Friday 01 July 2016

One of the fundamental tasks of every strategic leader is to imagine the future geopolitical circumstances and determine a best course for the nation to achieve its national interests. To do that effectively national leaders must understand the ways in which power might be used to achieve national goals; unfortunately the modern world is often chaotic and the future can be quite uncertain. As the conflict in Yemen shows us today, one of the most challenging and chaotic endeavors affecting the global strategic dynamic is war.

Historian Colin Gray has written, “We know everything that there is to know about war, unsurprisingly, since we have variable access to at least 2,500 years of bloody history. But we know nothing, literally zero, for certain about the wars of the future, even in the near-term.” Later in the same article he wrote: “War comprises more or less, but always to some degree, organized violence motivated by political considerations. War is about politics, and politics is about the distribution of power—who has how much of it, what they do with it, and what the consequences are… Many people confuse the nature of war with its character. The former is universal and eternal and does not alter, whereas the latter is always in flux. This distinction is not just a fine academic point, with no real-world resonance worthy of note.”

The nature of war includes elements such as violence, friction, chance, and uncertainty - all wars have these in common to a degree. Conflicts from nuclear war to full conventional war, from military raids to peacekeeping, all share all these elements, but each is also shaped by guiding policies such as the Geneva Conventions and national war aims, hatred or hostility, and the complex interplay play of chance and probability that comes when we loosen the societal bonds of ethics and law and accept the use of deadly force in the pursuit of national interests.

Even as the nature of war remains resolutely chaotic, the character of each war is shaped uniquely by the human and natural factors that surround it. Infantry combat is extremely dangerous, dirty, uncomfortable, terrifying and exhausting for both winner and loser. Combat in cockpits and control centers may be less dangerous and dirty but can be just as terrifying and exhausting. At its most fundamental, war is about controlling devastation and periodically in war mankind may even lose control of the instruments of devastation themselves (consider the firebombing of cities in World War Two, the deforestation of the jungles during the Vietnam War or Saddam Hussein’s burning of Iraq’s oil wells in 1991).

Though envisioning the character of future conflict is challenging, the fundamentally corrosive and unchanging nature of war is not difficult to understand. Clausewitz held that war could be constrained only if it could be held in balance in a trinity: with the violence constrained by policy within the vagaries of chance. But he also wrote that war by nature unfolds unpredictably based upon the interaction of powerful, enduring elements of fiction and uncertainty. Those factors mean that war will forever be dominated by extreme danger, monumental exertion, great uncertainty, and potential devastation. All of these characteristics combine to make war inherently horrific; and that fact must be understood by all.

Today we all must fully understand the corrosive nature of war in order to judge when war may be necessary to preserve stability and maintain our national prosperity. It is also beneficial to understand how the character of war may change in the coming years to ensure our nation does not suffer from the negative effects of fear, honor and national interest. The UAE has seen war close-up in Afghanistan and Libya and is now dealing with the horrible pain of war in Yemen; such mature understanding must continue to guide it well if conflict in Syria or any other future wars comes its way.