Imperfect Wars

AuthorCraig Forcese
Chapter 17
Imperfet Wars
Our own Government has settled the charaer of this hoile attack. It has
decided it to be an “imperfe sort of war.”
— judGe daniel tallMadGe, suPerior Court, new york (1841)1
T  , jurists opining on war struggled
to accommodate other acts of violence that f‌it poorly into
the formula of formalized inter-state conf‌licts. For instance,
conf‌licts between states and what we today call “non-state actors”
were rarely regarded as true wars. Well into the modern period,
there was no true concept of a “civil war,” let alone war between a
government and an insurgency.2 And even in antiquity, Cicero dis-
tinguished conf‌licts with politically organized peoples from those
involving pirates or other criminal enterprises — the latter occupied
a halfway house between proper war and law enforcement.3 Point-
ing to Cicero, Pufendorf considered combat undertaken with private
actors not a true war, but rather “freebooting.4
Still, by the eighteenth century, jurists were prepared to recognize
“imperfect wars”: conf‌licts between states lacking formal declarations
of war, but also by the early nineteenth century a class of conf‌licts
short of full interruption of peaceful relations between states.5 Imper-
fect wars amounted to acts of war, without a state of war.6 In the nine-
teenth century, these forms of self-help by states went under the name
“measures short of war.7 Examples included reprisals — forceful acts

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