Remember the Pax Romana? No, I wasn't there either but it is a time generally seen by historians as one of relative peace, stability and prosperity, at least in the environs of the Roman Empire, which lasted for the first two centuries of the first millennium AD. Roughly.
There has not been an era like it since. Sure, there were odd little trouble spots here and there, but nothing major or long-lasting, and the neighbouring folks had no cause to make trouble, just as the Empire had no real cause to further expand. We'll just ignore Trajan's follies for the purposes of generalisation here. For the most part, war was not something people wanted to do.
In academic circles, also spoken of is a Pax Americana, although there's no real consensus on what is meant by the term. The most common usage refers to the post-WW2 period and the Cold War, and there are a few similarities here, especially the dominance of a major power (or powers) and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction that seemed to do something towards keeping major conflict at bay. Really though, there has not been a day go by since the end of the 19th century that there hasn't been a war going on somewhere. As our society gets ever more global in its outlook and interconnected in its economics and culture, this increasingly affects all of us.
Now, it looks as if this recent era of relative peace for we Westerners has come to, or is nearing, the end. Why?
War, that's why. Flippant answer, sure, and not the only one, but it's pivotal. Let me explain what I mean. Our analog of the mighty Roman Empire, the superpower whose threat as world policeman and cultural tyrant has maintained a relative stability in the global order recently, has quite simply forgotten the lessons of war. America is failing militarily, and has been doing so since the 1970s. Just like Rome, the reasons for this come from untenable domestic politics, and dishonest, incongruent thinking. The rest of the liberal Anglophone world, and much of the rest of the planet, is on this bandwagon too.
I should say that I'm not being for or against war in this piece; you can all work out my personal feelings on the subject I'm sure. I'm not talking about right or wrong. I'm simply accepting that war is, and looking at how it works, or doesn't, and its place in our social and spiritual evolution.
Sun Tzu, the past and present acknowleged master of the philosophy and carriage of war, summed it up beautifully with his first point in the book The Art of War.
Don't get into a fight that you aren't sure you'll win.
Simple, eh? There's so much sense implicit in that statement. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means a sufficiently and demonstrably strong enough military power need never go to war with any rational opponent. Rational, that's the key word. Many people seem to prefer death to a whole bunch of outcomes (and many individuals in power prefer the death of others - the people they rule and/or serve), which skews their thinking into it being 'worth the gamble' to enter a fight with little if any chance of success. Like nations who are invaded. Ultimately though, if the big strong guy has done his calculating right, and executes his campaign properly, he will prevail (I'm speaking in the masculine gender for obvious reasons).
Asymmetrical warfare, also known as guerilla warfare and terrorism, has always been with us. This is simply because it makes sense to those who wish to fight a larger force. Terrorism is not new. It's important to remember this. It is a logical consequence of ill-begotten strategies of war by larger powers over smaller ones.
Humanist altruism is not new either. Clothed in religion, or the values of mythical or legendary founding fathers, or the ideological trappings of systems like participatory democracy or free market capitalism, it has been around forever also. Only now, since the world at large has decided again that racism is a bad thing, that we all have equal human rights, and that individual liberty is at least as important (if not more important) than notions of a common good, is this getting us into serious trouble, when combined with war. Just like it did for the Romans.
Because for war to work, there is a certain set of definitions of winning that apply, and (even beyond "thou shall not kill") these are incompatible with individual liberty and self-determination, except in one very, very narrow circumstance - personally fighting in defence of your own life.
Broadly speaking, war can be seen as falling into two categories; a defensive war fought on one's own soil or an offensive war. I will posit that a supposedly 'defensive' action fought abroad in the territory of your opponent or a territory 'owned' by a third or no party is offensive.
The defensive war is usually seen as being morally more acceptable, noble even, and I can certainly see the argument in this if the putative invader wishes to kill many people rather than simply assume administration of the territory. People often think it's right to die defending ideas as well, like culturally-specific religious beliefs that they feel would be threatened by invasion. My only moral question here on this would stem from Sun Tzu's opening tenet above: is it morally right to send your people to war in a fight you do not know you will win? To wilfully send people to their deaths on a long-odds gamble rather than accept a lower (maybe even zero) number of deaths and just surrender to a demonstrably more able opponent?
I'd have thought those atom bombs in 1945 would have been just as effective offshore from Tokyo, or any other Japanese city. You know, give reason (peace) a chance. But that's just my opinion. Demonstrability. The military do so love a parade.
Offensive war always boils down to a willingness to inflict damage, death and suffering on another group of people in order to gain (this can be an actual or illusory gain) by so doing. No more, no less.
How Not To Suck At War.
1) Define winning
2) Make sure you will win with your strategy
3) Make a show of strength to give your opponent the chance to realise they will certainly lose badly
4) Accept their surrender or execute your strategy
5) You win
Or your money back (minus postage and handling).
