By German Sadulayev, special to Prague Watchdog
St Petersburg, Russia
Umberto Eco has described some of the obvious paradoxes of war in the era of postmodernism. In particular, he comments on the doctrine of "zero casualties" which was introduced by the Americans when they began their operations aimed at spreading democracy in the Middle East. The ideal of “neo-war” (to use Eco’s terminology) is to attain victory without losing a single soldier of one’s own. And this is quite contrary to the idea of war as we used to know it.
In earlier conflitcs (Eco calls them “paleo-wars”) the assumption was that one side wanted to defeat the other, and in order to achieve this was prepared not only to kill a large number of the enemy’s soldiers, but also to lose a significant number of its own. In war as in war. To win a war without losing any lives was impossible. In addition, to the subconscious mind of the masses war appeared as an act of holy sacrifice whose aim (victory) was attained not merely by slaughtering one’s enemies, but also by offering up the best young men of one’s nation. For a true victory, this second element was even more important than the first.
The most recent great conflict in history – the Second World War – was permeated by this mood of holy sacrifice. And if one looks further and deeper into the historical past, the examples of this become ever more pronounced. A knight who took part in a battle that failed to repulse the enemy could not really hold up his head when he returned. However, if he managed to survive and prevail in a terrible confrontation that saw the death of all his comrades, this was considered a genuine feat. Medieval Europeans sometimes embarked on the Crusades not to succeed but to die, as though that were the principal purpose.
From a political standpoint victory was, of course, preferable to suffering for a just cause. But a bloodless victory did not impress, and did not inspire credibility. The matter was only sealed when signed in flowing blood.
Insurgents who began a war of national liberation were ready to die, and this caused no one much surprise. It was considered obvious that a nation unwilling to pay for its freedom and independence with the blood of its finest sons did not have a strong desire for freedom and independence, was not ready for them, could manage without them, and was thus unworthy of them.
On the other hand, the invaders and colonizers never once doubted their right to suppress any attacks and to punish the rebels with death. The question of whether a conquered people deserved freedom or should remain in slavery was decided by practical means – on the results of the fighting. And the idea of complaining to the Pope, Mother Teresa, the Council of Druids, Baba Yaga or other rights defenders that the government forces were shooting at them was one that never entered the rebels’ minds. A colonizer did not feel that he should apologize and repent before the international community for suppressing a rebellion in his province.
But the era of paleo-wars is past. In neo-war, each side accuses the other of violations of "human rights" (as though "human rights" had any meaning in war), and publicly exhibits evidence of killings by the other side (imagine the Slavs complaining to the Germans about the Tatars: “they’ve killed the innocent civilians of Kozelsk!"). Each side demonstrates a human compassion for the civilians on the other side, while his TV screen or computer monitor shows an enemy propagandist complaining, accusing and sometimes arousing a certain measure of sympathy.
From one point of view, this situation indicates that mankind has made some progress in a moral direction. It has become unacceptable to provoke all-out hatred, a desire to eradicate the enemy, or to justify any and all atrocities. People speak out for appropriate measures, for a reduction in violence, for the protection of civilians. In reality, of course, the neo-wars turn out rather differently, but the mood of society become more humane. So far it is only the mood that has changed. But in the past, ideas of this kind were notably absent. When Taras Bulba felled the Polish women with his sword, spearing their infants and hurling them into the flames, compassion was a concept unknown to him. On the other hand, when he himself was burned alive, he was ready for it, and did not complain that the Poles had violated his rights.
However, even in Gogol’s time the cruelty of Bulba seemed excessive, both to the author and to his readers, and Nikolai Vasilyevich found himself compelled to note in his story that these were the wild and bad old days. Today, public opinion and individual morality are even more united in their uncompromising rejection of unfettered brutality, even towards the enemy and especially towards the civilians of any nation. Manners have softened, and this has done much to change the outward appearance of war. And from one point of view, I repeat, this is no bad thing.
On the other hand, however, neo-war has one or two features that may make it even worse than paleo-war.
