Thursday, March 17, 2005

Learning from war

Colin Gray, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, at the University of Reading, England takes an informative look at How Has War Changed Since the End of the Cold War? Parameters (US Army War College quarterly) Spring 2005.

Gray's article is mostly focused on a fairly theoretical argument having to do with the 19th century Prussian (German) theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) .  That's an interesting discussion in itself.  His basic point seems to be that the US should continue to heavily fund preparations for conventional warfare, also a worthy topic for discussion.

What I want to point out here, though, are some of his historical and analytical points about the current military situation of the United States.

One is his observation on American military dominance in the world.  His analysis is consistent with that of the neoconservatives, PNAC and the 2002 US National Security Strategy.  With an important exception:

As always, politics rules. The dominant contextual fact about war for the United States over the past 15 years has, of course, been geopolitical. The abrupt demise of the Soviet rival, meaning the sudden absence of a balancing power, outstrips in significance any and all other features of the interwar period of the 1990s. Furthermore, that geopolitical fact continues today and is certain to continue for many years, just as it is also certain to pass into history in turn. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the United States being left as the last of the great powers still standing at the beginning of the 21st century. ...

America is the hegemon by default. It is the last great power still standing, at least for a while. This is strictly a temporary condition. (my emphasis)

The official goal of the National Security Strategy is to preserve overwhelming American military supremacy permanently.  Gray recognizes that is unrealistic.  He adds:

Let there be no illusions. America’s guardianship role, its performance as global sheriff, rests solely on its unbalanced power. The country is very great in all the dimensions of power, but most pronouncedly in the military. The United States may succeed in prolonging the lifespan of its military preeminence. But it would be a mistake to believe, with current policy, that potential rivals can be so discouraged from competing that they will resign themselves to play supporting roles in the US orchestration of world security politics. The stakes are just too high.  (my emphasis)

In the following passage, Gray shoots down one of the most trasured notions of the blowhard-white-guy crowd, the idea that "if you go to war, you should go in there to win."  Gray writes:

Above all else, Clausewitz insists that war is an instrument of policy. What that means is that war should be waged not for the goal of victory, necessary though that usually is, but rather for the securing of an advantageous peace. One might coin the aphorism that “there is more to war than warfare." (my emphasis)

And in an application of that idea, he also stresses the need to learn appropriate lessons, including negative lessons from even successful and popular wars.  Among those lessons he includes:

... how the victory of 2001 in Afghanistan has restored the traditional power of the warlords in the countryside, a power fueled by the cash crop of the poppy; and how the on-going conflict in Iraq underlines yet again the truth in the sayings that war is about peace, and, as cited already, that there is more to war than warfare. ... (my emphasis)

He also emphasizes a point to which I retun again and again:

However, it is ironic that the United States contributed hugely, though inadvertently of course, to al Qaeda’s development with its vast level of support for the holy warriors who defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. Strategists should never forget the peril of ambush by the malign workings of the law of unintended consequences. (my emphasis)

I don't want to blur the comlexity of decisions like the one to support the anti-Soviet mujahadin in Afghanistan.  But it is a problem that US policy has often been fragmented and based on very incomplete knowledge of the phenomena with which it's dealing.  But it's also important to understand that the US support for the anti-Soviet Afghans was not simply a matter of sending weapons to existing groups.  The US, first under Carter and then to a far greater extent under Reagan, created a multinational network of support, fundraising and recruitment for Muslim jihadists with enough missionary spirit to go to Afghanistan and fight for the Muslims there.  That process became critical to developing the particular jihadist ideology that guides Al Qaeda and similar groups today.  It also created some of the very networks of funding that finance much of today's anti-American Muslim terrorist activity.

I do question the following judgment of Gray's about the jihadists:

Al Qaeda and associated organizations will be a perennial menace, but they will be beaten decisively as the Islamic world comes to terms, culturally in its own ways, with the modern, even the postmodern, world. That process will take two or three decades, at least. ...

This is certainly questionable based on the experience of the predominantly Christian nations.  The United States today is nearly five centuries removed from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  The country makes extensive use of the most recent scientific research, and the government in most ways is secularized and separated from any direct clerical influence.  And yet the Christian Right enjoys more prestige and influence today than ever before.  It may even be that fundamentalist tendencies in the Islamic world will become even more determined and violent the more they are marginalized.  Easy generalizations are risky in this area.

Unlike most of his article, with the following Gray unfortunately reflects a conventional military notion to a degee that's almost silly.

By far the most influential cause of the possible trend toward the delegitimization of warfare is the global media. With live video feeds via satellite to a global market, much of the ugliness of war is brought into homes almost everywhere. The claim is not that there is a trend of moral improvement which regards war as all but immoral, save in the most desperate cases of self-defense, but rather that publics around the world now can see what is perpetrated in their names. Since war, except of the cyber variety, necessarily involves killing people and breaking things, confrontation with some of its brutalities can hardly help but be shocking to those who lead sheltered lives. The global media thrive on warfare and treat it as entertainment and as a spectator sport, all the while hypocritically leading the charge to condemn every deviation from the most pristine standard of what constitutes acceptable military behavior.

We've heard this business about how war "involves killing people and breaking things" from US military spokesmen during the Iraq War.  This particular piece of macho posturing is usually meant to emphasize the goal of the US military to fight conventional wars quickly and decisive.  And the "shock and awe" of the Iraq War was brilliantly successful in fighting and winning the conventional war.  Commander-in-Chief Bush declared Mission Accomplished on that phase of the war nearly two years ago, on 05/01/03 on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

But winning counterinsurgency wars involves a lot more than "killing people and breaking things."  And the US military is not oriented or prepared to wage successful counterinsurgency campaigns on the scale of the one going on in Iraq today.

Gray's brief comments about the media seem to reflect the conventional military viewpoint, which assumes that if news coverage can be sufficiently controlled and supplemented with optimistic pronouncements from military spokespeople that the morale of the public on the homefront can be maintained even in the face of a continuing disaster like the Iraq War.  How's that working out?

But Gray's article is yet another illustration of how the real problems of the current foreign and military policies of the Bush administration are often discussed more frankly in military journals and papers than they are in much of the press.  Unlike the favorite sources of faithful Republicans (FOX News, Oxycontin radio, etc.), the military analyses lean heavily  toward "reality-based" approaches.

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