Let Slip The Dogs? On The Benefits Of War And Conflict…

Yes, this is intended to be controversial…

Let slip the dogs:  On the benefits of war and conflict…

Despite the provocative title, my actual view is a little more nuanced than that.  Before I get started, however, I unfortunately cannot claim to be responsible for this idea on the potential benefits of war.  The credit for that belongs to Edward Luttwak whose work was first brought to my attention during a class discussion.  The outraged response to Luttwak’s idea during the discussion only served to pique my intellectual curiosity even more and sparked a desire in me to explore this idea in a little more depth and from some different angles than those that Luttwak did.  It is so universally accepted and argued that war is a bad thing that should be avoided at almost any cost that I just have to try and argue the other side.  Really, the idea of war is so unpopular that I am beginning to feel sorry for it…as I do for all underdogs.  I do this not because I actually feel this way, but because I think it is fun to argue a point of view that is considered so outrageous and difficult to justify.  And so, I shall endeavor to stick up for the underdog in the case I lay out below: my case for war…

There are a variety of points of view in regard to war, such as this one from Count Helmuth von Moltke who declared in 1880 that “Eternal peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful one.  War is a part of God’s world order.  In it are developed the noblest virtues of man; courage and abnegation, dutifulness and self-sacrifice.  Without war the world would sink into materialism.”  (Pross, 1959).  Or this one from Genghis Khan who stated that, “The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” (Lincoln, 2007).  These are interesting points of view, but they are somewhat self-serving considering the sources.  I’m looking for something a little more practical.  Something a little more tangible – tangible evidence of some positive attributes or outcomes of war.

With Iraq and Afghanistan occupying most of our war-related headlines these days, I’ll start there.  The initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 was actually quite a success.  It was the occupation stage that turned into a fiasco and the driving force for this fiasco was the civil war taking place in Iraq that the occupying powers seemed helpless to stop.  Just about the time that things seemed most bleak in Iraq though, matters began to stabilize at a time that coincided with the famous “surge” strategy of the United States.  However, correlation is not causation as statisticians love to remind us.  The “surge” gets the credit for bringing some stability to Iraq, but there is another important and overlooked factor in play as well.  And that factor is that the ethnic cleansing taking place across Iraq was in many areas largely complete by the time the United States adopted its “surge” strategy.

A report published in 2008 by researchers at UCLA found that “violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning.” These researchers concluded, therefore, that “the surge has had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved.” In other words, the “surge” took place after the civil war that it was intended to stop had largely been defused.  (Ricks, 2009).

So, a large part of the recent stability we are seeing in Iraq stems not from strategic brilliance or boldness, but because the United States and other “coalition” countries were largely powerless to stop the sectarian violence from running ahead.  According to the same researchers I cited above, approximately five million Iraqis, or 20% of the Iraqi population, have been displaced from their homes (Ricks, 2009).  That is not a small number and equates to a significant restructuring of the demographic map in Iraq.

“The president is still talking about the surge as if it’s going to unite the country. But the surge was a con game of putting additional troops in there. We’ve basically Balkanized the place, building walls and walling off Sunnis from Shiites. And in Anbar Province, where there has been success, all of the Shiites are gone. They’ve simply split.” (Hawley & Smith, 2007 )  In other words, the different factions have separated themselves and are now experiencing peace as a result.  It’s not a pleasant concept, as I believe the planet would be a nicer place if we could all get along.  However, I have to accept that some groups simply do not get along with each other and that this is perhaps the best manner of dealing with this problem.

Perhaps unfortunately, the “surge” provided just enough troops to prevent the civil war from completely running its course and exhausting all of the combatants into accepting peace.  Instead, we seem to have a sectarian civil war that had almost run out of steam, but that was suddenly frozen in place by the “surge” of American and Iraqi troops.  So, instead of the conflict burning itself out over the past year, the various warring factions have recuperated and rearmed.

