21st Century War

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.’

  1. #1 by Eve on April 21, 2009 - 17:31

    Scott, this is a thoughtful article full of insight. I agree with you about the direction we (the world) need to go in order to effect change in the modern era. I agree that more WWII era warfar will not work.

    Having said that, I’m pessimistic about anything changing the situation for less developed countries. In affluent America, we are in recession due to greed. In poverty-stricken Sierra Leone, the poorest nation in the world, they are suffering due to greed. One cannot change anything without changing human nature, redeeming it; and human nature will not change without spiritual awakening.

    This brings me to your blog and to people like you who “fight the good fight of faith,” as St. Paul put it, even while claiming to be of no particular faith. It’s the “good fight” I refer to, one that sees things as they ought to be or might be, if we were better people and living to our highest selves.

    I think that as we keep trying to give what we have, and to share what light we do have, we may help to raise the consciousness in the world. But I don’t think we will do this if in everyday matters we are selfish, unconscious, greedy, insensible. I think we are all either tending toward light or toward darkness.

    We’ve been in the market for an inexpensive used car for our teenage son. As we’ve looked around to see what’s out there, we have seen thousands and thousands of used cars. We have whole blocks full of car lots in our area, as most Americans do in their communities. It struck me one day that if we counted every single working used car in America, we could probably give every single person living in America a car. There appear to be just that many sitting around on car lots (not to mention the new car lots!).

    I said to my kids, “You know, if every single person in America who owns a car would just drive that car until it didn’t work any more, wasn’t safe, or couldn’t be fixed any more, we would have far less excess and fewer landfills and junk yards. These used cars make me think of how much greed and waste we put out as human beings.”

    So I think you’re right. As a political scientist and historian, you use your language to paint pictures of where we have been, where we are, and where we may go. A a psychologist, I use mine; but we both see the same thing and want to go in the same way. I truly appreciated this post of yours.

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on April 21, 2009 - 19:05

    I don’t know exactly how to address this post. As a former member of the military, and a studier of military tactics over the last (who knows how many) thousands of years, your post does indicate a definite trend away from traditionally thought of warfare.

    I am in a quandary of how to proceed. Obviously we are going to have to train much smarter soldiers to deal with more complex problems in combat affected areas. At the same time, I don’t think we can give up on technological advances to stay in step with other countries developments when it comes to tangible weapons of warfare. And we also have to find a way to keep our numbers beefed up, should real threats from, say, China were to ever materialize. Given the numbers that suggest their reservist forces are as large or larger than our entire force, China might still opt for more traditional warfare strategies. Afterall, all military officers are required to study and become experts on Sun Tzu’s book “The Art of War”, and so are steeped highly in such practices. We have the advantage of higher kill rate abilities, but that is still a mammoth construct to deal with.

    As I get older, I have noticed that many of my positions in relation to military strategy, while they may have some changes for the purpose of finesse, have always become more and more hardened as to what is successful or not. It will definitely take a new generation of leaders both within themilitary, as well as the government to overcome a concrete policy of mass destruction in order to more effectively deal with the changes our world faces when it comes to conflict.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on April 22, 2009 - 12:56

    Eve, thanks for the response! I agree with almost all of what you wrote, but yet I retain a bit of optimism about human nature. It seems that people who travel, even in places of poverty and conflict, always report that most people are open, willing to share, and friendly. I think there is a loving side of our nature that can overcome greed — is it a spark of the divine, the Holy Spirit, a sense of oneness…I don’t know if we can put it into human words, but it gives me the faith to “fight the good fight.”

    I really appreciate your comment about cars. I had a little battle with temptation last month as my wife pointed out that my car has over 120,000 miles and car deals have never been better. At once, all the consumerist rationale was pouring into my head…good deals now that may not be here next year, helping the economy, I can get something a bit smaller with better gas mileage, my car needs some repairs… Last week at some point I realized that the answer had to be “no.” My car is fine. I like it. There is no reason to get another one just because the deals are there. It felt like waking up from a kind of hypnosis — why the heck was I even thinking of a new car? And I realized that two years ago I’d have given into the temptation, the consumer mentality slips into the brain too easily. Your example helps solidify my decision and remind me that part of the ‘good fight’ is internal, to fight off the way the logic of the world can twist our thoughts so that what is wrong seems right. Reminds me of the old Styx lyrics “America spells competition, join us in our blind ambition, get yourself a brand new motor car! Someday soon we’ll stop and wonder, what on earth’s the spell we’re under? We made the grade but still we wonder who the hell we are!”

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on April 22, 2009 - 13:03

    Mike, thanks for the reply, I always appreciate hearing the military perspective since my focus is socio-political. I believe Sun Tzu said never fight a war unless it’s already been won. When it comes to China, I’m convinced they can’t be a real military threat. They don’t have the navy to seriously challenge our territory, and while they can boost 200 million or so reservists, in practical terms their military isn’t that large. More importantly, their history and culture has been relatively isolationist. The ‘exceptions’ of Taiwan and Tibet seem more to prove the rule, when you look at the history of those places. Also, China’s vast holdings of American currency and bonds means they could destroy the dollar almost overnight. They’d lose value in those investments too, but they might figure they can maintain a strong enough position in Asia to weather that if the crisis is severe enough. I doubt that will ever happen, but that would be 21st century war for China — in fact, they are positioning themselves economically so as to have considerable leverage in the case of crisis (and our leaders know it). I can’t see a scenario where they would choose military confrontation of any significant magnitude.

    That said, your points make sense, and I could be wrong about China too. I guess that raises for me the political question of what the goals of our foreign policy and security policy should be: do we have the force that corresponds to our goals, and are our goals the right ones for this era? General and then President Eisenhower coined the phrase “military industrial complex” (his original term was “military industrial Congressional complex”) to warn against ongoing high military spending when no real threat exists, which he felt was very dangerous.

  5. #5 by Fris Arvz on April 28, 2009 - 06:04

    War doesn’t only occurs when there is guns and missiles that was involve… War can be something we sometimes unaware of..

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