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The Apotheosis of War by Vasily Vereshchagin, dedicated "to all great conquerors, past, present and to come".
It never changes
Icon war2.svg
A view to kill
I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
—William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865[1]
Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? ... But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.... That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
Hermann Göring, noted expert on starting wars, interviewed during the Nuremberg trials.[2]

Throughout history, whenever diplomacy fails or when a dispute could not be settled peacefully, violence broke out. When enough people are involved in an armed conflict, we call it a war (a.k.a. "America's favorite pastime"). War is the noblest and most glorious of human activities. Many efforts have been made to either prevent wars, or at the very least to reduce their likelihood[3] or to mitigate the effects of war.[4] They still occur frequently, as they did in the past, although most of the violence has nowadays shifted to the sub-state level.

Types of wars[edit]

War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.
—Carl von Clausewitz, On War[5]

A war is a large-scale conflict between two or more groups in which each group attempts to achieve a political goal of some kind through the employment of violence, often with the goal of the winner forcing the loser to the bargaining table to agree to terms favorable to the victors. However, the exact scale of deaths needed to call something a war is constantly under debate. There are several broad types of wars, which can be divided and subdivided to your heart's content.

International war[edit]

The glorious results of war.[note 1]

Since the rise of the concept of the nation-state, wars have traditionally been fought between the armed forces of two or more sovereign states. While irregulars and guerrillas may play a part in such wars, the states are the ones in control.[6] Such wars are, at least in principle, governed by international law (most notably the Geneva Conventions[7]), and explicitly discouraged by institutions such as the UN, which had its member nations renounce war as a method of solving disputes. However, politics being what it is, this just means that most wars today are undeclared.

War of aggression[edit]

Wars of aggression are fought without the justification of self-defense. Since they are often fought over controlling land, they are also known as "wars of conquest". They are not necessarily fought for territories and their resources; as a matter of fact, in ancient times, invasions were often more about pillage than empire-building. In other words, these tended to be punitive expeditions rather than conquests. Today, wars of aggression are frowned upon by pathetic pacifists considered a crime against humanity.

War of annihilation[edit]

A subset of wars of aggression: in this case the goal of one or both sides is the total destruction of the opposing group. Nuclear wars belong to this category.

Civil war[edit]

Mass grave from the Spanish Civil War.

A civil war describes a situation in which factions within one nation fight for control. This covers armed insurrections against the government, as well as organized violence between groups that the state is unable to stop. In both cases, civil wars can turn into international conflicts when outside powers are invitedprompted to intervene, and in such cases often become proxy wars (see below) between those external parties. Civil wars are often extremely bloody affairs, because they blur the line between soldiers and civilians. Sometimes, one or more of the factions involved also wage all-out campaigns of genocide or ethnic cleansing, in which civilians become targets rather than "collateral damage".

Revolutionary war[edit]

Wars of revolution are also usually confined to a single country's territory (but compare - for example - the French Revolutionary Wars[8] and the Polish-Soviet War[9]). Their purpose is to overthrow the existing government structure and replace it with something the revolutionaries think will better serve the people. There are basically two kinds — in one, usually called a war of independence, a country or territory seeks to liberate itself from a colonial or imperial power; in the other, the goal is to overthrow the country's existing independent government. Examples of the former include the American War of Independence against England, and the Algerian one against France. The latter include the French, Russian, and Cuban revolutions. As with most wars, the "legitimacy" of the revolutionaries is definitely in the eye of the beholder — one person's freedom-fighter is another person's terrorist. Also keep in mind that history is written by the victors, assuming the losers are completely vanquished.[note 2]

This is a subsection of "civil war" because there isn't really that much of a difference between a civil and revolutionary war, beyond that the people win in a revolution and the government wins in a civil war.