And now, as soon as the U.S. troops are starting to pull back the violence seems to be flaring up again in an effort by all sides to finish the process.  “As the American military prepares to withdraw from Iraqi cities, Iraqi and American security officials say that jihadi and Baath militants are rejoining the fight in areas that are largely quiet now, regrouping as a smaller but still lethal insurgency.  A recent series of attacks, suggest the potential danger, all the more perilous now because the American troops who helped to pacify Iraq are leaving.” (Rubin, 2009).  The author supports my comment about the warring groups recuperating and rearming through the following observation, “Iraqi and American officials are quite worried. They observe jihadi and other insurgent groups activating networks of sleeper cells, which are already striking government and civilian targets.”  (Rubin, 2009).

The job remains unfinished and if serious conflict does indeed break out in Iraq again, it will almost certainly be along sectarian lines.  A conclusion will likely only come with partition of the state (as with Pakistan and India) or a completion of the ethnic cleansing campaign that would, if not technically, would practically divide the country into three parts with the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the middle of Iraq and the Shia in the south and in power in Baghdad.

And having explored Afghanistan, I can state from first-hand experience that there is by no means a resolutely unified group fighting the NATO forces.  What exists there is a strange amalgamation of groups, mostly divided along ethnic lines, ranging from opium-growing warlords to Pashtun militants that are only united by their shared opposition to the objectives of NATO.  If the NATO powers pulled out, the various groups would almost certainly be at each other’s throats, killing themselves off.  Perhaps the U.S. and NATO should back off for a while and let them fight amongst themselves?  Eventually, the combatants would burn themselves out and accept peace.  I can’t claim credit for this idea as it came to me from an Afghan translator that had spent quite a bit of time working for the New Zealand and American military forces in the region around Bamiyan.  He matter-of-factly told me that he had “several” family members that were in prison for fighting against the government forces.  So, obviously, he can see both sides of the conflict which makes him seem like a pretty good political authority to me.

But, what about countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan?  I mentioned India and Pakistan above and there are two ways to view the case of India and Pakistan.  India would have been torn by violence if the Sikhs and Muslims had not divided themselves into separate nations.  So, one could argue that a more serious civil war was prevented by the division of the ethnic groups.  However, one could also argue that the situation is actually worse today because the two groups did not fight matters to a resolution in 1947 when Pakistan and East Pakistan (carved out as Bangladesh in 1971) were created.  India and Pakistan have gone to war several times since creation of the separate nations and tensions remain extraordinarily high over Kashmir and continued terrorist attacks against India.  The stakes are even higher now that both sides have nuclear weapons.  Could it not be argued that the region would be experiencing a greater peace today if the two sides had fought back then until they exhausted themselves and a resolution was reached?

How about an example from another part of the world?  After experiencing no functioning government since 1991, Somalia was finally stabilized in 2006 by a group calling themselves the Islamic Courts Union.  Sure, it could be argued that there were some unpleasant individuals in this group and that they occasionally did things we might find objectionable.  However, it cannot be argued that under the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia experienced its first period of peace and stability in fifteen years.  The Islamic Courts Union came to power in 2006 by overwhelming their opponents militarily.  As such, power issues were resolved decisively, leaving no room for an insurgency or internal strife.  Outside intervention in the form of Ethiopia, supported by the United States, shattered this stability though.  And now in 2009, we have Somalia more anarchic and violent than ever after Ethiopia was forced out with its tail between its legs.  The power vacuum created by the intervention of Ethiopia and America short-circuited the victory of the Islamic Courts Union and has left more extremist Islamic groups (openly supportive of al Qaeda), new warlords and even pirates all battling for control of pieces of Somalia.  Although it may not have resembled a progressive, Nordic government, the Islamic Courts Union of 2006 was far preferable to the situation in Somalia (Number 1 again on the Failed States Index) now. (Failed States Index, 2008)

Similar arguments for allowing a decisive victory or an exhaustion of the combatants come to mind in other areas of long-simmering conflict in the world as well such as Sudan, Thailand and Turkey/Iraq/Iran/Syria with their Kurdish minorities.  Up until very recently, I would have included Sri Lanka on this list as well, with its long-running conflict with the Tamil Tigers in the north.  However, ignoring calls for peace and negotiations, the Sri Lankan military have pushed ahead recently with a major offensive aimed at literally pushing the Tamil Tigers into the sea.  And now with the Tigers on the verge of being annihilated as a military force, Sri Lanka has its first real prospect for peace in a generation (Sri Lanka, 2009).  Had Sri Lanka heeded the calls for restraint from NGOs and various governments, the situation would be unresolved and the killing would continue as it has for year after year with no end in sight (Reddy, 2006).

