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Return of the good war

Martin Shaw

Contents: The impasse of war; degenerate war; good local war; the West's good war; truth and truisms about war

War, its classic theorist Karl von Clausewitz wrote, is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will. Yet what passes for the war at the end of beginning of the twenty-first century is hardly what he had in mind. In countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, 'warriors' who are no more than children hack limbs off men and women in the street. In East Timor and Kosovo, armed gangs encouraged by the Indonesian and Serbian militaries kill civilians and burn homes. In Rwanda and Bosnia, hundreds of thousands mourn their loved ones, slaughtered for little more than being Tutsi or Muslim. It is tempting to conclude, as Colin Gray does in his recent Modern Strategy, that this can be dismissed as 'savage violence': 'If torture is exciting, rape is fun, and looting is profitable for these "violent actors", it can be hard to find a role for strategy. "War" for fun is not really war; it is a form of recreational brigandage.'

If this neat separation of war proper from extraneous slaughter suits the strategist, the historian and sociologist will find it too easy an escape. The lesson of the twentieth century is that the business of 'real' war has also become intertwined with monstrous and indiscriminate mass slaughter. The degenerate tendency of war is not confined to 'savages', but has been central to conflicts between 'civilised' powers. For many states and state-like organisations, as well as amateur génocidaires (as they are known after Rwanda), the civilian population has largely become the enemy. It has been increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the use of force for political ends is deeply compromised. And yet, as the twenty-first century begins, the good war returns, as more than the traditional just war - indeed as opposition to genocide and other large-scale abuses of human rights. What does it mean, where has it come from, and how far does it really offer a rationale for war in the new century?

The impasse of war

It is important to understand the historic impasse of both previously dominant military traditions. Total war, in which mass mobilisation and totalising technology supported increasingly absolute destruction, arrived at a dehumanising end-point at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and many would say, Auschwitz). It took a while for the lesson to sink in, but as Gray himself puts it: 'After the mid-1960s, the political leaders and military professionals of East and West … realised that nuclear war … could not après Clausewitz, be a rational instrument of state policy.' Or in the words of his fellow-strategist, Lawrence Freedman, 'The position we have now reached is one where stability depends on something that is more the antithesis of strategy than its apotheosis. … C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la strategie.'

For a while, it seemed that the alternate tradition of revolutionary war (or militarised revolution) still allowed scope for strategic violence. It had impressive successes in the 1940s and spluttered on throughout the subsequent half-century. Yet its longer-term outcomes were as horrific as those of conventional war. Militarised revolution gave China the state-made famine of the Great Leap Forward and the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and produced its own appalling final antithesis in the 'killing fields' of Cambodia. The new fillip that 'low-intensity warfare' gave to conventional strategy had no happier end. Counter-insurgency never recovered from the atrocities of the US campaign in Vietnam. By the end of the century, militarised movements from South Africa to Palestine and even Ulster were moving towards non-violent means of change. Many state leaders, on the other hand, realised that they had to settle with, not crush, their former insurgent enemies.

Degenerate war

It would be nice to conclude from this that, as John Lennon wished, 'war is over'. We know enough from our TV screens - even though the vast majority of current wars are barely covered - to realise this is far from true. Instead a brutal new stage of degenerate war has developed across the continents. In putting the victimization of civilian populations at the centre of war (if not in its technology), Hitler's campaign against the Jews has become a paradigm for rulers like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic as well as for the warlords and schoolboy killers of Africa. Gassing Kurds and wiping out Marsh Arabs, burning out, raping and killing populations across Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, these anti-heroes have ensured that the ugliest face of war remains a central reality of our late-modern world.

All this is grist, of course, to the mill of historical (as opposed to absolute) pacifism, the idea that war is tending to historical redundancy. 'New war', as Mary Kaldor calls it in New and Old Wars, is a degenerate form of total war, minus the national solidarity and progressive goals that characterised both state and guerrilla mobilisations at their best. What remains from these earlier models is the tendency towards mass slaughter of civilian populations, reproduced by the sickly combination of racism, authoritarianism, arms markets and brigandism. (In some cases, as with the Serbian weekend snipers above Sarajevo, this is indeed 'recreational').

