Future war will be more like ancient war

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Future war will be more like ancient war, Robert Kaplan predicted, right before 9/11:

The terrorist nature of future outrages, the collapse of the distinction between military and civilian decision-making, the truncation of democratic deliberation over the use of force, and the vitiation of the laws of war, taken together, promises to make future war more like ancient war than anything Americans and Europeans have witnessed for many centuries. More specifically, the ancientness of future wars has three dimensions: the character of the enemy, the methods used to contain and destroy him, and the identity of those beating the war drums.

National security analyst Colonel Ralph Peters has written that American soldiers “are brilliantly prepared to defeat other soldiers. Unfortunately”, he goes on, “the enemies we are likely to face… will not be ‘soldiers’”, with the discipline and professionalism which that word implies in the West, but “‘warriors’ — erratic primitives of shifting allegiance, habituated to violence, with no stake in civil order.”

There have always been warriors who, as Homer wrote in The Iliad, “call up the wild joy of war”, but the collapse of Cold War empires and the disorder it has engendered — along with the advance of technology and poor-quality urbanization — has provoked the breakdown of families and the renewal of cults and blood ties. The latter includes both a more militant Islam and Hinduism. The result is the rise of new warrior classes as cruel as ever, and better-armed. This phenomenon embraces armies of murderous teenagers in West Africa; Russian and Albanian mafiosi; Latin American drug kingpins; West Bank suicide bombers; and associates of Osama bin Laden who communicate by e-mail. Like Achilles and the ancient Greeks harassing Troy, the thrill of violence substitutes for the joys of domesticity and feasting. Achilles exclaims,

You talk of food?
I have no taste for food — what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans
of men!

Today’s warriors come often enough from the hundreds of millions of unemployed young males in the developing world, angered by the income disparities that accompany globalization. Globalization is Darwinian. It means the economic survival of the fittest — those groups and individuals who are disciplined, dynamic and ingenious will float to the top, while cultures that do not compete well technologically will produce an inordinate number of warriors. I have seen firsthand the creation of warriors at Islamic schools in Pakistani slums: The children of those shantytowns had no moral or patriotic identity except that which their religious instructors gave them. An age of chemical and biological weapons is perfectly suited for religious martyrdom.

Warriors also include ex-convicts, ethnic and national “patriots”, shadowy arms and drug entrepreneurs awash in cynicism, and failed military men — cashiered officers of formerly communist and Third World armies. The wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus in the 1990s featured all of these types reborn as war criminals. Whether in Russia, Iraq or Serbia, nationalism in our age is, Peters notes, simply a secular form of fundamentalism. Both religious and secular fundamentalisms arise from a sense of collective grievance and historical failure, real or imaginary, and preach a lost golden age. Both dehumanize their adversaries and equate mercy with weakness. Thus, while there are enormous differences between, say, a Radovan Karadzic and an Osama bin Laden, neither plays by our rules; both are warriors.

Hitler exemplified the warrior leader, a prototypical skinhead with a moustache who wrested control of an advanced industrial state. Anyone who assumes that rational economic incentives determine world politics should read Mein Kampf. None of the warriors we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall has presented a comparable strategic threat in part because none has had control over a state like Germany. But that could change: the further development and profusion of smaller, low-tech nuclear devices and of chemical and biological weapons will transform obscure “freedom fighters” into strategic menaces. While the average engagement during the Civil War featured 26,000 men per square mile of battle front, the figure is now 240; it will dwindle further as war becomes increasingly unconventional and less dependent on manpower. Moreover, an economy of scale is no longer necessary to produce weapons of mass destruction, nor can the United States sustain its monopoly over new military technologies, many of which are not expensive and can be acquired by present and future adversaries through free trade.

We may, of course, face military conflicts not only with warrior groups, but with great powers such as China. But rather than deploy its soldiers against ours, so as to play by our rules, an adversary may prefer to use computer viruses against us, or unleash its warrior-allies from the Middle East, supplied with its military technology, even while it denies any connection with such stateless terrorists. Russia, too, could make strategic use of terrorists and international criminals in order to fight an undeclared war. Precisely because the United States is militarily superior to any group or nation, we should expect to be attacked at our weakest points, beyond the boundaries of international law.

Effective responses to the outrages of these warriors are inconceivable without the element of surprise, making democratic consultation an afterthought. After all, war is subject to democratic control only when it is a condition distinctly separate from peace. In Cold War confrontations such as Korea and Vietnam popular opinion played a major role, but a protracted state of quasi-conflict marked by commando raids and electronic strikes on enemy computer systems — in which the swiftness of our reaction is the key variable — will not be guided by public opinion to the same extent. Such conflict will feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue.

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