Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, July 09, 2007

Little Big Wars

The metamorphosis of conflict

by John Gray

Harper's Magazine (June 2007)

Discussed in this essay:

The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat from the Marne to Iraq, by Martin van Creveld. Ballantine Books. 320 pages. $25.95.

The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson. The Penguin Press. 808 pages. $35.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, by General Rupert Smith. Alfred A Knopf. 430 pages. $30.

The disaster that has ensued in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq is commonly believed to be the result of mistakes committed by the Bush Administration. If only sufficient thought had been given to post-invasion planning, regime change would have been successful; an American-style democracy would have been installed, and the anarchy that now prevails in the country would have been avoided. Such is the conventional wisdom, which appeals not only to the neoconservative architects of the war but also to those liberals who supported military intervention on humanitarian grounds, and indeed, it cannot be denied that some of the administration's decisions were grotesquely ill judged. Disbanding the Iraqi army and purging institutions of supporters of the old regime left Iraq without a functioning state; deprived of their positions and incomes, many of those former soldiers were primed to take up armed resistance. In this and other instances, the Bush Administration's policies served only to aggravate the difficulties faced by their forces in the four years since the president declared an end to major combat operations.

Yet if these follies had been avoided, would the final outcome have been any different? Every attempted occupation of a non-Western country by a Western state since the Second World War has ended in failure. The French were driven out of Algeria, despite the fact that the metropole had an army of half a million men stationed in the country and prosecuted the war with the utmost ruthlessness. Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan waged a war of even greater ferocity for nearly a decade and were also expelled. These examples suggest that no surge in troops can forestall a similar outcome in Iraq. Even if American forces had been deployed in larger numbers from the start, they would have faced a type of warfare in which conventional military superiority has never produced victory.

Over the past half-century, a new kind of armed conflict has replaced industrial-style warfare between state-controlled armies. In unconventional warfare, forces that are weaker in terms of technology and resources have the upper hand. The guerrilla warriors of the last fifty years may have been lightly armed and often small in numbers, but they were able to prevail against the vastly greater military force of the occupying powers. There has been a metamorphosis in the nature of war, and it is only to be expected that it should have generated a sizable literature that is keenly studied in military colleges throughout the world.

Nevertheless, according to the Israeli military strategist Martin van Creveld, this huge body of work is practically useless. "Starting at least as early as the 1950s, the literature on counter-insurgency is so enormous that, had it been put aboard the Titanic, it would have sunk that ship without any help from the iceberg", he writes in The Changing Face of War. "However, the outstanding fact is that almost all of it has been written by the losers". Creveld has a well-earned reputation for iconoclasm, and his new book takes the pioneering approach presented in earlier volumes such as The Transformation of War (1991) and The Rise and Decline of the State (1999). In these and other books, Creveld posits that the traditional model of war no longer applies in a time when the modern state is losing its monopoly on force. Nuclear-armed states may be insulated against conventional attack by the armies of other states, but - as Israel has long known and as America learned on 9/11 - nuclear powers remain vulnerable to the techniques of irregular warfare, including the spectacular violence of suicide terrorism.

In The Changing Face of War, Creveld argues that despite the record of nearly universal failure, there are in fact workable strategies in counterinsurgency warfare. Citing Henry Kissinger's observation that the forces of order lose so long as they do not win, whereas insurgents win so long as they do not lose, he presents two of the very few campaigns that have succeeded: President Hafez Assad's suppression of an Islamist revolt in Syria in 1982 and the British campaign mounted from 1972 onward in Northern Ireland. Assad crushed the Islamist revolt, which at the time threatened not only his regime but also his life, by razing the city of Hama - an operation that included the destruction of the city's mosque and the killing of between ten and twenty-five thousand of its inhabitants. By contrast, after an initial hard-line response that began in 1969 and ended with thirteen people being killed by British troops in Londonderry in 1972, the British focused their efforts on avoiding any large-scale use of force.

Unlike President Bush in 2001, the British did not declare war; terrorism was treated as a criminal act, one that would be addressed mainly by the police. Not once did British forces inflict collective punishment by blowing up houses or destroying neighborhoods, and, after the events on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, they never fired indiscriminately in to crowds. As Creveld acknowledges, this does not mean that British operations "always smelled of rosewater", but despite the terrorist assassination of a member of the royal family and an attempt to decapitate the entire Thatcher government in Brighton in 1981, "on the whole, the British played by the rules", Of the three thousand people who were killed in the conflict in Northern Ireland up to the mid-nineties, a thousand were British soldiers. Seventeen hundred were civilians, and no more than three hundred were terrorists.

