Monday, June 11, 2007

Systemic Failure and Pathology

A study on modern warfare from the University of Georgia has reached some interesting conclusions:

Despite overwhelming military superiority, the world’s most powerful nations failed to achieve their objectives in 39 percent of their military operations since World War II, according to a new University of Georgia study....

“If you know some key variables – like the major objective, the nature of the target, whether there’s going to be another strong state that will intervene on the side of the target and whether you’ll have an ally – you can get a sense of your probability of victory,” said [Patricia L.] Sullivan, whose study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution.
My first problem with this is the assumption that one can know the "major objective" of wars waged by superpowers against inherently weak - or intentionally weakened - states. I find it hard to imagine any justification for this beyond wishful thinking.

My second problem is that "victory" seems to be defined as achieving the "major objective" in question. Even if we accept that objective as rational (or at least sincere), achieving it could turn out to be disastrous down the road.

We don't really know why we've gone to war in Iraq, and we're not really sure what victory entails. Measuring the probability of "success" in this situation strikes me as a fool's game...but for whatever it's worth, Sullivan reckons that "the current war in Iraq has a probability of success of nearly 26 percent with an estimated duration of 10 years."

That seems pretty goddamn optimistic to me. But since I'm basing my assessment more on intuition and ill temper than statistical analysis, it's possible I'm missing something. Anyway, I do agree with Sullivan on one crucial point:
“We can try to use brute force to kill insurgents and terrorists, but what we really need is for the population to be supportive of the government and to stop supporting the insurgents,” Sullivan said. “Otherwise, every time we kill an insurgent or a terrorist, they’re going to be replaced by others.”
You can't really argue with that, unless you're one of those people who believes that "kill 'em all" is an actual strategy. Unfortunately, accepting this ideal doesn't bring us any closer to achieving it.

This brings me to a recent post at Defense Tech, which concerns a paper by Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College. Metz claims that we should neither be battling insurgents, nor propping up the government:
[T]he U.S. goal should not automatically be the defeat of the insurgents by the regime (which may be impossible and which the regime may not even want), but the most rapid conflict resolution possible. In other words, a quick and sustainable resolution which integrates insurgents into the national power structure is less damaging to U.S. national interests than a protracted conflict which leads to the complete destruction of the insurgents. Protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the threat.
This doesn't address the possibility that protracted conflict is the goal (which I don't think we can rule out, whether we're talking about an escalating regional war, or BushCo "standing firm" until it can drop the problem in a new administration's lap and heckle them from the sidelines).

To be fair, Metz acknowledges the possibility of "systemic failure and pathology in which key elites and organizations develop a vested interest in sustaining the conflict." But he paints this as a dance of death between the Iraqi government and the insurgency, with the US as a hapless suitor who's trying to cut in:
[T]he most effective posture for outsiders is not to be an ally of the government and thus a sustainer of the flawed socio-political-economic system, but to be neutral mediators and peacekeepers (even when the outsiders have much more ideological affinity for the regime than for the insurgents). If this is true, the United States should only undertake counterinsurgency support in the most pressing instances and as part of an equitable, legitimate, and broad-based multinational coalition.
Putting aside the question of whether this strategy is likely to embraced by people who've launched a inequitable, illegitimate, unpopular, and unnecessary war, the idea of US forces being able to act as "neutral mediators and peacekeepers" is farfetched, partly because of the resentment we've generated through our minor missteps (e.g., sexually torturing and murdering Iraqis); and partly because "peacekeeping" in Iraq is going to involve killing and getting killed for the foreseeable future (which confirms Simone Weil's observation that "force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims").

And again, what if our intent actually is to be "a sustainer of the flawed socio-political-economic system"?

Stranger things have happened, God knows. But somehow, it's more "rational" - and comforting - to believe that our job in Iraq is to face down an existential threat posed by Radical Evil. As usual, we'd rather face Satan than ourselves.

Apropos of which, Robert M. Jeffers has a few choice words:
If only "they" are evil, then only "they" deserve to die, and "wiping them all out" to solve the problem becomes the only solution to every perceived international problem (and national; that same sentiment lies at the heart of the immigration debate today). But if we take evil back into ourselves, if we recognize our complicity in the violence of the world, if we stop thinking of ourselves as "innocent nation" in a "decadent world," perhaps we could start to make a change in the world.
Like a lot of other people, RMJ seems to forgotten all about our good intentions.

(Illustration by Janez Vaijkard Valvasor, from Theatrum Mortis Humanæ Tripartitum, 1682. Via Giornale Nuovo.)

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