In 2017, Gen. David Perkins, commander of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, revealed that a “very close ally”—generally assumed to be Israel or Saudi Arabia—used a Patriot missile system to shoot down a small, off-the-shelf commercial quadcopter drone that would have cost $200 to $300 if bought on Amazon. As he drily observed, “On the economic-exchange ratio, I’m not sure that’s good.”
The same could be said of many uses of the military in the modern world. If direct acts of aggression by state militaries are increasingly rare—and increasingly shocking when they do happen—it’s because they increasingly fail to pass such basic cost-benefit tests. The age of shooting wars is not totally over, of course. Azerbaijan and Armenia have recently ended another short, bitter war over a disputed border region: Nagorno-Karabakh. But since the end of the Cold War, interstate wars remained mercifully rare.
Indeed, one could even look to the current crisis in Ukraine as evidence. To be sure, the threat of full-scale war still looms, but what is striking is that, even while having a clear advantage on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared reluctant to use it. Instead, Ukraine has faced cyberattacks and economic pressure, subversion and disinformation, and even the presence of a massive Russian military force has been more of an intimidatory gambit than anything else. With the recognition of the break-away pseudo-states and the introduction of Russian “peacekeepers,” Moscow continues to try and use political pressure and fake legalism. The much-predicted invasion may still come, but even Putin seems to be hoping he can get the influence and concessions he wants by other means.
In part, that’s because the price of old-fashioned war has become exorbitantly high—though only some of the relevant costs are financial.
Modern states, of course, have turned taxation into an art, and public finances generally account for around a third of total national wealth. That pays for pensions, health care, armies, and spies but leaves states with fewer options when they want to pay for wars, short of the kind of deficit financing they have handled the COVID-19 crisis with.
The West certainly spends more on preparing for war than ever before. A World War II Spitfire fighter plane cost around £12,500, which would be equivalent to about £822,000 (or $1.1 million) today. On the other hand, the new F-35 Lightning IIs Britain is now buying cost £92 million (or $125 million) each. To put it another way, you could get around 113 Spitfires for a single F-35, or buy all 640 fighters the Royal Air Force deployed during the Battle of Britain for, even in today’s money, less than six F-35s. The tools of modern war are very expensive indeed.
At least there, one can point to capabilities different by whole orders of magnitude: An F-35 (if it works as promised, that is, but that’s a whole other story) can engage multiple targets at once, even over the horizon, while flying at more than three times the speed of a Spitfire. But a U.S. soldier in 1941 cost $160 to equip fully, from his khaki uniform to his bolt-action M1 rifle. His modern counterpart costs about $18,000 to equip in all his camouflaged and high-tech glory—or almost six times as much when adjusted for inflation. Yet although his M4 carbine can fire more rounds more quickly at a longer range and often with greater accuracy—and although he has body armor, night vision goggles and a radio—he can still freeze in panic, can only be in one place at a time, and only has one life, alas. Besides which, all those high-tech gadgets require batteries that are often heavy and prone to run down at the most inconvenient moment.
The cost of war extends to each individual munition. The most up-to-date version of the U.S. Patriot long-range, ground-to-air missile costs up to $5 million per round. (That’s just the missile, not including the associated launch vehicle, radars, and the like.) This sounds like a bargain if it shoots down the nuclear missile that was going to wipe out your capital city or a $215 million Russian Tupolev Tu-160M bomber.
But as Gen. Perkins had noted, that’s not always how voracious and undiscriminating modern war works. It is an often-quoted truism that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. A modern tank gets maybe a little more than 0.5 miles to the gallon, for example. Indeed, the U.S. military is the world’s single largest consumer of fuel. In World War II, it used on average a gallon per soldier per day, but that has now climbed to a full 16 gallons, especially because of the increasing use of thirsty aircraft to ferry soldiers around, support them on the battlefield and, yes, supply all the necessities of war. More rapid-fire guns mean more bullets to haul around; smarter weapons are also pricier ones.
According to the Costs of War program at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, in the first 20 years of the 21st century, the United States’ war on terror—including invading Afghanistan and Iraq—cost the country $8 trillion through direct and indirect costs. By contrast, the decades-long Vietnam War cost an estimated $168 billion (or $1 trillion in today’s money). As for the 12 years of the Napoleonic Wars, they cost Britain £831 million in the coin of the day, or £75 billion (almost $102 billion) in modern terms. Wars aren’t what they used to be; they are rather more expensive.
But it’s not just about dollars, pounds, or even rubles: Other costs of war have also escalated rapidly. First of all, however much inhumanity there still seems to be in the world, there also appears to have emerged a growing unwillingness to spend lives willy-nilly. Once, generals could accept the deaths of thousands in a single day’s carnage with, if not equanimity, a conviction that this was what war meant. (Arthur Wellesley, the first duke of Wellington, is meant to have said, “It is not the business of commanders to be firing upon one another” when one of his artillerymen caught sight of Napoleon at Waterloo.) Now, things are different.
