Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Reality and Consequences of Asymmetric Warfare

Much has been written about the metaphor and the reality of “The War on Terror”. Unfortunately, not many lessons have been learned.

The usual short definition of terror is the intentional killing of innocents. It is quite clear that when someone blows themselves up in a disco and takes innocents with them, an act of terror has be committed. It is less clear when innocents are killed in what is usually called an act of war. The occupation of a country usually results in some form of insurgency if the citizens of that country think an injustice has been done. The acts of the insurgents usually take the form of clandestine attacks from cover or suicide bombings of various forms. Such acts of insurgency are usually countered by a violent response from the occupying force, which almost always has modern weapons at its disposal. Since it is difficult to find insurgents because they attack and then hide, usually among the civilian population, the counterattack usually involves the bombing or destruction of a suspected hideout or other location where the suspects are thought to be. This minimizes the exposure of the occupying force to counterattack. In the process, innocents can and usually are killed or injured. This form of attack by the occupying force is usually justified on the basis of combating the initial attack by the insurgents and the innocent life lost is called “collateral damage”.

The consequences of such actions and reactions are not often perceived in their totality. The occupying force considers justice to be done, in an eye for an eye form of revenge. But, the insurgents view it as a further injustice, in the cause they are fighting in the first instance, the occupation. And the innocent victims view it as a fresh injustice, since they had harmed no one up to that point, and it is usually not their decision where insurgents decide to hide. Such a reaction often moves the innocents and their sympathizers into the camp of the insurgents. In this sense, the effects of the attack and counterattack are counter productive to both parties. The occupying force clamps down harden on the insurgents and the insurgents are motivated to strike out once again. The result is an escalation of violence.

One aspect of such encounters that is not often perceived is that to the insurgents the counterattack is just as much an act of terror and the original incident. It kills innocents when it could have been avoided, except for the revenge sought by the occupying force. So the metaphor, “war on terror” becomes the mantra of both parties, solving nothing. Nothing has been done to examine the grievances of the two parties and seek a solution to the injustices. It becomes simple a matter of who can persist the longest, and in some cases it has been decades.

This is not war in the conventional sense where well equipped enemies battle for territory. It is more akin to crime, like the clan battles of the Hatfields and McCoys, with the exception that one side holds most of the cards, so the other side has to move to less and less conventional methods, which usually results in an escalation of brutality. Add to this, religion or ethnic differences and you have what usually amounts to an insoluble problem.

The effects of such conflicts are different for the occupying, well equipped force and the inadequately equipped insurgency. Simple means of war such as rifles, grenade launchers, and explosives are relatively cheap and available. Modern means such as helicopters, cruise missiles, drones, and the electronics to operate them is very expensive. Add to this the difference in the value placed on individual lives by the warring parties and there is no obvious winner. The modern force spends itself into bankruptcy or destroys the will of the affluent society backing them up while the insurgency, having little to live for anyway (occupation saps the will to succeed) and a nearly endless supply of expendable lives can fight on for decades.

At some point, someone should begin to realize that there are better things to do in life and decide that talking, trading, and backing off is a better alternative. What stands in the way is usually religious zeal to prove that your way is the right way and the other guy is either evil or deranged.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


There is much confusion these days about democracy, theocracy, philosophy, ideology, politics, and basic human rights. Our current administration has the noble goal of spreading democracy around the world, but considering the state of the world today, what could result is just as likely to be an authoritarian theocracy as a liberal pluralistic democracy like ours, that respects human rights. Given a choice, a deeply religious majority is more likely to vote for a government based on the tenets of their religion than one where interest groups vie for control and share power in a questionably stable way.

Our country was settled by people fleeing countries with a state religion, and persecuting those of other religions. At the time, almost all people were religious, having no scientific basis for explaining naturally occurring phenomena other than religion. Hence, it’s no surprise that this country was founded by people who had at least a rudimentary belief in a higher power that might be controlling things. But, it wasn’t long before people of the same religion were in control of the town meeting hall in Salem and burning witches, illustrating that once a single religion predominates over others, and controls the government, irrational behavior is likely to follow. If that example isn’t convincing enough, we only have to look to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the threat we are facing from extremists of the Islamic faith around the world.

