Reflection 101: The Morality of Proxy Wars

Stephen F. Dennstedt

One could easily make the argument that there is no morality in war—proxy or otherwise. But if we were to substitute the word pragmatic for morality the argument might become a little more confused (less black and white). Admittedly, I am not a military historian but I am a bit of an amateur historian with an eye cocked towards Man’s folly.

On many levels we are a sorry-ass species. So noble on the one hand and so barbarous on the other. Scientists tell us that our closest living (non-human) relative is the chimpanzee, and one only need study the behaviour of chimps to get a glimpse into our own violent psyche. We’re a species who can define a moral code but can seldom live by its tenants.

A comparison of Clint’s genetic blueprints with that of the human genome shows that our closest living relatives share 96 percent of our DNA. The number of genetic differences between humans and chimps is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats.

I think every war (or armed conflict) the United States has been involved with since World War II has been a proxy war. The biggest of these proxy wars was Vietnam (my proxy war) with 58,220 American lives sacrificed on the battlefield followed by Korea with 33,652 war related American deaths. We continue to put our military in harm’s way to fight these proxy wars in the name of national security. And though our borders aren’t threatened there might be some warped logic to that premise.

A proxy war is a conflict between two states or non-state actors where neither entity directly engages the other. While this can encompass a breadth of armed confrontation, its core definition hinges on two separate powers utilizing external strife to somehow attack the interests or territorial holdings of the other.

Having participated in the Vietnam War (an undeclared war) as a nineteen year old Marine Corps Sergeant I am no fan of war. The United States has formally declared war eleven times in its brief history. In recent years (post WWII) I think we often enter into armed conflict prematurely without proper regard given to the loss of American blood and national treasure. Like Vietnam,  our forays into both Iraq and Afghanistan have been unmitigated disasters: untold lives lost, trillions of dollars spent, the radicalization of Islam and a truly unstable middle east.

It’s interesting (and very unsettling) to realize that we often support one side in a proxy war only to reverse ourselves in later years to fight the very same people we helped put into power. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan we armed and supported the Taliban—yes, the same Taliban we are now fighting in the hills and mountains of that strategically insignificant country. Saddam Hussein of Iraq is a similar story—once our ally (Iraq versus Iran) and then our sworn enemy.

The immorality of proxy wars is they aren’t really about national security (in a direct sense) but more about big business, economics, natural resources and the military/industrial complex. Like the chimp, Man is very territorial and violent—The Law of the Jungle rules (and it always has). In an indirect sense proxy wars may very well help with our national security (as absurd as that notion first appears). Trust me, I am no advocate for war (proxy or otherwise) but the alternative might be even worse.

Consider for a moment that proxy wars have served as an alternative to confrontation between the super powers (United States, Russia and China). In this nuclear age a direct armed conflict among the super powers would be catastrophic and very possibly the end of the human race as we know it. But with nuclear proliferation we now have lesser nation states and even rogue elements possessing nuclear capability posing a significant international threat (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea to name a few).

The Law for the Wolves

“NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

Wash daily from nose tip to tail tip; drink deeply, but never too deep;
And remember the night is for hunting and forget not the day is for sleep.
The jackal may follow the tiger, but, cub, when thy whiskers are grown,
Remember the wolf is a hunter—go forth and get food of thy own.

Keep peace with the lords of the jungle, the tiger, the panther, the bear;
And trouble not Hathi the Silent, and mock not the boar in his lair.
When pack meets with pack in the jungle, and neither will go from the trail,
Lie down till the leaders have spoken; it may be fair words shall prevail.
When ye fight with a wolf of the pack ye must fight him alone and afar,
Lest others take part in the quarrel and the pack is diminished by war.

—Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936

I am not Nostradamus with clairvoyant insights into the future but I can make a prediction based on human nature. Proxy wars have always been dangerous but they are going to get even more dangerous going forward. Backed into a corner it’s only a matter of time before a rogue element falls back on nuclear weaponry as a defense or provocation. Where proxy wars once served as safety valves letting off steam before the boiler blew up they may now serve as the catalyst for all out warfare between the super powers with their convoluted mutual defense treaties.

A naive bury-your-head-in-the-sand world view (typically liberal) is neither pragmatic nor helpful. But the power-driven bullying view (usually conservative) is equally dangerous. As our country (and the world at large) becomes increasingly polarized the option of cooler heads will prevail seems to become more remote. As our technology advances I don’t see commensurate growth in our moral/ethical human behaviour. We are technically advanced chimps still living by the Law of the Jungle. Proxy wars, once a flawed solution, might now lead to our destruction.

2 responses to “Reflection 101: The Morality of Proxy Wars

  1. Excellent article Stephen. I’ll further add that the millions upon millions of tons of bombs we’ve dropped since the end of World War II has gained us nothing. No enemy has been defeated as a direct result of our bombs or cruise missiles. Yet the Generals, Admirals and those in Congress would like to make us think we’re safer for doing so and should continue to bomb a future foes as well. Having served on ships that carried nuclear weapons I know all too well how real the Cold War was and how lucky we were that they weren’t used.

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