Tag Archives: War

The drones club

Everybody’s heard of drones, right? They’re the latest Big Thing in western war making– pilotless-but-armed aircraft that circle for hours without refueling, allowing armies to gather information about once-inaccessible territories and attack enemies without warning. The machines are human-controlled in distant command centers, using advanced information and communications technology, but apparently they’re becoming more autonomous, with new AI capabilities. So far only the US has actually killed anyone with them. But other countries are getting into the game, and everyone seems to agree that drones are the new face of battle.

All of which raises some questions.

For now I’ll pass quickly over the most basic– namely, are the people pursuing these projects completely insane? I mean, they never heard of Terminator, Skynet, and all the other dystopian killer-robot scenarios? Who doesn’t know these stories end in tears?

I won’t say more about that side of things here, not because it’s unimportant but because it needs zero thought– any kid with video-streaming knows the score, even if the well-educated Serious People running our public institutions don’t.

But some historically-informed reflection may help in a different way, by sharpening our understanding of the pre-apocalypse arc of the drone story– meaning, how things are likely to play out before we reach a full-frontal Terminator fiasco. That’s because historians have studied the life-cycles of other super-weapons, and we can say something about where this particular instance is heading.

Historical thinking is especially worthwhile here because even the anti-drone camp seems to buy into a basic idea about them– namely, that they fundamentally change the nature of war itself. Historians have encountered that belief in numerous contexts, and up to now it’s been wrong every single time.

As an example, here’s the always-admirable-and-usually-right Ted Rall, arguing that drones put an end to war’s character as a duel between adversaries. That’s what the great war theorist Carl von Clausewitz thought war was, but now (so say Rall and others) it’s closer to a manhunt, a one-sided encounter between predator and prey, because those who have the drones operate in such complete safety, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the killing scene. “The armed drone … unambiguously allows the state to kill anyone and everyone with impunity, without the slightest physical risk whatsoever.”

Rall himself is against this mode of killing, but among the Serious People his anti-drone objections transmogrify into pro-drone justifications. You’ve almost certainly heard some of them: drones save American lives, allow the precise elimination of bad guys, and actually reduce the bloodshed and mayhem of war. Do you want another World War I, with millions of boots on the ground, or robot surgical strikes that allow most people to go about their lives and don’t wreck whole societies?  Far from being embarrassed about it, the US actually advertises the manhunt image of modern warfare– our top killer-drone is called the Predator.

Which is why historians have to step up and point out that no, actually war doesn’t change its essential nature, and Clausewitz still applies here in the twenty-first century. We’ve had a long succession of super-weapons– the machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and submarines of World War I, the radios and strategic bombing of World War II, the napalm and B-52s of Vietnam, to cite just some twentieth-century examples. Each time there’s talk of military revolution, new rules of the game, and the new technologies briefly tip the military balance to the side that first invented them. Then the other side adapts one way or another, and the essential nature of military conflict reasserts itself. It’s still a contest of wills and intelligence, and it still centers on hurting the other side enough that they yield.

I mean, in case you missed it: in the last fifty years, the low tech North Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqi insurgents all defeated the ultra-high-tech Americans. They won mostly because the wars in question mattered way more to them than to us.

Now, in most of the big twentieth-century wars, military adaptation meant imitation– the other side started making its own tanks/submarines/atomic bombs. But the Vietnam-Afghanistan-Iraq examples show the deeper reality beneath these technological arms races. In a real war, each side does what it thinks it has to to win, and that doesn’t necessarily mean keeping up with technology fads. It might mean abandoning a great city to the enemy, as the Russians did in 1812, leaving Napoleon to freeze and eventually get the hell out; it might mean suicidal missions like Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive, designed to demoralize the American public that was paying the bills; it can mean roadside bombings and terrorism, as in the Algerian and Iraq Wars, or just hunkering down, as both sides did against strategic bombing of World War II– it killed hundreds of thousands on both sides, but apparently did nothing to shorten the war.

We don’t yet know the specifics of how the drone super-weapon story will unfold. But we’ve got a long historical record telling us there’s no war in which one side gets total impunity, none that isn’t partly a test of wills– and none in which both sides don’t end up hurting.  Historically, the side that wins is the side that’s willing to take more of that hurt, not the one with the most toys.

Maybe we’ll avoid the killer robot apocalypse, but we don’t get a free pass on the nature of war.


