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Could a war continue indefinitely? I see two parts to this question:

Stability

A war is often unstable, in that a slight advantage gained by one side makes them more likely to win further battles and gain further advantage. This positive feedback loop makes power swing to one side or the other, rather than remaining balanced.

Is there a situation in which a war could be stable, so that a slight advantage gained would tend to lead back to balance preventing either side from winning?

Persistence

If a war is clearly balanced, it can lead to agreement by both sides to stop and negotiate instead. Similarly if neither side really wants war or escalation leaves both sides drained of resources then attacks might gradually diminish to the point that they stop altogether to be replaced by a stand off and eventual peace.

Is there a situation in which a war could be sustained, so that the attacks do not tail off and no negotiation is possible?

Specifically I am interested in finding a situation where both these factors are present at once, to give a war that never ends.


To clarify, I am looking for any situations that would give the desired effect. Not necessarily attitudes of people and societies, but technological, geographical, seasonal or other situations that would create the dynamics I'm looking for. I'm asking the question because I don't know which of these will be the source of the answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Really? The slight tactical advantage gained is often offset by increased demand on logistics and spending resources to "hold the ground". I wouldn't say that it is a clear positive feedback loop. $\endgroup$ – Telastyn Sep 22 '14 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Telastyn we're both saying "often" which doesn't necessarily cause a contradiction. I'm interested in answers that show settings or situations in which that negative feedback would continue indefinitely. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Sep 22 '14 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ That was the whole basis behind the story in 1984 $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Sep 22 '14 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ I've posted on meta. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Sep 22 '14 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ You should learn about the history of Israël. It is fascinating to me, and they are in a constant war. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Sep 23 '14 at 7:19

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Indefinitely is hard to say but for a long time yes. If for example the USSR hadn't had fiscal/food issues we would likely still be in the cold war - that's just a recent one. Further back in history, England and France had that "little spat", The Hundred Years War about who was the rightful rule for oh about 120 years. The likelihood of never ending is very low but for a long time yes. The requirements for a long war would be:

  • tactical/technical parity; the side(s) don't have to have anything like the same weapons but all put together they have to have similarity. (unless it is a guerrilla/terrorism based war in which case it is different but I don't think that's really what you're thinking of). It doesn't need to be similar at one specific point because the fortunes of war can sway back and forth as technological advancements happen; just in the long run analysis it has to be equivalent. This includes military leadership as well as the weapons/plans.
  • Strong public sentiment (for democracies)/Powerful leadership (for most non-democracies). Ideological support for the war (f.e. United States in the Cold War) or a highly controlled society (f.e. England/Hundred Years War).
  • lots of small incidents to keep feelings high but avoidance of major battles which could actually be decisive. (f.e. Cold War)
  • A lot of territory that can be lost/gained without finishing the war (f.e. Hundred Years war)
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Have you read 1984 (Orwell)?

Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war. For several months during his childhood there had been confused street fighting in London itself, some of which he remembered vividly. But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.

George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)

Essentially, the three large powers are always fighting over large patches of contested ground by switching alliances whenever a side grows too powerful - an unspoken agreement to allow any side to win, so that they'd never have to share the spoils with their ally. Most (no?) wars have endured like the one in 1984 because the major sides do not change alliances repeatedly during the war.

Stability is found by strong public support and the endurance of the megapowers. They cannot by starved off - they are too large, and the people are kept in a fervor for the endless fighting via propaganda and strict control. As a side effect, little actual innovation occurs which gives one of the three powers an advantage over the others: the governments don't really want the war to end, as it gives them reason to keep the people in control.

Read 1984. Just read it.

