Gaza, Ukraine, Increasing Global Tensions, and the Nature of War

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Newsletter #219 — March 14, 2024



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by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Quincy Wright on War

Many, many years ago, when we were undergraduate students (at a time when professors could force students to do what, by contemporary standards, would be seen as an unreasonable amount of work), we both read Quincy Wright's monumental, 1700 page Study of War.  Of the many things that we learned from this experience, the thing that is stuck with us most over the years has been a deep understanding of the meaning and implications of Wright's definition of war: 

War is the simultaneous conflict of armed forces, popular feelings, jural dogmas, and national cultures, so nearly equal as to lead to the extreme intensification of each. (p. 698)

This definition makes a sharp distinction between all-out wars like United States' Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Napoleonic wars, and the many lesser military confrontations like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan which our professor, Howard Higman, referred to, using the Korean War era language, as mere "police actions." While these confrontations cost enormous sums of money, involved huge numbers of casualties, and had major geopolitical implications, they were not, least from the United States' perspective, wars in Wright's meaning of the term. They were, however, wars from the perspective of the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Iraqis, and the Afghans.

To understand the distinction between Wright's definition of war and other kinds of armed conflict, we need to look no further than the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas — a conflict that is a true war in Wright's sense of the term.  To understand why this is so, we will first work through the various elements of Wright's definition. After that, we will explain how this kind of war is so different from, and so much more dangerous than, the kind of armed conflicts with which the United States has been most recently familiar. Finally, we want to highlight areas in which risks of Wright's kind of war are rapidly increasing here in the United States and in many other places around the world — a danger that we ought to take much more seriously than we are. 

Conflict of Popular Feeling

The Israel/Hamas War is, first of all, a war of popular feelings (in other words grassroots citizen beliefs, attitudes and emotions). The October 7 attack and the almost complete absence of Muslim voices condemning that attack reflect the popular, long-standing, and deeply held belief that the presence of Israel and the Jews in the land of Islam is completely and wholly illegitimate — so illegitimate that a great many Muslims believe that they have a religious duty to annihilate the invaders or, at the very least, drive them out of Palestine and the rest of the Muslim world.

At a similarly grassroots level, Israelis and the larger Jewish Diaspora feel a comparable attachment to the land of Israel — an attachment that they deeply believe predates the birth of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the region. This popular belief is reinforced by the fact that, for all practical purposes, many Israelis have nowhere else to live. Israel is a nation composed of people who have been driven out of country after country (including virtually all of the Muslim world) — it is a land of refugees. 

The joyous, sadistic, and barbarous nature of the October 7 attack also did about everything imaginable to inflame popular feeling and dehumanize Gazans in the eyes of Israelis (in fact, it's hard to believe that was not a major goal of the attack). The ferocity of the Israeli counterattack, and the horror that Palestinians have had to live with since, has doubtless had a reciprocal effect. And they weren't starting from a neutral position.  They were starting from a widespread mutual distrust, anger, and fear. This is a situation that places grassroots citizens on both sides in direct conflict with one another — the kind of conflict that is going to be extraordinarily difficult to resolve.

Conflict of National Culture

The ongoing war is also a conflict between two diametrically opposed national (and religious) cultures. Islam and, especially, Islamic fundamentalists, are unwilling to tolerate any deviation from the core Muslim beliefs embodied in Sharia Law. This commitment to follow the "one true path" is reflected in the ferocity of the many wars fought within the Muslim world (between the Shia and Sunni communities, for example) over whose beliefs should be followed. It is also reflected in the region's intense opposition to what is seen as contamination of the region's culture by Westerners. That said, it is unclear just how much support fundamental views of traditional Islam have within Gaza, the West Bank, and the larger Muslim world. The tragic history of the Arab Spring, the horrors of the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and simmering opposition to the Iranian regime indicate that the conflict over national culture is widespread within Muslim world as well as between Muslim societies, Israel, and the West.

For their part, Israel and the Jews are deeply committed to their identity as a people, their way of life, and the many variations that exist in the way in which Judaism is practiced. Still, Israelis have a history of being vastly more open to religious pluralism and cultural coexistence, as is evidenced by the way in which non-Jews are treated within Israel and by Israel's frequent efforts, especially before October 7, to reach out to Palestinians in various humanitarian ways. That said, they most certainly do not want to live in the kind of Muslim dominated society that so many Jews have fled. In short, we can add to the conflict of popular feeling a reinforcing conflict of national culture. 