Even the 'smallest' degenerate wars produce appalling violence for those at the sharp end. As Gray rightly says, there is no such thing as 'low intensity' conflict. If you are being killed, the experience is as intense whether you are one of tens, thousands or millions. But most wars are comfortably remote from the Western world. For us they are not intense. However they produce new problems of political as well as moral order. Some wars are in strategically important regions. With worldwide air travel, refugees can arrive on anyone's doorstep, unless 'fortress' borders are maintained in Europe and America. With television, film of violence is beamed into every home. While Western media mostly follow their governments' agendas, relationships of journalism and power are always potentially contradictory. TV journalists who slavishly followed governments during the Gulf War turned on them in the Kurdish refugee crisis that followed. An intense media campaign led to policy U-turns and an unprecedented 'humanitarian' intervention.

Good local war

We are accustomed to think of responses to genocidal war as coming from an essentially benign international 'community', centred on the West and the UN. We also tend to think of them as peacekeeping, even if we recognise that sometimes there must be 'peace enforcement' as well. In reality, however, neither of these assumptions is accurate. Genocidal wars have not been halted, still less prevented, by Western-led international action. Nor have they been defeated by predominantly peaceful means. On the contrary, they have generally been stopped only by war, fought for the most part by local actors rather than Western-led international organisations. Where the West has defeated rather than negotiated with genocidal regimes, it too has resorted to war.

Local opponents of genocide have been, for the most part, uncelebrated in Western political and media discourse. The 'humanitarian' war of the West, on the other hand, has been both anticipated and reinforced by coverage and commentary. But both developments point in the same direction: a striking new phenomenon of the early twenty-first century is the return of the 'good war'.

For most of the last century, the liberal conscience found most war and war-preparation irredeemably bad. The Allied fight in the Second World War (and some liberation struggles) were the major partial exceptions. The former was further legitimated retrospectively by the Holocaust; nowadays, the ever-growing commemoration of that old evil lends authority to military action against its present-day echoes. War is struggling out of the closet and into the limelight of progressive approval. Tony Blair's passionate defence of the air war over Kosovo, which drew Ken Livingstone in its support, shows how political circles have moved. Michael Ignatieff's call, in his eponymous recent book, for restoration of 'the warrior's honour' is an intellectual straw in the wind.

The good war has a considerable recent history in the zones of genocidal violence. Tanzania's invasion of Uganda halted Idi Amin's terror in 1978; Vietnam's of Cambodia ended the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Neither state gained much credit, of course. Vietnam especially remained ostracised, while Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher joined China in continuing to recognise Pol Pot's seat at the UN.

A decade later, the National Renewal Movement's victory finally completed the restoration of some sort of peaceful order in Uganda. The Eritrean Popular Front's war overthrew Menghistu's terroristic rule in Ethiopia. More recently still, it was the Rwandan Popular Front that invaded Rwanda to end the genocide of 1994. Croatian and Bosnian offensives finally turned the tide of the brutal Serbian campaigns and forced Milosevic to the Dayton talks in 1995. Last but not least, the Kosova Liberation Army played an important if subsidiary part in the defeat of Serbian forces in Kosova in 1999.

In all cases except the last, local military force played the decisive role in defeating terror and genocide. The roles of Western-led and UN-authorised international forces were mostly less decisive. In the late 1970s, of course, the Cold War was heating up and there was little scope for wider international intervention. But in the 1990s there was extensive international involvement, especially in Yugoslavia. However neither 'humanitarian' nor any other kind of Western intervention halted 'ethnic cleansing' in Croatia or Bosnia. By avoiding engagement and not taking sides, international forces did as much to reproduce as to end wars. They provided partial protection for some threatened communities, above all Sarajevo, but when it counted the lack of determination often showed.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the betrayal of the Srebrenica men to Ratko Mladic's Serbian killers. This sadly emblematic episode resulted from the failure, not merely of the Dutch commander and his soldiers, or of UN commanders who failed to provide them with air support, or even of UN leadership in New York - although it was all of these. The failure arose from what the defence analyst James Gow has called the 'triumph of the lack of will' of the entire West. And it is a pattern. Belgian UN troops handed over refugees to interahamwe killers in Rwanda. The UN abandoned many East Timorese to pro-Indonesian killers only last year. Victims have learned that when the chips are down, they cannot trust the West or the UN to save them, let alone to remove a genocidal dictatorship.

