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War and Peace and Why the Military Matters

May 29, 2012

This was a speech written by the husband a couple years ago. Given some of the anti-military rhetoric I saw spewed yesterday across the interwebs, I thought this might be a nice counterpoint. Cross-posted from my personal blog.

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): Warriors know that to win, you must know yourself and know your opponent. We get that directly from the war philosopher, Sun Tzu. Ignorance of your enemy is an unforgivable oversight. To succeed at your military goals, you must become intimately familiar with the opponent you would prefer to ignore. The same is true if your enemy is war and your goal is peace. From my often limited perspective, peace activists know themselves, but don’t know their enemy, namely war, very well at all. Peace advocates know the images, the horror, and the material cost, but they don’t attack the strategy of war, they don’t put war on the twin horns of a dilemma, or speak to the advocates of war in terms that decision makers truly understand. I think we all have to work to improve that situation.

Conflict is inevitable, so:
Know yourself.
Know your enemy.
Do expect to work hard.
Don’t expect anyone to say thank you.

In the summer of 2008, I found myself on the top of a mountain and in a predicament. I was a few weeks into a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. My official job title was “Knowledge Management Officer”. My real job was glorified delivery boy (I participated in convoys of armored vehicles delivering people and material. This was my tenth convoy as a convoy member. After a couple more outings, I’d be a convoy commander.

I was on top of the mountain for an assortment of reasons. I was in the predicament because I had turned way sharply when coming out of a three-point turn. Years of this Toyota Land Cruiser supporting an armored shell on a civilian suspension, coupled with potholes you could swim in, resulted in a weakened front axle. Specifically, my front axle was bent nearly to the ground, the sun would be setting soon, and the locals, understandably, didn’t seem very hospitable.

I had two questions on my mind that day. The first and most important question was practical in nature: “How the bleep am I getting my team off this mountain?

The second question arose more slowly as the minutes wound out into hours: “How did I end up on top of a mountain a long way from home, wearing body armor, toting two weapons, and driving an armored Toyota Land Cruiser?”

That second question is what concerns us today: How do we end up at war?

Back to the bent axle: Technically speaking, you can’t really FIX a bent axle. You have to replace it. Barring a replacement, you have to figure out a way to straighten an axle enough to make it usable until you can reach a replacement axle. You can’t wish the axle straight. Hating the axle doesn’t help. Talking nasty to the axle may make you feel better, but it won’t help much.
Like the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance trying to replace tappets on a beat up Harley, working to understand the bent axle and the tools you do have available gets you on the road to a solution. You can’t just acknowledge the tools and axle; you have to study them — coldly and with a keen awareness of your very limited resources.

Working on the question of what makes humans go to war requires the same approach. Loosely phrasing the legendary Carl von Clausewitz, warfare is the extension of political conflict by other means. –War is the bent axle of human relations.

The thought trap of war’s bent axle is to fixate on the beauty and utility of a straight axle. Just as I would have loved to have a straight axle on my vehicle that day on the mountain, I’d love to have a lasting, stable, just, and prosperous peace. I just completely reject the idea that the path to peace involves studying peace. The path to peace requires an understanding of the bent axle – an understanding of war.

Conflict is inevitable, so:
Know yourself.
Know your enemy.
Do expect to work hard.
Don’t expect anyone to say thank you.

Being a Navy officer for over 15 years, I’ve had ample opportunity to study tactics and operations. I had some chance to study the theory and strategy of war. As many former and current military in the audience know, the two big names in theorizing about war are Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu — sometimes known as Uncle Carl and Sunny. These two don’t agree on everything, but they do agree that the sovereign or government makes the decision to go to war. The military carries out the war. The land and people pay for a war, both in consumption of lives and treasure, and in bearing the consequences of the outcomes.

So, if we are truly serious about defeating war, it stands to reason that taking some plays from these giants of war theory could help. One of the truly big lessons from both is best quoted from Sun Tzu, “Know your enemy and know yourself.” In the struggle for peace, the enemy is not another nation or transnational terror cell. The enemy is war itself. How many devotees of peace have taken the time to read Sun Tzu or Clausewitz? By comparison, how many of us read some book with ideas for peace, studies of peace, or expositions on how to protest for peace?

