[the palaverist]

Friday, August 18, 2006

[why we fight]

The outbreak of war in Lebanon got me to wondering about the roots of the modern Middle East and its conflicts. Sitting on our bookshelf was A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin, which Jenny had thought was quite good.

So I started in on that, but I hadn't gotten very far before I realized that in order to understand it, I would need a clearer sense of what World War I was all about. So I backtracked to John Keegan's The First World War. As one might expect from a historian of warfare, The First World War is very much a military history, with a fair description of the political crisis that precipitated the calamity and a great deal to say about specific battles and tactics. But any military study of World War I inevitably leads one to ask deep and difficult questions about the nature of warfare itself, not to mention questions about the political and social motivations behind this particular war. The Germans intended to take Paris and the French Berlin, but what did they hope to do when they got there? Why were societies willing to mobilize such massive armies to fight with tactics that were understood at the outset to involve massive casualties? Why were men willing to advance in ordered ranks under shelling and machine-gun fire that spelled certain death? Why did none of the armies pull back from the stalemated front lines to fight a guerrilla war? Why did everyone agree to show up and play by the spectacularly murderous yet orderly rules established by Clausewitz in On War? There seemed to be a great deal Keegan was leaving unsaid.

This is presumably because his answers to these larger questions can be found in his masterwork, A History of Warfare, a trenchant exploration of the roots and ritualizations that have characterized war throughout history. A sustained criticism of Clausewitz, the book argues that war is usually fought by tactics that are dictated as much by cultural preference as by any absolute material aims. Military culture, Keenan suggests, ossifies at the moment of its greatest glory and is extremely resistant to change, which helps explain why Mameluke horsemen continued to confront riflery long after such attacks were proved futile, why the Ottoman Empire had such a difficult time adjusting to the military imperatives of modern Europe, and why the United States continues to send armored divisions against every enemy, from Communist-tainted jungle hamlets to Branch Davidian compounds to insurgent-permeated Iraqi cities.

Keegan also makes the point that every sort of war — 20th-century Clausewitzian massive wars, Maoist "protracted" wars involving forced politicization of civilians, the primitive warfare of the Yanomamo — is incredibly brutal and loathed by most of its participants. Protracted war, moreover, though often successful on its own terms — Mao, Tito and Ho Chi Minh did take power eventually, and the ongoing terrorist struggles in the Middle East have certainly strengthened the hands of men like Nasrallah — they do so at an extraordinary cost in civilian deaths and typically for the purpose of installing a repressive regime that quickly succumbs to rampant corruption.

The news of late reinforces the sense that war is inevitable and getting worse, but that turns out to be false. In an enlightening and encouraging article for Science and Spirit, science writer John Horgan presents this arresting statistic:
Hard as it may be to believe, humanity as a whole has become much less violent than it used to be. Despite the massive slaughter that resulted from World Wars I and II, the rate of violent death for males in North America and Europe during the twentieth century was one percent. Worldwide, about 100 million men, women, and children died from warrelated [sic] causes, including disease and famine, in the last century. The total would have been 2 billion if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.
This calculation is so counterintuitive because in primitive societies, warfare rarely results in more than one or two casualties at a time, whereas modern wars can reduce whole cities in an instant. But the populations involved in modern war (and peace) are also drastically larger, and relatively few countries have face more than two or three high-casualty wars in a century, whereas many primitive societies are in a state of endemic tit-for-tat warfare.

I'm not sure how encouraging all this is for the Lebanese or Iraqis at the moment, but I am coming to the view that while war has been with us throughout history, its forms and purposes are widely varied and amenable to adjustment, even to elimination. Keegan reminds us that until quite recently, slavery, infanticide, dueling and cannibalism were all also practices that had remained a part of human culture since the dawn of our existence, but they have largely been eliminated. Of course, I don't think war will be eliminated easily or soon. But is it possible? In theory at least, I would have to say yes.

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Anonymous DKNY said...

Hmm---it sounds to me, in your last paragraph, that you're confusing a subcategory with a category, as well as confusing change within a society with changing what happens when societies collide. Dueling, for example, is a kind of violent combat that's been mostly eliminated in the West. But violent combat sure hasn't gone anywhere, even within the West---ask a Crip or Blood if men have stopped shooting each other over idiotic questions of respect.

Moreover, slavery and infanticide, to use two more of your examples, are most definitely not gone---they've a lot less widespread than they used to be, but they ain't gone, and there's no assurance they won't come back.

Finally, the biggest problem with thinking that war can be abolished is that war happens between societies, not within a society, and is therefore much less subject to the social pressures that can deem a behavior barbaric (and therefore outside the boundries of what's allowed). Yes, in Keegan's formulation, war is often based on agreement between participants, but that doesn't stop very different cultures, like America and Vietnam or the USSR and Afghanistan, from going to war a most brutal fashion (arguably with more brutality than in wars between closer cultures).

