Wars, Symmetric and Asymmetric, and Non-Peace

Mankind has always had difficulties with the management of its war experiences and the savoring of the peace breaks separating them. To those that this phrasing shocks: it is a normative position to regard peace as the natural condition of mankind. Just because non-violent solutions are preferable, it does not follow that eras characterized by what we like to call “peace” are our normal state. If you replace “peace” with the term “free of group conflict,” the support of the thesis hardens.

The picture tilts additionally in favor of the postulate if the terms are “de-regionalized.” For instance, Europe’s western periphery has, regardless of the term’s definition, not known war since 1945. But just an hours’ drive from the zone shielded by the now crumbling “transatlantic alliance,” the situation seemed to be quite different. While growing up in the Fifties, I recall that my elders who talked about “the time of peace” meant not the years after 1945 but the era between 1918 and 1939. An armed conflict is unfolding somewhere while you read. Therefore peace, as in “world peace” is not a statement of fact but a subjective judgment reflecting a limited horizon. Myopia bolstered by a locally geared media, moral unconcern and selective awareness are the precondition for believing that “there is peace now.” Even in the cocoon of their limited world, ancient Rome saw it fit only for a single year of its long history to close the temple of their god of war.

Our judgment of mankind’s condition is also influenced by what is considered to be a “war.” If war is a conflict between recognized states, made official by a declaration of war and identifiable (uniformed and uniformly equipped) combatants representing a nation, then most past and future wars are eliminated thanks to our definition. Concerning the past, the steady warfare defining the medieval period does not fit the classification. Even the wars of much of the early modern era up to the peace ofWestphalia in 1648, become disqualified. Following Hiroshima, better yet, when Moscow got the bomb in 1949, it became a dogma that a war between the nuclear super powers would be mutually destructive. Due to the nuclear balance, a “real” war was erased from the planners’ realistic scenarios. Thereby the confrontations between the main antagonists became indirect such as inKorea and Viet Nam. Already in these “wars” national boundaries and national armies were losing some of their significance. The Chinese “volunteers” in Korea and Soviet-Chinese equipped North Vietnamese regulars fighting the Viet Kong’s battles – with a guaranteed non-invasion of their staging area – are recalled here. After 1945, but especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflicts proliferate that score high in casualties while they do not fit the prevailing definition of war. If nothing else, this in itself makes a good case for a re-definition of what “war,” also “aggression” and “peace” are.

The customary reason given for the multiplication of the present’s “asymmetric wars” is that they pit a low technology force against one equipped with the means produced by an advanced economy. This definition limps a bit. Regardless of its emphasis on modernization, the Soviet Union had a third world economy fielding first world weapons. Furthermore, it is true that outfits such as al-Qaeda have currently simple tactical weapons making their activities truly “asymmetrical.” There are, however, good reasons to assume that “low-tech” arms will not remain characteristic of the equipment of comparable outfits. The extensive (global) goals of such radicals and the availability of suppliers that wish to remain, for political and pecuniary reasons, “anonymous” make it likely that weapons of mass destruction will be acquired. In this case the emerging new “nuclear balance” – the surfacing of a new symmetry of arms – is unlikely to recreate the stable situation of the past. The probability for the use of such armaments divorced from any rational “benefits vs. costs” calculation is to be found in the mind-set and ideology of extremists.

Asymmetric wars are spreading not only due to the widening developmental gap (lack of indigenous hi-tech). It seems that “asymmetric war” is a term that over emphasizes the technologies with which they are being fought. Concurrently other components of the strategies of exerting force are ignored. Thereby impediments to dealing rationally with, and responding to, the phenomena are created.

Such conflicts, (call them political-military instead of military-political) are often clashes between societies that occupy different ends on the democratic-authoritarian scale. It is the “distance” on that scale that makes the technique of carrying out of conflicts with a political priority politically rewarding. Due to the dictates of their system, advanced democratic societies are pre-conditioned to react ineffectively to the asymmetric war waged against them.

From the point of view of the average person such conflicts appear to be peripheral. For one thing, the foe represents an entity and a cause that “no one” has noticed before. (What did you know about Hutus, Tutsies, Shias, Kosovars twenty years ago?) Once “the other side’s” agitated determination is demonstrated it is natural to want to wiggle out of the challenge by “letting them have what they want.” This approach assumes that an angry wasp tempted by an open jar of honey can be pacified by a cheap concession. Second, there is the David-Goliath effect. Especially for those who want to enjoy their comfort undisturbed, it is tempting to consider the party cast as an irksome “David,” as being partly in the right simply because of his apparent size. The unstated mantra is, disregarding the long-term consequences, something like “small foe, minor issue, a cheap concession – the hell with it.”

Thirdly, as we have observed, asymmetric conflicts are wars conducted without easily discernible combatants. This quality makes the distinction between civilians and warriors difficult. By the calculated use of civilians to shield armed bands and their infrastructure, this feature can be utilized to exploit a culture-derived weakness following from the prejudice of democratic foes. Conveniently and all too quickly, the instant analysis alleges “we are fighting a few poor peasants and the entire people of…”. It is an old discovery that militarily inadequately protected targets can be sheltered by embedding them in a civilian location. “Collateral damage” inflicted upon “innocent civilians” saps the will of democratic societies whose military has been drawn into action. The inevitable international criticism – not of the party that plants cannon in a kindergartens but of the one that takes them out – augments the political damage and the tendency to paralyze. Mobilized international pressure guarantees that the camouflaged movers engaged behind the irregular combatant enjoy immunity against retaliation for fueling indirect wars on the politically “cheap.”

What is represented as being an upshot of the development-imposed need to engage in asymmetrical warfare, just like its terrorist mutant, can pay handsomely. This will remain the case regardless of the advanced means the suppliers of such conflicts might insert from the outside into such confrontations. Things will only begin to change once the public becomes conscious of the new warfare inflicted upon it and once it fathoms the means, goals and methods of the “new war.” With that there will be a chance for the adjustment of international law to new conditions. At the end of the process, the danger created by the new, one-sided warfare governed by the prevailing principle that hitting back is “wrong” is likely to ebb.