Conventional War

9 mins read

Imagine a war.

Several sides are fighting, but it is not clear who is on what side. The combatants do not wear regular military uniforms, and many are foreigners. They fight in the name of religion but act like monsters. Worse, they fight for the same god, labeling their enemy “apostate” and reserving the cruelest punishments for disbelievers. Groups splinter and turn on one another. The conflict becomes a holy mess to outside observers, and some even conclude that the religion itself is evil.

Civilians are prey, and the laws of war are nonexistent. Whole communities are raped and looted. Fighters carve out independent states in god’s name and extort people of their wealth. They govern through terror, committing horrible human rights atrocities: children are slaughtered, women rounded up as sex slaves, men tortured, burned alive, beheaded, defenestrated, or worse.

In one city, a religious leader orders his fighters to put all inhabitants to the sword. And they do. One witness recounts: “Everyone—women, old and young, and sick, and children and pregnant women were cut to pieces at the point of a dagger.” Babies were “taken by the feet and dashed against walls.” Thousands more flee into the countryside, only to die slowly of thirst. The international community screams outrage but does little to stop the massacres.

People flee the war zone, creating a tidal wave of refugees that floods other countries, destabilizing them. The region sinks into chaos. Other powers intervene, exploiting the situation for their own interests and waging proxy wars against enemies, but they, too, become mired in the tar pit of war. Humanitarians decry all sides, penning invectives and condemning the bloodbath, but achieve nothing. Meanwhile, the disorder feeds on itself, resulting in perpetual conflict with no resolution in sight.

Is this the Middle East today? No.

The War of Eight Saints took place in Italy from 1375 to 1378, but the parallels between it and the Middle East today are stunning. The religion in question is not Islam but Christianity. Instead of Sunni fighting Shia over “true Islam,” papists fought anti-papists for the soul of the Catholic Church. Warriors did not wear standard uniforms, and many were foreigners. In the War of Eight Saints, most fighters were mercenaries hailing from every corner of Europe. They, too, professed to fight for or against the pope, but many were interested only in coin or adventure.
The same could be said of jihadis today. Terrorists are masked and wear a collage of military fatigues. Sunni and Shia come from all over the Middle East and North Africa. Combatants in both wars were and are savage. All fought for god but behaved like devils, damning the innocent to a living hell.

In 2014, the terrorist group known most commonly in the West as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) took the city of Sinjar, Iraq. They rounded up the inhabitants and slaughtered them in the name of Allah: men, women, and children. Five thousand were killed. Even more fled up Mount Sinjar outside the city, dying of thirst. The War of Eight Saints had its own Sinjar: the massacre of Cesena, a small city in northern Italy. In 1378, Cardinal Robert, the pope’s envoy, ordered the mercenary captain John Hawkwood to kill all of the town’s civilians—five thousand of them—as God’s punishment. Hawkwood did. Tellingly, it did not hurt either man’s career. Hawkwood became one of the most celebrated and wealthy mercenaries of his day, and his visage still adorns Florence’s famed cathedral. Cardinal Robert later became a pope himself, known as antipope Clement VII during the papal schism. Some do well by war.

John Hawkwood, papal condottiere in Gregory XI’s wars against Milan


Coluccio Salutati, Chancellor of Florence during the war


Pope Gregory XI’s bull of excommunication referred to the “Eight Saints” as the “Eight of Priests.”

Both conflicts sucked entire regions into anarchy. Syria and Iraq remain the epicenter of an ancient feud between Sunni and Shia, one with no permanent resolution in sight. The War of Eight Saints was fought for three years, but that was only the beginning. It birthed the great papal schism that split the Catholic Church from 1378 to 1417, wreaking pandemonium across Europe. The fight between papists and anti-papists would continue through the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War two centuries later, and arguably beyond.

The War of Eight Saints could be mistaken for the Middle East today because both illustrate the timeless nature of war: organized violence that means to impose the will of one on another. It is brutal, bloody, and unfair, whether in 400 BCE, 1300 CE, or today.2 Some things change—weapons, tactics, technology, leadership, circumstances—but the nature of war does not. This is the difference between war and warfare. Warfare is how wars are fought, and it is always changing. But the nature of war never changes.

A woman pushes a baby stroller as she rushes away after what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on a busy marketplace in Douma, near Damascus, Syria August 12, 2015.


Babies are carried away away from destroyed buildings following an air strike in Aleppo, Syria, in 2016.

People today confuse war and warfare, and this leads to big problems. The War of Eight Saints shows us what war is, but what is warfare now? For the most, it’s called “conventional war.”

There is no such thing as conventional versus unconventional war—there is just war. “Conventional war” is actually a type of warfare, and it’s how the West likes to fight. Sometimes western militaries call it “Big War.”

Think of Napoleon or the world wars: Great powers duking it out with their militaries as gladiators, and the fate of the world dangling in the balance. Only states are legitimately allowed to do battle, making war an exclusively interstate affair, fought with industrial-strength armies. Firepower is king, and battlefield victory everything. Honor matters, as do the laws of war, and citizens are expected to serve their country in uniform with patriotic zeal.

World War II is the model for armed conflict a’la conventional war

Conventional warfare is officially dead. This has become an obvious trend with innumerable adversaries engaging the superior military forces and their allies in unconventional ways with unconventional means. The long-held notion of the decisive battle that brings the combat power of two nations against each other for a winner-take-all slugfest lies in the next grave.”

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