Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Art of War

War is obviously not an uncommon state of affairs in the course of human affairs. But today the world is engulfed in war. It’s not limited to Europe or Asia. It’s ubiquitous to some extent because of the internet and the viral nature of ideologies, which were once the province of esoteric tomes. Take for instance the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb whose writings might have seemed esoteric in the 50’s and 60’s when they first appeared, but fire al-Qaeda today. There's of course the war in Syria and Iraq where government forces are trying to prevail against ISIS and in the case of Syria, those opposed to the Assad regime. In Yemen the Saudis are fighting the Iranian backed Houthi rebels. In the Ukraine Russian back rebel forces remain a constant threat to the government and Israel remains a powder keg, with right wing settlers and Hamas forces competing to insure the failure of any peace accords. The Boko Haram kidnap school girls in Nigeria and Kenya remains under threat from al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that staged a bloody massacre in a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013. There is a ancient Chinese treatise called The Art of War by Sun Tzu and the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz who wrote On War, famously said “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” The idea of attack is, of course, a theme in sports as well as war; in sports an opponent is thought of as the enemy though, with the exception of riots by overly avid soccer fans, winning is seldom aimed at the total annihilation of opponents, as it is in war. But there's lot of overlap. Boxing and mixed martial arts are probably the ultimate war games and the idea of the counterpunch, i.e. of  using your opponents strength against him or her is a strategy that, for instance, guerrilla forces like the Viet Cong have used against standing armies with their more traditional combat techniques.  Game theory, with its Prisoner’s Dilemma and Trolley Problems are central subjects of war strategy and armies around the world regularly participate in war games as part of their training. Those who send drones from command centers in the Midwest to targets in the Middle East are in fact playing a real life version of computer gaming and in fact there are computer gamers, kids of 10 or 12 in some cases, who would find it as easy to destroy an avatar on a computer screen as they would a real life enemy. In modern warfare there's often little difference between fantasy and real life since the “technicians” fighting some of these battles neither face the enemy nor experience the consequences of their act. The pilots who flew the Enola Gay had a very good idea what they had done when they unleashed the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but Osama Bin Laden’s compound on a computer console would look much the same as a phantom enemy hide out to a gamer. Yet literally most analysts and commentators who talk about defeating ISIS, which is the great threat today, all talk about the need for boots on the ground, which is to say standard warfare, the kind of thing that soldiers are supposed to learn at West Point and the US Army War College (where "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More," is definitely not the anthem). The Russians defeated Napoleon in 1812 and the Germans in l943. Had the Russian generals learnt from experience? Or had they always possessed a secret the enemies simply weren't aware of--either in terms of strategy, logistics or just plain human psychology? Were they privy to the same knowledge that allowed the allies to prevail in the invasion of Normandy? Everybody knows everything. If it’s been said, it’s been done and if it’s been done it’s been said. So what is it that makes one army triumph over another? The quality of the fighters, the quality of the leaders, the justness of the cause, the fervor with which it’s embraced, or all of the above?

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