Civilized persons prefer – oh, greatly! – to settle disputes by civilized means. Among those means, preference goes to the softer-voiced, more orderly ones over the ones that feature a lot of shouting and hurling of random objects. However, in any two-sided dispute in which one side unambiguously declares its desire to fight, the other side, no matter how distasteful it might be, must buckle on its armor, don its gauntlets and helmet, heft its spear, and say, “Well, then let’s get it on.”
War, too, is a civilized means of settling disputes.
War was once more orderly than it has lately become. Battles in the wars of Europe were once prearranged for time and place, so that the combatants would be ready, any non-combatants would have cleared the area, and the result could be clearly ascertained. That hasn’t been the case for quite some time, but it provides a useful perspective on how far we supposedly civilized ones have fallen.
The outcome of a war, fought to a decision by opponents who have voluntarily committed themselves to that method of settling their differences, is as valid and morally defensible as any other method ever used by Man.
Wars have been the principal means by which nations have come into being and established their boundaries. That today’s bien-pensants dislike and deplore this fact doesn’t make it any less so.
At the conclusion of a war of the traditional variety – i.e., between nation-states or alliances thereof – there must be a cessation of hostilities upon agreed conditions. If one side clearly destroyed the other or compelled its surrender, the victor will determine what adjustments will be made to borders, populations, inter-governmental debts and obligations, and so forth. The shorthand for this process is called “writing the peace treaty.” (Nota Bene: Should the losing regime be completely destroyed, as in World War II’s defeat of Nazi Germany, no formal peace treaty is required.)
Those adjustments have exactly the moral defensibility of the war that eventuated in them. The justification has traditionally been called the right of conquest, whether or not the defeated party remains militarily and politically in being.
An amusing attempt to evade a disliked outcome to defeat in war occurred when Bolshevik Russia conceded its defeat by the German Empire in World War I. Leon Trotsky, appalled by the demands Germany made as a condition of peace, attempted to “leave the table.” He simply declared a cessation of hostilities, in the insane belief that that would somehow allow Russia to return to the status quo ante:
While Lenin wanted to accept the German peace proposal immediately, a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee disagreed. The "Left Communists", led by Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek, believed that Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria were all on the verge of revolution. They wanted to continue the war while awaiting revolutions in those countries. Thus the Soviet delegation returned to the peace conference without instructions to sign the proposed treaty....
Frustrated with continued German demands for cessions of territory, Trotsky on 10 February announced a new policy. Russia unilaterally declared an end of hostilities against the Central Powers, and Russia withdrew from peace negotiations with the Central Powers - a position summed up as "no war — no peace"....
The consequences for the Bolsheviks were worse than what they had feared in December. The Central Powers repudiated the armistice on 18 February 1918, and in the next fortnight seized most of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic countries in Operation Faustschlag. Through the ice of the Baltic Sea, a German fleet approached the Gulf of Finland and Russia's capital Petrograd. Despite strikes and demonstrations the month before in protest against economic hardship, the workers of Germany failed to rise up against their government. On 23 February, the Central Powers sent new terms for peace. These terms included cession of Dünaburg, Livonia, and Estonia to Germany; cession of western Armenia to the Ottoman Empire; recognition of an independent Ukraine; immediate evacuation of Russian troops from Finland and Ukraine; and complete demobilization of the Russian Army. Additionally, the Central Powers required that these terms be agreed to within 48 hours. Lenin again pressed for acceptance of these terms. This time a majority of the Central Committee supported Lenin. The Soviet government sent a new delegation headed by Georgy Chicherin and Lev Karakhan, with instructions to accept the proposal. On 3 March Chicherin signed the treaty. Thus the new Soviet government agreed to terms worse than those they had previously rejected.
The defeated party attempted to dictate the terms of the peace. The Germans were not about to allow such an innovation in warfare.
The wars of our time don’t necessarily involve nation-state combatants. “Asymmetrical warfare,” in which one set of the forces is a “non-state actor” not overtly in the field at the behest of the government of a nation-state, is the most trying of phenomena. How does one determine when such a war has ended? How does one tell the victor from the vanquished? And on what basis are any adjustments to be made?
This is obviously a most unclear situation. There is no incontestable way of determining when such a conflict has ended. In consequence, some of today’s regimes, defeated in more conventional wars, have turned to asymmetrical warfare via non-state actors to perpetuate hostilities, in the hope of preventing the general recognition of the victor’s victory.
This is the dominant element in the Islamic world’s refusal to concede the borders of Israel as established by the 1967 “Six-Day War” and the 1973 “Yom Kippur War.” Israel’s victories in those wars were unambiguous. Its military dominance of the territory it annexed was beyond dispute. No nation-state has dared to go into the field against Israel since then – and not merely because it’s acquired a nuclear deterrent.
The Muslims’ enmity toward Israel has a large religious component. However, the humiliation the Israelis inflicted on Arab armies in those contests, and in the wars of 1947-48 that first established Israel as a nation-state, must not be neglected. Anwar Sadat’s initiation of the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973 was in part an attempt to win some pride of achievement for an Arab army. Many analysts are of the opinion that the peace subsequently established between Israel and Egypt could not have come about otherwise.
But only Egypt, of all the Arab-Muslim states of the region, was a willing party to that peace. The other Islamic nations declined to enter into it.
The old, somewhat cynical “diplomats’ definition” for peace – “a state of tension falling short of armed conflict” – has given way to a condition unprecedented in post-Westphalian history. Asymmetrical warfare is continuous. It touches the peoples of every nation on Earth. It’s responsible for the garrisoning of the civil order in nation after nation. The fear and sporadic bloodshed it elicits guarantee that, even when no nation-state has declared war upon another, or sent its uniformed armed forces into the field for any purpose, no one can sincerely believe the world to be at peace.
It’s a tiring situation. The civilized nations of the world – i.e., those not dominated by Islam – would like it to end. But the regimes that covertly support asymmetric warfare see it as their best hope for reversing the verdicts of more traditional wars.
A great deal of attention has gone to the nuclearization of North Korea and the advances toward it by Iran. These are not small matters; the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by gangster-states surely deserves coverage. However, in the long run the persistence of asymmetric warfare, covertly funded and supported by nation-states and directed toward reversing the verdicts of traditional wars, may prove to be the more important development. For the asymmetric warrior cannot be defeated in the conventional sense. Neither can he be negotiated with. And it is plainly impossible to foresee where he will strike.
Many a fantasy of the future depicts wars being fought between non-state actors: usually corporations. I find such notions implausible. Corporations have a far greater interest in peace than nation-states. Besides, the maintenance of an army is an overhead expense no sane Board of Directors (to say nothing of the accounting department) would countenance.
Oil sheiks beleaguered by Islamic fanatics, desperate to deflect attention from their luxuries amid the grinding poverty of their subjects, are a quite different matter. Especially if they nurse wounds to their pride inflicted by defeats in traditional wars, and even more so if they can contrive for their warriors to fly no flag, wear no uniform, and die on their chosen battlefields.
Asymmetric warfare might compel Israel to go to war again, this time against the regimes that foster the asymmetrical warriors to which they would never willingly admit. Those wars might be wars of annihilation, fought not merely to inflict defeat on the enemy but to end its existence. What rights of conquest would be conceded to Israel in the aftermath, I cannot imagine.