And the War Drags On: Hot Zones, Cold Logic, and the Challenge of Peace

09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the anniversaries of Woodstock (40 years) and the Geneva Convention (60 years) at hand, we are reminded of the pernicious nature of warfare and the generational duty to ameliorate (if not eliminate) it as much as we are able. The contexts in which these landmark events transpired both were obviously inspired by the ravages of war, one often thought of as a "good war" (World War II) and the other popularly understood as a "bad war" with tragic consequences (Vietnam). Despite the gains reflected in and prompted by the legal and cultural shifts of these seminal peace-oriented landmarks, today we are still embroiled in military conflicts that appear long-term and intractable. How can it be that even now, after all these years of blood, sweat, and tears, we find ourselves enmeshed again in an innately losing proposition that generations before us have attempted to end?

Some of this may be due to our own tendency to see things more in small pieces than as a whole. It is quite tempting to think of any particular conflict as having a discernible beginning and end, rather than seeing each one as part of a long, unitary, ongoing conflict that has persisted for centuries. Indeed, most wars are sold this way, including the Iraq War, which supposedly started with the inception of 'Shock and Awe' and recently reached a semblance of 'closure' upon turning military operations over to the Iraqis. Still, whether the U.S. remains an active participant is largely beside the point, although we surely will on numerous levels ranging from economics and arms to ideology and politics at the very least. The primary issue is that the conflict itself will continue regardless, and its effects will linger indefinitely, rendering it yet another war without end.

This is in fact the pattern that has emerged in the industrial epoch, due in part to the technologies of warfare and also to the complexities of geopolitics. Simply put, in these times wars do not end, they are never truly won, and their illogic permeates the field. This is part of the reality of warfare that is often omitted from the public dialogue about what has transpired and what ought to be done next. As we shift our focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and eventually from Afghanistan to the next resource-rich or strategically-critical front, we would do well to consider some of the lessons from modern era of war.

Hot zones stay hot: Upon cessation of open hostilities it seems that we can safely pronounce a war "over," sometimes doing so with pomp and circumstance in the process. But the fighting often lingers well beyond the ostensible victor's participation, resulting in internecine conflict as competing factions jostle for power in the newly-spawned power vacuum left behind in the wake of war. This may rise to the level of full-on civil war and take the form of low- to medium-intensity infighting that can last for decades and beyond. Iraq seems to be on course for precisely this sort of outcome. Another frequent result is the interposition of a "strong man" regime in the wake of war, leading to a redoubling of oppressive forces and the creation of new adversaries that will generate more wars. For how many years have we had troops stationed in or around Korea? Even across the "demilitarized zone" and a half century of detente there still lay tensions that seem likely to yield another hot war in the near future.

Planting seeds: Indeed, it might be said that every war plants the seeds for the next one. The Soviet forays into Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the rise of the "strong man" Taliban, and provided the training and impetus for what would become al Qaeda and thus help to usher in the post-9/11 era of perpetual warfare. Many of the nations of Latin America followed this pattern after U.S. military interventions, and in places like Panama there has been open warfare on more than one occasion just as we have seen in Iraq. World War I decimated Germany and produced the necessary conditions for Hitler to rise to power and foment World War II. While the latter is often cited as a good war, its aftermath contributed to the antipathies that would become the Cold War and all of the concomitant hot proxy wars that ensued in the coming decades. And the 'postwar' logic of WWII was also responsible for the rising tide of nuclear proliferation that leaves us on the doorstep of potential annihilation every time a conflict erupts anywhere on the planet.

Toxic legacies: Related to the nuclear problem is the ongoing toxification of war-torn regions. Deforestation, loss of arable lands, decimation of wildlife, cancer clusters, birth defects, and depleted water tables are among the frequent results of war that last for generations. Vietnam lost nearly 75% of its forests during the war, and up to a third of the country remains wasteland. The first Gulf War spilled more oil than the Exxon Valdez into fragile local waterways, leading to human contamination as well as the wholesale destruction of marine life. In the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, there was significant deforestation, massive environmental degradation, and a lingering toxic soup of mercury, dioxin, and depleted uranium in the aftermath. The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has yielded deforestation causing polluted lakes and the loss of precious water resources, as well as numerous endangered species being pushed to the verge of extinction. And the Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006 resulted in nearly one third of the Lebanese coastline slicked with oil, the loss of endangered turtles and the entire marine life of the region impacted, and Israel's Mt. Naftali Forest (planted 50 years ago) being decimated by Hezbollah rockets. These are but a few recent examples, and we would need to also include the worldwide effects of landmines and unexploded ordnance for a complete picture of the lasting toxicity and indefinite destructiveness of warfare.

