Extremist warfare

I was recently reading a discussion about Clausewitz and modern war (in English) when I suddenly understood most of the participant's apparent problems with modern war theory: They were not so much influenced by von Clausewitz as by Luddendorf and Cato.

They were doing something that's very typical of post-'43 U.S. Americans and pre-about 200 AD Romans: They talked about enemy surrender, and meant unconditional surrender. Some were also unable to understand potential own defeat as something different than surrender (a blurring that seems to be quite popular among right wing U.S. Americans).
There was no humility in their thinking about strategic objectives. Instead, there was a desire (that long since became self-evident in many minds) that military victory needs to eradicate a threat forever.

That, of course, is just a facet of war theory.

Let's compare this to the rules-constrained ancient Greek Polis warfare:

Two polis in conflict over a couple fields met with their phalanxes, one phalanx got tired, pushed back, broke and its citizen troops fled. The winners did not pursue or attempt to eradicate the opposition. The goal for the war had been reached. (This facet is in my opinion more relevant than pre-'50's because the U.N. again introduced order and rules into warfare and especially to the ending of it to some degree.)

Take another example, 18th Century Central European warfare:
Two powers were in conflict, they campaigned in summer, had probably this or that battle or the inferior side retired from the disputed area after much marching (classic army manoeuvring art to de-value positions, threaten supply lines and force enemy retirement from positions). In the end, a few minor territories (vacant shires, for example) would have new masters. Eventually, the war would end with a treaty.

It's of course difficult to force another power to (unconditional) surrender.Germany's soldiers and especially officers were much motivated by the Western power's demand for total surrender in 1943-45. Maybe they would have deposed Hitler and agreed on a Western powers armistice in summer '44 without such a requirement for unconditional surrender. Keep in mind that unconditional surrender could have meant anything, including being sold as a nation to slavery in Russia!

Meanwhile, it's not nearly as difficult to force less ambitious goals on an opposing power. Look at the Kosovo Air War '99, for example. An aerial campaign coupled with the refusal of support by an informal ally (Russia) motivated the Yugoslav leadership to accept the loss of a major territory (valued by the Serbs as part of their homeland and merely occupied by illegal immigrants). That's about the same as if Russia had forced the U.S. to cede Southern California and yet it worked without surrender.

A bit humility should allow us to see war as a method of preliminary settlement of conflicts gone wrong instead of as a tool to permanently destroy uncooperative powers.
That would delete the need for nation-building (which is the only reliable alternative to annexation if the threat shall be removed permanently) and it would create sufficient conditions for diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict altogether (with compromises, of course).

Such a less extremist understanding of warfare would likely lead to smaller war preparation requirements in peacetime (lower military budgets), less messy wars (that end earlier) and war aftermaths (no need for occupation a.k.a. "nation building"). The prospect of relatively mild war conclusions that don't lead to regime change would also reduce fears (paranoia) among certain regimes and could therefore even reduce the potential for violent conflicts in the world.

The extreme Armageddon scenery of the Cold War and wrong assumptions of Western omnipotence in face of relatively ill-equipped low-income country forces have twisted the Western perception or warfare. Many Western (chicken) hawks aren't moderate enough, but tend to favour an extremist form of warfare that leads to excess both in peace and war and therefore hurts our societies a lot with increased costs and conflicts.



  1. Just one question, to start off . . . what piece were you reading?

  2. I was reading in the SWC forum when I realized a pattern in many political discussions that I've seen/experienced.

    (Btw; I'll clean up the typos once Firefox cooperates with Blogger login again.)

  3. "Inflict the least possible permanent injury, for the enemy of to-day is the customer of the morrow and the ally of the future.": Basil Henry Liddel-Hart