Monday, October 12, 2009

War and Peace

This is the third and final part of my blog series on conflict resolution. The first article defined the conventional conflict resolution space, and the range of options available. The second discussed what happens when conflict breaks the boundaries of the box. In this installment, let’s look at war (and peace) in more detail.

If you're in an office or an organization in which people have points of view — and who among us isn't? — you may feel you live in a warzone each and every day. Some people feel that way when they get home. War is, unfortunately, an all too common experience. Violence can take a lot of forms other than the physical, and psychic violence has been known to cause deep wounds.

So let's look at the personal by way of the political. How do official wars work, and what can we learn that might be useful to us in our day-to-day lives?

In the second part of this series, we established that the first element that leads to war is that each side has a need or desire so overwhelmingly important to them that they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal, even committing violence if necessary. The second element is that the two sides haven’t been able to negotiate a win/win resolution to the conflict.

What about peace? Well, peace is always achievable if you’re willing to surrender to what the other side wants, and you can’t do that if the stakes are high enough and the issue vital enough.
Peace, you see, isn’t the alternative to war. It’s the goal of war. If you win, you get an acceptable peace. If you lose, the other side gets an acceptable peace. (It’s also possible for both parties to lose.)

The alternative to war is negotiation, a resolution to the conflict that meets the fundamental needs of both parties.

To have a war, you need a situation intolerable to both sides that can’t be (or at least hasn’t been) resolved in a mutually satisfactory manner by negotiation. As a result, both parties to the conflict firmly believe they are right and justified in trying to resolve the conflict with force.

A war, according to the military theorist and historian Karl von Clausewitz, is the process of using force to impose your will on your adversary. You win a war by breaking the enemy’s moral will to resist, and thus gain the ability to force your will upon them. That leads us to three important ideas.

  1. The loser, not the winner, decides when the war is over
  2. The war ends when the loser’s moral will to resist is broken
  3. The winner wins by imposing his or her will on the loser, thus resolving the conflict

A war isn’t like a football game. You don’t decide who wins by how many points you get on the scoreboard, or whether your army kills more than the other side. In Vietnam, the US won virtually every major battle. Far more Vietnamese (North and South) died than did Americans. However, the conflict was about whether the government of North Vietnam would extend its rule over South Vietnam. They did. That means they won, and we lost.

Body counts don’t determine outcomes, at least not all by themselves. What often matters more is will. It was more important to the North Vietnamese that they won than it was important to the United States that we won, and that was enough.

Did US antiwar protests and pressure make it easier for the North Vietnamese to win? Well, yes, but that’s the point. If the US population as a whole had believed the stakes were high enough and that the price was worth it, the outcome in Vietnam would have likely been different. If the military strength and will of the South Vietnamese to self-determination under their government had been greater than the North Vietnamese drive for unification under their government, the outcome would likely have also been different.

War is a political act, or, according to von Clausewitz, “the continuation of diplomacy with the addition of other means.” This is often misquoted as “war is diplomacy by other means,” and the difference is instructive. Diplomacy is part of the process: we seek United Nations approval even as the tanks roll and the missiles fly. We may break off diplomatic relations, but through back channels dialogue goes on.

The aftermath of war is often as important as the war itself in deciding the ultimate outcome. The fundamental Allied goal of World War II was to stop the aggression of Germany and Japan, and especially the atrocities they committed against their captive populations. Both Germany and Japan were devastated, but that wasn’t enough to ensure that the Allied objective had been met. After all, both nations could rebuild. If nothing changed, it was altogether likely we’d be fighting World War III against the Axis in a generation or so.

One possible solution was to finish the job militarily: destroy each nation so thoroughly they’d never be able to rebuild. ("Before we're through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell," Admiral Bill Halsey, USN.) Another solution was to rebuild the countries to remove their incentive to commit war. Both ideas received serious consideration among the Allied powers.

In the end, the choice was to remove their incentive to wage war. In Europe, the Marshall Plan was every bit as much a part of World War II as the combat portion. In Japan, the shogunate of Gen. Douglas MacArthur forced major cultural changes upon the Japanese. Both nations are now peaceful, and war with either Axis power is highly unlikely. The German economic engine is today a force for stability in Europe, and Japan has achieved a version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by economic means that it failed to achieve by military means.

