War is a Relationship

Okay, so I tweeted the following on Saturday:

Waging war is relational. Your enemy must also accept they are beaten. Since V-J Day, few combatants have accepted their defeat….

This is an important point worth considering. Because war is basically a relationship, one in which both parties to war use violence to try not only to diminish each other’s capacity to wage war, but also hopefully convince the enemy to stop fighting.

You have to change you enemy’s mind. You can’t just defeat your enemy. They have to accept that they are defeated.

For example, it is my understanding that by the time both Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, the German and Japanese people, as well as what remained of their leadership, understood their devastated societies were past the point of effectively mobilizing men and material to continue coherent resistance. They accepted unconditional surrender, and all the uncertainties that came with it — occupation, and the powerlessness of knowing they were completely at the mercies of the victorious United Nations. They had no idea what that meant, how harsh the rule of their conquerors would be. And make no mistake, the United Nations didn’t liberate or free Japan and Germany from fascist rule. They were conquered nations (the UN Charter actually accords Germany, Japan, and Italy a different international legal status — they are not allowed to engage in collective self-defense, for example), and they were going to be treated as such.

Now, today we tell ourselves a story of relatively benign occupation and societies generously rebuilt by their conquerors, but that’s an after-the-fact telling. It was not clear in the fall and winter of 1945 just how things were going to go. Occupation soldiers in both countries had very strict rules against ANY fraternization with the locals, and the operative plan for post-war Germany — the Morganthau Plan — called for the country’s near-complete de-industrialization. What became the Marshall Plan was only kicked into motion as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and allies were needed to deal with the Soviet Union.

Germany and Japan — and more importantly, the Germans and the Japanese — surrendered and accepted their complete defeat, their conquest, not knowing how their conquerors would treat them. It was a benign conquest, as far as conquests go, at least for those nations that weren’t “liberated” by the Soviet Army. But make no mistake — V-E Day and V-J Day were conquests.

Since V-J Day, however, it has been nearly impossible to secure the kind of military and political victory in war that WWII was for the United Nations. (In speaking of the UN this way, I’m using language current in 1945 and 1946.) I can think of no instance since 1945 in which an entire nation accepted military and political defeat, and subsequent conquest and occupation.

There are a few conflicts which adhere to something akin to the WWII pattern — the breakaway state of Biafra was methodically and bloodily brought back into Nigeria after seceding; the Pakistani armed forces in Bangladesh were routed in 1971, and their commanding general surrendered to India; the Argentine military was fairly decisively defeated in the South Atlantic in 1982; and the Tamil Tigers were crushed in a long and bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. There are a few others that are not coming to mind (the Katanga rebellion in Congo in 1964, brought to an end by UN military action). But I think you get the idea.

But even here, the wars between state actors — Britain and Argentina, Pakistan and India (and Bangladesh) — were “limited” in that Britain didn’t invade Argentina proper, and once the Pakistani armed forces were routed in what was then East Pakistan, that war was effectively over. Only the civil wars — in Nigeria and Sri Lanka — were brutal affairs ending in unconditional surrender.

Mostly we have frozen conflicts — like the Korean War, ended by an armistice agreement (and regularly violated in the late 1960s); the Chinese Civil War, which percolated in the 1950s with air battles over the Taiwan Straits and the regular shelling of Nationalist held islands; or the Arab-Israeli disputes, where the fighting was halted by temporary cease-fire and disengagement agreements.

The post-WWII gave us an interesting phenomenon, in which a nation at war could militarily prevail but still lose because the political goals sought through waging war are either too costly or are completely unachievable. I’m thinking here of the United States in Vietnam and France in Algeria. But the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia — in which the defeated Khmer Rouge government was internationally recognized and supported for another decade by sponsors as varied as the United States and China, also comes to mind.

The French had largely defeated the NLF FLN in Algeria by the late 1950s, but the Algerians refused to accept defeat — they were fighting for their national independence. And as long as they were willing to resist French rule, and make the goal of keeping Algeria as a part of Metropolitan France far too costly, then it didn’t matter how many battles the French armed forces won. In the end, France cut Algeria loose.

