The Degeneration of War
Paul Kennedy is the Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author or editor of 16 books, including The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
New Haven, Conn. — I recently participated in a fascinating international conference at Yale University entitled “The Degeneration of War 1914–1945.” Scholars at the conference discussed a number of disturbing case studies from both World War I and World War II where fighting had become much more deadly, military discipline had declined, and human rights had become increasingly abused. While the focus was limited to those two struggles, it is clear that the concept of the degeneration of war can easily be transferred to other times and places.
There are at least two types of degeneration—or, if you like, deterioration—in wartime. The first relates to the sheer physical increase in the lethality of the weapons used, leading to many more battlefield casualties than expected. Think of the impact of the machine gun and barbed wire upon the Battle of the Somme (1916), where the British Army suffered 60,000 dead and wounded on the first day of assaults. Lethality could also strike on the home front. Think of the evolution of strategic bombing in World War II, where the load of munitions dropped in 1939–40 by the Germans (Warsaw, Amsterdam, London) was small compared with that in 1945 by the Allies (Dresden, Tokyo). This is degeneration by body-count.
The second form of degeneration in war is even more disturbing. It concerns the lowering of standards, the disregard of the Hague and Geneva conventions, the mistreatment of prisoners and civilians, the forced expulsion of peoples, the mass slaughter of ethnic and religious groups. The history of the bloody 20th century is replete with examples of all of the above, although previous ages are also littered with atrocities (the Thirty Years War in Europe, the English settlers’ onslaught upon the Indians in North America, the Ottoman capture of Constantinople).
I came away from that conference wondering sadly whether any of the leading members of the Bush administration and the neo-conservative intellectuals who encouraged the White House to march on Baghdad had ever considered that our present war in Iraq might produce its own litter of degenerations. After all, it now appears that many Army generals warned that maintaining law and order in Iraq would be much more difficult than simply ousting Saddam, that urban warfare would be horrible, and that casualties would rise. But the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz team had no intention of listening to professionals—unless, of course, the soldiers agreed with their own rosy interpretation of how the war would go.
The second, more horrible form of degeneration is right before our eyes, in the photographs and videos of what went on in the Abu Ghraib prison and, as one now hears from the International Red Cross, in various other detention camps. This has infuriated the world, and also shocked many Americans, who have hitherto had an incredibly high regard for their armed forces. Since the debacles of the Vietnam War, those forces were portrayed as having become much more professional, not only in higher levels of fighting efficiency but also in better discipline and codes of conduct. Besides, they were told by their political superiors they were not likely to encounter a Vietnam War-type deterioration in Iraq, because the great bulk of the Iraqi population was yearning to see American troops enter the country and liberate them from Saddam Hussein.
This, too, is disturbing. American public opinion was fed optimistic messages at the same time as US decision-makers were blind to the lessons of military history, which is that most wars get worse, not better, no matter the strength of your armed fist. The cynical observer is bound to wonder whether the reason the Pentagon so furiously campaigned against the International Criminal Court over the past three or more years is precisely because it foresaw this might happen, somewhere in the future, and wanted to protect US soldiers from international investigation and tribunal. International judgment is fine for criminal Serbians, and Sudanese, and Rwandans, but not for Americans.
As the first form of degeneration spread, losses grew, and the fighting became more bloody and frustrating to young American troops, the second type of degeneration began to occur—not 10 days ago, but last year. Exhausted by the conflict, annoyed that their promised return home had not been fulfilled, enraged at the death of buddies, certain American units treated their prisoners roughly.
Worst of all were the actions of the Army’s prison guard units, who look to have been lower rated and less disciplined troops, with many of the habits of warders of penitentiaries in the American South before civil rights reforms. There is also the dubious matter of privately contracted prison guards, which surely Congress needs to investigate. To this can be added the misjudgments of middle officers and the neglect of senior ones. With morale and conduct breaking down at various levels, dirty deeds were done.
War is hell. As Clausewitz so frequently warned, it rarely ends up where it was planned to conclude. This is something the neo-conservative strategists never thought about. Moral degeneration in war is something that the higher military leaders, although they worried that the post-battle situation would not be pleasant, did not anticipate.
Mid-level officers, concerned to emphasize toughness and fortitude to their troops, forgot on occasions to stress the rules of war. Now a fine service is besmirched. Heads will roll, of course, not at the level where they should, that of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. But the disastrous and unintended consequences of this degenerated behavior do not cease there.
The United States has stepped further into the Iraqi quagmire, dragging the British, Australian, Polish, Italian and other allied governments into the mud with it. As it now turns to the United Nations for help—the organization Vice President Dick Cheney and company dismissed as irrelevant last year—it has no prospect of immediate support. This administration, if it is not careful, has the chance of destroying the UN system, of which President Bush’s father was such a strong supporter. We desperately need a strong and respected Security Council to sort out the mire, but why should China and France get off their backsides and support America at this stage? Why should India, a clear candidate for a permanent veto seat, stir itself when the US is twisting in the wind?
Prof. Niall Ferguson’s teasing and controversial new book Colossus (Penguin, New York, April 2004) has as its important sub-title “The Price of the American Empire.” The US has all the power in the world, in a military and material sense, he argues, but its public cannot take serious losses on the ground in foreign wars and America cannot handle its own grave domestic ﬁscal and trade deficits. Above all, one might add, it cannot reconcile this blow (the news of blatant and grisly mistreatment of prisoners) to its ideological and cultural claims to being a “city on the hill,” a light to the nations, a torchbearer of democracy and human rights.
The single photo of a young, raw, female recruit holding a naked Iraqi man on a dog leash is going to unbundle the Wolfowitzian dream of turning Iraq and the entire Middle East into something like Kansas. All that hubris is blown apart and, beneath the surface, the murmurs about retreat and abandonment are rising, even inside Washington. Yet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s departure, if it comes, will only fan the flames.
The Arab world will rejoice, America’s critics will say “I told you so,” America’s friends will take cover, and the mess will go on. And June 30—when sovereignty is scheduled to revert to Iraq—looms. Anyone who claims they know the outcome is (as George Bernard Shaw used to say) a charlatan. We are in for a turbulent ride. Once you start a war, never think you can control its degeneration and its consequences.