The really tricky part these days has been point 1. It used to be that wars of aggression were much more based on clear motivations to capture and hold territory. This is the sort of thing I was talking about in that 'set of definitons of winning.' You can do this. There are time-honoured ways of occupying and controlling a population, and not all of these are entirely incompatible with most human rights - except for the individual liberty thing - once the occupation is complete. You'll never honour individual liberty fully in an aggressive occupation and rule of territory. For that is the nature of ruling.
Niccolo Macchiavelli is another scholar of war and politics, and as a war nerd kid I first read his classic work The Prince at about age 13. It really is that simple a read (and golly didn't it impress the hell out of my hard-man-wannabe English teacher when he saw I was reading it) and it lives on as a much-quoted and very relevant text today. Basically, it's a wholly pragmatic guide to how a "Prince" should rule a Principality, with an emphasis on those lands captured and conquered in war. This whole "hearts and minds" thing, which the Romans were so good at incidentally, comes straight from Macchiavelli. Fairness, and firmness.
But there's something vital missing in today's excursions into Iraq and the 'Stans.
After giving this rather a lot of thinking and pondering time, I have concluded that I really don't know exactly what the hell this mob formerly know as The Coalition Of The Willing is doing in Afghanistan and neighbouring areas. I shall not speculate here. However I'm pretty sure I know what those opposing them are trying to do - get rid of them.
What's gone wrong? Rule 1 was ignored, for starters. It is impossible to know that you will win a conflict if you can't say exactly what winning is and will look like. The only real way you can do this in an offensive war is to invade, conquer, subjugate, and hold the territory. If you can think of another definition that works long-term, do please share.
But such notions are unpalatable to we alleged libertarians. We cannot liberate the Afghan people from the vicissitudes of the very sect of militants that they themselves have largely created. We cannot, for the purposes of effective war, separate the Afghan people from whomsoever residing in Afghanistan is shooting at the invaders (or liberators, I see no difference). 5000 years of civilisation and scholars such as Sun Tzu and Macchiavelli tell us this over and over. If you want to change how a set of people live through war, then you must conquer them in the traditional manner. They must fear you. You cannot make distinctions between insurgents and 'innocent civilians'. This allows terrorism and other forms of assymetrical warfare to flourish and if allowed to persist, they always prevail. It has never been otherwise.
The US currently has assigned over 10,000 people and so far has spent almost as much money as the entire Vietnam conflict cost working on a project to deal with the ongoing threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Homegrown dudes with a sack of fertiliser, some diesel, a detonator and some metal bits and pieces. You watch the news, you know the horrors on all sides. Who's managing their war economy more efficiently?
But back at home in the USA, despite a large portion of the population's apparent sentiment following the events in New York city on September 11th 2001, the invasion of Iraq had to be couched in very specific terms and reassurances about the military's ability to avoid 'collateral damage' (killing and maiming non-combatants) given along with much guff about 'freeing the Iraqi people.' We all know what happened. Iraq eventually ended up being an occupation when it slowly dawned on the invaders that they'd have to occupy it more thoroughly to have any chance to survive the insurgency which had grown following their inept handling of the whole affair.
My point is, if you're invading, then civilians are going to get in the way. This is not the invaders' problem, unless it messes with your strategy to win. It is their problem. In a purely cold and callous Darwinian sense the fact that the populace has allowed to thrive a dictator or system of governance that has attracted the ire and wrath of warlike people prepared to intercede in their affairs is entirely their own doing. As ye sow, and all that. It has never been otherwise. I recall some unfortunate souls in the West who had the temerity to wonder out loud about what America or Americans had done to bring these horrendous ills down upon themselves. Those people were seeking answers, change and healing. They were not seeking blame or vengeance.
Please do remember, I've just got my 'how-things-work' and 'systems and patterns analysis' hats on. I am not speaking from my moral or emotional self.
The situation in Afghanistan (from an invader's point of view) is far from complex if we reintroduce the notion of individual liberty, along with its necessary counterpart, individual responsibility. Those civilians who have failed to effectively stop militants with harmful intentions towards you (the invader) are by proxy culpable. Macchiavelli was clear on this, and the SS in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany in WW2 were exemplars of keeping any effective homegrown resistance to a minimum. It's called terrorism. You ensure the populace is terrified of your wrath should any evils befall your people, regardless of who perpetrated them. Your turf, your suffering. I live in Australia, and felt decidedly less safe that day nearly 9 years ago when the towers came down. Now that's effective terrorism. Just like shooting a random villager if one of your soldiers is killed locally.
The Coalition in the 'Stans still does not have a mission or agenda that can result in a win. It can only result in a withdrawal on terms acceptable to the voters back home and hopefully (secondarily) a reasonable outcome for the locals vis-a-vis future stability and peace.
Is the problem that we think we are better than this? That we don't want to "get dragged down to their level"? I think it's something like that. There's a religious thing going on underneath it all too, in case you hadn't noticed. Something along the lines of "our (Christian) God makes us better people than your religion makes you" from this side. Oh, but you still should have the freedom to practice your religion. I'm not sure the 'other' side is quite so neatly summarised, but it would be something along the lines of "Allah u Akbar." These are the sort of abstractions and distractions that keep people from thinking clearly about their actual lives, and responsibilities. That are tools to influence their emotions to be harnessed towards a joint warlike goal, despite what they may think if allowed to do so truly, for themselves.
