Proteus Shackled: The Future of War

By Lieutenant Colonel Russell W. Glenn, U.S. Army

With the passing of the Cold War, a return to world war seems increasingly unlikely, but the transformations continue. War remains fettered but unsubdued. In what form will Proteus's violent mimic next appear?

The nature of conflict between the world's major powers has changed since 1945. The forces of the United States and the Soviet Union never met on a battlefield in more than 44 years of cold war; war was fought instead through surrogate military forces. Each nation employed such proxies in the service of its national policy. The proxies also served as buffers between the superpowers, reducing the chance of inadvertent direct military confrontation and "allowing Russians and Americans to pursue their competition behind a facade of 'deniability' that minimize[d] the risks of open—and presumably less manageable—confrontation." 2

War avoidance required a related modification of major power attitudes regarding crises. Political scientists use three categories:

  • Brinksmanship crises are those in which "the initiator's expectation [is] that his adversary will back down rather than fight."
  • Justification of hostility crises "are unique in that leaders of the initiating nation make a decision for war before the crisis commences. The purpose of the crisis is not to force an accommodation but to provide a casus belli for war."
  • Spinoff crises are "secondary confrontations arising from a nation's preparations for or prosecution of a primary conflict. They are outgrowths of wars in which the initiator is or expects to be a participant." 3

Superpower actions during the several post-World War II brinksmanship crises—such as Cuba in 1962 and Berlin both in 1948 and in 1961—reflected their recognition that crises between major powers had to be handled somewhat differently. No nation seeking to avoid war seeks crisis to justify hostility. There also is evidence reflecting decreased incidence of spinoff crises on the part of major nations; use of surrogates diminished in the latter portion of the Cold War. Perhaps this evolved as major powers began to realize that potential spinoff consequences included direct superpower confrontation. Actions taken by the United States and Soviet Union to terminate the 1973 fighting between Arabs and Israelis illustrate this point.

Recent history, then, supports hopes for the demise of war between major powers. Such a trend is cause for celebration, but recent events generate less optimism regarding wars between Second and Third World powers, 4 wars involving major powers on one side against these nations, or civil wars. The superpowers may have shackled one aspect of war, but it will continue to change character, driven by the inventive mind of man.

What causes some nations to continue the unabated use of armed conflict as a policy tool, while others appear to understand its limitations? John Gaddis concludes that ideology has been a prominent element in post-1945 events in such nations as China, Cuba, and Nicaragua. He cites religious antipathies such as those between Hindus and Muslims, Arabs and Israelis, and Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland as further evidence that the power of ideas will continue to be a major influence in disrupting world stability. Gaddis goes on to note that the Cold War did not result in superpower war because the United States and the Soviet Union both suppressed ideological interests to preserve international stability. He finds especially notable the Soviet leaders' conclusion that war was no longer an effective means of advancing the cause of revolution. 5

The U.S. Army differs with Gaddis, concluding that nationalism will be the primary cause of wars both between and within nations in the early 21st century. However, Army analysts also recognize that nationalism and ideology both are likely to play significant roles; they go on to identify three threats as inherent in future ideological and nationalist conflicts:

  • Subnational threats include the political, racial, religious, cultural, and ethnic conflicts that challenge the defining features and authority of the nation-state from within.
  • Anational threats operate without regard to the authority of their nation-states. Not part of the nation-states, these entities have no desire to establish such a status. Regional organized crime, piracy, and terrorist activities are examples of such threats.
  • Metanational threats move beyond the nation-state, operating on an interregional or global scale. They include religious movements, international criminal organizations, and informal economic organizations that facilitate weapons proliferation. 6

Whatever the interplay between idealism and nationalism, the next 20 years will be anything but peaceful. It is notable, however, that Second and Third World adversaries thought to possess nuclear weapons—such as India and Pakistan—have shown mutual constraint in their recent armed disagreements, to keep them below the nuclear threshold. Their struggle over Kashmir has been kept on the periphery of the political, economic, and population centers of both nations; activities related to the disagreement generally have been limited to regions in the vicinity of Kashmir itself.

