Spring and Autumn Period Wars (probably 5th century BC)
Ancient China was divided into smaller states. Frequent internal wars and daily skirmishes formed highly unstable environment, where the winner of one conflict could easily become a prey for other foes as his military capabilities remained lowered. Under those circumstances, half-mythical general Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War”. Though he actually might have lived later (Warring States period), his book remains influential after more than 2000 years. Observing the extremely hostile conditions, Master Sun concluded that “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” Military strategists, politicians and managers still appreciate his pieces of advice such as this: “All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable of attacking, feign incapacity; when active in moving troops, feign inactivity. When near the enemy, make it seem that you are far away; when away, make it seem that you are near. Hold out baits to lure the enemy. Strike him when he is in disorder. Avoid him when he is stronger. If he is of choleric temper, irritate him. If he is arrogant, encourage his egoism.”
Peloponnesian Wars (5th century BC)
As antique polis of Athens grew stronger in 470’s BC, hegemonic Sparta reacted with profound concerns. The hostilities between the old and the new empire turned into several protracted wars, the most important one between 431 – 404 BC. In the book The History of Peloponnesian War, the philosopher Thucydides observed the true cause of war: struggle for power. Power is all that matters and countries are driven to wage wars by pure desire to gain more. As Thucydides recorded in Melian dialogue, „the question of justice applies only among the same in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Similar maxim appeared later in an adage Si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war, i.e. be strong enough to defend it).
30 Years War (1618 – 1648)
This protracted conflict between Catholics and Protestants devastated continental Europe by famine and plague, locally lowering the population of more than 50 %. Swedish king introduced conscription and other measures to establish professional standing armies. Moreover, the war resulted in Peace of Westphalia that forged the principle: “Cuius regio, eius religio.” (Who owns the realm, may regulate the religion). This maxim coined the very basis of international law, explaining that no one shall interfere in domestic affairs of sovereign country. Consequent structure of international relations has been called “Westphalian system” and even globalization or humanitarian interventions have still not entirely eroded it.
English Civil War (1642 – 1651)
The internal conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians, also known as English revolution, resulted in around 200.000 victims. It introduced the dictatorship of Olivier Cromwell and represented the first step on the way to constitutional monarchy. At the wake of modernity, it also raised the question – why do civil wars between the same nationals occur and how can we prevent them? The experience inspired English philosopher Thomas Hobbes to ask: “For what argument of Madnesse can there be greater, than to clamour, strike, and throw stones at your best friends?” In his work Leviathan, Hobbes claimed that the people established the state, which should protect their own security and safeguard their peaceful coexistence. He defined state as a body created consensually to restore internal peace. No matter that those thoughts shaped modern state conception, civil wars currently represent vast majority of armed conflicts worldwide and an effort to resolve them by social contract often proves fruitless.
Prussian-Austrian War (1866)
The conflict between Prussia plus its allies and a coalition led by Austrian monarchy lasted just a few weeks. It fully revealed the importance of speed and war economy. Prussia efficiently moved and concentrated troops thanks to railway system. National war industry equipped the soldiers with latest weaponry. Austria was not able to do the same and suffered heavily. Till today, cemeteries and memorials can be found to remind that war. Moreover, the victory strengthened the position of Prussia among German states, which later helped the unification of Germany. This new powerful state expressed its ambitions in the prelude of World War I and the chain of 20th century conflicts unfolded.
From this perspective, one could see history as a spiral of events, when one war causes another in eternal recurrence. Similarly the wars above may not be interpreted as causes, but rather as effects. Effects of universal principles that Sun Tzu, Thucydides or Hobbes recognized and recorded exactly during of the wars. On the other hand, the most significant influence of or lesson learned from any war should be that it is not worth repeating.
Please see below photos of the war Graves in Prague (Olšany) – the cemetery of Russian and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the liberation of Czechoslovakia at the very end of WWII.
Photos: Tomas Bruner