In 1983, a truck bomb driven by two members of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine exploded at the barracks of a U.S. Marine detachment in Beirut as part of a multinational peacekeeping force: 241 people were killed, and 13 more later died of their wounds. There were retaliatory strikes, but for all of Washington’s bluster, it was soon clear that the political mood had shifted. Within four months, the Americans were leaving Lebanon. Ten years later and the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu—immortalized in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down—not only changed U.S. policy in Somalia, but it also left Washington gun-shy of future potential deployments, most notably in response to the Rwandan genocide the next year.
Of course, democracies are most subject to the wave of public revulsion that can often follow the somber images of flag-draped coffins and sobbing widows (and now, widowers). Yet even more authoritarian states can find themselves nervously aware of the political costs of treating their soldiers like ammunition to be expended as the needs of battle. This may once have been how the Soviet Union fought, but by the time of its ill-judged intervention in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, it was already having to respond, first with censorship (initially it claimed quite simply that there was no war, until the flow of returning soldiers made that less and less tenable), and then with attempts to set up proper medical evacuation and treatment services. Post-Soviet Russia, awkwardly balanced between democracy and dictatorship, had to be even more careful. Public outcry about military and civilian casualties helped force Moscow, in effect, to call a draw during its first war to quell the rebellious Chechens in 1994 to 1996. Then, the Kremlin combined censorship, a reliance on long-range firepower, and the recruitment of its own Chechen fighters during its successful rematch from 1999 to 2009. It was precisely concerns about a backlash at the thought of young Ivan coming home in a zinc box while in pursuit of imperial adventures, about which the public cared little, that drove Russian President Vladimir Putin to use local auxiliaries, thugs, and adventurers in his undeclared war against southeastern Ukraine in 2014 as well as mercenaries in Syria from 2015 and Libya from 2018.
This also reflects the dramatic change in the media’s speed, access, and coverage. In an age when anyone with a Twitter feed or Instagram account can be considered a media outlet, by definition, everything becomes public; the only question is how quickly and with what spin. The days when wars could be curated—when a handful of journalists and chroniclers, newspaper proprietors, and TV anchors could establish the narrative—are long gone. In ancient times, this was rather easier. King Esarhaddon’s reign over Assyria in the seventh century B.C. was marked by a crushing military defeat at the hands of the rival Elamites and then another in Egypt. The solution adopted by the unknown figure compiling the Chronicle Concerning the Reign of Esarhaddon? Simple: Just omit these setbacks altogether. Other monarchs might be more entrepreneurial in their management of the narrative. When Prince Dmitry Donskoy of Moscow defeated the Mongol-Tatar army at Kulikovo in 1380, he had his tame chroniclers ready to portray it as a decisive victory freeing Russia of foreign domination. That a Mongol army returned to sack and burn Moscow two years later, and that the Russian princes still had to pay tribute to them for another century, was conveniently downplayed in the story.
In 1782, U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin created a newspaper featuring a gory tale of a dastardly English plot to pay Native Americans for colonists’ scalps. He distributed the newspaper to his friends, and they forwarded it on to theirs, and before long, the gruesome story had made it into other papers. The minor detail was that this was all fake news, but who could confirm the real facts of the matter—or even wanted to? Franklin had successfully stirred up anger against the English king but also painted the Native Americans as a barbarian fifth column, sentiments that would be revived during the inconclusive War of 1812 and contribute to the harsh treatment they would receive at its end.
Arguably, it was only in the 1850s, when the Times of London sent William Howard Russell to cover the Crimean War, which he did with a merciless eye for the terrible conditions facing ordinary soldiers and the bumbling of the British War Office, that the modern concept of the war correspondent emerged. War became a topic of immediate currency, not the preserve of the historian and the pamphleteer. By World War I, this had led to a new climate of censorship and the beginning of the accredited—and, authorities hoped, house-trained—correspondent. Already though, as the telegraph and telephone made communication instantaneous, the newsreel, a short film of news and documentary features, was increasingly a staple at the cinemas. The struggle among managers, manipulators, and miners of information was becoming ever more tense.
Today, while states have arguably never been as systematic and eager to try and control the narratives around their wars, it is becoming increasingly hard for any but the most totalitarian to do so. The Vietnam War was arguably the first in which the state found itself conclusively unable to master the media, and—frankly, sensationalist—coverage. In the United States, the North Vietnamese 1968 Tet Offensive epitomized this. It was a serious military defeat for the North but, perhaps in reaction to gung-ho earlier reporting, it generated a wave of critical coverage in the U.S. media that presented it actually as a North Vietnam achievement. This pushed the White House toward reassessing its commitment to the war. Television, a medium the government had not yet come to terms with and which could bring not so much the war but its own perspective of the war into every American’s living room, played a key role in this.
