(I had my first blog death scare. I panicked.)
"War," intones Ron Perlman, "war never changes." There's something we don't hear often enough. Very pithy. Really sums up the history of warfare. I guess if I could amend just one thing in that statement it would be this: war changes. Sorry, Interplay/Black Isle/Bethesda et al, you're just wrong. But don't let that stop you from opening every Fallout game ever like that.
There are three criteria you can look at throughout history by which war has demonstrably changed. These are a) the purpose of war, b) the role of civilians during wartime, and c) how war is fought vis a vis institutions and practices.
Prior to the 18th century, wars were fought by various groups and were largely chaotic (and relatively short-lived) in nature. John R. Hale called the wars in western Europe "a matter of violent housekeeping." After the 17th century, in Westphalian Europe, wars emerged as an instrument of state policy -- we now call this "institutionalised" or "traditional" war. In this period, war was an accepted, legitimate activity. Martin Luther wrote that war "[was] as necessary as eating, drinking or any other business." As Von Clausewitz put it, war was "the continuation of politics by any other means."
The purposes of war in this period included advancing diplomatic interests, maintaining internal order, territorial defence, and, yes, Fallout, gathering resources, colonies and building empires. However, war was not waged to annihilate a state's enemies but rather to achieve certain limited goals. In these wars there was a clear distinction between combatants and civilians. Trade continued, for the most part. Noblemen even led armies. "In the ideal war," said Frederick II, "civilians would not even know about it." Civilised nations that went to war adhered to certain standards of conduct: they would not shoot at generals or messengers, war was strictly impersonal, and battle was elaborately choreographed.
This all changed (!) with Napoleon. Napoleon, like none before him, aimed to destroy the European political system, and in so doing revolutionised warfare. His wars were "wars of annihilation," and partly because Napoleon introduced mass conscription, were extremely costly in terms of lives and resources.
The Concert of Europe, a precursor to the League of Nations, was established in response to the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and survived until 1822. The great powers now saw war as a problem that needed to be regulated. They agreed that no sovereign state could go to war without the Concert's consent, and decades of relative peace followed. Here we see the "norm" of war changing -- no longer is it an essential and inherent policy tool.
This informal regulation was not enough to prevent World War I, which was unprecedented in its scale of destruction. WW1 saw the mobilisation of entire states and societies, and the opposition to this war led to the League of Nations and greater regulation of warfare. The League only permitted war in three occasions: in self-defence; to enforce League-sponsored sanctions, or after a 90-day waiting period, as if you're buying a handgun. Even this wasn't enough: the Kellogg-Briand Pact in August 1928 outlawed war altogether, and was signed by 62 nations. War had gone from an unlimited right to a last resort.
World War II is the apotheosis of what is called "total war". WW2 introduced nuclear weapons, systematic genocide (of civilians) and death camps. The Tokyo and Nuremberg trials ushered in further restrictions, as per the notion of war crimes. The United Nations was established in 1945 to save future generations from "the scourge of war," and allowed war only as an instrument of a) individual or collective self-defence, or b) enforcement of collective sanctions.
Post-WW2, new forms of warfare were born -- the "wars of a third kind" (K.J. Holsti), low-intensity conflicts, and "new wars" (Mary Kaldor.) The 'wars of a third kind', or 'extra-systemic wars' were wars of national liberation, with no front lines, no fixed bases, no uniforms, and no respect for territorial boundaries. Unpredictability and surprise were virtues. The elaboration and signifiers of institutionalised-era were gone, and the tactics that replaced them were supremely effective (i.e. Vietnam.)
War was about different things: establishing communities, rather than disputes between states. These wars were fought in and about weaker states in the developing world -- Sierra Leone and Serbia, as opposed to Germany and Japan. As in Vietnam, the warring parties were prepared to pay an "irrationally" high price for their goal.
Where "old wars" were about classical military pursuit and capture of territory, and were fought by the armies of states; thus a bi- or multi-polar conflict. Kaldor's "new wars" are networked, spilling over boundaries and disregarding sovereignty. They are fought by multiple actors, and take place in/around weak -- decentralised, fragmented -- states, which often only have the formal qualities of a state and nothing else. The warring parties are groups usually held together by extreme ideology, who claim the right to exclusive power on the basis of identity, whether ethnic or religious. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and genocide are established "new war" strategies. Large-scale battles are rare and violence against civilians is common. Civilians are almost exclusively the victims of new wars. Hans Magnus Enzensberger argues that the new wars are about "nothing at all."
So Bethesda, if you're reading this, how about kicking Fallout 3 off with this post instead. I'm sure nobody would mind. Fallout fans are a fun-loving group, they're very loose about this sort of thing.