Military victory alone is usually not enough. In the American Civil War two issues were at stake: whether the southern states could unilaterally terminate their membership in the United States, and whether the Union could continue to be half slave and half free. (Southern apologists still argue that the conflict was solely about “state’s rights” and not about the institution of slavery, but the chief right in question was the right to keep slaves, as a quick perusal of the South Carolina Declaration of Secession will show.)

The United States won on the first issue. The southern states were brought forcibly back into the Union. On the other issue, it was a mixed decision. Slavery was outlawed, but the move toward full citizenship for the former slaves was derailed in the infamous Presidential election of 1876 (in which a disputed Florida vote count—among other factors—resulted in the election of a president who had lost the popular vote). Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow laws flourished for nearly a hundred more years.

In that sense, both sides lost. The South lost its bid for independence, and the North lost the battle against slavery and racism.

In our current adventure in Iraq, there are two important questions. First, was this war necessary? In other words, was there, from the US perspective, an intolerable situation that could not be resolved through negotiation? Yes, argued the Bush Administration. If we did not act quickly and decisively, it would be only a matter of time before Iraqi nuclear missiles were heading our way.

This turned out not to be the case, as we all now know. The rationale for war has shifted several times since. And even if Iraq had turned out to have weapons of mass destruction, it’s not nearly certain that negotiation was doomed to failure. War might have been inevitable, but hurrying into it is no virtue. As Colin Powell informed the President’s advisors before the war began, when it comes to Iraq, “You break it, you bought it.”

“If war is part of policy, policy will determine its character,” wrote von Clausewitz. In World War II, the doctrine of “unconditional surrender” supported the policy aim of eliminating the Axis powers’ ability to wage war. This had the advantage of military simplicity.

When the objective is more nuanced, however, military options are restricted to those that help achieve the political goal. Should we befriend the conquered civilians or terrorize them so they’ll more easily bend to our will? It depends on the objective.

What were the Bush objectives in Iraq? According to the Bush White House website’s “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” one goal was to achieve “an Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country…integrated into the international community, an engine for regional economic growth, and proving the fruits of democratic governance to the region.” There are short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals to be met, but that’s the desired ultimate outcome.

The Iraqi insurgents saw the goal pretty much the same way, but their definition of “peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure” was a little bit different. There is, after all, nothing more peaceful than a dead enemy.

Is there a purely military solution to Iraq? When Gaius Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls at Uxellodunum in 51 BC, he cut off the hands of all the defeated soldiers and scattered the victims throughout the country. His goal was to pacify the Gauls, who had repeatedly fought Roman domination. Although Caesar had previously shown mercy to his defeated enemies (at least by the standards of the day), he understood that he had to send a lesson that would stop further uprisings. It worked; there were no more revolts against Roman rule.

As awful as chopping off tens of thousands of hands sounds, there is some logic to it. If you want to pacify the enemy for once and for all, it often takes an action of this horrific magnitude. Sherman’s march to the sea and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are more modern examples.

In the same sense that a surgeon does you no favor by cutting with a dull knife, a leader who commits his or her nation to war had better be absolutely clear about what has to be done to achieve the goal. If you don’t want to chop off hands, pillage the landscape, or vaporize cities, you’d better not go to war in the first place. If you go to war because the other alternatives seem even worse, you can’t afford to shrink from the actions necessary to win.

The reverse is true as well. If violence is bad, then counterproductive or unnecessary violence is clearly worse. Some acts (see: torture memo) seem expedient and even courageous at the time, the mark of a leader willing to do what it takes. A little perspective, however, reveals the underlying flaw. War exists across a wide spectrum of activities — diplomacy, nation building, foreign aid, economic sanctions, and more. The military portion is often a small part, and not infrequently the highest and best purpose of the military is to sit around and look tough in hopes of discouraging the opposition.