The United States faced a similar problem in Vietnam. Again, the Vietnamese communists were fighting for their home and their national independence. They knew the Americans would eventually pack up and leave. As spectacular and surprising as the Tet Offensive was in 1968, the NLF in South Vietnam eventually lost everything they gained and more, and was broken permanently as a fighting force. And the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive was beaten fairly handily by South Vietnamese troops backed by heavy US air power. And yet, none of it mattered, because once the North Vietnamese began their final offensive in 1975, US force was nowhere to be found, and South Vietnam’s army crumpled far faster than the even the North expected it to.

As long as the Vietnamese communists were going to fight, and believed the Americans would eventually leave (we were far less attached to South Vietnam than France was to Algeria, which had been a part of France since the 1840s), they didn’t have to accept anything remotely resembling defeat. Even when they were defeated. They could fight as long as they were willing to bear the pain the United States could inflict upon their society.

In fact, the Israel-Palestinian conflict fits this. No matter how well Palestinian forces have fought (and they have occasionally fought Israel to a draw in specific battles), they have always lost. And yet, military victory — conquest and occupation — has not secured anything remotely resembling a win for Israel. Because the Palestinians refuse to surrender. They refuse to accept defeat. They don’t believe they have to. And in the world we live in, right now, they don’t.

Which leads me to the point of my tweet. With the attacks in Paris, there are increased calls to wage harder war against Daesh — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I’m all for dealing with Daesh, and it seems the current bombing campaign, which has been going on for some time now, has accomplished little.

But defeating Daesh … I honestly cannot see Sunni Muslims in the area that is now Daesh accepting their defeat any more than the Palestinians have. Or the Iraqis accepted their conquest in 2003. (It didn’t help the Anglo-American invasion was called a “liberation.”) Which means, if you really want to take Daesh on, you need a large army — half-a-million men under arms, maybe — and you need to commit yourself to the rhetoric of conquest. and subjugation. We aren’t liberating anyone. The Sunnis of the region may come to see that, at some point, but that cannot be the goal. If done, it will be an occupation, far longer and costlier than anyone in the west today is willing to commit to.

But even then, as I said, I cannot see the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria accepting conquest and long-term occupation. If anything, it will become another reason for violent resistance, the West Bank and Gaza Strip writ large, with all the inhumanity and brutality that entails. It will be bloody. And the West … doesn’t have the stomach for that kind of hands-on colonial conquest and occupation anymore, not the kind needed to truly pacify the Sunni region of Iraq and Syria.

You can apply as much brutal force as you want (and we’re good it, especially if it involves expensive high technology). But as long as your enemy is willing and able to resist, as long as your enemy believes he or she is not conquered, you’ve not won. You can’t win.

I honestly haven’t any idea what to do about Daesh. What we’re doing isn’t working, what we’re going to do likely won’t work either. There will be some kind of war — even with all the pointless language of pitilessness coming out of Paris. But the West that beat Germany and Japan, that mobilized to deal with the Soviet Union, that West is gone.

World War Two was won by a confident American government, an activist government, a government willing to mobilize resources, a government that confiscated a lot in taxes (top tax rate of 94 percent in 1944) and even more in bond drives, a government that demanded sacrifice in terms of life and labor and material, a government that could be creative and innovative (Douglas MacArthur relied on former Protestant missionaries to help sell cultural changes to Japanese society because they understood and sympathized with that society as well as with the occupation efforts) and at the same time utterly and immorally ruthless (the interning of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans merely because of their ethnicity). We don’t have that government now. Instead, we have an ideologically hollow collection of fifth-rate thinkers overseeing a kleptocratic morass of contractors who couldn’t figure out how to poke their way of a wet paper sack. All watched over by lawyers and activists willing to second-guess everything.

If we cannot trust the Federal government to oversee the delivery of health insurance (and we don’t, and given how that’s gone, we probably shouldn’t), then we cannot trust that government with the task of remaking an entire society on the other side of the world. It’s not up to it. And neither are we. At this point in our shared national existence, we probably couldn’t sacrifice for a collective or common good or goal to save ourselves if we had to.

