Heraclitus noted that a man cannot walk in the same river twice, for it was not the same river, and he was not the same man. Less eloquently, things change. It stands to reason that conflict, at once the driving force for change, the method of change, and the fall-out from change, would itself change in nature over time. As things change, and we are able to observe more of it, certain patterns begin to arise; distance, in space and time, certainly lends perspective. Once Man thought the Earth was the center of the Universe; then Galileo worked out a theory of motion, and paid the price; Newton comes along, and given some room for contemplation, generalizes a number of principles; Einstein catches some flaws and postulates an even more generalized set of theories. We all stand on the Shoulders of Giants.
No surprise, then, that some basic principles behind the Art or Science of War are becoming more evident as we once again transform our ways of thinking on the subject.
Approaches to conflict in the world fall into a four-quadrant grid, passive-active on one axis, defense-offense on the other. Passive defense stems from the assumption that a situation is 'friendly,' while active defense assumes 'hostile.' American activities tend to fall into this first category, while those of the Cold War Soviet Union fell into the later. Passive defense is a lethal conceit--no wonder that America has found itself playing catch-up on every conflict it has ever engaged in. The inherent danger of active defense is seen in the fall of the Warsaw Pact and sponsor: total collapse from exhaustion as they actively tilted every windmill, unable to afford the expense of continual vigilance bordering on paranoia.
The other grid half is the realm of the active and passive use of force. Active offense, primarily the unnecessary bifurcation into attrition and manoeuvre warfare, is an area of excellence for the United States. Passive offense is an area that eludes the military establishment, although, as I will explain, this isn't necessary with a deeper understanding of what conflict is about.
Life is the struggle for the free energy in a system; even the most basic organisms are primarily 'concerned' with metabolism and reproduction. As a political economy progresses and evolves, interesting things happen, as you would expect in any system where complexity can be measured by the combinatorial interactions of the aggregate sub-systems. Political economies, social structures if you will, can be defined by the depth of what can be called 'dependency infrastructure,' or the 'value add' chain.
The most basic political economy is that of the Agrarian society, The Age of Bread. Such social structures have a very short 'material' value chain (phases in a process where the receiver of the process experiences a net gain in value or performance because of the prior process), and a short 'informational' value chain. For example, the material value chain of hunter-gatherers is minimal, just the raw labour involved in the acts of hunting and gathering, and the informational value chain is foodstuff identification and processing knowledge. Slightly more complex is a feudal society, where already the material-based labour component was being advanced by the informational--blacksmithing and tack to create plows, knowledge of planting seasons, milling grain for bread, animal husbandry. This period is still preoccupied in the struggle for the basics of life--food, shelter, warmth, procreation (Maslow's Hierarchy); resource, labour, and capital are King (usually quite literally, trapped in a zero-sum game, hierarchical political economy). The next phase of development is the Industrial Age, The Age of Mass Production. This phase has long value chains in material resource (systems to build systems to build systems...; tools to build tools to build tools...), and a steadily growing value chain in informationals. Additionally, considerable effort is dedicated to the social contract, another example of spontaneous order, which allows the complexities of a political economy to function. The human species, not content to let such systems be self-regulating, has wasted enormous resource in the attempt to govern (in a cybernetic sense) the process, not realizing that where there is free competition, there is no dependency, something most groups claim to desire.
The current phase of development is what has been termed the Information Age, the Age of Patents. Material value chains are beginning to die back, while the informational value chain is increasing; this reflects the situation that embodied thoughts can have value (and in fact are replacing the resource-labour-capital triad), while still being dependent upon the infrastructure. Western civilizations, the most advanced of this phase, are fumbling with the new informational value chain that progresses data into information into knowledge into wisdom; most effort actually goes into simple shuttling of raw data and a little information from here to there. The social contract is more confused than ever; specialization has been forced by the complexities of getting to this phase, yet most of the critical basis for interaction is being undermined. It is still increasingly an age of positive-sum games, heterarchies, etc. Interestingly, extrapolation of this trend leads to a further or complete decay in the material value chain, possibly because of advances in space exploration or nanotechnology. We'll have to wait to get there-then to see which it is.
Now to return to conflict. In the Agrarian Phase, direct control of the means of production through possession was necessary; from this phase we have centuries of examples of 'conventional' warfare, attrition style. As advances were made into the Industrial Age, devastation of the dependency infrastructure was no longer a viable option--what was broken couldn't work for the winner's benefit. This led to progress in manoeuvre warfare, where control became important, rather than devastation. Other than a decidedly significant side-trip because of atomic and then nuclear weapons, this remains the guiding principle of modern warfare. In fact, it demonstrates (incidentally satisfying the correspondence principle) a more fundamental nature of 'warfare' oriented around the dependency infrastructure (DI):
Following this chain of reasoning, even new areas of thought on conflict make sense, such as the special case of information warfare--at one end of a 'force spectrum' it can be used as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) just as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons which overwhelm the dependency infrastructure of an opponent, and at the other end it can be used in guerrilla, terror, or political warfare to selectively destroy or surreptitiously control the dependency infrastructure. Seen on these terms, it makes perfect sense in terms of doctrine; it also explains why it is an increasing and soon to be critical threat to the nations of the West. Conflict in this 'advanced' world is not getting any easier. To understand what is occurring in Bosnia or Somalia, you have to put them in their context; to understand future conflicts, with guerrillas, terrorists, propagandists, hackers, cyberpunks, et al, we will have to search for the basic essence of conflict--because only by understanding those basic principles will we be able to prevent the world from falling apart around us, or at least not be caught out by it when it does.