The shift in wars from centralized and concrete to decentralized and abstract
Oct 8, 2010

The shift in wars from centralized and concrete to decentralized and abstract

Over the last 75 years the nature of the wars we engage in has transformed in many ways. Perhaps the most compelling shift has been the shift from established, powerful states through to rogue states with limited power to finally not states at all but decentralized groups of individuals. We have gone from fighting Germany's and Japan's powerful armies to containing "rogue" states like Nicaragua to finally fighting against abstract concepts like the wars on "terror" or "drugs". These shifts towards individualization, decentralization and abstraction of the opposing belligerent are now prevalent in most US and western theaters of conflict around the world.

Up to and including world war two, the most striking forms of war were state vs state (or allied groups of states) battling each other. Both belligerents were established with large formal armies. Everyone knew who they were fighting such as "the Nazis". Two prevalent factors in this type of war is that both sides were engaged in legitimately existential struggles and that while certainly one side may have the advantage their was not a gross asymmetry of power anything like what exists today. Now of course the other aspects (such as fighting in rogue states as proxies) existed and occurred but the dominant theme was big, established state vs state wars.


After world war two, the world became bipolar militarily between the US and the SU. The dominant wars involving the US took their first step towards abstraction, decentralization and versus (as a proxy) rogue states. To be sure the Soviet union was an established, enormously powerful state presenting an existential threat much like in the world wars. However the war turned into a war against communism in general. It was no longer a battle against a state but a battle against the abstract notion of a political ideology. The battles became more decentralized as well. Most of the actual wars in the cold war are not the US vs the SU directly but through proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. The wars against communism in South America were another degree less concrete both in the objectives in that they targeted many different "rogue" countries (direct SU-SA relations outside of Cuba were relatively limited) and that their method consisted of many different strategies from invasions to CIA backed coups to passive support for anticommunist forces (government or rebel regardless). The cold war was more diverse, decentralized and abstract in its belligerents then previous wars.

Even before the cold war had ended, and especially after it, the western world became tied together into a cohesive unit, led by the US. State vs state wars among western countries is now considered unfathomable. However, the battles became increasingly against rogue states that did not bend into this world order. The definition of rogue state is somewhat difficult to say precisely, but a refusal to obey western demands has been a particularly key aspect. Some rogue states may be quite powerful (such as Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, recall the US was backing Iraq at the time) and some might be completely failed states like Somalia in the 90s when the US invaded. Regardless, the asymmetry of power and influence is enormous and none of these rogue states wars had any chance of presenting an existential threat to the west, at best they could hope to prevent the west from destroying them. The principle justification in most of the rogue state wars, particularly prior to 9/11, was of "humanitarian war", a very abstract concept indeed. The war in the Balkans was very much a tryout of modern humanitarian war involving US military power augmented by European and NGO nation building. Rogue states could now pop up essentially anywhere they were defined to pop up and the reasons for war were more abstract based on "humanitarianism".

The justification "war on terror" has been used at least as far back as Reagan but after 9/11 its justification for war in the public dialogue exploded, launching officially two wars in foreign countries with many other countries being pulled in informally. War on terror is the ultimate in complete decentralization. Terror can now occur in any country and is lead by a decentralized groups of individuals, not states. By its very definition, a war on terror transcends national boundaries and we see this happening all too clearly in Pakistan, Yemen as the war on terror spills over into these theaters. Through the nature of an omnipresent war, even domestic suspension of civil liberties have the illusion of justification because one fights domestic war on terror as well. Note that "security" and "war on terror" are effectively the same as it is abundantly clear to anyone that the security we seek is precisely security from terror.  The war on terror thus epitomizes the transition from centralized, established states to decentralized groups of individuals and abstract concepts that we go to war with.

Consider these ideas in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is - if one believes the administrations claims - intended to make us more secure and combat the international terrorism residing at some level in Afghanistan. Afghanistan never really qualified as a rogue state because while the Taliban are certainly rogue they don't constitute a state in any meaningful way. I find it interesting that I actually believe there is some legitimate justification on humanitarian grounds to genuine nation building and picking up this failed state in Afghanistan yet the security and terrorism association dominates the discourse despite it being a far more tenuous claim. The Taliban, terrible though some of them may be, have little interest in international terrorism and the danger lies in the association of harboring al Qaeda and other groups. To be fair, the US predator  drone strikes into Pakistan do largely target Arabs opposed to Pashtuns as the al Qaeda threat is considered to dominate the Taliban threat. In a specific instance of the war on terrorism like in Afghanistan, the abstract concept is of course replaced by actual people fighting and dying. Perhaps it isn't fair to even call it abstract. However, the decentralized, individualized and somewhat subjective nature of the belligerents still remain very true. Precisely who is and who is not a belligerent or a victim remains unclear even to those with a clear advocacy position.

On the other hand, Iraq is on the surface a classic example of the middle step in the spectrum: rogue states. Certainly Saddam was openly defiant and unwilling to go along with western will. Likewise the country presents little ability to resist or strike back and hurt the US outside of a protracted insurgency. Now both the other more abstract justifications of humanitarian war and war in terror applied to Iraq. Indeed, Bush infamously referred to Iraq as a member of a supposed axis of evil (what relation he saw between the rather violently opposed Iran and Iraq, much less North Korea I have no idea). Of course, humanitarian justifications ring rather hollow given US complicity in the Iran-Iraq war, lack of action during the gulf war and the horrors of the imposed sanctions during the 90s. Safe it so say, a new found sense of empathy or new humanitarian horrors were not in the justification in 2003. The terrorism claims were another order of magnitude more spurious, as was evidently apparent and that recent documents confirm. Iran is shaping up to be very similar. It is consistently cast as rogue status, particularly on the nuclear issue, with a veil of humanitarian and terrorism concerns overlaid. With sanctions ramping up (although currently only for show, effectively) a similar path to war with Iran is not unimaginable.

The war on drugs remains at the epitome of a war against a decentralized, amorphous and abstract collection of individuals. It spreads into many countries on two continents and uses far more direct military, CIA and diplomatic interventions than commonly understood in the west. The war on drugs also exists not just internationally in Mexico and South America but considerably domestically as well which speaks to the decentralized nature of it.

With caution I note that the "war on Islam" is the most abstract and decentralized of them all. I say caution because saying their is a war on Islam is not an entirely fair claim - certainly it hasn't been claimed officially. Nonetheless, the level of wars in Islamic countries, the level of intolerance towards Muslims and the reciprocal nature where some Muslims perceive their to be a war on them and indeed fight back against that perception, all are indications towards this general sentiment. To the limited extent that it is true, this remains an example of the decentralized, abstract belligerents of today's wars.

A corollary of this shift in belligerents is a shift in victory conditions. In the world wars, it was a very clear zero sum game as to who the winner was and how winning was to be achieved. As we move towards the present and the belligerents became more abstract, so to do the victory conditions. A war in terror, drugs or for humanitarian reasons is never absolutely won the way the allies won ww2. The idea of winning doesn't even apply, one merely hopes to make marginal improvements suppressing  terror or drugs as much as possible. In Afghanistan, for example, a clear victory condition does not exist in the public discourse.

The result of this discussion is the idea of this dominant theme in how wars have shifted in focus since ww2. The days of fighting powerful states seems temporarily over and has been replaced with wars against increasingly vague and loose nonstate concepts. Our current wars from terror or Afghanistan to the war in drugs are all examples of decentralized wars on abstract concepts.

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