Study War for Peace

The war will still be around – and quite possibly expanding – next week. It’s Christmas again, and the phenomenon I whine about every year – that this country lacks an adequate peace culture – remains a problem. To be sure, there’s a more pronounced antiwar sentiment this year than last year. But the positive aspects of peace – which include mutual exchange, an opportunity to build wealth and to use it for purposes wise and foolish alike, an opportunity to travel safely to exotic and fascinating locales, to tend to your own garden, to get to know your family and friends better, to share heartbreak and joy, to give and receive love – are still underappreciated.

Perhaps the most useful way to promote peace in such an era, then, is to accentuate the negative. There’s an old gospel song that gained some popularity during the Vietnam era, "Down by the Riverside," whose chorus echoes a deep-seated desire of most decent folk:

"I ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more
Study war no more…"

And on and on in a near-hypnotic cycle of repetition.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

To be sure, the context of the song suggests that "study war no more" could well mean something like declining to practice at, hone the skills required for, or engage in war anymore. If it means what it seems to mean literally, however, it is a misguided – or perhaps, since ’tis the season, premature – sentiment.

To avoid war in the future, it is likely to be necessary to study the wars of the past and the present, to try to understand better how we get involved in them, the kinds of deceptions leaders use to drum up support for them, the confusion of the "fog of war" in which action can seem mindless and random, the pitfalls in every military campaign, the unpredictability of battles and campaigns, the destruction involved, the aftermath of "victory." I suggest that the more we understand about war, the less eager we will be to engage in it, or even to send the sons and daughters of people we don’t know to engage in it.

Accordingly, this Christmas – remember there are 12 days of Christmas during which it is appropriate to give gifts – I would like to recommend a few books that can deepen one’s understanding of war and how it comes about despite its destructiveness.

It wouldn’t hurt to start with the possibly apocryphal ancient Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tzu, whose The Art of War stresses the importance of intelligence, understanding your enemy, and finding ways to win without fighting pitched battles. Sun Tzu assumes war is inevitable, but he is far from relishing the more brutal aspects of it. Similarly, the 19th-century Prussian Karl von Clausewitz’s On War is a good graduate-level explication of how war is politics carried out by other means.

Here are some more contemporary studies of contemporary wars.

The Un-War

It is common wisdom now that the war on Iraq has been an expensive and ineffective detour from the mission of neutralizing the terrorists who attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. Some 140,000 troops are still tied up in that country, and more may be surging soon, taking daily casualties. The promise of a model democracy in the Middle East seems a distant dream.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and while there has not been a subsequent attack in the United States, there have been terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, Morocco, Bali, and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda is still viable, Muslims living in Europe are increasingly restive, and anti-Americanism is growing around the world.

There has been plenty of intelligent criticism of the Iraq war, and Charles Peña, formerly a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, includes an incisive chapter in his new book, Winning the Un-War. Peña seriously advances the discussion, however, by outlining a strategy for confronting the real threat of al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups that still pose a serious danger to the United States.

He explains why al-Qaeda, as a stateless terrorist network rather than a hierarchical structure, poses challenges that the United States still doesn’t seem to know how to handle, perhaps because massed military power, at which the United States excels, is unlikely to be able to defeat an enemy that has no fixed base of operation, no capital, and no land mass to invade. He sees al-Qaeda as a network of networks rather than a conventional organization.

Much of what he recommends will seem obvious. Better intelligence, with an emphasis on human intelligence, is a must. Cooperation with the intelligence services and governments of other countries – al-Qaeda is said to operate at some level or another in 60 countries – will be crucial. If intelligence is improved, there should be opportunities for actions to kill or capture leaders and operatives, some carried out by special forces, some done by police.

All of this will have to be done with concern for the sensibilities of countries in which our operations take place; some will have to be quite clandestine, while others can be public and accompanied by publicity for propaganda purposes. Despite differences over the Iraq war, the United States can work with and learn from European countries that have faced terrorism on their own soil for much longer than we have.

The most path-breaking aspect of the book is the contention that without changing U.S. foreign policy such actions are likely to be ineffectual. Peña documents that Islamist terrorists move against the United States not because they hate free elections and Hollywood movies (though they may) but because of what we do in Muslim countries. Bin Laden has been shrewd enough to pick up on the fact that all Muslims, not just extremists, were offended by U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and now in Iraq, and to use U.S. actions as a recruiting tool.

Peña argues that most of the far-flung commitments of U.S. troops are hangovers from the Cold War. The fact that they stretch military resources thin, provoke anti-Americanism, and diffuse our focus on the real threat simply strengthens the case that we should start withdrawing from Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Germany, and a hundred other places. As challenging as that assertion may be to some, this is a work of clear-headed analysis rather than a polemic. Highly recommended.

