Montaigne’s essay today returns us to the nostalgic past, when France (and other European nations) not only knew how to use weapons, they fought in actual battles. That’s not entirely fair, we know that the British are always willing to do more than their fair share to protect the world from despots, genocide and anarchy.
But the French, they prefer to do things like call for a NATO-imposed No Fly Zone of Libya. This is shorthand for “we’d like the American and British to remove Qaddafi from power.” Given that the French air force – the 4th largest in NATO – clearly outclasses that of the Libyans, couldn’t President Sarkozy simply ask for UN Security Council permission to carry out this action?
Before getting to that rhetorical question, I want to focus on Montaigne and warfare. There’s a tension in Montaigne that seems unusual to modern readers. He writes quite a bit about battles, but at the same time seems highly conflict averse. This essay, in particular, displays Montaigne taking what might appear to be a cold, calculating position – that it’s perfect acceptable to deploy a military strategy that will likely lead to heavy casualties on your side as long as it advances the cause of victory:
The target in the sight of any soldier, let alone a commander, must be overall victory and no events, no matter what their importance to individuals, should divert him from that aim.
To illustrate this argument (and defend the tactics of Duc de Guise in the Battle of Dreux), Montaigne turns to Plutarch’s Life of Philopoemen and Life of Agesilaus. In these two exempla, Montaigne makes the case for the art of war over the valor of war, even if that means putting some soldiers in highly vulnerable positions to trap the opponent into a strategically weak position.
Tying this into previous essays, Montaigne always supports the moderate approach to diplomacy. He wants to avoid conflicts, temper passions and keep nations out of war as much as possible. In several essays, he notes that the glory brought to leaders who seek military conquests is fleeting and is often a sign of hubris. But once the battle is joined, Montaigne supports rules of engagement that favor victory, not political discomfort.
This approach is 180 degrees different from the way we wage wars today. In our time, military powers (and again, by that I mean the U.S. and Great Britain) are constantly encouraged to use their might to settle international disputes. And given the massive economic disparities on our planet, the numerous religions and religious sects and the disparate levels of personal freedom provided by nations, there are virtually limitless opportunities to use military force.
Once we enter into these conflicts, however, military forces are expected to simultaneously achieve military and political objectives. By creating elaborate rules-of-engagement, we not only make it more difficult to achieve military aims, we elevate incidents – either by accident or design – where the rules break down. This leads to a further tightening of the rules, more difficulty in achieving objectives, and more ways for the system to crack again.
So where does that leave us? We’re now spending $2 billion a week fighting a war in Afghanistan with no end in sight — a war in which our primary objective is preserving the power of Hamid Karzai, a man who many U.S. intelligence forces believe suffers from an untreated bipolar disorder.
(For a point of reference, the 2011 State of Wisconsin budget deficit is $3.2 billion. We could cover that gap – and avoid the pointless political drama over public employee collective bargain rights in the state – in roughly 11 days if we pulled out of Afghanistan.)
Whenever these types of arguments are made in America, the cry of isolationism and appeasement goes out. The U.S. cannot just bury its head in the sand, foreign policy “experts” declare. That approach led to World War 2, the Holocaust, genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, 9-11, etc.
The path that we continue to take, on the other hand, has led to our defeat in Vietnam, the long, costly, still treacherous aftermath of Saddam’s fall in Iraq, a baffling and bloody war in Afghanistan and a U.S. defense budget (when including intelligence budgets) of nearly $1 trillion per year.
Following Montaigne’s lead, the U.S. should enter wars with great reluctance – and only when we are determined to fight for victory. It’s about time that we follow this Frenchman’s – and not President Sarkozy’s – sage advice.