Peace and Conflict Series: What is so ‘Modern’ about Modern Conflict?

Eavesdropping on a roundtable conversation at the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict…

‘Modern conflict’ is commonly used to refer to conflicts in recent history that used particular modernised means of waging war and share a number of other elements. Why the label ‘modern’ is used to describe some conflicts and not others, and what its analytical purpose should be was heavily debated during a roundtable organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict. Hosted by Emile Chabal, four young experts put their own research into the context of the debate on the utility of Modern Conflict as a concept.

For Fraser Raeburn, the label ‘modern’ explained ‘for how long we can look back in time and find things we recognize in conflicts’. It was thus a question of familiarity and continuity. Researching the Scots who fought against fascism among the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Raeburn suggested that the concept of Modern Conflict allows for comparisons between similar types within a particular time period. Moreover, he suggested that a certain cultural continuity defines Modern Conflict – that it remains central and defining in one way or another within a given society’s culture.

The first modern war

However, Catherine Bateson, whose research explores the American Civil War (1861-1865), suggested a different approach. Speaking about songs invoked about the Civil War, she said that a whole sub-culture of war and music relates modern conflicts back to the origins of war. In this sense, the ancient practice of songs about and within wars represents continuity across time, but also deeply “unmodern” roots of supposedly modern conflicts.

The American Civil War is in many ways considered to be an early, or even the ‘first modern war’.  The role of mass mobilization, industrialization, new technology such as submarine prototypes, and the number of deaths are among many other factors that are known to distinguish this war as ‘modern’.

Yet one of the most important aspects, explained Bateson, was the fact that modern conflicts were and continue to be much more visible than earlier ones: they were photographed. ‘Photography opened a new lens, it changed how the image of war was perceived’, said Bateson.

Sounding the taps in the Civil War / Flickr, Cc license

Modern civilisation

Anita Klingler has been researching political violence and political culture in interwar Germany and Britain, saying that one important concept attached to modern conflict is civilization: the emergence of the Second World War shows that the ‘protective shell of civilization was not thick enough’.

At the heart of this realisation lies the question of whether violence is an enemy of civilization or one of its central characteristics. Or, as Klingler asked in reference to the interwar period, ‘how did violence become the enemy of our civilisation?’

Don’t say war

However, violence has also been institutionalised and legitimised as a motor of civilisation, whether in the wake of colonialism or contemporary interventions. Indeed, as Sissela Matzner argued in the case of Libya, France has defined its military intervention as an extension of its own national culture and global leadership ambitions.

Matzner’s research compares the foreign policy of Germany and France on Libya from the perspective of political parties. Her findings suggest that the military intervention was framed in ways that may relate to a particular periods of contemporary modern warfare:  responsibility as a central elements in their ‘national role conceptions’, and the fact that most interventionists avoid using the word war altogether. ‘The categorical avoidance of the term war reflects the changing nature of war itself, and the controversy around interventions’, said Matzner.

As the nature of conflict and war is changing, so should the concepts that help us to understand and compare them. But as Catherine Bateson put it: ‘How long can modern conflicts remain modern? What about 50 or 100 years from now, will we still talk about these wars as modern conflicts?’

Leave a Reply