Sunday, April 24, 2011

War by Other Means

A common theme in science fiction is the various means by which enlightened future human societies avoid war. After all, war is an obscenity. It destroys the young of a generation, absorbs money and resources that could certainly be put to better use, and in the country where it’s fought, destroys civilian lives and infrastructure.

If a civilized society can keep individuals from settling their differences with fists, weapons, and murderous intent, why can’t a civilized—or nearly civilized—planet teach its nations the same restraint? We deal with individual aggression by shunning the aggressors and taking them into custody, and by providing alternative means of conflict resolution through contracts, courts, and restitution. Wouldn’t the same principles work with the aggregate of individuals that is a nation?

Ancient Examples

The countries that ring the Mediterranean1 offer the ancient tradition of combat between champions. When two armies lined up for battle, the best fighters, champions of the army or the king, would sometimes step forward and offer to settle the dispute by fighting in single combat. Supposedly, the side whose champion won would take the field. The side whose champion lost would sigh, grieve for a bit, and go home.

But I don’t think it ever worked out that way. When David killed Goliath in the Valley of Elah, the Philistines cried out and fled—and then the Israelites pursued and cut them down. On an open field, when you’re pinning your hopes of staying alive on the big guy, you naturally lose interest and want to withdraw when he’s bested, but it’s always unwise to turn your back on an enemy who’s armed and ready for battle. Take another example, when Achilles killed Hector before the gates of Troy. The Trojans did not then surrender, open their gates, and submit to Greek rule and plunder. Too much was at stake, and a pretty good army was still at hand and ready to fight for its home town.

No, single combat was more a show of heroics by the team’s quarterbacks than an alternative resolution to the battle. But the example raises an interesting point: what are the stakes?

International Cops and Courts

Our world is slowly, fitfully, with much trial and error groping toward international conflict resolution along the lines of a civil society’s alternatives for interpersonal resolution. First the League of Nations and the World Court were erected after World War I, then the United Nations and its International Court of Justice at The Hague came after World War II. The idea in both cases was that member nations who signed on to each body would establish international laws, abide by the assembly’s rules, and submit to its court’s judgment in disputes.

It’s a nice idea.

The small nations that are without military force or ambition cling to the premise of world justice most seriously. The large nations with standing armies—mostly those left over from the last world war—regard world justice as a good thing and support it with their words, their money, and donated troops, but they don’t actually disband their own armies and navies. The small nations with military force and ambition take a “catch me if you can” attitude.

Any system of assembly and judgment depends, ultimately, on the teeth willing to enforce the words. The Latin for this is “sub poena” or “under penalty.” You are brought before the court, or you disobey its judgments, under the threat of what? A sheriff and his deputies bearing long swords or large guns and the will to use them? Or a society of scolds who will point their fingers and cry “for shame”?

The League of Nations had no teeth. The U.N. currently offers “peacekeepers” whose blue-helmeted ranks are drawn from member nations. Their mission is more policelike than warlike. They “maintain peace and security, protect civilians, assist in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, support the organization of elections, protect and promote human rights and assist in restoring the rule of law.”2 These are laudable activities, but they seem to be somewhat after the fact.

The peacekeeper’s goal is to assist host countries to “navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.” It’s hard to read into that mission statement the military objective of confronting an aggressor army in the field, breaking it, and sending it home in defeat. Instead, they “monitor a disputed border, monitor and observe peace processes in post-conflict areas, provide security across a conflict zone, protect civilians, assist in-country military personnel with training and support [presumably in the arts of defense], and assist ex-combatants in implementing the peace agreements they may have signed.”3 Peacekeeping takes a long time when you’re not willing to wade in between the combatants and knock a few heads.

Peacekeeping is not necessarily “war-stopping.” It may be able to prevent continuation of war, but only after the causes of aggression have already broken out into conflict and encountered some kind of partial resolution by means unstated—presumably “peace agreements they may have signed.”