Whether precipitated by nationalism, ideological clashes, struggles for resources, or a synthesis of causes, many of war's underpinnings remain unchanged. Still, post-World War II warfare has metamorphosed, and changes continue. In the absence of superpower armed confrontations, the 1991 Persian Gulf War might stand as the ultimate example of warfare between Cold War-style armies. The dominance of Coalition forces over well-equipped but overmatched Iraq demonstrated the haplessness of confronting major powers in environments that favor the application of superior technologies. Potential adversaries of major powers will adapt their methods to their threat. Such adaptation, be it political or military, is an unchanging characteristic of warfare: each adversary invariably seeks to neutralize its enemy's advantages. Warring leaders in the former Yugoslavia sought to demonstrate the internecine character of their conflict, to make external nations' involvement less justifiable to their citizens. These leaders also have taken advantage of dispersion and proximity to noncombatants to mitigate the effectiveness of NATO's technological advantages.

World population demographics are conducive to such adaptation. Recent history demonstrates that increasing urban populations, the mitigating effects of built-up areas on modern weapon systems, and the knowledge that the United Nations and Western nations avoid noncombatant casualties make cities an increasingly attractive combat environment for Third World commanders. Colonel Aden, a militia commander in Mogadishu, demonstrated the usefulness of cities in neutralizing the capabilities of U.N. forces:

[He] "felt growing confidence" as he moved forces into the engagement area near a downed U.S. helicopter and established ambushes along likely United Nations relief force avenues of approach: "This claustrophobic battleground, in Aideed's stronghold, was where Aden had hoped to fight. Other militia platoons, he knew, would be rushing from the north, south, and east. The Americans were not supermen. In these dusty streets, where combat was reduced to rifle against rifle, they could die as easily as any Somali." 7

The wisdom of Aden's plans was borne out by the results. Eighteen U.S. soldiers died as a result of the ensuing urban fight and the Americans left the country. The Somali militia's use of women and children as shields in U.N. actions during Operation Restore Hope and recent Russian Army difficulties in Grozny further demonstrated the effectiveness of such tactics.

Though these military forces lack Third Waves precision-guided weapons, stand-off capability, and high individual-soldier lethality, they will nonetheless be well armed at and below the tactical nuclear threshold. The arms-sales business is too lucrative and too essential to maintaining major nations' defense industrial capacity for it to end in the near term, unless extraordinary measures are implemented. Such sales are likely to remain limited to Second Wave technologies, but leaders will use urban and other "close" environments—both to maximize the effectiveness of weapons they are allowed to purchase and to neutralize the Third Wave advantages described above.

The international political character of future wars also will change. With the end of the Cold War, such conflicts are far more likely to involve U.N.-sponsored forces. The attractiveness of the United Nations as a political surrogate provides major nations an opportunity to participate in either war or peace operations that address their national interests, while minimizing risk and financial commitment.

Nevertheless, increased involvement of the United Nations and the growing ubiquity of world media representatives place political constraints on forces operating under U.N. auspices. Often, the United Nations limits severely the application of force by units operating under its control. Presence of the media guarantees that the world community will witness any significant violations of this guidance. At times, the media become an unwitting pawn in conflicts. Walter S. Clarke wrote that Somali clan leader Aideed "sometimes gun[ned] down his own Habr Gedir women and children in order to have bodies to show on U.S. evening news broadcasts." 9 Television coverage of the Al Firdos bunker bombing, in which noncombatants were killed inadvertently, precipitated restraints on further Coalition attacks on Baghdad during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. 10

In addition to these wars precipitated by human antipathies, phenomenologically-based conflicts are increasingly likely. 11 Events such as epidemics, famine, and urban population growth may not be the direct cause of wars. They can, however, become a catalyst for groups attempting to take advantage of a government's inability to address or prevent such catastrophes or to deal with troublesome demographic issues. In such cases, war brings a national or supranational organization multiple difficulties: any armed adversary must—at a minimum—be held at bay, while friendly organizations alleviate the suffering brought on by the catalyst.

How the world reacts to the wars of the future will determine their frequency and cost. The most obvious and least likely means of reducing future wars would be a universal ban on arms sales to Second and Third World nations and militant organizations. Such a ban would need to include not only the weapons themselves but also the ammunition, repair parts, and technical training needed for systems sold earlier.

