Monday, January 16, 2012

Better Angels in Super Hornets

The continued U.S. military engagement on behalf of Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan is viewed by increasing numbers of Americans as a legacy struggle -- seen to varying degrees from different perspectives as wasteful, futile, brutal.  Maybe so. At the same, whatever the prospects for success however defined, the manner of its fighting illustrates a major thesis of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: that great powers' recourse to violence grows ever more calibrated and proportional.

Given the waste of the Iraq war, the mishandling of the one in Afghanistan, the hundred-plus thousand lives lost in the one and the tens of thousands in the other, the claim may seem callous and polyannish. Compared to past conflicts of like scope, however, it true nonetheless, and increasingly so.  Today's front-page New York Times report by C.J. Chivers on changing U.S. aerial tactics in Afghanistan provides a striking illustration.  One navy flight commander's experience illustrates the current m.o.:

In 953 close-air support sorties by the 44 F/A-18 Super Hornets aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, from where Commander McDowell flies now, aircraft struck only 17 times. They flew low- or mid-elevation passes 115 times.

The shifts in missions and tactics partly reflect adaptations by the Taliban. But guided by complex rules of engagement and by doctrine emphasizing proportionality and restraint, they also reflect what Commander McDowell calls “a different mentality.”

These days, striving for certitude in target selection and minimizing civilian casualties have become standard practice. Projecting power nonlethally is routine. Dropping bombs is not.

“So much has changed from when I was here the first time,” he said, looking down at Afghanistan on a six-hour flight early last week. “Now I prefer not dropping — if I can accomplish the mission other ways.”
This is in dramatic contrast to the way the same commander acted and thought ten years ago:
At the outset of the war in 2001, American aircraft often attacked in ways that maximized violence, including carpet bombing, dropping cluster munitions and conducting weeks of strikes with precision-guided munitions.
Flying in an F-14 squadron from the aircraft carrier Enterprise, then-Lieutenant McDowell dropped 6,000 pounds of munitions in the war’s first week, destroying Taliban aircraft and vehicles at Herat airfield and striking training camps and barracks in Kandahar Province.

He had already flown the past two years in Kosovo and Iraq, where in 32 combat sorties he dropped 35,000 pounds of guided munitions, including on Serbian barracks that were struck when the largest number of soldiers were believed to be inside.

“Our culture is a fangs-out, kill-kill-kill culture,” he said. “That’s how we train. And back then, the mind-set was: maximum number of enemy killed, maximum number of bombs on deck, to achieve a maximum psychological effect.” 
Recently, the COIN tactics laid out in Petraeus' counterinsurgency manual and McChrystal's 2009 surge proposal for Afghanistan have been derided as a fraud (I'm afraid I can't recall the source).  They are not. The premise of the Afghan mission may well be fatally flawed, in that there has never been a viable ally to support, and from a U.S. security standpoint the goal and endgame at this point seem increasingly nebulous. But the effort to minimize casualties and so not undermine the quest for hearts and minds is real -- and part of a larger trend in the way the west at least wages war.  

Pinker views the now-accelerating trend toward more restraint in use of force as a delayed dividend of the Enlightenment:
It's no coincidence that the word proportionality has a moral as well as a mathematical sense. Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred. Yet there is a vast difference between the minimal violence necessary to prevent greater violence and the bolts of fury that an uncalibrated mind is likely to deliver in acts of rough justice. A coarse sense of tit-for-tat payback, especially with the thumb of self-serving biases on the scale, produces many kinds of excess violence, including cruel and unusual punishments, savage beatings of naughty children, destructive retaliatory strikes in war, lethal reprisals for trivial insults, and brutal repression of rebellions by crappy governments in the developing world. By the same token, many moral advances have consisted not of eschewing force across the board but of applying it in carefully measured doses. Some examples include the reform of criminal punishment following Beccaria's utilitarian arguments [in the 18th century], the measured punishments of children by enlightened parents, civil disobedience and passive resistance that stop just short of violence, the calibrated responses to provocations by modern democracies (military exercises, warning shots, surgical strikes on military installations), and the partial amnesties in postconflict conciliation. These reductions in violence required a sense of proportionality, a habit of mind that does not come naturally and must be cultivated by reason (location 14364).
Pinker's constant odes to current western 'habits of mind' can get a bit rich, especially in light of the bellicose tone of American politics today, and in particular the GOP candidates' pledges and near-pledges for a new launch of violence in Iran (for an 'uncalibrated mind', sample the rough justice promises of presidential candidate Rick Perry). He does not take into account the contemporary forces driving politicians to undertake military adventures in the first place; more broadly, as I hope to explore in a later post, he does not consider the implications of retrograde or "decadent" tendencies tendencies in U.S. and European society that he himself identifies.  One thing he does do convincingly, though, is document the trends toward reduced violence in the world at large and in the west's waging of war over the last twenty years.

Related posts:

The bettering angels of our nature
Better angels in the news
Religion helped develop our better angels
How our better angels' wings might be clipped
Better angels leave their kitchens in Cairo
Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?
Better dead than red, revisited

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