Friday, May 6, 2011

Wars and Nations in These Latter Days

It’s fascinating to ponder how overwhelming military power based on huge wealth and technology have changed the nature of military conflict since the end of World War II—and in time when conflict has been swirling principally in regions that don’t really qualify as nations at all.

The last “conventional” war was the conflict between Iran and Iraq (1980-88). It’s length and horrors are not in our consciousness because it did not involve us directly; and because it did not involve overwhelming might and wealth, it harked back to the past. Our last conventional war was in Korea; it came soon after World War II. All other wars since have been of the guerrilla kind, including Vietnam and the Iraqi conflict. Iraq’s military melted away: no point in fighting shock and awe. Standing armies maneuvering over wide terrain have become temporarily obsolete. Conflict hasn’t disappeared but contenders have adapted to the American reality. Those who’d challenge us—or whose we choose to challenge—must remain invisible. They must make themselves indistinguishable from the population. They must inflict deadly damage in small but many times multiplied doses on relatively isolated pockets of the patrolling overlords. The actual fighting isn’t therefore between armies, corps, or army groups but small, ranger-style combat teams facing irregulars and road-side bombers.

Areas targeted by the us (we mustn’t really call them nations) are fragmented and therefore collectively incoherent jumbles of conflicting interests. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are obvious examples. If American force were removed from these places overnight, civil war would be the immediate consequence as these disturbed societies would once again attempt to establish a, for them, still mythical unity absent even before we came—except on the surface.

Each of these places represents a successor state to colonial rule of some sort—Ottoman, British, Russian, and the British Raj. Iraq? A rough-formed dumpling made of Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish bits of dough left over by the Ottomans and re-formed by British imperial cooks. Afghanistan? The battle-ground of half-a-dozen civilizations, an unsymmetrical patchwork quilt of tribal peoples of whom Pashtuns are the most numerous—eleven different language groups. Pakistan? It was virtually impossible to separate just the Muslim parts of India and make a coherent state from it in the days of Ali Jinnah and the breakup of the British Raj. The Muslims are not all Sunni, the conflicts with the Shi’ite minority flare frequently. Nearly 3 million Hindus couldn’t quite make it out of there back in the British days. And on the western edge of the country are tribal areas literally escaping all effective rule—and these tribes intermixed and often in conflict too.

In Pakistan itself I discern five or six semi-independent forces: the military, the intelligence portion of the military, the nobility, the Sunni street, the Shi’ite minority, and the western tribes. Speaking of Pakistan as if it meant anything genuinely coherent is just a manner of speaking that remains without content until we understand exactly which parts we’re talking about and how these parts are currently aligned against and/or with others—and the ambiguous “and/or” is very pertinent to such areas as these. Not surprisingly we can intervene at will anywhere in Pakistan; there is no single power that effectively rules there.

The fighting itself is interesting. We move huge masses of troops, tanks, armor to distant lands. There we build, at vast expense, American settlements for them—with all of the necessary infrastructure not least huge embassies housed in city-sized palaces to govern over our presence. But the actual fighting is by tiny groups; ours arrive sometimes riding mules because the helicopters cannot land. Fighting is by exposure—to improvised explosive devices. Or by exposure—to sniper fire. Bombing is no longer deployed to destroy an opposing nation’s productive might. We spare factories and power plants; we need them for the soon-to-follow nation-building step. But building nations out of raw materials like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan requires millennia, not years. Bombing is of compounds or of vehicles moving on roads; collateral damage is therefore unavoidable.

But I note that our ways of thought remain behind, still rooted in modes of thinking appropriate for World War II. We still treat vast aggregations of jumbled ethnic and tribal societies as if they were nations; we act as if the enemy is centrally directed by the equivalent of a nation state; we go to war as if we’re facing armies when in fact we’re facing persistent but endlessly many pockets of resistance, people who already act as if they felt—in their bones, perhaps?—that civilization as we know is the past and not the future. But we keep stumbling, fumbling, flailing on. Why? Because we can still afford it? An image rises in my mind. It is of a theatrical company engaged in a performance. A tornado has just ripped up the theater and carried it off. The company remains on stage under the open sky, surrounded by ravaged trees. But the actors continue on; they voice lines with flawless enunciation, follow stage directions with strict discipline, stand before a mirror that just flew away, pretend to handle objects no longer there. Why? The show! It must go on!


  1. This post has striking imagery. The topic is grim but the images you conjure are quite... elegant.

  2. I'm surprised John had nothing to say about the term "conventional" war. Even if you did use quotation marks!


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