The Warfare State

Although Robert Higgs, author of the 1986 classic Crisis and Leviathan, which documents the role of crises like war and depression in the unrelenting growth of the American government during the 20th century, is a bona fide scholar, The Resurgence of the Warfare State, his latest, is not a dispassionate book. “I have made no attempt here to suppress or to conceal my own values,” he writes in the introduction. “Indeed, perhaps my greatest grievance during the past four years has been that the values I hold dearest – justice, peace, humanity, honesty, and basic decency – have been savaged most fiercely.”

What makes this book sometimes frustrating – that it consists of generally short pieces in which extended argument and supporting examples must be sacrificed to the length of the op-ed piece – also gives it much of its value. It consists of articles, interviews, and commentary, generally bouncing off immediate headlines in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. response, increasingly recognized as absurd, of launching an invasion of Iraq. Each item is dated, so you can mentally put the pieces in the context of then-current events.

Cumulatively, the book validates and illustrates in real time Higgs’ thesis in Crisis and Leviathan that crises become the pretext for ever increasing exercises of government power, with each increase in power becoming a precedent for yet another use or abuse of power in a “ratchet effect.” In his previous book, Higgs notes that government power receded somewhat from the maximum exercised during time of war, but never to prewar levels, thus establishing a new baseline of enlarged government from which to build come the next crisis.

Among the fallacies of America’s assorted war-whoopers that Higgs dissects is the contention that while the U.S. invasion has killed innocent Iraqis, these deaths were accidental and must be weighed against those who would have been killed had Saddam remained in power. Higgs retorts: “In the present case, making such a judgment calls for powers that none of us possess. How does anybody know, for example, what future harms caused to innocent parties by Saddam or his henchmen would have been, or that those harms, somehow properly weighed and discounted, would be greater than the harms caused by the U.S. armed forces in the invasion of Iraq?”

He won’t let war advocates off the hook on the issue of accidental deaths, either. He insists that “scattering cluster bombs about areas inhabited by civilians … was in no sense necessary to oust Saddam’s government. Nor was the use of very high-explosive bombs (2,000 pounds and bigger) in densely populated urban areas a means one can defend morally.” (May 2003)

In October 2002, during the propaganda campaign about the grave danger posed by Saddam’s vaunted nuclear program, Higgs reminded us that “notwithstanding the tens of thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads and their sophisticated delivery systems kept in constant readiness, the United States was not ‘blackmailed’ by the USSR. Odd that now the United States should quake at the prospect of a single Iraqi softball of fissionable material.”

Some Americans may cringe at articles that name Iraqi children maimed by American bombs and soldiers and detail their injuries. But it’s important to remember that their being born in a different country does not make them any less human than Americans, and to remind ourselves that war is “Hell for some and perfectly splendid for others.” Iraqis may suffer, but Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush do not.

This book illustrates that the debacle in Iraq “might have been foreseen, and, in fact, was foreseen, by anybody who cared to take the trouble to look into the matter without ideological or religious blinders and with a modicum of historical background.” Robert Higgs and quite a few others saw it coming. One may hope that having his observations collected between two covers will serve as a reminder next time our leaders try to sell us an unnecessary war.

Ivan Eland‘s The Empire Has No Clothes puts the Iraq war in the larger context of America’s aggressive foreign policy and makes a case that striving for empire of whatever nature should be anathema to conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike. Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine documents the Bush administration’s – and especially Dick Cheney’s – enthusiasm for starting that war in Iraq, even though they simply had to know that intelligence was decidedly not a slam-dunk. Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory expresses frustration borne of serving in Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority at the shortsightedness, insularity, and lack of planning by the American occupiers. And Bob Woodward’s State of Denial is several cuts above his most recent books, showing just how clueless – and in many cases, purposely clueless – top administration policymakers have been.

Here are a few books on my list to read next year. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City is the Washington Post reporter’s firsthand reportorial tale of life inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation tries to make a case that the U.S. has always been an aggressive international actor and Kagan doesn’t regret it. I suspect the case is not as strong as he suggests, but it’s important to know what the war enthusiasts are thinking and how they’re justifying current conflicts. Likewise with Max Boot’s latest, War Made New, about military technology and how it has changed the face of war in some ways but not in others. Bruce Ackerman’s Before the Next Attack grapples with preserving civil liberties in a wartime context. And Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want (which I’ve started and is excellent so far) tries to get into the minds and hearts of our adversaries to suggest effective methods (hint: military war isn’t one of them) to neutralize them.

For better or worse, we do need to study war. In the meantime, Merry Christmas. May the season remind you of the promise of peace.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).