War as a Living Phenomenon: Change from and Continuity with the Past in Warfare

By David Pappalardo

If there is one attitude more dangerous than to assume that a future war will be just like the last one it is to imagine that it will be so utterly different that we can afford to ignore all the lessons of the last one.”
Sir John Slessor

Understanding the future of warfare requires a consideration of its evolution. However, it is just as important not to fall into the trap described by Sir John Slessor during the period between the two World Wars. Indeed, war has a constant nature but its character is ever-changing under the influence of cultural norms, policy, and technology, and is driven by the two following engines: adaptation and innovation. Using the semantic field coined by Colin Gray in Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity, I propose to successively examine the factors of stability and change in warfare.

Factors of stability in warfare

War has a consistent nature. Historical and cultural factors tend to stabilize its character. Regardless of epochs, technology, or culture, war is first and foremost a human experience dominated by violence and polarized competition to seek political objectives. These two innate core values make the essence of war universal and timeless according to the definition given by Clausewitz: “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” Thinking about the future of warfare, we must never lose sight of the constant nature of war and the essential notion of “polarity,” without risking a miscalculation. In that sense, revolutions in military affairs in the last two centuries have created the illusion that we could compel an enemy through technological dominance. The examples of Afghanistan and Iraq are sound evidence that a strong will can counter the most powerful military in the world: “Weapons change, but man changes not at all,” General Patton argued. “To win battles, you do not beat weapons—you beat the soul of the enemy.” In other words, technology simply alters the character of war, which can only be understood contextually, as we will discuss later.

Although the character of war changes, it also encompasses some elements of stability and continuity from the past through historical and cultural influence. History is a source of experiences which can naturally influence a strategist’s behavior and set some rules or best practices. Napoleon studied some of the history’s greatest captains and found inspiration in their tactics. He claimed that “knowledge of the higher fields of war is acquired only by the study of the history of the wars and battles of the great captains and from experience.” One can be struck for example by similarities between the battle of Cannes led by Hannibal in 216 B.C., Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805, and the execution of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, all of which were focused on a strategy of envelopment. History never repeats itself but it is a source of inspiration that offers models, theories, and stabilization mechanisms for the character of war, at least for a finite period of time.

By the same token, nations have a collective memory of warfare, rooted deeply in their pasts and culture. The RAND scientist Michael Shurkin argues there is, for example, a French way of warfare which “attaches more importance to courage and beau geste than to victory.” British archers humiliated the French cavalry three times at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415), who kept up the assault in the name of the romantic spirit of nobility before reconsidering their tactics. Five hundred years later in 1914, the same ethos made young lieutenants charge the German infantry in ceremonial dress with white gloves to respect their oath for their first assault ­­­­- which, unfortunately would also be their last. Culture is learned patterns of behavior, values, attitudes, and beliefs, which ensure a relative continuity among the people who share it. This pattern of basic underlying assumptions is typically unconscious, and therefore, implies a strong inertia in the capacity for evolution. Nonetheless, continuity in war does not mean stagnation. Beyond its constant nature and some factors of stability, the character of war can evolve continuously and incrementally through both slow adaptation and innovation.

Continuity in change” through slow adaptation

War is a living phenomenon where “there are no constant conditions,” Sun Tzu claims. A progressive, slow, and uninterrupted process of change shapes its character through a slow adaptation to the environment and contingencies. According to Theo Farrell, there are three sources of military change: cultural norms, policy or strategy, and technology. All these sources do not lead necessarily to highly visible and radical changes, but surely, they slowly influence the character of war throughout the years. In War in European History, Michael Howard demonstrates how political and social changes have slowly shaped the character of war: [they] are not discrete activities but the expressions of state policy, the implementation of that policy by other means. As states change their nature, so will their policy change, and so will their wars.” Therefore, continuity in war implies change at the pace of policy change. For example, the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, transformed war into the property of the states and of the dynastic prince who introduced professionalism into warfare. One hundred years later in Europe, “wars of the revolution” differed from these “wars of professionalism” due to political changes. It was not an abrupt break but the result of a slow mutation combining the professionalism of the 18th century with the appearance of nationalism.

Thus, in warfare, continuity with the past is not necessarily an antagonism to change. On the contrary, a slow sequence of alterations or adaptations, and a progressive accumulation of lessons learned can drive transformation. In other words, Theo Farrell explains that “adaptation can, and often does, lead to innovation when multiple adjustments over time gradually lead to the evolution of new means and methods.” Napoleon found, for example, inspiration in Frederick the Great’s wars, which were fought with quite the same armaments. Nevertheless, Napoleon injected important tactical modernizations such as the formation of armies into autonomous divisions and a more flexible artillery. Therefore, continuity in warfare does not imply upholding to status quo ante but accumulation of lessons learned which can lead eventually to incremental innovation. Change in warfare is usually progressive, but can also be disruptive and radical.

Disruptive innovations create “change in continuity”

Finally, contrary to incremental innovations which take root as “continuity in change,” disruptive innovations create “change in continuity,” In other words, change in the character of war is both the result of evolution and of revolution. First, the examination of history reveals that this is not confined to the 20th and 21st centuries. The appearance of the longbow on the battlefield during the Hundred Years War was disruptive in two ways: it was the first use of a technology hitherto unknown which outranged the French crossbows and eventually shattered their cavalry. Above all, it went hand in hand with the introduction of new tactics: the rise of the infantryman in medieval warfare. This revolution totally reversed the character of wars for the next few centuries similar to the way the industrialization of European economies did at the end of the 19th century. The following centuries will hasten change in warfare with the appearance of numerous technological and doctrinal leaps.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, a combination of military competition and technology breakthroughs has increased the number and intensity of military revolutions. Yet, if the character of war is ever changing, it has no culmination. Based on Gulio Douhet’s thinking, aviation altered the fundamental character of warfare since he believed that future wars would be decided in the air alone. If this first statement was true, airpower has nonetheless showed its limitations in an asymmetric context. Similarly, the use of the atomic bomb – offset strategy par excellence – was qualified by Bernard Brodie as the “Absolute weapon” but did not fossilize the conduct of war. On the contrary, it was accompanied by circumvention strategies like irregular warfare. After the Vietnam War, improvements in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms (ISR) and accurate targeting were successful in the First Gulf War and Kosovo, but failed in Afghanistan. Therefore, disruptive innovations are highly visible but can also distract us from a more insidious “continuity in change” and fundamental truths in warfare, which hide relentlessly in their shadow. In the words of Sir Julian Corbett, there is no culmination point in the character of war and “nothing is so dangerous in the study of war as to permit maxims to become a substitute for judgment.”

To conclude with Colin Gray, “future war will include both change and continuity from the past.” War is first and foremost a human endeavor and a violent interplay of will, which make its nature universal and constant. Simultaneously, the character of war can only be understood contextually, shaped by cultural, strategic, and technological changes. Thus, the future of war is both decided by a slow-pace adaptation to experiences and history (“continuity in change”) and radical innovations (“change in continuity”). Finally, even though there may be critical technological advancements in the conduct of war, they will never stand as a culmination point: war is a living, multiform, and complex phenomenon in perpetual motion.

David Pappalardo is a French Air Force Officer and student at Air Command and Staff College. A multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen”. David has been involved in several operations over Africa, Afghanistan, and Levant since 2007.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministere Des Armees, the French Government, or the United States Air Force.

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