Violent conflicts and war

Overall violence presents itself as war and violent conflicts but also as violent crime. The module war and violent conflicts will shed light on these three aspects.


What is war? A generally accepted broad definition is the following: War is a dispute between two or more organised groups, fought with systematic violence that lasts for a longer period of time. But, is that all? Who is waging war against whom? Where are they fighting? How long has this fighting been going on? And what is it really about?

In the early 19th and 20th century, scholars were able to clearly define war. At the time, they defined it as an armed conflict that follows the formal declaration of war by a state against another (or others). Locally, war used to take place at the borders between states. It was at the borders that states’ armies fought against each other on the battlefield. One side won, the other lost; the war was decided in a final battle: the victor was able to enforce his will against the looser. After that, peace reigned—at least until the next diplomatic dispatch arrived containing a declaration of war.

Even though this idea of war is still popular today, it is, and was even then, far from the reality of organised and systematic violence between groups. If indeed there has ever been such a ‘clear cut’ war, it was more of a historic exception rather than the rule. In the Middle Ages in Europe, organised violent conflicts were an omnipresent experience. Augustine of Hippo (354 to 430) ascertained that peace (pax) was only to be expected in the afterlife. In the political reality of that time, the promise of peace was not much more than a utopian idea or rather a means of propaganda justifying renewed violence. Some group always waged war against one another, independent of fixed political and spacial concepts; a religious order called for a crusade, a group of mercenaries and bandits travelled through the country plundering, a small count waged war for decades against the neighbouring castle. Violence itself, just like collective violence, was not ‘banned’ to the border of society; it was always present around the corner.

Today’s expressions of violent conflicts, it seems, have more in common with the Middle Ages than with the 19th and 20th century idea of war. Wars are hardly formally declared. Indeed, states are often involved but are rarely the only relevant violent actors. The United States, for instance, employed private military and security companies on a large scale to attack Iraq in Spring 2003—and during the following war of occupation—representing the renaissance of a modern version of mercenary warfare seen in the 30-year war. Yet armed rebel groups, warlords, pirates and clandestine networks of jihadists are waiting for their turn. And indeed, in some present day wars, no state actor is directly involved as can be seen, for instance, in Latin America in the clashes between the private armies of large companies, powerful drug cartels or informal gangs. When cargo ships of private shipping lines, protected by heavily armed security personnel, have to defend themselves against the attack of pirates in the Horn of Africa, there probably won’t be any state representatives in sight.

Moreover, violent conflicts can hardly be located. This means that fighting is no longer confined to certain spaces, i.e. those border areas far from society. Since the nightly bombing raids of World War II, it has become clear that war can permeate society as a whole, strike at its very heart and take the lives of civilians and combatants alike. This observation remains true for today’s so-called asymmetric wars, which are violent conflicts between two radically unequal opponents (unequal in the sense of their capacities and resources). The high-tech armies of Western states hardly ever encounter their ‘match’ in open confrontation. From the attacks of 9/11 to the bombings in London and Madrid, to the booby traps and suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Iraq, opponents can attack at any time and in any place. The same is true for the drone attacks of the US military in Pakistan. As the front lines dissolve, the war disregards any geographical and chronological boundaries. The “war against terror” knows no end, there is no “decisive battle” as Clausewitz put forth. It is a potentially never ending state of emergency, a constant state of alert in view of a mostly invisible opponent.

The permanent feature of wars in society is a characteristic of violent conflicts in the global periphery that political scientists sometimes call “new wars”. Here, organised violence is often no longer a means to achieve a certain political goal, but rather a means in itself. In the so-called civil war economies of the South, wars are involved in complex accumulation processes that keep reproducing themselves. They mostly only come to an end when those immanent economic cycles are broken, i.e. when a war is no longer profitable.

Violent crime

“Drug wars” in Central and Latin America, gang wars in the United States and Great Britain, Mafia vendettas in Italy and Russia or new piracy in the world’s oceans—violent crime is a global phenomenon and at times claims high numbers of civilian victims. Violent crime worldwide is classified according to its different manifestations of violence, such as homicide, robbery, assault, kidnapping, rape, burglary, car theft or drug-related crime.

Further information can be found in the infotext on violent crime, which focusses on homicide and robbery.

State violence

In 2010, Amnesty International (ai) conducted a study on human rights violations worldwide in 157 countries and regions. State violence against its own citizens has many faces: it encompasses the unlawful limitation of freedom of speech, jailing of non-violent political prisoners, torture and other kinds of maltreatment, the death penalty, the refusal of fair trials and the pursuit of unfair trials, arbitrary arrests and the ‘disappearance’ of members of the opposition as well as physical and psychological intimidation such as death threats or the threat of torture. Further information can be found in the infotext on state violence.

Sources and further information:

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