War by Other Means – April 24, 2011

A common theme in science fiction is the various means by which enlightened future human societies avoid war. After all, war is an obscenity. It destroys the young of a generation, absorbs money and resources that could certainly be put to better use, and in the country where it’s fought, destroys civilian lives and infrastructure.

If a civilized society can keep individuals from settling their differences with fists, weapons, and murderous intent, why can’t a civilized—or nearly civilized—planet teach its nations the same restraint? We deal with individual aggression by shunning the aggressors and taking them into custody, and by providing alternative means of conflict resolution through contracts, courts, and restitution. Wouldn’t the same principles work with the aggregate of individuals that is a nation?

Ancient Examples

The countries that ring the Mediterranean1 offer the ancient tradition of combat between champions. When two armies lined up for battle, the best fighters, champions of the army or the king, would sometimes step forward and offer to settle the dispute by fighting in single combat. Supposedly, the side whose champion won would take the field. The side whose champion lost would sigh, grieve for a bit, and go home.

But I don’t think it ever worked out that way. When David killed Goliath in the Valley of Elah, the Philistines cried out and fled—and then the Israelites pursued and cut them down. On an open field, when you’re pinning your hopes of staying alive on the big guy, you naturally lose interest and want to withdraw when he’s bested, but it’s always unwise to turn your back on an enemy who’s armed and ready for battle. Take another example, when Achilles killed Hector before the gates of Troy. The Trojans did not then surrender, open their gates, and submit to Greek rule and plunder. Too much was at stake, and a pretty good army was still at hand and ready to fight for its home town.

No, single combat was more a show of heroics by the team’s quarterbacks than an alternative resolution to the battle. But the example raises an interesting point: what are the stakes?

International Cops and Courts

Our world is slowly, fitfully, with much trial and error groping toward international conflict resolution along the lines of a civil society’s alternatives for interpersonal resolution. First the League of Nations and the World Court were erected after World War I, then the United Nations and its International Court of Justice at The Hague came after World War II. The idea in both cases was that member nations who signed on to each body would establish international laws, abide by the assembly’s rules, and submit to its court’s judgment in disputes.

It’s a nice idea.

The small nations that are without military force or ambition cling to the premise of world justice most seriously. The large nations with standing armies—mostly those left over from the last world war—regard world justice as a good thing and support it with their words, their money, and donated troops, but they don’t actually disband their own armies and navies. The small nations with military force and ambition take a “catch me if you can” attitude.

Any system of assembly and judgment depends, ultimately, on the teeth willing to enforce the words. The Latin for this is “sub poena” or “under penalty.” You are brought before the court, or you disobey its judgments, under the threat of what? A sheriff and his deputies bearing long swords or large guns and the will to use them? Or a society of scolds who will point their fingers and cry “for shame”?

The League of Nations had no teeth. The U.N. currently offers “peacekeepers” whose blue-helmeted ranks are drawn from member nations. Their mission is more policelike than warlike. They “maintain peace and security, protect civilians, assist in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, support the organization of elections, protect and promote human rights and assist in restoring the rule of law.”2 These are laudable activities, but they seem to be somewhat after the fact.

The peacekeeper’s goal is to assist host countries to “navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.” It’s hard to read into that mission statement the military objective of confronting an aggressor army in the field, breaking it, and sending it home in defeat. Instead, they “monitor a disputed border, monitor and observe peace processes in post-conflict areas, provide security across a conflict zone, protect civilians, assist in-country military personnel with training and support [presumably in the arts of defense], and assist ex-combatants in implementing the peace agreements they may have signed.”3 Peacekeeping takes a long time when you’re not willing to wade in between the combatants and knock a few heads.

Peacekeeping is not necessarily “war-stopping.” It may be able to prevent continuation of war, but only after the causes of aggression have already broken out into conflict and encountered some kind of partial resolution by means unstated—presumably “peace agreements they may have signed.”

Conflict resolution by international assemblies and courts will not be possible until those bodies have the means of ending and preventing conflict. In short, the means and the will to meet and defeat aggressors with superior force. Strong and weak nations alike must put aside their armies and submit to judgment. Otherwise, the aggressor nations will submit only as an adult submits to the commands of assertive children: happily in play but not when anything real is at stake.

People who still believe in world government insist that superpowers would or should put aside their offensive and defensive weapons. Those who believe in national, state, and personal sovereignty want to see proof of principle before baring their necks.4

Chess, Checkers, and Other Games

In science fiction, future societies conduct war by other and bloodless means: they play games between nations, substituting chess masters for the battling champions of old, or they submit to computer simulations of wars that are never actually fought. But once again, the question is one of stakes and penalty.

In the classic Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon” (1967), two planets engaged in an age-old war by computer simulation were regularly lining up civilians and marching them into disintegrators when one side lost a battle. This was a means of keeping the combatants honest and the war stakes meaningful. The story’s resolution, as I remember it, was to get the two sides to agree that they had long forgotten the original basis of conflict and so declare peace.5

Nations will play games as gestures of good will, such as the Olympics in ancient Greece and its modern resurrection. But they don’t resolve conflicts that way. If they did, the system would hold until one side lost over a matter of real national priority. Then the swords would come out and the boys start marching.

If a nation is not willing to put “blood and treasure” behind its priorities, then ludicrous situations will develop. Imagine a small country such as Vietnam attacking a large one like China in a war to be resolved by playing checkers. If the dispute was relatively inconsequential, such as default in a trade or treaty agreement, then the combatants might submit to the game’s results. But suppose Vietnam launched a war of conquest on the basis of merely a game, with no force behind it except honor among nations. A reckless state might venture much on that basis. What if Vietnam won at checkers and demanded that China open its borders and submit as a vassal state forever more, upon penalty of being thought a cheat and scoundrel in the international community? Would China actually submit? Hardly. It might offer two games out of three, three out of five, five out of seven, and so on indefinitely—or gird for a physical war.

War is an obscenity. But when a people really cares about something, it’s the ultimate test of national resolve. Commitment of blood and treasure is the last resort when the chips are down.

1. And probably elsewhere for all I know, although I can’t think of examples offhand.

2. From the official United Nations Peacekeeping website’s description of peacekeeping.

3. From the United Nations Peacekeeping site’s analysis of issues including military action.

4. It’s no coincidence that people who resist national disarmament under an international regime are also usually in favor of personal weapons rights. An individual may obey the courts and police and still know that these bodies are not always present or effective. The best guarantee of protection is still personal responsibility.

5. Who forgets the basis of a war? Go to the Balkans and they can tell you whose great-great-great-uncle was killed while stealing a sheep in 1369. The differences between Hatfields and McCoys are family stories that go way back. Just because the story is old and the sting may be gone, that doesn’t mean everyone is ready to kiss and make up today. War may be stupid, but memories are long.