My Photo
Location: Montgomery Area, Alabama, United States

Former BUFF driver; self-styled military historian; paid (a lot) to write about beating plowshares into swords; NOT Foamy the Squirrel, contrary to all appearances. Wesleyan Jihadi Name: Sibling Railgun of Reasoned Discourse

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sad but True

"Clausewitz had it backward." So says Ralph Peters, writing in the July 06 Armed Forces Journal, an issue I just got around to reading. I am not generally a fan of Peters, since he is about the most vocally predjudiced anti-airpower zealot the Army has in its camp, but in matters of conflict philosophy in general, he's often right on. He's never been more so than in this article, sadly.

His view of mankind is jaundiced and cynical, appealing deeply to my Calvinist roots -- for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God -- and the world is ruled by the spirits of the flesh, sinful man, and the Deceiver. His view is very Hobbsian, as is mine: man's natural state is war of all against all, even if the forms of conflict we indulge in the world are not always called war. My visceral agreement with Peters accords with, and largely explains why, I have devoted much of my life to the study of history, and particularly human conflict and war.

Peters puts the case more elequently than I can:

Even those who have never read a line written by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military philosopher, accept as truth his dictum that "War is simply a continuation of policy with other means." Yet, that statement was only superficially true for the European world in which Clausewitz lived, fought and wrote, and it never applied to the American people, for whom war signified a failure of policy.

To characterize the conduct of other civilizations and states, from the bygone Hittite and Assyrian empires to today's Islamic heartlands, China or Russia, Clausewitz's nouns would have to be reversed: "Policy is simply a continuation of war with other means."

Conflict, not peace, is the natural state of human collectives. We need not celebrate the fact but must recognize it. If peace were the default condition of humankind, wouldn't history look profoundly different? Thousands of years of relentless slaughter cannot be written off as the fault of a few delinquents. Human beings aggregated by affinities of blood, belief or culture are inherently competitive, not cooperative, and the competition is viscerally — and easily — perceived as a matter of life and death. Pious declarations to the contrary do not change the reality.

Our blindness to this fundamental and enduring principle — that all of a state's nonmilitary actions seek to achieve the ends of warfare through alternative means — leaves us strategically crippled, needlessly vulnerable and wastefully ineffective. Only our wealth, size and raw power redeem our strategic incompetence sufficiently to allow us to bumble forward. We continue to regard warfare as something profoundly different from all other official endeavors, as an international breakdown and a last resort (occasional military adventurism notwithstanding), but similar attitudes exist only in a core of other English-speaking countries. Elsewhere, the competition between governments, cultures, civilizations and religions is viewed as comprehensive and unceasing, and it is waged — instinctively or consciously — with all the available elements of power.

We, not our antagonists, are the odd player out.


Even in our religious practice, we gloss over the merciless wars of the Old Testament, although Yahweh waged total war against Pharaoh's Egypt with a succession of plagues (including germ warfare, balancing out the proto-nuclear effects achieved against Sodom and Gomorrah).

The message we refuse to learn is that aggression is necessary and ineradicable. The only hope of minimizing military aggression is to channel the impulse into other, less destructive channels. If we routinely fight with other elements of national power, accepting that we are endlessly at war with our competitors, we are apt to face far fewer military contests.

The conundrum is that our military strength makes our policy-makers lazy. Neglectful of other instruments and means of national power, they inevitably find themselves forced to resort to military solutions.

The Islamist threat is even fiercer — far fiercer — than China when it comes to exploiting policy as a continuation of war with other means. Saudi Arabia, for example, has engaged in a merciless religious war against the West for more than three decades, yet it has not only done so while convincing our national leaders, Republican and Democrat, that we're "friends," but has managed to gain the protection of America's military on the cheap, even as it refuses meaningful cooperation with our forces. To preserve the profits of a handful of multinational oil companies, we protect a repellent, throwback regime that willfully created Osama bin Laden and his ilk. In country after country, I personally witnessed how Saudi money is used to spread anti-Western hatred (and to divide local societies), while America's taxpayers fund a military prostituted to the defense of the degenerate House of Saud.

We're not even mercenaries: Mercenaries at least get paid.