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    $\begingroup$ While 1984 is chillingly awesome, I don't agree with the example of it as a state of perpetual war - The way I understand the book, it's a narrative based on the view from within a totalitarian state, from the perspective of an unreliable narrator (Winston, even in 3rd person). I've always thought the whole metaphor was for perpetual war as an illusion to justify totalitarianism - the war was never actually there or it ended long ago. Much the same as how North Koreans are probably fed the same woo woo about a permanent war with their country holding only because of totalitarianism. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with ivy_lynx. There are lots of hints in 1984 that the war is a hoax to justify bad living conditions and inspire patriotism. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 7 '14 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that the war was not real, and that is because of another purpose of the war stated in the book: To burn excess industrial production capability. And i mean, come on - a super state keeping everyone in low living conditions but with massive factories - all that has to go somewhere! The reason for this war lies in itself, or actually in being able to have a sink for all the production, to justify bad living condition although there is so much produced. Also i think it has to actually exist because otherwise it won't make a point about our real wars. much money in the military... $\endgroup$ – kutschkem Oct 22 '14 at 14:12
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Three (or more) Sides

The easiest way to get a permanent war situation (where there is actual real fight) is to have three sides.

If one side is clearly winning the other two team up to bring them down, but then a new side is winning so the alliances shift again.

The situation is inherently unstable though so unless someone is acting to keep the war going by pulling strings behind the scenes eventually it will end.

MAD

In theory you could create a low level conflict if both sides have powerful weapons too powerful to use (Mutually Assured Destruction) but conflicting goals. The problem though with this theory is that while you can get low level skirmishes and conflicts and/or a cold war neither side is ever going to commit its full force and you're unlikely to ever see actual warfare. So depending on exactly what you are looking for in the permanent war MAD may or may not be helpful.

Asymmetric Conflict

If one side is waging an underground guerilla war then the conflict could potentially go on indefinitely. That does depend on the "dominant" power not being willing to just wipe everyone out to solve the problem though and again doesn't really give you the "armies in the field" experience.

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  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't consider MAD actual warfare, unless it's being fought via smaller subconflicts which are against arguably different peoples than those actually at conflict. $\endgroup$ – neph Sep 22 '14 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @kikjezrous Yes, my wording wasn't clear. I've (hopefully) improved it. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 22 '14 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @kikjezrous I agree that it is not warfare - it is the stand off that I want to avoid. But if the existence of such weapons doesn't end the battles altogether due to fear, then it can still keep battles small enough and hesitant enough that conflict could continue over a very long timescale. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Sep 22 '14 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ The edit sums it up. Yes MAD would be useful for long term low intensity war. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Sep 22 '14 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ It's too small an edit for me, but you probably meant guerilla war, not gorilla war. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 22 '14 at 18:25
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There could exist a situation where warfare was a tradition, where the targets of warfare were pre-agreed, and were the only legitimate targets, and where the forces employed were of pre-agreed sizes. This is different to limited or total war, where each side is trying to bring the conflict to a close by military means.

Such a situation may exist where warfare is a religious rite that victory would make impossible to perform further - the object is to fight, perhaps to achieve personal victories, not to achieve a collective victory.

Another possibility is that the leaders of the warring parties each encourage unending war in order to maintain their grip on power and profits - in fact they have a secret agreement to never seek victory in order to maintain the status quo. I would imagine such leaders to be somewhat Stalinesque in their propensity to execute those who ask too many questions or cast doubts on the leaders' judgement.

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  • $\begingroup$ Any chance of a reason for the downvote? $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Sep 22 '14 at 20:54
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Halderman's "The Forever War" used the following to quite convincing effect:

  1. Space travel at near-light speed caused "time dilation"; soldiers could travel vast distances in a matter of weeks, but on Earth 100s of years would pass.

  2. No possibility of communication between the sides due to language barrier.

  3. No concrete objective. War was primarily about vengeance and propping up the economy.

  4. Small scale and small political cost. While the expense was enormous due to the technologies required to wage a space war, the number of soldiers involved was quite small. No one on earth felt harmed or in any way impacted by the war, thus no one had any reason to stop it.

3 and 4 were the case in the author's experience in Vietnam, and still the case with modern wars today.

