Military history


The end of the Second World War and the advent of atomic weapons did not bring an end to warmaking, either immediately or in the decades that followed. Japan’s destruction of the European empires in the East, and its humiliation of the European governors and settlers under the eyes of their former subjects, ensured that after 1945 colonial rule there could be re-established only by force, if at all. The British judged the effort to be impossible in Burma, to which it conceded independence in 1948, and it recognised that a Communist-inspired rising that broke out the same year in Malaya could be suppressed only if the population was promised self-government as the condition for supporting the counter-insurgency campaign. The Dutch rapidly abandoned their attempt to restore colonial rule in the East Indies where, as in Burma, a Japanese-fostered independence movement captured the populist loyalties. France alone took a different view. Confronted in Indochina by a Communist-led nationalist party, which had acquired arms from the Japanese, it despatched an expeditionary force to re-impose the pre-war imperial regime, but from the moment of its appearance in 1946 it found itself embroiled in guerrilla operations which the enemy showed it knew how to conduct with the greatest skill and persistence. The Viet Minh, as the nationalist movement became known, had learned its guerrilla techniques from Mao Tse-tung’s Communist army in China; there, in a country impoverished and destabilised by eight years of occupation by and war against the Japanese, the Communists rapidly seized power from the established government of Chiang Kai-shek in the civil war of 1948–50. Mao’s army won its victory by conventional tactics; during its years in the wilderness, however, it had refined its own philosophy of warmaking, in which the traditional Chinese strategy of evasion and delay was reinforced by Marxist conviction in the inevitability of revolutionary triumph. Translated to Indochina, where terrain greatly favoured operations based on surprise, piecemeal offensives and rapid disengagement, ‘protracted war’, as Mao had entitled his method, successfully wore down the resistance of the French expeditionary force. In 1955, the French government gave up the struggle and conceded power to the Viet Minh.

The Viet Minh example inspired subject peoples throughout what remained of the European colonies to rise in arms, notably in French North Africa but also in British Arabia and Portuguese Africa. During the 1960s the European imperial powers conceded defeat on every front, often in colonies that still remained at peace. The ‘wind of change’ blowing against European dominance was strong enough to shred to tatters the self-confidence of the European maritime powers whose venturers had sailed forth with such certainty in their moral and material superiority at the outset of the gunpowder age.

The Western-style militarisation of the new independent states of Asia and Africa in the four decades after 1945 was as remarkable a phenomenon as it had been with the non-warrior populations of Europe in the nineteenth century. That it had many of the same doleful effects — overspending on arms, subordination of civilian to military values, superordination of self-chosen military élites and even resort to war — could be expected. It was equally to be expected that most of the hundred or so armies brought into being after decolonisation were of little objective military worth; Western ‘technology transfers’, a euphemism for selfish arms sales by rich Western nations to poor ones that could rarely afford the outlay, did not entail the transfusion of culture which made advanced weapons so deadly in Western hands. Only the Vietnamese, against whom the United States was drawn into an unavailing ideological war between 1965 and 1972, made the same transition that the Japanese so spectacularly achieved after the Meiji restoration of 1866. Elsewhere militarisation served only to bring the trappings of militarism without the redeeming military virtue of discipline.

The many small wars of the post-colonial era, affronting though they were to those of liberal conscience among the ex-imperial peoples, did not greatly alarm any of the victor nations of 1945 with the fear that the peace won then was threatened. Their fears on that score came from another source: the nuclear weapons by which the Second World War had been brought to so abrupt a halt. The United States’ initial monopoly of the nuclear secret briefly held such fears at bay. When in 1949, however, it became known that the Soviet Union had exploded its own atomic bomb, and when during the 1950s both it and the United States proceeded to the development of the far more destructive hydrogen bomb, the industrial world was forced to take stock of the nature of the nightmare it had created for itself. In the space of 500 years, it had progressed from practising a form of international hostility in which the harm threatened was limited to what could be delivered by power of human and animal muscle, via an interlude in which chemical energy supplanted and enhanced this but did not psychically transcend it, to an unintended state of affairs, suddenly arrived at, in which the practice of hostility, for the objects that prevailing military theory laid down as proper and correct, would destroy the earth. Stimson’s judgement on the atomic bomb, at first hearing news of it — ‘more than a weapon of terrible destruction … a psychological weapon’ — was even truer than he guessed.79 Nuclear weapons preyed upon the mind of man, and the fears they aroused exposed the hollowness of the Clausewitzian analysis once and for all. How could war be an extension of politics, when the ultimate object of rational politics is to further the well-being of political entities? The nuclear dilemma drove thinking people, statesmen, bureaucrats, and members of the professional military class perhaps most of all, to cudgel their brains for discovery of some means of escape from the terrible predicament they had created for themselves.

