In short order, the United States may go to war against Syria in order to send a message about the use of chemical munitions. I’ve written many times in this space about the difficulty of sending clear messages in international relations; there are always concerns about how to read notes delivered by artillery and cruise missile. I recently finished Stuart Goldman’s book on the Nomonhan incident, the decisive battle in the undeclared war between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1939. While the two incidents differ enormously in context and scope, there are some important parallels with regard to how states use military action to communicate. I’ve broken these parallels down into five questions:
1.Who are we talking to?
In response to encroachments on both the eastern and western borders of Manchukuo, the Red Army sent what it believed were clear messages to the Japanese to back off. Unfortunately, the Soviets were speaking to at least three distinct actors; the Kwantung Army, the Japanese Army General Staff, and the government in Tokyo. These actors each had different preferences regarding border incidents, and interpreted Soviet signals in context of those preferences.
2.What message are we trying to send?
Especially given the complexity of events in Europe, the Red Army and the Soviet government wanted to indicate both that border encroachments wouldn’t be tolerated, and that no wider war was desired. This left a relatively narrow band for military action; too much would risk full-scale war, while too little could result in further Japanese aggression.
3.What are they likely to hear?
The Red Army attempted to demonstrate the seriousness of its demeanor through a major military buildup along the Mongolia-Manchukuo border. Unfortunately, the Kwantung Army was almost completely oblivious to the buildup, and likely wouldn’t have passed along the intelligence to Tokyo anyway.
4.Who are they talking to?
The Kwantung Army surely wanted to send a message to Russia, but it also wanted to send messages to Britain, China, and the Japanese government. Carrying out what it believed would be a successful, surprise military operation along the border would win more freedom for the organization, while cowing critics in Tokyo and giving the Red Army a bloody nose.
5.What did the last message from the other side mean?
The Russians were uncertain of the political intent of Japan’s military moves. Indeed, Japanese intelligence was so bad that Tokyo* mistook major offensive preparations for a retreat in progress. Confusing these movements led the Japanese to radically incorrect conclusions about the likely Soviet capabilities. Also, the Kwantung Army had only a limited sense of the demands of modern mechanized war. This made the Japanese look even more reckless than they actually were.
There is no direct comparison between Nomonhan and Syria today, except insofar as many of the same questions about intention, intelligence, resolve, and capability hold. I don’t know what policymakers in Washington, Paris, and London know, but they should be asking themselves the same questions that are evoked above: Are we talking to the Assad government, to the Syrian Army, to the rebels, or to the next government that thinks about using chemical weapons? How are all of these audiences likely to interpret the delivery of several dozen cruise missiles? Is the “enemy” speaking with one voice, or are we only hearing one faction? Are they talking to us, or someone else? What effect did they expect the chemical weapon attack to have, both in military and diplomatic terms?
It’s a struggle to answer these questions; indeed, some are so complex that they are effectively beyond our reach. Nevertheless, if the point of military action is to send a message, we owe it both to ourselves and to the recipients to sort through who will hear that message, and how they’ll understand it.
*Changed from "Moscow." Thanks to Stuart D. Goldman for pointing out the error.