I Should Probably Define ‘War’

I’ve been talking in my previous posts, and in my academic writing, about (potential) differences between peace and war and the moral judgments we (therefore) make in those two contexts. But what do I mean when I say “in war”, or “the war context”?

The dictionary definition of war is pretty straightforward. Mirriam-Webster writes that it’s “a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations”; Wikipedia goes even more general, “War is a state of armed conflict between states or societies,” while the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy highlights that it “should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities.” I asked a bunch of MTurkers to explain to me ‘what war is’, and their answers seemed pretty similar; the most obvious difference being that while the dictionaries talk about communities in the plural, MTurkers talked about usually two groups of people. Those definitions are probably fine, but they are too broad for anyone who wants to know, for example, how many wars are happening in the world right now; whether there has been an increase in civil wars in the last 10 years; how old the average combatant is. For those kind of questions, you might turn to something like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, and their impressive list of working definitions of everything from arms to victory; the Correlates of War project; the Armed Conflict Database; or PRIO’s summary of Data on Armed Conflict. This series of infographics is built with numbers from these kinds of sources – every time I look at it, I feel in awe of and incredibly grateful towards the people who have collected, and continue to collect, such incredible data.

And then, there’s the third definition. The ‘definition’ that I don’t even know if deserves that name; the third way that tries to capture the rather fuzzy concept of war, that might be best represented in a semantic network, that might rely on a particular (fairly new, as far as I can tell) approach in linguistics to meaning, that means (computationally) that we can find out what a word means by finding out what other words it’s associated with. This would mean defining ‘war’ as something we talk and think about, as much as something that’s out there in the world. You’d expect there to be some relationship between what we think war is, what we say war is, and what war is, but the mapping won’t be perfect.

For some reason, it’s the thinking and saying that I’m most interested in. Perhaps because for most people in the world, war is (thankfully!) “only” something that they talk and think about, not something they directly experience? Anyway, to explore how people talk (and maybe think) about war, I’ve started scraping twitter for any tweets mentioning the war or the military. I’m very new to this kind of data analysis; so far all I’ve got are simple word counts:This first cloud illustrates the content of about 18,000 tweets which mentioned war or the military, between 23rd and 30th of October. Looks like Trump’s ban on transgender service people was in the news…

This second cloud illustrates the content of about 1200 tweets which mentioned war or the military, between 31st October and today (6th November). Call of Duty: WWII has just come out, but apart from that… it looks like when people tweeted about war, they tweeted about people and weapons?

I don’t think we can derive a “definition” of war from these tweets, but I’m hoping to eventually use them to describe “what we talk about when we talk about war” – which is partly getting at the same thing, and might also be important. As for what it might tell us about how war is different from peace… well, that can be the next step.

2 thoughts on “I Should Probably Define ‘War’

  1. War can be a state of mind. North Korea is still in a state of war with the United Nations to include the United States and South Korea. Artillery and Missiles have are not launched back and forth but the idea of war is real there as it is in Afghanistan or Yemen.


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