I have been pondering why modern Westernized man has such a problem successfully waging war for a few days and had a breakthrough recently. Before we can really get to that, a few brief thoughts are in order.
First, what is war? Most people would probably agree that war is armed conflict between states, at least that is the classical definition. I would add the modern caveat of armed conflict with what are euphemistically called non-state actors (IRA, AL-Qaeda, FARC, etc.). These two definitions are good enough for my current purposes although I don’t think they really cover everything that we should or could call war.
Second, what constitutes victory? According to Clausewitz victory is “the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces and the conquest of his territory.”1 Sun-Tzu does not specifically define victory although it is possible to deduce that he envisions victory in essentially the same terms as does Clausewitz.
Third, what does war consist of? This is the difficult one for the modern Westerner to accept. War is violence, but not just violence in general, and here is where the modern mind fails to make a connection. Violence in war is directed, purposeful violence. Many like to say that violence is war is nonsensical and that is simply not so. All, and I mean all violence in war has a purpose, even if some people cannot discern that purpose.
Consider this, Western leaders like to claim that terrorists commit random violence. That is a lie and pure propaganda. Terrorists commit their acts of violence for a specific purpose, to generate terror. They hope that terror will compel their enemies to come to terms. Terrorists don’t just pick random target for the most part although they do commit random violence as well, also to generate terror. Terrorists hope that by creating terror they will influence public opinion. Sometimes it works as in Spain in 2004, which influenced the Spanish lection and was directly responsible for Spain pulling their troops out of Iraq. Mostly, it does not, as in the 9/11 attacks on the US or the London bus and underground bombings of 2005. One could say that most terrorist attacks fail in their purpose, but you cannot say they are purposeless. Terrorists do apply random violence, as in the rockets fired at Israel from Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon or suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan. These attacks also have a purpose. In the final analysis though terrorism is a strategy of the weak.
Consider war as waged by Western armies. In World War II, the Nazis used terror in the east in an attempt to subdue the Slavs of Poland and Russia. A task they signally failed at. The Nazis also used terror in their bombing campaign against Britain, another failure. All the combatants of World War II tried to destroy the fighting forces of their enemies and they used violence to try and achieve this. The allied bombing of Germany in World War II was violence with a purpose. Actually a dual purpose, to spread terror and destroy Germany’s ability to logistically support their armies in the field. In World War I all the combatants eventually settled on trying to kill off all their opponents’ soldiers in a macabre last man standing contest that was only cut short by US entry on the allied side. In Korea, violence was used to kill the enemy and conquer territory, in Vietnam the US tried to kill off the insurgents attempting to overthrow the RVN government. The VC and NVA tried to kill as many Americans as possible to influence US public opinion and used terror to intimidate the RVN leadership and people into submission. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US and NATO are trying to use violence to kill the insurgents while attempting to protect the population from the terror violence of their enemies.
In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we see the effects of the modern Western approach to war. The west flinched and is flinching from applying all the violence they could/can to achieve decisive victory.
1. von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976 (p. 92)