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All the above are good answers, but I've got one more to add:

Automation

The only reason to ever end a war is because one or both sides have decided it's not worth continuing the fight. Generally they've lost too much, stand to lose more, or simply don't have the will or the resources to keep fighting. Very few nations are ok with losing, so from the standpoint of the losing side, every war ought to be permanent, at least until they aren't the losers anymore.

But that logic gets undermined in the face of automation. If I've got a factory making death-bots and sending them to you, and you've got a factory making death-bots and sending them to me, but the two armies just meet in the middle and tear each other up before reaching either of us, that could continue forever with little change. If you start to get the upper-hand, I'll just build another factory to shore up my weakness, etc. But if I start to advance too far, your supply lines will shorten, giving you an advantage that could shift the war back toward "balance."

So long as neither side changes tactics, such a scenario could continue forever. It could even outlive the civilizations that started it.

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Actually the more warlike American Indian tribes were often in a state of low level permanent war with every other tribe except for a few allies. There are many examples of tribe A and Tribe B raiding each other for decades at a time. Research may find examples of permanent war conditions lasting for over a century.

And other warrior societies may also have examples of war conditions lasting for decades or centuries.

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I'm adding a second answer as it's quite different to my other one now I've thought about this a bit more. Again it may not be the situation you were envisaging but it is a scenario that gives near-permanent warfare and which would be innately stable.

I can envisage another situation where you could have endless war, although again it might not be quite the sort of war you had in mind.

The reason wars end is because they are between nations, between collectives. Those collectives assimilate or destroy other collectives and then continue, with the larger ones gradually or rapidly absorbing the smaller ones into themselves.

If instead states were a more transient thing, with no concept of the state itself existing but instead were personality cults, that would change things a lot.

Someone rises up to lead a tribe, or nation. He or she forms alliances, conquers smaller tribes, rises to glory. But then when that leader dies the empire fragments, with each part of the fragment following one of that leaders children. Some or all of those fragments may be allied at first but over time that would fade away, while at the same time tribes that weren't followers of the original leader would also remain and possibly be growing in power itself.

Even if one leader is succeeded by only one child and the empire stays together that child will have further children (or die and cause a different type of succession struggle). Eventually a child will come along incapable of leading and at that point the empire will fall apart.

The key thing though is that the individual is the focus, not the organisation. People group together following a charismatic or powerful war leader, but when that leadership is gone the organisation he built falls apart again.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is there a reason you did not just append this to your original answer? $\endgroup$ – Chad Sep 23 '14 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Chad Because it's quite a different answer and people might agree/disagree with it separately from the other points. I don't like putting more than three answers in one. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 23 '14 at 14:19
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I think you need several factors to align.

You need the territory that each side controls to be roughly equal, but far enough apart that neither side can effectively adjust, reinforce, or take advantage of weaknesses that are exposed by attacks.

Economies must be roughly equal and robust enough that it can maintain status through out the drawn out war, but not so much that either side can leverage enough to overwelm the other.

Any outside forces are willing to mostly stay out of the conflict or are intent on seeing the conflict continue with out either side gaining an advantage. Ideally these forces would be able to destroy either of the warring people with little effort.(Think US and USSR when they toyed with Iran and Iraq in the 80's)

The percieved greivance is so great that neither side is willing to tolarate a lasting peace.

One situation I can see that fits this would be a war among some tribes that exist in an island chain otherwise secluded from the rest of the world. Weapons are mostly going to be wood and stone and there is not going to be a reliable source of metal that can support a continuously fought war for hundreds of years. The islands give the defensive advantage that would be needed to prevent gains that would result in a signifigant advantage and make it more difficult to hold on to any land that was conquered. And the travel betweeen the islands would take long enough that no advantage could be pressed with fresh troops. The remoteness of the islands will help keep outsiders from getting involved if they even know the islands exist.

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(i am very sorry. I am writing from a different browser than usually, and this one has a German spelling correction, that messes with my writing. I am sorry for the many spelling and capitalization mistakes)

Another historical example is the Thirty years war. The war was started for religious and political reasons. In those days, most countries had a Standing army. So in the first years of the war, it just "went fine". No side could get a significant advantage.

