Let Slip the Dogs of War

As the Colonel and I discussed the ubiquitous packs of wild dogs that roam Al Anbar, he explained  why he doesn’t see dogs the way he used to or at least that these dogs are different from those back home that we know and love.  During the 2nd Battle of Fallujah he said he saw one of these dogs carrying a leg, severed below the knee, still wearing the Adidas running shoe the late owner had worn that morning.  The dog kind of growled and ran off with its prize.   I have heard similar stories from others and they are as old as war.  I have read about in the epics, but looking at the faces of the men telling the stories of what they have seen themselves makes it a lot more real.

“Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feast for the dogs and birds…”

(That is the beginning of the Iliad, BTW.  When I studied Greek in college we had to recite it.  I forgot all my Greek, but I recall the story…and the cadence.  It can actually make your heart beat faster.  The Iliad is meant to be spoken and heard, and read silently.)

War has always been a part of human society and always will be.  We make a mistake to think that peace is natural.  Soon after a lot of people start thinking that way, we get a war.  Peace can be maintained only with effort, wisdom and proper institutions.  A lot of it involves heading off troubles before they become threatening because once the situation starts rolling down hill and develops a momentum of its own, it is hard to stop.  It is much easier to identify threats and propose solutions AFTER the fact and that is one of the tragedies.  If you effectively avoid a threat, nobody believes it was serious.   If you are successful enough for a long enough time, everybody becomes complacent.

The Romans used to say, “se vis pacem para bellum” which is a peace through strength saying.  For all their faults and bloody-minded aggressiveness (I heard someone characterize the Roman success as the extraordinary ability to insert sharp metal objects into the bodies of their enemies), the Romans managed to establish a general peace over Europe, n. Africa & w. Asia that lasted 200 years, something never achieved before or since.  Maybe they were on to something.  The Romans not only pursued war with remarkable determination, but also built the infrastructure of peace maintenance wherever they went.  Even here in Iraq, there are vestiges of Roman aqueducts and roads and it has been a while since the legions departed.

Some years ago I read “On the Origins of War & the Preservation of Peace”.  It is a good book and I recommend it. At Fletcher I attended a similarly themed course by Professor Richard Schultz.  I took good notes and I still have them. I have thought about the ideas presented a lot and I think about them even more now. 

War is a very complex and a very human activity.  Attempts to explain outbreaks of war by political, economic or technological means are always incomplete because war in not fully rational.  It is emotional and human.  We cannot prevent all wars and we cannot completely predict the outcomes of any of them because of the human factor.  Adversaries learn and adapt to each other in a dynamic way.  Neither our side, nor the enemy is ever the same.  The whole idea is to gain advantage by developing something new and unexpected, so being unpredictable is in the nature of war.  Nevertheless, although not all conflicts can be avoided, some can and others can be mitigated by continually working at the problem and paying attention to what is going on. 

When William T Sherman said “War is all Hell”, this was a admonition, not the words of a war monger.  Sherman introduced the concept of total war to the South in the hopes of ending the war sooner and preventing its recurrence.  When the war was over, he was generous to his defeated enemies, the idea being break your enemy’s ability to fight and then remove their incentive to resort to arms again.  I think that simple formulation is a good one.  Of course, it is simple, but not easy to carry out.  It is always tempting to take the easier course and not finish the job.  I hope we don’t do that here in Iraq – and I have reasonable confidence that we won’t – because I don’t want us to have to be back later. 

Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.