Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.3 War, terrorism and ‘asymmetrical warfare’

Before the twentieth century, while civilian were often casualties of war, warfare drew a distinction between combatants from non-combatants. Combatants rather than non-combatants were the principal targets of their enemies (although non-combatants were frequently endangered and civilian casualties common). Modern asymmetric warfare abandons this non-combatant immunity. Guerrillas (being invariably non-state or sub-state combatants, not the organised force of an established state) target cultural, political, or population targets rather than military ones. As a result, civilians have been increasingly placed in the front line of modern warfare. Such guerrillas fight on their own terms, not those of their enemy, and use unorthodox means such as terrorism to attack the stronger opponent. In such asymmetrical warfare, the terrorist or insurgent often has the advantages of selectivity and surprise.

As Mary Kaldor (London School of Economics), observes, this means that:

... the strategies of the new warfare draw on the experience of both guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency …. In conventional or regular war, the goal is the capture of territory by military means; battles are the decisive encounters of the war. Guerrilla warfare developed as a means of getting around the massive concentrations of military force which are characteristics of conventional war. In guerrilla warfare, territory is captured through political control of the population rather than through military advance …. Hence the strategic goal of these wars is to mobilise extremist politics based on fear and hatred. This often involves population expulsion through various means such as mass killing and forcible resettlement, as well as a range of political, psychological and economic techniques of intimidation …. At the turn of the twentieth century, the ratio of military to civilian casualties in wars was 8: 1. Today, this has been almost exactly reversed … the ratio of military to civilian casualties is approximately 1: 8 …. The terrorism experienced in places such as New York, Madrid or London, as well as in Israel or Iraq, can be understood as a variant on a new strategy – the use of spectacular, often gruesome, violence to create fear and conflict.

(Kaldor, 2007, p8–9)

Of course, we must remember that civilians, especially in the twentieth century, probably the most violent century known to man, have long found themselves in the front line of war. The Second World War may have been fought out between opposing armies, but civilian casualties were appallingly high: Nazi barbarity, not least on the Eastern front, led to the targeting of non combatants and the horrors of the holocaust suffered by European Jews and others. Still, bearing in mind the longstanding reality of civilian casualties, past wars – even when one side was more powerful than the other – tended to be state-versus-state conflicts. They were fought between the armies, navies and air forces of two or more states. These had a symmetrical disposition. Since 1945, with less state-versus-state wars, states face wars with non-state and sub-state actors. In these wars, states engage enemies much less powerful than themselves located within the civilian population. Such war has an asymmetrical disposition. These combatants seldom wear uniform, are difficult to distinguish from the general population, and are more willing to fight and die for their causes. The weaker side in an asymmetrical war does not fight pitched battles or defend territory, and cannot prevent the opposing force from going where (or doing what) they want. Rather, while hiding among civilians, they attack their enemy whenever – and however – they can.

Today, asymmetrical warfare, because it does not involve battles waged between states, is fought between belligerents of unequal strength. It can be usefully likened to the battle fought between a champion boxer and a viral infection. In a battle between ‘occupiers’ and ‘insurgents’ (perhaps the most common form of asymmetrical warfare), insurgents may only win by not losing. As can be glimpsed in Iraq since 2003, their objective in waging war is not necessarily to militarily defeat their larger, more powerful enemy, but impose a cost upon them that they will not want – or be able – to bear.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371