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Conflict escalation describes the escalation of a conflict to a more destructive, confrontational, painful, or otherwise "less comfortable" level; in particular, it is concerned with how persons or forces can be controlled or subdued in conflict. In systems theory, this kind of behaviour is modeled as positive feedback. The opposite process is one of de-escalation

While the word escalation was used as early as in 1938, it was popularized during the Cold War by two[1] important books: On Escalation (Herman Kahn, 1965) and Escalation and the Nuclear Option (Bernard Brodie, 1966). 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 esclation; for example, controlling an opponents reaction time allows the tactician to pursue or trap his opponent. Napoleon, Heinz Guderian, and Sun Tzu advocated this approach; however, the latter elaborated it in a more abstract form, and additionally maintained that military strategy was about minimizing escalation, and diplomacy about eliminating it.

Continuum of ForceEdit

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.

Preventing conflict escalationEdit

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 theorist of nonviolence, used satyagraha to demonstrate that:

  • Peacefully controlling a group of people with a common cause was possible.
  • One could accomplish objectives through solidarity without capitulating to violent attack.
  • His method ensured mutual support.
  • It was possible to desist from retributive justice.
  • It was not ultimately desirable to inflict punishment, even when grievously wronged.

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

  • The group was held together by its own discipline, and not by any kind of authority using violence.
  • Authority could surrender without being subjected to violence.
  • Authority could depart safely.
  • Authority could devolve without obstacles, for the dissent was well enough organized to constitute an effective political party

Systems viewEdit

Gandhi himself did not elaborate all these observations; 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.[citation needed]


  1. Freedman, Lawrence (1993). The evolution of nuclear strategy, 2nd ed., 198–199, New York: St Martin's press.

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