Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The paradoxial dangers of "humane war"

Varifrank has written about our modern way of warfare and our attempt to wage it with greater respect for human life. Please take a look.

Respect for human life is a good thing, right? I would be the first to say so. War is an affront to that respect because it inevitably involves wholesale killing--not only of the military, but of civilians.

The history of warfare is of one horrific mess of slaughter and destruction. In ancient times whole cities were routinely razed, their inhabitants slain or sold into slavery. Those traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death--rode together for a reason, because the deliberate killing of warfare was often accompanied by disease and starvation.

The First World War represented a new crescendo in terms of military casualties (take a look; it makes shocking reading even now). World War I could aptly be described as a carnage that destroyed a large percentage of the best and brightest of a whole generation of Western Europe, and all for a cause that remained murky. That war, in particular, represented a turning point in the whole idea of war as a glorious endeavor, and replaced it with the notion of war as a dreadful and in many cases pointless slaughter.

This new idea, of course, did not stop the world from entering into an even worse conflagration in just a few years. I say "worse" because of sheer numbers and scope, as well as the much higher number of deaths within the civilian population. During World War I most civilian deaths had been at the hands of the ancillary Horseman of Pestilance: specifically, influenza. During World War II most civilian deaths were from the widescale aerial bombardment of cities.

Pacifists like to say that war has never solved anything. But that is most manifestly untrue. Certain things have indeed been solved by war, such as the ambitions of Adolf Hitler, and/or the ownership of certain territory.

It depends, of course, on one's definition of the word "solved." Human nature is such that the lion permanently bedding down with the lamb seems highly unlikely. Conflicts continue and almost certainly always will. New tyrants rise up--and, strangely enough, those tyrants tend to resist efforts at talk and/or reason and/or compromise. The call of power and violence always beckons.

But we have become reluctant to respond by killing on the scale of previous wars. That seems a good thing, an example of progress in the way people look at each other--not as cannon fodder, but as fellow human beings. At the same time (and this is no coincidence) we have been able to develop weapons so smart that we can come much closer than ever before to realizing our humane goal of reducing casualties, especially civilian ones.

It's a one-sided development, however, and therein lies the rub. The enemy doesn't seem to share it; and, although they also don't yet share our possession of nuclear weapons, they are determined to acquire them and no doubt they will do so in fairly short order.

What's more, the enemy has learned how to use our reluctance to harm civilians to their advantage, by the use of human shields and the purposeful targeting of civilians on both sides. This enemy doesn't just not care how many of us they kill; they are positively delighted to do so, and revel in it; and they are not at all reluctant to kill a goodly number of their own civilians, either directly, or by letting us do them the favor as they carefully position those civilians in harm's way.

Good intentions are something, but they are not everything. As the proverb says, they often have a tendency to backfire and lead to their opposite. The enemy doesn't see our kindly attitude as an example of what nice guys we are; they see it as a weakness to be exploited. And exploit it they do.

So we are left with a dilemma. Our kindness will probably lead to widespread killing--if not now, then later; if not by us, then by others. So many make the argument that if we are to wage war, it must be waged with greater vigor and ruthlessness than we seem able to muster lately.

Varifrank points to how the Allies in World War II managed to "persuade" European civilians to cooperate and turn in insurgents hiding in their midst: by artillery barrage of the town itself. He also points out that our failure to do this sort of thing in the current situation of assymtrical warfare with the present enemy leaves civilians open to the tender mercies of those enemies. And that unfortunately, is no mercy at all.

If you haven't yet read Meade's essay on the Jacksonian tradition, please do. The Jacksonian strain in American culture is not eager to go to war. But it argues that if one does do so, it can't be done with halfway measures. And this is not because Jacksonians are especially bloodthirsty. Rather, they believe that, in the end, a polite and respectful war leads to more bloodshed, and fails to resolve even the limited number of problems that wars can resolve.

This doesn't mean that every war requires the no-holds barred use of every weapon in our arsenal. But the Gulf War is an excellent modern-day example. Our failure to topple Saddam did no favor to anyone, and some of the distrust sown in the civilian population of Iraq for our reneging on promises bore fruit in their reluctance to trust us in this later, and linked, war.

The official combat phase of the present Iraq war was so quick and inflicted so few casulaties on us that people often fail to realize that one of the reasons for this was not just our superior firepower, but the fact that the enemy had learned that conventional war was not the best way to engage us. So it laid low and made plans for an "insurgency" that would have absolutely no mercy on the civilian population. This would not only have the effect of terrorizing that unforunate group, but of sapping American will, already considered weak.

Speaking of that weakness, one would do well to ponder this statement by Joseph Stalin, made to Zhou Enlai in 1952 and quoted in the book Vietnam the Necessary War by Michael Lind (an author who, by the way, defies attempts at right-left categorization):

No, Americans don't know how to fight. After the Korean War, in particular, they have lost the capability to wage a large-scale war...They are fighting little Korea, and already people are weeping in the USA. What will happen if they start a large scale war? Then, perhaps, everyone will weep.

And so it still plays out. Whether the Jacksonian impulse will reassert itself in American life--what it might require to get to that point, what form the response will take, and how many will weep as a result--is anybody's guess. It won't be pretty--but then, war never is, despite our best efforts to make it so.

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