Drawing from Clausewitz, war is the physical manifestation of political conflict. Let me say that again, warfare is not a separate phenomenon, it is the physical manifestation of already existing political conflict. So, how do we manage political conflict? It’s glib — and easy — to say that politics is just a bunch of old, rich males seeing who can swagger the most. It’s harder to try and pierce the socio-economic veil and look into the pressures and profits that drive us to political conflict.
We have a song in church that says, “Nothing but peace is enough.” I propose that we need to be extremely sure what we mean by peace. I can assure you that the absence of uniformed troops is NOT peace. People can slaughter each other easily enough with machetes or wipe out whole families with gasoline and matches. We have been unfortunate enough to witness that kind of non-peace in the last two decades. Peace is not even the absence of physical conflict. I’ll say that again, true peace is NOT simply the absence of armed conflict.

I’ll tell you why:
Peace requires a balance of costs. What price is each group and individual on the planet willing to pay to ward off physical conflict? If you doubt me on this, ask yourself, are you willing to let your wife, mother, sister or daughter be FORCED to wear a veil against her will to avoid armed struggle? Look down at your children. Are you willing to have doors to education shut or have slave labor forced on them to avoid taking up arms? Are you willing to bend your knee to creeds you can’t believe in to satisfy the demands of another society to keep the guns silent? I freely admit, there are many prices I am not willing to pay to prevent bloodshed. However, there ARE many prices that I AM willing to pay. Knowing those two lists, being clear in my mind about what the items on each of those lists mean, is key to my participation in a pursuit for peace.

Going back to the masters of military theory, Sun Tzu states that the height of generalship is to win a war without firing a shot. By attacking the enemy’s strategy, through diplomatic manipulation, maneuvering of forces, or outright deception, win the conflict. Even if every nation still has militaries and still has conflict, if all warfare was decided by these bloodless maneuvers, that might be peace, but it’d be tenuous peace. How do we attack the strategy that leads to war?

Conflict is inevitable, so:
Know yourself.
Know your enemy.
Do expect to work hard.
Don’t expect anyone to say thank you.

Couldn’t we all just use diplomacy all the time? How do we come to the point where one group is willing to take others’ lives and risk their own lives. What are the sources of these crises paths? If the ability for your child to eat is blocked by your neighbor, you’d likely be willing to fight. Survival can drive peoples and nations to war. If I truly believe that my neighbor intends to rob me of my ability to live my life according to whatever tenets I hold dear, I might be willing to fight. WHAT is the linchpin that holds the fight in check or breaks and lets bloodshed begin?

My answer is: cost. Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz spell out that a nation goes to war when that nation PERCEIVES that the cost of war is small compared to the gain from that war — When the risk of failure is small compared to the reward of success. Now, before anyone starts thinking, “There is no success in killing another human” let me remind you that I’m not trying to replace my bent axle with a straight axle, I’m working with the bent axle I have, and trying to fix it to get down the mountain.

If you want peace, then we have to acknowledge that conflict is inevitable. Conflict is inevitable, BUT that inevitable conflict does not have to become physical. To keep conflict in the domain of diplomacy and the arena of politics, the perceived price of going to war must be high, and the perceived rewards must be small AT THE TIME THE DECISION FOR WAR IS BEING MADE. Not afterwards during the Monday morning quarterbacking or years before when the pressure is not heavy, but at the time the decision about the cost of conflict is being made.

The price must be expressed in units of measurement that the decision makers use. If the reward is the continuation of a nation, then the price must be perceived to be more than the nation can bear. If the reward is your child gets to eat tomorrow, then price must be something so abhorrent that a parent could bear to lose their family. If the reward is your loved ones stay alive for another day, then the price must be an understanding of what drives a people, a nation, and a world to destroy itself. We must provide incentives.

