Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Further Thoughts from Transformation of War

I keep not finishing this book, because suddenly it's midnight and I have to sleep.

Most recent observations:
  • Van Creveld's notes on the differences between Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim traditions of holy war are pretty interesting.
    • The Hebrew Old Testament holy war came in two flavors - one was ordered by God and commanded the utter destruction of an enemy tribe and all of their possessions, livestock, and buildings, lest the righteous be tempted by the works of the unclean.  The other was undertaken against an enemy (heathen) tribe without divine command, and involved killing all of their males and taking their women and possessions.
    • Christian holy war originally resembled Hebrew holy war (being inspired by the Old Testament) though with a different organizational structure (army rather than tribe), and softened rapidly during the crusades from being wars of extermination to being wars of subjugation.
    • Muslim holy war was originally a perpetual struggle between the House of Submission and the House of the Sword, and expected to end with either the death or conversion of pretty much everyone.  In practice, the whole multiple-caliphates thing has complicated this a bit, and the policy has tended to soften over time towards subjugation without necessarily conversion.
    • Heh, that'd be a fun mechanic - bonus reserve XP for getting proper last rites and burial, and lots of bonus reserve XP for dying on a mission from the church.  Or Iron Heroes-style glory points that let you interfere from beyond the grave and get canonized...
  • VC's distinction between existential war and rational war was very interesting to me.  He argues that rational war is that carried out with the rational interests of a government or organization in mind and a calculus of gain and loss used to measure the effectiveness of operations, while existential war is what occurs when a people is faced with oppression or extermination and resolves to "sell their lives dearly", with no regard for their own safety or the rules of war.  He notes a number of circumstances in which technologically-and-organizationally inferior groups have defeated rational forces through existential warfare (albeit at typically at tremendous bodycounts), and also notes that any sufficiently-long rational war tends to eventually become an existential war as the combatants' resources are stretched thin and the war's political justifications cease to adequately justify the bodycount and personal sacrifices involved.  This supports my long-held notion that in war and many other endeavours, those who are willing to sacrifice everything for their ends tend to be the most likely to triumph, but are also usually left wondering if it was worth it.  This "by any means necessary" theme is one which I have explored with several characters, and which I occasionally exercise in board/wargaming as well.  I have also witnessed the rational dungeoncrawl rapidly become the irrational, existential dungeoncrawl of extermination ("They killed Monty!").   So this seems a useful distinction to me in understanding strategy and the conduct of war and life in general.
  • Some of the historical mentions of cultural circumstances which made the conduct of war very different from our own would make for quality gaming.  Most notable:
    • In Greece, the city-states each claimed divine origin, and so to destroy or found a city-state would be to act against the gods.  Hence, war was largely confined to the borders and to trade interests.
    • The "just war" notions of the Roman and Medieval periods occasionally caused leaders to eschew certain advantages (fortifications, river crossings, ranged weapons) during battles, to prove that they actually had the moral high ground.
    • Likewise, just-war considerations led to small-unit battles deciding the fate of provinces by agreement between both concerned rulers.  This would make a lot of sense for adventuring parties...
  • Unfortunately, the end of this chapter, which attempts to counter the notion that every war is based on the community or nation's "rational interest" by arguing that interest is too broad a term to be useful, is largely sophistry bordering on philosophy.  Disappointing; sufficient evidence was laid out earlier that the conduct of war is often too disjointed to be rational.  No need to beat a dead horse with a featherduster for five pages, as is done here - it just makes the author look a bit silly in my estimation.
  • The chapter following, on why individuals fight, isn't much better.  A lot of philosophizing on the nature of man and woman and why folks risk their lives.  There were a few insights buried in there, though:
    • Honorable combat, as opposed to murder, massacre, and other crimes, is distinguished by rough parity of forces and risk of death for everyone involved.  The greater the risk, the greater the honor. 
      • This is particularly interesting because it was written before the beginning of the Drone Wars, which are the ultimate in combat without risk for the combatant. 
      • This is also particularly relevant to RPG gaming, where we see a lot of combats with utter disparity of forces and little risk of death for one side.
    • A weak force needs a great deal of morale to initiate war against a strong force, but every victory it earns (and even some defeats) serve to boost that morale.  A strong force fighting a weak force loses a lot of morale if defeated, and may even lose morale from dissatisfying victories which look more like massacres than proper battles.
    • In conducting anti-insurgency operations, it behooves a conventional force to try to avoid atrocities by imposing onerous regulations on the troops in the field.  If obeyed, these impede combat effectiveness and hurt morale ("We can't return fire until we've checked the regs and called battalion HQ...").  If disobeyed, discipline suffers, atrocities crop up, and scandals ensue.
    • There was a really hilarious two-paragraph note about automation in warfare and artificial intelligence, to the effect that computers are unsuitable for battlefield operations due to their inflexibility, and that if we can reduce war to equations soluble by computer, that form of war will come to an end because it won't be worth fighting.  On some level this did reflect our experience with Starmada - we took apart its equations and solved them and then there was no game.  On the other hand, I think if we really wanted to build deeply, truly scary autonomous systems, the binary nature of the transistor would not stand in our way.
  • The last chapter was pretty good, but with a fair bit of rehash from Rise and Decline of the State.  His hypotheses on the return of assassination and other "beheading the snake" sorts of operations seem to have come to pass, though I am, in the networked age, less optimistic about their effectiveness at destroying guerilla organizations than MvC was at the time of this writing.  It is also interesting that he argued that a new set of rules of war were likely to emerge, but I haven't heard of that happening yet.  Could just be a while in the making.
  • He also makes the point that religious warfare is coming back, and that Islam is attractive to pragmatic rebels because it does not shun violence like modern Christianity does.  One prediction he makes is that secular ideals will be fought and bled for and acquire religious overtones as a result.  This is something I hear on the internet from time to time, that liberal atheistic humanism needs to militarize (compromising its principles) because The Believers Are Coming For Us.  I am very curious to see how this plays out.
  • Professional soldiers may be hindered relative to their guerilla opponents by rules disallowing them to loot, which reduces their incentives to fight.  Interesting perspective. 
Anyway, that's enough Van Creveld.  Next book on my agenda is utterly unrelatable to gaming, so I...  guess it's probably going to get a bit quiet here.  Quieter than it's been, even.

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