Murphy's Law: The Clever Past Is Prolog To The Ambiguous Future


August 29, 2014: A new buzz word among West military pundits is “ambiguous war.” This is meant to describe situations where a major power seeks to gain something (like more territory) indirectly and discreetly in order to avoid open warfare with a strong rival. While this sort of thing is often described as a startling new technique, its use is actually quite ancient. It goes back thousands of years. Avoiding nuclear war is the latest excuse for this sort of thing. The object was always to grab something you wanted as cheaply and with as little risk as possible. Long before nukes were available national leaders (usually monarchs of one form or another) who paid attention to economics knew that a major war was enormously expensive, mainly for the general population. Inflict enough pain on your subjects and they will rise up and replace you with someone more considerate of the needs of the majority. Thus the “one percent/99 percent” situation is also ancient, not something invented in the 20th century.

If you reach the top economic brackets and want to stay there you need peace, or at least only wars that you can politically afford. This produced another curious pattern. Because democracies have a way for the 99 percent to quickly assert their displeasure this gave rise to the “three year rule”. Any war that lasts more than three years becomes unpopular, no matter how popular it was in its early stages or how righteous it is. Thus in the American Civil War (1861-65) Abraham Lincoln faced real political opposition in the third year of that war. Even World War II (1941-45 for the U.S.) found Americans getting really tired of this righteous conflict by 1944. The three year rule applies in all nations. Democracies are only different because after three years the unrest cannot easily be hidden or suppressed.

Now we have Russia and China, both enjoying previously unknown prosperity and run by men who know that if they threaten that good life the 99 percent will be very unhappy with whoever screwed up a good thing. So Russia and China, despite possessing the military power to just grab territory from weaker neighbors, resort to indirect forms of combat whose main objective is to steal without triggering a major war that would, at the very least cause enormous economic hardship on the home front.

China also realized, more so than Russia, that the Internet provides huge opportunities to steal without providing an “act of war” the victims can use as justification to fight back with more conventional means. Even the Internet approach is not new. In the past countries would quietly support rebels in neighboring countries in order to weaken a potential victim and use bribes and other less obvious schemes to steal useful information. In addition to aiding rebels next door, rumors and lies were used to cause dissent and rebellious attitudes next door. It’s all ambiguous/asymmetric/indirect war and you can find out all about it by reading some history books.  As has been observed many times; the clever past is prolog to the ambiguous future.



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