Why Can’t We Be Friends — The Causes of War

Paul Krugman published an interesting opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times entitled “Why We Fight Wars” in which he attempts to understand why developed, relatively affluent countries still decide to wage war, despite the questionable economic costs.  Many websites seconded his observations, particularly those that view social systems and people as primarily rational economic beings.  I think the problem with Mr. Krugman’s opinion–and there is no doubt that he is a brilliant economist and observer of our present state of affairs with a Nobel to his name no less–is that he doesn’t fully comprehend that while the economic balance sheet may argue against warfare, there are other societal issues that lead a nation to war.

Warfare, its causes, and the manner to conduct it was part of my profession for most of my life.  My education was dedicated not only to my academic development but also to its utility in understanding the nature of civilization’s second oldest profession–and how to make what we do in waging war–at the tactical, operational, strategic level–that much more effective.  In the advanced countries we attempt to “civilize” warfare, though were it to be waged in its total state today, it would constitute post-industrial, technological mass murder and violence on a scale never seen before.  This knowledge, which is even recognized by peripheral “Third World” nations and paramilitary organizations, actually make such a scenario both unthinkable and unlikely.  It is most likely this knowledge that keeps Russian ambitions limited to insurgents, proxies, Fifth Columnists, and rigged referendums in its current war of conquest against Ukraine.

Within the civilized view of war, it begins with Clausewitz’s famous dictum: “War is the attainment of political ends through violent means.”  Viewing war as such we have established laws in its conduct.  The use of certain weapons–chemical and biological agents for instance–are considered illegal and their use a war crime; a prohibition honored throughout World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and most other major conflicts.  Combatants are to identify themselves and, when they surrender, are to be accorded humane treatment–a rule that has held up pretty effectively with notable exceptions recorded by Showa Japan, North Korea, and North Vietnam and–tragically and recently–by the United States in its conduct in the War on Terror.  War is not to be purposely waged on non-combatants and collective punishment as reprisals for resistance are prohibited.  There are also others that apply, such as Red Cross and medical persons being protected from attack.  In the U.S. military, the conduct of personnel at war are also restricted by the rules of engagement.  But in all cases the general law of warfare dictates that only the necessary amount of force to achieve the desired political ends is to be exercised–the concept of proportionality applied to a bloody business.

Such political ends typically reflect a society’s perception of its threats, needs, and grievances.  Japan’s perception that the United States and Western Europe was denying it resources and needed its own colonial possessions is often cited as the cause of its expansion and militarism under Showa rule.  Germany’s economic dislocations and humiliation under the Allies is often blamed for the rise of Hitler, rabid nationalism, and expansionism.  In both cases it seemed that at the societal level both nations possessed the characteristics on the eve of war that is typically seen in psychotic individuals.  Other times these characteristics seemed to behave like a disease, infecting other societies and countries in proximity with what can only be described as sociopathic memes–a type of mass hysteria.  How else to explain the scores of individuals with upraised hands in fealty to obviously cruel and inhumane political movements across the mess of human history–or the systematic collection and mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Intellectuals, and other “undesirables”: not just in Germany but wherever the influence of this meme spread across Europe, Africa, and Asia?

Nations can also fool themselves in learning the wrong lessons from history.  Our own self-image of righting the wrongs of the Old World go back to our anti-colonial roots and the perceptions of our immigrant ancestors who were either rejected by or rejected that world.  Along these lines, the example of Munich in the 20th century has been much misused as a pretext for wars that have ended disastrously or created disastrous blowback resulting from the fog of war simply because the individuals assessing the strategic situation told themselves convenient stories gleaned from an inapplicable past and ignored the reality on the ground.  We have seen this in my lifetime in Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

For all of the attempts to “civilize” warfare and lend it rationality, there comes a time when its successful prosecution requires the rejection of rationality.  This is why soldiers and combatant personnel use euphemisms to dehumanize their enemy: it is easier to obliterate a person who is no longer seen as human.  Correspondingly the public is inflamed, the press becomes a tool of the war party, and dissent is viewed with suspicion and penalized.  This is why warfare cannot be interpreted as an extension of neo-classical or–any–economics.  There are no rational actors; at least, not as it is presently conducted by modern nation-states no matter their level of economic development or the maturity of their political systems.  War is unhinged–part of the savagery found in all of us from our primate pasts.

