Friday, October 06, 2006

The current crisis and the larger context

Today I read Juan Cole's Informed Comment on the situtation in Iraq and was really struck: I can't believe the status quo in Iraq can last much longer.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Cole's comments because of their snarky and angry tone, and Cole's honestly earned reputation as a harsh critic of George W. Bush. I however have been reading Cole since at least April of 2004 and he has a much better track record on Iraq than ordinary journalists. He can and does read the Arab language press, inside and outside Iraq every day, to cite just one of his advantages.

But perhaps as important as the bad news is the contrast between his commentary and the political commentary in other American blogs. They are all focused on the current sex scandal in the US House of Representatives, the apparent sexual exploitation of teen-aged congressional pages by a Congressman, and an apparent long-standing coverup of this problem by the House leadership (Speaker, Majority Leader, Majority Whip, and the man in charge of Republican campaigns for the House).

Now I'm not one to dismiss the importance of this scandal; I really think this symptomatic of the rot in Washington, where torture is now acceptable and habeas corpus is a threat to the Republic. Yet it's striking that apparently no one in official Washington and no one who observes Washington, whatever their politics, seems to have 5 minutes a day to think about the looming catastrophe in Iraq. Looking back over months of news reading, I realize that this is not unusual.

Meanwhile, over at Brad de Long's blog, the question of military history as an intellectual discipline is being discussed. Brad and his readers are discussing, ultimately, a proposition put forward by somebody-or-other that what the world needs now is more good "operational" military history, military history focused on winning wars and the avoidance of losing wars. This idea seems to miss the lesson that people who fought in the Second World War, especially Americans and Canadians who did so, derived from that huge slaughter: the focus ought to be on avoiding wars.

Here's my comment on that thread, reproduced and lightly edited:

Operational military history has its place, but more good operational military history does not result in better military history.

[...] The main lesson of the history of the period since 1950 would seem to be:

1. Major and middle powers will hardly ever fight each other in a stand-up conventional war.

2. Powers with big air forces (the US almost anywhere, various regional powers in their areas) can absolutely destroy civil society in a target area. But those same powers have no capability to impose their chosen order on that area.

3. There are a lot of places in the world where civil society is so weak that a few goons with guns can destroy it even without aerial bombardments. It is very hard to do anything about that chaos from outside.

What does "operational military history" have to say about this situation?

We need to realize how fragile civil society is and to muster the techniques and the will to strengthen it before the majority of the world descends into checkpoint and suicide-bomb hell.

Unfortunately the most powerful complex of forces in the world -- the various interests that direct the actions of the US government -- has not just abandoned but set out to destroy the institutions and practices developed since 1945 to avoid nightmares that people in 1945 could so easily visualize, since many of them had directly experienced blitzkrieg and prison camp hell.

The intellectual and political challenge of "military history" today is identifying the pathology and learning how to short-circuit it.

No, let's not ignore war, but let's start acting like it's a dangerous plague that will visit our peaceful neighborhood sooner than later.

Could be improved, I guess, but that's what I think about the failures of intellectuals (or people who advertise themselves as such) in tackling the question of war.


Blogger Ian Schofield said...


Never been entirely certain where "operational" military history left off from any other type. Strategic and Tactical vary from period to period as well.

I do think more study of how to win wars, particularly the current crop of low-intensity terrorist conflicts is entirely in order. However, to win a war requires a lot more than beating the enemy in the field once or twice.

I find a lot of these sort of discussions get wrapped up in debates over terminology - which since the terminology has never been defined is, I suppose, inevitable.

I also wonder about the ability of airpower to destroy a "civil" society. Didn't work in WWII, didn't work in the Balkans recently, where does that conclusion come from?



1:01 PM  

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