I attended two events this week that ostensibly dealt with the same topic: war. On Monday, I attended New America’s Future of War Conference in Washington DC. On Wednesday, I joined the War Stories Peace Stories symposium in New York City. Given the belligerent rhetoric blaring from the White House, these were timely symposia.
The former primarily focused on military policy, strategy, and technology offering a macro-perspective for defense intellectuals and policy-makers on the future of conflict; the latter emphasized the human dimension of war by highlighting the moral and physical destruction it inevitably causes.
Or to paint a simpler mental picture: The Future of War conference focused on the artillery gun and all it takes to deploy, maintain and fire it; the War Stories Peace Stories symposium concentrated on the explosion of the artillery round and its short and long-term effects on human life and the environment.
In that sense, the two meetings were complementary. However, an alien descending from outer space to attend both events in order to understand human warfare would probably not realize that they both dealt with the same subject given the absence of key elements in both gatherings.
In New York, I do not think I heard anyone explicitly mention military strategy, tactics, or a specific piece of hardware. In Washington DC, I did not hear much discussion about the actual effects of new weapons systems on humans and the environment. (A panel on North Korea did shed some light on the lethal consequences of war on the Korean Peninsula though.)
This divergence is perhaps best understood when using Clausewitz’s distinction between the character and nature of war. The DC conference principally focused on the changing character of warfare, i.e., how wars are going to be fought. The New York symposium emphasized the constant nature of war including its allure, but, more importantly, its destructive power and the terrible carnage it causes to mind and body and society overall.
Musing over the changing character of warfare invites to abstraction, and perhaps a slight disregard for the ultimate aim of every new weapons system and new tactical innovation: the death of a human being. (The amorality of unconsciously dismissing the bloody consequences of military innovation is perfectly captured in Jack Ryan’s facial expression in response to the callous comment “That’s a kill” of a coffee-sipping CIA bureaucrat when the two are observing a special operation forces raid in the movie Patriot Games.)
At the same time, highlighting the constant nature of war can rob humans of their agency and invite a certain passivity where war is tantamount to a natural disaster rather than a political event and where everyone by virtue of the calamitous and unnamable forces of war ultimately is classified a victim. This can have the pernicious effect of whitewashing any action, no matter the “legality,” in war. It inevitably also leads to a neglect of the means (policies, strategies, military tactics etc.) that cause the ends (death, destruction, violence etc.).
Sebastian Junger, a well-known war correspondent, speaking at the War Stories Peace Stories symposium poignantly tied the character and nature of war and warfare together in my mind when he noted the profound sadness he experienced following the realization that for the most part of his professional career he made his living on the death of other people.
While a stern realization I believe it to be applicable to anyone involved in formulating military strategy, tactics and designing weapons systems, or who is engaged in war as a soldier or reporter, or even an NGO worker: Everyone directly or vicariously makes a living off death or the threat of death. In spite of this, surely, NGO workers are trying to alleviate the suffering of people in war zones, reporters vie to highlight the injustices and horrors of war, and defense intellectuals devise better strategies and tactics to ultimately deter an adversary from attacking.
Yet, there always remains the danger that we can tragically become what we loathe (remember Michael Corleone?) Take, for example, the concept of deterrence and its advocates: there is a thin line between threatening to kill — whether to keep the peace or to simply coerce an opponent — and actual killing. While it can prevent conflict, it also has the potential to accelerate war. At the end, anyone working in the business needs to get a firm grasp of both the character of modern warfare and the nature of war. That’s my key takeaway from attending two conferences on the subject of military conflict this week.