SPEAKING FREELY How to win a lost war
By Andreas Herberg-Rothe
In the 21st century, the overarching task of policy in a globalized, multipolar world is to manage the rise of the Global South by avoiding great wars and the cancer of mass violence.
Where a technical understanding of the military concept of "battle space" would focus solely on the application of necessary military means - which the US Department of Defense characterizes as "The environment, factors, and conditions which must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, or complete the mission" - a wider view of the concept is necessary. It must be based on a strategic narrative, which
"explains policy in the context of the proposed set of actions" in war, according to Emile Simpson, former soldier and author of War From the Ground Up.
Dan Moran, a professor at the US-Naval post-graduate school in Monterrey says all his students are discussing how to win the narrative - they understand winning the narrative as winning the war. He cautions, however, against making such an equation. Winning the war narrative is not necessarily the same as winning the war. It is the story surrounding the war, whether it was won or lost.
Germany could not pretend to have won World War II, but for a long time was able to portray ordinary Germans as people with nothing in common with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In this narrative, Germans were overthrown by a dictatorship of a few hundred national socialists. Things are different with World War I. Here too, the Germans could not pretend to have won the war. But from that experience a narrative emerged that was based on the assumption that the German Reichswehr was not defeated on the battlefield but betrayed by the Social Democrats and the communists within Germany.
This understanding of the German defeat in World War I resulted in a most influential narrative to wage a new war in an attempt to make up for defeat and the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. The characterization of the causes of the German defeat in World War I might have contributed to the terrible inner oppression in Germany in the Nazi area. If the war was lost through the betrayal of the opponents of the Reichswehr within Germany it was reasonable for the Nazis to eliminate all kind of opposition before and during the war.
The German historical experience in two world wars supports the conclusion that winning the narrative should not automatically be understood as winning the war, even in retrospect. In both cases winning the narrative was not about winning the war, but about integration of the defeat into a cultural, political and social framework - which enabled the German nation to keep its presupposed identity alive and to be recognized as equal part of the international community again.
Narratives therefore are really powerful concepts in shaping the political and social realm in retrospect. But they are not necessarily about winning the war; reasoning about the causes and circumstances of losing a war might have an even more powerful force. For instance, one could say that the Taliban lost the military campaign in 2001 in Afghanistan but won the narrative afterwards.
Let's look to the future, but again through the prism of German history. Could there be any narrative with which the Germans would have won both world wars? In fact, a narrative could be observed in Germany after World War I that the Reichswehr could have won this war if the generals had read and understood Clausewitz rightly.
As a Clausewitz-scholar I'm a little tempted by this notion as he himself might have been. But Germany just could not win both world wars even by constructing any thinkable narrative. Of course winning the war seems to be at the heart of waging a war. In the 16th century, Prince Frederick of Saxony laid down the following proposition: "If you decide to go to war you have to decide to win." But the question after Iraq and Afghanistan is, what does it mean to win a war?
In my view, to paraphrase Prince Frederick, the following is true: if you decide to go to war you have to decide to win the political narrative. I'm not totally sure that all wouldto agree with the proposition that winning the war is really about winning the narrative, because winning the narrative is more than about winning the war. Winning the narrative, for example, is also about the legitimacy of the threat of force. Winning the narrative in relation to the armed forces is something more than winning a war.
According to Emile Simpson, the key point is that winning the war in a military manner means winning it in relation to the enemy, but increasingly now, audiences other than the enemy matter, so the narrative is about covering what they think, as well as what the enemy and one's own side thinks. If the strategic narrative of the battle space in the 21st century is not only about winning the war in a mere military manner, about what then can it be?
I would like to propose three different, although interconnected topics: the legitimacy of using force, the performance of the conduct of war, and the mutual recognition of the fighting communities after the war.
Before explaining this conceptualization in more detail, for purposes of clarity I would like to mention its basic ideas. This proposition stems firstly from my interpretation of Clausewitz's trinity, which is quite different from so called trinitarian war, which is not directly a concept of Clausewitz, but an argument made by Harry Summers, Martin van Creveld and Mary Kaldor.
In my view, each war is differently composed of three aspects of applying force, the struggle or fight of the armed forces, and the fighting community to which the fighting forces belong. You may easily relate the legitimacy of using force, the performance of the conduct of war and the mutual recognition of the fighting forces after the war to these three aspects of my interpretation of Clausewitz.
The second basic idea of my approach is related to the "just war" tradition, but in a different way than it was integrated into the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) concept for example. Traditionally we make a differentiation in the "just war" tradition between ius ad bellum, ius in bello and ius post bellum. This three terms in Latin could be characterized respectively as the right to wage a just war, the maintenance of rights and justice within war, and the orientation of warfare toward a just peace after the war. My thesis is that in a globalized world these three narratives are closely intertwined.
