The underlying issue with the U.S. Army's lack of success in resolving ongoing intra-state conflicts
by Patrick James Christian, PhD
Applied warfare, like all other forms of human social endeavor, was once the preserve of governments and kings who monopolized domestic violence through demonstrated capacity to achieve genocidal response to armed minority protest. For significant and very complex reasons, the capacity or even the threat of genocide is no longer an available method for controlling populations that are unwilling to voluntarily submit. Even as global integrations of dense networks of technology and economics precludes most totalized state-on-state warfare, those same restraints have created new access to applied warfare by disaffected population groups. In the past quarter century, the senior beneficiaries of our global system of trade, finance, and technology have found themselves far more engaged by wars among communities than they have by wars among nations. Unfortunately, our international structures of diplomatic missions, our armed forces, and our respective military industrial bases have not changed to reflect this new reality. Once again, we are fighting today and tomorrows battles with yesterday's weapons.
Wars among nations. For the better part of the past quarter century, the type of war that has drawn the developed nations of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the America’s into deploying their armed forces has been characterized as Intra-State conflicts. Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of the wars fought by these developed nations involved Inter-State war. According to 18th Century Prussian General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, interstate war involves two or more sovereign states continuing a political dialogue through ‘the addition of other means’; namely the application of physical force that we call war. Interstate war usually has a beginning and an end; winners and losers who are able to calculate their ability to take losses against expected gains.
We can think of interstate war as ‘negotiation’ between two sides, involving dialogue and violence that creates suffering as sacrifice for national objectives of the governing majority or elite. Interstate warfare armies practice negotiation on battlefields punctuated by armor, artillery, and close air support from fighter jets and attack helicopter gunships. Physical terrain and the forced surrender by military and political leadership is the only objective. Civilian casualties are called collateral damage and are given tertiary consideration during the formation of battle plans. Each side’s military force is in effect, negotiating with the other side using applications of calculated violence on each other’s territory and defensive structures. Capitulation or negotiated truces occur when political calculations correlate with demonstrated, proven military capabilities. What is central to this introductory paragraph is that interstate war is organized violence by interested parties in dispute that is intentionally conducted for real or perceived objectives thought to be important enough for the accompanying suffering as sacrifice.
Wars among communities. Where interstate war is conducted to achieve the objectives of an organized state based on rational self-interest, intra-state war is not so simple especially for the unprepared national interventionist. When interstate armies fight intra-state conflicts, bad things happen. Think of the USSR intervention in Afghanistan; Egypt’s intervention in Yemen; France’s intervention in West Africa; the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and now Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. These few examples are replete with failure and massive losses of national blood and treasure; all without materially resolving the underlying conflict.
From the perspective of developed nations who are used to dealing with interstate conflict, intra-state conflict requires an intervention into the affairs of others whose inability to resolve their violence threatens regional or even global stability. Stability is threatened by the vast displacement of non-combatant civilians onto the territorial shores of uninvolved nations; through the ideological radicalization of population segments of uninvolved nations; through the proliferation of weapons and violence into and out from the intra-state conflict zone and into the hands and minds of uninvolved neighboring populations. Several important differences characterize intra-state violence from interstate war, most notably underlying drivers of the conflict and inhibitors of resolution.
While the political state in which the conflict is occurring may or may not be party to the conflict, the state is unable to resolve the conflict and halt the violence at the expense of its deteriorating legitimacy. This is why states with seemingly intractable conflicts are described as failed or failing states.Whereas interstate conflicts are usually fought over terrain or access to shared common pool resources, in intra-state conflicts, the underlying causes often do not involve recognizable utilitarian objectives.Intra-state conflicts often have inhibitors to resolution that would-be interventionists are unable to easily perceive such as social traumatizing conditions, disintegrating social structures, and devolving psychological organization of large group identity.
From negotiated warfare to mediated intervention: the changing face of intra-state conflict resolution. The focus of nation state war has always been about national self-preservation from immediate threat of physical attack against its national boundaries. Violent conflicts in distant lands have only in the past half century or so, become strategically important issues for developed and developing nation states. Some of the reasons for this include:
The growth of ethnic minorities living in diaspora and the rise of multi-ethnic societies whose psychological identities extended back to homeland countries.
