War left the battlefield.
While the military was busy revolutionizing military affairs, war put on new clothes and moved away. As the Navy was developing high-tech reach from the sea and becoming network-centric, war spent the 1990s transforming itself into some homely but exceedingly deadly forms largely immune to our precision arms.
Armed conflict no longer has much to do with formal battlefields. Less and less do we see opposing armies take to the field while the Geneva convention shields civilians on the sidelines. Television journalists show us every day the new characteristic engagement: brutal, neighbor-on-neighbor killing. You still can watch soldier-on-soldier combat or dogfights between supersonic aircraft, but you will need to tune in to the History Channel right after the Battleships Were Beautiful hour. And if you do spot modern weapons in the news, most likely they are attacking civilian targets—Russian attacks on Chechen cities or NATO's attacks on "military" targets picked out from the civilian infrastructure in Serbia, for example.
The new faces of war are a ragtag collection of ne'er-do-wells, teenagers, and ordinary citizens temporarily dragooned into service by the local thug-in-chief. Our instinct is to dismiss them. How could a no-tech, no-training, no-discipline "army" risk anything important to the United States or one of our fellow great powers? And if they rampage among their own citizens, then we should (maybe) intervene only with protective operations other than war to limit the human carnage. These are tragedies, we say, but not threats. We should focus on preventing real war and guarding our vital interests.
We need to think again. Reexamined, these lethal rabble are as destructive in strategic terms as nuclear bombs—but with more lasting aftereffects. Their "organizations" and "doctrine" take forms that trump our superior firepower. In head-to-head encounters with modern Western forces, they often are coming out the winners. Even in areas we consider our special province, such as the use of advanced information technologies, the rabble regularly outgun us.
A tour of "community war"
In our modern democracies the purpose of the military is to prevent war—and to fight and win if prevention fails. But how do you prevent or prevail in these new forms of conflict that have turned many of the world's neighborhoods into battlefields?
Our innovations attempt to narrow the focus of combat and reduce the killing in battle. Although U.S. forces deploy great firepower, careful target selection and pinpoint strikes intend to maximize weapon payoff and limit enemy casualties. And by attacking from a distance under the cover of electronic razzle-dazzle we can reduce our own casualties, it seems, almost to zero. Unfortunately, as we push toward high-tech, low-blood combat, the rabble-warriors are rushing in the opposite direction. Choosing primitive strategies of close-in, person-to-person bludgeoning, they go for maximum death and disruption among civilians.
During two days in July 1995 in eastern Bosnia, a hodgepodge of pseudo military Serb thugs mixed with a few professionals killed more than 7,000 men trying to break out from Srebrenica, a U.N. "safe haven." The Serbs won this mobile battle in mountain forest terrain in less than 48 hours. Paralyzing the U.S.-dominated command hierarchy of the protecting U.N. forces, they held the initiative so long that they had time to bury the evidence, evict the Dutch defenders, and "cleanse" the town of residue women and children without being counterattacked. Not since major battles in World War II had Europe seen 7,000 killed in action. Serb casualties apparently were near zero.
Nor should we forget the spasm of killing in Rwanda a year prior. Armed with machetes and a few handguns, rampaging Hutus executed about 800,000 of their neighbors and friends in a hundred days. Compare this lethality to that of professionals: Hitler's specially equipped killer units, the Einsatzgruppen, roamed the Eastern Front killing Jews and other unwanteds during the war on the Soviet Union. With "cleansing" as their sole mission, it took them years to match what loosely organized gangs, often teenagers, did in weeks in Rwanda.
More than body counts are at stake. When neighbor attacks neighbor, the paroxysm of violence destroys the skein of community. Churches and mosques are blown up. Schools are burned. Homes, if left standing, are seized. Rape rains trauma on the female victims, their families, and neighbors, reinforcing the brutality of the attackers. Evicting people from their homes, burning their possessions, and even destroying their identity papers (as the Serbs did to the fleeing Kosovars in 1999), the attackers strip away the sense of self and place that is vital to each of us in our daily lives.
There is more. Criminality and extremist politics well up in the chaos, join hands, and grab control. Whatever the contorted slogans about freedom or justice used to justify the violence, old-fashioned greed and police-state brutality take over. The architects of the "liberation" of Srebrenica and the long, deadly siege of Sarajevo were President Radovan Karadjic and General Ratko Mladic. Both became rich; reportedly, Karadjic is now a billionaire. Although each was forced out of office when the West finally intervened, visitors to the statelet report that they continue to control and profit from the sale of almost everything—cigarettes, gasoline, weapons, drugs, even U.N.-furnished food supplies. In Colombia, the guerrilla bands that started out in the 1950s to create a purist, Marxist revolution are now so tightly intertwined with the narcotics trade that it is hard to tell the difference between a high-minded revolutionary and an ordinary drug gangster. In central Africa control of the diamond trade shapes that huge war as much as political differences.
The creation and manipulation of refugees is another innovation. Citizens flee the violence, sometimes in convulsive human avalanches, sometimes in trickles, sometimes pouring into huge refugee camps, often ending up as the near-homeless residents of shantytowns on the fringes of big cities. Wherever they go, they generate advantage for the side that expelled them. As they fester in camps and slums, they set in motion the next rounds of anger and retaliation. With schools shut and families scattered, even preteen kids turn to killing and crime.
The result is a tangle of destruction beyond what any military commander would seek on a traditional battlefield. After World War II, Germany and Japan could pick themselves up from defeat and, with culture and community still intact, transform themselves into powerhouse friends. No such future is open to Bosnia or Kosovo or Rwanda. They, and the 40 or 50 other places where community wars now smolder or burn, face years of disorder. It may take decades of expensive, outside intervention before these societies can function and generations before they can prosper.
What can we do?
In the Cold War we never wavered in our understanding that prevention of a nuclear exchange was our core imperative. Today the lethalities of neighbor-on-neighbor war are achieving levels of destruction well beyond what we feared from tactical nuclear exchanges. In Kosovo, Serb President Slobodan Milosevic was able to flush most of two million people from their homes, and 65% of their houses and schools were damaged across a mountainous province the size of Maryland—without a single nuke being used. With more of these cancerlike community wars threatening, prevention must be our first strategy.
Well, you might say, if that were our mission, it would not be a problem. These are, after all, just rabble, and they couldn't stand up to us if we really took them on.
It might not be that easy. Seen across our television screens and computer terminals, these seem barely armed irregulars, ethnic primitives trapped by genes and custom in cycles of ancient and local violence. That is a dangerous misreading. Our failure to understand these new forms of war and to recognize that they are popping up all over the globe traps us in habits of inaction that feed and accelerate these armed conflicts and steadily erode our own military advantages.
Here are some "advances" in the arts of war, innovations that can best us in head-to-head encounters. Unlike our great steps forward, which appear in manufacturers' brochures years before they reach the fleet, these homely tricks already are battle tested and have almost nothing to do with technology—yet.
A loosely organized mob can achieve astonishing killing rates with whatever assortment of knives and small arms are at hand. But against us? Ask the U.S. special forces. With the fabled Delta Force fighting alongside, they lost a 1993 firefight in the streets of Mogadishu against a mixture of citizens and warlord gangs. Even though the Somalis took heavy casualties—perhaps several hundred killed versus 18 of our own—the Americans had to withdraw to survive. Their defeat collapsed the entire U.N. intervention.
The innovation? Citizen-warriors. The Somali gunmen (and women) were not soldiers in civilian disguise—they were real civilians.
Milosevic used a variation against us last year in Kosovo. As NATO aimed a high-tech attack at Milosevic, he unveiled a motley force prepositioned in Kosovo. Unpaid Serb army "volunteers" augmented by paramilitary thugs flushed a million and a half Kosovar Albanians into the hills and across borders into huge, burdensome refugee camps. Operating largely on foot and moving among civilians, they held key towns, roads, and borders for months, keeping the province essentially invasionproof and themselves untouchable. Not until some of their forces began to operate as conventional ground units did NATO inflict any meaningful damage. Pulling out only when ordered, they left with most of their small stock of fighting vehicles undamaged.
In both cases low-observable, barely organized ground forces trumped the best high-tech, high-firepower, info- and aerospace-dominant military in the world. Could we have won in either place? Yes, eventually, but only with large ground-air forces of our own. In both cases the politics moved on before we could decide.
Wars without end.
Those who set neighbor against neighbor find their advantages in chaos. We prefer short, clean wars. The rogue politicos of community war profit most if the fighting is long and dirty. But they must solve two problems to get there: first, how to keep ordinary citizens fighting when most would prefer to live more or less in peace; second, how to keep us from intervening as their machinations pile up bodies, refugees, and rubble.
Fear and brutality are used to create citizen-warriors. Each of us harbors a variety of us-them impulses. Identity politics heat those emotions into hatred and convert them into anger that an "enemy"—formerly your friend and neighbor—has what is rightfully yours. With a spark, the human tinder flashes into violence. The Hutu-on-Tutsi killing in Rwanda models the pattern. In Bosnia a Muslim refugee told how a stranger, a Serb outsider, pushed into her house, shot her Serb friend in the house across the street, and then left as a "spontaneous" Serb mob mobilized to avenge the killing and drive all Muslims out of town.
Once started, the brutality on all sides leaves no easy path back to normal, tolerant life. Self-renewing cycles of violence and revenge run on as the leader-perpetrators harvest power and fill Swiss bank accounts. To keep us from spoiling the game the offenders market the mob emotions as "historic enmities," which, of course, no intervention could hope to mitigate. Although he later corrected himself, President Bill Clinton made his early decision to stay out of Bosnia because, he said, "These are ancient hatreds. Until these people stop killing each other there is not much we can do"—exactly the line marketed by Milosevic's propaganda apparatus in Belgrade. Then, when we do intervene as peacekeepers late in the spiral of violence, our presence is easily manipulated to sustain what we came to stop. Checkmate.
The U.S. military counts on its information dominance. No one has an array of satellite sensors, communications networks, and computing power to match ours. Rivers of money pour into equipment enabling us to see everything on the battlefield and connect every weapon to every target. Alas, leaders of the local rabble regularly display better awareness of our situation than we do of theirs.
How? Our information-rich society is our strength and our vulnerability. Forget spies; almost everything we know and anything we might be thinking about doing is flashed worldwide minute by minute on global TV news channels and the Internet. Dissecting the 1996 Goma refugee crisis in eastern Zaire, BBC journalist and researcher Nik Gowing followed a trail of disinformation to show how the Rwandan government deliberately misled humanitarian organizations in the field so they, in turn, would feed distorted assessments into the media and intelligence services. The result, as intended, was a U.S./U.N. decision to stand clear as the Rwandans gained a major tactical victory in confused, neighbor-on-neighbor fighting. The conflict has now drawn seven countries into what some call Africa's first world war.
Where is their edge? While we create high-tech systems to track military things on the battlefield—things these fighters do not need—they use our open media to track and shape our thinking.
Our military-civilian high command team works in a glass house. The media report every decision, analyze every option, and critique every personality in a news cycle that spins faster and faster. Yet, we know almost nothing about the decisions and habits of most of the leaders stirring up trouble in various corners of the globe. Even should we know the leader—like Milosevic or Saddam Hussein—we know almost nothing about the people and politics around them. Often, as in central Africa today, we do not know even the names and allegiances of all the parties to the confused but deadly fighting. This turns Sun Tzu on his head: fail to know your enemy as well as he knows you and you should fear every battle.
The no-cost army. Armies are expensive, navies even more so. The new class of warrior-thugs escapes this constraint. By setting unpaid neighbor against neighbor and helping to ensure that the destruction becomes unforgivably brutal, they create fighting forces that live off their own land and free emotional ammunition. In a nice bit of fiscal judo, they seize the initiative and make a profit while we still are tied up in budget politics, worried about the impact of one more operation on readiness.
What lies ahead
Unless we come up with a practical strategy of prevention, more and more of these nasty wars lie squarely in our future, and they will be increasingly daunting to handle, whether we go in shooting or under blue helmets as armed peacekeepers. Milking the growing interconnections between drugs, crime, and conflict for cash, local warlords will deploy leading-edge electronics, move up from knives and pistols to high-technology weapons, and run ever more sophisticated media-manipulation operations. Community wars are going to become harder to stop.
Prevention is key.
Prevention is a familiar military mission. Credible deterrence in the Cold War hinged on our ability to fight and win should deterrence fail. When it seemed that larger Soviet forces could overwhelm NATO in a traditional war, we threatened the use of a huge nuclear arsenal as a counterweight. By the time the Cold War closed we had turned the tables. Our high-tech, high-firepower forces could, we calculated, defeat the still-huge Soviet military in a head-to-head fight.
But a strategy of deterrence through stand-off firepower no longer is an option. No one around today can defeat us in a traditional fight, but these new neighbor-on-neighbor wars are being fought in ways and places where our raw firepower gives us no decisive advantage. And the nuclear threat won't work either. Nuclear and biological materials are proliferating so fast that almost anyone serious about them—especially these well-funded gangster-politicians—can acquire a bang so deadly that we, with more to lose, must stand clear.
So how to prevent, if not through firepower?
That is the main strategy question vexing the Pentagon today. What is the purpose of our military, especially our Navy, if not to lower the level of conflict and foster the international harmonies that best suit U.S. political and business interests? We are on the horns of a dilemma: if we stand clear of these local, landbound butcheries and focus on sea control, then we must shrink to a much smaller navy-in-waiting. But if we plunge into prevention ashore, we must change the way we think and operate.
If the Navy holds itself out for bigger, sea-going prey, say some future, ominous China, then we do not need much of a fleet. The Pentagon's research-and-development budget by itself is about the same size as China's entire military budget. If we sign up now to overpower some future China or a resurgent Russia then a very small navy can be kept ready to enlarge and reassert itself in a generation or two. On the other hand, if we sign up to meet the nation's clear and present need for a reasonably calm and peaceful globe, then we must get serious about our ". . . From the Sea" ideas and come up with ways that naval forces can help counteract the rising tide of ragged, endemic, savage conflict.
We might start with two steps:
First, listen to the Marines. The Marine Corps is far ahead of the other services in diagnosing these new forms of violence and recognizing their profound implications.
Second, stop swooning over technology. Yes, we need long-range precision strike capabilities, and, yes, we need to be network-centric, but those were the old, 20th-century frontiers of warfare. In the 21st century everyone is on the net and the core question is how to counter these warrior-thugs who are outpunching us with a cutting-edge blend of primitive killing and sophisticated perception management.
We need, above all, to train immediately a new generation of Navy specialists who understand community war dynamics and can devise ways to connect the Navy's natural advantages as a mobile, global presence to the new imperative of prevention.
Action is urgent. Our current non-strategy is doubly dangerous. By pretending these episodes are unimportant we accelerate the global spread of these new forms of combat. By reacting only to huge human tragedies, we lurch into intervention so late that the situation is nearly irreparable, our leverage is near zero, and it is we, not the perpetrators, who are drained.
It is time to put prevention back in the strategy.
During his naval career, Captain Seaquist commanded several warships, including the battleship USS Iowa (BB-61), and served in strategy assignments on the Navy Staff, the Joint Staff, and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The founder of an international, nonprofit "do tank," The Strategy Group, he heads conflict-prevention projects in Central Asia, the Middle East, Colombia, and in U.S. high schools.
By Captain Larry Seaquist, U.S. Navy (Retired)
© 2000 U.S. Naval Institute. All Rights Reserved.