Ancient war was more civilized than modern war

Friday, January 29th, 2010

In one respect, ancient war was more civilized than modern war:

The aim of ancient war was generally to kill or capture the opposing chief and display him in a cage. Because of the primitive state of technology, the only way to get to the opposing leader and his inner circle was to cut through the mass of his people and army, necessitating bloody battles and great cruelty. Since the Enlightenment, however, Western leaders have exempted themselves from retribution and have sought to punish each other indirectly: by destroying each other’s armies and — since Grant and Sherman — by making the civilian populations suffer as well.

But is it really more honorable to kill thousands by high-altitude bombing than by the sword and axe? In Kosovo, NATO air attacks were far more effective against civilian targets than military ones. Yet, impending precision-guidance technologies — in which bullets can be directed to specific targets like warheads — will make strikes on the offending chief quite practical. In the future, satellites may track the movements of specific individuals through their neurobiological signatures the way that cat scans do now from a few inches away. We will reinvent ancient war; it will soon be possible to kill or capture the individual perpetrators of great cruelties rather than harm their subject populations, which in many cases are also their victims.

Would it have been more humane to assassinate Milosevic and his inner circle rather than bomb Serbia for ten weeks? In the future, such assassinations will be possible. Because many of our future enemies may not inhabit a country as technologically developed as Serbia, there may be no suitable targets like electrical and water-treatment plants to bomb. The only target may be the offending chief or warrior himself.

In Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden hides out, attacking his “infrastructure” means destroying only a few burlap tents, cell phones and computers, all of which are immediately replaceable. Because future war will feature precision attacks on command posts, hitting those computer nerve centers will often mean killing the political leadership. Either the law against assassinations that sprang from our Vietnam experience will be scrapped, or it will be sidestepped.

Whether or not future wars are bloodless, there will be an undeniable ancientness to the way in which we conduct them. Kosovo, from our point of view, was a bloodless war, but thousands of civilians (mostly Kosovar Albanians) died so that there would be no NATO casualties. But had a dozen NATO planes been shot down, President Clinton might have been forced to call off the war.

Our appetite for war is similar to that of the Romans, whose professional and salaried legions had no desire to fight warriors eager for glorious death. Thus, whenever they could, the Romans avoided open field engagements in favor of expensive and systematic sieges in which their own casualties were minimized. The Romans were also protected beneath cumbersome helmets, breastplates, shoulder guards, and foot greaves, even though this reduced their agility. We are not the first great empire to despise casualties.

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