Again, yesterday it was announced in the news that an American drone predator had killed several Pakistani civilians along with some Al Qaeda insurgents. The ratio is the subject of argument.
It wasn’t really that long ago that when going into battle you had to get right up to where you could “see the whites” of the enemy’s eyes, smell the foul breath of fear, hear the cracking of bone and sense the resistance of organs to your blade, and finally, to feel the heat of your enemy’s blood as it burbled out with his last cry. Of course, it could be the other way round; that’s the way war was for most of human history—up close, very close up, and personal, very personal. That has, for the most part, gone into history, first with the bow and arrow, and finally, with the gun.
Wellington and Bonaparte stayed within the sight, sound, smell and danger of their great marching phalanxes thrown against one another in some giant chess game in the fields of Belgium. But by WWI, the last Great War fought in the trenches and fields, generals were removed from the field and sent, a la Paths of Glory,* wave pn wave of men to almost certain death, in numbers more befitting astronomy.
In the old days battles were mostly fought on fields of battle—the Plains of Marathon, Agincourt, the Argonne, “The Bulge,” Iwo Jima—places where the clash of armies and armor, tanks and artillery, settled matters, and usually without much, if any, “collateral damage.” WWII is some sense is responsible for changing that. The idea that an enemy could be weakened if you destroyed his means of weapon production (usually city-based), or his supply of oil, could ensure his defeat. Along with the rise of air power, it made everywhere and anywhere part of the field of battle. Today we say that there is “no way to define the battlefield,” and people in small towns in the American Midwest who used to send their sons off to America’s wars abroad, now fear that if a few (innocent) enemy combatants from Guantanamo are released into their midst, they will have their throats slit in their beds.
In the old days all men of fighting age went into combat, usually along with their officers; they survived or died together and their women and children either welcomed them home or went into slavery with the victorious enemy. You were close enough to your enemy to insult him (a common practice), such as by exposing your bare ass to him (a common insult), but not before measuring the distance of the throw of his spear (the longbow may have ended that practice). These days an American soldier abroad is more likely to walk right by an enemy who wears no uniform and blends with the civilian population. And, since insurgency had become a more common form of fighting for non-state enemy combatants, globalism and immigration have made it possible to engage in terrorism—a strategy that has proven to be almost as effective in its threat as in its practice.
Today we have what is sometimes called an “asymmetrical” battlefield. In the so-called “War on Terror,” the “enemy” is one without an air force, navy, armored divisions and with limited artillery. He fights not in the open, un-uniformed, from the cover of civilian populations, and he is willing to even sacrifice his own body into an explosive weapon for the “honor” of being a martyr to his faith. With such mobile tactics he has been able to hold off and frustrate the most powerful military on earth. Mostly, it is he who chooses when and where to fight. He can lie and wait at home and work, like a local militiaman, a relatively low-cost, low tech, but often highly efficient shadowy fighting force that knows the local terrain because it is his home as well as his “battlefield.”
Contemporary warfare has therefore become a strange combination of ancient and modern forms of combat—an enemy, deprived of the high technology of highly** developed and wealthy states, that must engage their enemy as closely and personally as possible, often little different in appearance than a shopkeeper or a goatherd. His most extreme stealth tactic is the suicide bomber—the warrior as weapon and delivery system. Opposed to him is the highly technological military with warriors outfitted with body armor, communications systems, sensing devices, night vision, “camo” uniforms, and employing tanks and armored vehicles.
The very nature of war against insurgents requires what our military refers to as “boots on the ground,” a presence on the undefined battlefield that results in fighting that places combatants at least within sight of one another. For what it is worth it “humanizes” the foreign soldier to some extent when is presence can be combined with the delivery of aid and services to “collaterals” corraled into the ambit of the “battlefield.”
Since the beginning of armed conflict adversaries have tried to achieve technological advantage. Many years ago I read From the Crossbow to the H-Bomb, by historians Fawn and Bernard Brodie.*** As I remember it, they make a good case that, ceteris paribus, the technologically superior force almost always wins (this is not a case for expanding the Department of Defense budget). Iron swords broke bronze swords, cannons ended walls as a defense, crossbows penetrated armor, the machine gun ended mass assaults, and the atomic bomb . . . .
But while superior military technology usually wins battles it does not necessarily win wars. War is not all about body counts. As media have become more immediate we have seen how it affected the resolve of Americans to continue the Vietnam War. We have also learned that when wars that are not contested on relatively neutral “battlegrounds,” but in homelands, it can make a substantial difference. People who have nowhere to go if they lose often fight on to the bitter end.
In some respects, the tactics of insurgents are a permutation of lack of sophisticated technology, the shape of the battlefield, and that intangible—ideological/religious fervor. The capacity and ability to rely upon sophisticated technological solutions has allowed America to choose more remotely deployed weaponry, with the Predator drone being the most recent manifestation. There are some 180 drones operating in the skies above the Pakistan-Afghanistan battlefields, operated by “pilots” (some of them expert former video-game players) from “bases” near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ironically, the remote war technology that is not quite able to distinguish a farmer with a hoe from a combatant with an AK-47, or an Al Qaeda strategy meeting from a wedding feast might just produce kinds of collateral casualties that will once again bring the battle to our homeland, perhaps this time even to the true center of our American “civilization”—Las Vegas, Nevada.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.26.2009)
*The great Kubrick anti-war film
**Although he does use some higher tech and sophistication for communication and the IED.
**That must have been in the 1960s and I have lost my copy, but was happy to see that Amazon.com has copes for sale.