How Do Wars End?

EDITORIAL, 3 May 2010

#110 | Johan Galtung, 3 May 2010 - TRANSCEND Media Service

“Only about 400 rebels had been in the fight at the bridge, but as the day wore on the number increased to several thousand.  They would shoot at the enemy column from behind fences, trees, barns, walls, from inside houses, then reload, hurry ahead, and then shoot again.  This was a strange, new type of warfare to the British, who were neither experienced, nor trained for it.  To them it seemed dishonorable, hiding and shooting at men in the open who could not even see their enemies.  As one Redcoat wrote his family: They did not fight us like a regular army, only like savages”.[i]

Sounds familiar, today. And as the American Revolution, the War of Independence beginning April 19 1775, on the road Boston-Lexington-Concord in Massachusetts.  The savages won.  235 years later they are with the British against “savages” in Iraq, in Afghanistan and against terror.  Is the victory foretold?  No, the future holds not only victory and defeat for these three wars.

We may search for warfare origins in Greece, as told by the over-quoted Thucydides or under-quoted Xenophon.  Or in feudal tournaments, armored men with lances on horseback unsaddling, ultimately killing each other, with umpires, later field marshals, naming the victor, and the vanquished conceding.  Sport turned war, with beginning and end.

This was carried into modernity and the state system of the “Peace” of Westphalia 24 October 1648 by declaration and capitulation, bracketing the war as a succession of battles.  The right of killing was contingent on the duty of risking being killed, with honor and courage and the ultimate honor to the most courageous of being a hero.

The nineteenth century witnessed the erosion of chivalry and sport to total war, “to the utmost limit”, “continuation of politics by all necessary means” (Clausewitz, even more brutal than French Jomini on Napoleon’s staff and the American Dennis Hart Mahan).  Not limited to a battlefield: mobility, hitting the supply lines, massive attacks on one part after the other for the total destruction of enemy forces, and violence as a demoralizing force, attacking women, children, the old.

Historically we sense three, not exclusive, consequences.

First, the military being so brutal and so efficient, why not use (state) terrorism to fight civilians, unable to fight back, instead?

Second, guerilla, by civilians like 19 April 1775, predating the Spanish against Napoleon 2 May 1808, Vietnam against the USA and Afghanistan against the Soviets: winning no open battles, but the war.

Third, nonviolence, as invented by Gandhi, the heroic nonviolent warrior, ending colonialism and the Cold War, possibly inspired by the brutality of the British revenge for the Sepoy mutiny; unnoticed by Obama in his belligerent just war speech at the 2009 Nobel ceremony.

Clausewitz prepared his own undoing, and actually sensed that.[ii] The prediction is that the West will never defeat this triple, or an islam that will never capitulate to infidels, numbering five times the Americans.  But our reptile brain has an alternative to fight: flight.  The Vietnam exit: being unavailable for ultimate defeat.

Gone are the old days when might was right and unconditional surrender was the end of a 141-year unbroken chain of US wars, from 1812–the final battle in the War of Independence– to 1953, the Korean war armistice.  And gone are the days when might was a sign of divine mandate, God is behind.  Among christians God may favor the mightiest.  Among muslims, perhaps.  But certainly not across that divide.

Gone are the days of direct battle heroism.  Sitting at a computer in the Pentagon directing drones, or in a cockpit at 44,000 feet hitting “coordinates”, in favor of pure cowardice.

Or, rather: the risks change with the war.  When more commit suicide than are killed in the field reality has changed.

Confronted with a choice between a very elusive victory, defeat, and flight, conflict resolution might grow in attractiveness.

The question is what it takes.  It could be equally elusive.

Gradually the dominant war cost-benefit discourse, so natural in a militarist-capitalist country like the USA, with those in favor concluding it is worth the costs and those against it is not worth the benefits has to yield to a conflict resolution discourse about issues. But that may also prove elusive, given two basic assumptions.

The whole encounter has to be seen from above, all parties, their goals, values, interests and where they clash, the incompatibilities. The road passes through understanding Other’s goals, and one’s own.  There usually are legitimate goals to respect on all sides.

And then resolution: neither for, nor against oneSelf, ideally something new accommodating all parties, acceptable and sustainable.  Neither by threatening, nor by bribing; by the weight of a compelling vision supported by a compelling nightmare if all is left unsolved.

