How Should We Think About War?

Tal Afar

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
– George Santayana


When should we go to war?  How should we decide?  How should we authorize, resource, and conduct it?  How do we know when it’s over?  The value of such questions is obvious given the events of the past years. But none of them can be answered until we first answer a more fundamental question: how should we think about war?

A few recent articles (including this one by Rosa Brooks and this one by Christopher Mewett) explore some of the philosophy behind our modern conceptions of war, and some of the disagreements among theorists and analysts on basic questions of how we define and discuss it (to the extent we do those things).  Brooks and her colleagues at the New America Foundation’s Future of War project are engaged in a valuable pursuit.  Their project grapples, I think, with creating a theoretical roadmap for the exploration of war as a topic, and this involves understanding what is changing when it comes to war and what isn’t.

droneAny such theoretical exercise cannot escape being at least partly concerned with how America can secure herself while not straying unacceptably from the fundamental notions of war and peace that informed our nation’s founding and thus inform its political sensibility.  Those founding ideas about war and peace probably seemed complex to their authors in the late 18th Century, but have since been made even more so by a wholesale revision of the context within which they are applied, and the emergence and refinement of a law of war. While we can’t wish away the two centuries of societal and global change that have introduced variance between what we set out to be and what we’ve become, we can (and I believe we must) embrace a citizen debate about the relationship between war and American society.  As a nation, we’re  trapped in a cycle of perpetual conflict, constantly ensnared in offshore violence that has begun to damage our onshore conscience.  It’s also draining our treasury.  The need for reform is urgent.

Why do we fall into the traps of war?  Why does it seem our war decisions actually work against our interests?  In the main, it’s because we make our war decisions the same way we make our other political decisions — incrementally, and using fractious processes that abandon principle and rationality for the sake of compromise (or at least a theatrical version of it).  But this model doesn’t work well when it comes to war because although war is an extension of politics, it doesn’t behave like a normal political product. Once unleashed, it can no longer be actually or perceptually governed, compromised, tweaked, or regulated like other political activities. To undertake it means accepting that it will obey and reward those who understand it and will punish those who don’t. Understanding it is largely about history.  We can’t hope to prevail if we don’t understand what has allowed us to prevail or caused us to suffer defeat in the past.  We can’t minimize risks and costs if we don’t internalize the lessons our enemies have taught us in past wars.

jeffersonBut we’ve most fundamentally lost our way in understanding the peculiar way in which war interacts with our political system (or should).  Our founders installed heavy safeguards to prevent involvement in war in all but the most extreme circumstances of self-defense.  They were openly against the use of violence to solve problems, and having studied history, they understood how the risks of war could be obscured by power, populism, and bloodlust. They envisioned their new country’s future as modest and cloistered rather than globally involved and powerful.

But that future was not to be, and as the world and our own choices have pulled us away from that modest vision, we’ve become more susceptible to the prospect of frequent or even endless war … the troubling notion that compelled our Constitution’s framers to put their hands on the scale in favor of restraint. As the country they founded has been drawn into a powerful role of global leadership, the temptation to develop far-reaching interests and secure them with armed force has overwhelmed political constraints designed to rarefy war.  With the march of time, war has morphed insidiously from an activity to be avoided at almost any cost to an activity with political and economic incentives often irresistible to an executive branch with more power than was ever intended and a relatively free hand to justify and prosecute war without a meaningful brake on its authority.

CVZBut even when war is justifiable and executed with initial clarity of purpose, it can drift into disaster if we’re not thinking about it continually and coherently.  Given that political consensus for war is front-loaded and consensus to disengage from it is elusive, it is perpetually at risk of becoming perpetual.  That is, unless we steer it with a set of ideas around which we’ve gathered a governing philosophy. If we were given a clean slate and allowed to write our own theory of war, what would it look like?  That’s a momentous question, and one we’d have to quarrel about ferociously before we could claim any answer to it would have any validity.  But quarrel we must.  If we don’t revise our approach to war and peace, history provides little reassurance of a thriving future, to the extent our republic could hope for any future at all.  Endemic war is a reliable predictor of societal collapse, and the American predilection to avoid difficult discussion for the sake of theater, distraction, or comfort has arguably already set us on such a path.

How do we change course?  I believe we start to do that by contending internally with the meaning and operation of war in our society.  So, in the spirit of inviting contention and instigating a necessary quarrel, I offer the following propositions that I believe should explain a prospective modern American theory of war.  I earnestly hope you’ll contend with them.  Maybe together we’ll start the long overdue internal fight needed to guide our external fights.