Of course the West has 'learnt' too. I am not sure how much weight we can place on Kofi Annan's and Bill Clinton's trips to Kigali, to apologise to the Rwandan people and government for the international failure to halt the genocide. We can give more credence to the fact that NATO leaders half-recognised, at least, how their failure to tackle Serbian aggression in Croatia and Bosnia and the flawed Dayton settlement only encouraged Milosevic to accelerate violence in Kosovo. Clearly it is right to say (as do some people who think this is a criticism of NATO) that the alliance's credibility as well as Kosovan lives was at stake in 1998-99. Having pronounced the Serbian terror campaign unacceptable, only to see it escalate even while international monitors were on the ground, even as the Rambouillet talks continued, NATO had little choice but to act. This reality of violence, rather than the negotiating detail emphasised by NATO's critics like Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, was the bottom line of Rambouillet.

The West's good war

So the West, too, has begun to fight 'good' wars. Of course, the NATO air campaign over Kosovo was not intended as all-out war. In the Gulf (a less obviously good war since the protection of civilians, promotion of democracy and humanitarian aims were clearly not paramount) the West had used airpower to lay the basis for victory on the ground. In Kosovo, there were no plans for ground forces. Indeed - foolishly, as virtually everyone agrees - they were publicly ruled out. The air campaign was much lighter than over Iraq, more like a larger version of the 'demonstrative' air strikes used in Bosnia than a serious war effort. But real war it became, because when Milosevic refused to blink, this was NATO's only alternative to humiliation.

The West's lack of interest in fighting wars, good or bad, has deep roots in both state and society. Western military power is internationalised, in NATO and other alliances, but it is still largely responsive to national political constituencies. The complications of multinational politics are great, although not insuperable, as we saw over Kosovo. National differences are compounded by larger fractures in Western politics. The US wants Europe to be more self-sufficient but not too independent. Europe on the other hand wants to be more independent, but is not sure if it can be self-sufficient in military terms. Many in Japan want a greater military role but others defend the pacifist lessons of 1945.

Thus although the unified West can wage war, it is not likely to do so very often. In all three corners of the Western triangle, despite different historic experiences of military involvement, there is a common mistrust of war. Half a century without major war, a series of military-technological revolutions, the development of rich, complacent societies with developed media and democratic institutions - all have compounded to an understandable reluctance to commit lives in battle, especially when 'national' interests are not perceived to be at stake. Of course, there is considerable evidence that people do care about distant atrocities. It is often governments that do not want to take the risks with public opinion that war involves.

The sad paradox of these constraints is that they don't make war impossible - but they do help make it late and take forms that don't help victims. In short, the unwillingness to contemplate war helps turn the wars we do fight into bad wars. In Kosovo, the West's reluctance to confront Serbia left Albanians feeling betrayed, contributed to the rise of the KLA, and was a reason why the recent crisis developed in the first place. The West's avoidance of conflict during the war of Serbia and the KLA, from early 1998 to early 1999, meant that by the time it intervened, two thousand people were already dead and a quarter of a million displaced. The persistence with negotiations, after it was clear that Milosevic had no serious interest in them, allowed Serbian forces in Kosovo to be strengthened. Most disastrously, an air-only war gave Serbian forces impunity, as well as a pretext, to initiate the programme of massacres, terror and expulsion of March 1999. And finally, an exclusively aerial campaign inevitably meant that, as Milosevic failed to blink, more civilian targets came within range.