Conflict resolution by international assemblies and courts will not be possible until those bodies have the means of ending and preventing conflict. In short, the means and the will to meet and defeat aggressors with superior force. Strong and weak nations alike must put aside their armies and submit to judgment. Otherwise, the aggressor nations will submit only as an adult submits to the commands of assertive children: happily in play but not when anything real is at stake.

People who still believe in world government insist that superpowers would or should put aside their offensive and defensive weapons. Those who believe in national, state, and personal sovereignty want to see proof of principle before baring their necks.4

Chess, Checkers, and Other Games

In science fiction, future societies conduct war by other and bloodless means: they play games between nations, substituting chess masters for the battling champions of old, or they submit to computer simulations of wars that are never actually fought. But once again, the question is one of stakes and penalty.

In the classic Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon” (1967), two planets engaged in an age-old war by computer simulation were regularly lining up civilians and marching them into disintegrators when one side lost a battle. This was a means of keeping the combatants honest and the war stakes meaningful. The story’s resolution, as I remember it, was to get the two sides to agree that they had long forgotten the original basis of conflict and so declare peace.5

Nations will play games as gestures of good will, such as the Olympics in ancient Greece and its modern resurrection. But they don’t resolve conflicts that way. If they did, the system would hold until one side lost over a matter of real national priority. Then the swords would come out and the boys start marching.

If a nation is not willing to put “blood and treasure” behind its priorities, then ludicrous situations will develop. Imagine a small country such as Vietnam attacking a large one like China in a war to be resolved by playing checkers. If the dispute was relatively inconsequential, such as default in a trade or treaty agreement, then the combatants might submit to the game’s results. But suppose Vietnam launched a war of conquest on the basis of merely a game, with no force behind it except honor among nations. A reckless state might venture much on that basis. What if Vietnam won at checkers and demanded that China open its borders and submit as a vassal state forever more, upon penalty of being thought a cheat and scoundrel in the international community? Would China actually submit? Hardly. It might offer two games out of three, three out of five, five out of seven, and so on indefinitely—or gird for a physical war.

War is an obscenity. But when a people really cares about something, it’s the ultimate test of national resolve. Commitment of blood and treasure is the last resort when the chips are down.

1. And probably elsewhere for all I know, although I can’t think of examples offhand.

2. From the official United Nations Peacekeeping website’s description of peacekeeping.

3. From the United Nations Peacekeeping site’s analysis of issues including military action.

4. It’s no coincidence that people who resist national disarmament under an international regime are also usually in favor of personal weapons rights. An individual may obey the courts and police and still know that these bodies are not always present or effective. The best guarantee of protection is still personal responsibility.

5. Who forgets the basis of a war? Go to the Balkans and they can tell you whose great-great-great-uncle was killed while stealing a sheep in 1369. The differences between Hatfields and McCoys are family stories that go way back. Just because the story is old and the sting may be gone, that doesn’t mean everyone is ready to kiss and make up today. War may be stupid, but memories are long.

Friday, April 15, 2011

One True Religion

Let me say up front that I am an atheist and have been one pretty much since my teenage years. I’m not proud of the fact. I don’t campaign for atheist rights against the seasonal crèche, or think people who believe in God are somehow less diligent or intelligent. I just don’t seem to have the belief gene, or at least I have it in the recessive form.

But I think I understand why people believe in God. It’s built into our psyches. Among the mammals and most other animals, we humans are born early, before our full gestation is complete. Otherwise, our full-grown, solid heads would not pass down the birth canal. This anatomical anomaly imposes limitations. A newborn colt can run within a couple of hours. Newly hatched sea turtles can cross the beach and swim before the sun rises. But a newborn human won’t even crawl for a couple of months. In this state we are totally dependent on enormous, bright, dimly seen, benevolent figures who put food in our mouths, wipe up our messes, hold us close, and sing to us. The god of sea turtles must look like the full moon.