Religious war[edit]

God's always on your side in a war. There's never been a war, as far as I know, when halfway through a general has said to his men: "Men – last night, in this, our hour of need, I prayed to God. Uh, unfortunately, it seems he's backing the Turks on this one..."
—BBC GCSE BitesizeWikipedia revision[10]

Religious wars are usually civil wars, though they can also be international. A religious war is one where the primary motivation behind the war is specifically religious. The most well-known religious wars were those between the European states and the Islamic and pagan worlds during the Crusades, or between the Protestant and Catholics sections of Germany during the Thirty Years War. In terms of casualties, the Taiping Rebellion was the largest religious war. At the start of the twenty-first century, it seemed that religious wars were on the decline, but a few see United States military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in that light.

Proxy war[edit]

The fruits of America's war in Vietnam. Was it worth it?

Proxy wars, which became more common during the Cold War, are typically local civil wars or wars between smaller nations in which major powers back one or more of the combative factions in order to further their own ends, but do not wish to dirty their hands with each others' blood directly. The Arab-Israeli conflict used to be cast in this light. Another example is is the Vietnam War, in which the Soviet Union and Red China supported North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) while the U.S., alongside South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand, supported South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam). In the latter case, its primary opponent was engaged directly. A proxy war carries a number of benefits:

  • Someone else is providing a significant portion of the armed forces, thus lessening casualties for the external parties. In some cases interested parties may supply material support and training ("advisors") while refraining from providing combat personnel, such as the case of America's support for the mujahideen in their efforts to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
  • An increased sphere of influence - should the war be a successful one.
  • A large-scale war between major powers is likely to breed the danger of escalation, including the threat of nuclear war.
  • Fighting in one's own country tends to leave things in a bit of a mess, so it's preferable to have the fighting take place elsewhere.

However, relying on proxies can also be very risky, since they're not really under your control. They often do things you'd rather they didn't, such as killing civilians, starting more wars at inopportune times, or turning around and attacking you instead. It is also very easy for a conflict to start as a proxy war, only to eventually draw the patron in as well. The US involvement in Vietnam, for example, began with providing training and materiel for the South Vietnamese, but eventually escalated into a massive American troop deployment and saw the US turn into the major combatant. The Syrian Civil War is in part a proxy war, with the US backing the opposition and Russia (along with Iran and Hezbollah) backing Assad. This conflict, interestingly, involves at least four sides, with the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as the third, and DAESH as the fourth.

Guerrilla war[edit]

Guerrilla warfare is a combat situation when one of the combatants is a large organized army, and the other side comprises small, often independent units that aggressively attack any way they can, using tactics which include ambushes and raids. The American War of Independence and the Vietnam War saw significant guerrilla actions. This is also known as asymmetrical warfare.

Russia engaged in an unusual case of reverse asymmetrical warfare in 2014 by invading the much weaker nation of Ukraine without using identifying marks on its soldiers or equipment. During the invasion, Vladimir Putin claimed that his soldiers were actually Ukrainian partisans, and dared the Ukrainian Army to shoot at Ukrainian civilians, behind whom the unmarked Russian soldiers were hiding.[11]:165-166

Hybrid warfare[edit]

Hybrid warfare can involve combinations of a wide range of tactics,[12] including conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, Proxy wars, cyberwarfare, election interference, covert influence campaigns (such as fake news, or troll factories), or using mass immigration as a form of destabilization (as in the case of Belarus against Poland in 2021[13]). The intent of the aggressor in such warfare is to avoid attribution or have plausible deniability.[14]

Modern adaptations[edit]

Children wounded by a US airstrike during the Afghanistan War.
Sometimes I think war is God's way of teaching us geography.
—various attributions[15]

In today's globalized world, some wars are starting to cross-over between types, where fighters from different states come together in undeclared wars and civil wars spill out past national boundaries. This can be seen most clearly in the proxy struggles between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan in the 1980s, and now in the fighting in Sudan/Chad/etc.

Gang wars[edit]

The term "gang war" characterizes ongoing, long-term conflicts between two or more gangs fighting for control of territory. It has all the characteristics of a traditional war, except the parties do not represent nations or states. Gang wars closely represent guerrilla wars in style.

