Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One condition for moral war: success

I believe it was during the Kennedy administration when one of the President's more militarily knowledgeable aides grew tired of his interventionist-minded colleagues always glibly proposing that "a battalion" be dispatched here or there to deal with this or that international crisis, and began challenging the armchair generals with the simple, slightly obnoxious, but entirely fair question, "Do you know what a battalion is?"
(In case you ever find yourself in the Oval Office advising the President on the use of military force, just remember this answer: "Sir. A battalion is the smallest tactical unit capable of independent operations, consisting of approximately 500 to 1,200 soldiers or Marines, commanded typically by a lieutenant colonel and possessing its own headquarters staff including intelligence, operations, and logistics. Sir.")

These days the equivalent bit of glibbery is to propose a no-fly zone or drone strikes. A month ago at the start of the Libyan intervention I noted the fatal attraction of large military powers to the magical belief that a mere show of force will overawe an adversary, sparing the necessity of actually fighting and winning a real war.

It was ever thus; the technologies change but the delusion remains. I might take grim satisfaction in the accuracy of my pessimistic prediction but for the fact it did not require much insight to foresee the ensuing stalemate. What is astonishing is that anyone could have thought otherwise.

Part of what has gotten us into this mess, though, is not just strategic naivete of this venerable kind but a tactical naivete of the kind that President Kennedy's frustrated aide observed. Much ink has been spilled about the moral calculus of intervention, focusing almost exclusively on the justice and urgency of the cause and not at all upon equally important questions that those who know about war know are a sine qua non for the use of military force. Two of these questions stand out above all: Is it likely to succeed? And is it likely to do more good than harm?

These are practical military questions, but they are also very deeply moral ones, because people who know anything about war know that it is always, in some sense, a disaster. War at best means killing innocent people, tearing down the stability and economy of a society, brutalizing and desensitizing a generation of decent men, women, and children, flooding a country with unsecured weapons, and unleashing unpredictable political tidal waves.

And so a war fought with little chance of prevailing can well be a greater moral evil than sitting on one's hands in the face of evil. And a war, successful or not, that does not at least offer the reasonable prospect of making things better can be a greater moral evil than not fighting a war at all. The use of military force is — or ought to be — a last resort precisely because its consequences are so terrible and the forces it unleashes so uncertain. (Never mind the billions, or trillions, of dollars that even victory costs, or the loss of deterrence that is the terrible added cost of failure.)

It is a close question whether — in the short run, at least — our intervention in Libya is likely to do more good than harm. But I don't think it's close at all that it is extremely unlikely to succeed with the force we are willing and able to commit. That is a completely valid moral and practical consideration that deserved far more consideration than it got.

A just war is not merely a war fought in a good cause against a terrible tyrant; there are an infinity of good causes and no shortage of terrible tyrants. A just war is one that can justify the destruction it sows, and the enduring responsibility it entails.