After we grow to reason, we can see evidence all around that our parents are not all-knowing and all-powerful, and they don’t always protect us. Mother and father have their bad days. They become lost on the road. They short-change the waitress. They become muddled with drink. They lose their tempers and lash out. In short, they are human and fallible just like other people. And yet, in a dangerous world with death at the end, we are conditioned to want, to expect, to know that a bright, dimly seen, benevolent figure will protect us.

Religion and a belief in God are natural to the human mind. The guiding hand of an unseen being makes sense of the world, provides order and reason, assures us that good actions are rewarded and bad actions punished, and tells us that our blind, groping animal life has meaning and purpose.

It is in this sense that all religions are true. The religious impulse is satisfied if the belief system places the individual in a mental and emotional framework that he or she perceives as knowable, predictable, equitable, and therefore comfortable. Religion takes us home to a safe place, much like the place mother and father once made for us as babies and tiny children.1

Some religions have their terrifying aspects, of course. They offer wrathful gods who are demanding and jealous. They set paths to heaven so narrow that most people slip off and fall to burn in hell. They belittle and demean those who don’t believe exactly as they do. And some people have terrifying childhoods, too, with angry fathers and neglectful mothers. For them, harshness and abuse seem familiar, and pain is a proof of existence.

All religions are true. … Until, that is, you begin to notice the details and track them, one against the other.

Our Judeo-Christian deity, the God I grew up with, was all-knowing and all-powerful. He stood outside of space and time. He created the heaven and the earth, by which we now understand a universe of 100 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars. Many of those stars have planets, and many of those planets must have life that our God knows about. But our God is first of all the God of the Hebrews—He speaks Hebrew; His secret name is Yahweh, or Jehovah; and He has a special pact with those who are Jewish and those who are willing to convert to the religion of his son Jesus, who was a Jew but was also something new. He cares for all humans on this planet, except for those who don’t know about Him, because they were raised in some other part of the world or before the time of Jesus. If they are merely ignorant of His all-powerful nature, He is content to let them tremble in limbo. If they know of Him and still refuse to worship, then they will burn in hell.

This is the god of small children. He has a name and place, likes and dislikes, and even a family. He is our “invisible friend.” A learned theologian of the Christian religion would argue that this is a childish and undeveloped view, and that a mature Christian relates to God very differently. Perhaps my defect is that I never learned how to do this. Perhaps the adult adopts a less detailed, more intellectual view of the God he or she once knew as Yahweh of the Hebrews calling out to Adam in the garden. Perhaps mature belief evolves into the cool abstraction of Aristotle’s prime mover, the “unmoved mover” who first caused the universe to come into being.2 Such a deity is by nature distant and unknowable, far removed from human concerns. You could no more pray to the Unmoved Mover for grace or divine guidance than you could pray to It for a red bicycle.

No, stripping the details away from religion is like peeling away the onion looking for a center that has no more layers. We look for a nugget of truth and meaning, and find only empty space. Remove the four faces of Brahma, remove from his four hands the implements of religion, remove the lotus he sits on—and what do you have? A cool abstraction. Perhaps the Hebrews were wise in this instance when they insisted that God’s name was secret. Perhaps Islam is wiser yet, to insist that the faces of Allah and Mohammad never be drawn and so provide no fixed form that can be worshipped in error.

But I can’t believe that those who profess a faith in God and take comfort in religion are actually, deep in their hearts, worshipping a cool abstraction. Of course, I have no faith myself, and so I cannot testify to what an adult might believe and feel during the practice of religion. Still, I know that humans are a story-telling species. We draw pictures. We cling to faces, places, and names. We define reality by its details. That’s how Ganesh got his elephant’s head and wisdom. It’s how Odin became the one-eyed man with two ravens, Thought and Memory, as his familiars.

Those details make the belief strong. They provide bread to the teeth of the mind. There is no loss of faith in imagining these details. Until, that is, the followers of Yahweh declare that followers of Odin and Ganesh are deluded and worship the false masks of a devil sent from hell.

God is in the details. And yet, in a most significant way, He is not. And in this sense, all human religions are true.

1. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3.

