Fighting Words

Has the nature of "war" changed since the days of Clausewitz?

In a 1942 case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court held that there is no First Amendment right to utter "insulting or 'fighting' words -- those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Needless to say, this is a doctrine of surpassing vagueness (and it has been substantially narrowed since 1942), since if you don't know the norms of a particular community, you have no way of knowing what might constitute "fighting words." Language capable of causing riots in Des Moines might be merely yawn-inducing in Manhattan, and vice versa.

So it is here in the (virtual) pages of Foreign Policy, where last week, Tom Ricks fecklessly posted excerpts from a preliminary concept paper developed by the New America Foundation's "Future of War" project team (of which I am fortunate to be a member, together with Tom, Peter Bergen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sascha Meinrath, and a bunch of other smart and interesting people). In the concept paper, we outlined the importance of looking at "the changing nature of war."

Innocuous, you say? Not so!

To the Clausewitzian strategy community, dem's fightin' words. We might as well have insulted David Ortiz's mother in Fenway Park, or informed a die-hard Marxist that there's no such thing as the proletariat.

Within days, I received several kind notes from friends and acquaintances, informing me that to the classically-trained Clausewitzian there can be no such thing as the "changing nature of war," and urging the Future of War team to delete this phrase before anyone else noticed our terminological muddleheaded-ness.

But it was too late. The initial Future of War posts had already generated a blogospheric Clausewitzian rebuttal, posted by Christopher Mewett in War on the Rocks and soon reposted on the Small Wars Journal's blog. Mewett takes the Future of War team to task for our lack of "careful attention to semantics":

According to the Prussian, war's nature does not change -- only its character.... The nature of war describes its unchanging essence: that is, those things that differentiate war (as a type of phenomenon) from other things. War's nature is violent, interactive, and fundamentally political. Absent any of these elements, what you're talking about is not war but something else. The character of war describes the changing way that war as a phenomenon manifests in the real world. Further confusion in this case stems from the Future of War team's formulation: "changes in the nature of warfare." 

War and warfare are different words with a different meaning, and we should be careful about their use. Warfare, of course, doesn't have an enduring, unchanging phenomenological "nature," as it is merely the way war is made.

Mewett is far from alone in his insistence on the importance of these Clausewitzian distinctions. As the military strategist Colin Gray has written (not, thankfully, in response to Tom's blog posts), "Many people confuse the nature of war with its character. The former is universal and eter­nal and does not alter, whereas the latter is always in flux."

So did the Future of War team goof up? Should we have recognized that our reference to the "changing nature of war" would incite an immediate breach of the peace?

I'm torn. On the one hand: mea culpa, or we-a culpa, or whatever it is one says when one is part of a group goof-up. Mewett and others are quite right to call us out for rather slipshod use of terminology in the Future of War concept paper excerpts posted on Best Defense. The concept paper represented a preliminary effort to lay out a research agenda, not a polished final product; worse, it was more or less written by committee, which is never a recipe for coherence or great prose (despite heroic editing efforts by Peter Bergen and Tom Ricks). We should have defined our terms with greater care.

On the other hand: With due respect to You Know Who and his many erudite interpreters, I'm not quite ready to accept the claim that the nature of war is "universal and eternal" -- or, at any rate, I'm not sure that this is a particularly useful construct for understanding what is at stake in many current debates about what constitutes war.

Mewett articulates the standard Clausewitzian understanding of war: It is, by nature, both violent and political. Its violence is what distinguishes it from other forms of conflict and contestation (games of chess, for instance, or economic competition between corporations or nations); its political aims are what distinguish it from other forms of violence (such as street muggings or boxing matches). This gives rise to the claim that war's nature is unchanging: Weapons, tactics, and so on will change over time. But war's "nature" will always consist of these essential components: violent means and political ends.

Up to a point, this framework is helpful: If we want to theorize about war, (as opposed to particular wars), we need some coherent way to distinguish war from non-war.

But does this require that we go a step further, and agree that the "nature of war" is eternal and unchanging? Clausewitz himself seemed less sure about this than many of his followers: On this point, admits Colin Gray, "Clausewitz, for once, is less than crystal clear." (Others might quibble with that "for once.") Notes Gray: "The great Prussian wrote, confusingly, that 'the nature of war is complex and changeable.'" Score one for the Future of War Team!

Regrettably, as Gray goes on to remind us, Clausewitz also wrote that "all wars are things of the same nature." Being long dead, Clausewitz is not available to clarify these seemingly contradictory statements; Gray, however, concludes that Clausewitz simply erred in his first statement, but was "correct in the second claim."

