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A Farewell to (Glorious) War

In recent days, Italy’s government fell after losing a parliamentary vote on the country’s troop deployment in Afghanistan, while Britain and Denmark announced that they are to begin withdrawing their troops from Iraq. Whereas the Bush administration is deploying an additional 21,000 American soldiers in Iraq, and is pushing for more allied troops in Afghanistan, America’s allies are rejecting its Middle East policy. They are increasingly convinced that “victory” will be elusive in any asymmetric conflict between states, however powerful, and religiously driven armed insurgents.

Donald Rumsfeld’s dogma of military “transformation” – the technological upgrading of an army’s capacity to enable decisive victory with fewer troops – failed resoundingly in Iraq. Nor could Israel, with its overwhelming technological advantage, defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon. More rockets and missiles fell on northern Israel in 33 days than hit Britain during all of World War II. So the Israelis now must reckon with an entirely new phenomenon: an asymmetric entity, Hezbollah, with nation-state firepower.

So the fierce debate over whether to increase the size of American ground forces in Iraq is beside the point. Neither the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980’s nor NATO’s today vindicates the claim that troop numbers are what matter most on the modern battlefield. When geo-strategic military front lines are non-existent, as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, mass no longer equals victory. The great military thinker Carl von Clausewitz’s notion of “decisive battles” as the “center of gravity” of war is simply irrelevant to conflicts that have no visible “center of gravity.”

Indeed, while wars from the time of Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans in 216 B.C. to the Gulf War of 1991 had this center of gravity, with a massive concentration of force capable of bringing an enemy to its knees, such industrial inter-state wars have now become an historical anachronism. Most states nowadays lie within borders that are widely accepted as legitimate, and they increasingly abide by international norms of behavior in times of war.