Epistemic Status: Very speculative. Attempting to put vague notions into words.
Disclaimer: I'm no expert on geopolitics, nor am I particularly well versed in military matters. That being said, I have some thoughts on current events. My aim is to keep this mostly apolitical, focusing on the organizational challenges of this era of economic, social, and cultural warfare, particularly on the notion of whose responsibility it is to declare victory, and the consequences of lacking such an individual.
I. On The Word 'War'
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for?
War (What is it good for) by Edwin Starr
This is, at the risk of understating things, Very Bad. I won't belabor the point further - consider this to be my general Statement of Moral Condemnation, if we need such a thing. The Ukrainian people are absolutely in the right to defend their homeland, and what I'm discussing doesn't compare to their struggle and suffering.
As an American, I have to ask: hasn't America been waging the War on Terror for the past 20 years?
I could probably find more if I looked. Apparently we Americans really like declaring war on things.
The War on Cancer is not an armed conflict between groups.
The word 'war' is used metaphorically in the above; this is rhetoric, not fact. But as the US and many other western countries impose sanctions and other sorts of penalties to the Russian government and people, I'd like to point out that if we can have a War on Poverty that doesn't involve armed conflict between the government and the poor, it follows that we can have a War on Russia without firing a shot.
To be clear, none of my arguments here depend on the word "war", but I will use it as a shorthand in the spirit of the rhetorical uses above.
II. Economic, Social, And Cultural Warfare
The word processor is mightier than the particle beam weapon.
I see these sanctions - a targeted response to military aggression, with the aim of achieving a military goal (presumably the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine) as a form of warfare.
But sanctions aren't the only tool deployed by those against Russia's invasion. While propaganda has always been an important part of warfare, the internet and social media have enabled a level of targeted social and cultural warfare hitherto unseen in history.
Individual Russian citizens who oppose the war are being cancelled. Russian and Ukrainian business in the US are facing threats and vandalism. Vodka is being dumped out, even when it isn't actually made in Russia.
This could be described in a variety of ways, but I think the terms Social Warfare and Cultural Warfare apply as well as any others.
However, there exists an important difference between traditional warfare and economic, social, and cultural warfare: in the former, someone is in charge. In the latter, no one is.
And that can cause problems.
III. An Army or a Mob?
The only difference between a mob and a trained army is organization
When a group of people engage in warfare with structure, organization, and leaders, we call them an army.
When a group of people engage in warfare without any of those things, we call them a mob.
Without a leader, how is a mob supposed to stop? Even if the condition for victory is clear and shared across the mob, if no one can credibly declare it met, what then ends the mob?
I don't have a clear understanding of why mobs, riots, and other such spontaneous assemblies end, but my current guess is that they end for the same reason everything else does - entropy.
Humans only have so much energy, and so long a span of attention, to fuel a mob; a fire will, left to burn, eventually consume all available fuel and burn out. But how much suffering lies between any reasonable definition of victory, and the fire burning everything until even the ashes have ceased to smolder?
IV. On the Necessity of Someone Able To Declare Victory in Warfare
Exercitus sine duce corpus est sine spiritu.
(an army without a leader is a body without a spirit)
On a plaque at the former military staff building of the Swedish Armed Forces.
Traditional (Violent) Warfare
In a traditional war, deciding the conditions for victory is generally a task with a clear owner - whoever the highest military authority is. It is a task with a long history and measurable outcomes.
The conditions for victory in traditional warfare may be a surrender of the enemy forces or their annihilation. If could be the destruction of an enemy's ability to wage war through the elimination of their industrial capacity.
Whatever the victory condition is in a traditional war, there is someone to declare it met (or unmet/unmeetable).
In other words, there is someone whose responsibility it is to judge the carnage sufficient, and to declare, "Enough". To state, "The war is over. We have won. Let us now return to peace, that war does not become a part of who we are."
When no such person exists - when there isn't anyone with the authority and the social credibility to speak to:
- Their own side, to convince them that the war is over and must no longer be waged
- Their enemy, to convince them that they will no longer be warred against, so long as the conditions of peace are respected
then how is the war supposed to end?
Non-Traditional (Economic, Social, and Cultural) Warfare
In non-traditional warfare, there is no existing military structure, which means that there is no one in command.
For economic warfare, each polity determines its own level of response and/or sanctions, leaving no individual responsible for ending the campaign. Different countries have imposed different levels and kinds of sanctions, from banning Russian oil imports to aircraft sanctions. Different corporations have also imposed punishments upon Russia, from McDonald's closing its Russian stores to Visa and MasterCard suspending operations within the country.
For social and cultural warfare, the structure is even looser - at least in economic warfare the relevant entities are organizations themselves. In social and cultural warfare, especially in the internet age, the relevant unit can be the individual - Reddit communities and Twitter accounts.
There's a concept I really like from Duncan's Dragon Army, about closing the loop when it comes to transgressions against the community, quoted in the footnotes. The short version is that if a transgression has a known, explicit cost, and that cost is paid (and everyone knows that it is paid), then the matter can truly be laid to rest (and not left to fester).