Airpower is awesome and there is no doubt that it can do huge damage to an enemy's infrastructure, if not so easily to its military forces. For all the hyperbole about the 'revolution in military affairs', the advances in command, control and targeting are indeed impressive. Compare the huge destruction wrought by Western airpower in Iraq and Serbia with that of Russia in Chechnya (or the US in Vietnam). The former were much more discriminate attacks, with correspondingly smaller numbers of direct civilian casualties. Nevertheless, airpower necessarily kills innocent civilians, whether through targeting urban areas or in accidental massacres. An absolute preference for airpower gives, in Edward Said's words, an 'almost obscene' priority to American and Western lives over those of the people on the ground. Opposed ground action involves civilian casualties too, but there are more possibilities for tactics to avoid them.

Limits of good war

If NATO's prospects of fighting a good war are riven with contradictions, this is true also of the campaigns of local victors. As with the NATO bombardment of Serbia, the most one can say is that the outcomes were definitely less awful than the unchecked continuation of genocide or terror. Tanzania overthrew Amin, but Obote who followed offered no peace: it took another decade of war for stability to be achieved. Hun Sen's government, imposed by the Vietnamese in Cambodia, was authoritarian and corrupt: it was two decades more before the Khmer Rouge was finally defeated. Within a decade independent Eritrea was at war again, against its former Ethiopian allies.

Likewise Rwandan Patriotic Front armies may have ended the 1994 genocide, but it was their first invasion, in 1990, that provoked the political crisis in Habyarimana's rule. The war helped precipitate the regime's turn to massacring Tutsis and eventually all-out genocide. Similarly the Kosova Liberation Army may have played its part in defeating Serbian forces in Kosovo, but its earlier attacks helped incite Milosevic's violence against civilians. NATO's war, largely removing Serbian power from Kosovo, was a victory of sorts for the KLA, who provoked Milosevic, who in turn provoked NATO. It was not so clearly a victory for the ten thousand or so (mainly) civilians who died, or their families; or for the million who fled, only to return to burnt-out homes and a miserable future. And it hardly produced a stable peace, as resentful Albanians took revenge on their Serb neighbours, innocent as well as guilty, and Serbs still killed Albanians, in a cycle of violence that neither the UN nor the KLA's politicians seemed determined to stop. The earlier pacifist policies of Ibrahim Rugova may not have produced a settlement for the Albanian people, but they had avoided the war that turned out disastrous for them - as the Bosnian precedent showed it would.

The outcome in Croatia also suggests sharp limits to good war. In ending Serbian separatism, the regime of Franjo Tudjman expelled hundreds of thousands of Croatian Serbs, many of whom were killed both by troops and vigilantes. The West's complicity in this genocidal process is one of the greatest causes for concern about its role in the Yugoslav wars. This has been only partially assuaged by the subsequent barriers to Croatia's progress into Western institutions and the attentions of the International War Crimes Tribunal. It is a matter of some satisfaction that within weeks of Tudjman's death in 2000, his successors reversed his policies towards Serb expellees and dumped his Bosnian collaborators, while the Tribunal named him in a war crimes indictment.

Maximum possible wars

On the evidence, therefore, the good war is at best a highly contradictory form of action. We should remember too that it is possible only where local or global actors possess the means to rapidly halt mass slaughter, without causing it on too large a scale themselves. In the new century as in the old, the larger-scale use of military power will almost inevitably lead to enormous mass killing. The maximum possible wars remain within firmly within the frame of the historical-pacifist critique. It is not just that nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction) exist and war among the expanding number of nuclear-armed states can by no means be excluded. It is also that the rapid world political changes of the early twenty-first century are not (in any simple sense) conducive to peace between major states. Paradoxically, the advance of democracy is anything but a guarantee of a more peaceful world.