The strategy worked, in the sense that Irish terrorism has ceased to be a major threat in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland. But what can be learned from this success? It seems more than doubtful that similar methods could be applied in conditions of the sort that exist in Iraq - if only because Creveld's account leaves out half of the strategy that the British deployed. Alongside the decision to treat terrorist violence as a criminal matter, there was a political strategy, pursued by successive British governments over a period of thirty years, that managed to bring terrorist organizations into the democratic process. Catholic nationalists and Protestant groups were encouraged to reach an agreement that allowed a form of power-sharing in the province. A two-pronged strategy of this kind can succeed only if the conditions of a political settlement are present. In Iraq, however, regime change has demolished the state, so that the most important precondition for a political settlement - an effective government - no longer exists. The only region that has a properly functioning government is the Kurdish zone, which has, in effect, seceded from the country. Nothing resembling the British strategy in Northern Ireland is possible under these circumstances.

At the same time, a Syrian-style strategy is no more practicable. Merciless repression of the sort Assad employed is morally unacceptable for liberal democracies; neither is it realistic in post- invasion Iraq. The state machinery is lacking. The country is trapped in a war of all against all without the deus ex machina of a ruthless dictator. Saddam - a secular tyrant who brutally repressed Islamist forces - is gone. If a British-style political solution is impossible, so, too, is a Syrian-style strategy of force; both strategies require a state, and the Iraqi state has been destroyed by regime change.

From its founding by the British to its destruction as a result of the American-led invasion, the state of Iraq was a construct of empire. It was cobbled together after the First World War, when three provinces of the Ottoman Empire were granted to the British by the League of Nations. The British wanted to avoid the emergence of a Shia-dominated theocratic regime, which they perceived would be the result of democratic rule, so they created Iraq as a monarchy in the 1920s; it became a republic in 1958, when the king was overthrown. The Baathist Party took over ten years later, and Saddam emerged as dictator in 1979. Like other forms of imperial power, the administration of Iraq was exploitative, and during Saddam's era the regime was highly repressive; but the state of Iraq stood in the way of the all-out conflict between the country's diverse communities that is under way today. The mayhem that has followed the state's demise illustrates a theme of Niall Ferguson's War of the World.

Ferguson's starting point is the sheer scale of twentieth-century violence: "Significantly larger percentages of the world's population were killed in the two world wars that dominated the century than had been killed in any conflict of comparable geopolitical magnitude". The extreme violence of the last century did not occur only in warfare between states; it also occurred within states, as demonstrated by the Nazi campaign of extermination against Jews, the unique horror of which Ferguson illuminates. His argument is summarized at the end of the book;

"It was not by chance that the worst killing fields of the mid-twentieth century were in places like Poland, the Ukraine, the Balkans and Manchuria; while extreme violence in the later twentieth century shifted to more widely dispersed locations, from Guatemala to Cambodia, from Angola to Bangladesh, from Bosnia to Rwanda and, most recently, the Darfur region of Sudan. Time and again it has been in the wake of the decline of empires, in contested borderlands or in power vacuums, that the opportunities have arisen for genocidal regimes and policies. Ethnic confluence, economic volatility and empires on the wane; such was and remains the fatal formula."

"Ethnic confluence, economic volatility and empires on the wane" - it is an arresting formula, one whose originality comes partly from what it leaves out. In Ferguson's view, none of the factors that are usually cited adequately explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century. He dismisses the idea that economic collapse (as distinct from, large- scale fluctuations in economic activity) triggered much of the bloodletting of the last century, which was a time of economic progress during which living standards rose rapidly in many parts of the world. Nor did violence erupt from an absence of democracy: the waves of democratization that took place in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s were followed by increases in the numbers of civil wars and wars of secession. Rising prosperity and the spread of democracy need not bring peace and harmony in their wake.

