Smart War

This is something that’s been slooshing around in my head for a while … Richard Norton-Taylor writes on The Guardian web site that

Israel is learning a lesson that the armies of other countries, including the US, have already grasped. Military force can no longer guarantee victory, certainly not in the conflict Israel and its western allies say they are engaged in – the “war on terror”, as the Bush White House calls it, or the “long war”, as the Pentagon now prefers.

Whether you call them guerrillas, insurgents or terrorists, you cannot bomb them into submission, as the US has found to its cost in Iraq, and as Israel is discovering in Lebanon. Even Tony Blair appeared to admit this in his weekend speech to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp organisation. “My concern is that we cannot win this struggle by military means or security measures alone, or even principally by them,” he said. “We have to put our ideas up against theirs.”

The neocons still haven’t figured this out yet, of course. But this got my attention:

Senior officers in the British army are wondering whether they will ever again fight a war, let alone win one, in the conventional sense.

I sincerely believe the old-fashioned government-declared war between nation-states has become a relic of history. I could be wildly mistaken, of course. Time will tell.

For them, the phrase “war on terror” is a misnomer, one that elevates the enemy and suggests terrorist groups can be defeated by force of arms alone.

Before the attacks of September 11 2001 on New York and Washington, the MoD had published a paper entitled The Future Strategic Context for Defence. No conventional military threats to Britain were likely to emerge, it predicted, in the 30 years to 2030. Instead, it identified terrorism, along with international crime. Prompted by the experiences of the military in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s (which are far from settled), the MoD, in a further attempt to drive home the military’s limitations, decided to develop what it calls a “comprehensive approach”. In this century, it says in a paper ordered by the chiefs of staff, “the symptoms of crisis will be spawned by a combination of climate change, ideology, greed, ethnic animosity, residual territorial claims, religious fanaticism and competition for resources”.

Military force is no answer to these. What is needed is a “clearer understanding of the root causes” of potential (and actual) conflicts. Revealing the MoD’s [the UK’s Ministry of Defense] liking for acronyms, the paper says there should be more cooperation with OGDs (other government departments), NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and IOs (international organisations).

There’s that “root causes” thing again. The problem is that when Bush talk about “root causes” he seems to think that it’s just fine to bomb the smithereens out of the problem population while the smart guys work out the “root causes.”

The British general who knows this best is David Richards, who yesterday took command of an expanded Nato force in Afghanistan. He knows he is engaged in a battle for “hearts and minds”, a task that requires political and civil institutions, diplomacy and negotiations, not the barrel of a gun or a bomb from a warplane.

The reasons for the futility of force are many, but very crudely — Through history wars have been fought for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is smoldering enmity left over from the last war. Since the 17th century, when firepower began to dominate warfare, governments had a near-monopoly on war. This was partly because only nation-states had the big guns. But now the forces of changing technology and globalization have made it possible for stateless groups to wage war, too. This is true even though these stateless groups don’t have as many fighters or as much military ordnance as the “regulars,” and this takes us to “asymmetric warfare.”

Just after September 11 Richard Norton-Taylor wrote that asymmetric warfare isn’t new, but in the post-9/11 world it has taken on new dimensions. Such warfare has to be fought on many levels — psychological (the old “hearts and minds” thing), political, diplomatic, financial, and economic, as well as military.

You cannot apply a simple military response when you are challenged politically. The Americans tried in Vietnam and failed, says Wilkinson. [Phillip Wilkinson of King’s College, London]

He is about to go to Washington at the invitation of the Pentagon – the US defence department – to discuss, among other things, the development of “logic and language” and political discourse in “complex emergencies”. What exactly is meant by “war” or “victory”?

These are good questions in a world which has said goodbye (though many, perhaps most, military leaders are slow to recognise the fact) to the era of Clausewitz, the great 19th century German strategist, who was preoccupied with wars between states and the conventional enemy’s “centre of gravity”.

It seems that Mr. Wilkerson traveled in vain. The Bush Administration never did think through the basic question — What exactly is meant by “war” or “victory”? They use the words, but I bet if you gave ’em paper and pencils and asked them to write down what they mean by “war” and “victory,” coherently and concisely, they couldn’t do it. This is, IMO, the primary reason our foreign policy is such a mess.

Another current buzz-phrase is “fourth generation warfare,” or 4GW. There is a great deal of information on 4GW here. I suggest everyone become acquainted with 4GW basics, because understanding it helps clarify many things. Here’s just a bit —

We appear to be returning to the situation that characterizes most of human experience, where both states and non-states wage war. In 4GW, at least one side is something other than a military force organized and operating under the control of a national government, and one that often exploits the weakness of the state system in many parts of the world. For a graphical depiction of how the “generations” evolve, please download The Evolution of Conflict (194KB PowerPoint – version 2/December 2005). …

… One way to tell that 4GW is truly new is that we don’t even have a name for its participants—typically dismissing them as “terrorists,” “extremists,” or “thugs.”