2. God as the densely packed and exploding nugget of the Big Bang? God as the naughty small boy who packed that nugget in the first place and lit the fuse? Don’t get me started on the Big Bang as just another creation myth!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

When a War Is Not a War

Okay, how many wars is this? I have trouble keeping up. After World War II, we had Korea, then Vietnam, Granada, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya.

World War II had objectives I can understand—at least in retrospect, as I wasn’t born until three years later. The Germans and the Japanese were marching across their respective parts of the world, gobbling up countries, closing down legally established authorities, and enslaving or destroying populations. The Allied objective was to countermarch, defeat the aggressor armies, and defang the fascist governments that had launched them.

After we accomplished that, we did something new. Rather than sign another harsh Versailles-style treaty with the defeated governments, imposing burdens of shame and impoverishment through reparations, we instead enacted benevolent occupation regimes: the Four Powers in Germany, MacArthur in Japan. These regimes wielded generous investments in resources with the intention of rebuilding strong economies and erecting democratic institutions.1

But World War II was simple. The enemy had raised a flag and strutted under it. The enemy was brazen and obvious. We knew who to shoot on sight as we stormed their strongholds. That was the last simple war. The only similar conflict in the past sixty years has been Kuwait, where the Iraqis marched in and began looting the country, and a coalition led by the United States landed to oppose and drive them out again.

Korea and Vietnam were proxy wars. Yes, within these two countries the established governments and populations were under attack, but the attackers were segments of their own people fighting under Marxist ideology for a different form of government and economy. These were civil wars where each side was funded, armed, supplied, advised, and ultimately joined in battle by a much stronger outside ally—China for the North Koreans, Soviets for the North Vietnamese, and the U.S. and its allies for the South in both cases. The invasion of Granada was a bit more straightforward, but Grenada was still a tiny island population beset by a lot of international meddling.

Iraq and Afghanistan are also proxy wars, with the exception that the U.S. and its allies first toppled the government in place—Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since then we have tried to rebuild against the pressure of civil strife led by native pressure groups fighting under religious ideology and supported by outside help. Libya is shaping up to be a replay of this scenario.

In short, from Korea to the present, we haven’t so much been fighting foreign invaders—men wearing feldgrau and speaking German while overrunning Poland and France, or apple green and speaking Japanese while capturing China and the Philippines—but natives dressing and speaking like their compatriots while coercing and killing them. It was in these conflicts that the phrase “hearts and minds” was born.

Though I never was a soldier, I understand a bit about the business. As I understand it, there are only two military objectives: take ground, and hold ground. That’s what guns and bombs are for—to drive off the people who currently hold a patch of ground, or keep away the people trying to take the ground from you. These are the only tactical objectives—to deny the enemy a place on the field.

Killing people is not a tactical objective. Killing and wounding soldiers may be an effective way to break a military force at the point of conflict over a piece of ground, but so is inducing them to drop their weapons and run away through fear.2 Beyond the point of conflict, the enemy can always recruit more soldiers.

There are also strategic objectives, aimed at breaking a military force: eliminate the enemy’s supplies, limit his options, cripple his capability. You manage this behind the point of conflict by cutting routes of supply and retreat, bombing factories at home, and discouraging potential allies.

These objectives are pretty much all that you can accomplish with guns and bombs.3 Although it’s been tried repeatedly since World War II, there is not much evidence that bombing a population works to change its mind. People who think they are right, or think they have no other choice but to act as they do, will dig in and endure. “Hearts and minds” is not a military objective.

In Vietnam we tried to conduct large segments of the war from the air and from fixed bases. We bombed supply routes and bridges without putting personnel on the ground to enforce the interdiction. We flew troops into landing zones around the country to attack the enemy, count bodies, and fly out again. We sortied from our barbed-wire enclosures, fulfilled missions, then returned for a shower, steak, and cold beer. We were taking ground without holding ground, and we wonder why it didn’t work.

