Monday, October 24, 2005

War and Please

Frederick W. Kagan considers the diplomatic dangers of military half-measures.

Still, there have been successful counterinsurgencies, even when governments used dramatically more force than the United States is ever likely to contemplate exercising in the Muslim world. One example is the Boer War (1899–1902), in which the British army suppressed an insurgency by Dutch settlers in South Africa only after burning farms and penning the bulk of the population, including many women and children, in barbed wire–encircled concentration camps. The hostility created by this conflict, the last in a series of Anglo-Boer wars over the course of decades, was enormous. As one historian of the period notes, “Far from destroying Afrikaner nationalism, Chamberlain and Milner, Roberts and Kitchener, were the greatest recruiting agents it ever had.”

If modern critics of the use of force are correct, Britain’s actions should have fueled endless Anglo-Boer hostility and a permanent insurgency. Instead, they led to the rapid restoration of relations with South Africa, which served as Britain’s loyal ally during World War I, sending thousands of soldiers to fight alongside their former enemies. Why did this transformation occur? Britain’s military victory was critical. The harsh tactics the British used broke the back of the rebellion and served as an effective deterrent against future Boer attempts to fight them. At the same time, the British government offered moderate terms of surrender—so moderate that some critics in Britain said it “lost the peace.” The Treaty of Vereeniging of 1902, modified substantially in 1907, left the Boers very much in charge in South Africa, although under overall British suzerainty.

Many liberal-minded Americans supported the overthrow of Saddam only until they began to realize that war is -- war. Ugly, random, deadly, destructive. It always has been and always will be. But some smart people seem to have genuinely forgotten that. It's one reason I respect a thorough pacifist more than one who gets the vapors when the battle begins. The latter type will get more good men killed (though rarely himself) than the most pugnacious militarist.

George Kennan was right: The existence of a powerful and battle-proven military makes the job of diplomats and political leaders vastly easier. However unhappy a defeated people may be with a given political settlement, or however resentful of military actions carried out against them, very few will take up arms again if convinced that they will again be defeated. Military half-measures designed to “send a message,” such as those the Kennedy and Johnson administrations used in the early days of the Vietnam struggle, deceive no one and leave the door open for insurgent victory. Clear-cut military triumph, such as the British achieved against the Boers, makes even the staunchest rebels more reluctant to try the test of battle again. The use of military force with any aim in mind other than victory is extremely dangerous and likely to be counterproductive.