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War Without Humans

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The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. Click here to listen to a podcast in which the author discusses the history and nature of warfare. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

For a book about the all-too-human “passions of war,” my 1997 work Blood Rites ended on a strangely inhuman note: I suggested that, whatever distinctly human qualities war calls upon—honor, courage, solidarity, cruelty and so forth—it might be useful to stop thinking of war in exclusively human terms. After all, certain species of ants wage war and computers can simulate “wars” that play themselves out on-screen without any human involvement.

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Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...

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More generally, then, we should define war as a self-replicating pattern of activity that may or may not require human participation. In the human case, we know it is capable of spreading geographically and evolving rapidly over time—qualities that, as I suggested somewhat fancifully, make war a metaphorical successor to the predatory animals that shaped humans into fighters in the first place.

A decade and a half later, these musings do not seem quite so airy and abstract anymore. The trend, at the close of the twentieth century, still seemed to be one of ever more massive human involvement in war—from armies containing tens of thousands in the sixteenth century, to hundreds of thousands in the nineteenth and eventually millions in the twentieth-century world wars.

It was the ascending scale of war that originally called forth the existence of the nation-state as an administrative unit capable of maintaining mass armies and the infrastructure—for taxation, weapons manufacture, transport, etc.—that they require. War has been, and we still expect it to be, the most massive collective project human beings undertake. But it has been evolving quickly in a very different direction, one in which human beings have a much smaller role to play.

One factor driving this change has been the emergence of a new kind of enemy, so-called “non-state actors,” meaning popular insurgencies and loose transnational networks of fighters, none of which are likely to field large numbers of troops or maintain expensive arsenals of their own. In the face of these new enemies, typified by Al Qaeda, the mass armies of nation-states are highly ineffective, cumbersome to deploy, difficult to maneuver and, from a domestic point of view, overly dependent on a citizenry that is both willing and able to fight, or at least to have their children fight for them.

Yet just as US military cadets continue, in defiance of military reality, to sport swords on their dress uniforms, our leaders, both military and political, tend to cling to an idea of war as a vast, labor-intensive effort on the order of World War II. Only slowly, and with a reluctance bordering on the phobic, have the leaders of major states begun to grasp the fact that this approach to warfare may soon be obsolete.

Consider the most recent US war with Iraq. According to then-President George W. Bush, the casus belli was the 9/11 terror attacks. The causal link between that event and our chosen enemy, Iraq, was, however, imperceptible to all but the most dedicated inside-the-Beltway intellectuals. Nineteen men had hijacked airplanes and flown them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center—fifteen of them Saudi Arabians, none of them Iraqis—and we went to war against… Iraq?

Military history offers no ready precedents for such wildly misaimed retaliation. The closest analogies come from anthropology, which provides plenty of cases of small-scale societies in which the death of any member, for any reason, needs to be “avenged” by an attack on a more or less randomly chosen other tribe or hamlet.

Why Iraq? Neoconservative imperial ambitions have been invoked in explanation, as well as the American thirst for oil, or even an Oedipal contest between George W. Bush and his father. There is no doubt some truth to all of these explanations, but the targeting of Iraq also represented a desperate and irrational response to what was, for Washington, an utterly confounding military situation.

We faced a state-less enemy—geographically diffuse, lacking uniforms and flags, invulnerable to invading infantries and saturation bombing, and apparently capable of regenerating itself at minimal expense. From the perspective of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his White House cronies, this would not do.

Since the United States was accustomed to fighting other nation-states—geopolitical entities containing such identifiable targets as capital cities, airports, military bases and munitions plants—we would have to find a nation-state to fight, or as Rumsfeld put it, a “target-rich environment.” Iraq, pumped up by alleged stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction,” became the designated surrogate for an enemy that refused to play our game.

The effects of this atavistic war are still being tallied: in Iraq, we would have to include civilian deaths estimated at possibly hundreds of thousands, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and devastating outbreaks of sectarian violence of a kind that, as we should have learned from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, can readily follow the death or removal of a nationalist dictator.

But the effects of war on the United States and its allies may end up being almost as tragic. Instead of punishing the terrorists who had attacked the US, the war seems to have succeeded in recruiting more such irregular fighters, young men (and sometimes women) willing to die and ready to commit further acts of terror or revenge. By insisting on fighting a more or less randomly selected nation-state, the US may only have multiplied the non-state threats it faces.

Unwieldy Armies

Whatever they may think of what the United States and its allies did in Iraq, many national leaders are beginning to acknowledge that conventional militaries are becoming, in a strictly military sense, almost ludicrously anachronistic. Not only are they unsuited to crushing counterinsurgencies and small bands of terrorists or irregular fighters, but mass armies are simply too cumbersome to deploy on short notice.

In military lingo, they are weighed down by their “tooth to tail” ratio—a measure of the number of actual fighters in comparison to the support personnel and equipment the fighters require. Both hawks and liberal interventionists may hanker to airlift tens of thousands of soldiers to distant places virtually overnight, but those soldiers will need to be preceded or accompanied by tents, canteens, trucks, medical equipment and so forth. “Flyover” rights will have to be granted by neighboring countries; air strips and eventually bases will have to be constructed; supply lines will have be created and defended—all of which can take months to accomplish.

The sluggishness of the mass, labor-intensive military has become a constant source of frustration to civilian leaders. Irritated by the Pentagon’s hesitation to put “boots on the ground” in Bosnia, then–Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously demanded of Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, “What good is this marvelous military force if we can never use it?” In 2009, the Obama administration unthinkingly proposed a troop surge in Afghanistan, followed by a withdrawal within a year and a half that would have required some of the troops to start packing up almost as soon as they arrived. It took the US military a full month to organize the transport of 20,000 soldiers to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake—and they were only traveling 700 miles to engage in a humanitarian relief mission, not a war.

Another thing hobbling mass militaries is the increasing unwillingness of nations, especially the more democratic ones, to risk large numbers of casualties. It is no longer acceptable to drive men into battle at gunpoint or to demand that they fend for themselves on foreign soil. Once thousands of soldiers have been plunked down in a “theater,” they must be defended from potentially hostile locals, a project that can easily come to supersede the original mission.

We may not be able clearly to articulate what American troops were supposed to accomplish in Iraq or Afghanistan, but without question one part of their job has been “force protection.” In what could be considered the inverse of “mission creep,” instead of expanding, the mission now has a tendency to contract to the task of self-defense.

Ultimately, the mass militaries of the modern era, augmented by ever more expensive weapons systems, place an unacceptable economic burden on the nation-states that support them—a burden that eventually may undermine the militaries themselves. Consider what has been happening to the world’s sole military superpower, the United States. The latest estimate for the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is, at this moment, at least $3.2 trillion, while total US military spending equals that of the next fifteen countries combined, and adds up to approximately 47 percent of all global military spending.

To this must be added the cost of caring for wounded and otherwise damaged veterans, which has been mounting precipitously as medical advances allow more of the injured to survive. The US military has been sheltered from the consequences of its own profligacy by a level of bipartisan political support that has kept it almost magically immune to budget cuts, even as the national debt balloons to levels widely judged to be unsustainable.

The hard right, in particular, has campaigned relentlessly against “big government,” apparently not noticing that the military is a sizable chunk of this behemoth. In December 2010, for example, a Republican senator from Oklahoma railed against the national debt with this statement: “We're really at war. We're on three fronts now: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial tsunami [arising from the debt] that is facing us.” Only in recent months have some Tea Party–affiliated legislators broken with tradition by declaring their willingness to cut military spending.

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