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.