Monday, October 25, 2004

Coercive Violence

Almost forty years ago, an economist and strategic thinker named Thomas Schelling published a book entitled Arms and Influence. It began with some simple but important observations concerning the objectives served by the use of force. Force, Schelling said, can be used to take what a country wants or to keep what it has. “Forcibly a country can repel and expel, penetrate and occupy, seize, exterminate, disarm and disable, confine, deny access, and directly frustrate intrusion or attack.” But there is something else that force can accomplish: “force can be used to hurt. In addition to taking and protecting things of value it can destroy value. In addition to weakening an enemy militarily it can cause an enemy plain suffering.”

With this insight Schelling proceeded to explain the evolution of modern warfare from a point at which the ability to inflict punishment on an enemy depended on the ability to defeat that enemy in war to a point at which punishment could be inflicted prior to the military defeat of the enemy. Under the former circumstances, the conquest of a city or an entire state would enable the conqueror to seize economic assets and to enslave or kill the enemy’s civilian population. The latter situation, in contrast, is one in which the destruction of non-combatants and property occurs in the course of the war. The aerial bombardment of cities in World War II offers the classic example.
The understanding that military force can be used to punish as well as to seize or defend leads to Schelling's most important observation: when punishment can be meted out before the military defeat of the enemy is achieved, it can be deliberately employed as a means of coercion. And with weapons of mass destruction, the mere threat of such punishment can be used to coerce an adversary.

Much of modern warfare has as its object seizing territory or overthrowing governments or merely fending off the attacks of others. Superior military force is necessary to accomplish these ends. There is also, however, a great deal of fighting that occurs when one side has no hope of prevailing by virtue of brute force. Such warfare, far from being irrational, is based on the idea that one’s objectives can often be accomplished merely by inflicting sufficient pain to make the adversary yield. It is this–-the logic of coercive violence–-that explains suicide bombers in Israel and videotaped beheadings in Iraq. It also explains the difficulty of defeating insurgencies in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq. When a military contest becomes a matter of inflicting pain rather than demonstrating superiority, matching the enemy’s staying power (that is, the ability to endure pain) is more important than matching the enemy’s military power.

It was folly to have invaded Iraq. American military power made it easy to rout the Iraqi army and to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but American staying power-–regardless of who is elected president on November 2–-is unlikely ever to match the staying power of the Iraqi insurgency.