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MachiavelliWar reflects a primal human impulse subdued by realizing its inevitability. The history of man is the history of war, and to the extent war can be minimized, this will happen only when we acknowledge war as a constant risk of human interaction. Conflict is natural and even cathartic, so there is no hope or reason to think it can or should be removed from human behavior.  But it must be actively managed to minimize violence, especially given that collective human violence, once unleashed, can allow the darkest aspects of human nature to actuate on a horrific scale. The nature of recurring conflict is paradoxical, in that preparing for war makes it less likely while pretending war will never arrive only beckons it closer.  There will never be an end to war, only the promise of lengthening periods of peace between wars, which is achieved largely by preparing for its recurrence and being mindful of its human and circumstantial catalysts.  Hitler and Bonaparte could not have been pacified, but they could have been derailed had their motives been regarded more skeptically. America could not have dissuaded Al-Qaeda from its objectives, but it could have been better defended had its eyes been open to the reality of gathering danger in what seemed falsely to be a time of peace.

IkeWar is both an extension of policy and its ultimate failure. War occurs between states that cannot resolve differences peaceably. Recognition and resolution of differences can prevent war, which means diplomacy and communication are important preventive tools, along with mutual dependence. War is never elective; as state-sponsored killing, it must be the tool of last resort. War must be designed and conducted strategically, never losing sight of the ends sought or the means necessary to nullify those sought by the enemy. Once the decision for war is taken, it must rapidly achieve the original aim and be concluded without a shift in objectives. War professionals owe policymakers candid advice on the responsible uses and limitations of violence to achieve political ends, so military leaders must retain intellectual independence. War is conducted by militaries, but its costs spill over into economic, diplomatic, psychological, social, material, and moral spheres. War is the costliest of human endeavors, although its costs cannot be fully measured.

BoydWar is a violent human collision; it cannot be programmed or controlled. Humans act unpredictably, especially when animated by the emotions that are inescapably part of war. Violence, deprivation, anger, vengeance, fear, and despair make humans even less predictable. Killing in war scars both the victor and the vanquished. Once undertaken, war will become continually more difficult to govern; violence unleashes entropy in an intensifying cycle that numbs, degrades, and eventually deadens everyone and everything involved. Technology cannot replace bloodshed, create perfect awareness, or substitute for human loss. Technology’s sole aim should be a more swift defeat of human enemies to restore peace. Mechanization of war through technology will make it more rather than less likely to occur by reducing perceived human costs.  But this will only serve to seduce unwise participants, and once unleashed, war will entangle humans in its conduct and inflict the human costs that are an inescapable part of it.

War’s costs will depend on the level of investment in its preparation. American wars must be fought by professional militaries.  This is true because contemporary values will not countenance involuntary conscription, and because treating war as a crisis response measure dares it to occur and implies being underprepared to win it. As the world’s prominent power, America is a target and must maintain a strategic margin. This kind of prevention carries dramatically lower costs than reaction.

WaterlooLimited War is Illusory and Cannot Succeed. War is characterized by declaration, mobilization, and national commitment. War must be fought decisively, with the full and overwhelming force available, holding in reserve only that required by strategic considerations. The term “war” must invoke the total weight of American power; it must be reserved for the most dire circumstances to preserve the weight of its meaning. Wars without declaration are political projects that do not represent the full will of America; this will be sensed by adversaries, citizens, and warriors alike, and will be exploited by adversaries to thwart objectives, usually by prolonging American involvement and exhaustion. Wars against non-states legitimize ideologies too weak to gain statehood, and wars serving the interests of third parties can succeed only in creating American protectorates rather than free states, which can only come about through self-determination. Protracted wars can only succeed with full national commitment and moral inspiration, and these are usually only available when the war involves high stakes, a clear enemy, and manifest injustice.  Undeclared wars based on unclear grounds allow politicians and other constituencies to extract electoral and economic benefits from violence without a national test to ensure the war embodies the will of the people.  Accordingly, violence without declaration must be subject to strict legal limits in terms of time and expenditure, and must not be awarded the “war” label.

Admittedly, these are mere propositions, modestly informed by study and participation.  But each proposition is at least somewhat supportable with examples from history and theories written by others. In the months ahead, I plan to wrestle with these ideas and elaborate upon them in greater detail and with more clarity.  In the meantime, I invite you to challenge my assertions and offer your own.  I’m anxious to test what is written here in order to make it more diverse, representative, and useful.

Eventually, this conversation must be had if we are to have a thriving national future.  Given the backdrop of an ongoing withdrawal from the longest war in our history coupled with nascent political maneuvering to tamper with the formula underwriting the all-volunteer force, now seems as good a time as any.

Tony Carr, February 8th, 2014


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