THE FUTURE OF WAR
Essays on the 2000 MILLENNIUM
As the conflict in Kosovo makes clear, war is still a fact of human life. But NATO’s strategy in Yugoslavia has also demonstrated the limits of high-tech warfare. Those issues are only too familiar to Ralph Peters, a recently retired U.S. army lieutenant-colonel who has visited more than 40 countries examining conflict and security threats. The author of eight novels with geopolitical themes, including his latest, Traitor (Avon Books), published this month, Peters has also written widely on military issues. Last month, he produced his first non-fiction book, Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? (Stackpole Books). In this essay, he argues that peace can only be won with strong force—and lives lost.
In much of this troubled world, only blood persuades. War and conflict have an enduringly human face. For all of the technological wonders available to Western militaries, we cannot defeat the man with the knife unless we are willing to take a knife—or gun—into our own hands. The basic human dilemmas, of which the urge to violence is one, still require a human response. That is the lesson of our Kosovo misadventure, and it is the fundamental principle of warfare that will endure throughout our lifetimes.
The air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia offers a better paradigm for Western folly than a novelist could invent. NATO and its first-among-equals, the United States, imagined that the military instrument could be used successfully without shedding blood, and that technological superiority would define the terms of a brief conflict. Homegrown myths live a long time in the Balkans, but foreign myths perish rapidly.
A new generation of Western political leaders, their views shaped by the blithe idealism of the Sixties and the increasing comfort of subsequent decades, long imagined that mankind might settle its differences peacefully. Confronted with the reality of hatred and bloodlust in this unco-operative decade, they next convinced themselves that war could be waged on the cheap, at least in terms of human lives—not only the lives of their own soldiers, but enemy lives as well. Canada turned its military into global babysitters, and the United States sought to turn war into a computer game. Now, the myths of the peaceable
kingdom and of bloodless techno-war are dead, murdered in the Balkans. < Military technologies are important. But they only matter if they are appropriate and properly used. In Kosovo, NATO chose not the instruments that might do the job, but the instrument of least risk. But war is risk. A month into the first yuppie war, the Kosovar Abanians are homeless and shattered, a discount Hitler has defied the world, and the NATO states wring their hands and look for absolution. That is the price of wishful thinking.
We have, indeed, entered a new age of conflict. It will not be an age of duelling computers, however, but of fundamental brutality: ethnic cleansing, religious pogroms, genocide, terrorism and international crime on a grand scale.
In a sense, we are going backward. The enemies who will confront our soldiers appear between the pages of the Bible and the Iliad, in Thucydides and Herodotus, Tacitus, Caesar and Gibbon. The model of war cherished by general staffs, with well-ordered army pitted against well-ordered army, is largely gone. Conventional war remains a threat, but a diminishing one. Today’s—and tomorrow’s—enemies are halftrained killers in uniform, tribesmen, mercenaries, criminals, children with rusty Kalashnikovs, shabby despots and gory men of faith. The most dangerous enemy will be the warrior who ignores, or who does not know, the rules by which our soldiers fight, and who has a gun in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and hatred scorching his heart. The paradox of the next century is that it will be one of fabulous wealth for us, but of bitter poverty for billions of others. The world will not “come together,” but has already begun to divide anew between open and tradition-bound societies, between rule-of-law states and lawless territories with flags, and between brilliant postmodern economies and cultures utterly unequipped for global competition. We will be envied and hated by those without a formula to win. In the 20th century, we had to worry about successful industrial states and the militaries they produced. In the next century, the threats will arise from the realms of failure.
There will be more—and bloodier—Kosovos
Apart from terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, none of the broad violence of the coming decades will threaten the existence of Canada or the United States. Rather, it is our economic interests and, even more often, our humanitarian instincts that will be challenged, and our soldiers who will pay the bills of blood. At the end of a century of slaughter, from Vimy Ridge and the Somme to Auschwitz and Cambodia, we in the West have taken refuge in the utterly irrational conclusion that mankind is fundamentally good and lacks only opportunity to demonstrate that goodness. In the next century, we will learn otherwise.