It is this bullshit and dupicity that has gotten us into the mess. We accept that our leaders will make unpalatable decisions on our behalf that assuage our base, less-evolved, animal feelings but pander to our desire to be good emlightened loving world citizens by hiding or obfuscating the realities of such decisions. They'll make nice language and refer to "illegal immigrants" when the polls say toughness is called for, and call the same peoloe "asylum seekers" when the polls indicate a compassionate leader would be more liked this week. Our leaders are made (by us) to walk a very fine line on this, and the line shifts a little every day. We require them to do this so we can stay comfortable in our denial of the moral responsibilities we bear as members of the human family. To help us keep lying to ourselves about what we honestly think deep down is really right.
Wouldn't it be better for everyone if, say, a US president simply said something like this:
"We are Americans, and this means we hold it to be self-evident that we shall act in our best interests. I deem that it is in our best interests to have a dominating military presence in certain regions in the world, and therefore we intend to conquer and rule them, as it is the most effective, cheapest, honest, and thus most loving (to ourselves at least) way we can achieve such hegemony. We demonstrably have the means to do so, without argument. Our Allies, such as they are and wish to be, may contribute to this and be allowed to share such benefit from it as we deem fit. Others may oppose or seek to deny us at their peril. I would urge the populations of (insert list of countries and regions here) to overthrow or otherwise prepare their governments to surrender to us wholly and peaceably immediately, and seek to enjoy the fruits of life, liberty and equality that we will bring to your rule. That is all. You have 48 hours."
You see, I'm all for honesty, and for letting a system run through its paces without interference. This is how we determine what ways and means are fit to survive, fit to take us into our future. This is exactly what happens in nature. Systems and ways of being develop momentum and direction, which needs to be respected for life to do its thing. Propping up trading organs during a market failure does not allow a truly unregulated market to prove its worth to society, nor does it allow another system to compete with it to prove an alternate worth. Similarly, refusing to be honest and transparent about war does not allow war as a way of continuing diplomacy to prove itself or become naturally redundant. Messing with how stuff naturally wants to be only prolongs the agony, people. Honesty in thought, word and eed about warlike behaviours and actions. True self-reflection and acceptance of what we see there. Congruency.
War wants to be total.
Information wants to be free.
Life wants to go on.
OK, that's enough of common sense, let's go back to political reality. This reality is, that I, and you, if you are reading this in a nice place in a peaceful Western country belonging to the 'Allies', have decided to support the bullshit around our current warlike excursions into other places, so the equation, very simply put, is that you and I are killing Afghani children. Seeing as we have failed to prevent our allegedly democratically elected leaders from being fine with doing this on our behalf.
You know what, I don't even have a moral position on this.
What I do know deeply though, is that war is not going to get us where we need to go to have a place in the continuance of life in this universe, let alone this beautiful earth.
Perhaps its time to just let it run its course, like a cold virus, and allow it to die out as a way of life. Fighting makes more fighting, I have noticed. Opposing something does rather tend to lend that thing energy. If you suppress something by force, it tends to manifest elsewhere or in a different form. I say these things not from any gospel or dogma, but from my own experience.
Meta-suppression will not work. A definition of futility would be to declare War On War. Oh, we did that already. We called it a War On Terrorism.
There is one great thing on our side and paradoxically perhaps the USA really do seem to lead the way. This thing is freedom of thought, and expression. Sure, the US has been through a period of increasing fear of not being seen to be correctly Christian or sufficiently patriotic but dissent has never died out and diversity of thought and opinion thrives there. The classic polarisation of political and religious opinion we see in the USA is a powerful way to simplify arguments and amplify consequences so all, even the less thoughtful, can be inspired to think, feel and participate.
Sure, our democracies and ways of governance are all deeply flawed, but the saving grace is participation. Concentration of power tends to overwhelm those who are not wielding it, and of this we must be vigilant and exercise will and wisdom. The will to have an input on our common future as well as our individual one, and the wisdom to realise that by taking responsibility upon ourselves we also act responsibly towards others. Participatory democracy can be a great way of growing, of helping shape a good destiny for ourselves that helps us learn to live without the violent and warlike impulses we still perpetuate. Participation is better done prior to crises, methinks, rather than being stunned into action by an eruption we caused through our disconnectedness.
Look just for a moment at Thailand, a huge movement about a nation's way of seeing themselves and their governance. The Red Shirts seem to be saying "we love our alpha-male leaders as we love our king, so we want our billionaire leader back to make us feel successful and like we have a powerful father." Where the Yellow Shirts seem to respond with "we too love our king dearly, but also believe the best way for Thailand is the rule of law and democratic electoral transparency; so the billionaire criminal can stay away and we shall allow our system time to work as it should."
I shall leave the last word on this to Terry Pratchett; author, humourist, and perhaps accidental sage:
"What your soldier wants,
what he really, really wants,
is no-one shooting back at him."