"War on..."[edit]

Panama City aflame during the US' 1989 war on the (formerly US-backed) drug-trafficking dictator Manuel Noriega. This is what happens when Uncle Sam thinks you're no longer necessary.

Modern US media has used the term "war" to define aggressive moves by a government or by various groups of people to end some seemingly unwanted problem in society. Examples include:

The War on Drugs has led to increased rates of drug abuse. All it has really achieved is to fill up private prisons with people convicted of non-violent offenses who become violent offenders when they are released and ostracized for being convicts.[citation needed]

Alternate definition[edit]

War is also a card game of pure chance, typically played with one ordinary deck and two players, but extendable to more decks or players. Cards are dealt out face-down to each player, giving each player their own deck. Players cannot look at their deck or anyone else's. In a round, every player flips over the top card of their deck. Whoever has the card with the highest value[16] gets all cards played in that round, to put at the bottom of their deck. If two or more players are tied for the highest-valued card, then a "war" occurs. Each player involved in the tie puts down three cards face-down, and flips over another card, which is compared instead. If one of the cards' values is greater than the other, then that player gets all cards involved in the "war". Otherwise, the war proceeds as before until a resolution is determined. When players run out of cards in their deck, they are out of the game. Rounds proceed as described until everybody except for one player has been eliminated. The remaining player is the winner.

Causes of war[edit]

Underlying reasons for large-scale conflict may get masked by short-term sparks that ignite metaphorical tinder. Alliance systems, international rivalries, dreams of revenge, traditional hatreds and economic manoeuvring played a role in causing World War I, but an assassination in Sarajevo sparked the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in July 1914. Some fundamental causes of war include:

  • Ideology: Religious fervor may play a part here. It may serve as a cloak - an excuse for collecting plunder or for establishing control. Nationalism became popular as something worth fighting for in the 19th century.
  • Resources: As is the case for other species, humans do engage in conflict over resources they want or need, such as living space or raw materials. Here is a modern example: if a war ever breaks out in the South China Sea, it will because of the fisheries and deposits of oil and natural gas.
  • Glory: The fame of successful war-mongers can echo down the centuries. Thus the exploits of Julius Caesar or of Napoleon Bonaparte were not lost on Adolf Hitler.

The ever-changing nature of war[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. British graveyard from the Crimean WarWikipedia.
  2. Thus American revolutionaries are called "Patriots" in the U.S. but "radicals" in the Commonwealth of Minions Nations.


  1. Sherman on War
  2. Did a Nazi Leader Say Convincing People to Support War is ‘Simple’? Snopes
  3. The creation of the United Nations was supposed to effect this, and deterrence in theory also serves this goal.
  4. The Roman Catholic Church passed many laws in the Middle Ages to limit the scope of wars, and many treaties have been signed since to that effect.
  5. Clausewitz, C. P. G. von (1993). On War. (B. Brodie, trans.) New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Book I, Chapter 1, 24. p. 99.
  6. For example, in Norway and France during World War II there were strong resistance movements, but overall the Allies and the Axis governments and military directed the wars.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Geneva Conventions.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on French Revolutionary Wars.
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Polish–Soviet War.
  10. Causes of World War One: GCSE Bitesize activity
  11. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder (2018) Tim Duggan Books. ISBN 0525574468.
  12. in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars. by Frank G. Hoffman (2007) Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
  13. Belarus dictator turns hybrid war into humanitarian crisis by Alesia Rudnik (November 15, 2021) Atlantic Council.
  14. Deterring hybrid warfare: a chance for NATO and the EU to work together? by Peter Pindják (18 November 2014) NATO Review.
  15. War Is God’s Way of Teaching Us Geography (May 19, 2014) QUote Investigator.
  16. Numbered cards = themselves, Jacks = 11, Queens = 12, Kings = 13, Aces = 1 or 14, depending on who you ask.