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The War


Technical specifications


La guerra

Federico Aznar Fernández-Montesinos

Editorial El viejo topo

567 pages





"War" is a theoretical essay to understand the conflicts of the 21st century, a necessary and complete work on the mechanisms of war, a reference work for students and researchers. The starting point is that to understand war is not to justify it; wars are not justified: they happen, they are unavoidable facts, even if we do not like them. War has a purpose, and it is defined by politics. It is not only a military activity; it is, in fact, first and foremost a political activity. Moreover, war is a bloody and abrupt disruption of the existing geopolitical balance. For this reason, it has taken different forms throughout history, always of a violent nature and always at the service of the politics of the moment.

The author is Federico Aznar Fernández-Montesinos, frigate captain in the navy, senior analyst at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) and professor at the Higher Centre for National Defence Studies (CESEDEN). Of his military training, he holds a diploma from the NATO Defence College, a diploma in General Staff, a specialist in submarines and communications, an advanced course in electronic warfare and has taken various courses at the NATO School. He defines himself as a military man and a humanist, which is why the content of the book is rich in nuances and provides a broad vision, with the intention of breaking rigorous intellectual moulds. His professional career has been devoted to strategic thinking. With a PhD in Political Science from the Complutense University of Madrid, he is the author of several books, including "Understanding War in the 21st Century" (2011), "The War Equation" (2011), and "Rethinking Strategic Leadership" (2018). He has published over 200 academic articles and research papers, primarily in the areas of war theory, political management of violence, terrorism, geopolitics and strategic leadership. All of these topics are now captured in "War".


Triple trilemma

This paper analyses war at its different levels, establishes its characteristics, describes its evolution, highlights the role of public opinion in the conflict, and studies the different phases of the war crisis and its management. It also devotes a section to asymmetric warfare, hybrid warfare and the grey zone between war and peace, with its logical developments. And, within this, disinformation, among other modes and strategies of warfare, as well as terrorism. It is, of course, a reference work for the dissemination of defence culture and strategic thinking.

It has succeeded in incorporating the most profoundly critical dimensions of war, especially in the sphere of ethics, where it is questioned in a triple trilemma, concerning its legality, illegality, alegality; its legitimacy, illegitimacy, delegitimacy; and its morality, immorality, amorality. It also addresses the role of regular armies, with their transformations, the so-called national liberation movements and the criminal practices of terrorist organisations. This approach to terrorism is interesting, with its fictions of war and power, which is what is common in the news we see in the media.


Gathering thought

Rationalising studies of war and the ideas on which it is built, as is done here, does not imply concealing the impact of the damage it causes, but rather limiting it. The extension of the battlefield into areas such as public opinion, the intermingling of war and peace in the so-called grey zones, and the influence of the media have transformed and reshaped the nature of armed struggles. Indeed, there is a lack of watchtowers and intellectual constructs to help form judgements.

In order to address the complexity of the present, it is essential to have a basis with which to look at the facts, to delve into their intricacies, to transcend them and to be able to glimpse the future, even if they are always imperfect and in need of revision. Thus, this book, as its title suggests, is a revision of his first work "Understanding war in the 21st century" (Editorial Complutense, 2011), which was the result, in turn, of a doctoral thesis in the area of Political Theory presented at the Faculty of Political Science and Administration of that university. On the other hand, he did not consider it necessary to review the book "La ecuación de la guerra" (Ed. Montesinos, 2011), which draws from the same source. The reason for this is that it is considered to be fully valid and complementary to the work presented here, so if the latter is of interest, we recommend further reading.

The added value is that this revision is undertaken after twelve years of research at CESEDEN, within the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, where the author has been able to discover the questions and approaches that he has considered most relevant. For this reason, the work has been expanded with new chapters in view of the relevance that, for example, the cognitive domain has taken on, the emergence of new conceptual debates, such as those referring to hybrid warfare, crisis management, the resurgence of geopolitics and the appearance of concepts such as the grey zone or Sharp power, the relevance of new technologies and the return of space to military reality, a transparent but essential area as it affects a very relevant percentage of the world's GDP.


Geoeconomics and economic warfare are also present. In this sense, he asserts that globalisation will not only provoke more conflicts, albeit of less intensity, but will also cause some local conflicts to become globalised, affecting the predictability of their consequences: "these become unfathomable". And the two recent wars mentioned, those of Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas, "are not a bad example of this because of the change in geopolitical keys that they incorporate".

In addition to these new areas, he has undertaken a re-reading of the idea of peace, reconceptualising phenomena such as terrorism or asymmetrical warfare. This has been done by highlighting the value of narratives as the centre of gravity of the struggle and reassessing the different threats. One of the main conclusions is that the levels of security we live with are not sustainable: "we will have to try to maintain the standards of freedom we have achieved in an increasingly less secure environment".


