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The Nature of Modern Wars & Conflicts

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  • 0:01 Why War?
  • 3:56 Types of War
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the nature of modern conflicts. We will learn why war takes place, what types of war exist, and what themes have been integral to 20-century conflicts.

Why War?

Why does war exist? What causes war? This is very much a philosophical question, and it's not my place in this lesson to delve into existential questions on the problem of evil. The sad reality is that war exists. It has since the dawn of time, and there seems to be no signs of it letting up. Just look at the recent developments in the Middle East.

For the purposes of this lesson, our scope is limited to conflicts since 1900. Why have wars broken out over the past 100 years or so? There are many answers. To begin with, nationalism has played a major role. Nationalism has many connotations, but basically it can be thought of as extreme pride in one's nation. Nationalism often causes one particular people group to believe they are superior to others. Nationalism played a major role in both world wars.

For example, Slavic nationalism in the Balkan region helped lead to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which proved to be the 'spark' that ignited World War I. And of course, there was Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party, with its fanatical belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race. The bottom line is extreme nationalism has been a leading cause of 20th-century conflicts.

War has broken out for other reasons, too. While religion has been a major cause of war throughout world history, its role in 20th-century conflicts has been more limited. Still, elements of religion have worked their way into modern conflicts. The Indo-Pakistani Wars, lasting a half century, had strong religious elements. This conflict pitted Hindu India against Muslim Pakistan. And of course, modern Islamic terrorism is fueled primarily by religious motives. Muslim extremists reject Western values and culture, and are intent on destroying it. In this sense, we can also think of war as arising from a clash of cultures.

But throughout the twentieth century, more than religion, ideology has been a leading cause of war. Think of the Cold War, the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. That 'war' was fought over ideology: Soviet communists believed their system was superior (and sought to export it around the world), while capitalist Americans believed their system was superior (and sought to export it around the world). The stark ideological differences between the two superpowers resulted in the Cold War, and periodically erupted into proxy 'hot' wars, like the Korean War and Vietnam.

Ethnicity has also been a source of conflict. Sometimes this is tied in with religion but not always. Think of the Nazis in World War II. The Nazis believed the German race was superior and sought to wipe out the Jewish race and subjugate Slavic peoples. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s were ethnic conflicts, pitting various Eastern European ethnic groups against one another. A term closely associated with ethnic conflict is genocide. Genocide is the systematic destruction of a specific ethnic or racial group. The Holocaust is probably the most famous example of genocide.

Types of War

Now let's look at a few different types of war. We tend to think of war in terms of nation-states fighting other nation-states, but it's more complex than that. Not all twentieth century conflicts follow the typical model of World War I or World War II.

A civil war, as we know, is a war between competing factions within the boundaries of a nation. For example, in the early twentieth century, the Russian Civil War pitted communist 'Reds' against monarchist 'Whites.' As of the summer of 2014, there is a civil war taking place in the country of Syria.

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