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Paradoxes of Conflict

Edward Luttwak

Randall Forsberg's observation that the "recent military policies of the United States and other large, industrial countries remain astonishingly unchanged," given the end of the Cold War, is unexceptionable, though scarcely astonishing: the proponents of those policies, and millions of beneficiaries from CEOs to NCOs, are far more successful than welfare mothers in securing the public's indulgence for their proclivities, having better PR themes and vast PR resources--both human (today's front-line troops are the public affairs officers) and pecuniary (the taxpayer pays to be persuaded to pay)--in part spent to allow Hollywood to perpetrate its recent outpouring of triumphalist sci-fi/military melodramas. (If Hertz rented F-117s, it would have to charge some $350,000 per day, with limited mileage.)

One incidental consequence is that thematically more evocative traditional military forces are systematically advantaged in the budgetary free-for-all over newer, more technical forces that are merely effective (e.g., manned and unmanned offensive airpower, in the new age of routine precision). Hence the former are grossly overfunded, especially when they are manpower-intensive, and therefore of scant utility given the demographically driven societal refusal to tolerate combat casualties. With its statutory three Marine divisions and a casualty limit of less than 1,000 or so for a Gulf War and less than 20 for a Somalia-type discretionary intervention, the US is in the position of a man who pays credit-card interest rates on three golden Rolls Royces, but has only half a pint of gasoline.

For the rest, however, I disagree with almost everything Forsberg has written, beginning with her volitive explanations (democratic restraint, economic calculations) for the present reluctance of advanced nations to engage in warfare. Nuclear weapons, of course, badly overshot the culminating point of military usefulness, being far too effective to be effective, and precluding non-nuclear war as well, among nuclear-armed powers. But non-nuclear warfare could still be fought against non-nuclear enemies, and was, up to a point (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan).

What explains the change is, I fear, a simple loss of vitality in its most elemental sense: advanced, postindustrial populations with their equal-citizen females do not produce the exuberant abundance of children (four, six, or eight per mother) that can at times fuel warlike sentiments, and which does certainly induce families and societies to accept the casualties of war with adequate equanimity. (Consider, for example, the USSR, "traumatized" by cumulative 10-year losses in Afghanistan that it would have calmly absorbed before breakfast when Russian women were still fertile--and this, without democracy or "biased" TV coverage by the way, whose effect on Vietnam was perhaps 1 percent of what was imputed by disgruntled blood-and-guts warriors and self-congratulating network executives alike.) When a Palestinian mother (of 12) whose son has just been killed says that she is willing to give the lives of more sons to the cause, she means it; her emotional capital is diversified, not invested in one son (US) or 0.8 of a son (Germany, Italy).

Forsberg evidently means to rally the dormant peacecamp to arms, so to speak. She deplores "the tendency of people to work energetically for peace when war is imminent, and neglect peace at times of peace, when the opportunity to strengthen peacekeeping institutions is greatest." That equates intentions with outcomes, failing to reckon with the paradoxical logic of conflict--an old problem: "Men do not understand [the coincidence of opposites]: there is a `back-stretched connection' like that of the bow," Herakleitos of Ephesus wrote--whereby:

1. To "work for peace" in her sense causes war, more so when working "energetically," whereas it is the destructions of war (or the expenses and moral fatigue of war-preparation in cold wars) that brings about peace, by exhausting the resources and will to persist in war (or war-preparation). To say that Reagan's SDI ended the Cold War is at least exaggeration, but had Forsberg and those of like minds succeeded in cutting US defense spending when it was still useful (not for self-defense, admittedly), the USSR--in its later, military aggrandizement phase (prompted by the loss of all hope in ideological victory)--would have lasted longer, and the peoples of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States might still be imprisoned in it. And before then, the arms race that Forsberg & Co. systematically opposed greatly helped to keep the peace, by venting acute insecurities into harmless "overkill" weapon programs in lieu of far more dangerous attempts to conquer strategic depth, the standard prenuclear remedy.

2. More generally, war-preparation by those actually willing to fight (not just ritualistic preparations, as is mostly the case in advanced countries nowadays) may avert war by dissuading others' hopes of easy victories--even Bosnia might have done it, had it raised a good army before declaring independence--whereas wishing for peace, marching for peace, etc., is as relevant as wishing and marching for good weather--except if it interferes with concrete war-preparations, when it may be counterproductive.

3. "Peacekeeping institutions" commonly perpetuate war, by freezing the processes that would exhaust it (consider the effect of imposed cease-fires in Arab-Israeli wars). The various UN peacekeeping forces everywhere are symbolically and frictionally useful only when other factors (exhaustion, great-power pressure) are dissuading war. In all other cases they are either ineffectual or, much more often, counter-productive (as in ex-Yugoslavia).

To pick out one more disagreement among very many, I think it a great mistake to equate the amount of military spending with the overall harm it can cause in the absence of a peacekeeping (my sense) benefit. Latin American countries that spend little are nevertheless very greatly harmed, because the money, while yielding minuscule combat capabilities, perpetuates military institutions that in turn systematically limit and undermine fragile democracies, lovingly cherish and constantly seek to revive any and all territorial rivendications, and sabotage free movement across borders on a daily basis (by imposing time-consuming formalities of their own--try driving from Brazil into Bolivia), even opposing road construction up to border points (as an anti-invasion measure, no less). As for sub-Saharan Africa, the money spent on armed forces causes all of the above, plus even more disproportionate economic damage, by way of enterprise-dissuading extortion, looting, and sheer destruction (for example, Congo Brazzaville, of late).

In other words, $1 billion spent in the United States or France can be a socially useful form of outdoor relief--e.g., for defense-industry CEOs who might otherwise be on welfare (when they try to run firms in competitive industries they routinely fail, disastrously)--whereas $1 spent in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa can easily cause $1,000 or $100,000 worth of damage.

The Clinton administration's decision to offer authority-enhancing advanced fighters to the likes of Chile is thus exceptionally unconscionable, as was the recent decision to sell a fancy $350 million prestige-enhancing warship to the useless Venezuelan navy--the money for which, by the way, was borrowed on the New York market, augmenting the "investment in Latin America" statistics, and forcing Venezuelans to pay interest on a non-income earning, cost-generating non-asset.

It is particularly dispiriting to find that Forsberg still believes at this late date in offensive-force/defensive-force differentiations at the strategic (war/peace) level. That the tactical characteristics of weapons, that the operational characteristic of forces, imply nothing whatever about their strategic role is surely not a proposition that is in need of further proof. (Iraq could have invaded Kuwait with anti-aircraft regiments, whereas only tanks could have defended Kuwait). Actually the "back-stretched connection, like that of the bow" ensures that the (tactically) most offensive weapons are much more often peace-inducing or peace-preserving than the (tactically) most defensive weapons (consider F-16 fighter-bombers in Bosnia versus Bosno-Serb trenches, or if one likes, Minuteman ICBMs versus an-actually-functioning SDI).

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

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