Once again, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are trying to “pacify” the countryside. Within a matter of weeks we had whipped the standing army, broken the enemy’s centers of command and control, and defanged the existing government. The task since then has not been so much military (take ground, hold ground) as police work: keep the roads open, protect the population, prevent bad things from happening, chase the bad guys. There’s not much a soldier with a rifle can do when the enemy dresses and speaks like everyone else and his tactics are aimed at terrorizing the local people. Military action is ineffective against secret plans to mine a road, pack a car with explosives and park it, or stick explosives under a suicide’s jacket and send him into a market or a mosque. These aren’t battles, they’re ambushes.

This isn’t war. We send out people in uniform with rifles, armored vehicles, air support, command and control. It certainly looks like war. But it’s not.

This is occupation. The Germans faced the same problem in France, the Netherlands, the Balkans, and other parts of their conquered European empire. The Japanese faced it in China and the Philippines. For as much as you have taken over the country and control the government, there still remains a large segment of the population that resists. You don’t have their hearts and minds, and someone else is giving them rifles, explosives, and tactical advice. As the force operating in uniform with known, fixed headquarters, supply routes, patrol areas, and mission profiles, you make a lovely target. But the firefights are generally short, and there’s no ground to take and hold.

Unless a standup army invades against the army of occupation—as the Allies invaded countries that Germany and Japan held in World War II—the occupation can last a long time. Practically forever, if the will is there. But the experience is not war, and the result is not a peace you can walk away from.

The occupation experience is military limbo: costly in lives and treasure, debilitating to the spirit, and demeaning to everyone involved.

1. Except, alas, for the Soviets in East Germany, where they removed the factories to the Russian motherland and left the rubble to stand for decades as punishment.

2. That’s why earlier armies painted their faces, adorned their helmets with horsetails and plumes, stamped their feet and chanted, or played the bagpipes. It’s far more civilized to frighten your enemy into running than to kill him outright. The machine gun was the invention of pure savages.

3. Of course, with enough nuclear weapons, you can destroy the enemy and his generations and turn his cities into lakes of radioactive glass. But that’s not war.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Freedom Fighters

With popular protests and insurrections now taking place all over the Arab world, people in this country wonder what America can do to help these “freedom fighters” against their oligarchic, despotic governments. I would suggest the answer is not much—not if these countries want to keep their freedom.

In my world view, you can’t give people anything of lasting value. In an emergency, when all other resources are swamped—as in the recent earthquakes in Japan and Haiti—aid in the form of food, medicine, building supplies, and money is always welcome. But these are short-term problems with short-term solutions. In the long-term, you can’t give a man or a people anything. You can only let him and them decide what is of value and necessity and then create benign circumstances for the person or the people to take what they need. This applies to education, personal meaning, personal space, a livelihood or an economic system, and freedom. You cannot give a slave freedom. You can only remove the condition of servitude and offer the possibility of freedom; the person must then reach for it and make personal decisions in order to become free.

Why do I believe this principle applies to the revolutions now starting or proceeding in the Middle East? Because I reflect on the American revolution and can see similarities with and differences from the Arabs’ situation today.

Consider what the transplanted English and Dutch on the North American continent did during our revolution.1 They formed associations, wrote out their principles, rallied the population, resisted the legitimate colonial government, and when the British sent an army to put them down, raised a Continental Army as well as local militias to fight them in the field. This war was a homegrown affair.

Yes, two years into the fighting, in 1777, the French Marquis Lafayette volunteered to join the Continental Army and became an officer under Washington. The following year the Prussian Baron von Steuben came to help with technical advice at Valley Forge. Five years into the fighting, in 1780, our new ally France sent 6,000 troops under Count de Rochambeau to Rhode Island, where the British blockaded them for almost a year. And finally a French fleet under the admiral Count de Grasse, along with 3,000 French troops and their cannon, joined General Washington and the Americans in the Battle of Yorktown, which effectively ended the war.

But throughout the eight years of war and maneuver, throughout the political and diplomatic work of building a government, the Americans were in charge of the campaign. They reached out and took their freedom. They had help and it was welcome, but no one handed them the result as a gift.

