We may search for warfare origins in Greece, as told by the over-quoted Thucydides or under-quoted Xenophon. Or in feudal tournaments, armored men with lances on horseback unsaddling, ultimately killing each other, with umpires, later field marshals, naming the victor, and the vanquished conceding. Sport turned war, with beginning and end.
This was carried into modernity and the state system of the “Peace” of Westphalia 24 October 1648 by declaration and capitulation, bracketing the war as a succession of battles. The right of killing was contingent on the duty of risking being killed, with honor and courage and the ultimate honor to the most courageous of being a hero.
The nineteenth century witnessed the erosion of chivalry and sport to total war, “to the utmost limit”, “continuation of politics by all necessary means” (Clausewitz, even more brutal than French Jomini on Napoleon’s staff and the American Dennis Hart Mahan). Not limited to a battlefield: mobility, hitting the supply lines, massive attacks on one part after the other for the total destruction of enemy forces, and violence as a demoralizing force, attacking women, children, the old.
Historically we sense three, not exclusive, consequences.
First, the military being so brutal and so efficient, why not use (state) terrorism to fight civilians, unable to fight back, instead?
Second, guerilla, by civilians like 19 April 1775, predating the Spanish against Napoleon 2 May 1808, Vietnam against the USA and Afghanistan against the Soviets: winning no open battles, but the war.
Third, nonviolence, as invented by Gandhi, the heroic nonviolent warrior, ending colonialism and the Cold War, possibly inspired by the brutality of the British revenge for the Sepoy mutiny; unnoticed by Obama in his belligerent just war speech at the 2009 Nobel ceremony.
Clausewitz prepared his own undoing, and actually sensed that.[ii] The prediction is that the West will never defeat this triple, or an islam that will never capitulate to infidels, numbering five times the Americans. But our reptile brain has an alternative to fight: flight. The Vietnam exit: being unavailable for ultimate defeat.
Gone are the old days when might was right and unconditional surrender was the end of a 141-year unbroken chain of US wars, from 1812–the final battle in the War of Independence– to 1953, the Korean war armistice. And gone are the days when might was a sign of divine mandate, God is behind. Among christians God may favor the mightiest. Among muslims, perhaps. But certainly not across that divide.
Gone are the days of direct battle heroism. Sitting at a computer in the Pentagon directing drones, or in a cockpit at 44,000 feet hitting “coordinates”, in favor of pure cowardice.
Or, rather: the risks change with the war. When more commit suicide than are killed in the field reality has changed.
Confronted with a choice between a very elusive victory, defeat, and flight, conflict resolution might grow in attractiveness.
The question is what it takes. It could be equally elusive.
Gradually the dominant war cost-benefit discourse, so natural in a militarist-capitalist country like the USA, with those in favor concluding it is worth the costs and those against it is not worth the benefits has to yield to a conflict resolution discourse about issues. But that may also prove elusive, given two basic assumptions.
The whole encounter has to be seen from above, all parties, their goals, values, interests and where they clash, the incompatibilities. The road passes through understanding Other’s goals, and one’s own. There usually are legitimate goals to respect on all sides.
And then resolution: neither for, nor against oneSelf, ideally something new accommodating all parties, acceptable and sustainable. Neither by threatening, nor by bribing; by the weight of a compelling vision supported by a compelling nightmare if all is left unsolved.
Rationality, common sense; but often scarce commodities. And it cannot be done by one party alone, has to be done by the parties in concert, preferably dialogue, under the guidance of an impartial authority, possibly an ad hoc UN conference.
For a USA used to dictate settlements after a victory, this is a far shot indeed. And added to unwillingness, maybe incapability.
What happens then? With neither victory, nor defeat, nor flight, nor resolution acceptable? Hanging on in there, of course, fighting for time. There will be money for the forces and for the contracted, still for some time. Possible promotions, higher pensions. And so on.
And what, meaning now what? None of the above, but No. 5: the USA making itself irrelevant. Others–Turkey? Iran? China? Russia?–will draft a conflict resolution. And the USA will withdraw, Vietnam-like, possibly from all three wars. Into the End of the Affair.
3 May 2010
[i] Joseph P. Cullen, History of the American Revolution, Harrisburg PA: The National Historical society, 1972.
[ii] Dale O. Smith, U.S. Military Doctrine, New York NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1955, p. 54.