May 14, 2012

Monday Afternoon Wisdom

Richard Betts on the difference between policing and war:

Some attempts to use force in this multilateral and limited manner – such as in the second phase of the Somalia intervention in 1993, “pinprick” punishments in Bosnia before 1995, or the initial assault on Serbia in 1999 – proved ineffectual and surprisingly costly. This was because the U.S. and NATO forces found themselves acting not as police suppressing individuals or small groups, but in acts of war, confronting organized mass resistance by force of arms. This was discomfiting to those who unleash force for humanitarian reasons because they do not like the idea of killing people and breaking things even for good purposes. They hope for clean application of force without casualties, or at least combat in which only the guilty are destroyed and large numbers of civilian deaths are an aberration.


War, in contrast, inevitably hurts the innocent as well – and as anyone who has studied or experienced war will insist to those who hope otherwise, the stress is on inevitably. Deliberate targeting of civilians may be prevented, but the nature of real war is that accidental collateral damage is a regular cost of doing business. …


Law enforcement aims to protect the rights and interests of individuals by apprehending transgressors and holding them to account for their crimes, and letting the guilty go free rather than unfairly harm an individual innocent. In war, the ultimate communitarian enterprise, the priorities are reversed; many individual interests are sacrificed for the nation’s collective interests. Soldiers die for their countrymen, not themselves, and civilians caught in cross fires are simply out of luck. This fundamental empirical difference between policing and war is not easily grasped by people of good will. Before unleashing force they need to recognize that war by its nature entails terrible injustice to many individuals, and that acceptance of that injustice as the lesser evil is implicit in any decision to send the military into combat.

Buy his excellent new book American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security here.