When Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey were called to testify before Congress to get authorization for possible military airstrikes against Syria, there was an exchange between Kerry and Libertarian Republican Rand Paul about what war was and even if military airstrikes against Syria should be considered as such.
Suddenly it became clear about a clash of generations when Kerry referred to Hagel, Senator McCain and himself as knowing about what war was like, arguing that an airstrike against Syria was not war. More importantly, the difference in opinion was not just a clash of generations, but about an evolution of war itself.
Conflicts have evolved from declaration of war and clashes between massive armies, ships, and airplanes into two distinct categories: 1) urban and non-urban low intensity insurgency conflicts, and 2) relatively short but destructive bombing campaigns against states and non-state actors.
The evolution of some conflicts, more specifically after World War II, into low intensity conflicts and short airstrikes campaigns against states and non-state actors have changed the traditionally understanding of what war is. Small insurgency conflicts and even short airstrikes campaigns must be considered as war, because its destructive and violent nature remains unchanged.
Among the most fundamental deviations are: 1) these new wars have no clear end-game, making strategic objectives blurry, 2) declaration of war by Congress and the use of massive military hardware become less relevant, 3) whoever controls the people’s hearts and minds, controls the pace and the direction of the war, 4) the enemy’s objectives is not to defeat but to wear out people’s support for the war, and 5) the revolution in the flow of information has made the average citizen more sensible to the suffering and the reality of war.
These new wars of the 21st century are also less destructive, with fewer casualties and lesser use of military power but more vulnerable to public opinion. Public opinion itself has become the backbone of any military intervention anywhere. Representing an evolution of not just tactics, but also a shift in the average citizen’s behavior; people are becoming ever more intolerable to sending someone else’s child to war.
Even though some short wars have been referred to as “conflicts”, this is only a softer definition to the destruction and chaos of war. An airstrike campaign against Syria should be considered as war, in the words of former director of both NSA and CIA, General Michael Hayden: “When you go into a sovereign country and blow things up…that sounds a lot like war to me”.
It is difficult to avoid the title of war when conducting military operations that most likely will kill people, because the nature of war remains the same, the meaning and consequences of war can never be replace with lesser understanding of it