

The use of social media to announce the beginning of hostilities is a new and interesting development in warfare. However, we should label the IDF’s tweet as an announcement after the fact and not a declaration, lest we delude ourselves into believing that warfare begins with such things.


  1. J. F. Maurice, Hostilities Without Declaration of War: An Historical Abstract of the Cases in Which Hostilities have Occurred Between Civilized Powers Prior to Declaration or Warning, 1700 to 1870 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1883), v. []
  2. The inclusion of American Indians would have certainly reinforced his findings. I first learned of Maurice’s work from Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War (New York: The Free Press, 1973), 169-170. []
  3. Maurice 1883, 4. []
  4. Maurice excluded countries already at war, as a declaration from a third party did little good in that instance. Ibid., 4. []
  5. Ibid., vi. []
  6. Ibid., 5. []

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: