The Rise of “Conventional” Warfare

After WW2 and Vietnam there was an era of relative peace as the two major superpowers stared at each other, laden with nuclear weapons, through proxy states and alliances. During this era, the major powers continually upped their weapons’ capabilities, but rarely tested them, and not against one another.

Certainly there was war of various sorts throughout the world, but the sort of “conventional” warfare analogous to WW2 battles with armor, air power, and crushing violence rather than guerrilla tactics was far from the norm.

The additional, tacit, assumption was that many of the modern democracies were far removed from the front lines and as such they let their military traditions die. In fact, many openly scoffed at the military as wasted dollars, or used their military spending substantially for the purpose of protecting local jobs and / or technologies along with export markets (see Airbus and most of Europe).

The world was on a hair-trigger of nuclear annihilation for so long that the thought of a conventional war became archaic and not normally contemplated. Alongside that was the general feeling that the borders of the nation state were inviolate, and while occasional splits would occur (Czechs and Slovaks, etc…) the vast majority would occur without violence and the transition would mainly involve economic concerns.

While the US, Russia and China would be loathe to directly face off head to head due to the very real sense of potential world destruction, everything else has become fair game. Russia takes Crimea, parts of Ukraine, and threatens the Baltic states. Is it conceivable that Putin would move in and take over one or more of the Baltic states? Absolutely. This sort of thinking would have been viewed as the raving of a lunatic ten years ago.

In the Pacific China is aggressively expanding in the seas outside its borders, fortifying islands and using its sea and air power to protect its claims. A clash between China and Japan now is not unthinkable, in fact it might be a more-likely-than-not scenario. This, too, is a brand new way of thinking of these sorts of possible events.

States are effectively collapsing. There is no way that a multi-religions / ethnic state will ever be put together in Syria or Iraq. Libya, too, looks as if it will never be re-joined. These breaks are permanent, and the way to expand or move your borders involves ethnic cleansing and displacement on a grand scale. Turkey and Lebanon and many other states may soon be in the same place.

The powerlessness of the militarily weak is something else that is noticeable. China couldn’t care less about what any campaign says regarding Tibet; all those protest concerts and sit-ins accomplished exactly zero. The Dutch were stricken when Russia basically shot down a plane full of their citizens over Ukraine; Russia was unmoved.

Africa is in an unstable place; Nigeria could be an economic powerhouse but is instead riven by a north / south split that likely will grow. It was a great thing that their recent elections involved a peaceful transfer of power, something that is rare in Africa, but it would take a lot of optimism to imagine that ultimately these states will ultimately be able to function with their co-mingled ethnic / religious groups should the era of low commodity prices go on indefinitely.

What is war? is another question. Is it a civil war today in Mexico between the government and the criminal enterprises that bring drugs into the USA? At what point do we stop pretending that it is a police action? How many deaths until you declare “war”?

This isn’t an article about nostalgia or about the choices America has made to enter wars in Iraq and elsewhere; the concept that the US could intervene somewhere on a large scale is always in our head – but the idea that a long, drawn out, “conventional” war alongside terrible treatment of civilians (across religious or ethnic lines) is a real and tangible possibility is a new one.

For years I figured my knowledge of military campaigns in Libya, the Crimea, and the Pacific might as well be consigned to the dustbin of history; but all of the sudden, they were once again useful. And the ruthless, state-destroying wars of the types that produced India / Pakistan or the successor states of Yugoslavia are now front and center in the middle east and parts of Africa.

If the context was happier, it would be good to end on “what’s old is new again”.

Cross posted at LITGM

28 thoughts on “The Rise of “Conventional” Warfare”

  1. Obama and the political left is busy dismantling the US military so that we will be unable to intervene in any war that may come along in the future.

    The Gods of the Copybook Headings Always Return but the left does not know that. I doubt they know what I am referring to.

    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began —
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire —
    And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
    As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

  2. A couple things to keep in perspective:

    1. The USA’s wars in south Asia were actions no other nation could undertake. No one earth other than the USA could project that kind of military power into a region halfway around the world. And for Afghanistan, project it into a continental center with very little help and some active resistance from surrounding nations. No other nation is capable of projecting that kind of power into this hemisphere.