Some very clever men, many of them academics recruited to the policy-making institutions of Western governments, painfully worked their way toward an accommodation with the predicament by constructing a step-by-step argument to show that Clausewitzian logic held good as never before: nuclear weapons, it ran, could be made to work for political ends not by their use but by the threat of their use alone. This ‘deterrence’ theory had deep roots. Military men for centuries past had justified the raising and training of armies by reference to the tag, Roman in origin, ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war.’ By the early 1960s, this thought had been reformulated into the doctrine known in the United States, where it originated, as ‘mutually assured destruction’, the capacity to ‘deter a deliberate [nuclear] attack … by maintaining at all times a clear and unmistakable ability to inflict an unacceptable degree of damage upon any aggressor — even after absorbing a surprise first strike’.80 When the numbers of nuclear warheads and of the aircraft and missiles (developments of the German V-2) assigned to deliver them remained low, ‘mutually assured destruction’ could, if only barely, be justified as a tolerable system of containing nuclear power within manageable limits, especially since the mutual suspicions of the two principal nuclear powers imposed an intransigent resistance to productive measures of disarmament. By the 1980s, when the number of intercontinental nuclear missile-launchers had risen to some 2000 on each side, and the number of warheads to tens of thousands, some alternative and better means of managing the preservation of peace was a clear necessity.

Man has long sought to restrain war by laws, laws defining both when war is or is not permissible (ius ad bellum, as international jurists term it) and what is permissible in war (ius in bellum) if and when it has begun. In the ancient world a ‘just war’ was so recognised merely if insult or injury had been given to the state or its officials. The first Christian theologian of the state, St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), challenged to judge whether to take part in war was permissible at all to a man who wished to avoid sin, affirmed that it was, provided that the cause was just and that it was waged with ‘right intention’ — to achieve good or avert evil — and under constituted authority. These three principles formed the basis for ecclesiastical adjudication between warring parties until the coming of the Reformation; they were subsequently elaborated by such Catholic jurists as Francisco de Vittoria (1480–1546), who argued that an infidel, if fighting under constituted authority, must be accorded respect for his belief that his cause was just, but most importantly by the great Dutch Protestant lawyer Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), whose concern was as much to define ‘unjust’ as ‘just’ war and to propose measures by which those who waged unjust wars might be punished for wrongdoing.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries his distinctions were overlooked, for national policy was largely permeated by the amoral Machiavellian view that sovereignty supplied a state with all the justification it needed in its choice of action; in the absence since the Reformation of any supranational authority to gainsay that philosophy, it prevailed unchallenged throughout the gunpowder age. As a leading international lawyer, W.E. Hall, put the matter in 1880:

International law has … no alternative but to accept war, independently of the justice of its origin, as a relation which the parties to it may set up if they choose, and to bury itself only in regulating the effect of the relation. Hence both parties to every war are regarded as being in an identical legal position, and consequently as possessed of equal rights.81

The development of weapons of mass destruction by the end of the nineteenth century made this indifferentist doctrine appear dangerous even to the strongest states, and in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the leading powers agreed on modest measures to limit their unfettered freedom to make war if and when they chose. (How they might fight had already begun to be regulated by the Geneva Conventions, the first of which was signed by twelve major powers in 1864.) Since the circumstances in which the First World War broke out made a mockery of the Hague movement, its spirit was entrenched after 1918 in the Covenant of the League of Nations, set up at American inspiration, which imposed the necessity of arbitration on states in dispute, to be reinforced by international sanction on the party that rejected an unwelcome decision. In 1928 the direction in which legal restraint and warmaking was tending took definitive form in the Pact of Paris, properly known as the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, which, independent of the League Covenant, explicitly committed the signatories to resolve all disputes in future ‘by pacific means’.82 Thereafter, all warmaking was technically illegal, and it was the flagrant disregard of this new principle of international law that made the United States government in 1945 determined to translate the moralistic affirmation of the anti-German and anti-Japanese alliance, the self-styled United Nations, into a permanent organisation of that name. Largely at American insistence, the United Nations Organisation’s Charter reaffirmed both the Pact of Paris and the League Covenant, and it added to the League’s machinery of arbitration and sanctions a set of provisions that allowed the United Nations to act with military force against a transgressor.

