War and change: an email yarn

My friend Ken Payne and I had an email exchange over the past 48 hours over war and the eternal argument of change v. continuity.  It kicked off with Ken’s nice post here.

To cut a long chat short, when it comes to the shape and principles of war, Ken is more impressed by change, and I’m more impressed by continuity. Its not even clear how much we disagree, but here’s the transcript.

PP nice post. one quibble:

“A Britain trending towards social liberalism demands high standards of discrimination and proportionality even against its sworn enemies”

give the UK a 9/11 or two, and we’ll see…Liberalism when it feels embattled can become one of the most savage forces of all.

KP Only the one quibble? Thanks boss – I agree, we might be vicious in future, but we’ll do it in a different way to the Chinese.

PP possibly. it could be very interactive. in a war against the Chinese, there will be some symbiotic sameness, I suspect.

the whole proportionality/ethics/casualty aversion argument is a bit overplayed. the Brits were not nearly as worried about these things in
the Falklands or Gulf War One, because they broadly thought the wars were necessary. they think Iraq and Afghanistan are unnecessary,
so a single casualty is a much bigger deal. we don’t always need profound cultural explanations for these patterns.

KP Interactive – agree. But we can’t fight like a nation with that many men, and they can’t yet fight with our lethality and precision. In any
case, deterrence works, so we won’t be fighting them any time soon…

PP I guess my point really is that military affairs aren’t always poised on the tipping point of dramatic change. ie we aren’t always Prussia
in 1806, coping with revolutionary citizen armies and Napoleonic style. we therefore need to discriminate between what is new and what
only is the mirage of newness. Gulf War One and Kosovo were also heralded as new ‘ways of war’ but that proved premature. and I think
people are in danger of over-interpreting Afghanistan as the new era of casualty aversion, small wars and winning the people.

on your massed forces vs small forces point – the BEF in 1914 and the American Army in 1941 were pretty small-scale as well. the pressure of
events expanded them. so war doesn’t just reflect the interior nature of societies, but their will to adapt quickly to new external dangers.

KP: Those are all sound points – I agree re seismic change, and I agree re need for high intensity capability, I just don’t think high intensity now will look like high intensity before.. Take carriers, defunct in our lifetime, I predict, because vulnerable to swarming, and limited
at air defence.

PP: isn’t that why carriers have this huge armada around them? maybe they are a liability for that reason. I guess they need more testing to
prove or disprove your point. So the jury may be out. meanwhile, big countries are still investing in them, so they will persist for a few
years yet.

we might be in furious agreement. its not that the case for change is untrue. its half true. in contrast to your nicely measured analysis, there is way too much glib talk in defence about new paradigms and new eras, and a lot of ignoring the contrary evidence (russia-georgia, for example).

KP Of course, there are some reasons to invest in tech beyond its utility — that its obsolescence only becomes apparent through combat, or that it carries prestige, for example. Think of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Not that I’m saying carriers are defunct now, or for a while. In any case, once I start on maritime matters, I’ve strayed into dangerous waters…. like a drowning man clutching at straw, … or indeed any nautical metaphor you can think of that hints at desperate ignorance.

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