The Impossible Contradictions of Modern War

July 23, 2010

by Winslow Myers

The article in Rolling Stone that ended the meteoric career of General McChrystal shines light on the thought-process not only of one military man, but also on the dysfunctional paradigm now failing in Afghanistan.  It is a textbook demonstration of how the mind-set of war itself, the notion of annihilating an enemy and emerging victorious, has become obsolete.

Victory in Nuclear War is an Oxymoron

It has been clear for decades (so clear that Kissinger, Nunn, Schulz and Perry called in 2007 for the abolition of all nuclear weapons) that victory by nuclear war is a logical contradiction. The level of destruction resulting from the detonation of even a small number of warheads, such as might occur in a “regional” war between two nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, could bring about a planet-wide change in cloud-cover that could shut down agriculture worldwide for a decade — in effect a death-sentence for our species.

But what about conventional war? Setting aside the risk that a “small” war between two nuclear powers could escalate into nuclear war (and even if the war is “small,” the risk is not—think Israel/Iran sometime in the future), must we not retain the idea of the military force of a given nation defending itself against direct attack or responding to conditions beyond its borders that threaten its interests?

Of course there will continue to be circumstances so clear-cut that a military response would be a necessary and positive step — most especially the prevention of genocide, though the motivation in that case would presumably be humanitarian rather than directly self-interested. And yet everything points to the conclusion that war, any war, works less and less well. There is need for this realization of the obsolescence of war to sink in not just in the U.S., but globally, leading to processes of reciprocal demilitarization.

Before You Go to War…

In terms of self-interest, General Colin Powell has listed a series of questions the United States ought to be able to answer clearly before it goes to war:

1.    Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2.    Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3.    Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4.    Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
5.    Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6.    Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7.    Is the action supported by the American people?
8.    Do we have genuine broad international support?

Sensible as this set of criteria may be, it resembles Just War Theory (just cause, proportional response, right intention, last resort, minimum necessary force, etc.). In both the Powell Doctrine and Just War Theory, the assumption is that outcomes, including escalation, can be calibrated and controlled. However, as we keep having to relearn, war inevitably includes unforeseen consequences — Mr. Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” The objective of annihilating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan melted away with the melting away of Al Qaeda itself. Suddenly the edges of our mission became blurred, bleeding into the open-ended nation-building that also still drains our resources in Iraq.

Time for a New Paradigm; Dehumanization Is Not Working

And so we arrive at the root contradiction: successful war, as a mind-set, requires the dehumanization and utter destruction of the enemy, the motive behind General McChrystal’s past success with counter-insurgency. Only then can the fearsome cruelty and destructiveness (proportionality be damned!) that resulted in past victories be rationalized. But modern global communications have made it far less simple to convince masses of people, including trained soldiers, to accept the crude stereotypes of dehumanization. If our adversaries are potential participants in a post-conflict reconstruction process, it becomes schizoid madness to keep on trying to kill them. The atomization of tribal culture makes it impossible to discern who is beyond the reach of reconciliation and who is not. We require our officers to read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, a book about building schools for girls, and we also want them to summon an efficient murderousness against the very same tribesmen who just might welcome, beyond the alienating paradigm of “you’re with us or against us,” new schools for their daughters.

As the Rolling Stone article puts it: our strategy is “Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps,” and the result is that having spent “hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth [we have] failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile.”  It is no wonder our soldiers come home half out of their minds, even if their bodies make it through in one piece.

Time for a new paradigm. Bring home the soldiers and send in the Peace Corps. Greg Mortenson knows the territory, and could put them in touch with the right people. War is so 20th century.  Φ

Winslow Myers, a retired teacher and author of the book Living Beyond War, serves on the Board of Beyond War, a non-profit, non-political foundation exploring and promoting alternatives to war.

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