Great Expectations

EDITORS: Once a month Kenneth Payne, a Lecturer at King's College London, surveys the intellectual currents fermenting at Kings of War, the faculty and student blog of the Dept of War Studies at KCL. 


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My country is at war, and has been for almost a decade. There's an election coming up, and as you'd expect from a war-weary public, questions of grand strategy and operational art have dominated the campaign. ...Or not. Sadly, the defence debate seems to have boiled down to whether there are enough helicopters in Helmand. Beyond that, there's a stunning lack of strategic literacy. Except, that is, on your favourite strategy blog, where Rob Dover has been manfully unpicking the party positions on defence [here and here]. It didn't take long - the amount of foreign policy stuff in the prime ministerial foreign policy debate was, he noted, sparse. Afghanistan was, all three men agreed, a 'priority' and it was essential to 'win'. Beyond that, nada. There is, though clear water between the two big parties and the upwardly mobile Lib Dems on nuclear deterrence - the Lib Dems markedly skeptical about Trident. And their man Nick Clegg didn't miss his chance to bring up, once again, that 'illegal' invasion of Iraq. Beyond that, the debates were, as Rob saw it, one of those tedious boxing matches beloved of purists with much hugging and punching underneath, and not enough wild swinging.

The Faceless Bureaucrat, by contrast, loves a barroom brawl, and took up the Afghanistan cudgels with a post on David Miliband, Afghanistan and Carl Schmitt. Yes, that's right, German philosophy fans, that Carl Schmitt. Miliband had taken to the pages of the highbrow New York Review of Books to outline his vision for peace in our time. 'Violence of the most murderous, indiscriminate, and terrible kind started this Afghan war,' he declared, but 'politics will bring it to an end.' Who could argue with that? FB, of course: 'Fair enough. Violence, bad; politics, good.  Go fetch Squealer: it is certainly worthy of being written on the Wall of the Barn.' Aside from being platitudinous, Miliband missed the point - a point central to  Schimtt's pessimistic view of politics: that 'there can be no politics without violence'. Hang on though - Luxemburg manages it, surely? FB's point, I'm sure, is not that violence is inevitable, but that the power imbalances inherent in political wrangling mean that always, at the back of our mind is the potential for disputes to turn nasty. Political solutions are always temporary negotiations, not permanent settlements - and in an immature democracy like Afghanistan, it's sensible to bet on that tendency to violence enduring for some time yet.  As FB concluded: 'Politics will bring the West’s war in Afghanistan to an end, to be sure. But violence will accompany it all the way.'

What's the difference between a doctor and an anthropologist, Thomas Rid wanted to know. He was reflecting on a letter from hundreds of 'concerned anthropologists', opposed to the use of social scientists by the US military in Afghanistan, in a bid to understand the local 'human terrain' - or population, as it used to be called. The programme 'threatens the ethical integrity of anthropology, according to one prominent practitioner. Its underlying premise is that 'Like medical doctors, anthropologists are ethically bound to do no harm. Supporting counterinsurgency operations clearly violates this code.' Not so, argued Thomas. Among the differences is a key distinction in intentionality: 'Anthropologists act to observe — doctors observe to act,' with the result that 'Occasionally, doctors actually do harm — because they don’t enjoy the anthropologist’s luxury of inaction.' Doctors get stuck in, in an effort to change things for the better. Perhaps anthropologists should too. That certainly sounds like the Human Terrain Team members to me. Any way, sitting around pontificating on ethics is not itself consequence free. As Thomas concludes 'Inaction is not risk free. In this case, it might actually cause more harm. Just face it: there is no ethically clean choice. Both risk and moral complicity cannot be avoided, they can only be managed'. There were, as you might have expected, one or two comments... For my part, I agreed with Thomas. I see lots of problems in the way the military seeks to use anthropology, and the social sciences more broadly. But the only way to consistently oppose the use of anthropology in any war is to be a thoroughgoing  pacifist. I think the 'concerned' anthropologists have muddled their opposition to the activist and preventive foreign policy of the Bush administration with a blanket judgment about power and force. An interesting blind spot from professionals who presumably spend a fair amount of time thinking about violence and society.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, the Iranian army was on the move. And, boy did they look good.

Aside from being thoroughly entertained by their sartorial elegance, I spent some time this month thinking about panic - in particular why civilians under aerial bombardment seem to be so resilient. Why doesn't aerial coercion work in the way that Guilio Douhet thought it would? A friend sent me an extraordinary clip of BBC newsreader Bruce Belfrage in 1940 carrying on unflappably reading the evening bulletin as a delayed action bomb went off in the room behind him, killing seven colleagues. So, how did the populations of German cities stoically endure hugely destructive bombing raids, explicitly intended to shatter their morale? I saw an answer in the research of psychologist Martin Seligman into learned helplessness. As legendary French historian and resistance fighter Marc Bloch wrote 'Men are made so that they will face expected dangers in expected places a good deal more easily than the sudden appearance of deadly peril from behind a turn in the road which they have been led to suppose is perfectly safe'. The Germans knew the raids were coming, and they hunkered down and endured - returning time and again to their shattered cities. As Robert Pape wrote, in his excellent study of aerial coercion: 'Low to moderate levels of punishment inspire more anger than fear, heavy bombardment produces apathy, not rebellion'.