What caught my eye this week was a podcast interview of Tanisha Fazal, who is a professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame. The interview was posted on the blog “Council on Foreign Relations,” and was titled “State Death, War Declarations and Battle Deaths: A Conversation with Tanisha Fazal.” This interested me because I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about war; World War II seems as unrelated to my life as the Civil War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the conflict in Syria, seem as intangible as conflicts of past generations. The interview brought up several interesting concepts, but the main point that reverberated in all of them was that this generation seems to think it has solved the problem of war, but really all we have done is redefined it so that its consequences are harder to determine and harder to solve.
Due to trends in international standards of conflict, we don’t see as much war in the classic sense, the way you learn about it in high school where France wanted a good trade city and so did Germany so they duked it out and one of them got it in the end. Nowadays, territorial conquest is very much frowned upon by the UN, and if Germany tried to take France’s city everyone would get involved to tell them to mind their own borders and so no one does that anymore. Instead, nations have to work super hard to find sneaky ways of conducting warfare so that no one can actually point a finger at them and tell them to stop. States don’t outright declare war or occupy a foreign territory because it would provoke an international response. Instead, they involve themselves with clandestine cyber attacks or drone strikes that will be over before anyone can say, “Hey!”
The well-intentioned humanitarian codes of international conduct have simply pushed state warfare underground, as states try to stay under “the legal radar.” States do this by using coalitions within the international community to force a regime change in other states or using complex intelligence operations to achieve their ends. The domestic consequences in the U.S. are complicated. The president usually has more power to define citizen’s rights when an official war is declared: so the government can read your mail or keep you from publishing anti-American propaganda during wartime so as to make sure that domestic security is maintained. But also the president loses some power during wartime because it is really Congress that has the power to define the terms of the war and allocate resources. So overall it’s hard to tell what these sneaky pseudo-wars might mean in terms of domestic federalism, but it seems to have troublesome implications on the international scale because nations have found ways to subvert international law.
Another problem that people seem to not realize yet is that although we have drastically decreased the death tolls that arise in response to war, whether it is war in a traditional sense or the new 21st century kind of war, we have opened Pandora’s box of policy problems related to wartime casualties. Medical advances have allowed us to save people who otherwise have died, which is, of course, a good thing, except now we have to figure out how to pay for their medical care (physical and mental), how to subsidize a quality lifestyle for them no matter what their ability state may be, especially when some of them may be unable to be economically productive for the rest of their lives, and how to make up for the cost to their family members who will have to spend time and money caring for them when they return. We used to identify war by some kind of fatality threshold, but with the combination of new technology and medical advances we are going to have to redefine it. Just because people aren’t dying that doesn’t mean we aren’t at war. There is a huge price to pay for the actions that we take, however inconspicuous those actions may be at the time. Some of Dr. Fazal’s surveys have shown that the public is not generally sensitive to the plight of those who were wounded by America’s foreign policy, and so this redefinition of war is going to have to make its way into public rhetoric if we want any hope of treating the wars that are still going on with the amount of gravity they deserve.