Fortunately, when our country was founded, there were a few cooler heads that prevailed in spite of their religious inclinations. In secret, they came up with a constitution that called for freedom of religion, but restricted government interference in religion, a pretty wise decision by a bunch of not so old aristocratic, land owning white men. They enshrined these famous words in a declaration of independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It makes no difference who the Creator was, most of us would all agree that, as individuals, we are entitled to certain inalienable rights which should not be infringed by government or any other voice of the majority. Today we call these human rights, and have enshrined them in our bill of rights and enumerated them in documents agreed to by almost all members of the United Nations.

We are now faced with a resurgence of deeply dedicated religious people. We call them fundamentalists because they believe and adhere to the fundamental teachings of their religion, as given in ancient texts which they consider infallible. These people value their religious beliefs higher than their own lives. When this condition exists, rational behavior based on evidence cannot be expected. There is no a priori respect for inalienable human rights as enshrined in our founding documents.

So we have some decisions to take regarding how we conduct our own affairs, and how we confront others who may threaten our way of life. We cannot confuse religiosity with ideology or political persuasion. We cannot confuse “democracy”, rule by the majority, with a government limited in its powers to curtail human rights. Can we rely on polyarchy, the rule by competing interest groups, to preserve human rights and prevent domination by religious majorities? I’m not very confident we can.

In the end, we may have to accept some measure of authoritarianism to protect human rights from infringement by religious majorities, as is now current policy in Turkey. After centuries of rule by caliphates and sultanates Mustafa Kemal Atatürk enshrined a Security Council of the military to ensure that a secular regime would always be in control, in spite of the fact that Turkey is overwhelming an Islamic country, and once was the seat of power of the Islamic Sultans. This structure is being challenged today by Islamic fundamentalists.

As a goal for our country, aren’t we better off championing human rights and structures to secure them, over democracy. It is impossible to be secure if the ruling authority is guided by irrational precepts of age old dogma, rather than a well founded faith in the goodness of human nature and the inalienable rights of individuals, which has served us well for over 200 years. To this end, we must not only be conscious of how other countries are ruled, but we must take great care to ensure that our own government doesn’t come under similar pressures to what Turkey now faces.

Capitalism vs. Capitalism

We are seeing today a conflict between modern unfettered capitalism and the polite capitalism of the bazaar that developed in the high middle ages and continued into twentieth century America

In ancient times the only real capitalism is what we call here polite capitalism, typified by bazaars and open markets where farmers and craftsmen traded the products of their labor with others who specialized in different activities. Although the bargaining was as hard as any time in history, this form of capitalism was considered a respectable way of increasing the welfare of all, and underhanded dealings, trickery, and speculation were viewed as undermining the process.

Capitalism changed in the last couple centuries when markets expanded from the direct exchange of goods and services in bazaars, to unfettered modern capitalism, with the introduction of central banking, corporations, trusts, holding companies, stock markets, and speculation. The scale of projects during the industrial revolution and subsequent development of assembly line manufacturing and railroads necessitated such changes to a great extent. But, along with such concentrated control of capital came practices which were inconsistent with the polite capitalism conducted by individuals in earlier times. A class of workers devoted to the mechanics of financial transactions, removed from the real reasons for investing developed. They soon learned that more profit was to be made from churning assets, developing sophisticated derivatives to mitigate risk, and increasing the volume of financial exchanges, than could be made from providing investment capital to industrialists and entrepaneurs. In this environment, speculation rose to equal importance to investing, and clever use of deceptive techniques to make money from handling money became respectable.

But, polite capitalism never really disappeared. Even in advanced western countries, polite capitalism still exists, although it is facing a great challenge. Drive through any small town in America and you will notice that the gasoline prices are nearly the same everywhere. You might call it collusion, but it’s really not. It is more a respect for neighbors that know each other well, and all of which must make a living in trying times. They would rather compete on providing the best service, rather than strictly on the price of the commodities they sell.

So along comes Wal-Mart, imported consumer goods, cheap foreign labor, outsourcing, cutthroat competition and all the other products of unfettered capitalism. The prices of goods and services drop, but home grown businesses soon are forced to close and polite capitalism begins to disappear. It’s neighbor against neighbor, chasing the lowest price, since the wages drop even quicker than the price of goods and services and small town America is on hard times.

