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A Hazardous Form of Peace

Col. Austin Bay, who with Jim Dunnigan wrote the classic Quick and Dirty Guide to War, looks at the shape of 21st century conflict in his new book Cocktails From Hell: Five Complex Wars Shaping the 21st Century. Through the prism of five current conflicts, he both explains the actual conflicts and illustrates how the nature of conflict has changed or stayed the same. Bay begins with the most basic question: what is war? Unlikely as it may seem, the answer is not always self-evident. To some, it may appear invisible unless it looks like the familiar Hollywood conventions. Bay's book begins with the following story, which illustrates the point.

On an evening in February 1990, three months after the Berlin Wall cracked and the Cold War began to melt, I participated in a panel presentation held in a high school auditorium ... As I left ... a woman intercepted me in the hallway and planted herself directly in front of me ... “You write books about war, right? With the end of the Cold War and so many people waging peace, I guess you’ll have to find another subject, eh?” ...

I kept my reply civil, sincere, and accurate, “Well, ma’am, it’s quite a hazardous form of peace.”

Of the five conflicts he examines -- North Korea's "frozen" stalemate, Beijing's expansion in the South China Sea, Russia's "hybrid" invasion of Ukraine, the proxy and tribal battles in Yemen and the anarchy in the Congo -- none resemble the stereotype of conventional war.

The greatest trick modern despots ever pulled was to convince the world that war has ceased to exist by disguising it as other things. In 1999, nine years after Bay's anecdote and 7 years after Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man appeared, two Chinese air force colonels wrote a paper to contrive just that. It laid out how China could defeat America without a conventional confrontation. Their book, Unrestricted Warfare, proposed an ancient yet largely forgotten strategy to achieve this: by spreading out offensive activity over so many domains no one component would individually cross a red line. Then people like the woman who buttonholed Austin Bay would think nothing was happening until it was too late. The thesis of Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui was neatly summarized by War on the Rocks:

In 1999, two Chinese colonels wrote a book called Unrestricted Warfare, about warfare in the age of globalization. Their main argument: Warfare in the modern world will no longer be primarily a struggle defined by military means — or even involve the military at all....

Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argued that war was no longer about “using armed forces to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will” in the classic Clausewitzian sense. Rather, they asserted that war had evolved to “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” The barrier between soldiers and civilians would fundamentally be erased, because the battle would be everywhere.

The number of new battlefields would be “virtually infinite,” and could include environmental warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, cultural warfare, and legal warfare, to name just a few. They wrote of assassinating financial speculators to safeguard a nation’s financial security, setting up slush funds to influence opponents’ legislatures and governments, and buying controlling shares of stocks to convert an adversary’s major television and newspapers outlets into tools of media warfare. According to the editor’s note, Qiao argued in a subsequent interview that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” That vision clearly transcends any traditional notions of war.