Name calling, though, is not often an effective substitute for strategy.

The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center dispelled the notion that 4GW is simple “terrorism.” But one can sympathize with our political and military leaders, because 4GW is a strange form of warfare, one where military force plays a smaller role than in earlier generations, supporting initiatives that are more political, diplomatic, and economic.

As important as finding and destroying the actual combatants, for example, is drying up the bases of popular support that allow them to recruit for, plan, and execute their attacks. Perhaps most odd of all, being seen as too successful militarily may create a backlash, making the opponent’s other elements of 4GW more effective.

Get this …

The distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.

Not comforting. Anyway, it seems the days of “total war,” which according to Wikipedia involves “the total subordination of politics to the war effort,” are gone. Now, the war effort must be subordinate to politics. Back in 1864 William Tecumseh Sherman set out to “make Georgia howl” and break the will of southern civilians to support the Confederate army. The March to the Sea helped the Union achieve a complete victory over the Confederacy. But that sort of war, and that sort of victory, are over.

The Bush Administration and the government of Israel have refused to face up to these new realities, and instead are trying to wage an old-fashioned World War II-type war. And it won’t work.

One of the reasons it won’t work is explained in this op ed by Caleb Carr, “Why Good Countries Fight Dirty Wars.” Carr writes that popular notions about “honor” in warfare are so much hoohaw.

The citizen-soldiers sent into the field by the United States or any other Western popular government are expected, by virtue of not so long ago having been free civilians themselves, to be more empathetic with the plight of the noncombatants with whom they come into contact. Certainly, brutal incidents like the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib scandal occur from time to time, but they are widely viewed as cultural aberrations.

This interpretation, however, is as simplistic as it is misleading. All too often the armies of modern democracies have tolerated and even initiated outrages against civilians, in manners uneasily close to those of their totalitarian and terrorist enemies. Israeli troops are currently demonstrating this fact in their response to the Hezbollah rocket offensive — a response most of the world community, according to recent polls, believes is taking an unacceptably disproportionate toll on Lebanese civilians. And there have been times when democratic leaders have been even more open about their brutal intentions: Speaking of the Allied bombing campaign during World War II that culminated in that consummate act of state terrorism, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Winston Churchill flatly stated that the objective was “to make the enemy burn and bleed in every way.”

I urge you to read all of Carr’s op ed. Essentially what he says is that conventional warfare and civilian populations just don’t mix, and never did. Soldiers in war will commit atrocities. You can apply training and discipline to keep atrocities to a minimum, but you’re being foolish if you expect to eliminate them. And when applied to asymmetric warfare and 4GW, any abuse of civilians amounts to an army shooting itself in the foot. But instead of a smart, disciplined, fourth generation war, the Bush Administration launched a fiasco. Michael Hirsh:

Reading “Fiasco,” Thomas Ricks’s devastating new book about the Iraq war, brought back memories for me. Memories of going on night raids in Samarra in January 2004, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, with the Fourth Infantry Division units that Ricks describes. During these raids, confused young Americans would burst into Iraqi homes, overturn beds, dump out drawers, and summarily arrest all military-age men—actions that made them unwitting recruits for the insurgency. For American soldiers battling the resistance throughout Iraq, the unspoken rule was that all Iraqis were guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings were arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis had no recourse whatever to justice. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have one furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control.

Caleb Carr concludes,

what happens when a democratic army faces an opponent whose command-and-control structure, as well as its fighting units, is intimately woven into the fabric of civilian society? Is there any solution to the problem of such insurgencies? There is, but it involves the same kind of thinking that pragmatic commanders throughout the modern age have turned to: increased and innovative discipline.

Right now, there are senior U.S. commanders in Iraq (notably Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli) who are urging new and strict training to teach American troops the cultural, political and military methods necessary to fight this kind of war, steps that could be as revolutionary in reforming how the U.S. projects its power as the more primitive but equally critical reforms instituted by Cromwell and Frederick the Great were for their nations.

If support for such steps among top Pentagon and White House leaders continues to be as halfhearted as it has proved to date, however, the beast inside America’s armed forces will remain alive, and America’s own noncombatants will suffer for it along with the nation’s soldiers, as an active desire for revenge on the part of increasing numbers of foreign civilians steadily mounts.

We’re screwed.