    2. China is becoming a large regional power. It is where the USA was early in the 20th century. Soon their navy will dominate the regional waters in the way the US navy dominates the waters around the USA. Short of fighting a large war with China, there’s little we can do to stop that. Japan will have to come to agreements with China in the same way other regional and European powers came to agreements with the USA. The South China Sea will become to China what the Gulf of Mexico is the USA. That’s reality.

    3. What can be said about the Middle East? It’s a society, a culture, with one foot in the 21st century and one foot in the 7th. It is currently tearing itself apart. What emerges from that chaotic mess is anyone’s guess. Allowing the Iranians nuclear weapons is not going to be helpful, that’s for sure. We can thank Obama’s ineptness and Russia’s power politics for that. Hillary and Obama have shown themselves idiots in dealing with both Iran and Russia, and Carly Fiorina and Mitt Romney have both been shown to be correct. Who’s surprised?

    4. Africa is mired in tribalism as it always has been. Ask any African or anyone who has lived there what is the most important thing to understand about Africa and they will say tribalism. It shows itself in American and European black ghettoes as well.

    The world is still changing and conventional warfare still matters. The USA needs to remain capable, but we need to choose carefully where and when and fight with purpose, and with defined, achievable end goals in mind.

  3. “… but the idea that a long, drawn out, “conventional” war alongside terrible treatment of civilians (across religious or ethnic lines) is a real and tangible possibility is a new one.”

    This is an important statement. The US is no longer capable of fighting a long, drawn out, conventional war, similar to the efforts exhibited in Europe or Asia. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that the Government is no longer capable of waging “total war,” while taking the (often) restrictive steps to ensure the right imagery and message are portrayed. The rise in technology makes the latter nearly impossible. We are trapped in a miasma created by our own sense of fairness and compassion.

  4. It is ridiculous to speak of “states collapsing” in the Middle East and Africa. For the most part there were never ever any nation-states in most of the Middle East and Africa to collapse. There was just a lot of pretending. Sitting some dude down in a chair in the UN Assembly and calling him the ambassador from Botsabunny doesn’t make it a nation.

  5. Russia has dominated the Ukraine and the Baltic states since whenever. Getting into a war with Russia over these territories would be even dumber than our interventions in Iraq and Libya.

  6. I don’t think we would get into a war over Ukraine or Baltic states. The best way to get into a war is to ignore all these matters until they become one big crisis. It’s a little like taking out a loan to get rid of all your annoying monthly payments and changing to one huge back breaking payment.

    We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war, by analysing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will.

    How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.

    I believe it is peace in our time.

    All by Neville Chamberlain who meant well.

  7. >> The US is no longer capable of fighting a long, drawn out, conventional war…

    Not true. We’re perfectly capable. Certainly far more capable than we were in the 1930’s. It’s that people aren’t convinced there’s an existential threat from these places. Example: Korea was inconclusive, yet was fought five years after we’d fought Germany and Japan simultaneously.

  8. Do we have the technical capability? yes. Do we have the will to carry out the necessary steps to ensure victory? No, no way. Korea was the perfect example. Instead of following McArthur’s advice relative to the Chinese intervention, Truman fell back to a status quo solution. The same was witnessed in Vietnam a dozen years later, with Hanoi escaping saturation bombing until 1972. Relative to the point of the populace’s sense of an existential threat. That’s very tricky. For most Americans, the Axis did not become an existential threat until Pearl Harbor was attacked, nearly at the acme of Axis power. One would like to think those lessons were absorbed and integrated into future response plans.

  9. JB710 – The Axis powers were never an “existential threat” to the US. The Japanese success at Pearl Harbor was spectacular but even the most crazed Japanese militarists were perfectly aware that a Japanese invasion of the US was a total fantasy.

  10. We never performed “saturation bombing” on Hanoi if by that we intentionally bombed and killed large numbers of civilians as we had in Japan and Germany.

