The Point of War

Here in Finland, we have a conscript army. No, I’m not talking about the draft in case we end up in a war. I’m talking about every male between 18 and 28 years old having to spend 6 to 12 months in training for a war, regardless of whether anything ever happens. I think that is not only wrong but also pointless and, really, just naïve. It misses the whole point of national defence in our technologically advanced age. To me, it’s something from the nineteenth century, hopelessly out of date.

The primary reason a civilized, Western nation has a defensive force is to protect the rights of its citizens. That is, their life, liberty and property. The army is not there to attack anyone, but to make sure that the common man is safe. Just as the justice system protects us from private rights violations within the nation, the army protects us from rights violations by other states.

But somehow few seem to get the parallel between these two systems. Even worse, still fewer ever perceive the essential differences. Worst of all, this applies en force to those in charge of foreign policy and the military itself.

Every nation has its fair share of militants and war buffs. These people think the military is there for a reason other than the protection of freedom. They think the military is a tool to be wielded whenever a reward for its use is perceived. This is clearly wrong. In the time of war, nobody’s really free. Under a military rule, there is no liberty. A nation at war is effectively a nation worth protecting only because we expect it will once again become a nation of happy, peaceful, productive citizens. Hence, we should resort to military force only when absolutely necessary. The armed forces are a tool of great power, essential and unavoidable in a world where no global, supernatural, binding way exists to lock the warmongers up. But the military is always dangerous and untrustworthy as well. It is not the people’s friend, or something to be celebrated. It should only be tolerated to the degree that it effectively guards us against the atrocity that is war.

The real task of an army, and the foreign policy its existence is a part of, is to keep the peace. Hence, if war is to come about, that foreign policy has already failed. The military hasn’t done its job. Thus, the point of having a military isn’t to be able to prevail through an attack. The army isn’t there to counteract a foreign attempt at invasion. We certainly don’t have armies to fight back an enemy—what good does that do, when people have already died, and substantial financial losses have already been incurred? As is the case with the justice system, military might is there for deterrence, not retribution or the extraction of compensation. It is there for its power to hurt the enemy, not to hurt the enemy, per se. What really counts is the cost an army is capable of incurring if the enemy is stupid enough to cross the border.

Concisely, there is absolutely no point to war itself. War only exists because of the devastation it could effect, and the expectation of economic loss such a threat entails provided you are attacked. Armies exist solely for strategic reasons, in order to raise the cost of starting a war; as a strategic entry deterrent to the market of military action. Tactics never enter the picture: while the goal may be humane and sheer tactical reasoning might suggest something should be spared in the time of war, the overall picture is still perfectly merciless. Were war to come, it should come in all its brutality, and that brutality should be known to everybody well in advance.

This principle is simple enough. It’s been known for ages, at least. But it isn’t being taken seriously enough. When we talk about national defence people usually assume that we’re aiming at being prepared to keep an enemy away, win the war and go about our business afterwards. But this is not the real implication. In this game, we only win if we don’t end up playing at all. We only win if nobody actually attacks. The game is won solely by raising the credible anticipated cost of an attack. In this, casualties, rules of war, international conventions, collateral damage, whathaveyou, are all completely irrelevant.

The point of defence is maximum deterrence. Hence, the point of defence is to cause maximum damage at maximum speed to anyone who could possibly have had even the slightest chance of helping prevent the war from starting in the first place, subject only to economic considerations on how to accomplish and distribute the damage most effectively.

In consequence, the only way to fight a war with anyone you cannot be sure of defeating immediately is to kill everybody. Not just the enemy, not just everybody on enemy territory, man, woman and child, but everyone else too. Even your own citizens, unless you can somehow protect them costlessly. Trees and bacteria, too, if that helps convince someone with a green bent to fight beforehand against your invasion.

Thus, nowadays the only way to properly structure a defensive force is to base it on cheap weapons of mass destruction, aimed primarily at the enemy, but also each of its neighbours and, if you have the resources, at everybody else. That means nuclear, chemical, biological, economic and computational, whatever gets the job done. The aim is to make any war at all an act of all‐out annihilation. The goal is to get as credible a guarantee as possible of such utterly gut‐wrenching misery and immanent horror that nobody in their right mind would sleep soundly on the idea. The way to wage a war is to make even the most callous enemy general you can find think about killing his mate before letting him raise a finger against you.

The point of war is to give everybody, everywhere a reason to stop it before it ever starts. That is the only way one can avoid war altogether. That is the only way to peace and prosperity.