All week the righties have been whining that Israel just can’t help killing civilians because Hezbollah operates out of residential areas, and that ain’t fair. It’s the old “unintentional collateral damage” problem. Back in the days when “victory” meant utterly crushing another nation-state and forcing it to surrender, “unintentional collateral damage” could be tolerated. But now it cannot. Righties like Rush Limbaugh are trying to stir up outrage against the “Hezbos” who don’t wear uniforms and who bivouac in residential neighborhoods and it ain’t fair, but righties are still living in a way pre-9/11 world. .

Here Edward “Captain Ed” Morrissey argues that “terrorists” don’t have to follow rules, and this creates “an impossible double standard for Israel.” Well, yes, that’s the nature of asymmetric warfare. He complains that Israel is criticized for the bombing of Qana while Hezbollah is not criticized for the rockets that it has launched against Israel. Hey, welcome to the world of 4GW. Remember, Hezbollah started the current ruckus not by attacking civilians, but by ambushing Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon-Israel border (which side of the border they were on when this happened depends on whom you ask). In other words, this was an act between two groups of soldiers. It would have been entirely appropriate for Israel to have responded in a discriminatory way that kept the conflict limited to precise strikes, probably by ground troops or special ops, on Hezbollah strongholds. Instead, Israel indiscriminately bombed residential areas and civilian infrastructure even in areas of Lebanon where Hezbollah is not concentrated. Many wise people tried to tell them this was a real bad idea, and they wouldn’t listen.

“We have a right to defend ourselves!” they cried. Yes, but defend yourself smart. Not stupid.

The Oblivious Right thinks that all this hand-wringing over civilians is for weenies. Catch this

Part of what is crippling Western leaders is the sacrifice-worship of the altruist morality, which programs them, in response to human suffering, to suspend thinking and react emotionally. Natan Sharansky recounts a discussion he had with former president Jimmy Carter about why the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” kept failing. Carter responded, “You know, you are right, but don’t try to be too rational about these things. The moment you see people suffering, you should feel solidarity with them and try to help them without thinking too much about the reasons.”

Somehow I think some context got left out there, but let’s go on … in fact, it is the righties and the neocons who have suspended thinking and are reacting emotionally. They refuse to sit down and think through consequences; they cannot say precisely what they even mean by “war” and “victory.” They don’t clarify their grand objectives, but think only of killing an ill-defined and amorphous enemy. They still think they are fighting total war, in which the political consequences are subordinated to the war effort.

But even more insidious is a kind of cognitive altruism that tells men to sacrifice, not just their interests, but their judgment, subordinating their knowledge to the opinions and prejudices of others. That is what seems to be operating here. Whatever Secretary Rice knows about the Iranians’ strategy is discarded the moment lurid images of civilian casualties are splashed across the front pages of European newspapers and the broadcasts of Arab television stations. Just as, in this self-abnegating morality, you have to consider the interests of everyone except yourself–so, in this morality of cognitive self-abnegation, you have to consider everyone’s opinion except your own. Thus, faced with the united force of “world opinion,” the formerly “tough-minded” Secretary of State was flustered into an ignominious surrender of American interests.

He’s saying that we shouldn’t be so tender-hearted about the poor civilians or so craven to win the favor of world opinion. But in 4GW, the objective is not to win a military victory but to effect political change. The objective is to dry up Hezbollah’s base of support, not make them more popular. The objective is to encourage peaceful economic enterprises and democratic governments, not blow them to bits while you’re trying to get at the “bad guys.”

This is a strange kind of war, in which we have more than enough military capability to crush the enemy’s “lousy army.” Nor do we lack the intellectual power to understand and counteract the enemy’s strategy. But we lack the moral confidence to use both our power and our knowledge.

Yes, exactly; just as it says above: “4GW is a strange form of warfare, one where military force plays a smaller role than in earlier generations, supporting initiatives that are more political, diplomatic, and economic.”

The righties can’t understand why our superior military might can’t prevail. They cannot wrap their heads around the simple truth that the means they want to use and the objectives don’t fit. At this point, for example, we could bring peace to Iraq with military might, but we’d have to slaughter most of its population and leave Iraq a barren wasteland in the process. And yes, I believe we could do that. But I don’t believe that is the objective. If the objective is to effect political change and turn a population away from Islamic totalitarianism and toward the West, our use of force must be smart and strategically discriminating. Israel didn’t think that through, and that’s why Israel is losing in Lebanon. And the Bush Administration didn’t think that through, and that’s why we’re losing in Iraq.

