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Strolen's Citadel: Comprehending warfare By manfred

Gaming - In General
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April 9, 2006, 12:20 pm

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Comprehending warfare


The research reported on in this essay seeks to understand more about the judgment that there is “the time for war” in the belief that only such understanding will enable us to more effectively constrain the use of warfare.

Note: the following article is reposted from http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig6/denton1.html, but without the rather extensive tables, though. Follow the link to see them, too. The author is a Frank H. Denton

On the day the IRA formally renounced the use of violence, Gerry Adams asserted there was “a time for war and a time for negotiation.” The research reported on in this essay seeks to understand more about the judgment that there is “the time for war” in the belief that only such understanding will enable us to more effectively constrain the use of warfare.

I sought to discover the patterns and trends involved in the 1000 incidents of the use of warfare which occurred from 1400 to 2000. I find the results from the investigation very disturbing, but I believe they represent reality quite well and therefore cannot be readily put aside, despite their distasteful nature.

Looking back worldwide warfare occurred at a constant rate (1.3 new wars per year) from the middle ages until the end of the 18th century. With the advent of the industrial revolution new war starts doubled to 2.6 per year. In the early years of globalization warfare has gone up by another third to 3.5 new war starts per year. Clearly we are not succeeding in reducing the frequency of the use of warfare. Our base of understanding must be improved.

The data used represent an exhaustive listing of warfare incidents in the literate world. The fundamental data patterns supporting this essay are contained in the tables at the end of the presentation. My volume of collected papers on “Knowing the Roots of War” provides good detail and is available to anyone interested.


The most profound pattern found in warfare is that of the extreme stability in frequency of conducting warfare by major cultural groups. For six hundred years, corrected for technology change, the world community has started a fixed number of wars per year. In those years the West and Islam have fought a fixed number of wars per year. For six hundred years the West and Islam have held fixed shares of all wars and held constant the shares of wars against each other. Asians have fought a fixed number of wars per year, but within a different context. Tables 1-5 give the exact numbers behind these assertions.

One numerical citation here in the text is perhaps useful to indicate the degree of regularity. Using 33 year intervals and starting in 1400 the new war starts world wide were 44, 45, 45, 43, 46, 38, 49, 50, 39, 36, 40, 50. This list covers the years until 1800. In the 19th Century war starts doubled to 80, 92, 87. Prior to 1800 an average 44 wars were started during each third of a century. Excluding the war fatigue slowdown following the religious wars the max downward variation was 12 % and the max upward deviation was 11 %. Considering the level of technological and political changes that took place over these four hundred years this is a remarkable stability of pattern.

The technology effect referred to earlier comes from the steam power and industrial revolutions at the start of the 19th century. Increased industrial and financial capacity made it possible to support more warfare and the increased transport and communications capacity increased the interactions points and conflict of interests levels. As noted as this happened the fixed number wars per year doubled.

The other stability, fixed participation rates, carried across this divide from pre-modern to modern. Although the number of wars doubled at the start of the modern era, the share of wars participated in, both separately and against one another, by the West and Islam remained unchanged. (See Tables 4 & 5)

For the full six hundred year period the West and Islam together participated in 86% of all incidents of warfare. Thus, in terms of the total human experience of warfare since the end of the 14th Century it is Islam and the West that establish the institution.

Although there is long-term stability, there are three periods, each about a generation in length, in which the fixed level of warfare was reduced somewhat. The three periods are 1) The years following the religious wars, 2) the years after WW I and 3) the years after World War II. Each of these periods demonstrates the war fatigue effect. After the chaos of the French Revolution warfare in Europe did recede as would be expected; warfare was exported to other regions of the world, preventing a fall in overall warfare levels.

Within a technological window the long-term tendency is for a stable number of wars to occur. Moreover, the sharing of those wars between major cultural groups is fixed. Technological change does not change the mix of participants but does bring the level of warfare to a new and higher plateau.

Nonetheless within this stability pattern, there are elements for change. To reduce statistical clutter for the reader primarily concerned with conclusions I have collapsed the years before 1800 into a single time period that I term Pre-Modern while the years after 1800 are treated as a single period termed Modern.

