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.
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.