Tragic news that 30 hostages were killed in by Algerian forces trying to free them from their Islamist captors underscore how hard it is to carry off rescue operation without causing heavy casualties. Reuters reports:
Thirty hostages and at least 11 Islamist militants were killed on Thursday when Algerian forces stormed a desert gas plant in a bid to free many dozens of Western and local captives, an Algerian security source said …
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, the source told Reuters. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the rest, as well as of perhaps dozens more who escaped, were unclear.
The reality of average combat probably comes as a shock to a world accustomed to the cinematic portrayals of the nearly superhuman exploits of the SEALS and SAS. But these units are the Mozarts of mayhem, and their members are drawn from the right hand tail of the distribution. Just as Mozart is unlikely to perform in person for you, as the Islamist conflict spreads, people caught in the middle will find their lives depend on soldiers from the middle or left hand tail.
The Algerians probably did their best. But in reality their task was hard. If the world is in shock it is because the hegemon made it look so easy. For seventy years the seas have remained open to navigation. Airplanes crisscross the skies with impunity. No one could seriously disrupt the peace. Why when Saddam, who had one of the largest armies in the world took on the hegemon, the US forces went through them as if they weren’t even there.
The ease was only apparent, a product of the overmatch between the hegemon and the challenger. But as the hegemon retreats and it becomes every country for itself, no longer will the world have the luxury of reviling the 101st Airborne, or the 2nd Armored division. As these units leave the field, they peanut gallery have to do it themselves. There will be less of an overmatch. And countries will discover that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
If the conflict broadens across the Sahara or crosses over into Europe, the character of violence will become at once more amateur yet more total. For surely the militaries of Mauretania, Niger, Chad and the Sudan are unlikely to be much better than the Algerians.
People who have no experience at storming a building by going through the walls are apt to just burn the whole thing down. They don’t know how to do anything else. Armies accustomed to garrison duty or suppressing internal populations will use the same brutal methods they learned from routine when faced with a new enemy. They are not — in the short term at least — about to become SEALS.
The experience of Europe during the 30 years War is reminder of how “uncivilized” warfare was. War is always uncivilized, there are degrees of barbarity even in inhumanity.
A major consequence of the Thirty Years’ War was the devastation of entire regions, denuded by the foraging armies (bellum se ipsum alet). Famine and disease significantly decreased the population of the German states, Bohemia, the Low Countries, and Italy; most of the combatant powers were bankrupted. While the regiments within each army were not strictly mercenary, in that they were not units for hire that changed sides from battle to battle, some individual soldiers that made up the regiments were mercenaries. The problem of discipline was made more difficult by the ad hoc nature of 17th-century military financing; armies were expected to be largely self-funding, by means of loot taken or tribute extorted from the settlements where they operated. This encouraged a form of lawlessness that imposed severe hardship on inhabitants of the occupied territory.
We remember the wars of the 17th century now in a children’s song, as we do many other terrible things.
My hat it has three corners,
three corners has my hat;
and had it not three corners,
it would not be my hat.
The new normal without the hegemon could resemble the bad old days of mass armies before mass armies had discipline; and the swath of destruction they left in their wake could become common. Every three generations humanity has to relearn the old lesson. It is less expensive to guard the peace than to redeem it at great price after it has been lost.