The Paradoxes of War

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
( January 19, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) A paradox is a tenet contrary to conventional wisdom which is inconsistent with common sense and leads to self-contradictory conclusions. The inevitability of human behaviour, which is often taken for granted, has been paradoxical at best. The perennial belief that women are the weaker sex (why do they have to play less sets at a tennis match than men?); that they are weaker at math than men; that women athletes are slower than their male counterparts, is just a belief as there has been no known scientific pronouncement backed by empirical study to this effect. Similarly, there has been no proven principle that man thrives on war.
Therein lies the paradox of war, which is but a microcosm of the overall paradox in the macrocosm of human behaviour. War in its conventional image portrays battles that yield blood and gore. The image of war, shaped over centuries, has been about winning and losing.
War could be categorized into two types: conventional versus unconventional, where conventional warfare involves well-identified armed forces fighting one another in a relatively open and straightforward way without weapons of mass destruction. “unconventional” refers to other types of war which can involve raiding, guerilla, or insurgency and terrorist tactics or alternatively can include nuclear, chemical or biological warfare.
All of these categories usually fall into one of two broader categories: High intensity and low intensity warfare. High intensity warfare is between two superpowers or large countries fighting for political reasons. Low intensity warfare involves counterinsurgency, guerilla warfare and specialized types of troops fighting revolutionaries.
Winston Churchill, in his War Speech in the House of Commons on 3 September 1939 reminded us of the enduring longing in man for peace when he said: “This is of the highest moral value–and not only moral value, but practical value–at the present time, because the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions of men and women, whose co-operation is indispensable and whose comradeship and brotherhood are indispensable, is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted”. Churchill concluded that perhaps it may seem a paradox that a war undertaken in the name of liberty and right should require, as a necessary part of its processes, the surrender for the time being of so many of the dearly valued liberties and rights.
Therein lies the paradox of war, which is but a microcosm of the overall paradox in the macrocosm of human behaviour. War in its conventional image portrays battles that yield blood and gore. The image of war, shaped over centuries, has been about winning and losing. The modern view, as propounded by some, is that war is about a battle between the forces of freedom and the forces of evil. This posits the theory that the forces of evil are curbing or preventing freedom. In the backdrop of the traditional construct of winning and losing and the current belief of freedom against bondage, there lies the ancient wisdom of peace handed down by Jesus Christ as reported in the Gospel according to Luke cited in Luke 6:27-35, from Christ’s sermon on the plain: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. And just as you want men to treat you, treat them in the same way”.
Another paradox of war is the simplistic treatment traditionally given to an act of war as a contest marked by the use of force. As Grant T. Hammond, in his article “Paradoxes of War” observes, perceiving war as a contest marked by the use of force is a woefully incomplete, tragically simplistic, and fundamentally flawed view. The consequences of such an image are profound. By not grasping the nature of war, waging war has become a needlessly spendthrift exercise in lives and resources, however well fought. Hammond goes on to say that wars are messy, unpredictable, costly, inefficient, and often ineffective. While war has been a major instrument of change across history, it is an increasingly unaffordable activity by most measures. The ancient tactical master Sun Tzu, in his Art of War (cited below) stated: “In the operations of war, where there are in the field a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry them a thousand li, the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armour, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day. Such is the cost of raising an army of 100,000”
Although the twentieth century has been bludgeoned with the indelible stamp of war and recognized as the century of total war, it is believed that the phenomenon of war started much earlier – in the age of Napoleon and the era of cannons, muscats and sailing ships. David A. Bell, in his landmark book “The First Total War” (Houston Miflin: New York, 2007) convincingly argues that during the Eighteenth Century, as in previous centuries, most western cultures accepted war as an inevitable and ordinary facet of human existence. Throughout history, going back to ancient times, war has been a battle of wits, which brings us to the next paradox, that on the one hand war is technically a social construction in so far as it is distinguished from other forms of violence by its dependence on rules, and on the other hand it is based on deception.
The pre-eminent treatise on war and tactical strategy is The Art of War which is a Chinese military treatise written during the 6th Century B.C. by Sun Tzu. The book is composed of 13 chapters, each devoted to one aspect of warfare and has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategy. One of the principal strategies of deception that Sun Tzu offers in the first chapter is that when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near, hold out baits to entice the enemy. A winning army will feign disorder and crush him.