Patrons of the arts

“When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.” That’s the British playwright Oscar Wilde, speaking to us from around 1900. That was during the world’s previous great Gilded Age, and now that we’re deep into a new one, we humanists need to pay attention, even here in non-artistic, non-imagination-centric corners like the History Department. That’s because Wilde raises one of the basic questions we should be asking about ourselves: what’s our relationship to money and the powerful people who have it?

In wisecrack format, Wilde sums up one of the classic answers. Rich people love the arts, and artists (or historians, or philosophers– you get the idea) need money. Usually we can’t get that money selling our wares to ordinary people, since they have other needs to cover first, like housing, clothing, and food. Like it or not, we’re in a luxury business, selling expensive, delightful add-ons that make life better but aren’t needed to keep it going. We have to sell to the same folks who buy the other luxury products.

Of course the selling is more direct in the art world. Rich patrons interact directly with artists, and sometimes they tell the artist what to produce– a portrait of the kids, a design for a new home, a new opera. In academia, there are intermediaries. Donors give their money to institutions, which then dole it out to individual professors and researchers according to the institutions’ own guidelines and standards. But it’s basically the same process, rich people paying for cultural production.

Usually that doesn’t mean bad art or ideas, au contraire. Many of the rich have had good educations, and anyway they don’t have to care what other people think– they can make the adventurous calls, not just the safe ones. The Rockefellers created New York’s Museum of Modern Art back when modern art seemed crazy and dangerous, and that openness to the new has been a standard pattern since the Renaissance. Check out the seventeenth-century painter Caravaggio for an extreme example. He was gay, violent, and young, and he painted sacred scenes in wild new ways– but he received huge support from all sorts of Catholic big-shots.

But it seems that push always eventually comes to shove, and then the dark sides of artistic/intellectual patronage come into view. I’ve written here already about the case of Steven Salaita, whose appointment the University of Illinois overturned after wealthy donors complained about some of his tweets. And you’ve probably heard about the billionaire Koch brothers, sophisticated and generous patrons of the New York City Ballet and other cultural institutions, who’ve also donated tens of millions to various universities– but with strings attached: in return for the money, at least in one case, they’ve demanded that the university teach ideas congenial to them, and they may have demanded a say in the faculty appointment process.

In other words, the rich aren’t just buying aesthetic pleasure– they’re also investing their money, and like all investors they expect a return.

Now there’s a new example to ponder, more disturbing in that it concerns an especially sympathetic figure– the hedge-fund manager George Soros. Unlike most of the other modern billionaires, Soros has genuine intellectual credibility– before he got rich he did a real PhD, in a hard-core humanities discipline, and he’s used his money to support various admirable causes. He’s even helped create a whole new university in his native Hungary, devoted primarily to the humanities and social sciences.

So to a humanities professor like me, Soros is a good guy, exemplifying the best sides of cultural patronage.

But now Soros has joined the war-pushing business that’s so popular these days, calling for tougher European action in the Ukraine: “Europe is facing a challenge from Russia to its very existence,” he tells us; “the argument that has prevailed in both Europe and the United States is that Putin is no Hitler,” but “these are false hopes derived from a false argument with no factual evidence to support it;” all European resources “ought to be put to work in the war effort,” because “in the absence of unified resistance it is unrealistic to expect that Putin will stop pushing beyond Ukraine when the division of Europe and its domination by Russia is in sight.”

Whatever you may think about the Ukraine situation, there’s a lot here to weird you out. There’s the casual talk of going to war, as if launching a serious European war wouldn’t be one of the all-time human disasters. There’s the full-court demonization of our enemies, as monsters with whom it would be folly–“unrealistic”– to negotiate. We’ve had fifteen years of this kind of rhetoric– has it produced anything but disasters?

And then there’s the strange venue that Soros selected for his call to arms: the New York Review of Books. Most of those who encounter this site will know all about the New York Review, but in case you don’t, it’s the publication that pretty much encapsulates humanities department thinking in the US. Every two weeks, it offers extended reviews of academic books, along with one or two pieces of sophisticated political commentary; professors write most of these, but they write with educated-outsider readers in mind.  So people like me read it to learn about the new trends in English or Art History, or about debates on the origins of the American Revolution– it’s a way to get up to at least amateur speed on interesting topics, without doing the heavy reading yourself, a virtual coffee house for academics, where we all meet up.

Which raises the question, why is a call for European leaders to get tough appearing there, rather than in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde, or the New York Times?