The two most important European traditions of grasping the meaning of war contributed to a tremendous limitation of violence at their beginning; namely, the notion of a "just war" as well as the notion of the "right in war" in the case of "state to state wars".
In the latter tradition, the acknowledgement of the foe as an equal with the same rights was the precondition for limiting the war after the disaster of the Thirty Years War, according to Carl Schmitt. Both conceptions succeeded in limiting warlike violence between European opponents at the beginning. Yet at times the irregular forms of using force were simply pushed to the margins of the European world.
During the crusades of the Middle Ages and in the course of colonial conquest from the 16th to the 18th centuries, non-European opponents were not merely fought but often downright annihilated. In both cases, the regular and bounded intra-European ways of employing force, which were practiced in the beginning of their eras, ended finally in disaster.
The idea of a "just war", which contributed to a limitation of war and violence for long periods of the middles ages, resulted finally in the religious battles of the 16th century and the Thirty Years War. The European kind of "state to state war" in the "Westphalian Area", which was based upon a right to war between equal opponents and which in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a significant limitation of violence within war, resulted in the catastrophe of two world wars.
One cannot idealize the model of a limited European "state to state war" in reference to the forms they took at their origin in the 17th and 18th centuries, because this same model (together with the industrialization of war and new nationalistic and totalitarian ideologies) ultimately resulted in the two world wars. Similarly, there are no grounds for dismissing the idea of the notion of the just war tradition simply in view of the religious wars and the Thirty Years War. Rather, the curbing and protecting effects of war during long periods of the Middle Ages should be borne in mind.
The teaching of just war should not promote military violence, but rather hinder it or at least help to limit it. It is appropriately understood only against the background of fundamental reservations against war for the purpose of peace. That means: the threat and employment of military violence can only be justified conditionally - as instruments for preventing, limiting, and moderating violence.
Despite this ideal definition of just war, three fundamental problems of this conception appear in the course of history: the unleashing of violence through the notion that the war is just, the stigmatization of the opponent as a criminal, and also the reduction of the possibilities of one's own actions to violent measures, because of the immediate connection between morality and politics.
I'm not totally sure of the following proposition, it's more like a trial balloon, but even the notion of a just peace after the war is by no means free of problems. For example, the Nazis sought perfect harmony within German society and therefore excluded all those who seemed for them to disturb the concept of the perfect harmony of a unified German nation through the creation of a homogenous race. Perhaps this criticism of the notion of a just peace might be not really convincing at first sight, but it is embedded in the problem of every kind of strategy whether the ends in war are sanctifying the applied means.
In order to avoid these problems by pursuing only one of these three concepts, it is necessary to conceive the containing of war and violence as overarching political aim embedded in the various actions of national and international communities. Containing war and violent conflict is based on the maintenance of a floating balance of all three tendencies.
In the past 20 years, we have witnessed the promises of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) and the appearance of seemingly new kinds of warfare, the so-called new wars. The RMA promised to present to a serious extent technological solutions for conflicts. Warfare and "military operations other than war" seemed to be legitimate if they were easily won. The costs would remain limited and the adversary could be presented as an outlaw of the international community, in a classical view, as a dictator or warlord who would have no support from the majority of the populace.
All three propositions proved fatally wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a short moment, this understanding of the current battle space was revived in the campaign against Libya and the interpretation of the Arab Spring through Western eyes, which are used to viewing communities as being composed of individuals whereas in most parts of the world society is composed as a community of communities. The conflict in Syria is again burying this technical world view.
Containing war, violent conflict and mass violence does not necessarily mean to conduct only limited warfare, but to set limits for the escalation of violence in actual conflicts. This is the more important the more technical opportunities are to be expected in warfare of the 21st century. To put it bluntly: the evolving battle space of the 21st century is about ethics and the morality of using force, its legitimacy. The more technical opportunities in warfare we are developing, the more the morality of its use comes to the fore.
Let's give an example. The US Army puts great emphasis on developing robotic warfare and warfare that could be conducted by artificial intelligence. Of course at first sight this development seems to be ingenious, by saving humans from the outcomes of warfare. And in fact it is ingenious when used in defense against criminals and barbarians. But what if the opponent is no criminal and no barbarian, but a human being? The moral problem is obvious, isn't it? What does it mean, if a robot equipped with artificial intelligence kills human beings?
This problem leads us to the second topic, the performance of warfare. We can witness the importance of ius in bello in the current Syrian crisis. What makes weapons of mass destruction so particular in the view of combatants and non-combatants? I think with regard to Syria we can learn that it is not the number of fatalities as such that makes them so special, but the fact that their use is so terribly unfair, so terribly unjust. This sentiment against unjust performance in the conduct of war is deeply embedded in the history of warfare as well as in human consciousness.
