‘How has warfare changed since WWII?’
War has been entrenched into our human history, and arguably our human existence, for thousands of years. And, whilst at its core, the nature of war remains perpetually constant- violent and fundamentally political- its character, warfare, the conduct of war, is ever ‘complex and changeable’, as was postulated by the renowned military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. In this essay, I shall seek to unpack how this has been compounded in the post- Second World War era, exploring the emergence of neologisms such as ‘hyper’, ‘hybrid’, ‘unconventional’ and ‘fourth-generation’ warfare and how this has been underpinned by the ever-evolving technological developments and shifts in spheres of geopolitical influence and political thinking.
Technology, the instrument of war, is undoubtedly the greatest game-changer in warfare: it ‘defines, governs and circumscribes war’. The significance of the discovery and deployment of the atomic bomb on the eve of World War II is unparalleled to that of any weapon and changed the course of warfare forever. Upon witnessing its first successful detonation at ‘Trinity’, Oppenheimer infamously remembered Vishnu’s words: “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”. For within this weapon lies the deific dichotomy of the future of human existence, capable of either our collective annihilation at the press of a fingertip or binding the scale of suffering of total war that had ravaged the first half of the 20 th century to the pages of history. To date, the latter has held true; for a whole human lifespan, nuclear weapons have deterred the most powerful countries from warring against each other, although unstable states such as North Korea continue to threaten this.
As it became increasingly evident that war between the great global powers would end human civilisation as we know it, broiling political tensions began to be altercated through small-scale ‘proxy’ wars on a scale previously unseen. This marked the beginning of a paradigm shift in warfare from the direct to the indirect and of the increasing intersection and confusion between conflict and peace, encapsulated in the neologism ‘Cold War’. In hindsight, it is widely marked as a period with heightened geopolitical tensions but of relative peace. Yet surely the engagement in indirect proxy war, whether by financial support or the use of armed personnel, is a clear demonstration of military intent and the clashing of arms and is thus, logically, war? Such is the paradox of modern warfare, the lines between war and peace being constantly blurred to the point where distinguishing them becomes impossible.
The 21 st century remains fraught with uncertainty, as the space between routine statecraft and open warfare, so called ‘grey-areas’, are increasingly breached. For example, NATO’s Article 5, the ‘cornerstone of the twentieth- century collective security framework’ declares each member state to consider an armed attack against one ally an attack against all of them. However, Article 5 requires this attack to be overt enough to warrant broad political consensus, a faultline Russia is incrementally infringing upon, whether by its annexation of Ukraine, intrusive diplomacy (such as Russian attempts to influence the 2018 midterm elections), and violations of NATO airspace.
Furthermore, from this shift from total to proxy war and the ashes of World War II emerged new battle lines and hotspots of tension heightened on the global stage. The emergence of the dipolar domination of the US and USSR, with each state vying for dominion, prompted the fragmentation of the world into ‘proxy’ states defined by their commitment to the political-economic ideologies of communism and capitalism. Thus, whilst the fighting grounds of the previous world wars had been largely confined to the theatres of Europe and the Pacific, this new ‘Cold War’ era harked the decentralisation and externalisation of meta-global tensions to the micronarratives of smaller ‘surrogate’ inter-state and intra-state conflicts, as well as creating a network of global political alliances of a fundamental significance to the global order. From many regions having previously been uninvolved in global conflict, from Central Africa to Latin America, Vietnam to Afghanistan, hardly anywhere on earth remained isolated and unaffected by this global confrontation.
