Policy vs Punishment

Posted By July 11, 2004 No Comments

Human relations and the fundamentals of conflict are really not that complicated – despite the modern need for “policy” and over-rationalization to explain everything. Most of what one needs to know about relations between interests and nations can be observed in any schoolyard, as children start to assert themselves and find their limits.

It is in the schoolyard where one may find out about the bully within and learn to resist it. Hopefully, the schoolyard is also where one learns how to stand up against aggression by others, or learns to come to the aid of the weak. One of the most glorious things that can happen is seeing a bully suddenly confronted by his victims and overthrown.

It is possible that these vital lessons are not being learned in these ‘kinder’ and more ‘compassionate’ era – especially given the very close supervision school children receive when at play nowadays. Moreover, where the physical aspects of assertiveness and defence are repressed, non-physical bullying may become more intense; and that vital lesson to wannabe grade school elites that the hoi polloi will not always remain passive may also be missed.

One key lesson, which is valid from schoolyards to the massive struggles between coalitions of states, is best summed up by Karl von Clausewitz. He argued that violence is a form of expression and a means of communication.

Does this sound abstruse? The message delivered by violence can be quite simple; especially when turning on a bully, a sneak-thief or a petty vandal in the schoolyard and hitting him until he cries “Enough!” In short, one is punching in a lesson: “Have you had enough yet?”; “Are you going to stop now?”, and, “Have you learned your lesson?”

The same dynamic is at work in war. In the end, all the grand strategy, rates of applied industrial production, the harnessed will of the people, the cunning generalship and the valor of the soldiers comes down to a single end. This single end is what Clausewitz described as the imposition of one’s will on the enemy. Whack! “Will you stop now?” Whack! “Give up yet?”

Some entities remain stubborn (There was the one would-be bully who consecutively lost fights with the author at age 13, both his younger brothers, and then went after his little sister… Soon after, he clearly learned that this last act was an especially bad idea). There are states that, despite all our wishful thinking about sanctions, stiff diplomatic notes and glowering editorials in our newspapers, hold out against all reason. Historically, only the fall of their capital cities persuaded some truculent malcontents to see the light of reason – though not even this worked on Hitler and Hussein. Totalitarians are always happy to ignore all pressure until their last army is broken. The will of a democratic people, once committed, can sometimes also be hard to break.

Other entities can be stubborn too. One frequent example is the non-state actor with few assets, a taste for non-Trinitarian warfare (e.g. raiding or terrorism), and a lack of Western rationalism. Groups like this, particularly if their members enjoy engaging in warfare and seldom pause to count their casualties, can be hard to beat. The Apaches in the American Southwest, the Chechens in the 1850s and 1990s, or various tribes of Pathans come to mind.

In the long history of warfare, the most common contest has been between the soldier (an employee of the state) and the warrior (a combatant from a non-state entity). The first has usually been sent to create stability, the second is often looking for opportunities to engage in rapine, looting, blood feuding, etc. One of the oldest techniques that the solider has for winning this conflict is the punitive expedition.

Once again, the Apaches have slipped off the Reservation, or the Pathans have infiltrated though the Khyber Pass, or some German tribesmen have paddled over the Rhine. Farms have been torched, women raped, throats have been slit, and then the warriors have scampered back to their usual haunts.

So, once again, the Buffalo Soldiers, or the Gordon Highlanders, or the Legionaries of XXII Primigenia have to head off into the wilderness, and… Smack! (The goat herd is dead), Smack! (The crops just got burned in the fields), Smack! (The chief’s house is in ruins). A dozen soldiers are probably dead, and though they are mourned they can be readily replaced. Probably, a couple of dozen warriors (or more) are slain and they won’t be replaced for a generation or so. The survivors will have to answer the unvoiced questions: “Have you had enough yet?” “Will you stay peaceful now?”

History tells us that the Apaches were eventually tamed; the sundry tribes of the Pathans learned to stay quiet for decades at a time, and the Germans stayed on their side of the Rhine until Rome fatally weakened. Punitive tactics work. Alas, contemporary Western notions of what is right now mitigate against their use.

In a broad sense, punitive tactics violate the Geneva Conventions – those rules which Western Soldiers (only!) abide by, largely because of distinctions between “military” and “civilian” status which have next to no bearing in most contemporary situations. Yet in most ways, punitive tactics are a merciful measure as they shorten conflicts by going right to the heart of a problem and excising it. It should also be pointed out that, usually, punitive tactics were only earmarked for conflicts of soldiers against warriors; wars between states could see such tactics reined in.

Today, we eschew the practical and direct as a host of actors on the periphery of a conflict insist on ‘rational’ purposes for our activities. They seek indirect tentative and unrealistic solutions for problems that are best met with a quick, rapid response. Still, there are ways….

In May 2004, an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) armored personnel carrier blew up in the southern end of the Gaza strip. As their comrades searched for all the body parts of the six dead Israeli soldiers (Israeli practices require that every identifiable fragment of a corpse be retrieved for burial), Hamas gunmen open fire. While the Israelis want to leave Gaza, they will not do so if their departure gives Hamas the illusion of a ‘victory’. Therefore, it was time to smack someone around.

In response to the deaths of their six soldiers, the IDF stepped up its presence in southern Gaza for a week. Ostensibly, the IDF was looking for tunnels used by smugglers (of which there are many), but what they really did was stay until about 40 ‘warriors’ had been killed and several dozen homes that had been used for tunnels or as firing posts were demolished. Then the operation was declared to be successful and was terminated.

Citing Gaza, in the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is perhaps not the best example of the successful use of punitive expeditions, but one should note that Israel is successfully using all of the tactics that have served to protect civilized states from barbarians: Punitive expeditions, security barriers, and collective responsibility (e.g. bulldozing the family homes of Shaheed). Israel is winning.

In Pakistan, the Northwest Frontier is now called a ‘Tribal Area’ and remains a region that is notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to control. This spring, the Pakistani Army announced a policy that went clear back to the days of the Raj – “Collective responsibility”. This meant that punitive damage would be inflicted on villages that continued to harbor ‘Foreign fighters’ (e.g. al Qaeda and Taliban members). A number of the latter soon cleared out for unknown parts in advance of a major Pakistani army sweep.

Over 80 years ago, the RAF was attempting to keep order in the same parts of Iraq that now give the US-led Coalition such trouble. Unruly Sunnis and enraged Wahhabis were in revolt. In the early 1920s, when a village turned out to be hostile, the RAF would first drop leaflets advising the inhabitants to clear out immediately. Meanwhile, out in the distance, the flocks and herds of the villagers were strafed from the air. As soon as the inhabitants cleared out, their homes would be bombed. The rebellion ended relatively quickly and inexpensively for the British.

In the current Jihadist conflict, it might be time for the swift hand to appear once more: An ancient time-honored remedy that mercifully quells trouble quickly reinforces stability, and which (generally) tends to punish the guilty and spare the innocent. Imagine how much nicer the world would be, if the insurgents who dream of ambushing their next set of aid-workers, kidnapping their next civil engineers, or decapitating their next journalist are swiftly and severely thrashed, and then the survivors are asked “Had enough yet?” Eventually, the answer will be “Yes”.