Toward Post-Heroic Warfare

A U.S. soldier standing night guard as oil wells burn in the distance in Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border, on the last night of the Gulf War, February 1991. ANDY CLARK / reuters


Only one thing could possibly link the protracted warfare in the former Yugoslavia, the destruction of Grozny, and the recent border fighting between Ecuador and Peru. Once more, as in centuries past, wars are rather easily started and then fought without perceptible restraint. When belligerents see that no particular penalty is paid for opening fire first or using any and all means of warfare -- even the wholesale destruction of cities by aerial or artillery bombardment -- self-imposed restraints on the use of force are everywhere eroded. The border fighting between Ecuador and Peru had only just begun when tactical bombing was employed, as if it were no more consequential than one more infantry skirmish.

This new season of war is upon us as one more consequence of the passing of the Cold War. The latter induced or intensified a number of hot wars in the contested zones between each camp as each superpower provided allies and clients with weapons and expertise far beyond their own capacities. Thus the Middle East especially became something of a preferred battleground by proxy.

At the same time, however, the fear that escalation could eventually reach the nuclear level inhibited any direct combat whatsoever by the superpowers themselves in Europe or anywhere else, even on the smallest scale. Above all, the Cold War suppressed many potential shooting wars in a great part of the world because neither superpower would tolerate them within its own camp. Both, moreover, were notably vigilant in controlling the form and geographic scope of the wars they fought in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, and also the wars their allies and clients fought, again for fear of an escalation to direct clash and nuclear war.

The concept of war governing those encounters has long been so strongly entrenched that it is not even commonly recognized as particular, but rather is seen as the only possible concept for now and always. It envisages only wars fought for great

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