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War: unwinnable

Observation #5: A militant group and the state can have very different goals in a conflict; thus at he same time, both may believe they are winning.

Back in 1999, I worked in Sri Lanka on a team that included Sharif Abdullah of the Commonway Institute. In one of his many gems of wisdom, he observed that the LTTE’s goal for the war was to gain influence, while the GOSL’s goal was to control territory. GOSL said it was winning if it could control (or say it controlled) “uncleared areas”– territory formerly open to the LTTE. But LTTE said it was winning if it hurt GOSL and gained support among the Tamils.

This fundamental divergence of interests makes post-modern conflict more intractable: if both sides believe they are winning, then they have little incentive to stop fighting.

Observation #6: In a post-modern war, there can be no military victory without genocide.

This is another of Sharif’s insights. He said of the war in Sri Lanka in 1999, “As long as babies are being born, there will be more soldiers.” At the time, this was incredibly profound, because it touched on the new nature of war in post-modern times.

From kingdoms to nation states, the goal of war was to defeat the opposing military and replace the government. The people, it was assumed, would go along– and often enough, they did. Modern times gave us “total war,” in which the populace became militarized in factory production, and also became a legitimate military target. But the goal remained: defeat the military and install a government to rule the people.

In post-modern war, conflict is often associated with a segment people, not a government. That segment may be ethnic, linguistic, or religious. The difference is, the segment is represented not by a government but by a militant group that relies, at least in some measure, on its identity with that segment for survival and success. It uses that segment not only for recruits and support, but for cover– the militants “hide” within the civilian population.  Thus a war against that militant group is a war against the segment of people it represents. The militant group cannot be conquered militarily without destroying the segment itself as a recognizable identity.

In essence, this eliminates military action as a useful offensive tool. First, it can’t win, and second, as previously observed, it actually makes the militants stronger. Which suggests that a militant group must be “subdued” by non-military means.

Together, these two observations suggest another characteristic of post-modern war: it is self-perpetuating.  Both sides believe that they are winning, but in actual fact the war cannot be won. If left to the combatants, the war will continue without end.

  • Anything — post modern like — to share with us about the Tamils in Sri Lanka?

  • DJ

    The equation hasn’t changed. The LTTE began as a guerrilla fighting force (actually they began as a small group of bank robbers, but that goes back a little further), and once GOSL’s military “victory” has been completed, the LTTE will return to what it does best. Even the military expects this, recognizing that the war may continue “for generations” despite military victory.

    If LTTE saw itself as defeated, you would expect them to come to the table to talk peace. But they won’t. In their book, this is just a temporary setback. Control of territory is a bonus, but not how they evaluate their success, which is based on influence.

    As for influence, LTTE will probably lose face (again) as the result of using Tamil civilians as human shields (again– think Jaffna 1996). But they will continue to use the cycle of violence to their advantage, and will eventually convince the Tamil people once again that LTTE is their only option.

    Civilians are still caught in the middle– witness today’s shelling of a Tamil hospital by GOSL. GOSL doesn’t give a damn about the Tamil population– it doesn’t need them to win elections. LTTE sees them as cannon fodder, a subjective citizenry there to serve its needs.

    And, given the current GOSL administration’s disregard for human rights, an attempted genocide is not out of the question. Which would, of course, help the Tamil people to forget more quickly that LTTE doesn’t care much more about them than GOSL does.

    In short, I stand by my conclusion:

    “In essence, this eliminates military action as a useful offensive tool. First, it can’t win, and second, as previously observed, it actually makes the militants stronger. Which suggests that a militant group must be “subdued” by non-military means.”