Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day: War and Peace and Hegemons

A regular visitor at Pen and Sword posited last week that a naval blockade of Iran wouldn’t be an act of war if the UN sanctioned it. I replied that no, acts of war aren’t defined by whether or not the UN or any other international organization sanction them. Dropping a nuke on Tehran would be an act of war even if the UN, the Catholic Church and Oprah Winfrey combined sanctioned it.

That led me to thinking that Memorial Day 2008 would be a good time for a short study of war in the age of American hegemony. War can be a dry subject, but I’ll do my best to keep the discourse lively. I would promise you that the next several hundred words will be more entertaining by far than any lecture you’d ever hear from any professor at any war college in the country, but that promise is so easy to keep it’s not worth the trouble of making.

You and Whose Army?

I read and listened to a lot of horse whinny in the course of pursuing my master’s degree in war more than a decade ago. Today, Jeff Huber’s essential laws of armed conflict are few and simple. First is that, like it or not, the history of humanity is the history of its wars, and the fundamental nature of war (and possibly humanity) hasn’t changed since smart apes first used sticks and bones to beat the monkey snot out of other apes and take their food away from them.

Second, all you really need to remember about the law of armed conflict is that Herman Goering and his pals wouldn’t have stood trial at Nuremburg if Germany had won World War II. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas cooked up the notion of “just war” which essentially stated it was okay to kill people in a war unless the pope said different. In the 21st century, a “legal war” is whatever George W. Bush’s attorney general says it is.

I stole the third and final law from whoever first said that all wars are the same and they’re all different. Anybody who tells you that we’re fighting a totally new kind of war today needs a good long stay in rehab. There’s nothing about any of America’s wars—from our revolution to our world wars to our woebegone war on terrorism—that Thucydides didn’t cover when he wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, and nothing he wrote about was new then either.

Even so, General Thucydides would consider an exploding arrow shot from a mechanical bird controlled by a man sitting in a room on the opposite side of the world to be a miraculous feat that even his gods could never perform.

From those three laws we can reliably define the nature of the war powers inherent in the office of the president of the United States. The only extra-constitutional powers U.S. Presidents have in wartime—or in peacetime or anytime—are the ones the rest of us let them take.

To make things even more unfathomable, these days we can’t agree on what is or isn’t an actual war.

By Any Other Name

We have a war on drugs and a war on poverty and a war on an ism, yet for many years we called the little misunderstandings we had in Korea and Vietnam “conflicts” and even “police actions.” Congress doesn’t declare war any more; it grants the president the “authorization for use of armed force.” If Congress won’t give this president authorization to send troops into combat, Mr. Bush just has one of his lawyers write up a “finding” for war and signs it, or he has the CIA fight the war in secret, or he just orders U.S. forces to start bombing things right out in the open—like he’s doing presently in Pakistan and Somalia—and dares anybody to say boo about it.

Clausewitz famously said that war is “a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means." Today, however, it’s difficult to identify where other political activities end and war begins.

Under the younger Bush’s stewardship, the Department of Defense has hijacked most of the State Department’s foreign policy functions, leaving our diplomatic force in charge of little more than bureaucratic matters like issuing visas and passports. The Pentagon calls the shots in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to address long standing issues on the African continent, the Bush administration established not a new diplomatic organization, but a new regional military command. In November 2007, The Nation published an article by Danny Glover and Nicole C. Lee that called AFRICOM an “alarming step forward in the militarization of the African continent” and “a dangerous continuation of US military expansion around the globe.”

Nations have traditionally used methods of leverage other than war to impose their will on other nations. Sometimes other means can lead to war; trade wars, for example, can lead to shoves and then to blows rather handily. Nonetheless, a “trade war” is not really a war, mainly because neither nation in a bi-lateral trade war is a) using physical force to impose its will on the other nation or b) violating the other nation’s sovereignty. National sovereignty does not include the inalienable right to make someone else trade with you, just as individual sovereignty doesn’t mean the other kids have to give you their lunch money.