If there’s any good news, we probably don’t have to. Daesh isn’t going to win. Unlike Germany and Japan, which were industrial powerhouses that could build and field vast and incredibly proficient industrial armies, Daesh presides over a sparse and benighted corner of the world. It possesses no industry, few resources, and little else but a fervent desire to die. If they beat us, it will only be because we will collapse under the weight of our utter decrepitness and incompetence. Or because we effectively give up. (I’m not ruling these out, but they are highly unlikely.) There may be a great deal of fervor behind the death cult that is Daesh, but it’s not mass fervor. It doesn’t take a lot of people to cause revolutionary trouble, or even wage the kind of hit-and-run terror war Daesh is proving to be exceptionally adept it.

But they cannot conquer the world.

We won’t win, but we won’t lose either. A valiant and incoherent muddle to whatever finish awaits us, interrupted by the occasional spasm of horrific violence. Which, for good or ill, sounds like most of human history.

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One thought on “War is a Relationship

  1. I don’t think this US government or the next one would ever commit to actual full-scale war (by which I mean middle-scale like Iraq in 2003, not total war, needless to say) anywhere in the world any time in the near future. Your dismal assessment of the US is all too accurate. The Russians may ‘succeed’ in managing the mess for a while, and may even find allies in Europe (not very useful ones). All the Russians want is to manage it for a while, in order to manage the potential for chaos on their southern border. But really, in the longer run, the Middle East has become a failed civilization (ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire), and their sad condition will have to burn itself out over a couple of generations until a more constructive version of the society arises, like central Europe in the first half of the 17th century, or the first half of the 20th.

    Another instance of hollow victory: In the 1948 Mideast war, the best army was that of Jordan (with some help from the British). The new Israeli state turned back the Egyptians and the Syrians, but could not make a dent in the Jordanian control of the old city of Jerusalem and the high country around it. Israel could let Egypt have the Gaza strip, but the failure to gain Jerusalem hurt, and they suffered substantial losses in repeated efforts to take it long after it would have been sensible to quit. Jordan attempted to solidify their victory by annexing the “West Bank” (a newly-named region defined as that part of the Palestine Mandate they controlled at the ceasefire). Very few nations recognized their annexation, however. Jordanian sovereignty was accepted on the east bank of the river, but not the west. It was hoped by most nations that that the west bank territory might play a role in a settlement which would approximate the original UN partition. But no Arab party in the conflict has ever been disposed to accept partition at all as a permanent state of affairs.

    By the 1967 war, the balance of military power had shifted, although no one knew that was true until the war played out. The Israeli defense minister was completely focused on the Egyptian threat, and IDF troops facing the Jordanians were ordered to keep to a defensive posture or to avoid any conflict with Jordan if possible. Jordan would much rather have stayed out of the war, but could not remain neutral once Egypt was engaged. This time Jordanian forces were routed very quickly, and the local Israeli commander, in defiance of orders, was not about to halt what had become an inadvertent but successful offensive. And once the west bank was in Israeli hands, they were not about to give it up, at least not Jerusalem, with the memory of all those losses still fresh after less than 20 years. And so Israel became an imperial colonizing power without really trying. They have since evacuated Sinai to get a peace treaty with Egypt, and then evacuated Gaza unilaterally, which gained them nothing but a weak but implacable hostile force on their border. An evacuation of the west bank will now never happen. The forcible roundup and relocation of Gaza settlers was already traumatic for the Israelis who watched it live on television. The settlements in Ariel, etc, are far larger; and there is the example of inaccurate but ceaseless rocket attacks from Gaza to show what would be the result, except this time from high country overlooking the concentrations of population. But the Syrian civil war has made all that moot anyway.

    So the irony is that everyone is now stuck in place. No one is free to make a move. There is no peace process. The Palestinians now realize that they are dependent upon the hated Israelis to protect them from the chaos to the north and east. An independent Palestine would be rapidly swallowed up otherwise by ISIS or by Assad or by whatever other power prevails in Syria. Likewise Jordan. ISIS is unlikely ever to invade Jordan, because they know that their presence on the Jordan River would trigger a response quite unlike anything Israel has ever done in Gaza or Lebanon. (In such a case, Hezbollah would be a de facto ally of Israel.) Israelis and Palestinians are both living in fear of such a possibility. Even as they are frozen in a low level civil war, both will probably try to lower their profile further so as not to attract the really destructive storms swirling outside.

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