We all know what war is. It’s armies taking on other armies, conflict involving Generals, soldiers in uniforms, and states battling for land or perhaps some kind of ideal. Such is the war of movies — the Nazis vs. the allies, or the US and the Soviet Union in a Cold War, with fears of a Soviet move through the Fulda Gap, and danger of nuclear annhiliation.
Such a view of warfare is increasingly misguided and anachronistic. Back in WWI about 90% of the war casualties were soldiers (though, to be sure, the flu epidemic caused in large part by the war led to mass civilian death), in Iraq 90% of those killed are civilian. Wars blanket sections of Africa, usually not with national armies fighting against each other, but with militias and movements in conflict with governments (which are often corrupt, fragmented units). Though these movements spout ideological principles, usually they are more like organized crime. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are not really about a Tamil state, and they certainly do not represent the Tamil people on Sri Lanka. Rather, they traffic in people, drugs and weapons, and are willing to train would be terrorists. Peace in Sri Lanka — which now appears achievable — means that the leaders will lose a lot of income.
In Sierra Leone Foday Sankoh was not about some kind of socialist alternative to the pro-western governments of the eighties. He and Charles Taylor of Liberia wanted money from the diamond trade. Under the guise of a civil war they could use the anarchy and lack of law enforcement to profit handsomely without being accountable in the form of taxes or regulation. In southern Sudan a 2005 peace agreement is endangered by government and rebel posturing, in part because there is dispute over who will get the profits from the oil fields in the region.
In most of these wars the violence is cover for crime. As long as the violence is intense, there will be no enforcment of law, and thus anything goes. They sell women into slavery, put children on the black market, make drug or weapons deals — the dirty underside of the world economy can operate without watchful eyes. The outside world, still seeing war as a dispute between groups with different goals, believes that somehow mediation or conflict resolution can end the fighting. But usually it can’t, since the people involved count on the fighting to continue.
If the fighting were to stop they’d lose their anarchy, there would be more attention to their actions, and they might find themselves in legal jeopardy. To prevent that, they try to assure that the fighting is as brutal as possible in order to make it very difficult for reconciliation. Children are turned to soldiers at young ages, young girls are forced to become sex slaves to the soldiers, and bodies are mutiliated as child soldiers 12 to 14 years old learn to commit mass murder and horrific atrocities. Often the young boys have cocaine smeared into open wounds and are given other drugs to keep their minds in a daze as they kill and terrorize.
Even in places where it isn’t that extreme, civilians suffer. Somalia should be a breadbasket for northern Africa, but instead people suffer famine and starvation due to war lords fighting for power and wealth, using Cold War era weaponry and engaging in crimes such as piracy — something that definitely reflects lack of rule of law!
So war today is less rule bound, more likely to hit civilians, often less about ideology or state interests than criminal acts and money making, and most often found in the third world. Terrorism can be seen as a tactic of this new kind of war. It focuses on civilians, does not usually involve states (though states can support or ‘sponsor’ terror acts) and often is as much about money as ideology. The Basque movement, for instance, has become more overtly like an organized criminal gang, while the Taliban and Afghan war lords focus on opium production. Terrorism is the one tactic that can project this kind of violence into the “civilized West,” potentially subjecting us to the horrors suffered in distant parts of the planet.
Yet most analysts still fixate on states and militaries. Will Iran get a nuclear warhead, will Israel attack Iran, will the Koreas go to war, what about China and Taiwan? These are theoretical wars, all very unlikely to occur (even if Iran gets the bomb, they know they’d be obliterated if they attacked Israel), but yet they get the most ‘play’ in the world of punditry. The Pakistan-India conflict, combining a bit of both the old and new in Kashmir, has even seen all out war become less likely each time they avoid allowing a crisis to go out of control.
Simply, among powerful states the risk of nuclear war is too great to allow a real war to start. Among wealthy states and stable states aspiring to wealth, globalization and interdependence makes war fundamentally irrational. We have created a world where war of the sort we’ve known is literally disappearing. All out European war is certainly a thing of the past, a weakened Russia is more concerned about oil and gas influence than conquest (let alone ‘spreading communism’), and China is so involved in the US economy that it fears too deep a US recession. We are closer to world peace than ever!
Yet, there remains a few pesky problem areas, with the brunt of the real wars involving third world failed states and organized criminal behavior. We should be able to deal with these. In most of these conflicts, small bands of criminals (and often as a counter part a small band of criminal government leaders) fight, with most of the population opposed to the fighting and fearful. It’s usually not major movements fighting each other, more like mafia families in a brutal gang war. And the only true military threat to the West — terrorism — comes from the prospect of these gang wars projecting themselves outward.
But our pundits remain ‘fighting the last war.’ We’re wedded to the notion of war as a military venture involving states and armies. While we’ve learned how to use terms like “asymmetrical conflict,” we haven’t really come to grips with what it means when the major form of warfare is now of a sort very different than that which our military was designed to confront — and our inability to really understand how to confront it has been on display in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rather than focus on weapon systems, technology, military preparedness, and strength, we need to recognize that the solution to the problems driving 21st century war requires a multi-dimensional approach to building stability in regions with poverty, corruption and instability. It will require states working with NGOs and IGOs (Non-governmental organizations and Inter-governmental organizations) to build transnational civil society and develop local efficacy. This has started, and in places like Sierra Leone and Rwanda there has been progress. But while military actions may at various points be necessary, they will more likely be stopping pirates off the coast of Somalia than engaging in an all out war.
It’s hard for Americans to get our heads around this new kind of war. It’s not what we’re used to, it defies old military stereotypes and threatens the kind of military spending that has become addictive to so many states and districts. But unless we really grapple with the fact that war in the 21st century is fundamentally different than in the past, we could be setting ourselves up for disaster by commiting the age old mistake of ‘fighting (or preparing for) the last war.’