War. So simple a word. Three little letters. And it conjures images in our heads of planes, bombs, nukes, soldiers, guns, battles, tanks, rockets, guerrillas, knights, swords, imperial legions and barbarian hordes stretching from the dawn of civilisation to the present. We think of the suffering, the destruction, the loss of life, the wounded, the horrors, and so we think we know what war is. Some us have witnessed this death and destruction first hand, but many of us have simply heard tales, watched footage from tv, etc. So we think we know what war is.
If this is what we think of when we think of war, then I am not entirely convinced we do. From my perspective these things seem like attributes of war, or maybe expressions or consequences of war, rather than an understanding of war itself. I feel instinctively that war is something deeper, and I also feel So how can we understand war itself? My intention is to explore this theme in this article, as I don’t think war will ever go away, nor do I even think its constructive to want it to, but I do think we can build a world in which its more deadly and destructive expressions are.
As I was writing this article, a discussion started on the kiamagic.com forum about Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, which might be renamed “Basic Strategy for Dummy’s” these days despite widespread ‘use by analogy’ in various fields of human competition. Definitely worth a read, but following blindly no substitute for intelligence. In any case, in replying on the thread I came up with the following insight:
“Before deciding to fight, one has presumably asked themselves first the question ‘why?’
Probably to either gain or protect something you value or even need (either physical or abstract). Fair enough. But this raises other less obvious questions. Firstly, what do you stand to lose if you don’t win? And perhaps more importantly, what do you stand to lose even if you do win? Are these potential losses of even greater value/need to you than the loss from not fighting? Can they be protected against?”
So a big question to ask in deciding to whether to fight is determining or understanding what you are prepared to sacrifice in order to win. “Winning at any cost” may be a defiant battle cry but is hardly a sound basis on which to form a beneficial strategy. In any conflict one should understand how much one is willing to sacrifice, whilst only making those sacrifices where necessary. One should also understand how much is being sacrificed and when. But also, one should be very clear about one’s definition of a successful outcome.
I have no doubt that the generals involved in most of the conflicts both contemporary and historical understood this. I also doubt very much that the reasons they given to troops and populations or the levels of sacrifice they are prepared to endure have matched those they held in their heads. Indeed giving away one’s true objective and level’s of excepted sacrifice may put the general at a disadvantage compared to their opponent. Of course, the general does have to be clear about how much they can expect their troops and population to sacrifice also before this support. Although it can work the other way. Sometimes the public demands tough talk from a leader such that they must exaggerate in a big show of bravado. This can help to intimidate the enemy.
This could result in a major disadvantage for democratic leaders during a conflict, such that they would almost certainly have to find objectives to keep public support that may vary greatly from their true objectives. Indeed the true enemy they wage war against may not even be the one they tell the public. It is not inconceivable for example that a democratically elected government may not even care about winning some foreign adventure they are sending their troops to fight in. That may simply be a diversion to distract the public attention from laws designed to remove their freedoms, or simply make obscure changes to the law that may have otherwise . Their real opponent may be their own electorate. Seen from this light, it may be that America never intended to ‘win’ in Vietnam. It may not intend to actually ‘win’ in Afghanistan. If it does, great, if not it didn’t really matter, it was just a sacrifice it was prepared to make.
Allies may not even share objectives. They may simply be able to work together in a conflict in order to achieve entirely different goals, presuming they don’t have to step on each others toes too much in the process. Nor do they need to be truthful with each other.
I would suggest taking a non-dualist viewpoint on war, embracing the idea that multiple factions exist within any conflict, many of which form uneasy alliances with each other and that the strongest bonds may be more about shared ideology than loyalty to nationality. Although nationalism can be one of the ideologies involved in the struggle.
Armies, weapons and destruction therefore seem more like occasional symptoms of an underlying conflict between hundreds of ideological factions that takes place on many other levels.
For example during the cold war many in the west supported communism and many in the east supported democracy and/or capitalism. During WWII, many in Germany wished for a return to democracy, whilst an active faction of British Fascists, including at one point prominent newspapers such as the Daily Mail, wanted us to ally with Hitler. In the ongoing conflict between various capitalist democratic nations and fundamentalist Islam, we find many Muslims in fundamentalist countries would like democracy and whilst some living in democracies would support their conversion to a fundamentalist dictatorship. Things are rarely clear cut.
Choose your allies well, but try and understand who they are and how much and how little their objectives match your own. We are all in secret societies, whether we realise it or not…
Io Ares! Io Athena! Io Anarchons!