There are, certainly, two big shifts towards peace, both of which we take too much for granted. The first is the unification of the West itself. In historic terms, it is quite recently - within the lifetime of the older generation - that the centres of today's West engaged in all-out war among themselves. There has been no shortage of sceptics claiming that the forced unity of 1945, cemented during the Cold War, would fall apart without a common enemy. Marxists like Ernest Mandel had long forecast a new conflict of 'imperialisms', Europe versus America. Latterly realists like John Meirsheimer foresaw the descent of Europe into war once the Cold War straightjacket was off. It hasn't happened. For all the economic rivalries, the military-political unity of America, Europe and Japan has not been disturbed. While genocidal wars have caused strains, in the end they have done more to consolidate than threaten Western integration.

Second, the principal gain of the Cold War is more or less intact. Post-Soviet Russia is fundamentally weakened and deep military rivalry with the West is unlikely to emerge. Russia needs Western assistance to manage its enormous problems and shore up its great power status. The sabre-rattling that Yeltsin and Putin have indulged, for electoral and international prestige reasons, cannot but be disturbing with nuclear weapons involved. But what else are nukes really useful for?

Likewise China, a rising power, remains weak in comparison with the West. A self-proclaimed 'neo-classical realist' like Gray, with a professional need for the West to find an enemy, may predict the emergence 'within two decades [of] a bipolar security architecture that pits American against Chinese power and influence.' This is unlikely. Few believe that in this time scale China's economy will truly rival America's, let alone the combined West's. Modernising China will continue to be drawn into Western-dominated global power networks - even to become a more powerful presence within them. Among the portents of the first months of the new century, China's entry into the World Trade Organisation has to be weighed against its own sabre-rattling against Taiwan.

The most serious threats to peace are undoubtedly within and among the big non-Western states. Most of these are quasi-imperial, semi-authoritarian power centres, threatened by powerful movements for both democratic reform and secession. Democracy cannot be equated with peace in the facile manner sometimes proposed: in a democracy, aggressive nationalism can be a powerful electoral mobilizer. Democratisation, moreover, brings particular political strains, which are part of the story of Yugoslavia. So we may expect semi-authoritarian, partially democratised major states to be entangled, like Russia in Chechnya, Turkey in Kurdistan and Indonesia in Timor, Ambon and Aceh, in bitter local wars. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that widening circles of such conflicts will spill over into large-scale wars among states, as Kashmir and Palestine have done intermittently over half a century. Bad old wars, for which the most recent model is Iran-Iraq in the 1980s, are still a possible face of the future.

The widespread perception that interstate war is in decline is not, therefore, an irreversible trend. But there are two big structural reasons for thinking it pervasive. No nation-state today is outside the growing worldwide web of global state institutions, dominated by the West, within which interstate war is increasingly unacceptable. The model of national autarchy is no longer on offer; its surviving relics like North Korea are pathetic shadows. The costs for states that buck the trend, like Iraq and Serbia, are high, not just economically but in social and political isolation of the elites. Larger states, which can defy the West, are more likely to indulge violence within their territories, à la Chechnya. They are less likely to cross the rubicon into war against other large states.

The second hopeful trend is that society has found its voice against the horror of war. Only a generation ago, in a world of polarised nation-states, most people had little choice but to accept states' prerogatives to kill. The exposure of genocidal 'small' wars, coupled with the growth of human rights thinking, has challenged this situation. Demands for justice are based on new thinking that transcends the 'just war' tradition. They bring into question the pivotal dual standard of national-international world order, which for so long has allowed states to perpetrate 'internationally' kinds of violence that would be utterly illegitimate 'domestically'.

Moreover, a little noticed, accelerating feature of the last half-century is the distintegration of states' traditional ability to mobilise men for armed service. Continental Europe has begun to follow Britain, America and Japan in abandoning conscription. After Afghanistan and now Chechnya, many young Russians and their families question the oppressive and dangerous conditions in which they are forced to serve. In the West, professional soldiers lives are now valued. The mothers of British 'friendly fire' victims fought a legal battle to bring to account the American pilots who had shot them down. President Clinton went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no American soldiers died in Kosovo.

