It isn’t just generals whose war preparation seems inadequate because it is shaped by the previous war. When any population is being persuaded (and some would claim often manipulated) into a war, the shaping of perception is absolutely critical. Since history is inevitably incomplete and distorted by the viewpoint of the newsmakers, historians and their sponsors, impressions of war must be gained where they can. For example a child growing up watching amazing deeds of daring and heroes who win through against incredible odds in movies and computer war games may be subconsciously attracted to possibilities of adventure and even fame. Veteran soldiers will no doubt be thinking of personal experiences from the last war and will see war in terms of the soldiers’ past perspective. The war refugee is far more likely to think in terms of effects on civilians and so on.
Political perspectives are also likely to be limited if only because those involved in strategic decisions are bound to be influenced by their given challenges and allotted perspectives. Those involved in establishing political and military advantage are far more likely to focus on issues like deterrence, problems of supply, logistics and strategies of ensuring advantage – than for example – giving first priority to civilian safety and security. These limited perspectives are the first sign of the quicksand. For example a war conceived as a struggle for geopolitical advantage is much harder to win if the opposition refuses to accept the expected traditional military constraints. Soldiers may go expecting to fight other soldiers and end by killing mainly civilians. Damage to a civilian population is not a good way to encourage subsequent cooperation
Although moral perception is clearly a factor in providing incentive and choice of rules of engagement, it is not always remembered that the so-called enemy is bound to have a different perception of why a war is being fought and in all probability a totally different historical recollection. Not realising that the “enemy” feels a equal sense of moral rightness makes few conflicts the justifiable walkover they might seem at the outset. Sometimes such matters can lead to amazing blind spots depending on which side is involved. For example it is easy for the Second World War allies to now remember with great disgust how the Nazis were in effect responsible for the murder of about six million Jews – but not so easy to remember the Western reluctance to accept Jewish refugees during the 1930s, or for that matter, how late in the war that the holocaust became a serious issue. It is also intriguing that the apparently worse crime (numbers wise) got far less attention post war ie when Stalin oversaw the deaths of 30 million in Siberia. Since many of Stalin’s victims had been our recent enemies perhaps it was not such an urgent matter.
More recently of course there was the understandable moral outrage when the Twin Towers were attacked by a terrorist act. The almost three thousand or so civilian deaths enraged much of the West, yet the much greater number of civilian deaths in the consequent Iraq war was passed off with little Western discomfort as necessary casualties of war. High civilian casualties in the Congo and Sudan as a result of terrorism again drew muted Western reaction. While this may be understandable, the moral failure to empathise with those very different in background to ourselves means more chance of not understanding conflict involving such people. Although Sarah Palin received much criticism for her gaffe when she said that we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in North Korea, abysmal ignorance on the part of world leaders is hardly a new phenomenon.From a purely objective point of view, the public can hardly be stirred to outrage by a situation which is unknown on our TV screens and absent from our newspapers, yet the lack of knowledge easily translates to a lack of geopolitical understanding.
Unsurprisingly it is also difficult for the arms manufacturers to see the same problems in supplying the white phosphorus and cluster bombs for a distant conflict as would be seen by the nurses and aid workers dealing with the wounded and dying victims. The arms manufacturing companies profit motive might then add to the problems of those tasked with preventing the conflict. Scattering cluster bombs might seem a good tactic to drive an enemy into submission, but again a sand which can swallow a great deal if the cost of repair is not added to the cost of victory.
The Christian Church has itself been compromised many times with its attitude to violence. Forgiving and loving ones enemies, turning the other cheek and of course holding sacred the injunction of thou shalt not kill hardly explains the Crusades and the many times when religion has been used as a veneer to hide some deeply suspect reasons for wanting to inflict maximum damage to traditional enemies. It is a genuine surprise to many to realise subsequently that ancient losses create festering resentments. Friendship is a two way process. The old injunction that there are no friends in international politics, only interests, is another potential long term hazard.