“Use of physical force” can be a nebulous concept. In our definition of hegemon era war, “use” of force includes the imminent and real threat of using it. A naval blockade, for example, may turn out to be effective without the imposing naval forces ever having to stop and board a vessel or fire upon it, especially if the target nation chooses not to challenge the blockade. But if you’re conducting a blockade and the time comes to shoot at another vessel, you need to shoot; otherwise you’ve just shot yourself in the sex organ.

A blockade also infringes on the other nation’s sovereignty in ways that aren’t as obvious as the way invasions or air strikes do. A comprehensive diagram of the logic behind sovereignty theory would involve more wire than it takes to light up Manhattan. Let’s just say that national sovereignty derives from individual sovereignty and it’s about granting autonomy and social compacts and everybody’s right to exist and pursue their self-interests as long as they don’t forget how to play nice and so on. Part of national sovereignty allows you to have access to international waters, and when I deny you that access, I’m committing an act of war against you.

The tricky part of this sovereignty distinction between war and peace in the American hegemon age is that the sovereignty model is crumbling. That phenomenon has been the same in previous hegemonic eras. When one nation decisively dominates all others, balance of power moderations erode and individual as well as national sovereignty (of nations other than the hegemon, of course) become quaint notions, and as liberal republics approach hegemony, they also become tyrannical. The Roman Empire and Napoleon’s France are two of the more obvious examples of this.

American hegemony has followed a similar pattern. The neoconservative Bush executive branch has displayed an increasing disregard for international laws and treaty agreements and consistently resists any check on executive power by the legislative and judicial branches. Individual rights of U.S. citizens have been summarily dismissed in the name of what should be a global police action against the crime of terrorism that the administration chooses to call a war. As America’s relationships with other nations have taken an increasingly “my way or the highway” tone, even tools of statecraft like diplomacy, information sharing and economic leverage take on the nature of warlike measures.

One fervently hopes that a change of regime come November can reverse America’s vector toward Orwellian dystopia, but one must also keep in mind Jeff Huber’s one and only law of American politics:

Lord John Acton did not say that, “Absolute power tends to corrupt Republicans.”

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) is on sale now.


  1. Acts of war are used to determine the start of hostilities (a state of war) when no belligerent has the honor to declare war.

  2. Kerstin9:49 PM

    And I can proudly tell you that we will have Condoleeza Rice on a visit to Sweden this week, participating in a conference over Iraq, to solve God knows what problem in God knows what way and God knows to what purpose. But they will solve, whatever it is, in one day.

    I suspect it has something to do with oil busines as our conservative foreing minister, Carl Bildt, has had his fingers in both oil and gas busines, and as he, on top of this, was hired by some American organisation, or authority, to lobby for the attack on Iraq, and to convince European countries to support USA in its important war against terrorism in Iraq.

    I am sooo eager to see how they solve whatever they are going to solve and do hope that we will have some demonstrations against the conference - though I doubt this, as when Bush was here, a few years ago, they put a lot of piecefully demonstrating and totatlly innocent people in jail for several years. At that time we saw something in Sweden which we never had seen before. It looked very much like the situation in Seattle a few years earlier.


  3. John,

    Yes, that's one way to start a war.


    Condi, as always, useless as boobs on a billy goat.


  4. Montag11:54 PM

    I just read that there's about to be a border war between Eritrea and Djibouti (former French Somaliland) over a piece of land that's as tiny as it is worthless. On the one hand Eritrea has maybe eight times the population of Djibouti, but on the other hand the conflict area is right on the constriction of the sea lanes at the entrance to the Red Sea. Also, both France and the U.S. have military bases in Djibouti. What's the first rule about having military bases in a foreign country? Always remember to dance with them what brung ya! And Eritrea is going to start a border war under those conditions.

    Reminds me of the animated cartoon, "Bambi vs. Godzilla," where the deer is gambolling carelessly about when a giant replilian foot comes out of nowhere and squashes it. In this case make it TWO reptilian foots--you can bet Sarkozy will want a piece of the action and take most of the credit.

  5. Montag,

    This looks like a job... for AFRICOM!

  6. I must say Commander that you were particularly witty and brilliant here. One phrase that caught my eye was: "National sovereignty does not include the inalienable right to make someone else trade with you." The imposition of trade on Japan in the early 19th century is often said to be the reason for Japan's hegemonic aggression in the rest of the Asian Pacific. And, does one consider Paul Bremer's rewriting of all trade laws in Iraq merely a politese for booty or "the inalienable right to make someone else trade with you."
    Another topic I hope you will one day address is the subject of revolution in this teetering empire of ours. Excellent job and thought provoking.

  7. Anonymous11:26 AM


    One has to wonder about the efficacy of a naval blockade against Iran.

    True, the vast majority of oil flows thru the SoH (and perhaps all of Iran's seaborne oil trade), but, the country still has land and sea borders to her northern neighbors. The geography is tough but the links exist. And I'm sure those along the silk road (and at the eastward terminus) will be happy to improve that route in the face of a putative naval blockade.

    And, as you posit, the blockaded nation can chose to wait it out without escalating into open warfare. Would Iran do so? Hard to say but I wonder how the Gulfies in Bahrain, Kuwait, UAW, Qatar and Oman feel about it knowing they live inside Iran's SSM umbrella? Or even the Saudi's whose main production fields are similarly threatened?

    Tiem will tell I suppose. But absent a clear, demonstrated nuclear weaponization development, the UNSC isn't gonna give the US the Chapter VII blockade it seeks.


  8. Anonymous5:57 PM

    No one party has a corner on the market of corruption. Here in the Deep Drawlin South, the prevailing wisdom has it that our spiking crime rate and violence of every flavor is due to bad social programs. So while I personally subscribe to your violent primate theory, it must be considered that impetus behind the wars of history was a parade of bureaucrats with bad attitudes. The extermination of Homo Neanderthalis? Welfare. The Trojan war? Sex education in the public schools. Makes sense to me.

    Glad that has been cleared up for me. I am equally suspect of salvation at the hands of the Quickdraw of the National Visa Card and don't hold out much hope for November's Miracle Network Marathon.

    I am most impressed by the recent antics of a species of ants that seem to succinctly describe the human preference for war: the Crazy Raspberry Ants. They are so single minded about the acquisition of resources and piling more crap into their piles of crap than any other ant that they, in adapting to the mass destruction of insecticide, simply pile up the dead bodies of their comrades and use them as a bridge over the poisoned earth to reach that pile of resources to raid. Nothing will deter them from their determined quest to invade ANYTHING to search for resources, needed or not. They will invade walls and invade computers and other electrical equipment, hauling off useless bits of crap to build their impressive pile. Sound familiar?

    By the way, you've done some impressive decorating around here since I last visited. Love the Bat theme.

  9. Good to see you, DEF. So, they're saying down your way that Helen of Troy learned how to be a slut in that public middle school she went to? Interesting theory: the face job that launched a thousand ships, etc.

    Stop by later in the week. I'll talk about how JCS chairman Mike Mullen just told the troops not to talk politics and in the next breath told them to vote republican.


  10. Anonymous3:14 AM

    How can you claim that Thomas Aquinas essentially defined the Just War theory as war being okay when the Pope says it is, when he actually codified a set of criteria that had to be met for the war to be just? If anything he limited the papacy's options.

    Incidentally, Francis of Assisi tried to negotiate an end to the crusades.

  11. Here's my answer, Anonymous. You won't like it.

    John Yoo codified criteria by which the president isn't limited by the US laws or constitution. Just about anybody can come up with an argument that shoehorns his war into all three of Aqinas's criteria. All those criteria did was give a pope wiggle room to stop a war he didn't like by saying it didn't fit the criteria and anyone who fought in it for the monarch who was out of favor with the pope at the time was headed for hell in a handbag.

    Assisi trying to do something decent doesn't in any way excuse Aquinas's mendacity.

  12. Since the president isn't limited by the Constitution, and US laws, oh wait.... the Senate passed that Kyl-Lieberman thing on Iran. So, according to Muhammad Cohen, in this morning's edition of the Asian Times ( "Bush is planning an air strike on Iran - by August". (August again.) The source for his story is not named, but is pretty well described: "a retired US career diplomat and former Assistant Secretary of State." Senators Lugar and Feinstein have been briefed, and plan "within days" to write and Op-Ed to the NY Times "to express opposition."

    Well.... that should take care of it.

    One chaotic, senseless war apparently is not enough for this administration.