13 thoughts on “Smart War

  1. I am in the camp of believing that all of the war and chaotic happenings are not mistakes or miscalculations on the part of our government or Israel’s government. I believe that the devastation of Lebanon and the continuing upheaval in Iraq are designed to provoke Syria into responding to Israels egregiously vicious attacks against a civilian population that has no relation to hezzbollah and declaring civilians who probably have no way of escaping from the battle zone to be willing participants. Even those that tried to escape were often attacked.

    You are right that the old approach to war is not going to work in this instance. It was already not working in Viet Nam. We have several instances of the old approach of relying on arial attacks: Battle of Britain, Dresden, North Viet Nam. None of those were the deciding step toward victory unless you say that it stiffened the resolve of the eventual victors and maybe kept an eventual loser fighting longer.

    Here in the US we can’t understand why the whole world does not speak American. If someone who speaks another language can’t quite follow what we say, we just shout louder rather than to try to communicate in some way understandable to both sides. The militaristic approach we are using is similar. We will simply try to over power any resistance. If there is more resistance we will step up the military approach and then wonder why we are not getting through.

    Anyway, the longer our government can keep us embroilled in war “over there” the more the “unitary executive” can consolidate power and enrich his family and friends. What is happening at the top in this government is exactly what happens in third world countries: no-bid contracts, money that is unaccounted for, jobs that are never completed, sham companies that are several degrees removed from the contract holder but the money winds up in the same pockets. There is so much wrong right now that it is tiring to think about it, but they keep on stealing from us.

    Probably the worst thing about the whole miserable current status is that even though Nixon tried the same thing in terms of power, he at least did some good things for the country. Also, during his time, the SC and the Congress were not mere courtiers anxious to do Nixon’s bidding. I’m afraid that now we have people who really do not like the Constitution and our form of governmet, but will use these to institute an absolutist ruler with democratic trappings as in other totalitarian countries.

  2. Bear,,,you know it is pretty bad when this president makes you long for the nixon days…but aint it the truth!

    I guess in keeping with the last post this is a SNABU…situation normal all bushed up….

    Maha said”All week righties have been whining that Israel just can’t help killing civilians because Hezbolla operates out of residential areas and that aint fair”

    To those righties I say no it isn’t fair…to the innocent people living in Lebanon.It is not an injustice to anyone but to those who are being terrorized by Israel in their homes.

    “Hezbos”???? What are we 3?????I am so glad rush is amused enough by the killing of innocents to make jokes…..seems his brain went limp with other things… too bad there is no drug for that. And he claims “talent on loan from God”…..????What kind of whacked out demented God does he have that loans out talent like that?

    Nice to see captain ed is still playing with small shiny along as they are not sharp…No chance he will ever get his ass off his computer chair and go to Iraq and replace one of the troops whos 14 month stay has been extended…NO UNIFORM NEEDED.. no one is stopping him from joining our troops IF he really believes the crap he spews…no doubt he lacks the moral clarity..

    And to the moron who thinks all the hand wringing over civilian deaths is for weenies and that people react emotionally… two things come to my mind One is that emotion does not rule ,KNOWING RIGHT FROM WRONG does!There is a difference.

    While it may not rule, the righties lack of emotion at the killings that perfectly define the word terrorism is sickening from a bunch who stick their pro life moral views down everyone elses throat. ANY time you see a group claiming to be christian and making statements like this RUN LIKE HELL!The innocent people who live in Lebanon have done nothing to us or to Israel, yet the “christian right” has no problem watching them die and thinks we shouldn’t waste time hand wringing over it…The selective pro life party? Not long ago the righties were all rah-rah- rah- about Lebanon and their democracy now the innocent civilians of that country can die and no hand wringing is that clear?…

    I have said it before and I will say it again. The righties need to understand if they wish to kill EVERYONE who would like to see them knocked on their asses they will need to kill everyone on the planet but them.Everyday they add more of the world to the list of those who hate them and would like to see them …no one fears us or respects America…and EVERY single country,state, city , town , person on this planet COULD be a threat to us the only way to be sure is to kill everyone(plus half the country,,,because liberals ARE the enemy)…

    Never before has the “scared white men” cartoon from the Micheal Morre film has NEVER looked more true….When did white American MEN become such pussies?Everytime I see a link to a male rightie blog I wonder how they can find the courage to leave their “safe room” long enough to blog.The only thing that will calm their fears is mass killing..All over this country grown men sleep , clinging to their gw dolls for safety…cheer leading about all the killing that needs to be done to make them feel safer..while they hide under their desks with their keyboard..

    Maha said”We could bring peace to Iraq with military might but we’d have to slaughter most of Iraqs population and leave Iraq a barren wasteland in the process”……THAT is exactly what the rightie bloggers want and they don’t want to stop their. Make no mistake they paint a christian face on their leader, but their agenda is not christian at all.

