Nasty Little Wars

December 1, 2000 Topic: Security Tags: KosovoYugoslavia

Nasty Little Wars

Mini Teaser: Ask the Chechen fighters--the future of war is nasty, brutish and anything but short.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

According to Christopher Coker,

In the course of the twentieth century, even the vocational worlds
which included war became increasingly bureaucratized. Soldiers
became technicians. The nuclear age required the military to become
more bureaucratic in their thinking than ever before. The main
virtues of bureaucracy, predictability and consistency, were
especially valued by the military in the nuclear era. No wonder the
generals came to hate their own profession.

Quite frankly, a career spent climbing up the ranks of an ordered,
hierarchical, obedient military bureaucracy in peacetime may equip a
man for the technical and organizational aspects of warfare, but it
is often an extremely poor psychological and intellectual preparation
for any sort of command in the field. It naturally tends to diminish
a capacity for flexibility and improvisation; to encourage a belief
in and liking for what in these pages Andrew Bacevich has called
"stylized warfare"; and to produce what Ralph Peters, a retired
officer and leading military thinker, has unkindly referred to as
"Stepford Officers." That is why every revolution or national upheaval has thrown up men like Leon Trotsky or Shamil Basayev who, with no formal military education at all, prove much better commanders than most "professionals."

This tendency toward military theorizing and planning is, of course, linked to very real and immensely useful advances in technology. But it can also be seen as linked to wider developments in the intellectual and academic sphere, one aspect of which is "rational choice theory." Indeed, this discipline has had a direct link to the military, through its role in the formulation of the theory and practice of strategic games and weapons development for major war. In this limited respect, its role has been a useful one. There are, however, two major dangers that rational choice theory poses to the military. These are in essence the same dangers that have been noted in the application of rational choice theory to international relations.

The first is the illusion of complete control and understanding, encouraged both by the supposedly mathematical and "scientific" basis of the approach, and by the supposedly limited number of possible developments and outcomes. This has obvious analogies to the belief in military circles in complete understanding through technological surveillance and analysis. As has been pointed out by Stephen M. Walt and others, rational choice theory is seriously out of sync with the reality of international relations, especially in times of rapid change, insecurity and crisis. It is really only suited to periods when the international situation is settled and orderly, and when the number of actors is limited, is made up of known states and state leaderships, and does not include new and unpredictable non-state forces acting "from below."

This, of course, makes it even less appropriate to warfare and, above all, to internal civil wars involving numerous players whose ultimate allegiance and intentions are sometimes unknown even to themselves. Thus, observation technology would not have been especially useful at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, where the key issue was not the strength or weaponry of the opposing forces of King Richard III and Henry Tudor, but the intentions of a third, uncommitted force--that of Lord Stanley, who did not make up his mind until after the battle had actually been joined. Bosworth has almost exact parallels in the dilemmas of Russians trying to deal with Chechen warlords of uncertain loyalties who are capable of shifting from one side to another without warning.

The second weakness of rational choice theory is its rootedness in a particularly narrow version of late twentieth-century American culture--limited even in American terms because, after all, there are streets not ten blocks from Columbia, Yale or the U.S. Congress whose inhabitants have a better natural understanding of how things work in Mogadishu or Grozny than do most international affairs experts. As Chalmers Johnson and E.B. Keehn have noted, "this ideological orthodoxy is almost surely one of the less pleasant, unintended consequences of the end of the Cold War and Americans' perceptions that they 'won' it."

Inadequate even to explain the behavior of many modern states (the United States included), rational choice as defined by its U.S. practitioners is comically, grotesquely irrelevant to the behavior of people from radically different cultures. In terms of American educated middle-class behavior, there was nothing at all "rational" about the actions of the Chechen fighters I met in 1994-96, or of the Somalis who immolated themselves during the U.S. intervention.

The influence of rational choice theory tends to make Western analysts and planners poorly equipped to understand such societies. This is not just because of intellectual narrowness and prejudice, but because, by encouraging concentration on supposedly universal, "scientific" bases of analysis, it discourages students and career-makers from developing knowledge of local cultures and languages. This weakness is of special importance among armed forces whose strategy involves not the seeking of decisive battle, but less direct ways of bringing the enemy to surrender--for such a strategy is critically dependent on good political intelligence and analysis.

In armies that have had to fight ground wars at regular intervals, the influence of experienced fighting soldiers counteracts to some extent that of the military bureaucrats and technicians. It provides a continual reminder that the qualities which go to make up a good fighter are not necessarily those taught in formal military courses; and that in war there is always the possibility of a clash escaping the control of commanders and becoming a "soldiers' battle", in which what really counts is a mixture of tactical skill, discipline, flexibility, quickness of decision, coolness under fire, endurance and courage. The U.S. military has always been able to relearn these virtues when it had to, but it is a pity that this often happened so late, and that it was so often our enemies who were the teachers.

Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His book, Chedmya: Tombstone of Russian Power, was published in paperback by Yale University Press in 1999.

Essay Types: Essay