Photo by Anna Sukiasyan

This title is Latin and translates to “If you want peace, prepare for …”. For the last word, you can either choose Pacem (peace) or Bellum (war). At the Norwegian Military Academy, the phrase ends with Bellum. Since starting my bachelor’s there, I have contemplated the usefulness of militaries. The concept of state legitimized killing is something which the idealist in me undoubtedly regards as archaic. Sadly, even idealists live in a realist’s world, and militaries have come to stay. In the same world, nearly all western wars in the past 70 years have been offensive action. The dogmatic statement “If you want peace, prepare for war” appears at best, optimistic. Preparing and initiating war are mutu ally exclusive from peace, and the only reasonable answer to why wars are initiated is the pursuit of a better peace. As one yields to realism and acknowledges that militaries will remain, what is the case for the modern military?

The most recent wars of this century help cast a light on the role of modern militaries. Wars of the 20th century would propagate into the 21st when the twin towers fell on the 11th of September. In the Afghan war, new terms of war became apparent. 1 The Taliban had professionalized insurgency warfare by combining civilian clothing with a flexible and informal command structure. As a result, traditional military strategy proved insufficient. There was no decisive battle to be pursued or enemy command to kill. Contrastingly, the Taliban could strike anywhere with conventional means, at civilians, as well as soldiers. This is partially why, despite a vast resource disparity, the Taliban remains today. The terms of war that became apparent were inconsistent with conventional strategy, and subsequently required the modern military to adapt. The new terms of war that faced the coalition in Afghanistan so far represents the trend of the 21st century. As a consequence of this changing pattern, a new strategy called COIN was created.

The US Department of State defines COIN as “comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes”2

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did not have offensive aims in Afghanistan, but aimed to ensure local stability in order to remove the sources of Taliban empowerment. The extent to which this has succeeded is controversial and contingent on the area of evaluation. Regardless, the military effort has dramatically shifted focus, shifting away from defeating the enemy and more to ‘winning’ the population. The decisive battle of the Napoleonic wars is long gone. COIN-strategy seeks to secure the basic level of needs for a population, in order to remove the forces which, fuel the ideological warfare. The terms of war have been altered in the sense that defeating the enemy occurs not only by destroying them, but by removing their support in society.

Photo By Anna Sukiasyan

That being said, the modern military has for the past 70 years gone far beyond what most will refer to as the legitimate defence of one’s nation. The wars in Iraq, as well as the coalition effort in Libya are examples of international intervention on grounds of varying legitimacy. The second Iraq war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, was initiated on the grounds that Iraq could have obtained weapons of mass destruction within a year. The claim has its roots in a CIA report which was intentionally redacted to portray this as a likely possibility. 3 Nonetheless, it is an excellent example of international intervention in the interest of global stability (an essay could very well be written about possible reasons for these invasions, but we will stick with the official one). Today, it is widely acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction were in any proximity to Iraq, and that the main premise for an ethical invasion was false. Given the destruction and long-term effects of the military intervention, as well as the the false premise of the war, the invasion seems to be nothing but unethical.4

The Libya campaign illustrates the difficulty in assessing whether or not military intervention is necessary. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the dictator of Libya, Gaddafi, met the Arabic Uprising with military force. The overview of the area at the time was poor, and various factors prompted international intervention. A chaotic Libya with factors suggesting that Gaddafi was about to commit a genocide laid the basis for the mandate. The UN provided a mandate granting the use of necessary means to protect the civilian population in Libya. An intensive bombing campaign contributed to the fall of Gaddafi. The primary means of war were attacks from aircraft or missiles launched from vessels. Unlike the Afghanistan and Iraq war, it deviates from traditional terms of war as ground forces were not used. Today, the situation in Libya is characterized by rivaling factions and poor standards of living for its citizens. Considering its aftermath, a critique of the Libya campaign is not undue nor difficult.

What is difficult however, is adopting the perception at the time of the decision (of granting the mandate or not), as well as acknowledging the alternative scenarios that did not occur due to the mandate being granted. At the time, past incidents and actions by the national army (controlled by Gaddafi) suggested that a massacre in Benghazi, a large city in Libya, was imminent. Had this not been the case, it seems very unlikely that an “all means necessary” mandate would have been issued. The mandate was granted with ‘backing’ by the UN Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect Act.5Both the need for the act as well as its potential consequences have been demonstrated in this century. With this in mind, it is pertinent to mention that such acts are a political matter, not military. This serves to emphasize that the military acts on behalf of the state, and does not dictate the political purpose of its violence. It is my impression that this distinction is frequently neglected, something which in turn prevents constructive conversation and action.

Today it seems unlikely that such a genocide would ever be carried out. Today, Libya’s per capita GDP is below 8000 dollars, compared to almost 14 000 USD prior to the campaign. Additionally, opposing factions contest each other for rule and territory. There is little doubt that the situation in Libya today is worse off than it was prior to the Arabic Spring. However, there are many alternatives that did not occur and that never will, such as a genocide in Benghazi. Imagine for instance, that UN forces had intervened in Rwanda, resulting in an aftermath identical to the one Libya faces today. I do not claim that this is a likely scenario, however, given the poor information that the relevant agents had, as well as the context of two genocides (Rwanda & Srebrenica), it becomes increasingly difficult to blame militarism for the current chaos.

Whether we regard militaries to be vestigial creations of states or not, they have come to stay. With the coalition war in Afghanistan at the beginning of this century, new terms of warfare were introduced, something which in turn required new strategy. The COIN strategy itself is interesting as it shifts the focus of modern militaries from conducting violence to creating fertile ground for a desired peace (that is, not any peace. It seems obvious to remark that the success of this goal is also controversial). This marks the most fundamental shift of how the modern military operates. Arguably more important is when military force is due. Several of the wars in the 20th and 21st century were offensive action. Each of the wars invite different critiques, many of them just. The challenge however, lies in evaluating the alternatives that did not occur due to the military intervention. Iraq would almost certainly not have attained weapons of mass destruction, but would a genocide have taken place in Benghazi? If so, was the intervention in proportion to what it avoided? The use of military violence to protect citizens of a state remains the main purpose of a modern military. However, the increasing interconnectedness of the world arguably increases the global responsibility to act. The problem remains as to when should states act, which means should be used and who will decide when this intervention is due?

  1. Terms of War is used to describe the character and traits of war. The new terms of war mainly refer to the insurgency status of the Taliban and the consequences is has.
  3. Robert Jervis 1 (2006) Reports, politics, and intelligence failures: The case of Iraq, Journal of Strategic Studies, 29:1, 3-52, DOI: 10.1080/01402390600566282.
  4. A counterclaim to this statement would likely argue that the war had secondary aims in preventing global terrorism. However, it is my personal perception that a large-scale war will do exactly the opposite of eroding grounds for terrorism.
  5. (Libya-Utvalget, 2019, s. 50).
Erik Houge

About Erik Houge