Truth and truisms about war

Early in the nineteenth century, with the Napoleonic wars out of the way, it became fashionable to envisage the future industrial society as unprecedentedly peaceful. After each of the world wars, there was a period of pacific optimism. It is tempting to think, as do realists of all stripes, that we are now surfacing from the comparable post-Cold War phase. On this view, we need now to confront the hard realities of a world in which organised violence is, if not omnipresent, always possible. But the arguments that war, like nuclear weapons, cannot be uninvented, and that in the foreseeable future, there will always be wars, are truisms. It matters enormously whether wars will be big or small, many or few, relatively good or simply evil. There are more important things to understand about war than its relative ubiquity, or the laws that govern it once it has begun.

The first truth is that there is a degenerate tendency at the heart of modern war, which has produced the deliberate mass slaughter of civilians on an unprecedented scale. The second, corresponding truth is that while 'good' war may sometimes be necessary to halt genocide or terror, the best war is still bad. War is the pursuit of policy by other means; but those means are inherently destructive of the most precious of all things, human lives. This is recognised in the new Western policy of drastically minimising the risk to its own citizens' lives. This is in an important sense a progressive move, but we must extend the same consideration to all lives - and it might be a different matter if some people volunteered to risk themselves in a UN campaign. The only way, however, to make these propositions really stick is to make wars less and less viable for all the states and other organisations that are likely to fight them.

This is a less preposterously idealist notion than many sages would have us think. Within a lifetime dominated by war - I was born in the aftermath of the last world war and have lived most of my life in the Cold War - I can nevertheless see striking progress to limit its scope. The gains, widely taken for granted, are real. The lessons we should draw from them are that, while war is always a possibility, politics can be made to work without it. In particular, historically separate, rival and violently opposed states (like Britain and Germany, America and Japan, maybe even Russia and China) can be integrated into common internationalised structures of power. It is such political transformations, rather than the control of weapons or the growth of commerce, which truly create the conditions of lasting peace.

Sceptics may point out that recently multinational state structures have had a habit of collapsing. Certainly there were strikingly different outcomes to the Cold War: the Soviet Union and its bloc (also Yugoslavia) fell apart, while the Western bloc survived and renewed itself. What they tell us, surely, is that successful internationalised state structures cannot be imposed and imperial. They must continue to offer participating elites and populations more benefits than can be obtained by breaking them up.

The paradox of today's West is that within the borders of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australasia it has achieved (for all its flaws) something like the prosperous, peaceful industrialism that early nineteenth century sociologists envisaged. Our pacified society is not the outcome, however, of benign technological progress. It results from two world wars and the Cold War, through which once-hostile states have been integrated with each other. It is also based on policies of economic advance and social inclusion that have been developed throughout the pacified space.

A simple conclusion would be that the benefits of Western peace could be universalised through further wars. But since the costs of major war are unacceptable, worldwide pacification must involve imaginative efforts to create wider networks without the historic accompaniment of violence. The unified West's unprecedented military superiority over all-comers, based on its commanding economic, social and ideological advantages, offers a historic opportunity to create worldwide political institutions with real legitimacy.

During the first post-Cold War decade, these opportunities have often been squandered. No Western leaders gave serious time to the kind of ambitious Marshall Plan Mark II that might have helped save the Soviet Union some of its descent into poverty and violence. No one, even today, is prepared to invest heavily in the development of global institutions that might entrench human rights, democracy and social welfare worldwide. Contrary to the misplaced criticisms of the Western left, democracy and human rights have hardly been imposed by Western states on an unwilling world. Rather, it is oppressed minorities and democracy campaigners in the non-Western world who have made the running. Western politicians have responded too little, too late, when the level of atrocity has come to threaten their own credibility.

A sticking-plaster mentality of crisis-management may save the world from new big wars, and patch up a few of the worst sores of small ones. It condemns millions, however, to suffer and die in these conflicts for the foreseeable future. Too little, too late also means that in the end the West has to fight wars like the Gulf and Kosovo, that might be avoided by clearer-sighted political action at an earlier stage. We may not always be able to prevent war. But better politics are not only a prerequisite for good war. They could even be an alternative to it.

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