Ferguson's claim that ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires produced the extreme violence of the twentieth century may be powerfully presented, but his formula cannot explain some of the worst episodes of mass murder. Much of the most extreme violence was not, in fact, ethnic in origin, nor did it target specific ethnic groups. Focusing on ethnicity as the key factor, Ferguson cannot account for most of the killing that occurred in totalitarian regimes, which except in the Nazi case were not inherently genocidal. Ferguson notes that "genocide predated totalitarianism", which is true enough, and Stalin deported entire peoples, with results that in some cases could be described as akin to genocide; but most of the millions who perished in the Stalinist Soviet Union did so in the Gulag or as a result of forcible agricultural collectivization. Although most were ethnic Russians, their deaths were not caused by ethnic conflicts. They were products of a system, founded by Lenin, that used terror as an instrument of social engineering. Ferguson knows this: "The empire established by Lenin and his confederates was the first to be based on terror itself since the short-lived tyranny of the Jacobins in revolutionary France". Nevertheless, invoking a venerable cliche of Western historical scholarship, he goes on to describe Stalin's regime as "Asiatic" - a term that explains very little. He also notes that more people perished as a result of Mao's tyranny in China than under the Nazis, though the tens of millions who perished in Maoist China were not (except in Tibet, where something approaching genocide has occurred) members of distinct ethnic or religious groups. The scale of killing in Mao's China - which Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: The Unknown Story (Alfred A Knopf, 2005) estimate at around seventy million - exceeded anything known in China's past. As in the former Soviet Union, these were not victims of oriental despotism; these were casualties of a Western political ideology.

It is not only totalitarian terror that cannot be fitted into Ferguson's three-point scheme. Ferguson downplays the idea that the rise of the nation-state was a major cause of twentieth- century violence. He points out that, with the growth of the modern welfare state after the Second World War, the power of the nation-state expanded with no accompanying increase in conflict - ignoring the fact that large-scale violence has very often accompanied the formation of nation- states. France became a modern nation- state only after the Napoleonic Wars; the United States, after the Civil War; and Germany, after two world wars. In Central and Eastern Europe, the collapse of empire - set in motion by the First World War and accelerated by Woodrow Wilson - released the forces of ethnic nationalism. Most of the nation- states that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia did so only after civil war and ethnic cleansing. A similar process is under way in the Middle East, with radical Islam as the chief beneficiary.

If, from one point of view, state power increased during the last century, from another it began a decline that continues today. In The Utility of Force, General Sir Rupert Smith - commander of the UK Armoured Division in the 1991 Gulf War, commander of UN forces in Bosnia in 1995, and deputy supreme allied commander of NATO in the Kosovo campaign - argues that the control of force has slipped from governments into the hands of the people. Armed conflicts proliferate, some of them intense and protracted. Over the past decade or so there has been a much-hyped "revolution in military affairs", with technophiles such as Donald Rumsfeld advocating light, highly mobile forces rather than the large-scale use of ground forces from the past. At the same time, there has been much talk of "asymmetric warfare" - the type of guerrilla conflict in which militarily weak forces confront and defeat the armies of great powers.

In Smith's view, these ideas conceal the depth of the change that has occurred. "War", he writes, "no longer exists". What is needed is a shift in our thinking, one that recognizes how we have moved from "interstate industrial war" to "war amongst the people". Here Smith goes beyond previous theorists of guerrilla warfare. Famously, Mao described guerrilla fighters as fish swimming among the people, whereas in Smith's account the people are active protagonists, whom the guerrillas and their opponents are seeking to influence. In this new type of conflict, military force is rarely the deciding factor. There are no longer discrete periods of peace and war, only an open-ended process of confrontation that continues until a settlement is reached. The utility of force is that it can help shape the conditions for such a resolution:

"Since the end of the Cold War force has been used time and again, yet failed to achieve the result expected: it has been misapplied, whilst in other cases leaders have shrunk from applying it because they could not see its utility. All the while they have intended to achieve a decisive victory which could resolve the problem they faced, usually political."

The limiting case of the old way of thinking is the War on Terror - a term Smith describes tersely and accurately as "without useful meaning": "Our true political aim for which we are using military force, is to influence the intentions of the people. This is an inversion of industrial war, where the objective was to win the trial of strength and thereby break the enemy's will." In other words, the battle for hearts and minds is not a peripheral activity that complements the use of force; it is the chief purpose for which force should be used.

