The US’s war in Afghanistan is seen by opponents as ‘indiscriminate’, by its supporters as ‘targeted’ violence. But both of these claims are too simple. The new Western way of war is a clever reinvention of the reliance on airpower that has been central to Anglo-American military thought and practice since the 1920s. It transcends the fundamental degeneracy of earlier bombing: but it does through multiple transfers of risk, particularly to civilian populations, which create new contradictions.
Bombing-led Western war has entered a distinctive new phase since 1990. The new mode, as demonstrated in the three Western wars of the global era (the Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan), relies on bombing even more than before – by both manned bombers and cruise missiles. However it uses the enhanced precision that computer electronics brings to targeting, to avoid the large-scale and widespread massacres of enemy civilians that occurred in the Second World War and Vietnam.
These are the main transfers in the new way of war, which we can call risk-transfer militarism because of how it is designed to maintain the legitimacy of war in Western societies:
- A transfer of the major share of death from enemy civilians to enemy armed forces, thus reversing the twentieth-century trend towards overwhelmingly civilian casualties, and apparently bringing war back within the limits of the ‘just war’ tradition. Most of those directly killed in Afghanistan are the Taliban and their allies, rather than civilians.
- A transfer of the risks of ground combat from Western forces to their local allies, wherever possible. The increasingly interdependence between Western airpower and local armies on the ground (the Northern Alliance) enables the West to transfer of greater share of battle casualties to them.
- A transfer of risks in bombing from Western air forces to both ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ civilians on the ground. Repeated small massacres are an understood feature of the new Western way of war. These are ‘accidental’ in the sense that they are not specifically intended, and efforts are made to avoid them. But they are simultaneously programmed into the risk analysis of war. Civilians are still exposed to far greater risk than the West’s own military personnel (so far, hundreds of civilians have probably been killed by US bombing, but only 2 Americans have died, in a crash).
- The transfer of risk to civilians is deliberate and systematic, since the risks to civilians (from errors in targeting and delivery) are known to be much greater than the risks of Western planes being shot down or crashing accidentally in a war like Afghanistan. It is here that the legacy of degenerate war is clear.
- The avoidance of direct civilian killing on a scale that could threaten the mediated legitimacy of the war is a key element in risk-transfer militarism. Western governments want no more TV pictures of direct victims than absolutely unavoidable; and they want no threateningly large direct casualty numbers. Mediation and surveillance have become intrinsic to this refined mode of post-total war, but they make it particularly problematic.
- The corollary of this is that indirect and less visible casualties are more acceptable. Where there are other possible causes of death – Taliban policies, civil war, drought, etc. – responsibility is less easy to pin down and therefore the West finds the risks more acceptable. This undoubtedly compounds the degeneracy of the new mode.
- Even relatively small massacres may be magnified by the media, so that they may threaten unprecedentedly large consequences for Western power. This was clear in Kosovo, although it has not yet happened in Afghanistan. Thus a fundamental contradiction of the new Western way of war is the unpredictability of intensive mediation in television and other mass media.
The failure of any of these transfers of risk could expose the West to risk rebound. If airpower is insufficient to break the enemy, if the local forces are incapable of carrying out ground operations – or if they commit too many atrocities – the risks of the new mode of war will return to the West.
13 Nov. 2001 © Martin Shaw 2001 firstname.lastname@example.org