“The allure of battle would matter little had not the long wars it led to altered the course of world history in conflicts of prolonged destruction and suffering, in wars…that lasted many years or even many decades.” Thus wrote military historian Cathal J Nolan in his 2017 award-winning book, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost.
Back in 1995, political scientist, James D Fearon, argued in his article Rationalist Explanations for War that none of the principal rationalist arguments adequately addresses the central puzzle, “namely that war is costly and risky, so rational states should have incentives to locate negotiated settlements that all would prefer to the gamble of war.”
Fearon opened his article by saying that “The central puzzle about war, and the reason we study it, is that wars are costly but nonetheless wars recur.”
That puzzle stays with us. Why?
There are many reasons, but at the heart of it is the desire to win decisively. What exactly is victory? Capt Emile Simpson, a British, infantry officer, has a vignette in his book, War From the Ground Up: “In April 1975 in Hanoi, a week before the fall of Saigon, Colonel Harry Summers of the US Army told his North Vietnamese counterpart Colonel Tu, ‘You never beat us on the battlefield’, to which Tu replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant’.”
So, while military professionals and politicians look for a decisive win, Nolan says “it is the single hardest thing to do, to translate combat into achievement of an important strategic and political goal that the other side is forced to recognise and accept when the war is over.”
But the allure of battle doesn’t die down. The idea of surprising the enemy, the thought that a decapitation is a win, that the “Qualities of Firsts” — HR McMaster’s term — will allow a superior military force to “see first, decide first, act first, and finish decisively,” that Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which rests on “an important suite of military capabilities,” would take on a hapless enemy, deliver firepower and leave on a high note. This, as McMaster noted “neglects war’s political and human dimensions. It equates targeting to tactics, operations, and strategy. And this [vampire] fallacy neglects war’s uncertainty based mainly on interactions with determined and elusive enemies.”
But McMaster’s second fallacy, what he calls the zero-dark-thirty fallacy is even more interesting. In the same discussion on “the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare,” he explained it thus: “The zero-dark-thirty fallacy, like the vampire fallacy, elevates an important military capability, raiding, to the level of a defence strategy. The US capability to conduct raids against networked terrorist organisations is portrayed as a substitute for rather than a compliment to conventional Joint Force capabilities. Raids, because they are operations of short duration, limited purpose and planned withdrawal, are often unable to effect the human and political drivers of armed conflict or make progress toward achieving sustainable outcomes consistent with vital interests.”
Similar arguments have been presented by Lawrence Freedman in The Future of War: A History. The crux is that a decisive battle or strike is not war; two, there’s no single war. What historians called WWI and WWII were multiple wars being fought which were then clubbed under one rubric. Just like the Balkans in the run-up to WWI, today’s Greater Middle East is witnessing multiple wars and fault-lines.
In a June 30, 2014 article, “Perpetual Conflict” for Newsweek Pakistan, I listed ten reasons for why future wars/conflicts will be perpetual: “…to quote Crow, the alter ego of Kafka Tamura in Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore, no war in this conflict will end all wars. This war will be a ‘perfect, self-contained being’.”
In the 25th Chapter of his book, Freedman has an opening blurb from journalist Matti Friedman’s book, Pumpkin Flowers: “I had been at the start of something: of a new era in which conflict surges, shifts, or fades but doesn’t end, in which the most you can hope for is not peace, or the arrival of a better age, but only to remain safe as long as possible.”
Now read this tweet by Donald Trump in light of the above: “He [Qassem Suleimani] was a monster. And he’s no longer a monster. He’s dead. He was planning a big attack, a bad attack for us. I don’t think anyone can complain about it.”
If this is strategy by the commander of the world’s most powerful military, then the world, including the Americans, should be greatly worried.
Here are some quick thoughts apropos of the US-Iran standoff:
One, most commentary, predictably, is coming out of the US; regardless of whether penned by those who hail the action, those, like Max Boot, who think the action was necessary but Trump didn’t think it through and those, like Packer, who think it was a blunder, there’s a common strand: Suleimani had blood on his hands, he was a monster etc. This is typical. The enemy always has blood on his hands; Realist actions are the preserve of the US; others must pay homage to John Locke. So, Bush Sr. or Jr. don’t have blood on their hands, the US generals don’t, but Suleimani did.
This is narrative-building; we have seen this vis-a-vis every state the US thinks doesn’t toe Washington’s line. The irony is that this goes dead against what McNamara’s lessons reveal in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert Strange McNamara. His first lesson, with reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, was to empathise with the enemy. Does this administration have any adult in the room who could do that? Your guess is as good as mine.
Two, there’s much speculation about how events will unfold; the history of how wars begin and how they proceed has one, constant lesson, almost an axiomatic truth: no one can make predictions about jus ad bellum, much less jus in bello and, therefore, the final outcome, the drag, the fog or, as we have recently seen, no outcome at all except piles and piles of dead bodies and rubble.
Three, Suleimani’s assassination will not establish deterrence. Quite the contrary. Anyone arguing otherwise is either stupid or has a vested interest (like Israel) in a war; it will have no real impact on how Iran operates; if anything, the flash points have just become more critical.
Four, during my fellowship at the Brookings Institution, I saw the run-up to the Iraq War from a ringside seat. At the Saban Centre working dinners, my argument was simple: the US will destroy the Iraqi conventional capabilities in at most 4 to 6 weeks; beyond that lies the unknown. Corollary: it’s not about the US driving to Iraq to meet an accident; it’s akin to the US driving to Iraq to seek an accident.
So, the long and the short of it is that no one in the US or elsewhere really knows what will come next or what kind of miscalculation could lead to what consequences. There are indications that neither Iran nor the US wants a war even though both are committed to striking back. That’s the area of instability.
But we all are writing and analysing because that’s what writers with deadlines do.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He is fascinated by human stupidity in places of power. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider