The War against Neologisms:  Calling Out “New” Types of War

8 May 2014, 0823 EDT

It seems that every pundit, scholar, and borderline academic publishing online has developed a new term to describe the state of war in the system.  I can’t browse the pages of Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, or even the New York Times without someone making up a new term to articulate basic and common features of modern warfare. roboduck

When I was younger (a wee political science bairn in Scottish), I thought all political scientists ever did was make up terms. A disproportionate number of the scholars we learn about in undergraduate classes include people who coined terms.  No matter if these terms were actually valid and described the concepts they seek to define, we still idolized them, read them, and followed their amendments to the dictionary.  Except we forget those that succeeded, those that truly deserve the accolades placed on them, did the work to back up their conceptual trailblazing.  For every Robert Dahl and Kenneth Waltz, there is a pretender making up a derivative and degenerative term that describes less than came before and actually funnels our wisdom into bit parts that don’t help explain a larger whole.

It seems like we have gotten back to this trend a bit lately, at least for those who seek to engage the policy field.  It is almost as if all professional blogs or op-eds must be written with some new neologism in mind.  This has become even more prominent with Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  The advent of new terms for war including “special war”, “non-linear war”, and the earlier “cool war” all do perplexingly little to help us understand the nature of war and how to solve the problem.

The first example we have is non-linear war, which Pomerantsev describes through Surkov noting that in the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight.  Now things have supposedly changed, it is “not two against two, or three against one. All against all. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle”

Non-linear war is a great example of these sorts of descriptive terms that fail to expand our knowledge, never actually describe the concept they seek to illuminate, and get the scope and trends of history entirely wrong.  While dyadic war has always been more common than multiparty war, multiparty (or complex war as I call it) has always been a feature of the wars we study.  What is more, this idea that people switch sides, even mid-battle, is used to express some sort of new force of chaotic war.  While side switching does happen, it is not non-linear; there is a reason for every choice in war.  I am sure deciding to switch sides in the middle of a battle would make for a great movie, but in reality its rare to non-existent.

We next have special war, used by the New York Times, and coined by John Schindler to describe the “amalgam of espionage, subversion, and terrorism by spies and special operatives.”  While this might describe what Russia is doing in Ukraine, it by no means is new or a useful addition to the types of war.  All wars have espionage and spying components.  There is an element of subterfuge to war since the idea began.  To argue that this is new, or changing how wars are fought demonstrates that someone has not even been paying attention to America’s own way of warfare since World War II, or even going back to the Swamp Fox and the Revolutionary War.

Then we have a bit older term, but relevant now, cool wars, coined by Rothkopf.  A bit more useful in that it describes the use of cutting-edge technologies on the battlefield but it also mightily fails in the assumption that these technologies are changing the “paradigm of conflict.” Cyber war has not changed anything except our passwords.  Drones are a terror for those in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but laughable in effectiveness when directed towards organized and prepared adversaries.  Automated robotic war might be in our future, but it has yet to change the battlefield and has not even changed the movie box office judging by the revenues of the latest version of Robocop.

The reliance on new terms to describe war can be devastating.  Our focus on what might be “cool” has lead some to suggest we need to actually support drone, robotic, and cyber warfare.  These types of war are less likely to directly involve humans and therefore are cleaner.  We then have a “duty to hack.”

What these sorts of pundits fail to understand is that war is not clean or predictable, even if it involves robots.  Drone combat actually leads to more PTSD, and likely more civilian deaths.  Cyber warfare never can be clean, the internet of all things means that we are deeply dependent on cyber technologies and therefore we can never expect a cyber war to remain isolated on the military.  It is also not a proven assumption that cyber wars will remain on a different track than conventional wars.  As for robotic war, we all know how the Wall-E story began.

All these new ways to describe old and basic concepts are distracting.  They distract us from analyzing true and important developments, but they also distract us from the important work that needs to be done to investigate the nature of modern war and technological developments.  Instead of being focused on describing the new neologism that will get you into Foreign Policy and a few bucks, we should be focused on the real research needed for our students and policymakers in order change the scope, impact, and frequency of war.  We have a duty to kill the neologism.


*Addendum, since I posted this yesterday, a few things have come up

I purposely did not wade into the Mary Kaldor “New Wars” pool.  That just opens up a branch of scholarship and I just wanted to focus on recent additions to the “new war” motif.  My favorite article replying to Kaldor is by Errol Henderson and David Singer.  It is a comprehensive take down of the New Wars genre in the early 2000s.

There is also this take on the issue written by William Owen in 2009.  “ In fact, the use of the new words strongly indicates that those using them do not wish to be encumbered by a generally useful and coherent set of terms that military history had previously used. As war and warfare are not changing in ways that demand new words, it is odd that people keep inventing them.”