    We did send waves of B-52s and F-111s to hit major infrastructures like power plants, warehouses, and rail yards. There were collateral deaths of course, and some unintended targets, but if the US had wanted to kill civilians, the death toll (1200 or so) would have been much, much higher,

  11. To Michael Hiteshew – It’s silly to describe American ghetto blacks as “tribal”. What tribes are you talking about? Your statement doesn’t make any sense. It’s true that in most of Sub-Saharan actual tribes are what defines people and the the suppossed “nation-state” is mostly a fiction. However American blacks are not in any meaningful sense “tribal”.

  12. ” However American blacks are not in any meaningful sense “tribal”.

    Just in behavior. If you don’t see that, you are fooling yourself. What do you think gangs are ?

  13. Gangs are not tribes. A tribe is a people including women and children with it’s own language, culture, identity and generally endogamous. American blacks as a whole might posssibly be described as a tribe in opposition to whites as a whole but then they are no more tribal than whites. American blacks are not differentiated among themselves by tribal identities.

    It is true that in Sub-Saharan Africa true tribes are the for the most part the primary focus of identity and the suppossed states are of little significance. So Sub-Saharan Africa (along with much of the Middle East and North Africa) can be accurately described as tribal but that description does not characterize American blacks.

    What do you mean by behavior being “tribal”?

  14. I don’t think you understand the origin of tribes. Maybe it is a definition matter but it is ridiculous to insist that tribes must differ in language and culture. If you don’t think gangs include women and children, you know less about gangs than you should.

    Arabs are a tribal people just as Serbs were largely tribal when Rebecca West wrote “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” She explained that people who lives in lawless and disorganized lands form clans and tribes for self protection and self governance. The structure is family-clan and tribe. Our failure in Iraq was our ignorance of their tribal culture even though they all spoke Arabic and lived in what purported to be a common culture.

    American blacks are a tribal culture in the violent inner city. They speak a patois that is based on English but is almost incomprehensible to whites and educated blacks. They have tribal-type laws which ignore the political boundaries of cities and counties and which resist any attempt by police to enforce laws they reject.

    Certainly there are blacks who aspire to the white culture and education but they are punished by the surrounding culture just as Iraqis who worked for Americans are in danger. An interesting essay is called teaching in an all-black school and sounds very racist. You will have to judge of it sounds accurate.

    Another article is by a white public defender and that link came from a black web site.

    The mothers and grandmothers pray in the hallways–not for justice, but for acquittal. When I explain that the evidence that their beloved child murdered the shop keeper is overwhelming, and that he should accept the very fair plea bargain I have negotiated, they will tell me that he is going to trial and will “ride with the Lord.” They tell me they speak to God every day and He assures them that the young man will be acquitted.
    The mothers and grandmothers do not seem to be able to imagine and understand the consequences of going to trial and losing. Some–and this is a shocking reality it took me a long time to grasp–don’t really care what happens to the client, but want to make it look as though they care. This means pounding their chests in righteous indignation, and insisting on going to trial despite terrible evidence.

    The inner city blacks that we see in Detroit or Baltimore are tribal. The suburban blacks that live on my street or that are my medical students are not but they are in as much danger in the inner city as I am.

  15. Mike K – “people who live in lawless and disorganized lands form clans and tribes for self-protection and self governance” – this suggests that tribalism is a special response to pathological conditions. On the contrary humans have been organized into tribes everywhere until very recently and still are tribal in most of Africa, much of the Middle East, Melanesia and many other areas of the globe. There is noithing pathological about tribalism. Its only in the last few thousand years of human existence that some areas of the globe have become non-tribal.

    Almost always separate tribes have separate languages and cultures. Arabic is not a single language but consists of a large number of different languages just as Chinese consists of about 8 or 9 different languages.

