Two years ago, I discussed the idea that war was becoming much less common. It generated a spirited discussion.
Looking around at current wars, it seems as though wars have also become less destructive, and that seems to be entirely a product of restraint by the most powerful actors. Consider the following quote from a New Zealand defense analyst:
Counterfactual history does not have a good name, but it is particularly useful here. It is often difficult for us to imagine that past events might have happened differently; once they have occurred, they seem entirely logical, natural, and even inevitable, and we forget that they developed as only one of myriad potential options. As such, counterfactual history can be used to indicate how some of these recent conflicts might have unfolded had the West not returned to a ritualized and restrained way of war, but rather continued the trend toward totality exemplified by the World Wars. There is no intent to suggest that the counterfactuals described would have been better methods of fighting the wars mentioned. But we can devise better policy to the extent that we can reliably compare outcomes of rival courses of action.
In Vietnam, America might have unleashed almost the full power of its arsenal. Massive conventional forces might have landed in the north. Airpower might have been liberated from restrictive rules of engagement, allowing it to destroy almost anything that moved that was not regarded as friendly. An airtight blockade might have been imposed along the entire North Vietnamese coast. ...
In Somalia, America might have responded to the “Blackhawk down” incident with a massive escalation of force. Mogadishu might have been flattened, and the insurgent groups destroyed, regardless of collateral damage. In Kosovo, NATO might have quickly flooded the battlefield with armor from both north and south, accepting the risk of heavy casualties from anti-tank defenses in order to achieve a decisive victory and thus end perceived ethnic cleansing.
In Lebanon, Israel might have preceded a massive tank assault with a murderous artillery barrage reminiscent of the Somme, aiming to dig Hezbollah out of its holes with high explosives. In Afghanistan, a furious America might have dispatched a much larger invasion force to secure the border with Pakistan and then engage in sweep-and-destroy missions reminiscent of the Boer War, turning the mountains of Afghanistan into a depopulated wasteland. Finally, in Iraq, a much larger multinational force might have advanced more carefully, occupying and securing important cities with large garrisons, pacifying as it went. Once Saddam Hussein was defeated, the country might have been quartered in a manner reminiscent of Germany after World War II. A large occupation force would then have been maintained, one authorized to kill as many locals as required to ensure security and stability.
In other words, since the Korean War combatants have exercised a great deal of operational and tactical restraint when conducting military operations. (The Korean War was limited in its strategic goals, but operationally it was a total war.) The rest of the essay is confused, but the point holds. The recent Russo-Georgian War certainly follows the pattern.
The essay does not address the three important questions. First, how much is the operational savagery of the World Wars (and Korea) the anomaly that needs to be explained?
Second, is today’s restraint truly based in exogenous changes in norms (as the author avers) or is it a recognition of strategic realities that make the unbridled use of force counterproductive in terms of achieving national aims? Similarly, how could you distinguish between the two hypotheses?
Finally, does past performance predict future results?