Wednesday, November 06, 2013

On war

I write under the above heading with apologies to Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and many others. What inspires me to write on this occasion is that a relative sent me a rather heartfelt rendition of a famous Australian antiwar song.  It is here.  It uses a lot of Australian English so is unlikely to be fully understood by non-Australians  -- but you will undoubtedly get the gist of it.

The thing that characterizes all antiwar songs that I know is that they take a very superficial view of war. They see the suffering and waste and make no effort to see WHY the suffering and waste took place.  They think it is sufficiently profound to deplore war rather than attempt to understand it.

And a lot of people in general do that.  They speak of the "folly" of war, which is in fact a confession that they do not understand it. And I imagine that anyone reading here has been confronted by such sentiments at some time or other.  I thought therefore that it might be useful to set out in a simple way how war is to be explained.  Some people seem to need such an explanation.

The first thing to note is that conquered people are often treated very badly by victor nations.  It can be literally a matter of life and death.  There are therefore very good reasons to fight a defensive war.  You may avoid oppression that way.  And that is the basic argument for war.  There may also be reasons for an offensive war but I doubt that any of those are good reassons.

The second thing we need to understand is that most people prefer prevention to cure.  It is all very well to defend yourself if attacked but it is surely best to prevent war breaking out in the first place.  The best known of such strategies is "Si vis pacem, para bellum", a Latin adage translated as, "If you want peace, prepare for war".  And there are some good examples of that as a successful strategy  -- 20th century Switzerland and Sweden, for instance.

There is however a very important second strategy, one that tends to slip below the public consciousness:  Treaties and alliances.  To most people such things seem to be old men talking to one another with no relevance to everyday life.  In fact, however, they are a major deterrent to war and should therefore be highly valued by any reasonable person.  And politicians at least do usually value them highly.

What treaties do is to make a group of nations to big or too strong to attack. They say to potential aggressors:  "If you attack any one of us, all of us will strike back at you."  Unity is strength, in other words.  And there is no doubt that treaties do prevent wars.  At a time when the Soviet Union was in an  aggressively expansionist phase, Western Europe would not have retained its independence but for its treaty with the United States (NATO).

So treaties are very important.  And you must honour them.  If you fail to come to the defence of a country that you have a treaty with, ALL treaties will tend to be undermined and an important deterrent to war will have been lost.

Which brings us to WWI, the subject of the antiwar song I mentioned above.  Even to me, WWI seems a foolish war.  Why did civilized countries line up their young men in opposing ranks in order for the other side to machine-gun them down?   Why did Australian soldiers end up trying to invade Turkey?  And for those who take a more informed view of the matter, why did the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Serbia by a nonentity known as Gavrilo Princip lead to the fine young men of Britain making war on fine young men from Germany in the fields of Belgium?

It makes no sense unless you understand the importance of treaties for war prevention. In 1914, Germany had a treaty with Austria, Britain had a treaty with France and France had a treaty with Russia.  And those treaties had to be honoured if endless war was not to be ushered in.

So when Serb activist Princip shot the Archduke, Austria cracked down on the generally hostile Serbs, with which Austria had a border. (A similarity between Osama bin Laden attacking the twin towers and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan may be noted.)  But the Tsar of Russia saw the Serbs as fellow Slavs, brothers to Russia. The Tsar remonstrated with the Austrians but the Austrians replied that the matter was none of the Tsar's businmess.

So the Tsar declared war on Austria.  It was a meddlesone Russian ruler who set the ball rolling on WWI.  Because then the treaties came into effect: Germany declared war on Russia in defence of Austria;   France declared war on Austria and Germany because of their treaty with Russia; and Britain declared war on Germany in defence of France.  The logic was dismal but logic it was.

So it is not a common way to look at it but WWI was fought in defence of the integrity of treaties.  If the various treaties had been betrayed at that time, treaties might not have kept Western Europe safe from the dismal grip of Soviet Russia in the post-WWII era.  Russia might have been tempted to roll in the belief that the USA would not honour its treaty with Europe.  So some good did come from WWI.  It was a war that had to be fought.

So what about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars waged by the USA?  They were clearly defensive wars waged to discourage any repetition of the 9/11 attacks.  You would think that knocking out two of the three regimes most hospitable to the Jihadis would show them that the USA was not a paper tiger and discourage the Jihadis  for good but the fact that the Iranians have got off scot-free probably gives them encouragement.

Dropping a big one on their holy city with a promise of more to come would be a low-cost way of causing the Iranians to rethink their hostility towards just about everyone -- and with a bit of luck the Israelis might do just that in the not-too distant future -- to the  benefit of us all. The Iranians have installed substantial military facilities in the Qom area so they are asking for it. Losing their holy city would also make them the laughing stock of the Sunni world -- and ridicule can be even more grievous than defeat.  The Ayatollahs would be completely discredited.

Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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