Thursday, July 20, 2006

Back when I was a lowly adjutant in the sociology dept. of Cambridge University Press, I worked on a book that seemed interesting enough but didn’t quite strike me as a must-read at the time: How Democracies Lose Small Wars, by Gil Merom, professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.

I kept a copy of the book, and of course, given both the ongoing Iraq war and the current Israel-Lebanon conflict, it’s now one of the most pertinent books I can think of.

Its aim is simple: To explain how democracies lose small wars despite being superior militarily.

What is a small war, you ask?:

"A small war has the following distinct characteristics: It involves sharp military asymmetry, an insurgent that fights guerilla war, and an incumbent that uses ground forces for counterinsurgency warfare. The incumbent can be an indigenous government that fights on its own or with external participation, or a foreign power that imposes itself on the population."

The book focuses on the case studies of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon [the invasion in 1982], and the US in Vietnam. The main focus of Merom’s survey of each of these conflicts—which effectually proposes that the loss of such wars is inevitable—is on “the societal processes within democracies that are engaged in counterinsurgency.”

In a sense, democracies are doomed to lose these wars precisely because they are democracies. That is, they are inherently intolerant--or cannot achieve tolerance--- of the brutality it takes to win, so they fail in insurgency scenarios because they are unable to generate the necessary moral and political tolerance to the costs involved in such wars. These wars are thus lost ‘at home’ when a “critical minority mass shifts the center of gravity from the battlefield to the market place of ideas, "that is, as an educated middle-class responds to the “brutality involved in effective counterinsurgency,” and the level of casualties it takes to sustain it:

"My argument is that democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory. They are restricted by their domestic structure, and in particular by the creed of some of the most articulate citizens and the opportunities their institutional makeup presents such citizens."

The caveats, and ironies, here are of course easy to spot: for one, the issue of disproportionate response.

One passage from Merom’s analysis of the Israel-Lebanon conflict is particularly cogent: "The war in Lebanon…did not end once its dynamic phase was over, because the Israeli leadership never intended to confine itself to its single declared objective of pushing back the PLO artillery forty kilometers from the Israeli border..."

1 comment:

r. streitmatter-tran said...

Joao. You've an interesting post and frankly one that caught be off guard. While I might agree democracies find it difficult (or impossible) to retain support for prolonged conflict, I too am not as easily convinced about Merom's argument for the escalation of violence (and as you write, disproportionate response). It may be that the visibility of violence can be concealed from the public. I'll continue to think about this post as I have no way of accessing the book.