    How this will impact the November election is anybody's guess.

    Wonder if Conyers was serious about that "Impeachment thing."

    Course, if you have to go through the Mukasey (?) Department of Justice (?) for anything on that..... it would also be a non-starter.

  13. Jeff, as usual, when I read your posts I think I need to dig out my military strategy's book. (which name escapes me as I need to dig it up first to remember)
    anway, the one thing that drives my Dutch mother bananas is the 'our way or the high way'. Every ordinary person outside of politics has seen it so many times and that cumulative negative effect will continue to have an impact on all American foreign relations, politically or personallly. A leadership/attitude change in November will be a good start (providing it's the one I'm hoping for) but it will take many years no doubt to counter all the damage done, politically and perceptionally.

  14. Anonymous1:31 PM


    Thank you for your answer. It makes too much sense to not have a noticeable grain of truth to it, though I had never thought of it that way.

    Having had teachers who had to learn Aquinas by heart in high school, I would still like to believe that Aquinas's criteria, however fudgeable, banished at least the worst excesses of war fever.

  15. Montag8:37 PM

    John Yoo reminds me of that original "Star Trek" episode where Capt. James T. Kirk invents the card game of Fizz Binn. In order to distract the gangsters who are holding him hostage he tells them about this great game and as they start to play he makes up these outrageous rules just to keep the game going. Like, X beats Y on Tuesdays and Thursdays and one card is always a wild card, except at night. The difference is that John Yoo really believes in the barbed wire that he's trying to wrap around the Constitution.

  16. You got that nailed, Montag. That's the scariest part about these characters: they truly believe.

    Fools and fanatics, and Bertrand Russell said.


  17. Jeff, for this weekend, I'll be laying low blogging wise and since one of my kids' school finished, I'm partly on summer holiday mode. Anyhow, I dedicated my weekend post to you.

    (no worries, nothing freaky)

  18. Thanks, Ingrid. Have a great summer.

  19. Montag10:04 PM

    I just remembered something I heard on Talk Radio some time ago. A guy called in saying that he was a crewman on a civilian freighter about 1968. They were in International Waters in the Pacific when a Soviet destroyer came up to them and started to bully them by interfering with their right-of-way in the middle of empty sea, mind you. The Captain of the freighter signalled his displeasure with this illegal activity, but the Soviets refused to stop the harrassment. So the freighter Captain warned his crew that they needed to prepare for some violent maneuvers because he'd had enough of this nonsense. Then every time the destroyer got close the freighter would try to RAM it. Of course the destroyer being the sprightlier of the two they were able to dodge away. But the Soviet Captain decided that the game wasn't worth the candle and departed over the horizon again.

    I mean how the Hell could that destroyer Captain have explained bringing a damaged destroyer back home? He couldn't, and the freighter Captain knew it. I guess he interpeted Freedom of the Seas as his freedom to tear that destroyer a new one.

  20. Montag,

    Yes, I'm sure that's what the freighter captain was thinking.

    I can't remember when the INCSEA agreement was ratified. Maybe after '68, I'll see if I can find out.


  21. '72. So it wasn't in effect then. Hmm.

  22. Montag5:37 PM

    To be fair, you're dealing with double hearsay here--not only the sailor's memory after some 40 years, but my own memory of what he said. I'm not certain exactly of the year or type of ship it was or whether it was civilian or even what flag it was sailing under.
    Certainly such Soviet shennanigans were customary at the time, with even the U.S. Navy having to resort to rapid, unpredictable maneuvers to shake them away.

    But as always one mustn't allow the facts to get in the way of a great story. I'm guessing that the freighter Captain had no Navy Board of Inquiry hanging over his head when he decided to get frisky. And it does illustrate the problems of enforcing a blockade, even though the circumstances were different. How far are you willing to go against a ship which stubbornly refuses to be interfered with?

  23. Well, not to split hairs, but I think that's just single hearsay. Assuming, of course, he personally witnessed what the Captain did and said and isn't just repeating what someone else in the crew said. ;-)

    Your point is spot on about the stubborn ship that refuses to cooperate. Like I said earlier, if you're enforcing a blockade and you run away from a merchant like that Soviet skipper did, you've just shot off your baby maker.

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