Compare that to Afghanistan and Iraq, where coalitions led by U.S. troops knocked out the tyrannical local government and military forces in a matter of weeks. We allowed Afghan and Iraqi freedom fighters to work alongside our troops as interpreters and liaison officers, and many were involved in the fighting. But the wars were planned, directed, and largely executed by foreigners. U.S. and international experts picked the new governments’ first leaders, wrote their laws, established their institutions, brought in security forces, and made every effort to shape the new countries. We of the West are slowly leaving Iraq to the Iraqis and their newfound democracy. In Afghanistan we still have a major hand in running the show.

Would that have worked in the American Revolution? Consider this thought experiment.

What if the French had early on decided to help the Americans, but only if things were done the French way? French troops would only fight under French officers in campaigns planned and battles chosen by the French government in Paris. The Americans and their Continental Congress and Continental Army might assist, and they certainly would be useful as interpreters, but this man Washington would have to step back and let the experts plan and execute the war. And that good French friend, Benjamin Franklin, must be brought in as the new American king or prime minister. How long would the North American people have kept their new government and their new freedom under these conditions?

Consider also that if the freedom fighters of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had not pushed things to a head in the 1770s but had waited a couple of decades, things might have gone very differently.

If the American Revolution had broken out in the mid to late 1790s, and the French had taken a hand then, we might well have had something like a French takeover. Consider the aggressive revolutionaries in Paris, who wrangled endlessly over the implementation of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and only stopped fighting among themselves when Napoleon rose to power and turned the revolution outward across Europe. Would they, or would Napoleon himself, have been content to supply financial or military aid but let Tom Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, or their later counterparts, decide the course of American politics? Of course not. The experts at creating a revolution in France would have eagerly stepped in, if only to spite Britain, and guided the American experiment from the first day. We too might have had a guillotine erected in front of Independence Hall.

Our country has the shape it does today only because our main ally against the British was still a bloated monarchy and aristocracy, stuck in the social and political patterns of the ancien régime, with too many of its own problems to give us a thorough makeover.

None of this is meant to deny the protesters and freedom fighters of the Arab world our support. We should applaud and welcome any people who are tired of living under oppression and reach out for their freedom. We can, from a distance, give them advice and a bit of wisdom.2 But we cannot shape their revolution for them, because then it won’t be theirs.

None of this is meant to imply that everything will go well for the protesters and freedom fighters if we leave them alone. Unlike the patriots of North America, the Arab world has not had the benefit of an 18th century western enlightenment to guide their ideals and suggest their practices. Islam has its own set of ideals and practices. There is much in Islam that can be generous, fair, and courteous. Unfortunately, many of the people calling the tune these days have an aggressively fundamentalist streak and look back on a medieval worldview as the source of their power. Modern Islam doesn’t have to be like that.

To the extent that the freedom fighters of the Middle East promote a fundamentalist religious dictatorship in place of a secular military dictatorship—and to the extent that wiser, more tolerant heads in the general population don’t challenge this view—the region is headed for a long rite of passage. Revolutions and civil wars will ebb and flow until the various populations can reach a stability that accommodates the modern world. Much as the mullahs and fundamentalists would like to put the genies of technology, science, and secular inquiry back in their bottles, these forces are alive in the world and no people are immune to them.

I believe the Middle East is going to have twenty years, at best—and a hundred years, at worst—of strife while they try to join the modern world. They will not become little Americas or little Frances. They will learn to interpret their traditions and their religion in ways that work best for the majority of their people. My point is, they have to do it themselves. Anything else will be a shoe that just doesn’t fit.

1. For a general overview of the history, see the War of Independence timeline by Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr. of the University of Washington.

2. Anything more than a warm welcome and a bit of advice is perilous. Remember that the mujahedeen whom we armed and advised in Afghanistan against the Soviets came back as the Taliban who supported the al Qaeda camps where 9/11 was prepared. The Middle East is fraught with endless possibilities for unintended consequences.