The Open Texture of Warfare

23 May 2015


Air gunners, belgium 1918

In my recent post on Proxy War in Yemen I asserted that the concept of a proxy war, while primarily associated with the Cold War, can be applied to the war now being fought indirectly between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. A narrow conception of proxy wars would not have this application, and would be more confined to its original introduction and usage. Thus is could be rightly said that I was applying a broad conception of a proxy war. This was my intent.

hoplites in battle

What has been said above of proxy wars can also be said of war in general: that there are narrow and broad conceptions. Narrow conceptions are usually a function of a particular historical context of usage. If you asked an inhabitant of Periclean Athens to define war, they might have answered that war was a clash between hoplites from different city-states facing each other as a phalanx. For such a narrow conception of war, the innovations that Alexander introduced into the Macedonian phalanx might pose a definitional challenge: is it or is it not a phalanx, and is war employing this instrument a war, or something related to war through descent with modification?


In many contexts I have pursued the exposition of what I call the extended sense of a concept, in which a familiar concept is systematically subjected to variation, extrapolation, extension, and generalization in order to see how comprehensive a conception can be made. I have been influenced in this respect by Bertrand Russell, whose imperative to generalization I previously quoted in The Science of Time and The Genealogy of the Technium:

“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”

Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”

Open-textured concepts are best suited to Russellian generalization. What is an open-textured concept? Here is one account:

“According to Austin and Wittgenstein, words have clear conditions of application only against a background of ‘normal circumstances’ corresponding to the type of context in which the words were used in the past. There is no ‘convention’ to guide us as to whether or not a particular expression applies in some extraordinary situation. This is not because the meaning of the word is ‘vague’, but because the application of words ultimately depends on there being a sufficient similarity between the new situation of use and past situations. The relevant dimensions of similarity are not fixed once and for all; this is what generates ‘open texture’ (Waismann 1951).”

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, “Pragmatics”

More briefly, Stephan Barker wrote of open texture: “Our tendencies concerning the use of the word form a loosely knit pattern which does not definitely provide for all possibilities.” (Philosophy of Mathematics, “Introduction: The Open Texture of Language” p. 11) Barker goes on to use the Copernican analysis of celestial motion as an example of open texture. If “move” means to change position relative to Earth, then certainly the Earth cannot, by definition move. But what Copernicus did is to extend our conception of movement beyond the concept of movement that was limited to the special case of the surface of the Earth. One could say that Copernicus formulated an extended concept of motion.


It seems to me that war is a perfect example of an open-textured concept, and one that can readily (and indeed has been repeatedly) extended by changed circumstances. As civilization has grown, war has grown — in scope, scale, fatality, and complexity. The growth of war has been twofold: 1) growth in the absolute size of war (quantitative), and 2) growth in the complexity and sophistication of war (qualitative). Once we understand that war is an open-textured concept, the Russellian imperative comes into play, and the philosophical impulse is to generalize war to the greatest possible extent and thus to arrive at an extended conception of warfare.


Recently in VE Day: Seventy Years I suggested the possibility of the existential viability of warfare, which sounds like an odd way to speak of war, as though we were concerned to maintain war in existence, when many if not most individuals view the extirpation of war as the goal of civilization. But war and civilization are coextensive, and this implies that the viability of war is linked to the viability of civilization. In the long ten thousand year history of agricultural civilization warfare took many different and distinct forms. These different forms of warfare were driven by both quantitative and qualitative growth in war. The advent of industrialized warfare (cf. A Century of Industrialized Warfare) forced us once again to expand the scope and scale of what we call war.

The advent of nuclear weapons altered both the quantitative and qualitative development of war.

The advent of nuclear weapons altered both the quantitative and qualitative development of war.