However, we can’t just provide incentives in a vacuum; we must use some powerful tools to communicate these incentives. We have to speak the language of those who disagree with us, NOT the language that we use amongst ourselves. Some quick tools that we could use in talking to our fellow Americans:

  • Do provide real, tangible incentives.
  • Don’t start with “if everyone would just…” or “if no one would ever again…”
  • Do have a list of things you are personally ready to give up to achieve peace
  • Don’t provide a list of what they, them, or those people should do
  • Do try to convince instead of debate, the two discourses ARE appreciably different
  • (This one is really tough, because I listen to NPR a lot and I know some diehard peace activists.) Don’t quote NPR, the “wonderful” Europeans, or any protest group from San Francisco. (I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with protest groups from San Francisco, I’m trying to say that using groups that are easily vilified by adherents to armed conflict is not a good tactic of persuasion….)

Conflict is inevitable, so:
Know yourself.
Know your enemy.
Do expect to work hard.
Don’t expect anyone to say thank you.

That day back on the mountain in Afghanistan, we were fortunate to have a Special Forces camp at the base of the mountain. A young guy came up the trail in his jeep and said he used to work at an auto shop before he joined the Army. Even better, he had a bunch of tools. I had some tools in my convoy, but mostly for fixing tires. The young man turned out to be a motivated staff sergeant. I had to ask because he had a beard and wore civilian clothes. Staff Sergeant detached the bent tie rod under my Land Cruiser from the left wheel and start banging at it with a mallet. That didn’t go so well.

I didn’t have the Staff Sergeant’s tools or initial mechanical skills, but I did have an idea. We jammed the tie rod up into body of the car, and put a jack underneath. As we jacked up the tied rod, it started to straighten. We dared, …dared, to hope. Seconds later, the rod made an alarmingly loud popping sound. Our u-shaped tie-rod, WAS becoming straight, until it popped into an “S” shape. That was better than a “U”, but still not what we needed.

We added a second jack. After some sophisticated redneck engineering, Staff Sergeant and I turned our “S” shaped tie-rod into a daisy chain of contorted S sculptures. It wasn’t pretty, but we managed to stretch that unruly, crooked tie-rod out to reach the left wheel again. A quick turn test showed that we had about 45 degrees of turn to the right and a full range of turn to the left. The only problem: almost all the turns down the mountain were to the right – some of them were pretty sharp.
Somebody had to drive this beast back down the mountain. Since I was driving when the car broke, it seemed obvious that I needed to drive down. My guys did not agree at all, but I wasn’t about to make one of them pay for my mistake.

Driving toward peace, just like commanding a large group into battle, or a damaged vehicle down a mountain, entails risk and uncertain reward. As a wealthy Western republic, we must keep in mind what we risk as we drive toward peace. We risk possible loss of influence, loss of wealth, and loss of norms we currently value. And the rewards are uncertain. The money gained from expending less fuel and less ordnance is a plus. The feeling of security from not facing a physical threat is invaluable. However, there is no certainty that if we risk our influence and treasure that we’ll actually gain the rewards we’re seeking.

The question, again, comes down to what are we willing to risk, how well can we manage that risk? As long as every change we see only impacts someone else, we won’t likely move towards
peace. If only large corporations have to give up power, if only vast and remote national bureaucracies have to change their behavior, or if only the tiny number of citizens willing to run for office have to accept career risk, we won’t likely move forward.

Just to take this to an extreme for a moment, a great man, Gandhi, once said (I’m paraphrasing here, not quoting) – That for this cause, he was prepared to die, but for no cause was he prepared to kill. That is an admirable statement. However, it is a statement that I think few humans could live by. As hard as this may be for some to hear, there are things for which I am prepared to die, and there are certainly ideas, people, and institutions for which I am prepared to kill.

Before anyone damns me out of hand, consider if any of these are acceptable peace to you: would we allow our speech to be limited to provide an accommodation to the world to achieve peace –
would we promise to never draw Allah? Would we to never speak against another nation’s Politburo? Would we not publish articles critical of some nation’s heroes? Are we willing to accept some form of theocracy on our own soil? What about allowing a small group of “central planners” to allocate our resources, or surrender a participatory democratic process for a corporate shareholder role in your laws? Think on this next one pretty hard before you decide: are you even willing to accept one-person-one-vote beyond the borders of our current nations? Would we really make birthrate the ultimate political leverage?