While fighting levels are stable, the reasons given for fighting vary quite sharply between the Pre-Modern and Modern time periods. Five warfare descriptors which in my view tend to represent the interests of kings had an average occurrence in warfare of 31 percent Pre-Modern, falling to 19 percent in Modern times. Another six descriptors which tend to represent in my view the interests of people rose from an average 14 percent to 28 percent. Winston Churchill referred to this evolutionary effect in observing early in the last century that the wars of kings were gone and the more terrible wars of the people would be the wave of the future. If we look within the Modern period the trend of shift from kings to people has continued. The downward trending king’s wars indicators fall further to an average of 15 percent, while the people indicators continue upward to an average 33 percent.

Again my belief is that technological change is operating, changing values and interests and political systems as wealth and health security improve.

The changes in reasons for fighting are evolutionary, except for one category - that of ideology with respect to the proper ordering of society. This basis for warfare is cyclical in nature in these data. Traditionally Western and later World history is considered to have three periods in which revolutions in social thinking were occurring. First from 1520 to 1650 is the period of religious reformulation, second from 1776 to 1850 is the period of political reformulation and most recently from 1913 to 1989 is the period of economic reformulation. Warfare within these three periods occurs with the same frequency as for other years, but the prevalence of ideological conflict is unique to these periods. In aggregate during the 280 years encompassed by the three revolutionary periods, over a third of wars, 36 %, involved conflicts over which fundamental ideology was to prevail. For the 320 years outside the above intervals only 7 percent of wars involved conflicts over societal ideology.

In a single sentence the institution we set out to better comprehend, warfare, is stable in frequency of occurrence and in participation rates, is evolutionary in its justifications and is cyclical in terms of the intensity of conflict over fundamental beliefs about the nature of a system that will ensure fairness and justice. These are factual assertions, assertions regarding events that actually happened.

Another element needs to be added to this mix if we are to more fully comprehend warfare. Over the past three centuries in 700 incidents of warfare (excluding civil wars in which I did not feel it possible to determine success) more than half of the nations and groups initiating the warfare (firing the first shot) failed to reach their apparent objectives. An evolutionary element is present here also, with failure rates growing in the last 50 or so years.

With aggressors, failing to achieve success in managing their conflicts of interests through the use of warfare, after a period of fighting hostilities recede. After a further time of relative peace, normally less than a generation, hostilities are resumed in well over half of cases.

Man fights at a constant rate, given time specific capacity. Increased capacity to execute warfare increases the frequency of warfare. The political groups established by man participate in a fixed share and mix of wars. Man changes his rationale for fighting given improved quality and certainty of life and the nature of his political system. Periodically man focuses on fights over how to structure society when fairness seems to have receded too far. And in starting warfare man usually fails, requiring yet another war. A six-hundred history is not readily ignored. The above statements while absolutely true do seem to fail to make a lot of sense.

Why does man continue to fight when the track record of obtaining desired results is so poor?

Why would the rate of fighting, the rate of participation remain constant while the reasons for fighting change quite sharply?

Why is there a constant level of warfare - is it that the opportunities are constrained, or is it that the ability to sustain fighting is constrained, or is a combination of both?

Why do wars cease before issues are resolved and are then resumed after a period of time?

Why does the West fight twice as often as Islam and fights a fixed but small percentage of its wars against Islam?

To comprehend, I believe, we must first discard the concept that war is a rational pursuit of group interests as assumed/advocated by Clausewitz. It simply makes no sense, that I can comprehend, to attempt to reproduce this historical record out of any theory that presumes rational pursuit of interests.

Tom Clancy in his novel Debt of Honor had the National Security Advisor tell the President Almost every war since the Industrial Revolution was initiated by the side which ultimately lost. Q.E.D. going to war is not a rational act.

Where can we find irrational elements that could explain such an empirical record? Perhaps the following list gives some of the bases for warfare use and misuse.

   1. A Tendency toward violence, as end, is imprinted on the genetic code - there are as well other imprintings that work against that of resort to violence. The tendency toward violence is there and surfaces when the situation is right.
   2. Warfare has become a tradition and can be resorted to as an institution to manage severe conflicts of interests and beliefs. Warfare capability is kept ever at the ready
   3. Leaders who bow to pressure from other nations and groups are viewed by their people as weak and inadequate.
   4. To paraphrase, it is better to have fought and failed than not to have fought at all.
   5. Efforts to mislead the opponent with false information and with secrecy work against careful consideration of alternatives to warfare.
   6. Enmities become part of the social heritage - Ayodhya in North India for 500 years, the Crusades for nearly a thousand years are just two of many possible examples.
   7. Those falling in battle are eulogized.
   8. Mankind seeks absolute beliefs that will provide security of existence despite his mortality. These absolute beliefs are often judged as worth fighting for.
   9. Limits on financial capacity and limits on psychological willingness to experience “excessive” warfare place constraints on its use which presumably account for the upper bounds of the frequency with which warfare is used.
  10. With better quality of life and the health security against many terminal diseases, the needs for security and certainty of life restrain the genetic leaning toward violence through warfare.

