Apocalypse, Now? Warfare and Modernity

By Edoardo Lanfranchi

“Mr. President, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. I do say, no more than ten or twenty million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.”

General Buck Turgidson, from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), incarnates the irrationality which seemed representative of the US military’s attitude during the Cold War – an attitude inspiring the contemporary fear of imminent nuclear warfare.

At the Cold War’s close, people allowed themselves to believe that the era of military conflicts had concluded, or at least abated. Indeed, compared to the wars of the last century, the casualties of today’s wars appear relatively palatable.

However, recent events have prompted a revival of the Cold War atmosphere, with fears of a nuclear conflict with North Korea, tensions with Russia following Trump’s strike upon a Syrian military base, and the detonation of the “mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan. Trump’s administration has made it clear that they will not hold back on the use of military force to solve foreign policy issues. When the (in)famous ‘red line’ laid by Obama was crossed in a ruthless chemical attack by Bashar Al Assad’s government, Trump did what Obama did not dare to do: he acted militaristically. This was supported by most Western governments (notably Britain, France and Germany), but was condemned by Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main ally. Although it will not end the Syrian conflict, Trump seems to have found a method to increase his popularity. Moreover, he has sent two clear messages: to Russia, that he will not hold onto Obama’s policy of prudence in the Middle East; to China, that he is ready to engage in war with North Korea. Perhaps the age of peace is not as close as we thought.

The potential outbreak of war is even more chilling due to the revolutions in warfare which the Cold War initiated, and technology has perpetuated. Now, what seems likely is a truly globalised digital-era age of war. Although – at least currently – conflicts on the scale of the past century seem unlikely, some worrying features of this new era of military action must be highlighted and heavily criticised, lest we return to the terrifying attitudes epitomised by Dr. Strangelove.

The first terrifying change is in the targets of military action. The Second World War was the first conflict in which civilian casualties outnumbered military casualties. Today, civilians are the first victims of most conflicts. Women and children die every day, miles away from military targets. Civilians are directly targeted by terrorist attacks worldwide – such as in the recent Copts massacred in Egypt, or the attacks in London and Stockholm.

Drone strikes have also provoked a massive shift in warfare – both in attitudes and death statistics. Under Obama’s administration, the most drone strikes were undertaken on foreign land in US history (despite the president being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2009). The issue with drones is that they dehumanise killing; this is worsened as the executors of drone strikes are technically unaccountable for their actions. As human rights activist John Sifton declared, “on the one hand, we have the most intimate form of violence…on the other hand, the least intimate of weapons.” This alienation of violence is changing the nature of military conflicts.

The last worrying development I wish to highlight is the asymmetry of conflicts. Nowadays, wars directly between sovereign nation-states scarcely exist, and conflicts are instead fought in foreign territories. In this context, impersonal drone attacks and suicidal terrorism are interlinked: bombings in Afghanistan today can cause terrorist attacks in France tomorrow, and vice versa. These two increasingly central quasi-military techniques are both asymmetrical by definition. Drone strikes employ the most impersonal killer for the most personal target of specific human beings; terrorists use the deeply personal weapon of a human body to kill anonymous targets. What the two techniques have in common is their efficacy, whilst minimising risks: the former because drones are remotely controlled, the latter because of the suicide bombers’ intention to die.

The overarching theme uniting these developments is increasing global interconnection. The European migrant crisis’ impact upon political activity all over the continent is closely related to the warfare in the Middle East, while Trump’s own political failures are being ignored due to his military actions. Similarly, the Syrian Civil War affects oil prices, Iran-Saudi relations, Russian-European trade, and Israeli policies in Palestine; the North Korean crisis affects Chinese exports, Pacific Asian disputes, and American trade policies. In the absence of a long-term global political project for peace, asymmetric and impersonal warfare has no imminent conclusion. We should not be deceived by traditional rhetoric again, particularly as interconnectedness has increased warfare’s complexity. It is essential that we are aware of the changes warfare has undergone, and do not let ourselves descend into Cold War-era madness. Otherwise, as in Dr Strangelove, we shall again learn to stop worrying and love the bomb(s): is this the attitude we aspire to?

Photograph: (stephan) via Flickr and Creative Commons

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