War is about force, but force isn’t automatically the same thing as violence. A lawsuit, for example, is a way to settle a conflict by force. If the two sides settle, the court doesn’t have to act. If neither side can reach an acceptable settlement, then the court imposes a solution by using the force of law. There’s economic warfare, in which the power of one economy is used to dominate and subjugate other nations.

Here's one more option for a different kind of war. A London-educated Indian lawyer named Mohandas K. Gandhi reinterpreted von Clausewitz in a new light. The situation for Indians in the British raj was, as far as he was concerned, unacceptable, nor did it seem to yield to negotiation, fulfilling the basic requirements for war. Violence had been tried many times, but the superbly trained British forces had regularly defeated numerically stronger Indian armies ever since the Battle of Plassey (1757), when fewer than 1,000 British troops defeated an army of over 50,000 Indians through a combination of political intrigue and a fortuitous rainstorm.

The first step to imposing your will on your adversary is to deprive them of their weapons. The British had more and better weapons than the Indians. The British also considered themselves morally and racially superior, and Gandhi saw in that an opportunity. If the Indians fought, the British could shoot them. But if the Indians ostentatiously eschewed the use of violence, it would become progressively more difficult for the British to use their military might. World opinion and their own sense of moral superiority both worked against the British. By refusing to use the relatively few guns on the Indian side, Gandhi forced the British to put aside a far greater number of guns.

But make no mistake: this was war. The British had no intention of abandoning the “jewel in the crown.” It took force—in this case moral force—to bring them to the negotiating table.

A black pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, took Gandhi’s lessons to heart. White southern segregationists were happy to use violence to maintain the status quo, and believed they were morally right in so doing. If southern blacks attempted to use violence to improve their position, they would surely lose.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to apply the techniques of Gandhi’s nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, the white segregationists responded violently. However, as the pictures of that violence spread, moral outrage cost the segregationist cause far more than their guns, dynamite and dogs achieved. Ultimately, moral force trumped physical force, and the legal structures of segregation fell.

Nonviolence and peace aren’t synonyms. Neither Gandhi nor King were willing to accept peace on any terms other than their own, and both ultimately won victory for their cause—even though both paid for that victory with their own lives.

The nonviolence strategy works better for the side that wants a change in the status quo. In the Israeli-Palestine conflict, regardless of your personal opinion of who’s right and who’s wrong, the Palestinians are the side that wants change (their own nation, the destruction of the “Zionist entity,” or simple self-determination) and the Israelis are the side that wants status quo (nationhood, secure borders) — and the Israelis are militarily far more powerful.

By using violence against Israel, regardless of whether that violence is justified or unjustified, the Palestinians ultimately weaken their chance of success. Israel can point to Palestinian acts in support of their own behavior, and as noted, they have greater military might. If the Palestinians adopted the methods of Gandhi and King, they would neutralize a lot of Israel’s military advantage, and ultimately be more likely to achieve their goals.

If you’re against this war (or, as the bumper sticker has it, already against the next war), talk is cheap. What you need is to apply moral and political force, and to do that, you have to think like a general. Gandhi and King led forces into battle, both physical and moral, and if you want to achieve your goals, so do you. A mere protest march is unlikely to achieve anything more than moral satisfaction to the marchers, but if you get enough of the people (or the right people) on your side, the equation changes.

Nicolo Machiavelli famously advised, “A Prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline.” Singing you “ain’t gonna study war no more” won’t achieve your goals. The more you’re against war and violence, the more you need to understand it. You must counter (physical) force with (moral) force, and you must be willing to impose your will upon your adversaries. Sentiment and good thoughts aren’t a substitute for meaningful action.

Squeamishness isn’t principle. A meat-eater cannot morally despise the butcher. When it comes to war, averting your eyes and avoiding understanding isn’t pacifism. Sometimes justice matters more than “peace at any price.” When conflict can be resolved by negotiation, everyone wins. When negotiation fails, you can surrender or you can fight. If you fight, you have to fight in a way that helps you achieve your goals; otherwise, you're probably going to make things worse.

Going to war is always a bad idea, although it may not always be the worst idea.

If possible, negotiate your way out.

If not possible, plan to win.

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