Concern over the trajectory of the on-going American military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan has combined with memories of Vietnam and its aftermath to fuel interest in conflict termination, the process by which wars are ended. While we have paid a great deal of attention to how wars get started—and even more attention on how to fight wars—we tend not to talk very much about how a war should end. It is surely an understatement to assert that books and articles about conflict termination are outnumbered a thousand to one by works on the manner in which wars are waged and won. What comes after the military leaves? How should a peace be constructed and what does "peace" mean after a war? How best do we create a successful outcome? For us? For the country we leave? Given the problems now apparent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how and when we get out of these wars may be the most important decisions we make in these long and important conflicts.
It is my intention here to move toward redressing the imbalance. There is no shortage of examples in history of both successful and failed strategies for ending wars. Though I will not explicitly address our options for extricating ourselves from our military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, concern for what they might be and their consequences are at the heart of this essay. In consequence, I will pay particular attention to wars in the relatively recent past involving attempts by external powers to overcome insurgencies, rebellions and revolutionary movements in other states.
What is War? Peace? Insurgency?
The necessary starting place is our understanding of the nature of war, what it is and how it is waged. That understanding is a product of the Age of Reason – the enlightenment of the 18th century - and assumes implicitly that wars are mostly fought between nation states and involve the clash of armed forces. That understanding is reflected in the two dictionary definitions below.
war \ n,a (1): a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between political units (as states or nations) .
Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged (Springfield, Massachusetts, 1981)
war, n, – 1. a contest between nations or states (international war) or between parties in the same state (civil war), carried on by force of arms for various purposes, as to settle disputes about territorial possessions, to maintain rights that have been interfered with, to resist oppression, to avenge injuries, to conquer territory to extend dominion, etc.; a conflict of arms between hostile parties or nations; open hostility declared and engaged in.
Webster's Monarch Dictionary, unabridged (Chicago, 1916)
Note that the second, and older, of the two definitions includes not only civil war, but conflict involving "parties" as well as nations. Still, the emphasis on "open hostility declared and engaged in" has a whiff of the Age of Reason about it. If these definitions are representative of our society's understanding of war—and I believe they are—then we have some intellectual re-tooling to do. I offer my own working definition by way of a starting point.
war, n, – organized, socially sanctioned armed violence employed by opposing groups against one another, normally for political, social or economic purposes.
In encompassing conflict among non-state entities so long as they enjoy social sanction within their host societies this definition more closely approximates the realities of both the recent and remote past. To say that wars are waged for political, social or economic purposes does not exclude objectives that we might consider irrational or criminal. If we define political purposes to mean the ability to exercise power over others, ethnic cleansing and even genocide become political objectives. It is important to recognize that wars – even civil wars and insurgencies – are fought for real reasons and with objectives that are rational, at least to the participants.
Based on the assumption that peace is the desired outcome of conflict termination—and bearing in mind that for some entities the only desirable peace is that of the grave—we must consider the inherent nature of peace. It is not, as we tend to assume, the mere absence of war as defined in the traditional Euro-centric sense as discussed above. I offer the following:
peace \ n, – a state of social harmony in the which inherent tensions among nations and/or their component socio-political groups are dealt with effectively enough that the threshold of war is not crossed <can be maintained through satisfaction of needs and aspirations and/or by force>.
Working definition by Mr. Tom Doumaux.
Ohio State University, Class of 1992
How to End Wars: The Lessons of History
A certain conventional wisdom holds that an unreasonable expenditure of blood and treasure is required to suppress insurgencies mounted with broad popular support against an external occupying power and its indigenous allies. But even with this broad definition of peace that is clearly not the case. The British, for example, were successful in suppressing the communist-led insurgency in Malaya during the 1950s. We and our Philippine allies successfully suppressed the communist-led post-World War II Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines. So let us turn to several case studies to explore these issues more closely.
The story of the Vietnamese insurgency begins, appropriately enough, with the allied conflict termination strategy for Asia in World War II. In contrast to the European theater, where in the final analysis the war was brought to a close by advancing Allied troops, conflict termination in Asia on a local basis was in the hands of the Japanese. This was both because the Japanese still occupied most of their empire when they agreed to surrender and because Allied Generalissimo Douglas MacArthur prohibited the entry of Allied forces into Japanese-occupied territory until the formal signing of the peace treaty, a period of just over two weeks. The only exceptions were small detachments of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and AGAS (Air-Ground Aid Service) sent in to succor prisoners of war held by the Japanese. Taking advantage of this period of operational freedom, the Japanese in Indochina were able to render significant aid to the communist-led Vietminh, aid that effectively jump-started the anti-French insurgency.
The results are too well known to merit repetition and we can turn directly to French conflict termination, negotiated in the 1955 Geneva Accords and implemented on the ground in Indochina. In a diplomatic settlement that speaks more to Soviet and Chinese ambivalence about an independent, communist-led, North Vietnam than to French negotiating skills or American influence, the French surrendered outright only North Vietnam, securing independent, non-communist governments in Laos, Cambodia and—most pivotally—South Vietnam, where they continued to exercise a large degree of political control. The agreement provided for an orderly withdrawal of French forces from North Vietnam and for a parallel withdrawal of a significant body of Vietminh from South Vietnam. The period allotted for the exchange was sufficiently long, from June of 1954 until May of 1955, that the French were able to arrange for the evacuation from North Vietnam of a considerable number of Vietnamese who had supported the French and other anti-communists, notably Catholics.