To behave effectively in tomorrow’s conflicts, we need to back away from the daily tumult and dig deep into root causes. As with Kosovo, we cannot wish away horror. At least a minority of human beings— primarily male—thrive on violence, both psychologically and practically. Some men acquire a taste for killing. We ache to believe otherwise, but the cultural genocide and brutalities of Kosovo are not being committed by reluctant hands. Love withers, but hatred endures and inspires. Where is the tribe that loves its neighbour selflessly?
The slaughters in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa were not laborious chores, but descents into intoxication and even ecstasy. The atrocities and dispossessions of Chechnya, NagornoKarabakh, Abkhazia, Bosnia and Croatia, of southern Iraq and the Kurdistan that does not exist (except in flesh and blood), of Afghanistan and fractured Indonesia, of Algeria and Northern Ireland were not executed by men steeled to a despised task, but by enthusiastic hands. Until we face Man as he is, we will have no end of Kosovos and Rwandas, of well-intentioned failures, refugees and bones. Man remains a killer, and we cannot wish the killer away.
In broken states and territories beyond state control, from the African bush to American slums, violence is empowering. Privileged and insular with our college degrees and good prospects, we of the reading class hope to solve crises of blood and hatred with diplomatic niceties, failing to recognize the addictive nature of violence (genocidal murderers and spouse abusers don’t do it just once). Worse, we reconstruct our opponents in our own image, imagining that all men want peace. But for the hard-boy gunman of Ulster or the Balkan bully, peace is the least desirable state of affairs—unless he can dictate the terms of the peace. We thrive on order, but our enemies prosper from disorder. The end of the violence means the end of the good times for the local warlord or black-market king. g
Most human beings do not thrive on = violence, nor do they wish it, despite the resentments they may feel towards their neighbours. But it takes only a fraction of
one per cent of a population, armed and determined, to destroy a fragile society. That is another lesson of the collapse of Yugoslavia, where even now, after years of organized brutality, under five per cent of the population has a hand in the business of death and ethnic cleansing.
The object of our interventions cannot be treaties alone. Ours is a strategy of self-satisfaction, not of meaningful change. If we wish to rescue or help reconstruct troubled societies, our first military action upon intervention must be to disarm the violent actors—and to fight those who resist. The worst offenders must be captured (or killed) and tried for their crimes before they slip into the criminality that has paralyzed many a “peace.” We failed to do so in Bosnia, and the peace endures only because of the presence of foreign troops. Advocates of disarmament have pitched their programs too high. It isn’t the decaying nuclear arsenals that threaten the world, but the pistol in the pocket of the killer.
Back in the 1960s, one of the original alternative-rock groups, The Fugs, recorded a satirical song about the Vietnam War entitled Kill for Peace. That is exactly what we must be prepared to do.
What kind of militaries will we need in the next century? Not those which we have. Canada’s military is unprepared to fight, and the U.S. armed forces are prepared to fight the wrong war. The first is under-equipped, the latter improperly equipped. Ottawa has pinched pennies, relying on the American defence umbrella, while Washington continues to lavish money on systems and organizations designed to fight the forces of the vanished Soviet Union. For Canada, the question is whether or not it will pull its weight (peacekeeping efforts matter, but they don’t matter as much as the willingness to use a rifle in a good cause). For the United States, the issue is whether it can fight in a lower weight class than it has trained for.
Consider the American military today. The inability of air power to win wars by itself is on display as I write. What we attempted to do in Yugoslavia is equivalent to telling a metropolitan police department they can control crime only from the air—we cannot even find the little bands of butchers at large in Kosovo, let alone strike them. Yet, air power remains the glutton of U.S. defence dollars, the promised miracle cure for conflict.
