Los motores del cambio en el conflicto bélico

Drivers of change in wartime conflict


13 | 11 | 2023


Technology, human ingenuity and social mutation are behind the transformation in the way war is waged.

In the picture

Cuirassiers saluting Napoleon at the battle of Friedland (1807), painting by Ernest Meissonier painted in 1875.

A simple observation of the reality of the conflict shows how it has evolved over time; the war between tribes in the Neolithic era, being the same sociological phenomenon, is very different in its execution from that of the 21st century. This reality leads us to inquire about which are the agents that induce this change.

Before we begin, we should ask ourselves what is meant by conflict or war. Sun Tzu defines it in 'The Art of War' as "a matter of life and death"[1]; Aristotle as the means to achieve peace; the Prussian military man Von Clausewitz presents it in his famous treatise 'On War' as the continuation of politics by other means ("Der Krieg ist nichts als eine Fortsetzung des politischen Verkehrs mit Einmischung andererer Mittel"[2]).

For the purposes of this text, conflict will be understood as any armed confrontation between States or other politically organized entities, which occurs when diplomacy has been unable to prevent an extreme confrontation status , and which seeks, with the various means available, to impose its own will on that of its rival.

The historical review of warfare sample shows how it has changed over time, driven by various drivers that have made it evolve from the beginnings of civilizations to contemporary societies of the 21st century. Among these, technology, human ingenuity and social change stand out.


The Royal Academy of the Spanish language (RAE) defines technology, in its first meaning, as the "set of theories and techniques that allow the practical use of scientific knowledge ".[3]Based on this definition, it is possible to clearly distinguish two ways that technology finds to affect and change society in all its dimensions, among them security; the first derives from the evolution of civil technology itself, which then finds a military application; and the second, from the direct application of technology to the satisfaction of security needs, offering technological solutions during the war to the needs of the moment.

Humankind began by hunting and gathering fruits on the move and in a nomadic manner across the earth's surface. Early technological advances enabled them to cook, settle and cultivate. Many of the steps that have led us to improve our well-being and our status in the natural hierarchy have come about through the advances of society's scientific minds.

It is difficult to understand human history without taking into account the successive technological advances that have taken place; from the scientists of the 15th century, through the industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the digital technologies of the 21st century. The development of farming tools; the printing press, which helped to share knowledge more quickly; nautical technology, so important for the discovery of America; the steam engine, for the development of trains and the speeding up of the transport of goods; or the Internet, with the obvious advances we see today compared to the age of our parents, are just a few examples that illustrate the progress of technology throughout history.

These technological advances have had an impact on all areas of human life, from interpersonal relationships to politics, science, Education and transportation. Of course, technological advances and improvements also continue to be made in the security and defense of countries. Some examples are the creation of the bow, originally intended for hunting; the construction of fishing boats, later redesigned as armed fleets; the telegraph and telephone, for communications; the explosion engine of the 20th century, so important in the two world wars; the introduction of drones, which are so profusely used in the war in Ukraine; and a long etcetera.

Now this technological progress allows us to move towards what is colloquially called the fourth, fifth and sixth armies, which are used to refer to outer space, the Internet and the human mind. Advances in computing, artificial intelligence and the development of space technology allow us today to attack the sovereignty of other countries by blocking their satellites, inducing their population to think a certain way through 'fake news' about their government on social networks, etc.

All this makes reference letter the first way in which technology changes and alters the shape of society and security by enabling and encouraging changes that make certain military tasks less laborious and more comfortable. We should not forget, however, its second form of influence: when technology came to directly solve specific needs in combat.

This is the case of the creation of ARPANET (1967), the seed of today's Internet[4]. Created by the Ministry of Defense of the United States of America, it sought to solve a problem of speed in transmission, instantaneously connecting all the nodes of the network, however distant they were from each other, and another of security in communications, since with this direct network of computers the orders arrived directly at their destination without the possibility of being detected or intercepted. This system made it possible to significantly reduce the deadline of availability of a military force regardless of where on the planet it was deployed, being able to go into action on specific targets and with precise orders at any time, which sought to solve the problem of an increasingly globalized and connected world. At the same time, it completely changed the rules of the game, being able to initiate a war simultaneously and almost immediately on multiple fronts.

Human ingenuity

Ingenuity is the second engine that proceeds to reform, revitalize and change the method of warfare. This is defined in the RAE as: "School of the human being to think or invent with promptness and ease"[5].

Ingenuity is therefore a distinctly human skill , which arises from our most characteristic feature as a species: reason. Since the beginning of history, it has also been one of the main tools that have allowed human beings to overcome the obstacles they have faced, whether in the cold winter or on the battlefield.

Ingenuity also has two specific ways of creating, promoting, establishing and establishing changes in warfare, which affect both its procedures and its technology. This second case is directly related to what has been said so far; its application to the needs of war creates technological solutions specifically adapted to the needs of the moment, solving present or future problems in the conflict.

On the other hand, when it comes to combat procedures, human ingenuity also has a great capacity to generate changes, either to unlock a status or to gain an advantage. A clear example of this can be found in the First World War. In 1918, after years of stalemate and indecision in "trench warfare" on the Western Front, German military ingenuity developed the procedure of "war of movement" to break the impasse in which it found itself. The new procedure, focused on finding the weak point of the enemy front to penetrate to its rear, did not achieve victory for Germany in the war, but it came close to causing the opponent's collapse.

