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What have we learned from modern wars?


By Richard English

War remains arguably the greatest threat that we face as a species. It also remains an area of activity in which we still tend to get far too many things wrong. For there’s a depressing disjunction between what we very often assume, think, expect, and claim about modern war, and its actual historical reality when carefully assessed. The alleged causes for wars beginning and ending often fail to match the actual reasons behind these developments; meanwhile, the things making people actually fight in such wars often differ both from the ostensible claims made by or about such warriors, and also from the actual reasons for the wars occurring in any case. Much of what we anticipate, celebrate, commemorate, and remember regarding the experience and achievements of modern war bears only partially overlapping relation to historical reality, and wars’ actual achievements greatly diverge from both the publicly articulated and the actual aims and justifications behind their initial eruption. Again – and most depressingly – most of our attempts to set out prophylactic measures and structures against modern war have seemed (and continue to appear) frequently doomed to blood-spattered failure.

Consider some of the conflicts likely to dominate memory of the first years of the twenty-first century. The Iraq War which began in 2003 was publicly justified on various grounds, including the false claim that Saddam Hussein had played a role in generating the 9/11 atrocity; the mistaken assertion that he possessed a certain array of Weapons of Mass Destruction and thus represented an immediate threat to the West; and the claim that his regime was vile and oppressive — itself a reasonable point, but one undermined by the fact that the USA and its allies have tolerated in the past, and continue to tolerate in the present, equally or more despicable regimes remaining in power when political judgment seems to recommend such an approach.

In the event, the early phase of the Iraq War saw a dramatic and impressive military victory for the US-led campaign. But this was followed by a post-war phase of appalling violence, ill-considered policy, political chaos, and hubristic assertions about victory. The casting of the Iraq War as part of a War on Terror made it even less persuasive as a venture. There were, perhaps, some sound reasons for wanting to depose Saddam Hussein (among them, the view that he indeed did want to possess WMDs, and that it would be better to depose him before he had them than after he had acquired them). But in terms of terrorism, what Iraq did was to intensify the desire of some people to attack Western forces – whether in Iraq itself or in Western countries. And it is likely that, in a hundred years’ time, very few people will be able to name even a handful of victims of early-twenty-first-century al-Qaida terrorism, but that many people will remember the lesser nastiness of Abu Ghraib prison, and the unnecessary discrediting of the USA as a consequence.

My suspicion is that we will fail to learn very much, in terms of future political planning, from these mistakes and difficulties. Has the USA and UK sounded much more persuasive, and seemed more sure-footed, in its reaction to the varied conflicts emerging recently in Libya, Syria, or Egypt? Did the ludicrous over-reaction of the authorities in Boston to the terrible (but ultimately trivial, in terms of its global, political weight) marathon bombing suggest that we have moved forward in how we respond to what tends to be a very small terrorist threat?

It is possible, as scholars such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker have powerfully argued, that we are becoming less violent overall as a species, in terms of the percentage likelihood of members of the human race actually experiencing violent actions. It is also true, however, that our tendency to misdiagnose causes, to anticipate futures which do not have much chance in practice of occurring, to present dubious justifications for naively-sanctioned campaigns of warfare, and to over-react to small provocations by terrorist groups and individuals, might yet produce certain explosive conflicts which carry with them truly devastating consequences — consequences likely to endure far longer than the short-term and unhistorical thinking which brought them into being.

Richard English is Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Politics, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. Modern War: A Very Short Introduction publishes in July 2013.

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Image credit: By U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Todd Frantom [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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