Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Asymmetric Warfare and the Conservation of Morality

There's this concept I've been toying with for a while, which I'm tempted to call, after the Second Law of Thermodynamics "the conservation of morality". The idea is basically that sin tends to beget sin, virtue tends to beget virtue, such that when people do evil to others, there tends to be equal evil done back, unless someone intervenes in the cycle by some act of heroic restraint and love. Reading Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace about the war between the French and the forces of anti-colonial Arab nationalism in Algeria, it's been striking me that one of the purposes of "asymmetric warfare" is to amp up that "conservation of morality" by committing acts of such unspeakable evil that it causes the entire situation to become vastly more polarized and driven by hate.

Horne is talking about the Philippeville Massacre (not bothering to link to Wikipedia because the article is uselessly vague) in August of 1955. Up until this point, the war between the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale -- Arab nationalist liberation forces) and the French had been fierce but comparatively low level. On August 20, 1955, in a mining village in which relations between colonists and Arabs had previously been fairly good, the FLN staged an attack on the entire European population of the village that killed 123 French colonials, most of them civilians. Only six colonials survived -- people who'd barricaded themselves in a house and held off attackers with heavy fire. When the French military arrived, they found a slaughter of such unremitting savagery that it radicalized nearly all of the European population of Algeria. It wasn't just that women and children had been killed. There were cases of 70-year-old women who had their limbs hacked off and were left to bleed to death. A mother has horribly mutilated, her five-day-old child slashed to death, and the child then put back into her slashed-open womb. When French soldiers arrived they found ordinary members of the local Arab population so drunk with the slaughter that in one case a soldier wrote about in his diary, he and another solder found two young boys so intent on kicking in the skull of a dead old woman who lay in the street that the only way they were able to stop the boys was by shooting them dead.

The goal of the attack had been the radicalize the conflict, and according to the nature of asymmetric warfare, the attackers didn't care whether this resulted in excessive "blowback" towards their side so long as it resulted in total war. It was as if they had dropped an atomic bomb on the "conservation of morality". When the French army showed up and found that nearly every single French person in Philippeville had been killed, they went mad with anger, and in response they killed nearly every single Arab person in the town. The town had been 90% Arab, so this mean that in retaliation for 123 Pied noir killed, over 1,000 Arabs were killed -- many shot in the street, then hundreds mored rounded up as "prisoners" and machine gunned before being bulldozed into mass graves.

In the twisted logic of asymmetric warfare, this counted as a victory for the simple reason that it massively escalated the scale of the conflict. In the fact of what they had seen, neither French nor Algerian nationalists were likely to back down. Too many people knew of too many "like them" who had been brutally killed, and the level of hate and violence had been increased exponentially. Such is the logic of asymmetrical warfare, and it is brutally effective in creating violence, if not in any other objective.


Anthony said...

"Conservation of morality" is exactly the wrong phrase for this. A conservation law would be a negative feedback loop, and you're describing a positive feedback loop.

Nevertheless, you're describing a real phenomenon, and that breaking the cycle really is impossible "unless someone intervenes in the cycle by some act of heroic restraint and love."

John Beegle said...

Hi Darwin,

What you are calling Asymmetric Warfare, I'd simply call terrorism. Terrorism is morally abhorrent and contrary to the law of armed conflict. Terrorism is an asymmetric strategy, but not all asymmetric strategies are similarly unethical. For example, the English longbows at the Battle of Crecy were an asymmetric strategy. Asymmetric warfare also includes the use of precision guided munitions in the NATO air campaign in Libya, intended to prevent a government from terrorizing its own citizens.

Best regards,

Darwin said...


I agree that terrorism is morally abhorrent, however, despite it's being contrary to the traditional laws of armed conflict, most of the recent wars the the US and other major powers have fought have been against essentially asymmetric/terrorist foes. In that sense, I think it's probably appropriate to look at terrorism as a weapon of war, and understand how one may successfully defeat a foe using it, even while continuing to morally repudiate it.