The U.S. navy is structured to defeat foreign fleets that do not and will not exist, and the U.S. army, while potent, is so ponderous it cannot get to crises promptly with sufficient hitting power. Despite deep cuts to its forces during the ’90s, the U.S. military could “do” Desert Storm again—if the enemy again allowed half a year for our preparations. But the U.S. army cannot even get to Kosovo, let alone sustain itself there, without a lengthy buildup that would guarantee the levelling of the last
ruins in Pristina. If America’s goal is to avoid meaningful interventions, its armed forces are perfectly structured to that purpose.
And yet, there is an exception. The U.S. Marine Corps, long regarded as thick of muscle and thick of head, has grasped the future with both hands. In a sense, the Marines lucked out, since the dirty little nonwars of the future are the same sort of fights they faced throughout their history. The corps felt the Cold War least, and has cast off its legacy with relative ease.
The centrepiece of innovation in the marine corps is a focus on urban warfare, the ugly fight that all want to avoid. Urban warfare is the growth area for Western militaries. Other services do not want to face it (despite some lip service), since fighting in cities and industrialized terrain threatens traditional organizations and weapons-buying habits. Worse, it is warfare at its most savagely human and dangerous.
No sensible soldier wants to fight in a city. But in a grossly urbanizing world, conflict inevitably becomes urbanized. The fight follows the population. Cities have long been the object of military campaigns—today, they are increasingly the battlefields as well. It is not a matter of choice. Demographics, wealth concentration, sources of power, and even our military effectiveness in other environments drive our enemies into urban jungles. Mogadishu in Somalia was an elementary version of the problem—this is war in-close and deadly without neat lines on the planning map, surrounded by non-combatants, and fought in three dimensions, from multi-storey buildings down into sewers. There is no more difficult form of combat For a military in love with technology, urban warfare’s demands for large numbers of well-trained infantry come first as a shock, then as a critical shortage. City fighting produces casualties.
Western militaries will continue to operate in other environments, from rainforests to oil-rich deserts. But the days of ordered battles on green fields are behind us. Even were we to dispatch ground troops to Yugoslavia, the ethnic Serb military would not come out to duel with tanks in a grand battle. We would face guerrilla tactics and snipers, terror attacks and local armoured skirmishes—but, above all, we would have to go door-to-door in villages and half-burned cities, to root out the hard-core killers in uniform. What began as an exercise in technological prowess and war waged at a sterile remove may end in a gunfight in a darkened cellar.
Another instructive feature of the current debacle in the Balkans is the matter of initiative. In any fight, high-tech or bare knuckles, whoever can seize and retain the initiative has a tremendous advantage. Despite NATO’s air attacks against empty buildings, Milosevic has done a brilliant job of forcing NATO to react, instead of allowing NATO to set the rules. He pulls the strings and Brussels jumps (while Washington spins).
NATO bombed and tried not to shed blood. In response, Milosevic accelerated a stunning campaign of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide without impediment. He manipulated the refugee issue savagely and brilliantly. NATO must spend time and energy maintaining a fractious alliance, while Milosevic works to pry the alliance apart—though unsuccessful at rupturing it thus far, his efforts have ensured that the bombing campaign remains a tentative, nervous affair. Prior to the Orthodox Easter holiday, Milosevic declared a unilateral ceasefire, knowing that, should NATO accept, Brussels would find it nearly impossible to resume the bombing. With NATO’s refusal, he was able to portray himself to his people and to receptive audiences abroad as a willing peacemaker. Thus far, Milosevic has managed to reduce NATO to a frustrated, impotent giant, unable to protect those it pledged to defend. Even if he loses in the end, Milosevic has outma-
The great issues of conflict in coming decades will be moral ones
noeuvred NATO thus far. He made NATO’s primary concern the care of refugees, not the military campaign, and cast himself as hero to his people. Kosovo is destroyed, the mission a failure, and any eventual NATO victory will be as hollow as it is belated.