The military mindset: From how many of these sorts of calamities will new conflicts spring? People left with shortages of food and water -- not to mention the mental anguish of disease and despair -- are highly likely to engage in actions reflecting their immiseration and hopelessness. Suicide bombers are born of these ashes, as are dictators and torturers and their conscripts. It has been said that generals will still "fight the last war" even as they prepare for the next, and there may well be a logic in this that reflects the fact that the last war never really ended. Focusing upon strategic targets and lines on maps doesn't tell the story of a war any more than examining rates of home ownership tells us about the health of an economy. There is an underlying mindset that needs to be understood, a martial culture premised upon the threat and/or use of superior force. The military view prioritizes result over process and ends over means, and abstracts peoples and places into targets and territories. Even soldiers on the side of "good" are dehumanized and denied basic rights as they are conscripted to fight ostensibly for "freedom." Individuals, communities, values, cultures, and bioregions are all expendable for the greater good of winning the war. How else do we explain the pervasive mentality reflected in the notion that "we had to destroy the village in order to save it" and the obvious point that we have been at war almost continuously for over two centuries?

Tortured logic: This is the trap of warfare and the use of force to resolve conflicts. Even if it could somehow succeed on the surface in a given locale -- historically a dubious proposition, at best -- what is left behind in addition to the hardware of despoliation is the cold logic that led us to the brink in the first instance. People who are defeated at the point of a sword learn that swords are what is needed to get things done, and often will eventually turn their swords on either their initial adversary or a convenient proxy. Sometimes this results in horrible and perverse outcomes such as in Rwanda and Bosnia. Other times it turns into the recruitment and cultivation of terrorists on one side and military conscripts on the other. The intrinsic ethos operating here is that force is the key to getting one's point across and having power in this world. The irony is that even where warfare can be said to have worked successfully, all it has really done is validate this basic premise that war is what one does to be successful; indeed, it might be said that war is essentially lost as soon as it is begun. The logic of warfare is thus inherently tortured, empirically untenable, and ultimately self-defeating. Our task is to resist it.

Fight war, not wars: An old song by Crass takes up precisely this refrain, and it is a tempting one at that, turning the military mindset onto its head and letting it consume itself in the process. Still, the notion of fighting in and of itself should be considered part of the problem and thus abandoned as much as humanly possible. Consider the ill effects of the "war on drugs" and the "war on poverty" -- in such instances the mindset of war as a path to positive results goes terribly awry, leading to a war on people of color and poor people in the process. You may have seen the bumper sticker that says "Fighting for Peace is Like Fuc*ing for Virginity" as an expression of the illogic of warfare. The question is what are we to do about it? Where is that other formulation that can resist the destructive logic of the "realists" and their penchant for force as the dominant mode of conflict resolution? This will be the central challenge of our era, as we strive to come to grips with a planet ravaged by two centuries of war and the creation of innumerable hot zones in the process. If we dare to double down in the belief that more war will solve the problem, we will likely find ourselves on a path toward extinction. On the other hand, if we can see the current topography of devastation as an object lesson in what NOT to do, then perhaps this can be a turning point in human history toward more creative processes. In the end, we have plainly exhausted the military model by this juncture, and have given the lie to the fatally-flawed notion that war can ever be expected to bring peace.

In this light, as Gandhi once said:

"I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.... Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."

Humankind is far too advanced by now to keep playing out the inherently defeatist drama that is warfare. All that remains is to break the cycle and deploy our imaginations rather than more armaments. Again Gandhi, reminding us of the untapped potential for peace:

"We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence."

Manifesting these new discoveries and making the impossible possible is our generational crucible, and it will yield either our demise or triumph in days ahead.