Now, I have no clue what Soros has in mind with the substance of his warfare talk. Maybe he actually believes the comic book, super-villain-on-the-loose worldview he’s pushing, or maybe he has some money-making irons in the Ukraine fire (iron Maidans, as it were…), or maybe some mix of the two– who knows?

But we can do better guessing about that last question, the why-the-New York Review question. Because whatever else is going on, Soros is broadcasting to an audience made up mostly of us humanities professors and various humanities-adjacent types; he apparently wants us along on his foreign policy crusade. It’s the classic good news/bad news story. The good news: our collective opinion seems to matter in legitimating an enterprise of this kind, perhaps more than most of us realize. We’re worth courting. The bad news: when it comes to cultural patronage, the good guys like Soros give as much thought as anyone else to the returns their investments will bring.

Charlie and Carl

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about last week’s shootings at the Paris satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. They raise a whole series of issues that I care about, a lot– general issues about free speech in a pluralistic world, and more specific ones about Frenchness. France has been a huge part of my life since I first ventured there at age nineteen, and the Charlie Hebdo story brings forward elements of French life that I want eventually to discuss.

But there’s another angle that I want to start with, namely, the warfare context.

Because like it or not, that is the setting in which these events took place. The killers themselves (we’ve been told) wanted to fight in Iraq; one of them left a posthumous video statement linking his actions to ISIS and its war efforts; in turn, France’s prime minister responded to the shootings by promising “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” Anyway the French have been at war elsewhere for the last few years.  They didn’t sign up for our original Iraq venture, but they’ve been enthusiastically fighting in Libya and Mali, and they’ve pushed for more direct war in Syria.

If two opposing sides tell us they’re fighting a war, we should take them seriously.

And talk of war brings us back to Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s foremost philosopher of war. As I tried to explain in my last post, what makes Clausewitz the top guy in the war-philosophy business is the combination of qualities he brings to it: real life experience in world-transforming battles, faith in the value of war itself, absolute intellectual seriousness, sensitivity to moral complexities.

That last post centered on one of Clausewitz’s fundamental insights about war: he tells us that it’s an infinitely complex social reality, which will always generate unpredictable results and which is never subject to full human understanding or control; it’s the realm of chance and limited information. Another Clausewitz point, which I didn’t say much about last time: there’s also, always, an opponent, who’s trying as hard as we are to win and who wouldn’t be on the battlefield if he didn’t think he had a reasonable chance.

Our responses to the Charlie events suggests how deeply we in the prosperous and protected west have blocked out these realities. We’re stunned to learn that war can actually touch us directly, disrupt the course of our own lives– that the other guy will fight back in ways that hurt. We understand (at least some us– for a counter-example, check out the New Yorker‘s sweetheart profile of America’s UN ambassador Samantha Power) that our military interventions may not go as planned, and that our troops may suffer losses. But the worst we can envision is the failure of our policy objectives– ok, maybe we won’t get the democratic and stable Iraq/Libya/Syria that our leaders promised, maybe there’ll be cost over-runs. The idea of an actual fight that would hit us where we live, in which we mind-our-own-business citizens would actually suffer or die– that’s apparently beyond our comprehension.

Now, at some point in pretty much every discussion of the Charlie events, there’s a moment of obligatory moral declamation. Commentators note that the shootings were horrific, that violence of this kind does not reflect the real nature of Islam, that European and American crimes in Asia don’t justify gunfire in Paris. The Charlie victims were satirists not soldiers, and targeting civilians is a war crime, now matter how just the war. The perpetrators were anti-social misfits, thugs, moved by confused resentments, not the high moral purposes that would justify their claims to warrior status.

Much of that rhetoric is reasonable, but it’s also irrelevant– and self-serving. Irrelevant, because injustice and unmerited suffering are built into the nature of all wars, the good ones and the bad, and we should never go to war without understanding that reality. Self-serving, because we understand injustice and suffering well enough when they befall others. We know that there will be errors and collateral damage in drone bombings and midnight raids. We know that wartime experiences erode everyone’s morals, and that there’s thuggish behavior on every battlefield. We punish some extreme forms of our own wartime criminality, but mostly we forgive and forget. It’s Chelsea Manning who’s in jail because of the Collateral Murder video, not the American soldiers that it shows machine-gunning rescuers. What we can’t seem to make sense of is the idea that collateral damage like that might befall us, as we go about our own basically decent, basically peaceful lives.

