Who have been the real killers? I'm rereading John Keegan's 1993 book A History of Warfare, which I didn't quite grasp my first time through a decade ago. A difficult book, it's Keegan's attempt to refute Clausewitz's On War, to show that following out "the logic of war" to its conclusion leads not to rationality but to madness and self-destruction. Keegan promotes the more diffident approaches to warmaking traditionally popular outside the West.
It's starting to make more sense to me today, as war fever is promoted in America again. For example, Charles Krauthammer, who will probably next be worrying about the mineshaft gap, proclaims in the Washington Post today that Iran, a nation with a 2,500 year history of military mediocrity going back to the Battle of Marathon and a current military budget a tiny fraction of America's, is far more dangerous than the Soviet Union ever was:
The mullahs are infinitely more likely to use these weapons than anyone in the history of the nuclear age. Every city in the civilized world will live under the specter of instant annihilation delivered either by missile or by terrorist. ... Against millenarian fanaticism glorying in a cult of death, deterrence is a mere wish.
Krauthammer claims he wants an air strike, but, as we saw with Israel blasting Lebanon from the air with limited effect on their dug-in enemies, that's likely to fail. So, having poked the hornets nest, we would then be advocated into a ground invasion of Iran to finish the war. Getting to Tehran from Baghdad by tank is kind of like getting to Denver from Salt Lake City -- lots of mountains -- but it can be done. But then what? Iran will be like Iraq but three times bigger. Down that road lies horrifying possibilities, such as an Army revolt and the end of Constitutional government in Washington, or nuclear genocide.
In his "Conclusion" chapter, Keegan contrasts three civilizations' approaches to war over the vast sweep of history:
"Oriental warmaking [i.e., Chinese and Islamic], if we may so identify and denominate it as something different and apart from European warfare, is characterised by traits peculiar to itself. Foremost among these are evasion, delay, and indirectness...
"The Confucian ideal of rationality, continuity and maintenance of institutions led them to seek means of subordinating the warrior impulse to the constraints of law and custom ... the most persistent feature of Chinese military life was moderation, designed to preserve cultural forms rather than serve imperatives of foreign conquest or internal revolution.
"Restraint in warmaking was also a feature of the other dominant civilization of Asia, that of Islam. The perception is contrary. Islam is widely seen as a religion of conquest and one of if its most widely known tenets is that of the obligation to wage holy war against the unbeliever. The history of Islamic conquest and the exact nature of the doctrine of holy warmaking are both misunderstood outside the Muslim community. The era of conquest was comparatively short-lived and came to an end not simply because Islam's opponents learnt how to mobilize opposition to it but also because Islam itself became divided over the morality of warmaking.
Riven by internal disputes which set Muslim against Muslim, in defiance of the doctrine that they should not fight against each, its supreme authority chose the solution of devolving the warmaking role on to a specialist and subordinate class of warriors recruited for the purpose [i.e.., slave soldiers, such as the Mamelukes of Egypt], thus freeing the majority from military obligations and allowing the pious to emphasize in their personal lives the 'greater' rather than the 'lesser' aspect of the injunction to wage holy war, 'the war against self.'
As the specialists chosen by Islam to wage war in its name were chiefly recruited from steppe horsemen [e.g., Turks] who refused to adapt their military culture to changed circumstances even when their monopoly of arms brought them to power [slave soldiers often took over the state, but typically maintained their own slave status, bizarrely], Islamic warmaking eventually became almost as circumscribed as within Chinese civilization. Within the culture the effects were widely beneficial.
Once that culture encountered the full force of another, which recognized none of the constraints the Oriental [Asian] tradition had imposed upon itself, it succumbed to a ruthlessness it was not prepared or able to mobilize even in self-defence.
That culture was Western.
Why have we Westerners been, on the whole, the most ruthless and efficient killers in human history? Keegan continues:
It comprised three elements: ... moral, intellectual, and technological...
- The moral element is owed to the Greeks of the classical age. It was they who, in the fifth century BC, cut loose from the constraints of the primitive style ... and adopted the practice of face-to-face battle to the death.
As the War Nerd says, the human default is "war without battles" -- lots of ambushes and massacres of civilians and the occasional exchange of arrows or rocks at a distance close enough to show off one's manliness but not so close as to get many warriors actually killed -- but battle in the Greek style, with edged metal weapons hacking the flesh of opposing warriors at arms-length, was too terrifying for most cultures.
