Rethinking War

At the beginning of this 21st Century the West has found itself confronted by the challenge of war once again. Of course, war did not disappear at the end of the 20th Century, given the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the need to intervene in Sierra Leone and the international intervention in Kosovo to prevent another genocidal campaign taking shape, but instead we either shut our eyes (most of us) or thought it would go away and be the exception rather than the nowm.
However with the attacks on the USA and armed with a good understanding of human history, devoid of wishful thinking, we must begin to see that war has never been the exception. Even the 19th Century for Britain – regarded as a long stretch of peace was regularly punctuated by imperial wars, punishment expeditions and interrupted by the Crimean War. Indeed the great exception has proved to be between the member states of NATO and the European Union. Economic co-operation seems to have defused much of the normal tensions between states that lead to war.
War is the alternate norm throughout human history. Peace is preferred by all but not in all circumstances. I believe there is a Roman expression of “a bad peace is worse than no peace at all”, the remark being justified in the pernicious nature of that “bad peace” and in understanding the differing perspectives of human social groups and nations.

War does not morally or legally have to be justified as an act because it is an act that breaks through all the rules of law and life. The use of violence or war in order to achieve political ends is not stopped, as seems to be the delusion of the modern age, by the moral opprobrium of the “international community” nor by writs of illegality (as if that would actually mean anything). No, war as a means of breaking the status quo, of defence or aggression, is only stopped in the short term by the threat of war.
There is talk of using sanctions, of depriving the warring parties of the essential supplies or credit, yet this notion is vulnerable on the count of politics and on practicality. If in the case of one nation going to war with another, it is doubtful that the international community would stand together to stop the fighting by direct means and as we have seen with many wars, notably the Arab – Israeli wars, the notion of dictats from the great powers ending fighting immediately is both hostage to the interests of those powers but also to the willingness of one nation to gamble on a quick victory.
War was waged between Ethiopia and Eretria for years with routine condemnations but no action. Yet it is possible with a sufficiently capable military, political will and luck to conduct a rapid war with the aim of forcing the other side to acquiese to certain demands. It is not international law that limits war but the interests of the great powers and ultimately the willingness of those nations to bring into sway, their own military force.

There then arises the question of what does the great power intervention actually seek? Is it only required to restore the status quo pre-bellum? Would that actually be an act of injustice, if say one nation had attacked to liberate a people living in another state and suffering persecution? Would the great power seek to overthrow the government of the aggressor state and would it be capable of persuading the defending country to accept a political settlement dictated by the great power? And there remains the danger of a wider war between great powers taking opposite sides, which may necessarily limit the capacity for intervention.

It remains my contention that war as an act becomes a radical fact. It overrides all legal certainties because by the nature of the instrument of war, here called the sword, it can physically break the practises of law. Law is incapable of binding the total practise of war as legal potency is guarenteed and quantified by the threat of force. In civil law, the strength of the word of the law is matched by the strength of the state’s ability to enforce the law. In military law, the only factor holding back the unrestricted practise of war is the morality of the combatants.
Yet, we find a distinct need to regulate and discipline behaviour of combatants. Regulate remains the correct term, but we find that the regulation is not externally imposed but is to be found within the internal martial codes of the combatants. The destructive moral capacity of violence must be contained in order that it does not overwhelm all social order and it here that I come to the restrictive capacity of self-interest. In a hypothetical study, we might look at the warbands of warriors roaming the fallen Western Roman Empire. In a certain sense there is nothing stopping those warbands from looting, killing and destroying – except that they are limited by two factors innate to themselves as human beings.
The first is the economic factor. Without the peacetime economy, the warbands would eventually starve. In the modern world, the costs of war in economic terms have steadily risen. We are constantly surprised by our capacity to absorb those costs, yet a breaking point comes. Israel is regarded as a militarist state by some, yet its capacity for war is limited to small scale operations which can be waged almost indefinately and the full scale war mobilization. But Israel’s economic capacity is placed as the wager in a full scale war; not only is the bulk of the male and a large degree of the female population called up for service, but the economic infrascture is often on the frontline. Israel’s capacity for war is thereby limited by both ability and self-interest. The Soviet Union, one of the great amoral states of the modern world economically could not afford the arms build up with the USA and her western allies, but further bankrupted a further factor in its capacity to wage war during the intervention in Afghanistan.
This factor is the second in this equation and the fundamental part in it is the human heart, but it is manifest in an unbelievably wide variety of ways. The Soviet Union exhausted its moral capacity for war; too many young men came back mentally exhausted and too many families felt the burden. For a state or a social group to wage war, even in the short term, the population must feel the need to risk war. For a warband, eventually they will want to stop, claim lordship, raise families and be secure, as the only security of the warband is in arms. We as human beings find more means of security beyond arms when we are settled. Arms are the only means of decisively breaking those bonds of security, yet their practise is limited by our moral capacity.