Beyond changing a status stalemate or stalemate, ingenuity can also seek to gain an advantage after a military defeat. An example of this would be guerrilla warfare, a term coined during the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon. This method of combat, developed in ancient times by Hispanic warriors against Rome (Viriato) and other tribes in the rest of the planet, is defined as "military or paramilitary operations conducted in territories occupied by the enemy or by irregular forces, often groups indigenous to the combat area "[6]. The application of this procedure allowed Spain to resist as a nation to the Gallic invader, after he had defeated its regular army.

This method of combat, based on and thanks to ingenuity, plans ambushes, sets traps and bombs, which give the advantage of surprise, often based on technology, the knowledge of the terrain and the greater capacity of mobility, as developed by Ernesto Che Guevara or Mao Tse Tung.

Social change

The last element that we consider important in terms of its influence on the conflict paradigms is the society in which each army is framed, understanding by society, according to the RAE, "that group of persons, people or nations that coexist under common rules"[7]. This makes a lot of sense, since the human being is a social being, as already identified by Aristotle. Many of man's activities are carried out in conjunction with other people and the human reality of conflict is no different, since at least two parties are needed for it to occur.

At the beginning of these lines war was defined as an armed confrontation between politically organized entities. The state is a form of social organization that, when it is functional, is capable of applying its norms and laws in a specific territory and over a specific society; that is, the very definition of war tells us that one of its functions is to protect society and its legitimate interests, which does not prevent unjust wars from being waged on occasion, or political leaders from pursuing their particular interests and not the common interests of their society.

The way of fighting in an armed conflict is highly influenced by the society from which it emerges, since an 18th century absolutist state is not the same as a contemporary democracy. Social changes influence warfare, limiting what a society considers admissible in its exercise or making possible methods or procedures that would be unfeasible or unacceptable without that change.

In an absolutist or totalitarian state, the ruler, not depending on external or internal factors to continue in power, has at his disposal his armies seeking epic and great victories, as well as the total destruction of the opposing army, with an unlimited amount of human and material resources. It follows, then, a classical ideal form of victory. A clear illustration is the Spartan army; there is no doubt that the hierarchical and militaristic character of Sparta influenced the way the Spartiates fought, allowing them to endure suffering better, to be more disciplined and better organized than the troops of the other Greek polis. From here would come, then, the way of fighting that characterized the legendary warriors who fought alone in Thermopylae against the tyrant and Persian invader, Xerxes.

Due to changes in society, the world ceased to see professional armies after the fall of Rome (476 A.D.) and during the Age average. It was not until the Modern Age that they re-emerged, paid for by the monarchies, as exemplified by the famous Spanish Tercios.

Later, with the French Revolution (1789-1799), the concept of citizen arose in French society, which allowed Napoleon to recruit en masse a large number of highly motivated volunteer soldiers for his armies, something unthinkable in the rest of Europe at the time.

A form of combat of this style is not conceivable in a democratic state, in which the ruler who would use it would be expelled in the following elections, since it supposes a great wait, a high issue of own casualties and a huge amount of resources destined to the military end, besides the violation of many moral limits. The way of fighting of the Armed Forces within a democracy obliges to the respect of some minimum values, at the same time that it demands quick victories that give to the population the sensation of an inexpensive victory and methods of combat that produce few casualties and the least possible amount of resources.

Finally, let us take the example of the present era, which has seen two world wars of great destruction. From the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century to the present day, the rules governing warfare have been developed and international humanitarian law has been specified; this has brought about changes and imposed ethical constraints on the conduct of combat.

Changes in society occur not only between different epochs, but also within the same epoch, depending very much on the region and culture of each country. The American and Western way of waging war is not the same as what we see in the Syrian war or the Russian way of thinking or the Chinese strategy.


Conflict changes with technology, since it affects society and this ends up influencing the field of security and defense; technology solves circumstantial needs that raise conflict (as in the case of the ARPANET).

On the other hand, human ingenuity has also fostered some of the greatest shifts in conflict paradigms, bringing creative and unique solutions to problems and radically changing forms and strategies of combat (guerrilla warfare).

Finally, society is an essential part of the conflict, since it arises to defend the society from which it emerges and its interests. Social changes also change the armies that defend them and the way they fight; an 18th century absolutist state is not the same as a 21st century liberal democracy; nor are Western societies, with their rules of engagement and international humanitarian law, the same as others such as Syria, Russia or China.

The three factors of change discussed here are intimately related to each other, and their interaction works synergistically. This close relationship is obvious if we realize that these factors arise directly from the human condition itself: the first two from reason and the third from the social dimension of the human race. Technology and ingenuity are born from the human mind and allow those who possess them to overcome all adversities and difficulties in conflict through tools and ideas.

War is born because there are societies that must protect themselves and safeguard their legitimate interests. That is why we can affirm that, truly, these are the engines of change in the paradigms of conflict, since they depend directly on our own nature. As long as human beings continue to be the way they are, these engines will continue to be there, as they have been throughout the entire history of mankind.

* Communication presented at the XXX International Defense Course, "Los motores de cambio de la seguridad y la defensa", Jaca, September 25-29, 2023.



[1] Sun Tzu. The Art of War. (Library Services Digital Omegalfa 2018), 5.

[2] Karl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz. Of War (Obelisk 2021), Chapter 6.

[3] Royal Spanish Academy. Dictionary of the Spanish language (23rd ed., 2014).

[4] Facultat d'Informàtica de Barcelona de la Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. History of the Internet.

[5] Royal Spanish Academy. Dictionary of the Spanish language (23rd ed., 2014).

[6] Colonel Luis Villamarín Pulido, "Guerra Irregular y guerra de guerrillas," http://www.luisvillamarin.com/defensa-nacional-y-seguridad-nacional/191-guerra-irregular-y-guerra-de-guerrillas

[7] Royal Spanish Academy. Dictionary of the Spanish language (23rd ed., 2014).