We Shall Study War: Wars Are Not Discrete

Wars are activities nested within larger, enduring confrontations.

The Iraq War launched with spring break.

I was on an exchange program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and took advantage of the vacation to see more of the state.

In the days leading up to the break, it became increasingly apparent that the United States was on track for war with Iraq. Driving between Fairbanks and Kenai, I scanned the Alaskan airwaves for whatever stations penetrated the wilderness. The news that the United States had invaded came through somewhere along an icy rural highway.

Memories like these aren’t unique. As humans, we note key dates. We remember where we were when the Twin Towers fell, when JFK was assassinated or when Pearl Harbor was bombed. It helps interpret a complex world.

But wars aren’t about dates. They’re about decades.

War is just one level on a larger spectrum of confrontation between two or more groups. That confrontation is like a sine wave oscillating between greater and lesser levels of confrontation until the core disputes are resolved. The confrontation may involve diplomatic, economic or military action—but all actions are part of that overarching confrontation.

The first part of this pattern isn’t shocking. From primary school, we’re drilled to recite the causes of the nation’s wars and how those wars ended.

But that only captures the first cycle — from peace to conflict and back to peace, presumably with America victorious. The reality is that confrontations often run through several of these cycles before they run their course, potentially climaxing in war multiple times.

We think of World War I’s Treaty of Versailles as exceptional in how it marked the beginning of an interwar period, not the end of a war. Yet much of Europe’s story between the early 18th Century and the end of World War II is a tale of confrontation between France and Germany, which escalated to conflict numerous times. That confrontation only concluded once the Allied powers partitioned Germany and western Europe came to see the Soviet Union as a greater threat.

A failure to appreciate the cyclical, enduring nature of confrontation sets the country up for wild pendulum swings in foreign policy. The allure of decisive victory seduces the country into ambitious adventures. The failure to achieve that decisive victory prompts the country to renounce limited uses of force that have a legitimate shot at success.

Throughout most of western history, philosophers and politicians pondering the morality of war focused on when states are justified in waging war and how they should wage it.

But with timeless confrontations, just war isn’t simply about the decision to go to war or the manner in which it is fought. It’s about pursuing a better peace—a peace that brings the country closer to resolving the disputes that drive the cycle of confrontation.

Since that drive in Alaska, Iraq has added too many notable dates to recount. Most of them are missing from my memory—if, in fact, I ever paused amid my daily routine to note them.

Schoolchildren may someday raise their hands and tell their teachers the Iraq War ended Dec. 15, 2011. But a look through the headlines shows that the cycle of confrontation continues.

There will be plenty more dates to remember before peace truly arrives.


As we prepare to honor fallen servicemen and servicewomen, let’s reflect on why they fight. Be sure to check out the entire series:

  • May 22:
  • May 23: Wars are not discrete.
  • May 24: Armed force doesn’t resolve problems.
  • May 25: Wars are not about justice.
  • May 26: Worthy goals undermine one another.
  • May 27: Wars are not bipolar.
  • May 28: Wars are not about victory.


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