I have been asked an intriguing question: whether we are headed toward something that could be called a "post-war" era.
Well, in a way yes, in the same way in which we speak of a "post-modern" era: it's matter after all of the same "post-".
I beware of this "post-" jargon, that with theological overtones takes something as point of reference for a before and after; but it is true that our idea of "war" is modern, and as such no longer apt for thinking the wars of today.
In 1625 Hugo Grotius wrote his De jure belli ac pacis, usually described as the first treatise of "international law". What it deals with is the constitution of States and the relation among them. The treatment is general, but actually it concerns Europe, after that the unitary sense of a res publica Christiana had dissolved into a mosaic of self enclosed territorial realities, singularly defining a certain status rei publicae (hence, in short, status, "state"). War was then defined as the open conflict among the States of which Europe was made, and had to be regulated by international law, that a 20th century author could therefore call the "European public law".
One thing was in fact the war on the European territory, and another that on the open see beyond a certain meridian on the Atlantic ocean, and on the oversee lands. Let's think of all the sagas of corsairs and pirates.
With the expanding European hegemonic power, all the different political realities throughout the world came to be seen as "States", to which international law extended. But in this way international law, and with it the law of war, came to lose the cogency it had until it had been mainly an European affair. It held, more or less, through the two world wars, slowly losing afterwards any meaning. A decisive turning point, however, was the Iranian blitz at the American embassy in Teheran, and the inadequate reaction of President Carter.
According to international law, it was a deliberate act of war, and the lack of reaction from Carter was like a sanction of the end of that law.
And still, we keep on thinking of war in terms of an almost defunct international law, not wanting to realize in public debate that it doesn't fit today's world reality.
That's why we are uncertain in our judgments about war: much of what we actually see happening resembles rather to what happened beyond the famous meridian I spoke about.
This means that the definition of war was inadequate since the very beginning. It didn't take into account what happened beyond the borders of Europe, or inside the borders of the European States.
Originally the main European States were dynastic realities. Slowly grew out of them the idea that triumphed in the 19th Century of the "nation-state": i.e. the idea that States should coincide with a people, defined by a common sense of belonging, living on a certain territory.
Here the real trouble started: due to the difficulty to circumscribe the territory of a people, and, most of all, of identifying a people. A hard enterprise even in Europe, it is resulted impossible for the new States formed after the dissolution of empires that followed the two world wars.
In America as well as in Europe today we tend to think that what makes the people of a State is simply the fact of being born or naturalized in its territory. So we have abandoned the old idea that what makes a people is that combination of shared language, tradition, religion that we call "culture".
We have declared ourselves "multicultural". Which can only mean two things: either that we simply declare ourselves nonexistent as people; or rather that the tolerant relativizing of all traditions and religions is the only culture.
When this is the case, we have a hard time to understand that for other peoples this might not be so, and that in the name of their tradition and religion they are ready to wage war. So, when they are not people territorially circumscribed by a State, we don't know what to think anymore. So much more, when we are dealing with individuals who came legally into our country, or were even born in it, who burst into shooting, put bombs, or throw airplanes against towers.
In the face of terrorism, therefore, some of us tend to negate that they are dealing with acts of war. Especially when those acts appear due to "religious" reasons. That's because the monoculture of multiculturalism has declared that "religions" are all equally good. If this is the case with the present administration, not even the previous one escaped from some ambiguity when Bush spoke of "war on terror", with an hesitation to make clear who the enemy was that perhaps contributed to the final disaffection of the American people.
Some, by negating "religious wars", tend to embrace a pacifism that wants to negate any war. Being for them an axiom that no one can wage war for "religious" reasons, then war should be only due to the economic imperialism of the USA. And even murderous tyrants as Saddam Hussein end by appearing to them as victims of an unlawful (according to a doubtful international law) invasion; so that Al Qaedists appear to them as resistants.
To make some clarity in our public debates, we need then to redefine what war is. And, to avoid war of words, we need to rethink what religion is.