How Do Wars End?

EDITORIAL, 20 Nov 2023

#823 | Johan Galtung – 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.


First published on 3 May 2010 – TRANSCEND Media Service

Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of TRANSCEND International, TRANSCEND Media Service, and rector of TRANSCEND Peace University. He was awarded among others the 1987 Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. Galtung has mediated in over 150 conflicts in more than 150 countries, and written more than 170 books on peace and related issues, 96 as the sole author. More than 40 have been translated to other languages, including 50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives published by TRANSCEND University Press. His book, Transcend and Transform, was translated to 25 languages. He has published more than 1700 articles and book chapters and over 500 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service. More information about Prof. Galtung and all of his publications can be found at

Tags: , ,

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Nov 2023.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: How Do Wars End?, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

3 Responses to “How Do Wars End?”

  1. Suryanath Prasad says:

    Below cited My Comments in Response to “How Do Wars End?” by Prof. Johan Galtung:

    Universal Peace Education for Justice and Peace, Prevention and Remedy of War
    EDUCATION, 30 Oct 2023
    Dr. Surya Nath Prasad – TRANSCEND Media Service

  2. Per-Stian says:

    Thanks for (re)posting this. Since 2010, the US Empire may not have ended, but there have certainly been some interesting developments (for the world) or worrying ones (for the US empire). The rise and soon expansion of BRICS is crucial, and will probably become yet more important in the future. The same is the rise of China as an economic power, and increasingly as a voice in international affairs as well, including in actual peace negotiations, as seen in the last year or so.

    We are going into a multilateral future, and I can only hope it will mean a less war ridden future as well. It may not, ofc. It could potentially become worse, as the US no longer has “monopoly” on the threat or use of force. But let’s all hope we won’t see something similar to the Cold War.

    And let’s hope this disgusting and sadistic genocide against the Palestinians will soon end. And (pipe dream, I know) that the criminals behind it will be put behind bars for the rest of their lives. Enough is enough. “Never again” shouldn’t just be fancy slogans for when Western nations want to abuse the terrible R2P principle.

  3. Gary Brown says:

    Everyone needs to understand the rot at the root cause.

    Feb 4, 2013 *All Wars Are Bankers’ Wars*

    I know many people have a great deal of difficulty comprehending just how many wars are started for no other purpose than to force private central banks onto nations, so let me share a few examples, so that you understand why the US Government is mired in so many wars against so many foreign nations. There is ample precedent for this.