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

by on 2014-05-08 in Duck- 13 Comments

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.” 


Print article

  • guest

    Quite agreeable discussion, I have two main objections:

    1) I agree with everything, up to the last paragraph, when you write: ” important work that needs to be done to investigate the nature of modern war and technological developments.”

    The nature of war does not change. That’s history. That’s logic. That’s Clausewitz. I take issue with this because all the cacophony you are correctly stigmatizing started from one of the most embarrassing works published during the past decades: Mary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars.

    Ok – I don’t take issue here with the fact the UN somehow funded part of the book’s underlying research and, incidentally, she ends up suggesting that the UN should take a bigger role. At the LSE somebody this kind of things sometimes get out of hand (David Held anyone?).

    The problem is that, if she did not inaugurate, certainly she contributed to this sloppy research agenda focused on finding new adjectives to characterize war. You seem to marry her approach, somehow: this would be quite contradictory.

    2) I wonder whether your discussion does not apply to a broader discussion and, in particular, to all the efforts we have seen during the past decades to look at the most marginal and useless factors to explain international stability without focusing on the elephant in the room: US hegemony.

    EP has a short discussion on this. Money quote:

    “This was a liberal order, which led to the question why non-liberal countries would comply with it. In the legal academy, all answers were suggested (“networks,” “internalization,” “naming and shaming” by NGOs, “fairness,” and so on) except the obvious one, which is U.S. power. Countries acquiesced in an order because they feared the consequences of dissent. Now that U.S. power is declining, all the pillars of the new order except trade are collapsing. Odd, too, how in retrospect all those scholars, acting entirely independently and in good faith, seem like the U.S. government’s in-house ideologists.”

  • Simon

    While I sympathise with your reasoning, I think you have failed to take into account how smart power changes everything.

  • Mary Manjikian

    I’m afraid I took notes on the new words I learned at ISA this year. My favorite? “Imbricated.” Still have no idea what that means — Can someone explain it to me?

  • Brandon Valeriano

    see my reply article in the next FA, “Dumb power, vodka, and the war in Ukraine”

  • Brandon Valeriano

    Bravo, good one. I sometimes want to ask people if they even know what they are talking about

  • Brandon Valeriano

    I conscientiously avoided engaging Kaldor. Not something I really want to get into, but I support this article as I helped process it as a grad student.

  • Simon

    Oh wow, so there are people who actually assert what I just did, such that you’ve got to reply to them? Yeah I’ll read that. I was just being facetious, btw. I don’t even think ‘soft power’ is that helpful of a concept, really, although I respect what it seems Nye was trying to do by developing it.

  • Brandon Valeriano

    I was joking too, we clearly need that sarcasm font

  • Simon

    What this mainly shows is that stupid foreign policy neologisms have reached the point at which Poe’s Law basically applies.

  • zenpundit

    “Cool wars”….what the hell?

    Irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and psychological warfare (no longer in official use here) covers most of the ground to which Schindler refers. With “special”, Schindler may be borrowing the term from our Russian friends where “special” was an umbrella term for NKVD/KGB, GRU and Red Army units involved in espionage, covert operations, terrorism, assassination (“special tasks”, later “wet affairs”), paratroop assault and similar activities.

  • John Measor
  • Cheryl Rofer

    Thank you. Unfortunately, I am afraid that all those who hope to attach their names to – whatever – will not listen.

  • Nqabutho

    Creating neologisms is usually, really never, a good way to understand even what are regarded as novel phenomena. If conceptual development is what’s needed, what usually happens is that we perhaps notice an ambiguity in a term whose use is well understood and at least roughly appropriate in the case at hand. We then make a distinction in the referents of the term, the new phenomenon vs. the previous, clearly indicating the properties of each. Then we add a modifier, perhaps an adjectival, to the term, differentiating it from the standard. In this way we maintain the essential feature of understanding, the unification of new particulars to ongoing structures of knowledge. This process is sometimes called ‘clarification’. The neologism OTOH is new, but unanchored.

    Putin’s Ukrainian gambit displays interesting new power play tactics, but it seems that they are rather designed to avoid war. The skirmishes on the streets of eastern Ukrainian cities OTOH are part of a dynamic that is probably fairly well understood.