It will be interesting to see if and when the balance of economic power shifts from the West to Asia, if the Asian nations will be just as concerned for the well-being of the West as the West was earlier for the well-being of Asia.
This should not imply there are never noble reasons for taking up the sword. Even where Christian thought is normally against violence, sometimes a genuine concern for protecting the weak and innocent from unjust oppression or defending a people against what is seen as unjustified attack gives plenty of sense of moral justification. It is that consideration that can on occasion lead a Christian with clear conscience, to take up the sword. Perhaps however, we desperately need the pacifists to remind us how easy it is to become involved in a war of unjustified intervention with severely compromised motives. There has always been a good reason for valuing the prophets.
The standard line from the mainline Churches is always a compromise between the desire for peace and the need to be seen as responsible members of a nation and an international community. To be fair to Church leadership who have often been criticised with the wisdom of hindsight, it is difficult to disentangle motives in that many places of potential conflict are the same areas which have strategic or economic value. The presence of oil and other minerals, or a region which controls access to supply of exports can, and often does, distort the resulting propaganda, and the presentation of the distorted story is often a main factor in influencing the moral response. Many will remember for example the extraordinary presentation of Colin Powell to the UN when he sought intervention for what was then called clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction. In retrospect even Colin Powell himself, may not have realised at the time just how distorted that compelling evidence was, or its likely relationship to the strategic control of so much oil. Whereas it may always appear desirable to have a clear moral imperative before embarking on a war, in reality judgement can only be made in terms of what one believes at the time. In retrospect most in the West can now see that Vietnam was a serious mistake, Iraq a probable mistake and Afghanistan an un-winnable mess, but much of the detail was difficult to access when the initial decisions were made. However, when the guide leading us through the potential unstable ground misdirects us more than once, there is additional reason to be cautious when choosing subsequent foot placements.
Contemporary warfare is no respecter of tradition. The Western fascination with nuclear weaponry and the huge investment in extremely high technology until comparatively recently looked if it were going to be the shape of wars to come. In reality most of the conflicts since the Second World War have been relatively low tech, extremely nasty affairs in which ancient rivalries, often inflamed by religious, cultural or ethnic traditional differences take full advantage of the colossal arms trade and often appear fiercely nationalistic and very local. The morality of feeding arms into an area which has the potential to become unstable as was done with both Iraq and Iran may have seemed like good business prior to the Twin Towers, but ultimately was just as silly as General Motors, Ford AG and Opel continuing to build tracked armour for the Germans even after the US had joined in the second World War on the other side. One of the recent criticisms of the film the Kings Speech was that the Royal family’s pre-Second World war pro-Nazi sympathies were down played. For example King George the Sixth’s letter expressing the hope that the Jews would not be allowed to leave Europe gives a different slant to that expressed in the film.
Nor is force always the solution to enforcing the peace. The dream of a highly trained and powerful United Nations peacekeeping force being sent into an area of conflict rarely eventuates in such a way that peace ensues because there is a real shortage of international funding and a genuine shortage of highly trained and well equipped UN forces, much less those who have a clear mandate to take appropriate action. The morality here can be very short-sighted in that without being prepared to pay for such effective intervention, the long term costs to the UN partners of uncontrolled festering conflict often far exceeds the amount saved by grudging donation to the UN peace keeping effort.
There is also a set of problems caused by the nature of modern warfare. The previous experience whereby soldiers were able to launch their missiles and drop their bombs from great height, thereby excusing the bombardiers from seeing first hand the havoc and suffering they cause, in recent years has been reversed. Face-to-face conflict in which the so called enemy is rarely sporting enough to be distinguished from the surrounding civilian population introduces a host of moral dilemmas for the soldiers and the participating countries from which they are drawn. The other big difference is that as soldiers have become better resourced, the civilian population rather than the soldiers are now typically suffering the most casualties. The moral question might then become: how much damage should one inflict on a population one has gone to help?
There is a traditional set of justifications for taking steps towards a just war. In practice many times those seeking to identify such a path have taken serious missteps and it may just be that in future some can learn from past mistakes.