Smith does not explain how this approach should have been applied in Iraq, but it is clear that he views the use of the military there as largely pointless, insofar as it has never served achievable political goals. He develops a new view of the purposes and the limits of force, which in its revelatory power can be compared with such military classics as Clausewitz's On War. Along with Creveld, Smith may be too sanguine in thinking that old- fashioned warfare between states has become extinct; the tension over Taiwan that exists between China, Japan, and the United States is only one of several potential flash points in which conflict could escalate into something resembling the full-on interstate warfare of the past. Yet a metamorphosis of war has clearly occurred: most of our current conflicts are fought within societies and cannot be resolved unless the use of force serves well-defined political objectives. In order to see what can happen when this truth is not grasped, we need only look to Iraq. What was the purpose of the invasion? Was it part of the so-called War on Terror? Was it meant to replace dictatorship with democracy? Or was it - as some believe - a geopolitical strategy that aimed to acquire control of Iraq's oil reserves?

The truth is that those who clamored for the war had no feasible political goals for post- Saddam Iraq. Toppling Saddam has enabled a version of democracy to be installed, but it is certainly not of the liberal variety that regime change was meant to install. It is a type of popular theocracy similar to that in Iran, though less stable and more chaotic. This shouldn't have been a surprising outcome. It occurs whenever democratic elections are held in countries in which Islamist parties are the most powerful political forces. Islamist parties triumphed in Algeria in the early 1990s, and the pattern has been repeated recently in Palestine. In much of the Middle East the choice is not between dictatorship and liberal democracy; it is between secular despotism and varieties of elective theocracy. By destroying Saddam's Baathist regime, the Bush Administration may have imagined it was enabling some kind of liberal republic to come into being. A smattering of history would have shown that regime change would only empower radical Islam.

If the war served any geopolitical strategy, that strategy was no less unrealistic. Supporters of the war predicted that oil production would rise after Saddam had been removed, whereas the anarchy that reigns in most of the country has inhibited oil production. Similarly, Iraq has become one of the main recruitment and training sites for terrorists throughout the world, and, with the sectarian violence that has seized much of the country, the government can do little to control the situation. President Bush has instructed Iraq's government to repress the Shia militias, but the government, in part because it is in some sense democratic, is largely an instrument of those militias; to that extent the Iraqi regime is an active protagonist in the conflict.

After the initial success of smashing Saddam's military machine, the conflict that was triggered by the intervention is one that the United States lacks the power to end. Although it may be denied in Washington, the fact of America's strategic defeat in Iraq is taken for granted throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. American forces have proved unable to control the violence that was unleashed when Saddam's tyranny was overthrown. Faced with a ragtag insurgency of around twenty thousand men, the world's greatest power has found itself powerless.

America's impotence in Iraq is in no way unique. It is of a piece with what happens to great states whenever they wage "war amongst the people". If America's predicament in Iraq differs from the reversals suffered in the twentieth century - by France in Algeria, the USSR in Afghanistan, and the US in Vietnam - it is chiefly because there is no prospect of an easy exit. The US was able to pull out of Vietnam because that country was marginal in the global economy and an effective government existed in the North. Iraq, by contrast, is pivotal in the global economy because of its oil reserves and has nothing resembling an effective government outside the Kurdish zone. Post-invasion Iraq is a greater danger to the security of its neighbors than it was in Saddam's time, and the withdrawal of the American presence could suck the region into a full-scale war, as Iraq's neighbors deploy their proxy forces to gain control of the country. And even if American forces remain in large numbers, a larger conflict may not be avoided. The most likely outcome of the recent surge in troops is to underline the fact of American defeat, and at that point further escalation is the logic of events. An enhancement of Iranian power in Iraq was the unavoidable result of destroying the Iraqi state; but Iranian involvement in the insurgency - imaginary or real - can now be cited by the Bush Administration as an excuse for the failure to pacify the country and used as a casus belli for an expansion of the conflict. The next phase of this dangerous spiral cannot be known. What is clear is that the metamorphosis of war has not ceased, nor have political leaders begun to understand it.


John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. His next book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bill Totten


  • That's an excellent and important piece. I'd have to disagree with the notion though that Saddam repressed Islamists. He did make life hell for the Shia but during the mid 90's he started making religious tests mandatory for members of his regime as well as daily prayers, billions of dollars being pumped into mosque building and adding religious slogans to the countries flags, his speeches and the country's laws.

    Did he take down some Islamic fanatics who were Sunni and had ideas about messing up his regime? Sure did but you did not see the type of attacks and bombing that we see now back then for a reason. The two sides had an agreement and many Islamic militants had safe haven in Iraq.

    I know this challenges the conventional wisdom and I am a nobody writer for but I liked your site and wanted to put in my two cents.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:21 AM, July 10, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home