The result of the transition from polite capitalism to unfettered capitalism is often a loss of ethical business practices and a shift to impersonal economic interactions, along with a transfer of wealth to those most skilled in financial matters rather than in providing exceptional craftsmanship. The mass produced products tend to be more standardized, but variety and quality is more erratic. Handcrafted products become prohibitively expensive for the average consumer.

We may want to consider whether we are losing or winning in transition from polite capitalism to unfettered capitalism.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

National Newspaper Week

Please, members of the press, help us open a discussion of our fragmenting moral framework

This week is National Newspaper Week. The public depends on newspapers and other media to keep informed of events and assess their consequences. This not only requires an accurate record of events but also the background surrounding the events and a moral and ethical framework through which the events are viewed.

In recent year the national framework of conventional wisdom, assumptions and taboos has deviated considerably from the framework used by the rest of the world. I ask the press to take the opportunity of National Newspaper Week to examine why this has occurred, and open a discussion of why our world view is diverging from the rest of the world, whether we are on the right track or the wrong one, and how the differing views can be reconciled. To illustrate how things are changing I offer a couple examples.

Religious influence on government

USA Today reports that the Congress, at President Bush’s urging, has just passed legislation that would bar detainees from challenging their detention in courts, a change that goes against a couple hundred years of American history. This has been discussed in the press from most angles, legal, ethical and moral. The one angle not discussed has been religious influence on such decisions. Why the change now? Is it related to the ethnic and religious background of the detainees? Have we divided the world into people that are evil and those that are good? If so, is this because of our religious beliefs? This is not a subject that should be taboo and above discussion if it is changing long standing principles that have served us well.

The morality of warfare

There was a time when emperors and kings lead their troops into battle. There was a time when stealth and surprise attacks were dishonorable. Obviously we’ve come a long way from those times. But even recent world wars were fought with a near parity of forces, comparably equipped, at least at the start. There was some honor in such wars, even though circumstances deteriorated and masses of civilians became targets, ostensibly to avoid even larger casualties, or justified on the basis of the support of the general population for the acts of the military.

This is not the situation we face today. We have countries equipped with sophisticated weapons of massive destructive power and extreme accuracy battling resistance movements not tied to any government and without any modern weapons other than rifles and grenade launchers. This is the epitome of asymmetric warfare. When an aggrieved group of people finds they have no means to challenge their occupation or displacement by an enemy with a modern army and the support of superpowers what are they to do but surrender or use unconventional methods like terror to achieve what they view as justice? In our frame of reference, we have defined such terror as despicable and the worst form of brutality, even though those engaging in it may consider it so important that they are willing to give up their life in the cause, and even though respected countries have used it to win independence.

On the other hand, we sanction the use of smart bombs of deadly accuracy and devastating explosive power operated from safe quarters miles away to attack domestic facilities that may contain many civilians, to assassinate a single cruel dictator with which we have a conflict. This is the way we went after Saddam at the start of the Iraq war and killed innocent civilians in a restaurant in Iraq. We don’t call this terror. We call this collateral damage. It cannot be taboo to challenge this form of warfare. Is this form of warfare honorable, or have we completely dismissed the concept of honorable warfare?

The weakening of rules against torture is another way we have voluntary relinquished the high ground in our claim to be honorable and humane people. Why are we doing this? There may be unique circumstances that occur once or twice in a lifetime that require breaking the rules to prevent massive loss of innocent life. But, why is this something that we want to write into law? Is this rational? Or are we driven by emotions or religious zeal to repeat the brutalities of the past that we have tried for centuries to rise above?

Please, members of the press, help us open this discussion

The examples I have given here a just a couple ways we seem to have been regressing as a society into the brutal ways of the past. The rest of the civilized world is not with us on this. They have a different frame of reference. Are we to follow the ways of those we consider evil, or are we to lead by maintaining our honor and humanity. The press can help us here by breaking old taboos against the discussion of religion and in challenging a frame of reference which is no longer in concert with world opinion. We should have learned by now that the enemy that currently threatens us is operating out of deep religious conviction and zeal, and as a result is behaving irrationally. Do we want to join them in their irrational ways or do we want to examine our own premises and challenge our changing worldview of what is honorable and moral?