The Last War

Plato famously said that “only the dead have seen the end of war.”  Though we are nowhere near the end of murder, genocide, and general mayhem, “war” as we have long understood it may be obsolete.

When the Founders crafted the Constitution’s provisions for how the new Republic would go to war, they had an understanding of the term that was older than Rome.  War was combat between sovereigns.  It had a beginning – a declaration.  It had an end – treaty or conquest.  Killing carried out by non-sovereign groups was banditry, a crime subject to an entirely different set of procedures.

The constant acceleration of firepower, from gunpowder to explosives to nuclear warheads has destroyed that model.  States now possess so much destructive capacity that they can’t fight one another directly.  Individuals and small groups now have access to so much violence that people cannot be effectively ruled without a relatively high level of consent.

Any government needs tremendous levels of popular cooperation and economic resources to maintain a state in this environment.  As a result, states are ceasing to exist at disturbing rate.  Somalis have lived for twenty years now with no government at all.  Haiti, Congo, Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sudan barely exist beyond their capitals.  And the phenomenon is beginning to reach beyond traditionally unsettled areas to threaten more critical nations.  Iraq and Pakistan are teetering on the brink of collapse and the failure of North Korea is one of Asia’s greatest worries.

The end of war is mostly a good thing, but acknowledging it has as much to do with preparing for its aftermath as celebrating its demise.  A world without war will not be a world without conflict.  War is being replaced by policing as the bulk of mass violence is transformed from combat to banditry.

This is a particularly fraught development for America.  We are a nation built on successful combat.  We have developed a military machine so much more dominant than anything that has come before that the machine itself has been rendered largely useless.  No one else wants to play.

In our history we have never lost a war, but we have had tremendous difficulty with “police actions.”  When you are rich in fine hammers every problem looks like a nail.  Our foreign policy sickness is the awkward pursuit of missions for this amazing military machine.

At present, there are none.  But still we have our fighting men deployed.  The results are not surprising.

If you doubt the demise of war, look closely at our legal struggles over the subject. We operate under the Geneva Convention which dictates the terms of the legal warfare between states.  It mandates a minimum standard of humane treatment of both soldiers and civilians.  For all its failures it has been a monumental achievement, even creating protections for Allied prisoners of the Nazis during World War II.

It doesn’t work anymore, because there aren’t any wars.

There is no internationally recognized legal framework to govern how states should deal with conflicts as they exist today.  Although everyone has been loath to admit it, the Geneva Convention simply fails to cover conditions of modern terrorism and guerilla fighting.  Terrorists cannot be treated like prisoners of war.  It just doesn’t work.  Neither can they dealt with in the same manner in which we handle thieves and criminals.  That doesn’t work either.  The approach we have adopted thus far has been to finesse the problem and operate with no external legal restrictions whatsoever.  That brought us Abu Ghraib.

And our internal rules for war are equally outdated.  The last time we declared war on anyone was December 11, 1941.  Since that time our legal framework for fighting has not kept pace with change.  Presidential power over the armed forces has grown until the military is in danger of becoming the President’s own, personal, Super-Action Adventure Squad.

As Bill Clinton demonstrated in 1998, the President is the only person in the world who can reach out anywhere on the planet and kill folks when he feels like it.  Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not.  But as a Republic we should probably make some deliberate decisions on how that power can be properly  accountable.

And while we are building ever-cooler new submarines and fighter aircraft, what about the real areas of future conflict between states?  Technology theft, attacks on computer networks, efforts to anonymously undermine electronic and transport infrastructure?  Are we preparing for the real dangers to our future security with anything like the effort we are pouring into tanks and guns?

Recognizing the end of war as we once knew it is not triumphalism.  It is an acknowledgement that we must adapt to an evolving environment.  Our new problems are better than our old problems.  That’s what progress is.  But they are problems nonetheless.  We need to have the intelligence and flexibility to see them for what they are.


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