COIN, RMA and the Myth of Antiseptic War

The Interpreter has published a very powerful and moving letter from a reader and Afghanistan war veteran that’s really worth reading. Along with this post by Robert Farley, it serves as a junction between what had been two parallel threads I’ve been following on the myth of “antiseptic war.” One, to which the reader was responding, has to do with the relation between video games and networked war, which Sam Roggeveen discussed here.

The other has to do with COIN and population-centric warfare, and specifically the misconception of it as a “kinder and gentler” form of war, which Michael Cohen and Spencer Ackerman discussed in detail over the past few weeks.

Farley rightly places that discussion in the context of RMA, identifying the grainy video footage of smart bombs and precision munitions from the first Gulf War as the “original sin” of the antiseptic war illusion. And the Interpeter’s reader fills in the very real consequences — in the form of PTSD as well as other forms of emotional and mental anguish — of engaging in that kind of warfare from even the “safe” distance of a computer monitor.

Cohen has taken me to task in the past for describing COIN doctrine as a more “progressive” approach to warfare. And he has a point when he argues that the way in which COIN is being portrayed could serve to obscure the very destructive impact of what remains not only war, but a historically bloody form of war in terms of civilian casualties.

But while I admire and welcome his tenacity in insisting that we not mislead ourselves about COIN’s impact, my views are closer to Farley and Ackerman on this. On an operational level, the embrace of COIN can never eliminate the death and suffering that war inflicts on civilians, and if anything, it results in a more immediate exposure to that suffering on the part of the soldiers engaged in it — even as the integration of RMA-type networked warfare has also increased the exposure of remotely involved participants.

But the doctrine of COIN represents an acknowledgement that the military must not be institutionally indifferent to civilian casualties, because according to its own operational doctrine, those casualties now have, as Ackerman puts it, “strategic implications.”

The military has long understood this in terms of domestic public opinion. The notion of antiseptic war was itself a response to the impact that television news had on public opinion of the Vietnam War. What makes COIN doctrine significant is that it expands the significance of civilian casualties from the information battlefield to the actual battlefield — from the political plane to the tactical and strategic plane.

Will that change the brutal and bloody consequences of war? No. In fact, for now, Cohen has a case for arguing that it has mostly changed the way in which war is talked about. That is, its impact has been felt more on the information battlefield than on the actual battlefield.

But it has begun to impact the way in which war is planned, so as to minimize civilian suffering. And I believe it is also likely to impact the way in which war is weighed and measured before it is declared, so as to include civilian suffering into the calculation of its costs. Because by putting the military’s imprimatur on the central significance of those calculations to strategic outcomes, COIN doctrine means that they can no longer be dismissed as the ethical dilemmas of “weak-willed progressives.”

COIN doctrine will not change the fact that war is, and will remain, hell. But like the laws governing warfare, it is a conceptual framework that will ultimately limit the extent of that hell when it is visited, while curbing our eagerness to visit it in the future. And in that, it is an advance.