Thebastidge: Total War and Our Self-Imposed Limits
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    Monday, September 06, 2004

    Total War and Our Self-Imposed Limits

    I’ve been avoiding commenting on the recent Russian school massacre because it was just too horrific to let my emotion run free. I find I'm still not ready.

    My friend Bill commented once that:
    It seems clear that targeting civilians is fighting dirty.

    I told him I had to disagree slightly. My reasons why will be clear in a moment, but first I want to comment on how knowledge in a specialized field can often be counter-intuitive, especially when ideology gets in the way. I would recommend anyone who is interested in understanding conflicts which involve civilians read up on 4th Generation Warfare, and also see this discussion of terrorism and Total War.

    But on to my main point: distinguishing between civilian and military is an aberration in history. History started out with 'total warfare'. If you could, if it were possible, you completely destroyed your enemy. You killed all the men, took the women and perhaps the children as slaves, and took all their stuff. Nothing was off limits. This resulted in a lot of waste, as one tribe probably couldn't really gain 100% of the benefit of another's possessions- too much duplication, too much stuff destroyed in the conflict. As political organizations grew bigger, it also became unlikely that one side actually could completely destroy and/or absorb the other. So expectations in war changed. One could actually get some benefit out of war by partially beating the others side and forcing tribute. In an agreement that you wouldn't destroy everything on the other side, they would buy you off. Well, obviously, if we progress to the stage of milking the cow, we learn not to kill it, so the concept of limited warfare was developed. (Obviously, I'm going simplistic here; there are other factors and explanations)

    But significantly, the threat was always there, that if the weaker side didn't submit, they would be utterly destroyed and there are plenty of examples in history where one strong nation made an example of a weak nation by complete and utter destruction, as a caution to other weak nations that might have considered rebellion.

    Moving on to the last few centuries, we had situations where the individual was not an important component of society. One raiding feudal lord might destroy some structures on another's land. He might put some serfs to death if they get in his way, but like as not he wouldn't bother to hunt them down unless he really wanted to destroy his opponents' ability for agriculture. There was no point in terrorizing serfs, as they had absolutely no input into the political process whereby a lord would decide to fight or submit. Add in the rise of the church as a power that transcended 'national' borders (really just fiefdoms at this point) and you have a situation that calls for some restraint in the interpersonal and political dealings of the nobility. More constraints of 'honour' are now put on warfare, limiting the scope even more. It's a progression toward more rules, toward 'Limited War' as a concept. But it's still not a law. It's still up to the commander on the spot to do exactly as they wish. There is still nothing 'morally wrong' about raping the enemies' women, burning cities down, killing agricultural workers. Chivalry doesn't apply to the peasantry.

    On into the modern age. 1700s or so. Professional militaries exist (which hadn't really, since or before the Romans). These professional militaries do professional jobs of killing other professional militaries. The wars are more or less being fought by proxy now. The whole populace is not involved, and the ruler with the deepest pockets can afford the biggest, best-equipped-and-trained army. Technology has forced this change, because with the new weapons and knowledge, it's obvious that people who know what they're doing perform better than press-ganged peasants or dilettante nobles. Well, if you have professional s in charges, doesn't it make sense to keep the non-professionals out of the way? Thus, even more separation of 'military' vs. 'civilian'.

    Come to the latest part of this modern age. There's very little separation between military technology and technology in use in everyday civilian life. Communications- who needed communications before the last century? Nobody- they all lived in the same town, knew the same people growing up, and if you wanted to communicate with someone, you walked across the village and talked to them. Only militaries and government needed runners, and signaling systems, and correspondence. Now I can't even be employed without a telephone for my boss to get in touch with me. Transportation? Same thing. The principles by which military technology run are the same principles applied in everyday life and civilian industry. Nerve gas? Comes from the pesticide industry- literally, pesticide manufacturers created sarin gas. This is a huge change.

    What this all boils down to is that civilian industry and military capacity stem from the same sources. In WWII, 40% of our GDP was diverted to the war/military-industrial/DoD effort (now it's about 5%, and reached its post-WW2 high under Reagan at about 8%). Ford didn't create a new model of car at least one or two years during the war, because they were making jeeps for the Army. The fire-bombing of Dresden (which left nothing but an ashy landscape reminiscent of the moon, where a city often considered one of the most beautiful in Europe once stood) happened because Dresden manufactured ball bearings. The law of war specifically recognizes that any civilian activity which adds to war making ability is a legitimate target. In Iraq we could quite legally have targeted the electric grid, the oil wells, refineries, and water pumping infrastructure, all of it. We didn't- not because it's immoral, but for practical reasons of not desiring Iraqi's destruction, but their liberation.

    Similarly, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki targeted cities full of civilians. The shock and horror of that bombing caused the Japanese government to surrender months, perhaps even a year earlier than they otherwise would have. By utterly destroying two cities, we avoided having to bomb dozens of others. We targeted their morale, rather than their uniforms.