Christianity and Judaism rightly began to compress our moral capacity for war, since war’s destructiveness to the human soul is manifest. We in the west hold strong qualms about waging war and feel disgust for the aggressive, greedy waging of war: this can be seen in the false but potent accusations of “grabbing their oil” cast at the US and her allies over Iraq. We believe in war as the last resort, yet never ask ourselves when the last resort has come and feel uneasy over whether the question is worth the last resort. It would be foolish to go to war over an inconsequential issue, yet it has happened. Thucydides said that logic was rarely a deciding reason for war, yet it is logic we bring to the conflict in order to defuse it, or perhaps encourage it.
War is about the most complex of human social interactions, constantly changing and chaotic in nature. It is not just wrong to attempt to legislate absolutely for war and expect to pin it down as one might in a court case. War may often demand what seems abhorent until the consequences are considered and then the alternatives may seem more so, even if perhaps passively.

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3 Responses to Rethinking War

  1. JOS says:

    A very interesting post, but I’m finding your conclusions on rethinking war a bit ambiguous. It appears you’re saying that the nature of war is such that it cannot be clearly understood or defined, and therefore cannot be effectively legislated or morally codified. Also you suggest that war is a perpetual state in that the only thing limiting war is the threat of war itself.

    You argue that “It is not international law that limits war but the interests of the great powers and ultimately the willingness of those nations to bring into sway, their own military force.” This would contradict your belief in the perpetual state of war unless you’re referring to the object of the great powers interest’s belief that the great power will use military force against it (the object of interest). I’m assuming that is what you meant.

    I do agree that interests, not laws or moral codes, lead to war, but I believe the interest of the leader of a (nation)state and not necessarily the “national” interest to be the impetus for war. My premise argues that relations among nations are produced by the normal ups and downs of domestic affairs, taking into account the domestic and international constraints under which the leaders in contending states operate.

    This is the perspective of political economy models that evaluate policy choices as parts of equilibrium behavior induced by domestic institutions. They suggest that foreign policy interactions are the incentive-compatible choices made according to the motives of the national leaders. These leaders’ motivations may or may not be compatible with their nation’s interest. Why else would the war-timing of democratic leaders be tied to an election cycle and/or domestic political circumstances? As you suggest, this is representative of self-interest, but not of the state, but rather that state’s leader.

    You also argue that “In military law, the only factor holding back the unrestricted practise of war is the morality of the combatants.” I would argue that it is the discipline of the combatants rather than their morality that guards against wars unrestricted practice. A disciplined soldier will carry out his duty despite his personal morality; the same cannot necessarily be said of a moral combatant.

    Finally, you argue that “Christianity and Judaism rightly began to compress our moral capacity for war, since war’s destructiveness to the human soul is manifest.” I would argue that religion in general actually increases our moral capacity for war. After all, how many wars are fought due to religious differences? The Crusades (9th century), the French wars of religion (14th century), the Reconquista (which lasted for 700 years), the Thirty Years’ War (17th century), Mexico’s Cristero War (20th Century) and as you mentioned, the Arab-Israeli War (also 20th century), were all carried out in the name of “God”. (as an aside: This is an interesting observation coming from an atheist, specifically your use of the word “rightly” and the description of war’s effect on the human soul).

    Clausewitz believed that war was a part of man’s social existence and compared it to commerce, because it is also a conflict of human interests and activities. He considered politics to be commerce on a larger scale and the “womb in which war develops”.

  2. wien1938 says:

    Do forgive me. This was a first draft that I should have revised before publishing. There will be another draft!
    I would disagree with you about religion increasing our scope for war as one only has to read the history of the ancient world to discover that the wars were long, vicious and often fought over simple issues. What I think that religion or ideology actually does is to increased the fervor of the war-making as it takes the reasons for war from the immediate and material (honour and secular interest) to the abstract and utopian (these are our higher reasons and if we kill those bastards, we’ll achieve heaven on earth).

    But all that said, yes, the essay is somewhat incoherent! I realised that towards the end but was too tired to revise it. Second draft at some point soon!

  3. wien1938 says:

    Also, I don’t believe that there is physical actuality named the “soul” but it is a metaphysical statement, useful in describing a philosophical concept. Humans are complex creatures…

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