10 September 2006

Postmodern War

MRhé blogged about an article postulating the eclipse of the "Western Way of War" (making this discussion the WWW on the WWW, I suppose). The topic is obviously a wide-ranging one, but I've been thinking about one aspect of it, and that's the question of the extent to which the US Army (and other Western armies, such as Israel) is hindered by the restraint which we expect them to use in preserving civilian life. In the history of humanity, where did the idea come from that we should try to fight a war with anything less than all the resources available to us?

I've been thinking of several facets of historical conflict. From the dawn of warfare up until, say, the Renaissance (a very rough guess) it seems that the idea of fighitng a "civlised war" did not exist. If you defeated the enemy, you killed, enslaved or raped the civilians according to their utility and the conquerors preference. Cities were sacked and burned if they weren't useful (or sometimes in spite of the fact that they were, as in the case of Celts and Angles driving the Romans out of Britain and bringing Londinium back from a bustling regional capital to a thatched-hut village). Somewhere along the line, the people in charge of running the wars of Europe developed the concept, however, that you could fight an enemy, but not necessarily want to wipe him off the face of the earth (unless, of course, they were infidels or natives, in which case you were still entitled to kill, enslave and rape).

So we reach the point of the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War, where statesmen and officers from the elite class have rules for "gentlemanly fighting". Captured officers were given parole and allowed to go home, under the expectation that honour would prevent them from fighting again until an official "exchange" was organised (almost like a gruesome game of tag, where at some point both teams decide to let the kids who had been eliminated rejoin the game). Of course, these developing ideals were still far separated from reality, in the sense that soldiers were still prone to raping and pillaging. Perhaps part of this development was due to cultural refinement, but I think the bottom line of wars was also changing. Rulers no longer expected to conquer another European country and wipe out the inhabitants (they were busy doing that in all of the non-European world). At the end of the conflict, in some sense, the expectation was that people would go back to their normal life, except now they were German instead of French. This probably also had a lot to do with the change from regional identity to the broader idea of Nationhood, but that's getting beyond my expertise as an armchair historiian.

This brings us to the point in history which originally got me thinking about the topic, which is the first time that any country chose voluntarily to eschew a weapon available to it in war. I think this happened for the first time in history after Europe saw the horrible effects of chemical weapons in the first World War. The concept was refined most powerfully when atomic bombs brought the idea into stark (and somewhat bizarre) relief. Conventional bombs had decimated London, Dresden, and Tokyo, but it is Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are the most dramatically remembered. So now that armies had weapons that were deemd too terrible to be used, what about the next-most-deadly alternatives? We weren't willing to eliminate the Taleban by firing ICBMs at Kabul, but we were willing to drop 500 pound, laser guided bombs. Interestingly, even this remarkable level of restraint (in a purely historical context — the use of orders of magnitude less force than the maximum possible) has earned the US widespread admonition at home and (especially) abroad. This also illustrates the paradox that the US Army in the 21st century is more powerful relative to all potential opponents than any other army at any point in history, but can't win a definitive victory in an impoverished, third-world country.

The incredible improvements in communications in the 20th century also have had a huge impact on the idea of "war by the rules". The immediacy and intimate detail that radio, television and the internet bring from the battlefield to the home dramatically increase the pressure from civilization on governements to avoid unmitigated killing. Much easier to let your soliders conduct total war when their mothers don't have to watch it on CNN. I suspect this could easily be the topic of a very interesting book, but I really don't have anything informed to say about it, beyond the obvious observation of its existence.

I find it a strange mental exercise to try to figure out where to strike the balance between fighting to win and fighting to avoid hurting too many people. That concept would seem insane to the great war-generals of nearly the entire spectrum of historical conflict. I'm not saying that I think we should walk backwards to the Middle Ages and start firing off Minutemen at anybody we dislike, I just think it's an interesting historical observation.

Maybe I should've majored in history...nah.

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