  3. To me, victory is an easy description. There will always be terrorism, you can NEVER stop a lone wolf with a gun or a bomb.

    But try and create an environment where the Osamas and Nasrullahs and even the Bushes of the world can jump on their soap box and scream for war or a jihad or crusade and everyone stops to listen, and then they laugh and move on because those guys are just nuts and their is no need for that kind of thing. Now that involves a lot of things, but that’s what my definition of victory would be like.

  4. Did we create 4GW?

    Conventional war implies that the enemy is in some sense a functioning political state. We have to go back to old-school political science to talk about this: a functioning government, capable of maintaining order, power over land and society, social groups, economic interests, loyal army, etc.

    This 4GW has somehow been manifested (created?) by the collapse of the state polity. Hezbollah is a power within, but uncontrolled by the government of Lebanon. If you destroy the functioning state of Lebanon and who is left to negotiate with?

    Hamas is a political interest group that came to influence because the Palestinian state was ineffectual, but what steps were ever taken to create an effectual Palestinian state (whether you like their leaders or not).

    Saddam Hussein may have been a bad guy, but at least the Iraqi state functioned. This meant that there was someone to attack (an army to destroy), but with a different political strategy, there was also someone with whom you could negotiate, argue, challenge, create a trade war.

  5. For another take on how modern warfare is qualitatively changing, see the Wash Park Prophet (aka Andrew Ohwilleke), a very well-considered blogger out of Denver who normally discusses politics. He writes that advances in rocket technology have all but eliminated traditional naval strategies that depend on a flotilla of large battleships. Developments in missle accuracy and range also have a consequence for the defense of national boundaries.

    This is an interesting post with historical content and present-day analysis. Andrew Oh! talks about the implications for warfare today and in the near future: 19 July 2006 Rockets, Bombers and National Boundaries.

  6. But try and create an environment where the Osamas and Nasrullahs and even the Bushes of the world can jump on their soap box and scream for war or a jihad or crusade and everyone stops to listen, and then they laugh and move on because those guys are just nuts and their is no need for that kind of thing. Now that involves a lot of things, but that’s what my definition of victory would be like.

    Mine, too. Righties can’t see past killing bad guys, or else they think if they kill the bad guys the “good” people will remain and will behave. They can’t understand that “unintentional collateral damage” turns “good” people into our enemies. Righties seem to think that civilians shold just accept getting bombed and killed for their own good

  7. Ah, its just like the good old days of the COIN program; “conventional war is so 1950’s”, they said “insurgency is the only way to fight a modern war” they said.

    They were wrong. Just as insurgency has always been with us and always will, so will conventional war. Anyone who thinks insurgency is “new, modern” or “unknown to modern armies” is ignorant of military history.

  8. Anyone who thinks insurgency is “new, modern” or “unknown to modern armies” is ignorant of military history.

    Anyone who thinks I wrote that insurgency is “new, modern” or “unknown to modern armies” can’t read. You must be a rightie.

  9. Not to mention that the “War on Terror” sounds like it should be a metaphorical war, like the “War on Poverty” or what have you. I think you could find effective strategies for “combatting” terrorism without throwing armies at the problem. Of course, the neocons have made it into a literal war… and they say that Democrats still live in a pre-9/11 world.

    Also, Deep Thought, if insurgency is old news, why haven’t we adapted our tactics? I agree, guerilla warfare is not a new development in military history, but the commanders of the conventional army seem ill-prepared to deal with it. (Which is why insurgency is so effective, even when the insurgents are outgunned and outnumbered.)

  10. I remember a debate that happened shortly after 9/11, where some were proposing a worldwide policing effort. You know, get Interpol involved, create communications lines, so that terrorist activites could be monitored and stopped wherever they occur.

    This was immediately laughed out of the room as being too wussy.

    To me, the current mindset of the warmongers is analagous to a police department in a major city deciding to bomb whole city blocks in response to a murder or a gas-station robbery. That’ll show ’em.

    This won’t end until somebody at the White House pushes the nuclear button. And then God help us all.

  11. merciless,
    Just remember that the Philadelphia police did bomb a whole block to get rid of group of black people that were considered too weird to live. IIRC it was a man who called himself John Africa and his group. Some, including, I think, his daughter, survived to tell what it was like.

  12. why do you commiecrats always talk collaberation,appesment and defeat?every foreign policy defeat of the last 50yrs was do to democrats being wrong about here you are again blathering doom and defeat.oh the sky is falling cried chicken little!what shall we do?why let us surrender said the progressive dem.yes,yes echoed the traitor times that’s a great idea.

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