Conflict of Jural Dogma 

Another dimension of the Israeli/Hamas war is a conflict over what Quincy Wright, in somewhat dated vernacular, called "jural dogma" or legal principles. Both sides believe that their view of their legal rights is fully legitimate and the contradictory views of their enemy are fully illegitimate. Palestinians believe (and the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) supports them in this belief) that the descendants of all Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948 during the Nakba (what Israelis call the War of Independence) have a legal, and God-given right to return to the land of Israel — a place where Jews, they believe, have no legitimate presence. 

This is something that obviously conflicts with the Israeli belief that it, too, has a right to exist in this part of the world. Israelis point to continuous Jewish presence in the region dating back thousands of years, UN Resolution 181 establishing Israel as a nation state (in 1947), the fact that the Israeli population is largely composed of refugees from all over the world (or their descendants who were born in Israel).  Beyond this, their story is likely to focus on the long succession of things that Israel has had to do to defend itself from what, so far, has been an endless series of attacks.

From the Palestinian (and much of the outside world's point of view), the Israeli occupation of Gaza (from 1967-2005 and perhaps again at the end of this war) and the West Bank (from 1967 onward) is seen as completely illegal. And the behavior of some of the settlers and the army which restrict Palestinian movement, and attack and kill Palestinians and destroy their homes and livelihoods is, of course, seen as illegal as well.

Conflicts of Armed Force

The final element of Wright's definition of war focuses on the conflict of armed force that we traditionally see as the defining feature of war. The first three elements involve disagreements over how societies should be organized and how different societies should interact with one another. Armed force takes such conflicts out of this realm of dueling preferences and introduces the element of coercion — attempts to physically force (using lethal force, if necessary) those on the other side to  submit to the demands of their adversary. When competing societies simultaneously engage in such efforts, the result is the kind of large-scale violence that characterizes conflicts of armed force  

In the long series of actual wars, terrorist attacks, and Israeli responses that have occurred since Israel's founding in 1948, Israel has (with critical US support) been able to emerge victorious. Despite the substantial losses they have suffered, they have repeatedly been able to inflict even greater losses on their Palestinian and Muslim adversaries.

The ongoing war is, however, different. It presents the most serious threat to Israel since at least the 1973 Yom Kippur war and probably 1948. Today, there is a very real possibility that this war will be an historic turning point in a chain of events that ultimately leads to the decisive defeat of Israel, and its ultimate destruction. There is, of course, also a very real possibility that Hamas and the Palestinians that they claim to represent will suffer a major military and political defeat with enormous casualties, the destruction of much of Gaza, and the effective disempowerment of Hamas as a political force.

We do not know how this war will end. That is a big part of what makes Wright's kind of war different.  In this case, both sides recognize, for good reason, that they have to go "all-out" or they could easily lose. The question, of course, is what going "all-out" actually means. The much more competitive nature of the ongoing war is attributable to two big factors that have altered the power balance in ways that have so seriously weakened Israel's position to the point where it now faces a genuinely existential threat.

First of all, Israeli society has, in recent years, been seriously weakened by the Israeli version of the same kind of political hyper-polarization that has been tearing apart the United States. In Israel, this has degenerated to the point where, before October 7, mass protests against the government were routine, there was open talk of the possibility of civil war, and members of the Israeli Defense Force were talking about not reporting to duty. It was in this context that Israel failed to anticipate and respond effectively to the October 7 attack. 

Still, from a military perspective, a bigger factor is Hamas' embrace of an audacious strategy designed to, at enormous cost for the people of Gaza, undermine global support for Israel's right to exist and even the crucial diplomatic, military, and financial support that Israel receives from the United States. Beyond this, their apparent goal was to make life for Israelis so terrifying and miserable that those who could leave would choose to do so, and the global economy would be reluctant to do business in such a dangerous and uncertain place.

Hamas' strategy revolves around three key elements.  First was a provocative atrocity so extreme that Israel, a democracy, had no real choice but to launch a massive counterattack. Second, they entrenched their weapons and fighters deep within and under civilian areas, using those civilians as shields, thus making it impossible for Israel to fight back without producing large numbers of civilian casualties. Third, Hamas then used those large civilian casualties (at times exaggerated) to build global sympathy and support for their cause, while undermining global acceptance of Israel's legitimacy and right to exist.

It is this offensive strategy, combined with the weakness of Israel's initial defense that, together, have shaped this particular conflict of armed force in ways that Israelis now sees as a threat to their country's very existence. The war is, of course, also an existential threat to Hamas. In launching the October 7 attack and in promising more such attacks, Hamas effectively forced an existential war on both parties. 