The frustration of the spirit of the United Nations Charter during the forty years of Russo-American nuclear confrontation is a story too well known to rehearse here. Even before that confrontation was resolved by the sudden collapse of the Marxist regime in the Soviet Union in 1990, however, the two superpowers had agreed substantive measures of nuclear disarmament, for they were both alarmed by the relentless heightening of danger of surprise attack into which the perfection of missile technology was driving them. The relaxation of tension thus produced was the most hopeful development in the arena of international relations since the foundation of the United Nations Organisation in 1945.

It was, however, neither nuclear disarmament nor the new mood of harmony induced by Russia’s rejection of Marxism that has offered the best hope that a world steeped in warmaking is at last turning into peaceful paths, but, paradoxically, the Soviet Union’s decision, in the last months of its existence, to endorse the United Nations’ decision to take military action against Iraq’s unprovoked invasion of Kuwait in the autumn of 1990. Iraq, by any measure, had violated every provision of ‘just war’ morality and all the legalities laid down successively by international treaty in the League Covenant, the Pact of Paris, and the United Nations Charter itself. The whirlwind victory of the forces sent to punish Iraq and deprive it of its illegal sequestration of territory, achieved without the infliction of civilian casualties and authorised throughout by United Nations resolution, was the first genuine triumph of just war morality since Grotius had defined its guiding principles at the height of the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century.

Those who repose their trust in the hope that the United Nations will succeed in perpetuating its peacemaking function — no better instrument offers itself — have nevertheless a long road to travel before that hope is fulfilled. Man has a potentiality for violence; that cannot be denied, even if we concede that it is a minority, rather than a majority, in any society that is likely to carry potentiality into effect. Man has learned, over the course of the 4000 years in which organised armies have existed, to identify in that minority those who will make soldiers, to train and equip them, to supply the funds they need for their support, and to endorse and applaud their behaviour at those times when the majority feel at threat. We must go further: a world without armies — disciplined, obedient and law-abiding armies — would be uninhabitable. Armies of that quality are an instrument but also a mark of civilisation, and without their existence mankind would have to reconcile itself either to life at a primitive level, below ‘the military horizon’, or to a lawless chaos of masses warring, Hobbesian fashion, ‘all against all’.

There are places in the world, riven by communal rancour, saturated by the cheap weapons which are the industrial world’s most shameful product, where the war of all against all already confronts us, and we can see this on our television screens, a spectacle that gives an awful warning. It teaches us to what afflictions war may subject us when we refuse to deny the Clausewitzian idea that war is a continuation of politics, and refuse to recognise that politics leading to war are a poisonous intoxication.

To turn away from the message Clausewitz preached, we do not need to believe, like Margaret Mead, that war is an ‘invention’. Nor do we need to ponder the means of altering our genetic inheritance, an intrinsically self-defeating process. We need not seek to break free of our material circumstances. Mankind already masters the material world to a degree which the most optimistic of our ancestors only two centuries ago would have thought beyond apprehension. All that we need to accept is that, over the course of 4000 years of experiment and repetition, warmaking has become a habit. In the primitive world, this habit was circumscribed by ritual and ceremony. In the post-primitive world, human ingenuity ripped ritual and ceremony, and the restraints they imposed on warmaking, away from warmaking practice, empowering men of violence to press its limits of tolerability to, and eventually beyond, the extreme. ‘War’, said Clausewitz the philosopher, ‘is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.’ Clausewitz the practical warrior did not guess at the horrors toward which his philosophical logic led, but we have glimpsed them. The habits of the primitive — devotees themselves of restraint, diplomacy and negotiation — deserve relearning. Unless we unlearn the habits we have taught ourselves, we shall not survive.

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