The End of War
War doesn’t work anymore. From Iraq to Afghanistan to the Palestinian conflict, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the oldest method in human history for resolving disputes has become obsolete.
It’s not that war is wrong (it usually is). It’s not that war is ghastly (it always is). The simple fact is that war as a strategy to achieve a desired outcome no longer functions.
Look no further than the ongoing debacle in Iraq. The US, with a large well-trained and equipped professional military is mired in a loosing struggle with determined insurgency equipped mainly with small arms and improvised roadside bombs.
After spending more than $450 billion and counting, perhaps the most effective fighting force in history still cannot pacify a country with no organized military opposition, even when the prize is the second biggest oil reserves in the world.
The grizzly human toll mounts even as prospect of a military victory fades daily. Coalition forces have so far lost over 3,500 soldiers. Over 26,000 have been wounded. Last year the Lancet estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had lost their lives to violence since the invasion in 2003.
Even while saddled with arguably the most docile and jingoistic media in the developed world, the American public is demanding an end to this fiasco. Two thirds of the US public currently opposes the war. Over half believe that it is creating more terrorists than reducing the threat from terrorism.
This last point is key. The strategy of trying to pacify a population by killing those that don’t agree with you may have worked for millennia but has now become plainly counterproductive. It is like trying to fight a fire with kerosene.
With every door kicked in, every person humiliated, every loved one killed, there are more bereaved and enraged people willing to join an insurgency. This ad-hoc volunteer force of combatants is becoming an unbeatable foe for the world’s leading military powers.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a poignant example of this emerging reality. Pound for pound, Israel has one of the most effective militaries in the world. They also have employed a grimly well-honed policy of disproportionate retribution.
There is no doubt that the various groups apposed to Israel know very well that the Jewish state can and will exact a very high cost for every action against them. This strategy, with its gruesome human toll on both sides, has been going on for generations, yet has utterly failed to end the conflict, or to protect Israeli citizens.
So what has changed? Why has is it become so much easier to mount a crippling insurgency? One factor is the global profusion of small arms. There are now about 600 million in circulation in the world, which cause some 500,000 deaths each year.
The cost of a new AK-47 in Iraq is about $200. In Afghanistan, a used one is a bargain at about $10. Bullets are 30 cents each. A rocket launcher in Baghdad can be had for about $100.
According to author Stephen Flynn, “weapons like the AK-47 are so plentiful that they can be had for the price of a chicken in Uganda, the price of a goat in Kenya, and the price of a bag of maize in Mozambique or Angola.”
With so many weapons in circulation, the historic advantage of a well-armed military over an unarmed occupied civilian population is becoming lost.
The other new factor is the deadly and recent phenomenon of suicide bombing. Developed as a tactic in the Lebanese civil war only in the 1980’s, it has become a frighteningly effective tool that military powers are virtually powerless to prevent.
Between 1980 and 2003, suicide attacks accounted for only 3% of terrorist attacks worldwide but 48% of deaths due to terrorism. A conventional army trained to fight other soldiers is of little practical use against such extreme tactics.
Contrary to popular opinion, most suicide bombers are not motivated by religious fanaticism. According to Robert Pape’s seminal book on the subject “Dying to Win”, 95% of suicide attacks have had one strategic goal: to remove an occupier.
Not surprisingly, places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, where suicide tactics are commonplace, are also examples where it has become virtually impossible to win a military solution.
It spite of the waning utility of war, like many sunset industries, it will be subsidized long after it makes sense to do so. Military spending around the world has increased 34% since 1996 and currently eats up $1.2 trillion each year – 46% of which is accounted for by the US alone.
Instead of throwing good money after bad, we should admit that most military interventions are no longer effective and reallocate those resources towards preventing conditions that lead to conflict. Rather than lamenting the end of war, we should embrace the possibilities it creates.
The US government spends 32 times more on the military than foreign aid. Globally, aid is less than 7% of military spending. Based on those numbers, the potential to make the world a more civil, just and peaceful place is enormous.
The so-called “war on terror” will not be won on a battlefield; it will be resolved through economic development, fair trade practices, strategic assistance and respectful negotiation.
Like slavery, subjugation of women and eugenics, the age of war has come and gone. It will not be missed.
This piece was published in the Tyee and the Ottawa Citizen.