Sunday, September 1, 2013


What is war for?  Perhaps this brief interregnum before the missiles fly would be a good time to consider that question.

The principal, inevitable consequence of war is destruction, of human life and property.  All the other abstract products of warfare are several quantum leaps behind destruction in impact and resonance.  But let’s look at them.

War can produce (1) conquered territory (2) weakened or eliminated enemies (3) strengthened or strained alliances (4) fear and (5) respect.

Conquered territory, to remain conquered must be held, and territory can be held only with boots on the ground.  President Obama’s proposed Syrian punishment begins and ends with the First Principle, no boots on the ground, so this war (or war-lite) will not enlarge any secured real estate.

Will a few “demonstration” attacks weaken our enemies in the Mideast and, increasingly, all over the Muslim world?   Not seriously, nor, according to Administration hawks like Secretary of State John Kerry, are they intended to.  The missiles, bombs and rockets will not eliminate many enemies they do not directly kill.  In fact, on the conventionally accepted formula of counter-insurgency, "kill one guerilla, create 10 more," they will actually grow the number of people so disaffected from the United States that they are willing to take up arms against us.  Converts from this exercise?  Do you expect many?  I don't.

How about our diplomatic alliances?  Again, it appears the counter-production will far outweigh the positive effects of our (restrained) assault on Syria.  Any damage done to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his largely anti-Zionist populace may be welcomed by many in Israel and accepted in France (at least at the top-of-government level), but the rejection of joining the hunt by the British Parliament has already strained relations between Washington and London, and, polls suggest, the widespread disapproval across Europe, and although there are no analogous polls there that I’ve seen, likely even stronger opposition across Asia and the Middle East signal, the US is neither winning friends nor positively influencing people with its conception of “punishing” the Syrian regime for its almost certain, and certainly awful crimes.

Henry Kissinger the soi-disant descendant, I would say diminishment, of Metternich, used to propose his “madman theory:” that we could get great results from the fear people and states would have of an America capable of insane levels of violence and destruction.  Perhaps, that might once have been true, at least in the “olden times,” of Thomas Hobbes, when life was “nasty, brutish and short,” (a little like Kissinger himself.)  But today, life is globally connected, and people who were once willing to dine happily on the sausages of conquest, now can't avoid seeing with their own eyes war’s sausage-making process.  They get to hear, first hand, through instant or almost-instantaneous words and pictures what war really means.  It speaks well for mankind that this tends to reduce their respect, if not their fear, of the promulgators of ultra-violence. 

Thus, unless a nation is willing to commit to all the responsibilities of post-war, occupation of conquered territory, paying for as well as supervising the rebuilding of states, and the re-establishment of rule of law against the scattered, highly motivated forces of “insurgents,” always present in the transition period after war “officially” ends, the bottom line for wars since 1963 (i.e. since Vietnam) has been consistently written in blood-red economic ink.

Again, take it step by step: war is supposed to increase or secure territory, weaken enemies, strengthen alliances, and induce fear and respect (of as we once long ago put it, the Cheney-Rumsfeld dream of “shock and awe.”)  Raise your hand if you believe this formulation works.
The extreme skepticism, even among nations regarded as our best friends, towards America's claimed intelligence and evidence that allegedly prove that President Assad or his commanders ordered the chemical mass murder in the Damascus suburbs should alert us to how little respect the US presently commands.
In Washington the Obama Administration is claiming that they are proposing something quite different from all-out war, a kind of war-lite. We will attack only a few places for only a short time, aspire to no territory, no regime change, not even a re-balancing of power among the contending forces on the soon-to-be-bouncing Syrian ground.

Again, this seems to me a quaint notion, because “lite” or not, this is going to be war “LIVE.”  Already Israeli radio has announced its plan for real-time coverage, and Israeli TV will also be watching.  And so will the American networks and newschannels, already salivating over their expected jump in audience ratings, and the global newschannels which represent the eyes and living rooms, desktops and mobile phones of China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, Iran, Turkey, Germany, France, Russia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and, oh yes, Syria.  They will all be tuned it, real-time or damn close to it.

And what they will be watching will not look like war-lite, it will look like war, and unmistakably war of choice, war of the strongest against the weaker, bullying.  Few will be rooting for the big guys.

Let me propose a video analogy.

Everyone, especially anyone who witnessed or lived through it, agreed: Hurricane Andrew was a Storm of the Century, the biggest, baddest hurricane in the weather service record books.  The problem was how to communicate that on video.

All the conventional images for a “hurricane,” palm trees bending, street signs shuddering, traffic lights swinging like pendulums in the wind, even windows shattered, while shutters dangled from their hinges, or roofs torn off homes, flying like corrugated razor blades, were already “used up,” offered countless times on TV as images of lesser storms.  The only way to show the scale that put Andrew off the conventional charts would have been a long, sustained aerial shot of house after house, block after block after block of roofless homes, and no one in conventional TV news (and what is more conventional than TV news?) had the patience, or the confidence in the audience’s patience or attention span to show that.

So audiences had to “take our word for it,” that Andrew was like no hurricane we’d ever seen for size and violence.  Many may have acceded, but few felt it in their guts.

Communicating scale is video’s greatest weakness.

And this weakness cuts both ways.  So, for President Obama’s apparent plan for something less than war on Syria, -- once the video pictures of the first, second or third cruise missile landing, the first or second house imploding, neighborhood cowering, hospital receiving room spilling over with blood and terrified humanity hit the cellphone, tablet, computer and TV screens of the world  -- it is not going to look “restrained.”  It will not feel to billions of viewers like “war lite;” it will look like war. It will look like the US inflicting “punishing” violence on some other country, both because it can and because the America wants to show that it can.
If the President thinks this will win over hearts and minds through its "restraint," I fear he is kidding us, and worst of all, kidding himself.

The deadly “secret” of war is out, everywhere: the principal consequence of war far is destruction.  Period.
Blood red ink all around.





  1. I appreciate your description of the weakness of video reporting when it comes to conveying scale. I can only pray that enough members of Congress have staffers who are sufficiently media savvy to understand this. I have emailed both NM Senators asking them (i.e. a staffer) to read your analysis and vote NO! on attacking Syria.

  2. A few more-or-less random comments, from someone whose mind is not made up on the whole issue:
    1. So, you're saying, other than expressing moral outrage and verbal condemnation, it's better to do nothing? There don't seem to be alternatives to 'war-lite.' At least I haven't heard of any.
    2. Your very forceful and convincing argument does not respond to the administration's description of the dilemna it faces. As I understand Obama and company, they're saying that the US can either launch a few Tomahawks, as a mostly symbolic gesture, or just shut up and move on.
    3. The notion that sending a few missiles amounts to war - or war-lite - strikes me as a rhetorical slight of hand. Would you say that the US went to war when Reagan and Clinton launched air strikes on foreign lands during the 80s and 90s? (I by no means mean to suggest that it's ok to drop a few bombs here and there on miscreant nations, only that while the acts may be considered acts of war, especially by those on whose heads the bombs land, this does not constitute war or even war-lite).
    4. One possibility you seem to exclude is that the spectacle does not show up on television. If the targets are Syrian military airfields and control centers, I don't understand why that will necessarily appear in prime time anywhere.