This ability of our enemies to set the terms of the conflict already had cost the West dearly in this decade, in Somalia and in Iraq. The reasons are twofold. First, for a variety of reasons, the West has been unable to muster and sustain the determination, the strength of will, that is the basis of all effective military operations; second, we consistently underestimate our enemies. Fighting on his own turf, the illiterate tribesman may prove wiser than the well-trained officer who does not speak the local language, know the local customs or understand the layout of the streets. Pride and its handmaiden, ignorance, have crippled our efforts, from the Horn of Africa to the Balkan fringes of Europe.
No better example is needed than the American administration’s conviction that they knew Milosevic, and that he would back down at the threat of force. The American leadership failed to understand the man, his people or his goals. Then, NATO and the United States each took pains to assure Milosevic that ground troops would not be
deployed, should the air campaign fail. All he had to do was hunker down, with his fingers in his ears. Bill Clinton and Javier Solana of NATO wrote the epitaph of the Kosovar Albanians in advance.
How do we prepare for the future of conflict? There are numerous practical measures that should be taken, from resisting the blandishments of defence contractors peddling weapons that are marvelous but irrelevant, to sfreamlining military units for swift deployment and buying the transport aircraft to carry them. But such steps do not address the core of the problem: we must decide what is worth fighting for.
Our militaries, despite structural problems and materiel deficiencies, can do the ugly jobs the world presents. But they cannot do it bloodlessly, or instantly, or without injury to each last noncombatant. Our problems lie with a generation of leaders who deemed themselves of too much worth to serve in uniform, and who arrived at the pinnacle of power ignorant of what militaries can and cannot do. It is a generation accustomed to easy success, and it cannot understand why bloody-minded foreigners behave so badly. For all its international studies and travels, it is a generation sheltered from much of the world’s reality. It knows how to win elections, but not how to lead.
And leadership is crucial to the effective use of the military. Whether the squad leader at the lowest level of combat, or the president or prime minister, the leader is the most important factor in deciding between victory or defeat (witness the unequal contest between the namby-pamby Mr. Clinton and the ruthless Mr. Milosevic). This has not changed since the battle of Jericho, or the fall of Troy—the fundamentals of the military art are so timeless they haunt our myths. The best leaders, of course, are not shootfrom-the-hip sorts, but thoughtful and resolute, knowledgeable and inspiring. The besttrained, best-equipped soldiers in the world are parade-ground toys unless their nation’s leaders possess the vision to use them wisely, and the determination to support them fully and enduringly.
I Wars and military interventions cannot be 'ê, waged according to opinion polls. While the I public’s views matter, the citizenry is fickle g and sometimes wrong in the short-term. The £ public speaks, in our privileged societies, 1 through elections. Foreign and military poli° cies managed by polling make a mockery of institutional democracy, reducing it to instant pudding.
Finally, we must decide whether or not we are our brother’s keeper. The truth is that most of the world’s atrocious conflicts will not threaten daily routines in Montreal or Milwaukee, let alone the survival of our nations. We do not feel the axe that falls a continent away.
Yet, we must watch that axe fall, on television. Perhaps the media is a fierce tool in the cause of justice, one that will not let us look away. Does it matter if distant populations slaughter each other? May we close our eyes and still believe in our own decency? Our dilemma is that we want to care a little, not a lot. Peacekeeping efforts in their present form put a bandage on the wound, when the situation calls for taking away the knife. We want our humanitarianism painless and cheap.
The great issues of conflict in the coming decades will be moral ones. The signs that we will solve them well are few. We choose the rights of governments over the rights of man, and the sanctity of borders over the sanctity of life. We want to stop the killing with reason and kindness, or with promises of a peace the butcher despises. We have lost our sense of perspective, and even our sense of reality.
If we want a better world, we shall have to fight for it. Until we rise to the task, the Kosovos will continue. The future of conflict is here. □