    Does all this legitimize terrorism? I don't think so. In the cases I've cited, we were attacked first by Japan, and we were supporting legal allies from aggression in Europe. In Iraq, we were just continuing a war that started in 1991 and that had never been legally or satisfactorily finished. In our recent war efforts, we've been taking 'limited war' to an all-new high. Never has there been the possibility of such selective targeting, and never has such consideration been given to sparing the enemy unnecessary loss, so that we might build friendships out of the ashes of conflict.

    As a caution to those of our enemies who might think our compassion makes us weak, let them beware that we are only able to indulge our compassion because we so greatly outclass them in strength and sophistication. If we are pressed too hard, we will not lose, but our ability to discriminate will be lessened, and we will not lose. The worst case scenario for the Middle East would be to press us beyond our ability to limit our response. Pressed far enough, we will be forced to annihilate our enemies, and any unfortunate bystanders who get in the way.

    For those apologists who think that the anger of the third world MUST be somehow our responsibility, I would remind you of this:

    Most of these people are not working with the same moral compass we are. You're talking about people only find an action morally reprehensible when it hurts them or their in-group, but it's perfectly fine to kill and steal from infidels or lesser races or outsiders. Our very tolerance and openness and ideas of what are right and wrong offend many of these people- we cannot be moral in their eyes and our own at the same time, and I'll take my own conscience over popularity any day.

    These terrorist animals in Russia know that what they did was wrong. They only need to ask themselves what they would feel if the situation were reversed, but they will not do so until they are forced to confront the weight of the civilized world bearing down.

    The 3rd world will continue to cry out for revenge until they are educated on what justice is.

    4 Comments:

    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Adam here, obviously dude i think a lot of what your saying is macho posturing of the worst kind.

    However that said, you make some interesting points. I was following you up to:

    As a caution to those of our enemies who might think our compassion makes us weak, let them beware that we are only able to indulge our compassion because we so greatly outclass them in strength and sophistication. If we are pressed too hard, we will not lose, but our ability to discriminate will be lessened,

    Now, here you are quite clearly stating that compassion in war is a luxury.
    A luxury afforded to the strong. Are you saying that, if you were not in that strong position, then any and all means would be justified?

    11:45 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    Hey Adaam,

    Thanks for stopping by. One paragraph makes it "macho posturing of the worst kind?" Well, you're entitled to your opinion. What do you do when a bully threatens you? Do you stand taller, and make noise, or say nothing? There is a reason for 'posturing'; it communicates intent.

    "Now, here you are quite clearly stating that compassion in war is a luxury. A luxury afforded to the strong. Are you saying that, if you were not in that strong position, then any and all means would be justified?"

    If one is fighting for survival, as opposed to profit or ideology, a lot more becomes acceptable, yes. I would not fight over a matter that is opinion: going to war over religion, for example. When an enemy vows to destroy you, when a person makes a death threat, you take it seriously. In the current war on terrorists, where have the death threats come from? I have never heard anybody say we want to destroy Muslims, Arabs, or ME countries, wipe them and their way of life from the Earth.

    I see where you're going with your point about terrorism being a weapon of the weak. Perhaps you missed the part where I make the point that there is no moral equivalency to collateral damage/targeting the defenseless.

    "The worst case scenario for the Middle East would be to press us beyond our ability to limit our response. Pressed far enough, we will be forced to annihilate our enemies, and any unfortunate bystanders who get in the way."

    These terrorists have shown themselves to be monsters, and once you take yourself outside the realm of humanity, you should be put down like a rabid dog. Bloodlust can become a sickness, an insanity. That's the problem we face, a subculture that worships death. For the sanity of human kind, it has to be eradicated, or at least limited.

    If nothing else, this preying upon the defenseless of our own species is an aberration that needs to be wiped from the gene/meme pool. It's counter-survival of the species to allow childkillers to flourish.

    12:00 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Has it occured to you, that:
    *******************
    If one is fighting for survival, as opposed to profit or ideology, a lot more becomes acceptable, yes. I would not fight over a matter that is opinion:
    *******************

    Fighting for survival is entirely a matter of opinion?

    How you seen a threat to your survival is not an objective rational thing. It's subjective and irrational. As is your response to it.

    Now i'm not being an apologist for terrorism here, i'm just applying your arguements to the other side of the coin, to see if they hold water.

    9:12 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    The thing is, there is plenty of philosophy well-developed on this already, Adam. I'm not pulling this out of my ass. Read up on "proportional response and the law of war".

    If Bin Laden and his ilk were a legitimate representative of their government, with a legitimate grievance, there would be plenty of channels to eplore long before blowing up children. If they want to be a part of their political process and they are disenfranchised, they need to start with reform (rebellion if they must) at home.

    The problem is, on porportionate response is that the goalpost moves for the United States. Sometimes the goalpost moves for a good reason. That's fine, we should be held to a high standard, since by having the capability, we become ethically obligated to do so.. Up to the point at which it becomes impractical. Expect miracles all you want, there is no capability extant in the world to day to make choices with no unwanted or unintended consequences.

    What the coalition forces did in Afghanistan and Iraq were (less than) proportionate response- we deliberately did not target legitimate targets out of mercy and strategy. On the other end of the spectrum, terrorists target illegitimate objects out of hatred nand cruelty. I do not understnd how you can miss the distinction.

    2:01 PM  

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