Conflict escalation

Conflict escalation is the process by which conflicts grow in severity over time. This may refer to conflicts between individuals or groups in interpersonal relationships, or it may refer to the escalation of hostilities in a political or military context. In systems theory, the process of conflict escalation is modeled by positive feedback.

While the word escalation was used as early as in 1938, it was popularized during the Cold War by two important books: On Escalation (Herman Kahn, 1965) and Escalation and the Nuclear Option (Bernard Brodie, 1966).[1] In these contexts, it especially referred to war between two states with weapons of mass destruction—the Cold War.

Conflict escalation has a tactical role in military conflict, and is often formalized with explicit rules of engagement. Highly successful military tactics exploit a particular form of conflict escalation; for example, controlling an opponent's reaction time allows the tactician to pursue or trap his opponent. Napoleon and Heinz Guderian both advocated this approach. Sun Tzu elaborated it in a more abstract form, and additionally maintained that military strategy was about minimizing escalation, and diplomacy about eliminating it.

Continuum of force

The United States Marine Corps' "Continuum of Force" (found in MCRP 3-02B) documents the stages of conflict escalation in combat for a typical subject. They are:

Level 1: Compliant (cooperative)

The subject responds to and obeys verbal commands. He refrains from close combat.

Level 2: Resistant (passive)

The subject resists verbal commands but complies to commands immediately upon contact controls. He refrains from close combat.

Level 3: Resistant (active)

Initially, the subject physically resists commands, but he can be made to comply by compliance techniques; these include come-along holds, soft-handed stunning blows, and techniques inducing pain by joint manipulation and pressure points.

Level 4: Assaultive (bodily harm)

The unarmed subject physically attacks his opponent. He can be controlled by certain defensive tactics, including blocks, strikes, kicks, enhanced pain compliance procedures, impact weapon blocks and blows.

Level 5: Assaultive (lethal force)

The subject has a weapon and will likely kill or injure someone unless controlled. This is only possible by lethal force, which possibly requires firearms or weapons.


A major focus of peace and conflict theory is concerned with curbing conflict escalation or creating a mindset to avoid such conflict in future, and instead engaging in peacemaking. Much nonviolent conflict resolution, however, involves conflict escalation in the form of protests, strikes, or other direct actions.

Mohandas Gandhi, a major proponent of nonviolence, used satyagraha to demonstrate that:

With this method of escalation, Gandhi avoided technological escalation and demonstrated to those in power that:

Conflict escalation curve

The conflict escalation curve is a concept created by Michael N. Nagler. The conflict escalation curve proposes that the intensity of a conflict is directly related to how far dehumanization has proceeded. In other words, conflicts escalate in the degree to which parties dehumanize one another (or one party is dehumanizing the other).

The curve conceptualizes a typical trajectory a conflict would have if it were plotted on an (x,y) graph with (x) being time elapsed and (y) being the intensity of dehumanization. Depending upon which stage a conflict is on the graph, a specific set of responses is needed.

The curve divides the appropriate responses into three stages.

Stage 1: Conflict resolution

In the first stage no serious dehumanization has occurred by either party. Attempts are made mainly to make one's views known, with the expectation that the other may respond right away or respond to conflict resolution or nonviolent communication to address the adversary. Tools used at this stage include: petitions, protest demonstrations, negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

Stage 2: Satyagraha

The conflict escalates into satyagraha, or nonviolent direct action, only when conflict resolution has been tried and the other party has not been persuaded by reason or the other tools used in Stage 1. Satyagraha invokes what Gandhi called "the law of suffering"—taking on rather than inflicting the suffering that is inherent in the situation.

Invoking satyagraha is a way to move the heart of the adversary, as opposed to appealing merely to the head, in Stage 1. Gandhi observed: "The conviction has been growing upon me that things of fundamental importance to the people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering. If you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The penetration of the heart comes from suffering."[2] Tools used at this stage include: strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, defiance of orders.

Stage 3: Sacrifice: the last resort

When the conflict has reached life-or-death intensity and when petition and nonviolent resistance have failed, a satyagrahi will sometimes deliberately court the possibility of death as a last resort to open the heart of the opponent. Gandhi's famous "fasts unto death" during the Indian freedom struggle is an example, as well as the courageous work of activists like Kathy Kelly who, when all else failed, have repeatedly gone into war zones to share the fate of the victims and awaken their oppressors.

The philosophy behind Stage 3 is that being willing to risk dying can often awaken a stubborn adversary even if death does not ensue. Fasting unto death, for example, when contrasted with self-immolation, gives the opponent a chance to respond and save the life of the satyagrahi in question. Self-immolation should perhaps be considered an extreme form of protest rather than the final stage in nonviolent persuasion.

How to use the conflict escalation curve

The conflict escalation curve helps those in a movement have a sense of where they are in their conflict and what is an appropriate response; it would be wrong to reach for an extreme method like fasting (which is Stage 3: Sacrifice) in a situation when all available tools in Stage 1 or 2 have not been tried.

For example, in 2003, US President George W. Bush dismissed the global anti-Iraq protests, the largest such protests since the Vietnam War, as "a focus group," saying: "Size of protest—it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group."[3] The President's lack of acknowledgement of protesters' demands as well as his unwillingness to engage in negotiations were an indication that it was necessary for the movement to quickly move to Stage 2 if they were to get any response. This was not forthcoming.

Systems view

Carol Moore, a later theorist, examined and described Gandhi's methods from the perspective of systems theory. Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows observed that people in crisis would often push the twelve leverage points towards escalation in the first stage, and then reduce escalation when the resistance had weakened and it was impossible to maintain the status quo.

See also


  1. Freedman, Lawrence (1993). The evolution of nuclear strategy (2nd ed.). New York: St Martin's press. pp. 198–199. ISBN 0-312-02843-1.
  2. K. Shridharani, "War without Violence" P. 252.
  3. Stevenson, Richard (2003-02-19). "Antiwar Protests Fail to Sway Bush on Plans for Iraq". NY Times. Retrieved 4 December 2014.
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