As for the Islamist terrorists, they've adopted a nonstate variant of the "total war" concept developed by Chinese military theorists. No front or sphere is off-limits. We are to be attacked wherever and however it is possible to do so. Indeed, a key lesson we should fear that the terrorists took away from 9/11 isn't that Americans can be killed by the thousands, but that killing Americans by the thousands costs our economy trillions.

Please read the whole thing. It's a keeper.

This very Puritan understanding of the human condition, which I share, explains to me why it is not inappropriate for a Christian to study war: it is so much a part of our condition and the parts of the world that embrace or at least tolerate Christianity and are responsible for its expansion to the rest of the world understand these fundamental sad truths about human nature so poorly, as Peters points out. As a Christian warrior, I must choose just conflicts, avoiding them whenever possible, and must be just as well in prosecutingconflict. But these must not mask the fact that war -- by its various names in its various forms -- is a natural part of human nature and must be dealt with just like any other -- sometimes even used as a tool for God's own work (as the OT demonstrated many times). It will not be irradicated until Christ returns to reign over the earth (and even then, the events leading up to this are frought with Christ's coming battles with Satan...)

Food for thought....


Update 31 Aug 06
: Correspondent Izmud comments:

Hi all,
I've been on an extended "Blog Holiday" and it's refreshing to come back to such a lively topic, especially when I agree so wholeheartedly with Ralph Peters and JP. My only real comment is a question for JP: how do you square you Old testament fire & brimstone with the kinder, gentler New Testament? Therein, i believe, lies the rub for Americans and hence our inconsistent and illogical approach to foreign policy and war.

Great question -- and I agree that misinterpretation of this issue has hampered America, at least in the last century or so, both politically and militarily.

This is one that theologians and philosophers have pondered for thousands of years now. I believe the traditional (Catholic and mainline Protestant) teachings concerning bellum iustum (just war) are correct and are consistent with both Testaments of the Bible, as are the more recent terms jus ad bellum and jus in bello, even though none of this tradition is found in the Bible itself. There is overwhelming "circumstantial" evidence for their Biblical justification, shall we say.

This tradition says that there can be just (and unjust) wars and there can be justice (and injustice) in war. At least as far back as Augustine, Christians have believed that bellum iustum was possible and even a necessity as long as the cause fought for was just from a Christian perspective (such as protection of the innocent from destruction or exploitation), was authorized by right authority, open military warfare was the last resort, and was fought to achieve peace and/or prevent a greater evil than the fighting itself entailed.

This led to some pretty ruthless handling of indigenous "Palestinian" peoples at the hands of the Israselites in the OT, by God's direct order, probably becuase God knew (as we Americans seem to have forgotten) that a complete victory today, even if very bloody, is better than an imperfect, partial (if humane-seeming) victory that leads to worse atrocity later. The obvious recent example is the Armistice at the end of WW1 that led directly to WW2. The alternative to "leaving not one stone standing on another" was probably generations of internicine warfare taking many more lives and causing much more destruction (vide the very-"humane" Israel and its neighbors in the years since WW 2.

As to the issue of reconciling the two Testaments, I don't believe that the NT is as "kind and gentle" as you think it is. Nor do I think that the OT Law's requirement for individual gentleness, mercy, compassion, and justice was any less than it is for today's Christians (and Jews). The OT is a story of God's people as a corporate body -- a nation; the NT Gospels, at least, are an account of how our individual salvation and justification are achieved. Nations may do things that individuals may not, however. Waging war as a collective entity is one of them; when done by an individual this is called murder, which the Law specifically prohibits. Besides, there is much imagery of battle and war in Paul's writing and even in Jesus' teachings ("I come to bring a sword" is more than just metaphor). Finally, John's Revelation makes it clear that Christ is the Lamb of God, but is also a general:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns...He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. 'He will rule them with an iron scepter.' He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

-- Rev 19:11-15 (NIV)

I believe there is an honorable tradition of Christian pacifism and that pacifism can be given to God as a form of worship, but I think the idea that pacifism is a necessary part of Christian teaching is doctrinally wrong and dangerously naive. Perpetual conflict is part of our carnal nature and cannot be avoided. Yes, as Christians we are called to overcome that carnal nature (and thus should not exult in war or killing), but that does not mean it is avoidable. Too many in America today think it is "optional" or avoidable, or fail to see that the "humane"-seeming partial military solutions often lead to more death and destruction in the long run.

Sad, but true.


<< Home