Although war has had many names over the years, never let anyone rebrand that which has had an unchanged nature throughout human history.
Growing up, I recall my parents cynically tossing around the term “police action,” mocking its many uses to describe what eventually became known as the Korean War. Hundreds of thousands of troops and millions of civilians died in that war.
In 2011, then-Senator John Kerry described the U.S. involvement in Libya as “a very limited operation that is geared to save lives,” saying he “would not call it going to war.” The White House described it as “not a war; it’s a kinetic military action that is time-limited and contribution-limited on the front end.” U.S. planes destroyed at least 100 targets.
These are not the first politicians to rebrand war. Throughout the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, governments toyed with different names for war including “the exaction of material guarantees,” “Federal Execution,” “Reprisals,” and “Pressure.”1 Yet when these governments used force to compel an enemy to do their will, they were at war.
That definition comes from Clausewitz, a dead Prussian military theorist from the Napoleonic Wars. He wrote the seminal work of warfare—On War—which you can find it at any war college. In it, he defines war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” (p. 75). This means war is political, making it “nothing but the continuation of policy with other means” (p. 69). It is a basic concept but people have missed it through ignorance and evasion.
And yes, drone strikes, missile strikes, and dropping bombs count as using force.
Why It Matters
When we concede that these are indeed wars, we can examine them using the timeless nature of war. Returning to Clausewitz, the climate of any war will be the same, featuring danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance (p. 104).
Now apply these features to the rebranded wars. Did the “police action” in Korea feature danger? Was exertion involved in “the very limited operation” in Libya? Was there uncertainty in the “kinetic military action” of the same country? If the U.S. goes to war with Syria, will chance come into play?
Luckily, history is replete with wars to draw upon for theories, anecdotes, lessons, warnings, and just about every other intellectual tool we could hope to arms ourselves with before entering another war. History provides much less in regards to kinetic military actions, police actions, or very limited operations.
When we rebrand war, we run the age-old risk of fooling ourselves that we can execute war without the inherent danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance that has been part of every war in history.
- 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), 5. [↩]