Hmm. Was Clausewitz's first statement just incorrect? Tell it to the numerous scholars, military strategists, and other commentators who speak -- not at all metaphorically -- of "cyberwar," "financial war," and so on.

Take cyberwar: Much of what is often spoken of under the "cyberwar" rubric is not violent in the Clausewitzian sense of the word. Cyberattacks might shut down the New York Stock Exchange and cause untold financial damage, for instance, but would we say that this makes them violent? Or, say cyberattacks shut down the electrical grid for several major cities, and as a result of the loss of power, a few hundred hospital patients on ventilators die. I'm still doubtful that most of us would call this violence in the usual sense of the word.

Some argue that activities in cyberspace cannot truly be considered war unless they lead directly, rather than indirectly, to physical destruction or injury. STUXNET, for instance, damaged computers and centrifuges. Even this, however, seems very far away from violence in Clausewitz's sense of the word.

So, if one believes it possible to speak of cyberwar or financial war, might one not argue that the "nature" of war is indeed changing?

The Clausewitzian could of course respond that this is simply a category mistake: You can blather on all you want about cyberwar or financial war, but if what you're talking about is not both violent and political, it's just not "war," but something else. It may be an important something else, even a world-altering something else, but it's still not war. Or maybe those who speak of cyber or financial war are just confusing "war" with "warfare": the latter includes, as an ancillary matter, numerous non-violent activities (logistics, planning, communications), but these do not, in and of themselves, constitute war.

These possible responses strike me as too facile, however. The assertion that war's violent and political nature is eternal and universal -- and that therefore anything that is not both violent and political cannot constitute war -- rests upon the further (though usually unstated) assumption that violence and the political are also fixed, eternal, and universal.

The assumption here is that violence is (and only is) what Clausewitz deemed it to be: "physical force," directly applied. But violence, like war, is a term that derives its meaning from the broader social and linguistic framework in which it is embedded. (So too for the term "political," and, for that matter, for pretty much every other word and concept.)

Most of us think of violence as the use of physical force to damage or injure for the purpose of inflicting suffering or asserting dominance. We thus don't view surgery as an act of violence; similarly, we don't think using a bulldozer to destroy a house constitutes violence if the bulldozer is operated at the behest of the homeowner, but we do consider it violence if it's operated by, say, Israeli military forces and used to destroy homes in Gaza.

But there are many other ways to understand and define violence. Consider various forms of psychological torture or abuse. Or consider cyberattacks that lead to loss of life as an indirect result of extended power outages: Why not view such attacks as a form of violence if they lead predictably to loss of life? Or what about economic sanctions, for that matter: Numerous U.N. reports concluded, for instance, that economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of malnutrition. Insofar as these deaths were the predictable consequence of the sanctions regime, why not call the sanctions a form of violence, as many critics (including many ordinary Iraqis) did?

Theorists have been squabbling over definitions of violence for a long time, struggling to draw clear and coherent distinctions between violence and a host of related concepts, such as force, power, authority, strength, coercion, and dominance. And my point right now is not that one way of understanding violence is right and another is wrong; rather, it's that the term "violence" can itself be understood in multiple different ways, and different societies will conceive of violence in different ways at different times. The same is true of the idea of "the political."

But if this is so, then saying "the nature of war never changes" devolves into a meaningless truism. War's nature is violent and political -- but if what we place into the categories we label "violence" and "politics" can change, then what do we gain by claiming that war's nature never changes?

Christopher Mewett's critique of the Future of War concept paper raises another interesting issue. Our concept paper, notes Mewett, argues that "changes in the nature of warfare ... (This time we said warfare!) profoundly shape both the manner in which the state is organized and the law itself." But, says Mewett, "it's almost certainly more true that the manner in which the state is organized shapes the character of its wars. There is something of a feedback cycle in play: Social, political, and technological change impact the way wars are fought, and those wars often influence the way society and politics are organized. But war is a subset of politics, of human society -- something that the Future of War team seems to have just as backwards as the technologists and Revolution in Military Affairs advocates who preceded them."

This criticism, I think, rests on a misunderstanding of our arguments (though we may have made such a misunderstanding possible by breaking up a longer concept paper into shorter excerpts posted on different days). I don't think anyone on the Future of War team would disagree with Mewett's characterization of the complex feedback cycle between how wars are fought and how societies are organized; we cite, for instance, Charles Tilly's famous line, "War made the state and the state made war."

In a strict sense, Tilly, too, could presumably be taken to task for his terminology: If war is eternal and universal, the state can shape "warfare" or war's character, but not "war" itself, since war predates the state. And the specifics of Tilly's historical argument do indeed relate to modes of warfare, rather than war as such.

