Debellicised

Andrew Bacevich

  • The Remnants of War by John Mueller
    Cornell, 258 pp, £16.50, September 2004, ISBN 0 8014 4239 7
  • The Future of War: The Re-Enchantment of War in the 21st Century by Christopher Coker
    Blackwell, 162 pp, £50.00, October 2004, ISBN 1 4051 2042 8
  • The New Wars by Herfried Münkler
    Polity, 180 pp, £14.99, October 2004, ISBN 0 7456 3337 4

War is a chameleon, possessed of an infinite capacity to adapt itself to changing circumstances. But in adapting, it preserves its essential nature: brutal, capricious and subject to only precarious control. With the passing of the Cold War, some well-meaning observers have speculated that war is on its last legs, its further intrusion into the realm of politics neither useful nor welcome. Dazzled by the ostensible transformative potential of the information and biotech revolutions, others have conjured up phantasms of war rendered kinder and gentler, offering the advanced powers a precise and predictable instrument for coming to the assistance of the oppressed and correcting the world’s injustices. From this perspective, armed force promises to become more purposeful and less subject to chance than ever before.

Unfolding events, whether those that have been subjected to intense scrutiny, as in Iraq, or those largely ignored, as in Africa’s Great Lakes region, have damaged these expectations. Did the collapse of Communism turn the world upside down? Did the events of 9/11 a decade later upend it once again? Whether or not they did, war has not disappeared or become more benign, but remains what it has been for millennia: for the ruthless who are impatient to enforce their agenda, an irresistible temptation; for soldiers, an ugly, dirty (if for a tiny minority also seductive) business; for non-combatants caught in the crossfire, a threat to their daily existence. And yet for all that, our prospects of maintaining even a fragile peace and of preserving a semblance of justice will inevitably require nations from time to time to demonstrate the capacity and the will to use force.

Defined by Clausewitz as the continuation of politics by other means, war enjoys a relationship to politics that is far more intimate than that classic formulation allows. It is the first-born son of politics. Although from age to age the nature of the bond joining parent and offspring may vary, the connecting tissue itself remains indissoluble. To fancy otherwise – speculating about one without realistically accounting for the other – is to disregard all of recorded history. Yet a remarkable number of writers persist in trying.

To be fair, John Mueller, a leading figure in the war-is-dead school, does not so much ignore the past as twist it to suit his purposes. But in the twisting, The Remnants of War renders history all but unrecognisable. The result is a book that conveys a relentlessly sunny outlook – war is today ‘obsolescent, if not obsolete’, Mueller announces, and may soon ‘shrivel up and disappear’ altogether – while also coming across as both glib and tendentious. According to Mueller, over the course of the 20th century civilised peoples everywhere came to view war as ‘essentially absurd’. World War One convinced Britain and its dominions along with France and most of Europe; World War Two educated laggards such as Germany, Italy and Japan; by the end of the Cold War, nations across the developed world had ‘substantially abandoned war as a method for dealing with their disagreements’.

Into this tidy and optimistic narrative, the endemic violence that marred the postwar era barely intrudes. For Mueller, the conflicts that erupted in Indochina, Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere qualify as minor anachronistic kerfuffles. He dismisses the carnage that has characterised the period since the collapse of Communism as merely the handiwork of a few opportunistic thugs – and not to be dignified with the label ‘war’. Criminals like Slobodan Milosevic or Osama bin Laden might still cling to the notion of force retaining some utility, but they have become oddities, primitive survivors from another era. Enlightened people around the world, Mueller asserts, know better, and among them a collective determination has taken root to resolve disputes without resorting to arms. The world, for all practical purposes, is becoming like Canada.

It is a happy prospect: Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Russian nationalists and Chechen separatists, the myriad adherents of Islamic radicalism and all the restless tribes and ethnic groups of Africa embracing a Canada-like aversion to violence. A happy prospect, but an improbable one: to appreciate the far greater likelihood that war will persist, one need look no further than Canada’s neighbour to the south.

Although Mueller teaches in Ohio, one of the now-famous ‘red states’ that elected the warrior-president George W. Bush to a second term, he seems largely oblivious to the fact that a clear majority of Americans consider war to be anything but obsolete. Political elites in the United States came away from the Cold War enamoured of military power. Events of the 1990s persuaded many politicians, liberals like Madeleine Albright no less than neo-cons like Paul Wolfowitz, that force works. As a consequence, when after 9/11 Bush committed the US to an open-ended ‘global war’, few dissented. Most Americans concluded that war offered just the ticket. Recent developments, including the fiasco of Iraq, have yet to break the consensus that the exercise of dominant military power is the preferred means of dealing with the threat posed by radical Islam.

This American infatuation with military power is partly explained by the conviction, popularised by members of the national security apparat, that the United States is well on its way towards reinventing warfare, liberating it from the waste and unpredictability that characterised armed conflict throughout the 20th century. Since the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, the US government, supported by intellectuals in think-tanks such as RAND and by weapons contractors in hot pursuit of the next big payday, has poured resources into this effort to reimagine war. The project has produced a vast, if arcane literature, to which Europeans have contributed considerably.

The Future of War, by Christopher Coker, exemplifies this literature at its giddiest. Styling his book as a manifesto, Coker proclaims, contra Mueller, that ‘there is nothing to suggest that we will be going out of the war business – indeed, quite the opposite.’ As Coker sees it, war’s best days are still to come. The opportunity to ‘reinvent war and fight it more imaginatively’ is within easy reach. As never before, force, if properly employed, is becoming rational, effective and humane. Rather than wreaking havoc, armies will conduct themselves so as ‘to preserve the human habitat that enhances the quality of life and thus makes life worth living’. In the campaigns of the future, ‘killing could be made redundant.’ Equipped with advanced military capabilities, enlightened nations will be able to ‘punish better with a clearer conscience’.