    Gangs are loose transient organizations. They might in some cases evolve into a people but this has not happened anywhere in America. And in general it is difficult to find examples in history of something like a gang becoming a tribe. A band belonging to a certain tribe which becomes separaated from it may in time become a separate tribe. For example the Comanche are the descendents of a Shoshoni band which entered the Llano Estacado about 1700 and adopted a buffalo/horse way of life. Similarily the Wichita are descended from a Caddo band which gave up the rather sophisticated East Texas Mound Building culture to becone Plain Indians as also the Kiowa came originally from the Taos Pueblos.

    As I mentioned blacks and whites in America may to some extent be considered separate tribes. But in this case blacks are no more “tribal” than whites. No doubt ghetto blacks have very high rates of violence but although tribal groups may have high rates of violence this is not what defines tribes. Indeed some tribal peoples such as the Khoisan are not particularly violent.

  16. “this suggests that tribalism is a special response to pathological conditions. On the contrary humans have been organized into tribes everywhere until very recently”

    You still do not understand. The “pathological conditions” are those which existed until nation states were formed. Tribes in this present time are a response to restoration of the primitive conditions that existed in ancient times.

    I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

  17. >>But in this case blacks are no more “tribal” than whites.

    I would argue that tribal behavior and gang behavior are almost synonymous, whereas I think you’re parsing out an academic definition. I use the term more broadly, but it is essentially the same behaviors and the same ideas: territorial control, loyalty to family and tribe, violent attack of interlopers, tribal insignia, etc. Weirdly, I think rap music is evolving to sound more and more like African tribal music. I’ve asked several acquaintances if they’d noticed and gotten some agreement on that.

    In a related vein, the ‘Melting Pot’ ideal of an earlier America was, by definition, designed to overprint humanity’s natural tendency towards tribalism and ethnic ghettoes. It provided a shared identity, a shared political ideology centered on the Constitution, celebrated the family and honored the Protestant work ethic and independence. Left wing ideology has been a concerted attack on every facet of that package. And they’ve been largely successful in destroying those as ideals for our society. If you wonder why everything around us seems to collapsing, that is why. It is.

  18. Jim, I suggest you spend a few nights and weekends hanging in West Baltimore or Philly. If you get back alive, you may have a slightly altered view. West Colorado Springs and West Baltimore are not interchangeable in terms of tribalism. You’re living in a fantasy if you think they are.

  19. Mike K. I’m astonished. You say that tribes today are a restoration of a primitive past. When was Sub-Saharan Africa not mostly tribal? Sub-Saharan Africa is far less primitive today then it was in even the recent past.

    Michael Hiteshew – Your using the word “tribal” to mean “violent”. That’s not how the word is used in anthropology. The Zuni are tribal but they’re not particularly violent. Enormous violence occurred in Europe in the twentieth century mostly involving non-tribal peoples. No doubt the Germans were tribal in the sixth century but they ceased being tribal long before the Holocaust. The fact that the blacks who live in West Baltimore are much more violent than the people who live in West Colorado Springs has nothing to do with “tribalism”.

    By the way how many black “tribes” are there in Chicago? Of course none. The blacks of Chicago are not tribal people.

  20. >>The Zuni are tribal but they’re not particularly violent.

    That’s because they’re immersed in a non-tribal society, in case you hadn’t noticed. Go back a few centuries and let some group come in and try to take their land, I bet you’d be surprised how violent they could get. That would really screw up your definitions and categories then. You might have to rewrite a paper. Dang!

    >>The fact that the blacks who live in West Baltimore are much more violent than the people who live in West Colorado Springs has nothing to do with “tribalism”.

    Then how exactly would you explain and categorize the phenomenon?

  21. “By the way how many black “tribes” are there in Chicago?”

    The Latin Kings call their local affiliates tribes

    he Latin Kings have a hierarchical organizational structure: they have numerous “chapters” or “tribes” across the country, which adhere to a regional, state, and a national system. Officers (Inca, Cacique and Enforcer) are supported by a “Crown Council” of seven members. The Council sets rules and regulations and holds disciplinary hearings.

    The hierarchy rises to regional officers and ultimately to the Supreme Inca ruler based in Chicago. The head (or heads) of the entire criminal organization are known as “Coronas” (crowns in English). One retired detective said in 2004: “When you compare them to other street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, none compare to the organization of the Latin Kings.”