Conflict is inevitable, so:
Know yourself.
Know your enemy.
Do expect to work hard.
Don’t expect anyone to say thank you.

Driving down that mountain will entail an uncomfortable amount of risk –certainly the risk of asking ourselves some very tough questions. It will run the risk of ridicule from many sectors of society.

Driving down that mountain will require a shift in our comfortable positions. Protesters will have to beat their protest placards into bureaucracy pencils before warriors will be able to beat their swords into ploughshares. Just like consensus building requires an extraordinary amount more time, effort, willingness to be informed than making dictates, building peace requires a great deal more time, attention, involvement – from everybody – than is ever offered in war.

Driving down that mountain will require nerve. We will have to be the leadership, not the critics of the leadership to move toward peace. We will have to be the target, not the sources, of the sarcastic, the glib, and the 30-second sound bite.

I might agree. What I would suggest is to take time to remember that you Love these people you are talking to. Which, not so ironically, is one of the tenents that makes peace making so difficult? We have to stop and remember that as Unitarians, we Love the people we are in conflict with. This means, for some of us, we Love Republicans. We Love radical fundamentalists. We might have to Love someone who was a terrorist a month or two ago. Because it is only people we truly Love that we give our attention, acceptance and allowance. And these are the traits that are necessary in conversation/negotiation leading to understanding and agreement.

Speaking of changing perspective, I had a perspective change while going down that mountain just south of Kabul. I’ve never been a believer in out-of-body experiences or anything like that, but about a fourth of the way down, the sound from my left wheels changed distinctively while I was already worried about falling off a cliff. I cautiously opened my door and stared down a LONG, LONG, LONG way to ground below. I had to lean out the door to look under my tires to see that my left front wheel was only half on the mountain; the other half was hanging in the air. I immediately gained a third person view on the land cruiser, the mountain, and myself. I know I drove that thing the rest of the way down; I know I was scared, way scared (because my uniform was totally soaked in sweat and my heart was racing like a jack rabbit), but I don’t recall any of that on the way down. So, any smarmy Shirley McLane out of body comments I’ve ever made, I hereby retract.

When I got to the bottom of the mountain, there weren’t any kudos from the Air Force colonel I worked for. There was just overly polite angst that we got into the fix and messed up the vehicle. The ingenuity, hard toil, nerve, and execution of the trip didn’t bring any positive praise; it just brought more misery to an already miserable day.

Anyone who leads the world to peace should expect the same thing. The bringer of peace, if that person or group ever actually materializes, needs to prepare to be reviled during their effort and crucified once they succeed. I think an enormous pitfall, for people who do good things, is any hope of recognition or appreciation. True progress is painful and most folks, including me, are averse to painful processes. Jesus spoke of peace, and he got crucified. Martin Luther King and Gandhi both met dire fates for their efforts at peace. What can a true peace bringer really expect at the end of their journey?

No good deed goes unpunished, and bringing peace to the world is the second-most ultimate good, just short of bringing justice to the world. There’s an old bumper sticker that says, ‘if you want peace, work for justice.’ Whoever does it, should expect a fairly heinous reception from their peers, but maybe, just maybe a ringing endorsement from history.

Conflict is inevitable, so:
Know yourself.
Know your enemy.
Do expect to work hard.
Don’t expect anyone to say thank you.

As my convoy finally wound through the tricky streets of Kabul that day, I was glad the mountain was behind me. The whining metallic sounds of my tie-rod reminded me how fragile
my current solution was. That being said, my fragile solution held together. It held together long enough for my team to get to some spare parts and a more permanent solution. Whoever is that first bringer of peace, their successors will have to wind through some dangerous streets with a fragile peace as their foundation and their prize. Their destination would be to find something more permanent to make that peace last.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012 5:32 pm

    Reblogged this on Name the Elephants and commented:
    This is one of the few blogs I follow… I praise LeftFace for the way in which they challenge norms and misconceptions of not only what military spouses are like, but what people who are involved in the military are like and what it’s all about. They are able to hold conversations that cross artificial dichotomies forces on us by our political system and a black and white worldview.

    Keep it up.

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