What is the most significant change in how wars are fought since WWII? 

Moving on from our discussions about articles this month, we move to our questions to consider. This week we consider What the most significant change in war fighting since WWII is. We come up with a number of different ideas. What do you think? Let us know if the comments below.

Here’s what we thought:

There have been several key technological developments in warfighting since World War II. The helicopter, the stealth bomber, the drone and the ‘smart bomb’ have all had a significant impact on the way we fight wars, while the move to volunteerism (in the West at least) has changed our relationship with the military and the wider sovereign State.

However, I would suggest that the most significant change is in the upsurge in automation and autonomous systems. By this I don’t just mean computer-controlled processes, but the ability to launch weapons with a minimum of human input.

While there still remains a human element in most autonomous weapons systems, the move towards automation, on many different levels, is heralding an ever-increasing ‘distance’ between the Western (human) warfighter and his or her enemy on the battlefield. How much longer before we don’t fight with humans at all?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I think the internet has probably made the most significant impact since 1945 on our entire lives, not just war. But the internet, not as a weapon but as what the US military would call a ‘force multiplier’, enables so much more to happen from the military side of things. For example, internet communication between high and low-level personnel, across the globe, and across agencies all at the speed of light is what enables the network-centric warfare and full-spectrum dominance the US aimed for in the nineties. It also enables non-state actors to communicate between themselves hidden from the outside world, also at the speed of light. JSOC in the Iraq War 2003 fought a massive campaign against terrorists and militants who organised their operations via email and instant messaging.

Since writing this question, I have also finished reading Steven Pinkers’ Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that over centuries humanity is becoming less violence, and the two world wars were temporary reversals. Perhaps, if we want to contribute more to this trend, we should not be thinking of significant trends about fighting wars, but about not fighting wars.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

This is a really large question which is difficult to answer. The most significant for whom? A change in what? In my eyes, the most significant change in global peace and security is most likely the decline of interstate conflict. This means that war is generally not two opposing national armies, but a government fighting non-state actors. This leads to different composition of the army, different strategy, different tactics, different end-goals, different effects on the civilian population, different military technology, different propaganda, etc.

Focusing purely on military technology (considering the topic of this month’s readings and the topic of the reading group), my answer would be the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons (as they were only used in the very end of WW II, so that does not really count ;)). The reasons are too many to count, and many books have been written about it. A tiny selection of the arguments:

First, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) makes countries less likely to attack each other directly, which according to some causes, in a perverted way, international stability under certain circumstances, like in the Cold War (see the debate in “The spread of nuclear weapons: An enduring debate” by Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz). However, MAD also has increased the frequency of proxy wars, under which especially non-Western countries suffered. Second, Risk and escalation are taken more seriously due to the threat that humanity might be wiped out. This also gave rise to the deterrence doctrine which changed how countries approach war. Third, the relationship between Nuclear-Weapon States and Non-Nuclear-Weapon States becomes fundamentally unequal and alters the strategic and political balance on a fundamental level. It alters the importance of previously key concepts such as geopolitics and mass: You will never have enough soldiers to defend against a nuclear weapon. Hence the interest in nuclear weapons by Israel, the DPRK and Pakistan. Relatedly, it was a major push for the establishment of international organisations and arms control treaties. The first resolution adopted by the UN in 1946 aimed at developing mechanisms to control nuclear weapons better.


Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “What is the most significant change in how wars are fought since WWII? 

  1. Hi Josh, not heard of that book you mentioned before, but I have read similar arguments elsewhere about how we’re becoming somehow ‘less violent’. For further related reading check out Richard Bessel’s ‘Violence: A Modern Obsession’. From my own personal (philosophical) standpoint, it could be argued that our intolerance to violence is directly linked with the emergence of biopolitics as the new norm for sovereign control, i.e. that life itself is a valuable resource and we should do everything in our power to ‘live’ and ‘keep on living’.


    1. Hi Mike, that’s a really interesting idea. It seems to link in with increasing distance of force application from hand-to-hand sword fighting to drones, perhaps the desire to protect ones own troops is part of seeing life as a valuable resource, and maybe the increasing compliance with the law of armed conflict in protecting civilians could also be seen in this way. Although the continuing position that militaries need overwhelming force to beat their enemies would see ‘the enemy’ as an exception to this viewpoint?


      1. Absolutely I agree Josh, and there is quite a literature out there from the Critical Theory perspective on biopolitics and remote warfare. I do not neccessarily see that as an exception, as there is allergy to violence amongst themselves, but not neccessarily on the Other (the adversary).

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That is a very interesting thought. However, is biopolitics not also a form of violence, a subjugation, and an enactment of violence to the Others, the non-white, the people far away, etc.?

      Thank you for the book recommendation, it looks very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Maaike, it certainly does if you follow Foucault’s line on ‘state racism’ and the need to create an ‘other’ in order for the state to exist in the first place. However in such a case the violence is not supposed to be against citizens of the state, but against a distant other.


    3. That is a very interesting thought! However, is biopolitics not also a form of violence, both in the form of subjugation of the body (indirect violence), or direct violence on the Other, the minorities, the non-white, those in far-away countries?

      Thank you for the book recommendation, it looks very interesting!


  2. Biopolitics is fine when considered in the context of a single-state system, but it gets itself in a knot when it goes beyond that because none of the main biopolitical theories look beyond the single state set-up. However in general I do think there is a trend that I think we’ve all come to accept that the state should essentially do ‘everything in its power’ to keep its citizens and its troops alive. This leads us to a situation where we seem to abandon ethics completely in an international context as we only really care about our ‘own lives’ and not those of others. But then, what other position should we be expected to take? If the primary role of the state is to protect itself and its citizens, then what other choice is there? Hmmm…

    Liked by 1 person

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