What does it mean for a nation to be at war? Engagement in armed conflict is an obvious descriptor, but not every military action is war. To distinguish between military actions, knowing the objective, becomes necessary. Using the national guard to settle the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not a war. War, then, accomplishes distinct objectives for the winner. Two objectives dominate my thinking: gaining control of another’s resource, or eliminating another’s threat to one’s existence. Revenge is not a war objective, although that may be the motive for a particular act. But war requires a greater calling than revenge because it is not a tit-for-tat exchange exacting just punishment. No, in war, people seek to remove a threat—to feel safe to let their guard down and in turning their back to a former foe—or access to a resource often to address a basic societal need. Sometimes nations have fought and taken slaves, in other situations the desire was for minerals, land, or water, or simply, an energy supply to improve the society’s way of life. Property rights, at their purest essence, are war’s antecedents. History is filled with territorial wars.
Fear motivates action. And fear alone has often justified war. Most recently, we feared chemicals or nuclear weapons in Iraq, and we wholeheartedly supported war. Sadly, fear need not be rational or valid. As such, many politicians have sought ways to intertwine countries, relying on the fundamental premise that when people interact and become more familiar with one another, fear is reduced. Thus the world has seen a growth in the calls for more integration within countries, calls for more secular governments and calls to increase trade among countries. These methods seek interconnectedness. Others believe, and I am among them, that familiarity and increased trade do not reduce fear or hatred. Introducing the concept of fraud into a trade, makes it easy to see how former trading partners become enemies. Competition for limited resources is another concept that brings friends into conflict. Two boys can be best friends in their youth. Sharing a game is easy but sharing a fancy for the prettiest girl on the block turns friends into enemies quickly. In many ways, interaction, without common values or culture, merely hides underling tension waiting for an opportune conflict to unleash bad memories, ugly stereotypes, and mean-spirited folktales. For this reason, when religion and faith, are on opposite sides of a property conflict, war becomes probable.
Understanding war’s objective, a second question arises: What makes the loser quit? To lose is to relinquish control of a resource or adopt a subordinate role in a relationship. The loser gives up control when it cannot defend access or when defending access is no longer worth the effort. Similarly, a country adopts a subordinate role when financial insecurity exist and alternative routes to peer relations risk the citizens’ well-being. These conditions are more easily said than achieved. War is brutal. For a country, or group of individuals for that matter, these behavioral thresholds implicitly acknowledge a pain that cannot be tolerated. I believe they are two pains: unacceptably reduced living standards, and civilian deaths.
Daily living standards must be reduced and people must consider them unacceptable. Unacceptable in the sense that the citizens know what caused the change and it motivates their actions. Accepting conditions, even deplorable conditions, removes the incentive for action. I experienced this lesson first hand from Ryan, a cousin who spent his later teenage years in my home. I had previously punished Ryan with every privilege and right I could conceive, only to notice, one day, that Ryan accepted my new rules as they were. My plan backfired. Because once he accepted the conditions, my influencing ability disappeared and he no longer saw reason to comply with my behavior request. Similarly, civilian deaths drive action but the public can be confused about the why and how events occur. And with confusion, people can be drawn to act in unproductive ways.
Winning a war is difficult. The objective is to create a large pain. But how do winners achieve these grand pains in ways that contribute to ending the war? Four categories of actions appear to create the right pressure. Sometimes, one pressure point is sufficient, but often multiple pressure points are needed. The four are: cutting off finances, which reduces weapons supplies, disrupting energy supplies, which reduces daily living standards, interrupting the food supply, which threatens well-being and engenders mistrust, and killing massive numbers of civilians with intent, which causes a leadership change or surrender. That is it, war is ugly.
Importantly, kill the leaders is not listed. Eliminating leaders sounds great in speeches but is not sufficient to win a war, because the leaders may simply be replaced. Killing the leader works when a fearful citizenry follows the leader, but only if they follow from fear. If people follow for any other reason (for example a common faith, a shared hatred, or an identity with an ideology) they will merely replace the leader and keep fighting. For example, in the United States multiple presidents have been assassinated and each time we have replaced the leader and then kept going. No, to emerge victorious, attack financing, energy, food and civilians. War is nasty.
On August first Senator Barack Obama caused a stir by saying, if he had actionable evidence about Bin Laden’s whereabouts in Pakistan he would order American military action inside Pakistan without asking. As I weeded through the following days news articles a clear vision emerged all the presidential candidates would in essence do the same. What alarms me is how little the presidential promise does to help win the war with Al-Qaeda. With deeper inspection, Senator Obama’s statement is surprisingly empty. It does not differentiate him from the other candidates, nor if accomplished, does it help the United States defeat Al Qaeda. Killing the leader just does not work when faith and ideology are involved. Yes, removing Bin Laden would be a symbolic feel good moment in the US, but politicians should be careful not to create a false feeling of success. Amazingly, it was just a short time ago, that George Bush’s approval rating was 70%, and he was happily declaring “We got him.”
The candidates should discuss concrete actions that address the United States’ security. I want to know, “what they are going to do” more than “what they promise to achieve” in leading us to victory. Knowing how they would attack Al Qaeda’s financing, energy, food and civilians is the only way I can determine whether our values align. In Senator Obama’s speech on last Wednesday, he highlighted five strategy elements to secure America: “getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing the capabilities and partnerships we need to take out the terrorists and the world’s most deadly weapons; engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland.” As he developed these elements in his speech, he presents a mixture of actions and objectives. The first two address winning. The later three are about American ego.
Surprisingly, both President Bush and Senator Obama want to spread democratic values. President Bush believes, and maybe rightly so, that a democratic society within the Muslim Middle East, will thwart terrorism’s growth. This belief though glosses over the reality that a democratic society is not desired. Indeed, our allies in the region are not democratic states. Senator Obama speaks of rolling back the tide of hopelessness, reducing poverty, and increasing the Muslim poor’s positive interactions with America (by opening America Houses in cities across the Islamic world). Although each takes vastly different routes, both count on rising economic development and greater interaction to increase peace. I have faith in neither plan. In both men’s plans the notion that our opponents reject our values, culture and way of life on a level deeper than lack of exposure is ignored. Neither works for respect and acceptance of differences. Without recognizing possible motivators besides poverty and underexposure to America, each man, separately, sets the United States up for the same disappointment.