1. In the old kind of war the adversaries met on the battlefield. Somebody won, somebody lost. And that was the end of the war. In the new kind of war the adversaries do not confront each other with all their forces, face to face on the battlefield. Nobody wins, nobody loses. This kind of war may never come to an end.
2. The doctrine of "zero casualties" induces the more powerful side in the conflict to focus on "long-distance", "contactless" warfare – on shelling and bombing, that is. This leads to even more innocent civilians being killed than was the case with the old methods.
3. The weaker side in the conflict, which does not have the ability to wage a "contactless" war with bombers from aircraft carriers or unmanned aircraft, because it does not possess them, responds with a maximum of “contact” warfare, sending suicide bombers on missions with homemade bombs. This leads to the deaths of even more innocent civilians than are killed in the shelling and bombing: at the height of a terrorist war it is mostly civilians who lose their lives.
4. In previous wars, the two sides had very specific goals: territory or tribute, and it was possible to negotiate. In neo-war the stated objectives of the two sides are so absurd that no negotiations are possible.
What did the United States want from Afghanistan before it went to war? For Afghanistan to give it Bin Laden? But if Afghanistan didn’t have Bin Laden, just as there turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, how could such a demand be met?
And what did Bin Laden want of the residents of New York City before Sept. 11, 2001?...
And what did Dokka Umarov want of the people of Moscow? For them not to pay taxes to the Russian state? Everyone in Russia already does all that they can to evade taxation, and they don’t need Umarov to force them.
A war without goals, without a front, without a general staff, without negotiations, without an end.
What are the sources of this, why is it that the confrontation in Russia is also taking this form? Of course the answer lies not only in the doctrine of "zero casualties”. Perhaps the doctrine itself is not the cause but rather the result of the new socio-political reality. But this adherence to the doctrine the Americans invented is a barometer that is slowly creeping down into the red zone of terrorism.
Since 1999 Russia’s military forces in Chechnya have followed the doctrine of "zero casualties". The commanders tried to minimize losses among Russian soldiers and officers. This led to the bombing and shelling, the tactic of not tackling the enemy head-on, but of blockading it and destroying it remotely. Along with casual spectators.
The doctrine of "zero casualties" and "long-distance warfare" reveals a dangerous weakness of spirit. Anyone who joins the army must be prepared to kill while looking the enemy in the eye, not just pressing a button several miles from the battlefield. And be ready to die himself. That is what the profession of a being a soldier means.
And a military commander must be prepared to send his soldiers into battle knowing that many of them will die. That is what the profession of being a soldier means.
A soldier is like a fireman. He walks into the fire. And may lose his life while saving the lives of others. But he is prepared for this. He has the skills and the equipment. Imagine the commander of a fire brigade saying: “No, I won’t send my men into that burning house – they might be killed! We’ll stand up here on the sidelines at a safe distance and spray the walls with our hosepipes.” And the fact that there are people inside the building, screaming --- well, that’s just how it is.
Absurd, isn’t it?
But that was exactly how the Russian commanders behaved when they shielded their men from death in hand-to-hand fighting, thereby risking the lives of innocent civilians when the militants’ alleged location was subjected to long-distance shelling. Instead of going to where the fighters really were alleged to be, and, if they were there, attacking them.
Perhaps that was what happened at Arshty. No one wanted to die. None of those for whom death is a profession.
The dying and killing are a profession. But in neo-wars it turns out that some people do the killing while others do the dying. Unmanned bombers fly above Afghanistan. They drop their bombs and kill the Taliban. The aircraft are controlled by satellites and computer software run by specialists in distant Nebraska. Who are just bespectacled technicians with a seven-hour working day, after which they go home to their wives and children.
Modern warfare is a strange business. No one knows where the enemy is. The difference between soldiers and civilians is wiped out. The hi-tech confrontation is filled with paradoxes. It’s a strange war, but war none the less. And in war there is no such thing as "zero casualties”. If the professionals in the law enforcement agencies do not put their lives at risk, the casualties occur among a civilian population that is defenceless and unprepared.
Picture: "Loot Ninja".
(Translation by DM)
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