Wednesday, 26 February 2014


Much has been written about the end of combat operations in Afghanistan and a ‘war-weary’ public not supporting renewed expenditure on military operations, especially in a time of fiscal uncertainty. The ‘pause’ in military deployments abroad has been seen by some as a sign of a fundamental change both in how nations conduct their affairs and in Canada’s likely military future.

The truth is that there have not been any changes in the fundamentals the brought about our involvement in the Afghanistan conflict or the intervention in Libya. A recent analysis of the prospects for war in the Persian Gulf is a timely reminder of some of the basics that still inform Canadian foreign policy.

The reality is that the confrontation between communism and capitalism which had dominated much of the 20th century has been replaced by a new political and economic order. 
The 21st century has has seen the emergence of a new ordering of the world. The ability to electronically move large amounts of funds across borders has undermined national economies and economic sovereignty. Similar scales of mobility in other areas has meant that natural resources, industry, markets and even work forces have become increasingly transnational.  

The result has been what is often called “globalization”, meaning a world wide macro-economic system in which individual national economies no longer function as separate entities. 

Having arrived at a globalized economy the various nation states that inescapably participate in it have recognized that any retreat from it would likely be catastrophic in the social and political sense

The necessity of guarantying the flow of petroleum, other resources, and the new currency of information, means that high levels of transnational cooperation have become vital. This globalization of economics has inevitably been followed by a globalization of security interests. This in turn has lead to transnational security arrangements, one example being the expansion of NATO. 

At the same time the war which lead to the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in many ways marked the end of traditional military challenges by emerging nations to both the old and the new global systems. The Gulf wars appeared to demonstrate that a modernizing nation state, even one with combat-experienced armed forces, could not effectively challenge the new world order.
The new security order which marks the 21st century has a number of characteristics, many of which work to increase the likelihood of military interventions to perceived transnational problems.

First among these characteristics is coalition warfare. This involves a number of countries committing their forces to a common campaign under a unified command, which increasingly is becoming the norm.

These coalitions may now include a number of nation-states as well as non-state actors, such as insurgent groups, NGO, military contractors, the media and private citizens.

Transnational troop commitments, of any size, ensure not just adequate numbers of forces but add to the political legitimacy of any operation. By the same token the loss of any one countries participation is not fatal to the overall effort, and new allies can be mobilized. By combining the armed forces of a number of countries the relatively low level of combat casualties suffered by each national force mitigates against a speedily developing popular reaction against military intervention.

Within a theatre of operations the coalition may work with, or set up, alliances with local political power bases and insurgent factions. In some cases, as in the first Western intervention in Afghanistan, such forces may make up the bulk of the military forces on the ground.

NGO’s may also have an interest in supporting government operations, as they can facilitate their conduct of humanitarian operations or implement political agendas.

Military contractors provide logistical and sometimes even combat capabilities to supplement state forces. With their interest in keeping those contracts they provide another source of aid in maintaining political support in protracted conflicts

Modern information operations include embedding reporters in military units. That has helped to overcome the image of a media automatically hostile to any war effort. In return news operations receive higher ratings and the opportunity to become participants in shaping events with their punditry and editing.

Military campaigns have also now taken on a ‘whole of government’ approach to include other government agencies, such as law enforcement, which has its own transnational character. This increases overall Coalition effectiveness and creates more participants with a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict.

It is because of these factors that there have been no total-war mobilizations in the 21st century of the kind that characterized the proceeding era. There have been no mass conscription or disruption of civilian society by the conversion of consumer industries to war production. The polymorphous military effort has been more easily portrayed in a positive light by transnational media, with just enough combat imagery to provide drama along with providing moral boosting victories for television consumption.

The mass casualties of past wars have also been avoided, forestalling a loss of support on the domestic front. By effectively keeping the home front demobilized this form of warfare maintains steadier support for protracted operations.

Of the few impediments left to discretionary foreign military operations, the peace movement has proved, in recent years, to be singularly ineffective. At least in Canada the movement has been revealed as a branch plant operation, mainly following the lead of its United States contemporaries. In turn the U.S. movement is now seen as dominated by domestic politics and the culture wars of that country. While it is possible that the movement could be reinvigorated with the election of a Republican President it is equally possible that a media savvy, and popular, U.S. President of any political persuasion may be in a position to negate anti-war sentiment through the use of his, or her, party machinery.

The other impediment to war, the treatment and condition of returning veterans is also in flux. Sadly enough, as governments and bureaucracies become better at caring for our wounded, and at the same time removing their condition from the public discourse, the more likely it is that the public will countenance foreign military deployments. To the extent that a government can use its’ treatment of returning veterans as a positive, to the extent that stories about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are replaced by ‘feel good’ stories about amputees discovering their potential in the West End theatre, the more likely it is that troops will be sent overseas.

Given Canada’s historical-strategic need to engage in alliances, both to leverage our own power and to help manage our security relationship with the United States, it is impossible to believe that we will not find ourselves involved in the security of the 21st century. If Canada is to be a part of this century then the chances are that our Armed Forces will be involved as well.

Finances and the passing political agenda may appear to suggest that Canada does not need to equip and train our Armed Forces for combat. A longer term view suggests that our military will be used to further Canadian interests and that a failure to maintain our military will inevitably be paid for, one way or another.

Joseph Miranda, Modern War, issue 10