    Latin Kings Leader in Maryland Sentenced to 23 Years in Prison for Racketeering Conspiracy Including Attempted Murders

    According to Smith’s plea agreement, the Latin Kings is a violent street gang with thousands of members across the country and overseas. The Latin Kings have a detailed and uniform organizational structure, which is outlined – along with various “prayers,” codes of behavior and rituals – in a written “manifesto” widely distributed to members throughout the country. Members of the Latin Kings are also traditionally given “King Names” or “Queen Names,” which are names other than their legal names by which they are known to members of the gang and to others on the street. At the local level, groups of Latin Kings are organized into “tribes,” including the Royal Lion Tribe, MOG, Sun Tribe and UTL.

    Smith was a member of the MOG and UTL Tribes in Maryland, joining the MOG Tribe in January 2009.

    I don’t recall offhand where I saw it, but I believe when they originally formed in Chicago in the 40s they referred to themselves as the ‘Sun Tribe’.

  22. I am by no means an expert on the subject, so I refer to someone who is, David Ronfeldt

    The first major form to define the organization of societies is the tribe, which emerged in
    the Neolithic era some 5000 years ago. Its key organizing principle is kinship—initially of
    blood, and later also of brotherhood. Its key purpose (or function) is to render a sense of social
    identity and belonging, thereby strengthening a people’s ability to band and survive…

    People in many parts of the world remain—even prefer to remain—at this “stage” of
    development, and have not effectively adopted the institutional or other forms of organization
    discussed below. Some of the worst ethnic conflicts today involve peoples who have lost their
    central institutions and reverted to ferocious neo-tribal behaviors (e.g., in the Balkans), or who
    fight to retain their traditional clan systems and resist the imposition of outside state and market
    structures (e.g., in Chechnya, Chiapas, Somalia). Some dictatorships that seem to rest on a strong
    state are really grounded on a particular predominant clan (e.g., in Iraq). In the United States and
    elsewhere, urban gangs like the “Bloods” and the “Crips” in the Los Angeles area represent in
    part a recurrence to clannish, combative brotherhoods by youths who lack strong nuclear family
    ties and do not see a future for themselves in the state, market, or other structures around them

  23. “Mike K. I’m astonished”

    I know and nothing we say will probably convince you so I am not going waste my time.

    For others interested, my point was that we are seeing a regression from civilized behavior in inner cities, just as Arabia was neglected by the Turks and regressed (if they had ever gotten past it) to tribal behavior.

  24. For the record, my comment was referring the level of civilization in those two places. Civilization has not broken down in Colorado Springs. It has in Baltimore, thus the reversion to tribal behavior.

  25. To Michael Hiteshew – The Mbuti pygmy are certainaly not immersed in a non-tribal society and they are not very violent. Neither are the Khoisan. Of course some tribal people are violent but being violent is not a defining characteristic of tribalism. There was violence on a horrendous scale in Europe both in WW I and WW II, mostly carried out by non-tribal people. There was also huge amounts of violence in the Soviet Union and China in the twentieth century again mostly carried out by non-tribal people.

    The blacks of the Chicago ghetto are no doubt pretty violent but there is no serious sense in which they are tribal peoples.

    To Gurray – I’m puzzled by the reference to tribalism as having emerged in the Neolithic. The Austrailian aborigines are certainly tribal. There is no reason to believe that Paleolithic people were not tribal. What else would they have been?

  26. To Michael Hiteshew – What makes you believe that tribalism among the Arabs was less in the past than it is today? Most of these people have always been tribal long before the Turks came along.

  27. The TIMN framework by David Ronfeldt is a description of the structure of societal development. While paleolithic people definitely grouped together in clans, they didn’t reach the threshold of social organization of modern (relatively speaking) civilization and culture. It’s the difference between, as he says, coming together as brothers and coming together as a brotherhood.

  28. Jim seems to be trolling the blog and I’m not sure why. We don’t agree. I don’t want more debates with closed minded people. Talking or writing past one another does not educate.

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