Monday, February 18, 2008

The Death of War

The Globe & Mail will be hosting an online discussion of Canada's role in the world on Tuesday, led by a panel consisting of David Eaves, Lloyd Axworthy and Jack Granatstein. To start things off, each of them has produced an op-ed piece outlining their take on Canada's role. I found Axworthy's to be particularly insightful, and it got me thinking about the rapidly changing face of foreign policy and, more specifically, the role of the military.

It has long been observed that the military, as an institution, tends to fight the previous war rather than the present one. The nature of military hierarchy makes this inevitable, as those in the highest ranks are those whose knowledge and experience are almost entirely based in 20 or 30 year-old conflicts. And the more quickly technology and geo-political circumstances change, the more this tendency becomes a problem.

My question is this: has the world reached a point where all traditional notions of war and the role of the military have become obsolete?

Now before you all start frothing at the mouth, let me qualify that by saying that I still believe there is still a need for armed forces in this world. As long as violence is perpetrated against innocent people, there will be the need for others with the ability and the will to protect them with physical force.

What disturbs me, particularly in the debate over Afghanistan but also more generally, is the tendency of some people to continually frame the question in World War II terms. They talk about honour and glory and military might, and they denounce peacekeeping and security as unmanly pursuits advocated by Nancy-boys and tourists. Worse, they continue to cling to the notion that wars can still be won through the application of bigger armies and superior firepower.

Surely Vietnam should have disabused us all of that notion.

War itself, in the traditional sense of a conflict between two or more nations resulting in a winner and a loser, seems to be becoming extinct. Ethnic conflicts, civil wars and terrorism are now the norm, and yet we still insist on using archaic terms like 'war' - as in 'the War on Terror', 'the War in Afghanistan', even 'the War on Drugs' - to refer to conflicts that do not involve one state vs. another, that do not follow the traditional rules or tactics of war, and that are by their very nature open-ended and ultimately unwinnable.

Lester Pearson was one of the first to begin to address this new reality by establishing the notion of 'peacekeeping' during the Suez Crisis. It's a brilliant concept and one that has been extremely effective in several conflicts since. Unfortunately, peacekeeping only applies to very limited types of situations: specifically, those where there is already a peace to keep. Chronic insurgencies, ethnic-based civil wars and terrorism still defy traditional military solutions.

I am not a military person or a foreign policy analyst. I don't know what the solution is. But I do know that we are going to need to make a radical shift in our thinking if we are going to find one.

We must begin by acknowledging a fundamental paradox: that those who are directly involved in the military and military culture have a vested interest in their own continued existence. If peace were to actually become the norm, all these guys would be out of a job.

Therefore, while it is vital to have experienced members of the military involved in foreign policy decisions, we cannot assume that their advice is necessarily going to help advance the cause of peace. So when a Colonel or a General says we should follow a particular course of action in, say, Afghanistan, as impressive as their credentials might be, we need to be mindful that even with the best of intentions, their advice may simply propose the best course of action for the military, and not for us as a country or for the people we are trying to help.

We also need to recognize that the military can only be one part of any long-lasting solution to world violence and conflict. Simply marching in waving the biggest dick stick not only continues to fail to bring the desired results, but in most cases exacerbates the situation. Diplomacy, aid and development, training and education, are all at least as vital in putting an end to violent conflict as armed security and combat.

And yes, sometimes it will be necessary to go out and kill people who are trying to kill others. But if that continues to be the primary focus of a military culture obsessed with reliving past glories rather than actively contributing to making peace, then the level of violence in the world can only continue to increase.

(crossposted at Kats 'n Dawgs.)

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