This essay sticks with the facts of history. These facts raise many questions as to the why of warfare. The answers offered above are consistent with the historical record, but are not proven by it. One answer that appears to be inescapable is that warfare has been and remains a part of the human existence and there is little evidence that we have discovered means for constraining its use. Much remains to be done.

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Comments ( 7 )
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Voted MoonHunter
November 9, 2005, 14:51
It is technical and dry, but it is very, very telling.
November 10, 2005, 9:11
Yes it is. I was reading it with an unhealthy fascination. It had to be reposted, and it has yet to have an impact on my game world (too few wars - that definitely requires an explanation or a change of history).

So do we humans HAVE to have wars, and only pick some fashionable reasons? Is this our true nature? Answer for yourself.
Voted valadaar
January 4, 2007, 11:40
An excellent piece, though I have a problem with deciding on how to vote for these.
Voted Chaosmark
October 19, 2008, 20:08
The article is rather dry, with a light amount of commentary. Unfortunately, I can't really give this much of a vote, simply because it's a C&P with no new content. Can we come up with some ideas for how to apply this information into our game worlds?
October 21, 2008, 17:37
Good point there, Chaosmark. The basic idea coming from this article is to map out the various conflict zones in your setting and even assign to various cultures (or, heck, fantasy races) a certain 'affinity for war':
- how regular are wars for a group?
- who do they attack typically? From which follows:
- are their any traditional enemies?
- are there any intercultural clashes that tend to inflame over and over?
- are there some groups that never seem to wage any war despite not being allies? (That would be also interesting.)

You could have:
- groups that often engage in skirmishes, but not in true major conflicts
- 'seasonal warriors', who engage in war exactly when the right time comes, big time
- those never on the attacking side, but going after anyone to attack them

Based on this, you could easily fill the history of your setting with wars and deduce some general sentiments towards other countries. And so on...
October 21, 2008, 19:14
Now see, if you modified the post to be a commentary and explanation of the article like you just did, this would've been much better.
November 1, 2008, 16:11
There is alot to take in here, and without the tables from the base article alot of relevant information isn't as obvious. After reading it, I feel the urge to post some answers and rebuttals.

Why does man continue to fight when the track record of obtaining desired results is so poor?

War is a gamble, while the odds of winning a war you start are less than 50%, those are still better odds than winning the lottery or gambling on a horse race. People still do both. Also, with disinformation and optomism, no one starts a war thinking that they will loose it. I would think this a measure of nationalistic arrogance.

Why is there a constant level of warfare - is it that the opportunities are constrained, or is it that the ability to sustain fighting is constrained, or is a combination of both?


Why do wars cease before issues are resolved and are then resumed after a period of time?

Loosing is a major reason for a war ending before the issues are resolved. WWII followed WWI, stemming from the conditions that lead to the first war and the reparitions that followed it. The second reason is confusing symptoms with issues, some wars are ended once basic objectives are handled or deemed unable to be achieved. The First Gulf War ended when Kuwait was liberated from Iraqi control. The symptom was cured, but the main issue remain, IE Saddam in power. A hot issue can be cooled for a while, but until it is decisively dealt with (resolved or destroyed) it will come back like a horror movie slasher.

Why does the West fight twice as often as Islam and fights a fixed but small percentage of its wars against Islam?

The West fights twice as many wars because the West comes from a tradition of colonialism (look at the wars fought by the west in the 19th century, and remember that the west was most likely the British Empire). This has later translated into the west and the UN adopting a Police of the World attitude. Islam fights fewer wars because Islam isnt a colonial power, and commands a smaller amount of the world's resources and combat capability.

Some other issues:

Modern wars have increased in numbers, but in most part have decreased in scale. Mechanization and specialization have allowed a smaller number of men to do the same fighting of what used to take a larger number. Mobility has replaced in large extend massive defences. In WWI, 4,355,000 Americans fought in the trenches. The Vietnam conflict was fought by just over half a million American soldiers. Compare that to the current war in Iraq and the 'troop surge' that boosted numbers there to 120,000.

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