Is it possible that wars will eventually be fought in some virtual space, like a big online multiplayer game, with much less loss of life? Maybe. But I wouldn't bet that some clever lad will then figure out how to bomb one side's gaming room, at which point the whole thing will start again.

11:16 AM  
Blogger [the palaverist] said...

I'll give qualified agreement to your criticisms. Gang duels and the like certainly still exist, but they are far less prevalent social institutions than European dueling once was, and that in turn was far less prevalent than the taunt-and-brawl rituals of primitive societies. Slavery and infanticide are likewise not wholly eliminated, but are far less prevalent and not overtly sanctioned by any society. (One can quibble about slavelike labor conditions, but the concept of personal ownership of another is, as far as I know, nowhere overtly espoused.)

As for war being between rather than within societies, I would say that that is sometimes though hardly universally the case. I don't know that such wars are inherently more murderous or cruel — the European theaters of the World Wars were largely occupied by armies that agreed on the fundamental nature of war, and civil wars are notoriously ugly. The principal difficulty of intercultural war is that the warring parties often disagree over what constitutes victory, leading to unexpected protraction or escalation. Indeed, the very concept of the decisive battle is a cultural construct, and many cultures of war show no interest in it.

Can war be eliminated? I tend to doubt that organized group violence will ever be wholly absent from the human experience. "Is it possible that wars will eventually be fought in some virtual space, like a big online multiplayer game, with much less loss of life?" I would suggest that my job here at the UN is essentially part of such a process: disputes are hashed out according to Robert's Rules of Order and complicated systems of protocol and negotiation and adjudication — a game, if you will — without recourse to the clash of arms. This is hardly how all intersocietal disputes are settled, but a vast range of disagreements are indeed worked out through judicial and diplomatic processes that are more like multiplayer games than like war. This is presumably why the rate of death by war is lower in highly organized societies than in primitive ones. (And yes, certain clever lads are indeed keen to bomb institutions like the United Nations.)

So we have to separate two different questions: 1) Is there a way to prevent all war? and 2) Is there a way to prevent particular wars? The answer to the second question is obviously yes — an essentially infinite number of potential wars have been averted throughout history — and the answer to the first question is probably no. But by extending the mechanisms for preventing particular wars, we can move closer to preventing war in general. It is at least a legitimate and worthy effort, and if its results are to reduce the number and intensity of wars rather than to eliminate them wholly, that should nevertheless be counted a great success.

So, is it possible to reduce the incidence and intensity of organized violence considerably from its current levels? I would say that it is, though doing so will by no means be easy or straightforward, and such a result is certainly not guaranteed.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous DKNY said...

Ah, well, there you're certainly right---particular wars can certainly be prevented, and the general incidence of warfare can be greatly reduced. Institutions like the UN are one way; solid, regular diplomatic channels are another way (another thing that Mr. Bolton doesn't like much). Trade connections help as well---that was the Clinton solution, which often worked quite well (I think China and the US would be much more hostile, possibly even to the point of proxy conflicts, if were weren't so completely financially dependent on one another).

What I was arguing against was your last paragraph: "Of course, I don't think war will be eliminated easily or soon. But is it possible? In theory at least, I would have to say yes." That war can be reduced is pretty evident. But its elimination strikes me as, in theory and in practice, flatly impossible.

1:31 PM  
Blogger [the palaverist] said...

Two further comments, one facile, the other less so.

We agree that individual conflicts can be averted. I would go so far as to say that each individual conflict can, at least in theory, be dealt with by means short of war. Since every war is a particular war, all wars can thus in theory be averted. This is, however, a facile point meant to cover my backtracking on the notion that war is wholly preventable.

My second, less facile point is that the definition of war is slippery. If we define it as organized conflict between armed groups, I would agree that its total elimination is almost wholly impossible.

This definition, however, has some problems. For one thing, it encompases both small-gang violence and hockey (a ritualized and rarely fatal form of battle), and that's not what we mean.

If we go with the most modern definition offered by Merriam-Webster — "a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations" — then even if we define "nations" rather broadly to include self-identified ethnic or religious groups and "states" broadly enough to include such self-declared governments as the Tamil Tigers and the Viet Cong, I believe war can theoretically be eliminated. This allows for armed conflict to exist at times between police and criminals, also broadly defined.

Of course, this definition also has its flaws. When do the violent activities of some nutjob in the woods with his band of followers cease to be criminal and become warfare? And what of primitive warfare, which typically looks like either dangerous sports or gang violence?

So I fall back on my qualified belief that it is possible for states and nations to renounce war on the utilitarian grounds that it is expensive and ineffective compared to other means of achieving desired ends, and that this renunciation, coupled with a substantial and sustained effort to disarm civilians, could lead to an end to what we have known for many centuries as war and vastly reduce the number of lives taken in violent conflict.

2:46 PM  

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