The state chooses which wars to fight and how to fight them. But the modern, neo-Westphalian state does more than that. It also defines war, from both a legal and institutional perspective. It is the state that creates and defines the role of the military (defined, more or less, as "that state institution designated as responsible for the activity called warfare"), for instance, assigning it certain tasks and assigning certain other tasks to non-military entities. It is also the state that defines the legal contours of war.

To put this in terms of current issues, the U.S. government can decide to create a military Cyber Command and recruit cyberwarriors, or it can decide that cybersecurity should be the sole province of civilian agencies and that it has nothing to do with war. Similarly, as a legal matter, the state can decide to treat cyberattacks as acts of war, subject to the laws of war, or it can decide to treat them as crimes, subject to criminal law.

In other words: Clausewitzian verities notwithstanding, it is the state -- the putative monopolizer of the means of legitimate violence, and the ultimate war-making entity -- that literally makes war. It is the state that chooses to place some things into the institutional and legal basket labeled "war," and place other things into different baskets.

This matters. Consider a hypothetical: Let's say that al Qaeda forswears the traditional tools of physical violence and focuses solely on cyberattacks designed to bring down America's financial infrastructure. If the state decides -- through legislation or executive fiat -- that such cyberattacks constitute "war" in a legal and institutional sense, then a teenage al Qaeda hacker would be a "combatant." If he's a combatant, he can be captured and detained indefinitely without trial or charge. (Not so if cyber___ is not a war.) In fact, if he's a combatant, even if only in the cyber domain, he can be targeted and killed by the military using non-cyber tools: a missile fired from a drone, for instance.

War, as Clausewitz emphasized, is a social phenomenon; it is inextricably bound up with and defined by choices that are made in the political realm. And there is indeed a feedback cycle: When the state adds more to the basket labeled "war," it can change the relationship between individuals and the state -- by altering "rights," for instance, or altering the degree to which the state's use of power is subject to internal checks and balances. Ultimately, by adding more to the war basket, the state may set in motion a cascade of changes that end by transforming the state itself.

I said a moment ago that the state "chooses" what to put in the war basket, but this of course is to anthropomorphize the state. States are made up of people, and the choices of the people who make up the state are influenced and shaped by arguments made in military schoolhouses, Congressional hearings, academic journals, Sunday talk shows, and yes, even blogs and Foreign Policy articles. That means that we're part of this, too: Colin Gray and Christopher Mewett, Tom Ricks and I, and everyone else who takes part in conversations and arguments about the nature and definition of war.

Arguments about the definition of war are always, in some sense, efforts to shape, constrain, or channel violence and power. The words we use to define war are always "fighting words." When our words are adopted by the state itself, those words can be transformed -- via state institutional arrangements and via the law -- into violence; they can literally inflict injury or cause a breach of the peace.

But, you ask, where does this leave our Clausewitzian aficionado?

Take my hypothetical teenage al Qaeda hacker -- and imagine, if you will, that he is a Clausewitz aficionado. Informed that the United States considers him a combatant who can be detained or targeted under the laws of war, he declares firmly that this is definitionally inappropriate. 

"As all Clausewitzians know," explains the young hacker, "war's unchanging nature is both violent and political. My own cyberactivities are aimed at toppling the U.S. financial infrastructure, and while the United States naturally objects to these activities, they are clearly not 'violent' in the Clausewitzian sense. This means that whatever I and my fellow al Qaeda hackers are doing cannot possibly constitute 'war.' And since there is no war," the precocious, Clausewitzian al Qaeda hacker concludes triumphantly, "the laws of war are not applicable in this situation. I therefore cannot be a considered a combatant, and I cannot be detained without due process of law. I most certainly cannot be killed by the U.S. military."

To this, our anthropomorphized state might respond with an icy shrug: "Tell it to the judge."

Or: Tell it to the Marines, or the Hellfire missile, whichever comes first.

Author's note: This article is too long, but still not nearly long enough to do the subject full justice. Don't worry, though: The Future of War project is going to get it all figured out, tout de suite -- with your help! If you think I got everything dead wrong in this piece (or that the Future of War project has it all wrong), you can email me at rosa.brooks@foreignpolicy.com, or submit an entry to Tom Ricks's Best Defense Future of War Essay Contest. If you are interested in war and language, there's a lot out there by people who really know what they're talking about, but my own arguments in this column are amplified here, here, and here, as well as in some of my longer academic articles, which you can find here.

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl

By Other Means

Incarceration Nation

What if America's incarcerated population really was a nation?

You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. If you look at local, state, and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.

A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia. This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?

Here's a profile of Incarceration Nation:

Population size: As a country -- as opposed to a prison system -- Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain, and Iceland. And though the population of Incarceration Nation has dipped a bit in the last couple of years, the overall trend is toward growth: over the last 30 years, the incarcerated population of the United States has gone up by a factor of four, making Incarceration Nation's population growth rate more than double that of India.

