You Can’t Take the Risk Out of War by Craig Carter Edwards – September 29, 2012

“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

          Ned Stark, Game of Thrones


CFN – Unmanned, remotely operated drones are the new craze in military toys.  They are excellent for both intelligence gathering and combat; they also remove any direct human risk for their operators.  Unlike the bomber planes used in World War II, drone pilots never have to put themselves in the line of fire.  In fact, they can operate their drones from computers a continent away, moving their weapon-system avatars around like characters in a video game.

I like video games. My son and I will occasionally play the WII Lego games where you get to run around exotic digital landscapes gathering clues to solve puzzles and killing bad guys. There’s something inherently appealing about smashing neutral environments and getting points for doing so.  It’s funny watching how these games shape my boy’s imaginary play, too – when he makes up adventures with his toys, he now tells me how many “hearts” his different characters have.

I also like swords. This I blame on my own youthful influences, including the Star Wars merchandising phenomenon and an ongoing fascination with historical knights and samurai. My boy has picked up this interest in all things involving pointy weapons; he’ll run around the yard waving sticks and describing in detail the epic battles he’s fighting.

One of our “fitness” WII games is a sword-fight simulator that let’s us combine these passions.  Players use their controllers as swords and wave them at the screen, trying to knock the other player down. It’s all fun and games with no chance of anyone losing an eye. Except for the bad guys, but then they aren’t real people anyway.

Of course, in real one-on-one combat, there’s a definite risk for competitors of losing more than just an eye.  Unlike Hollywood depictions, true sword-fights don’t last very long, nor are they glamorous. When you’re staring down the sharp edge of a blade, your sole objective becomes cutting or killing your opponent before they do the same to you.  Duelists can’t afford to waste an ounce of energy on looking cool or verbalizing a lot of clashing sounds. Not when their life is on the line.

In this way, swordplay is like any martial art; there is an immediacy and intimacy to every move and countermove.  This reality encourages the development of discipline, vigilance and an understanding of consequence.  The first time my son and I squared off with toy swords, he was focused on the show; wild swings and dramatic sound effects.  He told me to stand still so that he could hit me, like in a game or a movie.  The moment he moved, I got my own blade (foam, so don’t call CAS quite yet) in and caught him on the arm.  “You hit me!” said he in shocked surprise.  Yup!  That’s the way combat works.  His takeaway was that if you’re going to fight, you have to accept the risk of getting hit.

War isn’t a game, video or otherwise. When a person gets shot, stabbed or blown up, it’s not “hearts” they risk losing – it’s their limbs, lives and ongoing quality of life.  Winning is no tonic against injury, either; soldiers who come home still bear the physical and psychological scars of combat.  If the war happens on a soldier’s home turf, there’s every risk that they won’t have a physical home to return to, either.  I will never forget walking around a bombed-out downtown Sarajevo still littered in rubble and “beware of landmines” signs in 2001, six years after the Bosnian War was supposed to be over.  The spoils may go to the victor, but when the spoils are in ruins, what has really been won?  

This is why military strategists from Sun-tzu on keep developing new ways to mitigate personnel and infrastructure risks at the same time as increasing chances of meaningful victory.  The evolution of warfare has seen the development of increasingly complex offensive and defensive technology and tactics, but it has also included the nurturing of warrior codes of conduct like bushidochivalry or the Geneva conventions.  At its core, diplomacy is really a military strategy designed to mitigate the risk of destructive combat and avoid losses on both sides.

Of course, we wouldn’t fight in the first place if there weren’t rewards to be had.  Land and resources are of definitive value to expanding populations, which is why so many wars are fought over them.  A balance of power might encourage a military code of conduct, but when the balance shifts, we can always find wiggle room.  Hawaiian Chief Kamehameha seized on the arrival of European weapons and tactics as an opportunity to tip the balance in his favour and conquer all the Hawaiian islands; Spanish conquistadors might have honestly thought they were doing God’s work in bringing Christianity to native heathens, but this noble quest didn’t stop them from slaughtering innocents and stealing their land and gold.   

The invasion of the New World provides a great example of how this process works.  European powers wanted to shift the balance of power in their favour; the Americas presented the opportunity for more land and resources to accomplish this.  Soldiers of fortune like Cortes and Pizarro could gain fortune and glory without any risk to their home turf.  With superior weapons, tactics and confabulated justifications, these conquerors were able to skirt their own ethics and rape, pillage and murder Native Americans with impunity.

Now, here’s the other side of that equation – people have a bad habit of not knowing when they’ve been conquered.  Realizing they couldn’t win a direct conflict with Spain, the Inca did what resistance fighters have always done – they changed the rules and took to the hills to wage a no-holds-barred guerilla campaign.  It’s no small irony that the Spanish cried foul when two of their diplomats were killed by Inca troops; as always, the rules only seem to apply when they work in an aggressor’s favour.  Of course, there has never been a balance of power in South America; despite the occasional uprising the descendants of the Inca remain a conquered people.