But that ability to close the loop - to establish the cost of a transgression explicitly and the norm that, once the cost is paid, the transgression is forgiven - is only possible due to the existence of an authority to create and enforce that norm.
That authority is what is lacking in economic, social, and cultural warfare. And without it, how is the cost of the transgression supposed to be paid? How is the war supposed to end?
If Russia were to pull out of Ukraine tomorrow, do you think that the sanctions would end? Would the tarring of all things Russian cease?
Traditional wars end because someone declares them over. Who can declare this war by economic, social, and cultural means over? Who can stand up and say, "Enough"?
V. Towards Victory
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
Sun Tzu (2005). “The Art of War”, p.57, Shambhala Publications
What Victory Looks Like
What is victory supposed to look like, in a non-traditional war?
- Is the War on Cancer supposed to be over when we've cured cancer? What if we've cured most cancer, but not every kind? Does "victory" mean that everyone can survive getting cancer, or that no one gets cancer in the first place (think scurvy or polio)?
- What does victory even look like, in the War on Drugs? Who has the authority to declare it? Does anyone? How is the War on Drugs supposed to end? Can Drugs surrender?
Moving our focus back to Russia and Ukraine, a logical response might be that it is Russia pulling out of Ukraine, or some form of peace terms being met. And yet, no matter what ending this war has, Russia still broke agreements and invaded a sovereign state. Bullets no longer flying won't undo the damage done.
I suspect that the discourse may turn to punishment and reparation, the same way that it did after World War I. Only this time it won't be a discussion between nations, but a crowd of individuals, each with their own sense of what justice looks like.
Must this fire burn itself out, absent anyone with the power to extinguish it?
Our criminal justice system has the concept of proportionate retribution - that the punishment ought to fit the crime; that worse crimes deserve harsher punishments, and lesser crimes should receive more lenient sentences.
How can a war be proportionate, if there is no one to measure out proportions? How can Russia be punished proportionally, if no one can stop the punishment when it is sufficient?
Perhaps no amount of cultural or economic warfare could possibly be out of proportion to the military war Russia wages on Ukraine. I don't claim to know what justice looks like here. Only that, in iterated prisoner's dilemmas, tit-for-two-tats out-competes tit-for-tat.
VI. Graciousness In Victory
The war is over, the Rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.
Ulysses S. Grant, Upon stopping his men from cheering after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House (9 April 1865)
History adds its lessons here as well. The end of WWI directly led to WWII. The humiliation and reparation forced upon the losers made them bitter and vulnerable to a madman who promised them a restored pride.
The end of WWII, in contrast, turned the great enemies of the past into staunch allies, and it did so by letting the retribution be proportionate and targeted. Those guilty of war crimes were punished, but the societies were respected and rebuilt.
So yes - we can and should take every non-military step to make Russia regret invading Ukraine, and to make them withdraw. But should we succeed - should we wake up tomorrow with Ukraine's sovereignty restored - we need someone to declare victory, and we need to end (or at least scale down) the social, cultural, and economic retaliation.
Wars without a clear condition for victory and a clear authority to declare that victory risk becoming endemic, infecting daily life in a persistent and inescapable miasma of misery and cynicism.
We can do better than that.
We need to do better than that.
Apparently there is a live Wikipedia article for this. I probably should have expected it, but kudos to them.
This has also been phrased as "The War on the Homeless". See e.g. hostile architecture.
Not between groups of humans, anyway. Groups of cells perhaps, although one would have to stretch the definition of "armed" to an implausible degree, especially because cells don't have arms.
While the link is oriented towards business and management, the point of needing a single person to "have the D" - the power to make an actual decision across various teams/organizations - is well made. Much organizational failure can be traced to "...a lack of clarity about who has the D".
Problem 3: Saving Face
If any of you have been to a martial arts academy in the United States, you’re probably familiar with the norm whereby a tardy student purchases entry into the class by first doing some pushups. The standard explanation here is that the student is doing the pushups not as a punishment, but rather as a sign of respect for the instructor, the other students, and the academy as a whole.
I posit that what’s actually going on includes that, but is somewhat more subtle/complex. I think the real benefit of the pushup system is that it closes the loop.
Imagine you’re a ten year old kid, and your parent picked you up late from school, and you’re stuck in traffic on your way to the dojo. You’re sitting there, jittering, wondering whether you’re going to get yelled at, wondering whether the master or the other students will think you’re lazy, imagining stuttering as you try to explain that it wasn’t your fault—
Nope, none of that. Because it’s already clearly established that if you fail to show up on time, you do some pushups, and then it’s over. Done. Finished. Like somebody sneezed and somebody else said “bless you,” and now we can all move on with our lives. Doing the pushups creates common knowledge around the questions “does this person know what they did wrong?” and “do we still have faith in their core character?” You take your lumps, everyone sees you taking your lumps, and there’s no dangling suspicion that you were just being lazy, or that other people are secretly judging you. You’ve paid the price in public, and everyone knows it, and this is a good thing.
I'm aware that tit-for-two-tats is itself out-competed by more aggressive strategies. I'm just making the point that there can be game-theoretic reasons to be forgiving.