Philosophy of war

It is divided into eleven chapters preceded by an introduction and accompanied by a glossary of terms and an extensive bibliography. They include numerous footnotes and a number of graphs and photographs. All chapters end with a conclusion or summary of the main ideas. You can start with any of them, depending on the reader's interest or need, but I recommend starting with the first one, "Philosophy of war", as the purpose of the naval officer is to make you think. "Theory and the multidisciplinary are very much neglected in our country. Academic activity often seems a waste of time to those who belong to the practical world and are absorbed by the real or the technical. That is precisely why this work is so necessary. If there is one thing missing from the edition, it is a more detailed table of contents, in terms of subject headings. The chapter of obligatory mention is "Final Reflections" (XI).

The Preface is by the MEP and writer Maite Pagazaurtundúa and the foreword is by the journalist, sociologist and writer Rafael Fraguas de Pablo. In these pages, the reader is prepared to understand the meaning of armed conflict: "Understanding war means understanding power and social, economic, political, moral and intellectual reality, because war has no meaning in itself, it has a political purpose and meaning, and the technical nature of war refers to its conduct, but whether or not it is relevant is a matter for the political level". Indeed, the technicians of polemology know that war is to be won, with all that this entails in terms of the effectiveness and efficiency of human, economic, moral, political, cultural, communicative and diplomatic resources. They have known since Thucydides that "everything possible tends naturally to materialise". To rule out war a priori is dangerous. The poet Machado, in his Juan de Mairena, understood this well when he warned that extreme pacifism would effortlessly lead barbarians, violent people or unscrupulous strategists to power. The value of this necessary contribution that the book makes," it states, "comes from the honest scientific transparency of the gaze applied to its object, the only effective antidote to be able to curb the perverse effects of war and to be able to coin those which, in the key of peace, could hopefully procure for us".



Peace and the end of violence

The book is replete with examples and there is one aspect that requires attention. This is "Case Study. Colombia and Peace" (Chapter Peace and the End of Violence). Paradoxically, once again, it shows that the solution to a conflict against the state - in this case caused by guerrilla and paramilitary movements - requires more state, and not only a greater presence of the security forces. This chapter, which is the last, explains that the problem with most of the "new wars" is that they are generally no longer fought between conventional armies, but between forces that are not completely structured, structured around a discourse. There may therefore be a problem when it comes to finding interlocutors with sufficient legitimacy to undertake a negotiation process, without going into the margin they have for their development, which will depend on the level of structuring they have achieved. It is not enough to destroy an army from the air, as is the model for Third Generation wars, nor is it enough to occupy the terrain militarily afterwards. The key to peace in these cases is to "deactivate the discourse first, and then to put an end to the culture of violence that has been installed in societies and that involves a significant segment of society".

The military and the political

To reflect on the political nature of war is to address the question of the nature of power. One of the essential ideas of this work is that politics has an extension on the battlefield and that peace is precisely the political resolution of war. Conflicts are often cast in military terms, as a succession of battles: whoever wins them all wins the war. However, as noted, the experiences of France in Algeria or the United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan prove that this is not always the correct plane of analysis. For this reason, he explains that victory, which is the military resolution of the problem, does not have to be found in direct relation to peace - its political resolution - however much the winning side may try to start from such a situation to set its terms.


War is something much more complex than a simple violent activity because, as a human phenomenon, it escapes the physical dimension in which it takes place and moves to the emotional plane. Moreover, "we are dealing with an act of communication, in which the physical, the violence, is not necessarily essential and has other parameters of measurement than the ordinary ones, from which it can be deduced that the joint effects are different from the sum of individual acts".

War is first and foremost a clash of powers, a clash in all its dimensions. And it is neither ethical, nor just, nor economic, nor medical, nor even military. It is a political act, an act of power management, so that any analysis carried out without taking this fact into account, that is, referring to only one of the levels, is incomplete, and therefore false and profoundly erroneous. The author is very clear when he states that war is a function, an instrument of politics. And we cannot pretend to make it into something else, nor try to use it to solve problems for which it is not designed and which are developmental.

But, at the same time, we must not forget that we are dealing with a social and cultural fact: the war waged by a shepherd people is not the same as the war waged by another farmer. Culture determines its forms. Without understanding a conflict, without understanding and delimiting it, there is no way to win it. That is why the first debates are, or should be, "metacognitive", i.e. defining the framework in which they take place and their nature, which is sometimes not so obvious. If one thing is clear, it is that every time and culture has its own theory of war. The concept of war is at once a legal, political and sociological concept. "It is therefore too precise a term for a world in which polysemy, imprecision, gives more options to politics".


His final reflection on hybrid warfare is interesting. For Federico Aznar, it is the prelude to a return to the ordinary concept of war. With all this, the understanding of 21st century conflicts could be summed up in this idea: a hybridisation, a mixed theory that brings together hard and soft forms of power in the same space and time, the return to conventional models, and this while opposing strategies of multi-dominance and postmodernism to the purest primitivism.

The cyclical nature of history, always masterful, "sends signals that seem to indicate that the West is going to rejoin the rest of the world and that war is going to return to what it always was". If so, "we would find ourselves at a geopolitical vanishing point", in terms of analytical geometry, at one of those points or moments when the tangent cuts the curve, when things cease to be as they were, and although maintaining the trend, they start to be different and never go back to what they were before. Between soft and hard forms of power, there will always be a return to conventional warfare.

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Gabriel Cortina, Analyst at the International Security Center




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