A less obvious—and still unlikely—approach to reducing the number and influence of future wars is to create a U.N. military force with leadership provided by a professional officer corps. Funding for such a costly standing force, however, is unlikely to come from the major powers that would have to provide most of the support. It was reported that former Senator Bob Dole, for example, proposed to restrict presidential authority to fund peace operations involving U.S. forces. 12 Implementation of such restrictions could be significant because the United States currently provides nearly one-third of the U.N. peacekeeping money.

An even less obvious—but this time perhaps possible—way to reduce the impact of future wars is to expand the United Nations to include members other than nation-states. Nation-states do not represent all world interests, and they have shown themselves to be unwilling to fund many international enterprises that could have precluded wars or reduced the costs of conflict. Non-national interest groups could be incorporated either as permanent or temporary members. Permanent members might include selected multinational corporations, nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, representatives of ethnic groups such as the Kurds and Palestine Liberation Organization (though the latter likely no longer requires membership since the creation of a Palestinian state), regional associations (e.g., NATO), and religious organizations. Temporary members, with membership based on the need to resolve conflicts, might include clans, tribes, and terrorist organizations. Temporary membership could be defined in a way to preclude its constituting recognition for other than negotiating purposes. This expansion of membership would include many organizations with legitimate interests in international stability. Some might even be willing to assist in financing U.N. military operations, to protect commercial or other interests.

We have not yet seen the end of war. Major-power recognition of war's costs and the lack of critical antipathetic national interests support an optimistic prognosis: that these nations may well extend their somewhat rational behaviors of the past 50 years for the next 20. The end of Cold War bipolarity also has reduced the frequency and volatility of major power crises that could escalate into war. Armed exchanges are far less likely to be extra-regional in character or to involve major power surrogates than even ten years ago. Although these larger conflicts may have gone into remission, war still refuses to give up its inclination to reappear. The proliferation of new nations is both a product of and a catalyst for nationalist motivations. Nationalism finds complements in ideologies, struggles for resources, revanchism, historic antipathies, and other forces—now constrained by major powers less often. These forces threaten to spark tinderboxes that are fueled by more and better weapon systems.

Like Proteus, war has proved to be chameleon-like when threatened with containment—ever changing its character to regain dominance over the minds of political and military leaders.

1 Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Mythology (New York: Avenel Books), pp. 18991.

2 John Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 240.

3 Richard Ned Lebow, Between War and Peace: The Nature of International Crisis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). Quotations are taken from pages 57, 25, and 41, respectively.

4 The term Second World as used here refers to those former Warsaw Pact nations or Soviet Union republics that maintain significant economic and military ties to Russia.

5 Gaddis, p. 234.

6 U.S. Army, TraDoc Pamphlet 525-5: Force XXI Operations: A Concept for the Evolution of Full-Dimensional Operations for the Strategic Army of the Early Twenty-First Century (1 August 1994), pp. 2-1 and 2-4.

7 Rick Atkinson, "Night of a Thousand Casualties: Battle Triggered the U.S. Decision to Withdraw from Somalia," The Washington Post, 31 January 1994, as quoted in "Fighting in Hell: A Consideration of Constrained Urban Warfare," by Russell W. Glenn, unpublished (draft) report prepared for the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica. CA, August 1994, p. 5.

8 The concepts of First, Second, and Third Wave war and related technologies are key to the analysis of future war as presented in Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-war: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993). Second Wave war relies on massed armies and large quantities of area-effect munitions. Third Wave war uses information and technology more effectively, to achieve objectives with lesser loss of friendly life and reduced collateral damage while maximizing enemy destruction.

9 Walter S. Clarke, "Testing the World's Resolve in Somalia," Parameters 23 (Winter 1993-94): 53.

10 Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), pp. 286-96.

11 TraDoc Pamphlet 525-5, p. 2-3.

12 "Calling Dr. Kissinger," The Economist 334 (7897/14 January 1995): 23.

Colonel Glenn is a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Kansas and a seminar leader at the School of Advanced Military Studies. He has served with the 1st Infantry Division in Germany and Southwest Asia, and as Senior Army Fellow with the RAND Corporation.



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