Of course, the Americas’ indigenous empires never had a chance; the odds of success against European guns, germs and steel were impossibly stacked against them.  Europeans themselves weren’t quite so badly handicapped when Moorish armies were using canons in their conquest of Iberia.  They used indirect military tactics to gain access to canon technology themselves and equal the playing field.  Looked at through the lens of history, Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons is simply a continuation of the Red Queen-like global arms race.

The progression of defensive and offensive technological development isn’t the only trend that has influenced military combat.  The evolution of communications technology has facilitated coordinated, large-scale warfare as well.  As it has become easier for generals to get situation reports in shorter time frames and from broader theatres of war, they have been able to create more all-encompassing strategies and run larger, more complex operations. 

As a sidebar, these generals and commanders-in-chief have been able to put greater distance between themselves and combat zones.  After all, it takes a bit of distance if you want to gauge the whole picture.  The further you are from harm, however, the less immediate becomes the risk of consequence.  What happens when the orchestrators of war throw new weapons onto the battlefield without having their own skin bared in the game?  World War I provides a good example.

The two World Wars were also accompanied by a terrible loss of civilian life and the devastation of social infrastructure, best exemplified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The Holocaust was equally revolting, taking the brutality leveled against Native Americans by European powers to new levels of systematic atrocity.  It was the Nazis’ attempted genocide of Jews that finally saw the establishment of the state of Israel, which brings us to a third major cause of warfare – security.

Israel has every right to fear attack by foreign parties.  There are thousands of years of precedent for violent anti-Semitism and regular expressions of hatred from their neighbours.  Israelis tend to pay a lot more attention to the news and foreign affairs than, say, the average Canadian or American, because they are constantly in the line of fire.  We, on the other hand, have no concept of what it’s like to live onstage in the theatre of war; we’re always the spectator, never the player.

Iran, for its part, has plenty of historical precedent for wanting to have nukes of their own.  They are also surrounded by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of hostile powers.  The people of Iran have access to the internet – whether they agree with every policy decision of Ahmadinejad or not, they can see the number of foreign headlines that present their nation as a global evil that needs to be stamped out.  Given the threat of conflict landing on your shores, you’d probably also feel safer knowing you had a big stick to fend off aggressors with.

Naturally, the US wants to defend itself and its interests, too.  9/11 was a real wake-up call to a nation unaccustomed to war on their own soil; it was the first time in a long time they could see the pointy end of their enemy’s sword up close and personal.  The War on Terror started by George W. and continued by Barrack Obama is the American response to this threat.  Although they took time, the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have reinforced the message that in warfare, try as you might to avoid consequence, you eventually reap what you sow.

While the War on Terror has arguably had some success – there have, after all, been no successful attacks on North American soil since 2001 – it has still cost us a high price.  Both Canada and the US have lost troops in Afghanistan.  We have engaged in practices that bend our own proclaimed morality to the breaking point. Governments can have a hard time justifying the death of soldiers to populaces not directly touched by the horrors of war, but they equally have a responsibility to safeguard their people.  It’s the age-old challenge of risk reduction – how do you maximize offensive capacity and defensive capability, ideally through keeping conflict at a distance?

Which brings us back to the drones, that marvelous military invention that takes this stepping-back process to new distances.  Now, not only can generals orchestrate war from the comforts of home, but soldiers can fight them without having to leave the office, either.  In addition to reducing risk to domestic assets and human resources, this innovation of war does something else – it removes any direct risk from the operators controlling them.  There’s no tangible consequence of any kind; just like a videogame, you can kill the bad guys, smash exotic environments and then go grab a Timmy’s when you’re done.

Without personal risk, there’s no reason to develop shared rules of combat.  When you don’t need to focus every ounce of attention to defending yourself or your family against an enemy, there’s no incentive to employ precision strikes.  That’s on your end of the game.  In the places where drones are dropping bombs, however, the consequences of war are still very real.  The people being hit aren’t just militants, but civilians in the wrong place – their home – all the time.  Were you in the shoes of these non-combatants, who would you label as the bad guy?

The Geneva Conventions are designed with state actors in mind and are built around a simple notion; that in war, when one nation loses, they admit defeat and the war is over.  Al-Qaeda is a non-state actor engaged in a no-fail mission to remake the world in their image.  They have no nation to be beaten and, as such, can plop themselves down anywhere, even among non-combatants.  Every strike made by their opponents against innocents plays into their objective. 

In using old-school military rules but employing modern military weapons, national actors like the US are causing unnecessary deaths and inciting their opponents to use increasingly unconventional tactics to try and regain the security that comes from a balance of power.  We’ve seen suicide bombers, anthrax mailings, planes flown into buildings and cyber-attacks.  When one opponent already bears all the risk, there’s no limit to the horrendously unorthodox tactics they can develop to even the playing field. 

Which is a big part of the reason why I prefer swords; it’s much harder to get lost in the Fog of War when you are personally staring down the sharp edge of combat.

Craig Carter Edwards

Born and raised in Cornwall, Craig has lived in or travelled to nearly 30 countries and currently resides in North York with his wife and son.  A political veteran, Craig brings a wealth of government, private and not-for-profit sectors experience to his current role as strategy consultant for the social entrepreneurship sector.

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  1. the idea is to draw in readers in the first 30 or so words. this is boring

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