War also serves as a means of testing and discrediting ideologies.  War exposed the true nature of the “National Socialist” regime in Germany and now that ideology which, at one time, was widely accepted is now only embraced by an absolute fringe minority of lunatics.  Consider the place Nazism might hold in the world today if we had not collectively engaged in conflict to address it?  Or even the ideology of the Soviet Union?  The “communist” ideology of the Soviet Union was not really communism as envisioned by Karl Marx, but more of an authoritarian hybrid.

Nazi Germany was pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity during World War II.  This research alarmed the allies to the extent that several daring and sometimes suicidal raids were carried out against a Norwegian hydroelectric facility that was being used by the Nazis to manufacture “heavy water” (a necessary component in one avenue to producing a plutonium-based nuclear weapon) before the facility was finally destroyed in 1943 in an operation later described by the British government as “the most important and successful act of sabotage in all of World War II” (Mackenzie, 2002 ).  This was not the end of Nazi atomic research, but it delayed the program long enough for the Allied powers to defeat Germany militarily (again a decisive victory bringing long-term peace) before Germany was able to produce a usable nuclear weapon.  While it is impossible to imagine what a planet dominated by Nazis and nuclear weapons would look like, I am glad that we do not need to find out the hard way what that world might look like.

While capitalism and Western-style democracy may be wanting in many areas, they have withstood the tests and stresses of time and conflict and the majority of the world’s people seem to wish to live in a capitalist democracy.  But, it took war and conflict to arrive at the political and economic systems we have today as various models and ideologies were stress-tested through conflict and struggle across the world stage.  This is what I mean by war serving as a testing measure for ideologies.

The above examples, however, are less tangible and hypothetical than being able to point to concrete matters that impact our everyday life.  Like it or not, war is a huge driver of technology.  The wars of the last century (and I include the Cold War in this) produced an explosion of technological innovation that has touched every aspect of our lives.  “While the First World War was a real catalyst for technological innovation in the 20th century, the Second World War took this process to hereto unheard of levels. The momentum of the technological developments in the two massive wars spearheaded the innovation during the Cold War. Many, if not most, of these have proven to be of great value for civilian applications.” (Dasgupta, 2006)

Consider just this small set of examples in the paragraphs below:  Sonar was originally developed as a means of locating and tracking submarines, but today is all around us in the civilian world.  Radar as well was developed for military use, but today serves as the basis for our air transport and nautical network (and even gives police the ability to snag us for speeding tickets).  Even more pedestrian inventions such as microwave ovens and smoke detectors are byproducts of military research (Dasgupta, 2006).

Research on jet engines reached a fever pitch at the end of World War II.  And now jet travel allows us to literally be on the other side of the world in a matter of hours.  Aircraft technology has continued to mature with the advent of fighters, transport planes and even mid-air refueling – all originally developed for military applications and now continually spilling technological advances over to the civilian realm.

Likely of even more significance is rocket technology.  Rocket technology was relentlessly pursued by Werner von Braun and his team in order to send explosives over long distances, but later served as the foundation for the U.S. space program.   Rockets have since done everything from send humans to the moon to launch communication satellites 36,000 km over the earth in geostationary orbits (thereby revolutionizing low cost communications and today offering entertainment choices beyond belief).  The immensely useful Global Positioning System (GPS) was launched (from rockets) in 1970 and new and increasingly popular civilian applications for this military technology appear every year.