Geographic area: This is a tough one, since I haven't found any way to accurately measure the physical space occupied by Incarceration Nation. We have to do some educated guessing here. There are more than 4,500 prisons in the United States. Let's assume that each of those prisons takes up about half a square mile of land -- a reasonable (and probably quite low) estimate given that most prisons are, for security reasons, surrounded by some empty space. That gives Incarceration Nation an estimated land area of about 2,250 square miles: small, but still larger than Brunei, Trinidad and Tobago, Luxembourg, Bahrain, and Singapore.

Population Density: No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India. Of course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don't have access to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates. In 2011, federal prisons were operating 39 percent above capacity; in many state systems, overcrowding was much worse. (In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court found that overcrowding in California prisons was so severe it constituted "cruel and unusual punishment".)


A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families. In New York, for instance, one study found that "70 percent of incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from their homes" -- often in "isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes."

Birthright citizenship? Though most residents are immigrants and displaced persons, an estimated 10,000 babies are born each year in Incarceration Nation. Most of those babies are deported within months, generally landing with foster families. But Incarceration Nation does have its own form of birthright citizenship, if you can call it that: as many as 70 percent of children with an incarcerated parent end up incarcerated themselves at some point. 

Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India, and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1. 

Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil. Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed. For the average American, this means that one's odds of spending time in Incarceration Nation depend greatly on gender and race: a white woman has only a one in 111 lifetime chance of ending up incarcerated, while a black man has a whopping one in three chance.

Health: Incarceration Nation doesn't do so well here. One recent study found that the incarcerated are "more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress." Tuberculosis rates, for instance, are 50 to 100 percent higher for inmates than for the general U.S. population. (If Incarceration Nation were a real country, it would have the highest TB rate in the world.) More than half of Incarceration Nation's citizens are mentally ill, with depression rates roughly on a par with those experienced by citizens of Afghanistan. Another recent study found that for every year spent incarcerated, life expectancy dips by two years.

Human Rights: Incarceration Nation is a police state. ‘Nuff said.

Economics: Incarceration Nation doesn't make it easy for outsiders to understand its unique economy, but it's possible to gather a few data points.

Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State, the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an astronomical $168,000 per year.) Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy states of the OECD, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.

Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn't have a GDP, per se, but that doesn't mean it doesn't turn a profit -- sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40 U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion. Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74 billion on prisons each year. (This doesn't count spending on state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It's higher than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world, including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal, and Lithuania.

Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators, and the like -- almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry -- and in some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor. Overall, private prisons house roughly 10 percent of Incarceration Nation's residents, and large private prison companies (such as CCA, the Geo Group, and Cornell Companies) boast impressive annual revenues. In 2011, for instance, CCA -- which urges potential investors to take advantage of "highly compelling corrections industry dynamics" -- has an annual revenue of over $1.7 billion, and its CEO, Damon Hininger, was the happy recipient of some $3.7 million in executive compensation in 2011.

Labor Standards: If you think low labor costs in countries such as China and Bangladesh are a threat to U.S. workers and businesses, labor conditions in Incarceration Nation will dangerously raise your blood pressure. Take UNICOR, a.k.a. Federal Prison Industries, which employs 8 percent of "work eligible" federal prisoners. Hourly wages offered by UNICOR range from 23 cents an hour -- about on a par with garment workers in Bangladesh -- to a princely $1.35 for "premium" prisoners, comparable to the hourly wage of Chinese garment workers. That's a good deal less than the $2 average hourly wage for a manufacturing worker in the Philippines, or the $6 an hour average wage for Mexican manufacturing workers.

Who benefits from these low wages? The U.S. Department of Defense, for one. The DOD is UNICOR's largest customer; in fiscal year 2011 it accounted for $357 million of UNICOR's annual sales. UNICOR makes everything from Patriot missile components to body armor for the DOD: In September 2013, for instance, the DOD announced that the Army has awarded UNICOR a "$246,699,217 non-multi-year, no option, firm-fixed-price contract...to procure Interceptor Body Armor Outer Tactical Vests for various foreign military sales customers."

This is a great deal for everyone except the population of Incarceration Nation, since they're stuck with forced labor at wage levels that would make many third world employers blush. No one likes to talk about this, of course: "We sell products made by prison labor" isn't the kind of slogan likely to generate consumer enthusiasm. But to those in the know -- as an online video promoting UNICOR's call-center services boasts -- prison labor is "the best-kept secret in outsourcing."

Maybe Incarceration Nation really is a foreign country.

John Moore/Getty Images