Rationality, common sense; but often scarce commodities.  And it cannot be done by one party alone, has to be done by the parties in concert, preferably dialogue, under the guidance of an impartial authority, possibly an ad hoc UN conference.

For a USA used to dictate settlements after a victory, this is a far shot indeed.  And added to unwillingness, maybe incapability.

What happens then?  With neither victory, nor defeat, nor flight, nor resolution acceptable?  Hanging on in there, of course, fighting for time.  There will be money for the forces and for the contracted, still for some time.  Possible promotions, higher pensions. And so on.

And what, meaning now what?  None of the above, but No. 5: the USA making itself irrelevant.  Others–Turkey? Iran? China? Russia?–will draft a conflict resolution.  And the USA will withdraw, Vietnam-like, possibly from all three wars.  Into the End of the Affair.


[i].  Joseph P. Cullen, History of the American Revolution, Harrisburg PA: The National Historical society, 1972.

[ii].  Dale O. Smith, U.S. Military Doctrine, New York NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1955, p. 54.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 May 2010.

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4 Responses to “How Do Wars End?”

  1. James Fraser says:

    Prof. Galtung,

    an interesting commentary – thank you. Whilst I (approximately) share your predictions about the direction the US Empire is heading in, I can’t help but ask myself what comes next. Not only in terms of the decline of the hegemonic superpower, but also in terms of Afghanistan. I found myself wondering what/who will step in to fill the increasing number of power vacuum’s in the Americans’ retreat. Can we be at all sure that just because this empire is coming to a close, that wars will end better? Can we really expect positive peaceful approaches from an India that allows Gujarats to occur? A Germany/UK-led EU that are just as complicit in violence? A Russia that demonstrated it’s stance on peace-keeping in Russia. I think that the coming and going of US Empire does not, unfortunately, spell a necessary change for peace..
    In the case of Afghanistan it seems clear to me, that Afghanistan’s direct neighbours must be involved in a sustainable peace, with an emphasis on increasing regional ties, and not involving countries with a proven historical record as occupiers in that country. But what is Afghanistan? Afghanistan has been overrun by Greeks, Persians, conquerors from Transoxiana (Genghis & Timurlan) a British Army (including tens of thousands of Indian conscripts), Russian armies commanding peoples from Lithuania, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan a now a want-to-be-coalition of Anglo-saxons and a few other OECD/G8 countries.
    The etymology of the word Afghan involves a similar process to that of the word “Maori” – both seemed to develop as a response to the need to band together to defend themselves. While Maori actually means normal, or ordinary, unfortunately, the term Afghan is associated with struggle and war. After defeating all the imperial powers of the old world, these people are now being bombed from afar by the ‘new world.’ All the Afghans I have met in Europe have left a deep, considered impression, and all have expressed their yearning for peace. I hope that those Afghans, pressed between the expansionist and military designs of the power hungry across the spans of time, can one day soon, associate the sense of ‘normal and ordinary’ with peace.

  2. James Fraser says:

    Correction: “from a Russia that demonstrated it’s stance on peace-keeping in Georgia”

  3. Akifumi Fujita says:

    Thank you very much for your very inspiring and encouraging essay.It reminds me of the central proposition in peace studies that negative and positive peace are like two sides of a coin.For the possible withdrawal of the USA from all three wars(negative peace),much effort of various kind (positive peace)is needed.I, as a citizen of the world as well as a citizen of Japan(a client country at present),will be very happy if I can participate in the effort, even if it is a drop in the bucket. I think one important point of this essay is that it depicts how wars in general end in the very concrete context of the end of US wars, like Das Kapital describes how exploitation in general ends with capitalism. In this sense, the concept of war is very historical. What comes next? A paradise? I don’t think so. By the way, is this condensed essay the preface of a big book “How Do Wars End?” I am looking forward to it.

  4. Susanne Urban, Wilpf Norway/ Bergen says:

    Prof. Galtung
    – how different our Fox-news-infested world would be if media would display more clear-viewed analysis like this one… Thank you!

    Would the next question be:”How Does MILITARISM End?”
    There is so insanely much money and jobs in producing, trading and using – arms, bombs, jet-fighters, missiles, rockets, “security”-devices… The military industrial complex is so huge, is lobbying so strongly and is so well connected to media-moguls, that I wonder if war ever will end before mankind ends? One war ending makes it necessary to find a new enemy, to spread new fear among our own population, and then find it necessary to deploy new weapons in new places (Iran?). Can wars end without militarism ending?

    “How Does Militarism End?”