To my mind, the most significant invention arising from war was the transistor.  The first transistor was invented at Bell Laboratories on December 16, 1947 by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain.  The transistor evolved from their war-time efforts to produce diodes which are used in radar receivers (Riordan, 1999).  This was perhaps the most important electronics event of the 20th century, as it later made possible the integrated circuit and microprocessor that are the basis of all modern electronics.  The three men won the 1956 Physics Nobel Prize for their joint invention.  And having read the works of futurists such as George Gilder or Ray Kurzweil, I can say that they honestly believe the invention of the microprocessor may be the most significant human discovery ever.  Yes, ever.  Fullstop.  This position is based on the continual advancement of microprocessor capacity that they argue will give rise to intelligent, perhaps even spiritual, machines that far outstrip our own feeble intellects.  I’m not sure about that, but its an interesting idea nonetheless.

Even the internet was spawned from war.  The internet was conceived of and created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA for short) of the United States Department of Defense as a way to let computer users attached to disparate networks exchange data with each other. It was also supposed to be based on a technology that would route information around damaged parts of the network to a safe arrival at its final destination.  Known at the time as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), it was the world’s first packet switching (now the dominant basis for both voice and data communications) network, and the predecessor of the global internet we know and use today.  And just for the record, DARPA has been responsible for a number of other technologies that have had a significant impact on the civilian world as well, such as unmanned vehicles and the “graphical user interface” (GUI) which is the format we use to interact with our computers and ATMs (Riordan, 1999).  However, I believe that the internet remains the most pronounced example of DARPA research changing our everyday life.

It isn’t my intention to generate a needlessly technical essay, but technology is increasingly a part of our life and some incredible technology is coming from military research – research driven by war and conflict.  Although I knew a number of technologies we enjoy today stemmed from military applications, I was still surprised by the sheer volume of examples discovered during my research.  And who knows, but perhaps our ancestors first developed tools or even fire to use as weapons against their neighbors?  It is difficult to imagine just how far inventions such as the microprocessor or space technology will take us,  but just the distance they have taken us so far is significant.

So, thank God for war?  Well, I’m not willing to go that far.  War has produced some practically unspeakable horrors for the duration of human history.  Consider products of war from just the last century such as the holocaust in Europe during World War II or the infamous “Rape of Nanking” where the sadistic horrors inflicted by the Japanese on the citizens of Nanking, China were so horrendous that even the resident Nazis in Nanking were disgusted and appalled (Chang, 1998).  Mass rape as a crude instrument of war has emerged recently in places such as Darfur and the Congo and it is difficult to point to anything positive about that.  And then, it is pretty tough to defend something like the Rwandan genocide of 2004.  I suppose I could make a really cold-blooded point about war being a form of population control and therefore beneficial to our ecologically overburdened plant, but I don’t think I have the heart to argue that point too heavily.

And then, of course, there is the prospect of a cataclysmic nuclear war which, I am struggling to imagine anyone would benefit from.  The possibility of a small-scale conflict evolving into a full nuclear exchange is a remote possibility, but it is not completely impossible.  From this perspective of self-interest alone, I would argue that conflict should be avoided if possible.  And I’m confident all theorists ranging from a realist to a liberal constructivist would find some agreement with that position.

And even my point about war driving technological innovation is open to critique.  While we can argue that historically war has been the mother of invention, it is not entirely true. Undeniably, war has been a catalyst and driving force, for most of the 20th century.  However, increasingly, the tables have turned. Today, innovation is driven almost entirely by commercial value rather than military need.  Products, services, components, technologies and inventions have poured onto the market, chasing consumer instead of government dollars. The defense establishment has come to the realization that it is easier to use commercial technology in warfare than to develop such technology independently.  In effect, the tail has started to wag the dog. The mighty military industrial complex depends upon civilian resources to construct its war machinery. Increasingly the hardware and the software used in high tech machines of war come from off-the-shelf components and innovations (Dasgupta, 2006).  So, perhaps the pattern of technological advancement in the 20th century was a mere aberration.

So, what is my point?  My point, as I have endeavored to illustrate, is that the world is not a black and white place open to sweeping statements and generalizations.  It is too simplistic to say something like, “War is bad.”  The truth is never that simple.  Yes, war can be bad sometimes.  It can also be good at other times.  We live in a gray world – not a black and white one where even a seemingly unquestionably bad thing such as war, is not all bad all the time.


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