This departure, confined initially to warfare among the Greeks themselves, was deeply shocking to those outside the Greek world who were first exposed to it. The story of Alexander the Great's encounter with Persia, an empire whose style of warmaking contained elements both of primitive ritual and of the horse warrior's evasiveness is ... a paradigm of cultural difference. The Emperor Darius is a genuinely tragic figure, for the civilisation that he represented was quite unprepared to contend with enemies who could not be bought or talked off after they had won an advantage, who sought always to bring the issue to the test of battle and who fought in battle as if its immediate outcome took precedence over all other considerations, including that of personal survival...
- [The Crusades] resolved the inherent Christian dilemma over the morality of warmaking by transmitting to the West the ethic of holy war, which was thereafter to invest Western military culture with an ideological and intellectual dimension it had thitherto lacked.
- The combination of the face-to-face style -- in which the ethic of personal honour was embedded -- with that ideological dimension then only awaited the addition of the technological element [e.g., gunpoweder] to produce the final Western manner of warmaking... The Western world, by forsaking arms control [in contrast to, for example, the Japanese banning guns after 1601 to preserve the trained samurai swordsman's monopoly on violence and power], embarked on a different course, which resulted in the form of warfare that Clausewitz said was war itself...
The Western way of warfare was to carry all before it in the years after Clausewitz died [1832-1913]...
The triumph of the Western way of warfare was, however, delusive. Directed against other military cultures it had proved irresistible. Turned in on itself it brought disaster and threatened catastrophe.
The First World War, fought almost exclusively between European states, terminated European dominance of the world and, through the suffering it inflicted on the participant populations, corrupted what was best in their civilisation -- its liberalism and hopefulness -- and conferred on militarists and totalitarians the role of proclaiming the future. The future they wanted brought about the Second World War which completed the ruin initiated by the First. It also brought about the development of nuclear weapons, the logical culmination of the technological trend in the Western way of warfare, and the ultimate denial of the proposition that war was, or might be, a continuation of politics by other means.
Politics must continue; war cannot.
Countries can change fairly rapidly -- Japan went from a land armed with swords in 1853 to having (briefly) the world's most dangerous aircraft carrier fleet. The Chinese fought like Europeans during the Warring States period, before Empire blunted their competitive streak.
Still, I don't see any evidence at all of Iran becoming a dynamic predator. It's kind of like Mexico, only more ramshackle. Its overall GDP is about half of Mexico's.
So, why do we hear about Iran all the time lately? Obviously, one big reason is because the GOP can't think what else to run on in November. They could run and win on restricting immigration, but there's the little problem that President Bush desperately wants to open the borders up.
Another reason is that there aren't too many other candidates left for us to play the Great Game of Nations with.
It's fun to maneuver for supposed national advantage, even if most of the time the ploys are either essentially pointless (readers of a certain age will remember the apparent crisis when the Soviet Union abandoned its ally Somalia to take up with "strategically-located" Ethiopia, thus causing a devastating setback to essential American interests, such as they were, in the highlands of Abyssinia) or simply for the benefit of narrow domestic special interests (practically nobody in America other than the United Fruit Co. cared about the banana republics that poor Gen. Smedley Butler and his Marines kept getting sent to).
Three years ago the big threat to America was supposed to be Saddam Hussein, but he turned out to be an old man pursuing his literary interests (when he was captured in his hole in the ground, he was reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment) by writing romance novels. So this year, the most dangerous man in the world is supposed to be Iran's newly elected President Borat, who is said to be re-assembling the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great, mostly, it seems, by running his mouth off nonstop.
Finally, there is the obvious but largely unmentionable fact that much of the media elite, such as Krauthammer, are obsessed with Israel for personal ethnocentric reasons rather than anything remotely related to the (American) national interest. Israel is what gives their aging lives meaning.
America actually does have a long term strategic rival that is worth worrying about. It's a country with about 18 times the population of Iran and about a standard deviation higher average IQ. But competing with China in an effective fashion would involve doing the hard, unpleasant work of preserving some of America's industrial base, rather than letting Wal-Mart outsource it all to China. So, forget that. Instead, let's talk about the latest horrible thing President Borat said.