The growth of audio and visual communication capacity to the lowest levels of social organization (everyone has a video cellphone to capture the atrocities of their ethnic or cultural kin).
The growth of trade, travel, and transportation systems that span continents and the oceans in between. National economies have become dependent on these new systems for continued growth and prosperity. Intra-state conflicts interfere with the emerging international market states, raising the relative importance of distant conflicts to the level of national strategic importance. As we have seen from the civil conflicts in Syria, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq, intrastate conflict creates massive movements of human populations that threaten massive social, ethnic, cultural identity changes to existing populations.
Combining these reasons above together, intra-state conflicts, even in distant lands, can threaten agreements to govern between the many identity groups contained within the modern state. Faced with disintegration of their own national identity due to these global changes, nation states have begun intervening in other state’s domestic internal conflicts simply to protect themselves from the economic, environmental, and psychosocial fall out that registers on the shared physical and human terrain. This essay asserts that the types of interventionist deployments that will challenge the armed forces and diplomatic missions of most developed countries throughout the coming decades will continue to be intra-state conflicts rather than interstate warfare.
The shift in violent conflict resolution: from negotiated warfare to mediated intervention. The battlefields of intra-state conflicts are quite different from those of interstate warfare of generations past. In the latter, the focus was always on the armed battle formations of the enemy other. Damaged, violated civilian populations existed, but the need for participating armed forces to survive the terror of high intensity warfare tends to marginalize their ability and or willingness to internalize the plight of unarmed civilians, especially those populations of the enemy other. Civilian casualties do often occur in interstate warfare as collateral damage, but what is different in intra-state conflict is the ‘intentionality’ of the casualties and in some cases, the care to which one side or the other took to ensure that maximum suffering occurred amongst their enemy other.
The battles of interstate wars are fought over strategic passages through mountains and across rivers or over control of port and airhead facilities. Wide open spaces become vast avenues of approach for massed force that threatens loss of territorial control to defenders while rocky impassable lands become natural defensive lines. In intra-state conflict, the contested terrain consists of the human populations, together with their sustaining sources of food, water, and shelter. In the Darfur conflict, for instance, intra-state conflict focused on the human terrain taking the form of children chained to a wooden stump, their clothes doused with benzene and set afire, leaving only skeletal remains still bound by dull steel handcuffs. In the Rwanda conflict, piles of carefully gathered skulls mark sites of killing frenzies; in the Balkans, disemboweled pregnancies and mutilated children evidenced massive intentional civilian casualties that provided interventionists with little clue to the underlying structures of logic and emotion that drove the obscene violence. Where the interstate war battlefield smells of cordite, gunpowder, gasoline, diesel, and cement dust, the intra-state conflict zones smells of decayed flesh and the broken remains of village, town, and family home.
The intensity of the violence against human terrain in intra-state conflict is driven by forces far more complex than negotiable percentages of common pool resources or adjustments to national borders or strategic passes. Often, these forces involve the perceived need for the extinction of the enemy other; a belief that one side’s existential identity must die so that the other may live. We see such totalizing visualizations of the conflict in ethnic cleansing and cultural wars of annihilation. In such conflicts, what is being protected is not merely life itself; but the survival of the psychosocial self-love across boundaries of death and metaphysical salvation.
This is why armed forces practice of interstate warfare fails to resolve intra-state conflict; the participants to ethnic and cultural conflict often cannot negotiate that which they are not able to surrender; identification of self as it is known through historical narrative and existential memorialization to future generations. The intra-state conflict participants fight each other as politicized proxies against the physical fear of psychic annihilation. In this case, psychic annihilation is a condition where an entire group identity and the historical narrative that describes it, extolls it, nurtures it, remembers it, and transmits it across time and space becomes unstable and collapses into broad social trauma. Such conflicts can never be negotiated because one cannot negotiate away identity and memory. But there are knowledge and capacity tools that military, diplomats and defense industrial bases can build and field that will lessen the costs in blood and treasure to resolve violent intra-state conflicts.