So Nearly Equal As to Lead to the Extreme Intensification of Each

This brings us to the last part of Wright's definition of war — the phrase "so nearly equal as to lead to the extreme intensification of each," which is the scariest and most destructive aspect of Wright's definition. When one side is much more powerful than the other, it tends to win wars pretty quickly, leaving the other side little choice but to submit (perhaps with some kind of continuing and relatively low-level resistance campaign). While this often leads to the continuing oppression of the less powerful party, the destructiveness of the conflict itself is relatively minor (when compared with the kind of destructiveness that Wright is talking about).

The situation is much different when the power balance is nearly equal and it is not at all clear who is going to win. In such cases, this means that both sides are going to do whatever is necessary to win. They are not going to hold back, they are not going to worry too much about "appearances" or even rules of war.   They realize that, in order to prevail, they must be willing to make the fullest use of any and all available sources of power — both military and nonmilitary. They must be willing to make enormous sacrifices in terms of material resources and, even more tragically, human lives. They must also be willing to resort to extreme tactics, including those that would, in more normal times, be considered reprehensible and unacceptable. This is a situation in which reciprocal escalation (which we have often told our students is the most destructive force on the planet) comes into play as competing sides push each other to violate more and more taboos. The incredible toll of recent wars in Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine, in addition to Israel/Gaza give some sense of how bad things can get.

This is what makes the ongoing war in Gaza so different from the earlier confrontations between Israel and Hamas. In this war, Hamas is presenting a much more serious challenge, largely due to its support from the outside world that has been arming them for years (some intentionally, some unintentionally, as Hamas has, for years, appropriated resources intended to provide humanitarian aid to civilians). This has enabled them to assemble, train, and equip a formidable military force and then hide those forces in tunnels under civilian areas, making it impossible for Israel to avoid inflicting the civilian casualties that are turning world public opinion against Israel, as we described above. So despite the fact that the common assumption is that Israel is the "much more powerful oppressor and aggressor," and Hamas and the Palestinians are the much weaker, oppressed, "victims," their power is actually much closer to equal. As a result, the outcome of this war appears to us to be very much in doubt. 

However, the destructiveness of the war is being restrained by three factors. First, the war is between Israel and Hamas, not the people of Gaza. This means that there is reason to hope that, should Hamas be defeated, peace with the Palestinians would become possible. (This would be similar to the peace that became possible in Germany and Japan following the defeat of their fascist leaders.) Second, though we know some of our colleagues disagree with this statement, we think that Israel has not dehumanized the Palestinians in ways that are comparable to the Palestinian dehumanization of Israelis with its open calls for genocide and its particularly brutal torture, murders, and rapes that took place on October 7, and are threatened again. This has resulted in a number of Israeli efforts to reduce the war's humanitarian impact — efforts that were not reciprocated and hard to spot in places like Syria and Yemen. By contrast, Hamas has been strengthening its efforts to demonize Israel through actions that increase the war's humanitarian impact.  They have, for example, threatened to kill any Palestinians who cooperate with the Israeli effort to provide humanitarian aid, or who try to protect the aid deliveries from theft by Hamas (who then sells the desperately needed goods for high prices on the black market).  

The last major factor affecting the destructiveness of this war stems from the fact that this war has two primary battlefields — a the battle to destroy Hamas and a battle for global public opinion. This is placing enormous pressure on Israel to conduct its war in the most humane way possible (even if this means placing Israeli soldiers at greater risk and reducing the speed and effectiveness of its military operations). Unfortunately, the same pressures are giving Hamas an incentive to do all that they can to make Israeli actions look as inhumane as possible (including forcing Israel to attack civilian areas, making it hard for civilians to flee combat areas, and interfering with the flow of humanitarian aid).  

The other feature of war, in Wright's sense of the term, is that it is total war — something that quite literally encompasses the totality of affected societies. It is not the kind of frozen conflict that will that will fester like a low-grade fever for decades (though many such conflicts have the potential of exploding into total war).

While it is possible that this war will end with limited civilian casualties and the military defeat of Hamas, there are a great many ways in which the war could explode into something that would make the tragedy experienced thus far seen relatively minor. These include, most immediately, the possible expansion of the war into southern Lebanon where Hezbollah has assembled a similar, but vastly more formidable, array of military forces — forces that have the capacity to directly attack Israel's population centers from positions that are also deeply entrenched in Lebanese civilian areas. Beyond this, there is the potential of a wider war with Iran and its proxies, the kind of war that could easily involve the United States and escalate into a major superpower confrontation. 

How Wars End or Don't End

As you can see, the conflicts that Wright refers to as "wars" are all complex clusters of interrelated conflicts that have such deep roots in affected societies that it is hard to imagine any near-term steps that could be taken to simultaneously resolve them all. These are the kinds of societal schisms persist for very long periods of time and are generally so stable that the best that one can realistically hope for is some sort of continuing, but largely nonviolent, standoff. This kind of tense "coexistence" is likely to be punctuated by a complex and continuing array of "gray zone" skirmishes that allow parties to continue to fight, while keeping tensions below levels that would escalate into large-scale, "kinetic" violence and war — something that would be ruinous for all concerned. This is what Israelis and Palestinians have been doing in recent years, and this is what the magnitude and brutality of the October 7 attack destroyed. 