The magic ingredient enabling war to break free from its blood-encrusted past is technology. Coker’s reveries about postmodern, post-industrial, post-heroic warfare derive from a radical vision of a world transformed by technological change. In that world, everything will be knowable and nothing will resist manipulation; men and machines will merge, forfeiting their separate identities and coming into ever closer collaboration.

Coker seems besotted with this prospect, and depicts it as immediately at hand. ‘We now inhabit a network world which we share with computers,’ he writes. ‘Our humanity has been redefined for us. To be a genius is to have greater situational awareness . . . Wisdom has largely become a matter of information processing.’ For Coker, the networked world implies invincible networked armies; improved situational awareness will yield generals of genius, able to run rings around a Bonaparte or a Patton even on his best day; pharmacological enhancements will yield a new breed of super-soldiers; the ever increasing capacity to process information will unravel the enduring mysteries of statecraft, enabling pretenders like Bush and Blair to take their place alongside such larger-than-life figures as Roosevelt and Churchill.

To which expectations one might reply: Fallujah. Not Fallujah alone, of course: there is also Pristina and Sarajevo, Grozny and Jenin, Mogadishu and Kigali, any one of which ought to dampen fanciful expectations that clichés lifted from the so-called information revolution will purge war of its dark side anytime soon. To imagine that precision weapons, night-vision devices and broadband communications will determine the outcome of armed conflicts makes as much sense as crediting cleats, pads and helmets with enabling the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl. In both cases, the analysis misconstrues the essence of the competition.

On one point at least, Coker is correct: war does indeed have a future. But that future will maintain continuity with the past, as the chameleon conforms to new conditions. Of the books considered here, only Herfreid Münkler’s The New Wars demonstrates anything like an adequate appreciation of what that process of adaptation promises to produce. Acknowledging that large-scale conventional conflict between nation-states may be waning, Münkler advances the proposition that new forms of violence have already appeared to fill the void; or, perhaps more accurately, that very old forms of violence have taken on a new life. The disappearance of ‘large wars’ is ‘not synonymous with the dawning of perpetual peace’, he observes, ‘but goes hand in hand with the spread of small wars’. In this context, small does not imply insignificant: such conflicts can be as vicious, costly and difficult to control as any of the great power clashes of the 19th or 20th centuries. Münkler offers two explanations for this.

First, military entrepreneurs – mercenaries, warlords, paramilitary chieftains – have shattered the state’s erstwhile monopoly of force: armed conflict is becoming privatised. In a world awash with weapons and in regions awash with unemployed young males, wars have become cheap to wage. Relying on internationally supported refugee camps as supply depots and recruiting bases, they are easy to sustain. For those calling the shots, they are frequently profitable as well – profit figuring prominently as a motive for going to war in the first place.

Second, the conduct of these small wars has become increasingly asymmetric. The typical armed conflict today no longer pits like against like – field army v. field army or battle fleet v. battle fleet – and usually there is no longer even the theoretical prospect of a decisive outcome. In asymmetric conflicts, combatants employ violence indirectly. The aim is not to defeat but to intimidate and to terrorise, with women a favoured target and sexual assault often the weapon of choice. In what Münkler refers to as ‘the margins and the breaches of the former empires’, places of seemingly perpetual disorder, it is no longer possible even to say that such wars are conducted; rather, they conduct themselves, smouldering on indefinitely and frustrating even the best-equipped conventional forces. They end not when one army vanquishes its opposite number, but when one side gives up in despair or collapses from exhaustion.

Münkler’s perspective is hardly uplifting. But it offers the advantage of accurately reflecting contemporary reality. We can, of course, choose to disregard that reality and cling to the expectation that very soon now humankind will once and for all turn away from war or cleverly devise the technological means enabling us to tame it and make it do our bidding. But as with Bush’s insistence that by waging a global war on terror the United States will purge the world of tyranny and put an end to evil, such utopian expectations amount to an exercise in evasion.

It is one of the peculiarities of the age that Europeans and Americans alike have somehow lost their ability to see war as it really is. In the process, we have, from our vantage points on opposite sides of the Atlantic, traded illusions. Mainstream European thinking today reflects the profound scepticism about war and armies that until the 20th century was the conventional wisdom among Americans (though such convictions never stopped the United States from taking the sword to anyone impeding the republic’s march across North America). With the partial exception of the UK, Europe has become and seems destined to remain permanently debellicised.

Meanwhile, public opinion in the United States, with the successful conclusion of the Cold War seemingly affirming God’s intentions to extend the ‘American Century’ to the end of time, has embraced views that once found favour in imperial Germany and among Frenchmen eager to liberate Alsace-Lorraine: a tendency to romanticise soldiers, to entertain outsized expectations about the efficacy of force, and to see armed might as the paramount expression of national greatness. The American public has, at the very least, engaged in a sustained flirtation with militarism. The US today – especially in undertaking the Bush administration’s promised transformation of the greater Middle East – has chosen to play what Americans a hundred or more years ago disdainfully referred to as the ‘European Game’. Present-day Americans have managed to forget what their forebears once knew instinctively: that the game does not end happily.

Lost along the way, in Europe and the United States alike, has been a balanced appreciation of war’s role in history and of the inescapable, if problematic role of force as a component of statecraft. As a consequence, on both sides of the Atlantic, a dreamy absence of realism prevails, well-meaning Europeans with their heads in the sand, angry Americans with blood in their eyes.