From the paradox of playing by the rules on the one hand and deception on the other, we move to the paradox of seeking peace on one side and piracy and plunder on the other, which is usually one of the central intents of warmongers. Most wars are purely piratical. Pride, gold, women, slaves excitement were the only motives of early warriors. Williams James in his celebrated essay “The Moral Equivalent of War, which he wrote in 1906, cites the Peloponnesian war, where the Athenians ask the inhabitants of Melos (the island where the “Venus de Milo” was found), hitherto neutral, to own their lordship. The envoys meet, and hold a debate which Thucydides gives in full, and which, for sweet reasonableness of form, would, according to James have satisfied Matthew Arnold. “The powerful exact what they can,” said the Athenians, “and the weak grant what they must.” When the Meleans say that sooner than be slaves they will appeal to the gods, the Athenians reply, “Of the gods we believe and of men we know that, by a law of their nature, wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first to have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you.” Well, the Meleans still refused, and their town was taken. “The Athenians,” Thucydides quietly says, “thereupon put to death all who were of military age and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonized the island, sending thither five hundred settlers of their own.
The classic mould of Alexander the Great epitomizes the early martial personality. Some scholars are of the view (such as William James) that Alexander’s career was piracy pure and simple and that his main motive was to carry out an orgy of power and plunder. Paradoxically, this was romanticized by the average plebeian who made Alexander a hero. Alexander’s motive, which drove his war career, was annexation which, in modern terms seemingly shows no rational purpose for war, and the moment he died his generals and governors attacked one another.
The cruelty wrought by war in early times is irrational in modern terms. For example, it is recorded in history that when Rome finally conquered Greece, Paulus Aemilius, was told by the Roman Senate, to reward his soldiers for their toil by “giving” them the old kingdom of Epirus. They sacked seventy cities and carried off one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants as slaves. Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all,” but to reanimate his soldiers on the eve of Philippi he similarly promises to give them the cities of Sparta and Thessalonica to ravage, if they win the fight.
It is also believed that we inherit the “warlike” type; and that heroism and the intense cruelty of man’s past actions are interwoven through a somewhat misguided proclivity to go to war. Since dead men tell no tales, and if there were any tribes of other type than this they have left no survivors, we have no exact way of finding out some of the details that would shed light on early circumstances of man’s inhumanity to each other. Seemingly, our pugilistic traits emanated from our ancestors and sustained years of peace will not expunge this pugnacity. This breeds another paradox between the military conduct of the soldier who follows orders and his moral upbringing that militates against unjust infliction of harm and death under the guise of war.
Arguably the most curious paradox of war is lies in the theory that the human is not a warmonger by nature and that the human potential for peace overwhelms his proclivity to resolve conflict by going to war. Douglas P. Fry, in his book “Beyond War”(Oxford University Press: 2007) argues that for perhaps ninety nine percent of our history, and for well over a million years, humans lived in nomadic hunter and gatherer groups, in egalitarian bands where generosity was highly valued and warfare was a rarity. Fry’s thesis is that war is the natural corollary of social organization and the rise of States. The culmination of Fry’s thesis is that war, like slavery, can be abolished mainly because, from an anthropological perspective, humans have shown a greater tendency toward living with each other in harmony than going to war. The second reason adduced is that with the exponential increase of weapons of mass destruction, we must, as of necessity abolish war before it abolishes us.
Despite the wars raging in some areas of the world, many of us lead normally peaceful lives: we go to school or work; interact with our peers; return home; have dinner with the family and go to sleep in a peaceful environment. Many of us are clever and decent and we know that if the world around us disintegrates, we go down with it. Therefore we have to strike a balance between the extremity of war, which usually is a last resort, and the sensibility of peace. Peace is not just the absence of war but a condition that gives everyone in a given society an equal standard of living. In order to achieve this we have to recognize one fundamental truth – that we live in a world of constant change and our world is mostly one of paradoxes. No one could have put it more succinctly than Charles Handy who, in his book “The Age of Paradox (Harvard Business School Press: 1994) says that although the paradoxes of modern times cannot be solved, they can be managed if we can understand what is happening and are prepared to act differently.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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