Apart this kind of Cold War-style coexistence, another way in which this kind of conflict can possibly be transformed is through a long, slow process of societal evolution leading to an erosion of the many points of tension that exist. This is, unfortunately, something that is extremely rare. Peacebuilders have helped such processes occur in a handful of places around the world: South Africa and Northern Ireland come most immediately to mind, although even those are far from the peaceful and vibrant societies peacebuilders had hoped for. In most of the other places peacebuilders have worked (and, indeed, many have been working in Israel and Palestine for decades), true transformation has proven to be stubbornly elusive. 

The other possible outcome of war is the decisive defeat of one party by another. This is the kind of thing that has the potential to send history off on a new and more positive path. This is what happened following World War II when the Marshall plan and the Allies' compassionate treatment of Germany and Japan transformed relationships in ways that made friends out of former enemies. While some of this was undoubtedly driven by a shared fear of the Soviet Union, it was still an enormous accomplishment (and a sharp contrast with the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I on terms that were so ruinous for Germany that it laid the groundwork for the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II). 

Following 9/11, the United States hoped that military victories in Iraq and Afghanistan would have led to a similar transformation in what has, for decades, been a troublesome part of the world. Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way – a fact that highlights the difficulties associated with transforming wartime relationships into peaceful futures. 

It is also critically important to remember that military defeat can, and very often does, send history off on a much, much darker path. For millennia, violent, aggressive regimes have been able to conquer, plunder, and oppress others in the most brutal and terrible ways. This is why efforts to avoid war have to be balanced against efforts to prevent and, if necessary, defend against aggression and tyranny. This is why ending the war in Gaza on terms that would validate Hamas' aggression is both wrong and dangerous. And this is why efforts to pursue peace must go hand-in-hand with efforts to resist tyranny and aggression.

Wider Implications — This Is About More Than Gaza

Our purpose in focusing on the Israel / Hamas war is not to continue the debate over the proper response to this tragedy. Instead, our goal is to use this as a concrete illustration of why the kind of war that Wright wrote about is so intractable and catastrophic. We need to recognize that there are a lot of ongoing conflicts that are getting precariously close to meeting the criteria laid out in Wright's definition. In the United States, for example, the conflict between the political left and the political right is certainly a deep-rooted conflict of popular feeling and very different cultures. It is also a conflict in which both sides claim to be the true defenders of democracy and believe that the other side's position is illegitimate, a direct threat to democracy, and without legal foundation. As is also obvious to outside observers, the United States, with its unalienable right to bear arms, off-scale incarceration rates, and staggering levels of violence is also a very violent culture — one that could, with the right set of provocations, quickly add armed force to the other three conflicts that already characterize its hyper-polarized politics.

As mentioned above, the war in Gaza is just the tip of a much larger array of Middle Eastern conflicts between Shias and Sunnis, between fundamentalists and the larger Muslim world, and, especially, between Islam and Israel and the rest of the Western world.  There are continuing tensions within Islam that produced (and violently suppressed) the Arab Spring revolutions and today's continuing internal opposition to the Iranian regime. All of these tensions could easily lead to more instances of brutal repression (such as we've seen in Egypt) or, perhaps, another all-out civil war with outside power involvement (such as we saw in Syria). 

There are also intensifying geopolitical tensions between China's much more rigid "social credit" culture and the contentious and often dysfunctional free-for-all that one now sees in Western liberal democracies. This is a schism that is evident in the way that Putin describes and builds support for his war in Ukraine and his larger efforts to challenge the West. 

Bottom line, if we are not very careful, any of these conflicts could easily explode is into the kind of gigantic war that Wright warned us about. We need to abandon the notion that the world is about to embrace a globalized cosmopolitan culture in ways that will usher in a new era of peace and justice. Instead, we need to recognize that we are sliding ever deeper into a series of conflicts that could easily erupt into the catastrophic violence envisioned by Wright. We need to take this threat much more seriously and start focusing on what it's going to take to maintain the inevitably tense peace between increasingly hostile nations and communities that are already in deep conflict across Wright's full range of dimensions. 

As we do this we need to remember that war is, at its core, a clash of civilizations.  Our objective is not just to avoid war; it is also to defend and strengthen our democratic civilization and continue our efforts to make our society more peaceful and just, while protecting us from aggressive authoritarianism and tyranny, internal and external.


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