Until we can widen our moral focus enough to take in that truth, we’re not going to understand what’s going on around us. Strangely, it’s the amoral Prussian tough guy Clausewitz who’s there to teach us that fundamental moral lesson.


My man Clausewitz

Some weeks ago, I described my admiration for the mid-Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. I fall way outside Trollope’s target demographic, which was conservative, Church-of-England-style Christians. But I find myself re-reading him often, and learning from him. It’s been a lesson in the limited importance of literary intentions, both authors’ and readers’. We don’t know what books are going to matter to us, just as authors don’t know whom they’re going to reach, or how.

Today, I want to discuss another literary enthusiasm I’ve recently developed, which has surprised me just as much: it’s for Carl von Clausewitz, the early nineteenth-century Prussian military philosopher.

Clausewitz was a theorist who also walked the walk. He joined the Prussian army at age twelve, and for the next twenty years he fought in all its wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France– the biggest, bloodiest wars Europe had seen up to that time. But he made his superiors jumpy, and they eventually parked him in the Prussian military academy, where he taught future officers, honed his theories, and worked away at his enormous book On War. It still wasn’t done when he died, but his devoted widow assembled the pieces, and it became an instant classic. It’s still taught at military colleges around the world, including our own West Point.

Even if you haven’t read Clausewitz, you’ve probably heard some of the snappy phrases he invented, like “the fog of war” and “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” There are dozens of other one-liners that aren’t as well known but ought to be. In fact he was something of a literary genius– he carries you along as you read, and you find yourself reading longer stretches of the text than you’d planned. Like other great writers, he forces you to look at the world in new ways.

That literary oomph turns out to be more common than you might expect among history’s great generals, and Clausewitz himself explains why: war “may appear to be uncomplicated,” he tells us, but actually it “cannot be waged with distinction except by men of outstanding intellect.” To make his point, he tosses in some startling comparisons. In some ways, he says, the good commander resembles the poets, painters, scholars, and intellectuals. Like them, he has to use imagination and insight into the human condition, as well as the specific skills and disciplines of his art.

Clausewitz’s reasons get to the heart of his ideas about war– namely, that it’s a really, really complicated business, which even the geniuses can’t fully master. The mediocrities don’t stand a chance.

Sure, he tells us, from a distance “everything looks simple: the knowledge required does not look remarkable,” the strategic options look obvious; anyone with a good map can figure out how best to encircle a city or cut off opposing troops. But the reality is unimaginably complex, because it involves thousands or millions of individual human beings, all acting on the basis of their own emotions and will, all enduring maximum stress. The physical environment poses its own difficulties. Simple acts become complicated in the smoke, mud, dust, and exhaustion of combat; geography takes on strange new shapes; chance events assume enormous importance. As he puts it in another of his sharp formulations: “War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder.”    (The quotations come from On War, in the spectacular translation put together by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.)

In these circumstances, Clausewitz’s commander is on a quest for knowledge, trying to find the truth when “all information and assumptions are open to doubt, and with chance at work everywhere.” Courage amidst dangers, training, equipment, faith in the mission– in war all those count, but the indispensable qualities are intellectual: “first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.” For Clausewitz, truth about situations and the people involved in them is the ultimate war-making tool.  That’s why the commander needs elements of the humanist’s mindset.

There’s lots more to Clausewitz, of course, some of which maybe I’ll write about in the next few weeks. But for now let’s stop and think a minute about how his vision of military knowledge fits with what we encounter here today, in twenty-first-century America.

Because we also have lots of ideas about war. We ought to, because over the last generation war has been the main constant in American life. The War in Afghanistan has now lasted longer than the Trojan War, and twice as long as World War II. Some retired general pops up on TV pretty much every night, and most weeks you can find op-eds by thoughtful experts pushing for American military intervention somewhere in the world. Most of us don’t go to war ourselves, but we’ve come to view war-making as a normal part of American political life.

We can do that partly because our American ideas about war differ so wildly from Clausewitz’s. He talked about chance, uncertainty, inadequate information, and the need for imaginative brilliance to get at the reality of any military situation. We describe war instead as knowable, predictable, and manageable. Our favorite war terminology is medical– we speak of surgical strikes and interventions; we describe our enemies as cancerous growths that need to be excised; we call many of our interventions humanitarian acts, life-saving missions. And in modern war as in modern medicine, we’ve got technologies that Clausewitz never dreamed of; drones, night vision goggles, computers– these allow our soldiers to overcome war’s information gaps. Of course technology doesn’t eliminate all uncertainty. Unexpected problems still arise on the battlefield, as they do at the hospital– but now we can address them effectively.