After a few years, the governments started Recruiting new soliders. In those days, a soldier would get a one-time-payment once they were hired, and regular payments afterwars, as well as (sometimes) a one-time-payment when he was dismissed.

After another dozen years of war, economy in most countries involved was at a harsh low. The governments were pretty much bankrupt, only being able to continue to wage war because they would conquer and loot cities and use the loot to pay their armies. Often, soldiers were not paid for long times, leading to deserters and marauders.

What arose was "the Monster of war", a "beast that keeps itself alive". If for example sweden and Austria would have wanted to go to peace, they would Need Money to pay their soldiers. Money that they didn't have anymore. So in order to make peace, the other Party would have needed to pay them some Money, so they could retire their armies. But the other parties were also bancrupt, and it would have been a BIG disgrace to admit that you actually couldn't pay that Money. You would need to pretent you could, but don't WANT to. So everyone waited for the tides of war to turn, so next time you negotiated for peace, you were in a better Position and could request Money from the other guys.

Everyone wanted to go to peace, noone could afford to do so. Meanwhile, the soldiers were poorly equipped, starving, most often only being kept alive by looting the local farmers and villages. In those days, you couldn't fight during winter, so during the winter months, armies were sent to quarters. Now, a huge german City like Frankfurt hat 80-100k citizens. The armies were equally huge. No single City could Support a whole army, so in late fall, armies were disbanded and spread over a large area - preferably an area that belongs to your enemy, because in spring, everything edible, huntable, rapeable or forageable would be gone or dead. As you may easily imagine, after 30 years of war, the countries were barren and dead. So in order to Keep your army alive - you placed it in some neighbours land. Even if he didn't have anything to do with the war (yet). Also, those cities still had some wealth, that you could use to fuel the war...

And so, the involved parties became more and more, forming a complex System of alliances, secret treaties and pacts, that basically ensured that no side would ever win.

And then there was France. France profited from the other countries being at each others throat, and just continued changing alliances and Support whenever one Party was about to lose. THus, they acutally made sure the war continued.

But why wasn't the war decided in battle? Because of the way warfare worked. In a battle, only around 10% of all soldiers who stopped fighting were actually dead. Many were wounded, not necessary gravely, but most had simply fled the battlefield. Breaking morale was the main thing that scattered armies. But later, they would Reform. And while the losses were harsh, there was an abundance of new soldiers to "recruit", and muskets were so simple, that you didn't require much training. So even after you won a battle, the very same army could try to fight you again only few weeks later. Also, the armies were so huge, that usually withdrawing from the field was easy for the commanders and high-ranking officers. So your command staff stayed alive for many many battles, and they were the only thing that, if lost,could have permanently scattered an army.

The thirty years war is an excellent example of a war that couldn't be stopped anymore. You might take the "lessons learned" from that war, and try to fit them into the Scenario you have in mind. But the Basic mechanisms should be clear:

  • It's too expensive to stop the war
  • No side can gain a clear Advantage
  • You'd loose face by admitting defeat or financial difficulties
  • Ever growing battlefield, so new parties join the war, changing the tides of battle
  • Third parties wanting to keep the war alive.
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Stability? It's simple. There must not be sufficient dissent in the countries to allow war to end, or there must be a system to prevent dissent from organizing. Perhaps at one extreme, you could use conspiracy theories where real dissenters are killed, and safe dissident groups are funded and controlled. Or use totalitarian oppression. Stalin and Mao killed an unbelievable number of their own people through starvation and oppression, and still were in charge.

Persistence?

That's a different issue. The intensity of war is the limitation.

After WWI, there were 40% fewer single French men per unmarried woman.

Obviously a society structured differently, with polygamy, high birth rates, and pensions for veterans could cope with the hazards of war better and longer. Modern technology allows for lower casualty rates, and less men on the front line.

The economic burden of war won't be too severe if the investment portion of GDP is sufficient to allow for economic growth.

You asked a general question, so this is a general response.

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