Industrialized warfare coincided with the social consequences of industrialization — the growth of conurbations, mass communications, rapid transportation, and popular sovereignty, inter alia — and all of these developments forced warfare to become mass war fought by mass man. Industrialization allowed for a rapid increase in scale that outstripped qualitative development, and this almost exclusively quantitative increase in warfare gave us the concept of total war. (The idea of total war preceded that of industrialization, but I would argue that the term only came into its proper significant in the wake of mass war, i.e., that industrialized mass war is the natural teleology of the concept of total war.)

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

Industrialized total war did not persist long; if it had, we would have destroyed ourselves. Thus the rapid development of total war executed a perfect dialectical inversion and gave us the contemporary conception of limited war. We don’t even talk in terms of “limited war” any more because all wars are limited. An unlimited war today — total war — would be too devastating to contemplate. During the Cold War, a common euphemism for the MAD scenario of a massive nuclear exchange was “the unthinkable.” Of course, some did think the unthinkable, and they in turn became symbolic of an unmentionable engagement with the unthinkable (Curtis LeMay and Herman Kahn come to mind in this respect). The strange world of pervasive yet limited conflict to which we have now become accustomed has no place for total war, but it is perhaps no less strange than the paradigm of warfare that preceded it, consisting of mass conscript armies engaged in total industrialized warfare between nation-states.

Herman Kahn

Yet we have found countless ways to wage limited wars, with new conceptions of war appearing regularly with changes in technology and social organization. There is proxy war, guerrilla war, irregular war, asymmetrical warfare, swarm warfare, and so on. Perhaps the most recent extension of the concept of war is that of hybrid warfare, which has received much attention lately. (Russian actions in east Ukraine are often characterized in terms of hybrid warfare.) It is arguable that the many “experiments” with limited war following the end of the period of industrialized total war have qualitatively expanded and extended our conception of war in a way parallel to the quantitative expansion and extension of our conception of war driven by industrialization. Thus hybrid war, or some successor to hybrid war that is yet to be visited upon us (through descent with modification), may be understood as the qualitative form of total war.

TRAJAN'S COLUMN XLVI/LXVI (scene 66): Soldiers at the ready

Hybrid warfare is an illustration of how the scope and scape of warfare are related and can come to permeate society even when war is not “total” in the sense used prior to nuclear weapons (i.e., the quantitative sense of total war). The duration of the local and limited wars we have managed to fight under the nuclear umbrella is limited only by the willingness of participants to engage in long-term low-intensity warfare. We have learned much from this experience. While the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century taught us that democratic nation-states could field armies of millions and project unprecedented power for a few years’ duration, the local and limited wars of the second half of the twentieth century taught us that democratic nation-states cannot sustain long term warfare. Whatever the initial war enthusiasm, the populace grows tired of it, and eventually turns against it. If wars are to be fought, they must be fought within the political constraints of the form of social organization available in any given historical period.


On the other side, national insurgencies often possess a willingness to continue fighting virtually indefinitely (there has been insurgent conflict in Colombia for almost a half century, i.e., the entire period of post-industrialized total war), but when these groups come to realize that, despite their nationalist aspirations, they have been used as the pawns in someone else’s war (i.e., they have been serving someone else’s national aspirations), they are as likely to switch sides as not. Moreover, civil governance following long civil wars — regardless of which side in the conflict wins, if in fact any side wins — is almost always disastrous, and low-intensity warfare is essentially traded for high-intensity civil strife. Police do the killing instead of soldiers (but many of the police are former soldiers).

North Korean Soldiers

As warfare becomes pervasively represented throughout the culture, it represents the return (for it has occurred many times in human history) of warfare as a cultural activity, something I discussed in an early post Civilization and War as Social Technologies, i.e., war is a social technology, like civilization, that allows us to do certain things and to accomplish certain ends. For example, war is a decision procedure among nation-states who can agree upon nothing except that they will not allow a local and limited war to grow into a general and total war.

soldiers on horseback

Warfare has, once again, adapted to changed conditions and thereby demonstrated its existential viability when war itself has risen to the level of an existential risk to the species and our civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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