"One gets the impression that U.S. military dominance is now so overwhelming," writes David Brooks in The Weekly Standard, "that the rules of conflict are being rewritten."
Indeed they are. In both the Afghanistan war of 2001 and the Iraq one now concluding, traditional features of warfare have been turned upside-down. But it's not just an American phenomenon; the same rewriting also applies in Israel's war against the Palestinians.
Some of the changes include:
- Who is the enemy: War used to be aimed against a whole country; during World War II, for example, whole peoples were vilified "Huns," "Japs"). Now, the authorities painstakingly distinguish between the government (the Taliban, Saddam Hussein's regime, Arafat) and the people (Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians). The former is the enemy; the latter, potentially friendly. This leads to such developments - astounding from the standpoint of traditional warfare - as U.S. planes winging to Afghanistan, simultaneously carrying bombs to destroy the regime and food to relieve the populace.
- Who will win: The outcome of war used to be the overriding question. Nowadays, when it's West vs. non-West, the vast disparity in economics, technology, materiel, training and organization virtually assures a Western victory. This assumed, attention focuses on very different matters, such as the duration of hostilities and the number of casualties.
- Casualties: In the old days each side sought to inflict as many casualties as possible on the enemy; now, Western armies strive to keep down the other sides' losses. In response, non-Western rulers sometimes inflict casualties on their own population. In Iraq, "the defending army attempts to place its own civilians in danger," Mark Bowden notes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, while the invading army "tries to avoid killing and hurting them." Likewise, Arafat's terrorists routinely operate out of residential areas, hoping for civilian casualties.
- Plunder: As recently as 1918, victory in war meant beggaring the loser. Then, starting with the Marshall Plan after World War II, the U.S. government established the precedent of paying for the rehabilitation of its former enemies. This quickly became the norm, to the point that there are many complaints the Bush administration has not done enough for the Afghans or the Sharon government for the Palestinians. For example, Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator from Nebraska, is dissatisfied with U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and demands "more effort and more manpower" there. In Iraq, the American taxpayer may be about to spend tens of billions of dollars.
- Fighting to help the other side: Traditionally, each side fought explicitly for its own interests. No longer: the coalition name for its war against Saddam Hussein is not "Operation No Nukes" or "Operation Cheap Oil" but "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Old notions of national interest would seem to be weakening.
- Rooting for the other side: Nationality once defined loyalties; no longer. Starting with the Boer War of 1899-1902, when the British Empire fought the Afrikaners in South Africa, significant numbers of Westerners oppose the war goals of their own governments. These sentiments contributed significantly to the French loss in Algeria and the U.S. loss in Vietnam. In the war against Saddam Hussein, some Americans and Britons wanted the coalition to lose ("We support our troops when they shoot their officers," read a sign on the streets of San Francisco). Contrarily, plenty of Iraqis wanted the coalition to win "Yes, Yes Bush! Down, Down Saddam!").
In the aggregate, these changes amount to a transformation of warfare. In important ways, Western operations against non-Western states resemble police raids more than warfare. Western governments are the police, local tyrants are the criminals and the subject populations are the victims.
Note the parallels: Like gangland capos, Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein disappeared (will Arafat be next?). The outcome of these operations is not in doubt. The rights of victims are as important as the safety of police. Not using excessive force is a paramount concern. And the Left goes easy on the criminals.
These shifts imply that Western warfare has changed in basic ways, and is now going into uncharted territory. Fortunately, the two democracies at the cutting edge of this type of fighting, the United States and Israel, have creative and humane militaries that are proving themselves worthy of this challenge.
Apr. 1, 2009 update: Above, I date the tradition of rooting for the other side to the British in the Boer War but Claudio Veliz in "George Bush and History's Croakers" shows it dates to the British in the Napoleonic Wars.