‘We do deserts, we don’t do mountains’

Alex de Waal

  • Soldiers of Diplomacy: The United Nations, Peacekeeping and the New World Order by Jocelyn Coulon
    Toronto, 231 pp, £26.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 8020 0899 2
  • Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention edited by Jonathan Moore
    Rowman and Littlefield, 320 pp, £18.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 8476 9031 8
  • New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in the Global Era by Mary Kaldor
    Polity, 200 pp, £13.99, December 1998, ISBN 0 7456 2067 1

Ineptitude and confounded expectations lie at the heart of military affairs. Probably not one war in a hundred has conformed to the course plotted for it by those who launched it. Journalists have catalogued many of the errors and stupidities of recent wars, and there have been some scholarly assaults on the territory, most of which are concerned with the British Army in its Imperial heydey and aftermath. Perhaps when US power has waned somewhat, we may see Americans becoming comfortable with the subject too, and attempting academic analyses of some of the more remarkable feats of precision air attack, such as the strike on the al shiffa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum or the neat destruction of the house next door to General Aidid’s headquarters in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, the nature of incompetence is changing. As generals come under closer political control and elected leaders are able to monitor and direct the conduct of wars on an hour-by-hour basis, civilian politicians are committing an ever-bigger share of blunders. In an extended hierarchical command system, the opportunities for mistakes proliferate. A competent frontline commander’s chance of failure is proportional to the amount of time he must spend fighting his own bureaucracy.

‘War,’ Clausewitz wrote, ‘is the province of uncertainty: three-quarters of those things on which action in war must be calculated are more or less hidden in the great clouds of uncertainty.’ Nonetheless, in his attempts to construct a theory of war, Clausewitz preferred to regard chance as part of the ‘friction’ that retards the operations of a skilled general. The theory would be less neat but one could plausibly argue that luck and stupidity are inherent to war and a well-executed campaign is so unusual as to require special scrutiny. Modern generals are well versed in management and intelligence problems, yet they, or their political superiors, are still capable of making monstrous errors on a routine basis. Calculating all the contingencies and outcomes is beyond even the most skilled analysts but the very real likelihood of everything getting out of hand is unthinkable to those so deeply schooled in command and control.

When wars come tolerably close to their planners’ blueprints (as the Falklands War did for the British or the Gulf War for the US), it is as much a matter of chance as of judgment, chance most often taking the form of mind-boggling incompetence on the part of their adversaries – Saddam Hussein obliged by leading his army to the brink of annihilation. Other campaigns work out simply because one belligerent possesses such overwhelming force that it can prevail despite making errors that would have been catastrophic to a lesser power. This appears to be how Nato defeated Serbia. A century ago, the British Empire was surprised, rather than put at risk, by the blunders of Spion Kop.

The most dangerous wars are successful ones. Victorious generals and their political masters prefer to delude themselves by taking the credit for winning, and so construct fictional accounts of the war, imputing rational calculation where none could have existed. Such is the hair’s breadth between disaster and triumph that spite, recrimination and finger-pointing follow one campaign and specious self-congratulation another though both were executed with the same skill and determination. Only the outcome was different – and that, again, mostly as a result of chance. After a hundred years in which the most inept British general could win wars in Asia and Africa, and at least contrive a draw in Russia, came the First World War – a canvas on which majestic incompetence would be painted on a grander scale than ever before. Alan Clark’s The Donkeys was one of the first forays into the study of institutionalised military idiocy. More recently, after the glories of the Gulf War, American generals rejected intervention in Bosnia with the words, ‘We do deserts, we don’t do mountains’ – and agreed to send the Marines to Somalia.

Military disasters determine the future of policy, especially if the command in question is the world’s remaining superpower, and its interests compel it to continue to despatch its forces around the world. After the US lost the will to fight on in Somalia, the National Security Council set in train a review of US involvement in peacekeeping and similar missions. This was not an easy task. Using force to keep the peace is one of the most difficult things to get right. Armed force is inherently ill-suited to peace missions. To be effective, peace-enforcers must be credible, which means they must be ready to threaten force, and if necessary use it; but once force has been used, conflict – any conflict – has a tendency to escalate. Creating the right mechanisms for political direction and military restraint should be the priorities.

The ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Somalia was misconceived and badly implemented. The political rationale was flawed; combat troops were sent instead of engineers and soldiers who’d specialised in law enforcement; and the US set deadlines for its own internal reasons. The war against General Aidid was a bungling, all-American failure: the US Rangers and Special Forces chain of command so completely bypassed the UN operation in Somalia that when the Malaysian and other contingents needed to launch a mission to rescue the stranded American helicopter crews, they did not even know there were Americans in action in Somalia, let alone where.

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