War is not a pretty thing, and to many it is surprising that it still exists at all in the 21st century. It seems such a primitive way of solving conflicts and disputes. Although battle armor, weaponry, and battlefield strategies have evolved over the millennia, photographs of today’s wars are little different from paintings of the Crusades, the War of the Roses, or the Hundred Year War.
War of the Roses, Battle of Bosworth Field
The wars the Romans fought against the Visigoths were fought with buckets of boiling oil catapulted across the plains of battle onto the amassed enemy; with swords, lances, and bows-and-arrows; with cavalry, phalanxes of foot soldiers; with frontal assaults and hand-to-hand combat. The Napoleonic Wars were fought with more strategy and deception and caused more death, destruction, and mayhem thanks to cannon artillery; and although they were more bloody and devastating than wars past (over 70,000 casualties in one day alone at the battle of Borodino).
World War I was no less brutal. Poison gas was added to the German and Allied arsenals, but the two armies still fought in pitched battles on bloodied ground.
World War II, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars were no different. Although in each successive war new hardware; improved surveillance and battlefield intelligence; superior air power; and chemical weapons were added to military arsenals, the basic strategy remained the same – attack, defend, and kill.
In all wars civilian casualties have accounted for a significant proportion of deaths. The United States in World War II firebombed Dresden and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The civilian losses in the current war in Syria are even higher since both sides have shown little restraint and have bombed residential areas of Aleppo and other cities on the assumption that enemy fighters were using them as bases.
Aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden
Why, then, given the death, maiming, destruction, and inhumanity of war do we continue to wage it? How is it that after three millennia of military conflict we have not learned how to avoid it? And how is that with all the advances in technology, psychology, and historical analysis we continually fail at negotiation?
Francis Fukuyama, a Harvard- and Yale-trained political scientist, wrote The End of History (1992) a book which predicted a new world order of peaceful accommodation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Once the the threat of nuclear war had been eliminated and the world’s two superpowers put down their weapons; and once the geopolitics of hegemony had ceased; and once client states were freed from the yoke of Communist influence the world would prosper under liberal democracy.
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.Under such a system based on a respect for civil liberties, free markets, and open borders, war would cease to be a reality.
Of course just the opposite was true. Once the Soviet bloc dissolved, long-repressed ethnic and religious nationalism emerged. The Balkan Wars were the first example of how autocratic hegemony had kept the lid on antipathy and violence; and how old hurts, resentments, and insults never die.
Josip Broz Tito
The wars in Iraq and Syria, and rise of jihadist Islam are unsurprising further examples of how the Cold War only suppressed antagonisms. The real nature of human society is, as it has always been, territorial, self-interested, aggressive, and implacable in its ambitions.
It is likely, given the course of history, that wars will be fought between the United States and Russia and/or China. Already familiar markers to the run-up to war can be seen. Russia’s annexing of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are clearly precursors to further neo-imperialist expansionism. China, now an economic and growing military superpower, is less shy about showing its muscle and will never back down on its own territorial claims and global economic ambitions.
Why is this not surprising? Not only are wars an integral if not defining feature of human history, they express something even more fundamental – an aggressive, self-protective, territorial, combative, and implacable human nature. At every level of of human society – family, tribe, ethnic group, region, and nation - disputes are rarely settled amicably. Lawsuits have replaced Hatfield and McCoy feuds, but the purpose and strategies remain the same. Get yours through whatever means.
The League of Nations formed in 1920 after the conclusion of World War I was intended to provide a forum for discussion and rational debate for the resolution of geopolitical disputes before they escalated into war. The Charter was explicit:
Noble but hopelessly idealistic, World War II broke out less than twenty years after its inauguration.
THE HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES,In order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security
Agree to this Covenant of the League of Nations.
- By the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war; by the prescription of open, just and honorable relations between nations; by the firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments, and
- by the maintenance of justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another,
League of Nations Founding Members
The Charter of the United Nations, an organization formed in 1945 immediately after World War II had the very same ideals:
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
To practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS.
Noble but like the League of Nations hopelessly idealistic the UN could only watch the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq Wars, the War in Afghanistan, and is currently watching the war in Syria.
Because the United Nations has been singularly ineffectual in meeting the conditions of its charter – to prevent war – but because it, like all bureaucracies, once formed has an organic imperative to grow and to appear successful. As a result the organization has become highly politicized and far from the neutrality envisaged by its founders.
To give legitimacy to its cause, United Nations specialized agencies have proliferated. They are intended to provide support to the world’s nations in need, but have done so with highly selective agendas, programs, and policies. UNESCO, UNFPA, and the ILO are but a few examples of how United Nations agencies develop their own particular ideological positions regardless of world consensus.
To keep the flame of internationalism alive, the United Nations has sent ‘peacekeepers’ to world trouble spots, but have been ineffective in keeping warring parties apart and have been accused of everything from minor misdemeanors to high crimes.
The point is that conflicts will be resolved as they always have been – one party will come out on top, rule over the conquered until the day it is challenged. The cycle of dominance and submission will continue to turn as long as human nature still rules human behavior.
The latest (12/16) UN debacle – the Security Council resolution to censure Israel for its settlement policy – is but the latest case in aggressive, politically-driven decisions cloaked in the mantle of righteous patronage of the world’s peoples.
The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis runs so deep, with so many historical, social, and cultural imperatives; and with so many deeply-felt suspicions and hostilities, that there is not even a scintilla of hope or evidence that a Security Council resolution will have any impact or influence whatsoever. What it will do is harden Israel’s position; and as of this writing it is already accelerating its settlement program.
The dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis will not be resolved by any negotiation, international pressure, or persuasion. Israel will only consider itself safe from the enemy only after it has expanded its territories far enough into hostile lands around it. The Palestinians will not cease its aggression until it has wiped Israel and all Jews (Hamas charter) off the face of the earth. Israel clearly has the upper hand and will use all its military might and economic power to succeed.
There is no way that ISIS will stop its territorial and geopolitical expansionism because of negotiation. It believes so strongly in the power and supremacy of Islam as a religious and political institution that it will not give up its war until it is beaten and destroyed.
The war in Syria will not end because of negotiation but only after one side wins. Now that Russia has entered the conflict on the side of the Assad regime, its victory is now certain.
Russia will not stop its own expansionism unless and until it is met with military force; and China when pushed will do the same.
The days of geopolitical idealism are over, and only the United States has continued to base its foreign policy on moral exceptionalism, an idealistic faith in the rightness of liberal democracy and free markets. The rest of the world, increasingly divided into separatist, imperialist, or jihadist movements has for better or worse moved on; and unless the United States finally, once and for all, gives up its idealism and supercilious righteousness can it get what it wants.
And ‘get what it wants’ is what the international game is all about.