So given that we live in a different technological world, is Clausewitz basically a museum piece, or is he someone we should be listening to?  How seriously should we take a voice from the horse-drawn, muzzle-loading era?

One reason for listening is that Clausewitz gives us the voice of a hardened Prussian officer, who’d fought in high-level battles, both victories and defeats, without losing his faith in either war or the army. When he tells us about the unknowability of war, he’s talking as a believer, not a pacifist dreamer or bleeding-heart do-gooder. He doesn’t doubt the value of war– he just wants us to know what it really is.

The other reason concerns us, not Clausewitz. The brutal fact is, American conventional wisdom about war doesn’t look so good these days. We’ve got the biggest, best-equipped army in the world, but we’re on a fifty-year losing streak– against a series of much weaker enemies. (Ok, we looked impressive against Grenada and Panama, but you get the point.)  Our humanitarian interventions have typically made situations worse, not better.

Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to this most serious of human activities– and we could do worse than starting with Clausewitz.

On Not-Learning-From-History, 1: we’ve got a problem

In my teaching, I usually tell students to be suspicious about “lessons from history.” The past is complicated, I say. Situations differ, and our knowledge about them is always imperfect; usually it’s downright lousy. The main lessons of history concern human ignorance, I usually say; we just don’t know enough about the past to draw lessons from it about the future.

But lately I’ve changed my tune. It’s not that there are no lessons from history, I’ve come to think– actually there are plenty. It’s just that most of them are so obvious and straightforward that we historians take them for granted, as base-line common sense that doesn’t need talking about. That silence wouldn’t be a problem, except that many people– smart, educated, high-minded people– either haven’t learned those low-level lessons from history, or have somehow unlearned them.

So I’ve started to wonder how that Not-Learning-From-History happens. I’ve come to think it’s a complicated and interesting process, which deserves some attention. I’ll have more to say about the process in the next few weeks. Here, I just want to suggest some dimensions of the problem itself– mainly, that it’s really big.

The kind of history lesson I have in mind comes from the realm of political leadership. Of course I’m thinking a lot about leadership these days, since we’ve apparently entered a new “he’s the next Hitler” phase, this one featuring Vladimir Putin of Russia. (Unless you’ve been away for the last decade or two, you’ll know we’ve had plenty of other next-Hitlers recently.) The idea is that Putin (following the original Hitler pattern) exhibits a mix of demonic ambition, irrational violence, and masterful control over his helpless subjects. So he’s dangerous and has to be stopped now, before he gets going on his project of world domination; ignoring him will only lead to more trouble.

Here’s where the historian’s lessons ought to come in, because in the real history books even Hitler himself didn’t fit the “next Hitler” pattern. Nobody does, partly because (history teaches) political leaders are never all-powerful puppetmasters; even dictators need cooperation from millions of subjects to get anything done, and those millions of subjects are getting something that’s making them cooperate. History also teaches that all societies have real collective interests, which their leaders usually try to advance one way or another.

Taking those lessons seriously doesn’t mean denying the role of individuals in history, and it doesn’t say anything about international conflicts. Collisions of societal interests can be violent, and sometimes there’s no way to compromise among them; individuals– both political leaders and others– have often shaped their countries’ development.

But history does teach that it’s stupid to treat any leaders as demons, Marvel-style super-villains, or lunatics.  It’s just as stupid to think of them as societal cancers, whose surgical removal will allow the social body to return to healthy growth. That’s just not how societies work.

And yet to many influential people in Washington, London, and elsewhere, that stupidity apparently counts as common sense. It’s not just talk, either. A significant amount of recent military action has centered on “taking out” various leadership groups, “decapitating” regimes, all that sort of thing– meaning that the super-villain idea of government is actually shaping what really happens in the real world. If we just get rid of whichever next-Hitler we’re currently focusing on, the idea goes, things will start to go right in Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran/Syria/the Ukraine/ and the dozens of other places our foreign policy touches.

So that’s a first take on the Not-Learning-From-History problem. We apparently have smart, highly-educated, powerfuI people who haven’t absorbed the simplest lessons that history can teach. I mean, we’re not talking about a failure to understand long footnotes on obscure topics. Even the basics aren’t getting through.

It’s not clear to me what’s going on, but it’s something we ought to try to understand.