In the past 20 years, the concept of asymmetrical warfare has gained momentum. It has been used to describe the apparently new wars, which could be characterized according to Herfried Munkler as asymmetry of weakness. The weaker side turns to asymmetrical forms of warfare just because of its weakness in fighting a regular form of warfare.
Terrorism, partisan warfare, fighting the populace of the adversary are typical examples of such asymmetrical warfare. But there is another kind of asymmetrical warfare, in which the superior side is trying to conduct warfare in such a way, that the opponent stands no chance anymore. This attempt to get an asymmetrical advantage is the core of the RMA-debate.
I am still astonished that the inherent connections between these two kinds of asymmetrical warfare are not, to the best of my knowledge, discussed as openly as they deserve. The prevalent view seems to be to give one's opponent no chance in warfare in order to force him not to wage a war at all or to give up fighting when he does.
But there is another possibility for the weaker adversary, to turn to asymmetric warfare.
The problem then arises that the more you get an asymmetrical advantage over your opponent out of your technical strength, which is perceived as unjust and unfair by your opponent, the more your opponent will turn to the asymmetrical warfare that is typical for the weaker side, such as terrorism or partisan war.
For example, it was essential for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the second Lebanon war to make a ground incursion. but not with respect to winning the war. They didn't. But by departing from mere air raids and relying on the ground incursion the IDF recognized Hezbollah as an equal adversary. This indirect recognition of Hezbollah made the cease fire possible in the end.
This brings us to the last of my three propositions, the recognition of the warring parties after the war in order to bring about a just peace. Of course it is hard if not impossible to recognize criminals, terrorist, warlords, drug dealers, religious hard-liners, war criminals or gangsters and mobsters as equal and legitimized combatants. But these actors were prevalent only in the last decade of the past century.
We can still witness such privatized conflicts in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and at the fringes of the former empires. But most conflicts in today's world are political in essence, so that the above made characterization of the involved actors does not apply to the overall tendency of which we are a part. Here, I'm a Clausewitz scholar, and adhere to his proposition totally when he writes: "The escalation in war would be endless if the calculation in the meaning of strategy would be 'uninfluenced by any previous estimate of the political situation it would bring about'."
My final hypothesis is the following one: in the 21st century we will witness conflicts caused by power politics, by the attempt to gain access to natural resources; we will see conflicts caused by climate change, cyber- and robotic-warfare as well as privatized wars. I won't deny those developments. But the overall tendency will be the struggle for regaining the lost recognition at least as equal of the former colonies, empires, great powers and civilizations, which lost their ranking and status in the process of the Europeans becoming the masters of the world.
The 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the European catastrophe, should be a crucial warning for the fast-developing world in its struggle to regain their former imperial status, or at least great power status, experience before European colonization in order not to make the same faults that resulted in two world wars.
The overall political perspective on which the concept of the containing of war and violence in world society rests consists of the following elements, the "pentagon of containing war and violence":
The ability to deter and discourage any opponent to fight a large scale war and to conduct pin-point military action as a last resort;
The possibility of using and threatening military force in order to limit and contain particularly excessive, large-scale violence which has the potential to destroy societies;
The willingness to counter phenomena that help to cause violence, such as poverty and oppression, especially in the economic sphere, and also the recognition of a pluralism of cultures and styles of life in world society;
The motivation to develop a culture of civil conflict management (concepts that can be summed up with the "civilizational hexagon", global governance, and democratic peace), based on the observation that the reduction of our action in regard to military means has proved counterproductive and will finally overstretch military capabilities; and
Restricting the possession and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, as well as small arms, because such proliferation is inherently destructive to social order.
The position I have put forward is oriented towards a basically peaceful global policy, and treats the progressive limitation of war and violence as both an indefinite, on-going process and as an end it itself. The lasting and progressive containment of war and violence in world society is therefore necessary for the self-preservation of states, even their survival and of the civility of individual societies and world society.
Legitimacy, the performance in warfare and the mutual recognition of the fighting forces are at the heart of the evolving battle space of the 21st century. Perhaps I'm an old-fashioned Clausewitzian, but as such I want to conclude with a Clausewitzian-like thesis: technological development does not save us from policy, ethics and morality, just the reverse; it puts them at the center of the narrative of the 21st century.
Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Dr phil habil, is a permanent lecturer at the faculty of social and cultural studies at the University of Applied Sciences, Fulda, Germany, and was a private lecturer of Political Science at the Institute for Social Sciences, Humboldt-University Berlin. He is the author of Clausewitz's Puzzle: The political theory of war.
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