Proxy wars also created a general shift in the character of warfare in the Cold War, whose impact has been amplified in the post-Cold War era. Whilst previous wars are widely considered to have used methods of ‘linear’ and ‘traditional’ warfare- the combat between the regular armed forces of sovereign states- since the latter half of the 20 th century we have seen the steady increase in methods of ‘unconventional’ warfare such as insurgency and terrorism. With the imbalance of power that emerged from the Cold War and military might of the U.S. making it unassailable to insurgent groups on the battlefield, these groups have redefined the battlefield, returning the carnage of warfare right to the heart of their enemy. From 9/11 to the 2017 Manchester bombings, terrorism has pierced its enemies with violence and grief on their own soil, with the shock and fear that have pervaded having severe political ramifications. These events have been significant in that terrorists have subverted the ‘exportation’ of war from the Cold War period, returning its bloodshed to areas untouched by war since the end of the Second World War. This is rendered evermore significant by many of these groups having their pasts anchored in Western intervention in proxy wars, such as America’s financial backing of the Mujahideen during the Afghanistan War leading to a faction of the group mutating into Al Qaeda. Thus, this form of ‘asymmetrical’ warfare has not only enabled terrorist groups to magnify their ideology and intent, but has fundamentally challenged the power of Western dominance and the validity of intervention.
This ‘fourth generation warfare’, used to describe the decentralized nature of warfare by William S. Lind, has further confused the lines between combatants and peace, battlefields and safety. As fear amongst the civilian population becomes a key element of warfare, the burden of war has been shifted from armed forces to civilians: in the second world war, 66% of deaths were civilians, whereas it is generally supposed that today 80-90% of casualties are civilians. Another milestone technological development that has forever altered the face of warfare is the creation of the computer. Born out of the Second World War, with the development of the code-breaking ‘Colossus’ machines at Bletchley park generally regarded as the world’s first computers, it has opened up a limitless world of possibility. Yet the computer, and internet that emerged from it, is also a Pandora’s box: within of algorithms and lines of code, war transmuted into the realm of hyperspace, giving rise to the ‘hyper war’. The more dependent our lives and the state become on technology- from social interaction, to healthcare, to espionnage- the more vulnerable we become to the hacking of that information by opposing forces. The impacts of these hacking events have the potential to be cataclysmic- for example, the ‘Wannacry ransomware attack’ in 2017, which the US and UK asserted North Korea was behind, affected 70,000 NHS machines, harking home the potential for loss of life at the touch of a button. In addition to this, the web serves as a recruiting ground for warfare, capable of transmitting propaganda and callouts around the global, a method popularized in recent years by terrorist groups such as ISIS. Thus, future warfare has the potential to be ‘contactless’, no longer constrained to the physical realms of arms and battlefields.
A further dangerous weapon has emerged from this ‘information warfare’: fake news. It’s aim: to create chaos, such as the Russian intention of using disinformation and confusion online to undermine faith in Hillary Clinton and US democratic institutions in the 2016 election, in order to tip the public towards an outcome that aligns with the agenda of these foreign actors. A war-time example of this is a Russian psychological operation against Ukrainian troops in the annexation of Crimea, whereby Ukrainian soldiers received anonymous mobile messages informing them to ‘leave their positions’, which the Ukrainian military later concluded was due to Russian military forces taking over the local cellphone network. From this combined use of conventional force, propaganda and cyberattacks has emerged ‘hybrid’ warfare, creating a multi-faceted edge to warfare rigged with deception in a bid to ‘outfox’ the opponent.
In conclusion, warfare has been marked by a series of paradigm shifts in the post Second World War era- from the direct to the indirect, the conventional to the asymmetrical, the physical to the virtual. These shifts have blurred the lines between war and peace, causing us to question the age-old definition of war (‘the armed fighting between two or more countries or groups’, Cambridge dictionary) and to re-valuate the meaning of the supposed ‘peace-time’ under which the majority of us supposedly live. For as Ernest Hemingway once penned: “Perhaps wars weren’t won anymore. Maybe they went on forever.”.
- https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/feb/23/artsandhumanities.higher education
- https://www.dailysignal.com/2019/11/15/how-russian-hybrid-warfare-has- weaponized-disinformation/
- https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/01/15/the-future-of-war-ii-as-the-nature-of-war- changes-the-familiar-dividing-lines-of-our-world-are-blurring-across-the-board/
- https://warontherocks.com/2019/03/why-did-it-all-go-so-wrong-an-arab- veteran-of-the-anti-soviet-jihad-speaks/