The 20th and early 21st centuries are considered to the bloodiest periods of conflict in history. During this period, human society was characterized by conflicts such as both world wars and the blurring of the lines between civilian and combatant. The conflicts during the 20th and 21st Centuries left their indelible mark on all the individuals involved, whether combatant or civilian. Despite the differences between each of the conflicts over the past hundred years, they all resulted in a high amount of civilian deaths and increased human suffering to unimaginable levels. Additionally, the face of warfare over this past century has changed, and war has become more devastating than in any other time in human history. Although war has changed in many ways, the primary effects of war have often stayed the same. This paper seeks to compare warfare over the past century and trace the impact of war on individuals and society.

One of the main ways in which warfare is different today is because modern warfare is often fought through non-state combatants such as rebel groups and insurgents. These insurgent groups are often funded by wealthy hegemonic powers and are used as proxies. For example, insurgent groups in the Middle East such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda are often financed by the Gulf States with the goal of accomplishing certain political objectives. Additionally, many of the insurgent groups in Latin American such as the Nicaragua Contras were funded by the US to pursue policy goals such as regime change and regime destabilization. The funding of militants often takes places as a way for larger powers to fight for influence in some parts of the world. An example of this would be the Civil War in Syria. For example, the US and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel are backers of the rebel groups fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad and instead seek to gain the support to install a pro-Western government in Syria. On the other hand, countries such as Russia, China, Iran are opposed to the US-backed rebels and are instead supporting the Assad government in its efforts to restore stability in Syria.

The rise of non-state combatants also changed the face of warfare because combatants do not know who the enemy is in combat. In prior wars, such as World War 1 and World War 2, the enemy was clearly defined and had clear objectives. On the other hand, combatants today often have unclear goals and are not as clearly defined. The threat posed by non-defined combatants creates a constant feeling of dread in the minds of people who are fearful of the next attack to occur. Additionally, this sense of fear serves to embolden policy-makers to make decisions to use the force to destroy a problem as opposed to the use of force backed with a political solution to solve issues. The ongoing War on Terrorism is an example of this idea in action. For example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were considered to have been won rather quickly at first due to the overthrow of the respective governments in both countries. Despite the short phase of the conventional war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a strong insurgency emerged in both countries that resulted in increased losses and further devastation.

The increasing mechanization of warfare is another factor that has defined recent conflicts. Warfare was relatively primitive at the dawn of the 20th Century and relied more on manpower as opposed to machines. The mechanization of warfare began with the advent of aerial warfare and tank warfare during World War 1. The use of air power increased the potential devastation of warfare and made civilian areas potential targets in combat. Additionally, tank warfare allowed armies to bring higher levels of destruction to the opposing side. World War 2 resulted in the further increase in mechanization and the refining of military technologies to increase damage to the other side. A recent example of mechanization is the increasing reliance on drone strikes to take out perceived enemies with little to no damage to the side that uses drones. The use of drone strikes dehumanizes participants in warfare because it absolves the drone operators of any guilt regarding their actions. Moreover, the use of drones in warfare makes all people out to be perceived enemies of the US and further reduces the previously recognized distinctions between civilian and military targets.

Large-scale warfare in modern society is also less possible due to advances in military technology and increasing levels of globalization. At the start of the 20th Century, global institutions were nonexistent, and economic interdependence was minimal. Because of the development of technologies such as the atomic bomb, the chance of large-scale warfare in the traditional sense is limited since the use of such weapons may potentially result in complete world annihilation. Additionally, the spread of globalization and the role of international institutions makes the likelihood of wide-scale conflicts less possible than they were during the early part of the 20th Century. The reason why globalization reduced the risk of global wars from occurring is that it increases economic interdependence between nations. Moreover, globalization has broken down previous existing barriers between countries and thus reduced the potential for conflict between them from ultimately emerging. Despite their mixed record overall, international institutions have prevented large-scale warfare by creating a venue for countries to seek to solve their disputes in a peaceful manner and created more avenues for cooperation between nation-states.

Even though the nature of war has changed in many ways over the past century, there are several elements of warfare that have ultimately been the same. One way that warfare has remained the same is because they are still primarily fought for the same reasons. Two of the leading reasons, why war is fought is because of economic factors and territorial disputes. Economic factors in warfare stem from trade conflicts between countries and because the arms market continues to profit from a protracted conflict between nations today much as they did during earlier conflicts such as World War 1 and World War 2. Additionally, territorial disputes remain today such as the ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean region, Israel and the Arab nations, and the US and China over the islands in the Pacific. The current territorial disputes are parallel to earlier disputes such as the disagreements between Russia and Finland during the late 1930s, Germany and France’s disputes over the Alsace-Lorraine region, and the disputes between Japan and China during the lead-up to the Sino-Japanese war.

War today has also remained the same because ideological differences often play a role in conflicts between nations. Some of the ideological factors that influence warfare include religious differences, diverse political ideologies, and differing visions for the international order. For example, the political ideologies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan played a key role in the decisions that both countries made during World War 2 and convinced both to seek to impose a new world order. Additionally, the Cold War was an ideological conflict because the Soviet Union held an ideology based on socialism that went directly against the ideological viewpoints of the US and its allies that were based on capitalism and individual freedom. The past feelings of ideological decision carried over into the conflicts of today and are motivated by religious factors. For example, the ongoing War on Terrorism can be framed as an ideological battle between the forces of secularism and modernity against the forces of fundamentalism and traditionalism.

The fact that modern warfare results in the displacement of civilians is another reason why the nature of warfare has remained the same. Because of the destruction of civilian areas through warfare, civilians are often forced to relocate after a war occurs. The resulting forced relocation of civilians creates a feeling of unpredictability among those who are displaced and often prevents them from returning to their past lifestyles. The displacement of civilians is a common thread in nearly all conflicts over the past century. For example, because conflicts such as World War 1 and World War 2 unleashed high levels of destruction towards civilian areas, the civilians in the war zones often lost their homes and were thus considered to be displaced people. Modern conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War and the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also contributed to the global refugee crisis by displacing individuals. As such, the issue of war creating refugees is a common connection between both war in the earlier part of the 20th Century and war today.

Another common theme between warfare at the beginning of the 20th century and warfare during the 21st Century is that the nature of warfare itself still results in the wholesale devaluing of human life and makes individuals out to be mere objects in any venue of war. For example, events such as World War 2 resulted in mass civilian deaths and minimized the differences between both civilians and combatants. Additionally, events such as the Holocaust devalued human lives by turning people into objects perceived to be lacking any human value. The dehumanization of civilians continues to remain a common thread in modern warfare and conflicts between groups. For example, recent conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s and the activities by the US in the War on Terrorism resulted in ever-increasing civilian casualties and little regard for human lives for each of the sides in both conflicts.

The past century can be described as one that is characterized by perpetual conflict and the emergence of warfare at the global level. Additionally, the nature of war has evolved over the past century and has played an enduring role in society. Even though war has evolved in several different ways, several elements remain common between both war at the start of the previous century and contemporary warfare. An analysis of the effects of war on both society and the individual allows us to understand the futility of the idea of war and may encourage us to work together to achieve increased levels of global understanding and peace.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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  1. Kevin on July 30, 2017

    Thanks for this sensible information on the evolution of warfare over the past century! I was just preparing to do a little research on this topic for an upcoming school paper. I got a book from my local library but I think I learned much more info from this post. I am very glad to see such fantastic information being shared freely out there!