One of my most effective professors when I was seeking my Masters in Military Arts and Sciences was the brilliant historian Dr. Roger J. Spiller–a protégé’ of T. Harry Williams.  “We are always learning,” he would say in repeating a familiar refrain in the military profession, “the lessons from the last war.”  For students at the Army Command and General Staff College it was the critique that doctrine (and therefore the organization and construction of the force) was based on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; probably the only analogue that could be used in Iraq and–unfortunately for Russia–if they decide to turn their armor on Ukraine or any Article V NATO countries.

Aside from these few exceptions, however, the American way of total warfare that we learned first in our own Civil War and then perfected on the battlefields of Europe and Asia–and our success in its use–has rendered it largely obsolete.  It has been obsolete for quite some time because warfare has changed; its practitioners have evolved.  It has changed because its present incarnation is being prosecuted by people and groups that have no significant power and so use violence to destroy power.  This is the purpose of the terrorist.  Even the strength of this new form of warfare–Low Intensity Conflict–is transient–evident only in tactical situations.  What it cannot do is establish legitimacy or power.  Thus, meeting violence with violence only exacerbates the situation in these cases because power is further eroded and–along with it–legitimacy.  We see the results of the vacuum caused by this inability to adjust to the new warfare in the political instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan–and the rise of ISIS.

While I would argue that the use of economic balance sheets are not what we need in assessing the needs to ensure global stability and peace, we do require a new theory of war that infuses greater rationality into the equation.  Clausewitz–and his intellectual successor Antoine-Henri Jomini–in looking at the guerilla warfare in Spain against French rule, simply admonishes war’s practitioners not to go there.  It is not until T. E. Lawrence and Mao Zedong that we have a modern theory to address this new, societal form of “revolutionary” warfare and then only from the perspective of the revolutionary that wishes to establish neo-colonial, authoritarian, or totalitarian regimes.

Thus, we possess the old templates and they no longer work.  With the specter of nuclear weapons still held over the head of humanity we can ill afford to view every situation as a nail, needing a hammer.  We must, I think, follow the lead as advocated by Hannah Arendt, who distinguished the differences between power, strength, force, violence, and authority.  There is, as John Dewey observed, a connection in consequences between means and ends.  The modern form of violence through terrorism or paramilitary revolution has all too often, in the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century, led to new oppression and totalitarianism.  This has probably been inevitable given the indiscriminate brutality of the struggles.  Diplomacy backed by credible power and sufficient military force to counteract such violence is the new necessary face of achieving stability.  Contrary to the assertions of neo-cons at the time, the very thing we needed in the wake of 9-11 was an effective police action in lieu of chaotic regional warfare.

Interestingly, the insight between means and ends in warfare was perceived early by George Washington when he won his struggle over the conduct of the war against the methods of Nathaniel Greene.  Greene’s irregular methods of warfare were designed to win the war but to unmake a nation, while Washington’s method–the existence of the disciplined continental army as the strategic center of the revolution–was designed to make a nation once the war was over.  Unfortunately for the French and the Russians, there was no George Washington to see this important distinction in their own revolutions.

So too in the 21st century is this connection between means and ends in the handling of conflict–and terrorism–important.  The years since the fall of the Soviet Union seem to have turned the clock back to 1914 for the pressures and conflicts that were held in check by a bi-polar world: the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe all have been engulfed in conflict.  The tragedy that can result given the new technologies and approaches for inflicting violence and chaos on civilization require that we not apply 1914 methods in meeting them.

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