Postmodern classic?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The problem with democratic countries making war

There are many things, a comprehensive list would be exhausting and too far from the scope of this small blog. To name a few of what I think are the most damaging are the political games that seek to reduce the power of innovative leaders (i.e. Patton, Sherman, etc) and that of rules of engagement.

Underlying this argument though, I acknowledge the fact that the democratic civic audit of our military capacity is designed to limit the consolidation of power under any one person. Through wealth or power, we willingly sacrifice military 'efficiency' to the utility of democratic equality. And it is a messy and inefficient process. But the example of Caesar and Pompey is too great in the institutions of the West, or that of Napoleon in recent days. I digress... I must turn to a more practical area, away from speculative attempts into abstraction of psychology of generals.

Rules of Engagement have been much spoken of, in movies and in contemporary debate over how military forces must conduct themselves in the battle zone. At best they are attempts to preserve and codify a moral guide to maintain our ethical superiority and preserve the rights of the countries we operate in (so that they will follow in our example), but at worst they are a political attempt to minimize responsibility or deflect blame for those who fear the results of their timid support of action.

Any cohesive unit, especially that of a military, must have a moral code to follow, establishing limits and preserving discipline. Yet they must also be flexible enough for those operating under the demanding situation of combat to make decisions for the benefit of their life and the continuation of national security policy. Legalistic restrictions made from air-conditioned offices hundreds (or thousands) of miles away seem a hard cross to bear for those risking their lives on the front lines. In fact, they inspire disgust and resentment, as well as incentive to willingly disregard them when they appear to be poorly administered. How much of this is just a factor of democratic political processes inevitable interference in war, or is it avoidable?

I think this 'protect them for their own sake' argument goes back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, where the Western countries in Europe first attempted to adopt this new innovation by separating the legal identities of soldiers, politicians and civilians to restrict the barbarity and destruction of European conflicts. With this 'humane agreement', it seems that Europe was able to focus outward instead of the horrible internal wars they returned to in the 20th century. As Martin Van Creveld makes the compelling case in his 'Transformation of War', we may be coming to the end of that historical period where this ceasefire made sense. Surely the powers with whom we waged our major wars over the past century have not respected our European treaties in regard to this problem, most notably the 'Geneva Convention'. They seem to think the opposite, that anyone in the offending society is guilty, regardless of their identity.

Now, we shouldn't give up our morals because of what the people we fight do, but we might profit from examining why we believe what we believe, in a Socratic investigation of our 'humane war'. However, we shouldn't necessarily be so invested in these European agreements that we can't see life without them. Inevitably, we run into the contemporary political argument of human rights that is central to our general existential problem endemic in Western society. But my speculation aside, it would be nice to hear of others talking common sense.

I say, return to W.T. Sherman's dictum that war is cruelty, and only give quarter to the enemy if it is asked. Eliminate the state-centric impulse to 'humanize war', and the bureaucratic vanity that it is possible through legislation and nitpicking. In this manner we will see a new appreciation for peace that is only possible through the experience of violence.


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