Virtual War by Michael Ignatieff

One of the most interesting things that I got to do last year was a lecture on War and Literature for the first year Experience of War course for King’s College London’s War Studies BA. As part of the lecture, I pulled together about sixty different poems and segments of books which, in my mind, would give students and idea of the range of literature that deals with or gives us an experience of war. I’m currently in the process of scanning these in (so that I don’t have to photocopy the same pages repeatedly for next year) and I thought this would be a good point to start writing about them.

The first passage that I have selected is Virtual War by Michael Ignatieff. This book is at once alien to the contemporary reader, and yet stunningly familiar. It is hard for readers in 2011 to imagine (or remember) the point (somewhere in the year 2000) where virtual war was something of a reality or a perceived future.  Similarly, the first decade of the 21st century prevents us from reading these arguments without a trace of irony running through our heads. The reason I selected this particuar bit of the book is its opening and closing. In particular these three statements:

Virtual wars fought in the name of virtually mobilized but largely passive electorates for the sake of virtual victories are not likely to produce long-lasting advantages to those who wage them.

Technological superiority is thus not a guarantee of national security and there is no reason to believe that zero-casualty, zero-risk, zero-defect warfare will actually result in a safer world, or even a world safer just for Americans.

Virtual reality is seductive. We see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies a despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death.

I think that the value of Ignatieff’s prose and argument is that it underlines the dissonance between operations and strategy inherent in the drive for “perfect” wars. I’m sure, if pushed, politicians would resort to war much more freely if they were assured zero-casualties (on their side). And, taking a cursory glance, it would seem that the goal of prosecuting a clean war would align with the strategic aim of the war itself. In a way, Afghanistan was the graveyard for that logic. The unerring hindsight of the Afghan conflict is coloured by the experience of Iraq, but those crucial years when the ball was dropped, a different war was being fought. Reading his work, the thing that really stands out for me is the way that he makes phrases and concepts that are used in a glib fashion read in a jarringly alien manner.  After all, what is “zero-risk” warfare? Despite being a lofty goal, and undoubtedly the holy grail for some western politicians, it’s quite unnerving to think that a decade ago, people were seriously thinking about warfare in terms entirely divorced from reality.

Anyways, read, enjoy, buy here.