That was before social media though. Moscow’s attempts to claim noninvolvement in Ukraine’s Donbass have been undermined in part by the propensity of its own soldiers to post cheery selfies in front of street signs or other geo-locatable landmarks on VK, Russia’s Facebook equivalent. So too, Damascus’s traditional media blackout on some of the more vicious aspects of its attempts to reimpose rule have been undermined by a new generation of citizen journalists streaming the news and their own experiences around the world. As will be discussed later, hashtags, memes, and selfies have become weapons of new narrative wars in their own right and have proliferated as much as the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle.
Everything leaks. Thanks to whistleblowers and online activists, hackers, and careless social media addicts, information has burst through the dams states once relied on to channel and block its flow. Combined with society’s new willingness to critically assess the human and economic costs of war, and indeed the massive increase in the expense of fighting full-scale industrial and then post-industrial conflict, what once seemed the hobby of military aristocrats and inbred monarchs has now become very much a last resort of policymakers around the world.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, author Steven Pinker makes the dramatic claim that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” It has sparked considerable debate, often focusing on the philosophical dimensions of what constitutes peace, not just war but violence of every kind. Entire books can and have been written on this topic, and one can certainly question some of his thesis. But, in very broad terms, three trends have become clear.
First of all, modern war has the potential to become very deadly, very quickly. This was evident in such conflicts as the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War, where World War I-style trench conflicts combined with the technological terrors of modern weaponry and the medieval spectacle of human wave attacks. Iran’s Operation Ramadan, three offensives launched across six weeks in 1982, saw up to 150,000 Iranians, many the scarcely trained and lightly armed Basij militia, thrown against Iraqi mechanized divisions, which had dug in and were backed by armor. The offensive made no lasting gains and cost perhaps 80,000 Iranian lives.
However, in part perhaps because of the scale of the potential butcher’s bill, major state-versus-state conflicts have become shorter and less common since 1945. There are, of course, continually worrying potential flash points. The dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan has led to three wars and countless skirmishes and hubristic military displays since its formation in 1947—with one more war, in 1971, fought over Bangladesh as a change of scene. Likewise, Israel has been the locus of seven or eight proper wars with its various Arab neighbors (depending on how you count them) as well as sundry counterinsurgency campaigns, military incursions, and anti-terrorist missions.
Yet, there is an increasingly theatrical dimension to the Indo-Pakistani conflict, and whereas Israel is still engaged in a multi-theater, multilevel struggle with Iran, the country once ostracized by its neighbors now has full diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan and has working relations with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and even—up to a point—Syria. Instead, wars are now typically internal, often with one or more foreign powers supporting one side or the other. They are not necessarily less bloody though: Even the casualties of the various Indo-Pakistani wars are overshadowed by the toll of intercommunal violence among Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims across former British India, which has claimed the lives of more than a million people and left 14 million more displaced.
At times, these are virtual proxy wars, such as the current struggles in Syria and Libya. At other times, they are rebellions or counterinsurgencies with outside involvement, such as in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine. They are often complex, messy conflicts. In Syria, for example, this is not a straightforward struggle of the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian backers against a rebellion supported by the United States and Turkey. Rather, anti-government forces are divided across ethnic, factional, and religious lines, and although Washington and Ankara did share common interests at one point, they quickly diverged. The result often looks more like a pub brawl with automatic weapons than anything more elegant.
Even so, it is striking how important it is for states to avoid direct confrontation, even while indulging in belligerent posturing. In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber involved in operations against rebels in northwest Syria, as it briefly crossed into Turkish airspace. Moscow’s initial response was furious. Putin called it “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists,” and economic sanctions saw Turkish tomatoes disappear from Russian supermarket shelves, package tours restricted, and, of all things, soccer clubs banned from signing Turkish players. But despite fears of an escalation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—an even more accomplished master of bluff and bluster than Putin—refused to back down. By 2016, the men were meeting again, and by 2017, sanctions were quietly being lifted.
If anything, the Kremlin was even more circumspect when, on Feb. 7, 2018, an assault on rebel positions in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, triggered a U.S. response of epic proportions, involving not just rocket artillery but the whole panoply of American airpower, from huge B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships to F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The attacking force included a sizable contingent from the mercenary Russian Wagner Group—for most of its existence, essentially another arm of the Kremlin—but Moscow and the official Russian military contingent in Syria sat back and let them be pounded. According to some accounts, more than 200 Russians were killed.
This is not confined to the Russians. No one can, for example, question the bad blood between modern India and Pakistan, but even their generations-long contest over Kashmir, one turbocharged by the religious enmities of Hinduism and Islam, has—mercifully—assumed something of a ritual nature of late. In February 2019, for example, a Pakistan-based terrorist group claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed around 40 Indian paramilitaries. With both sides frequently using terrorists as proxies, unsurprisingly India laid the blame squarely on Pakistan. Within a fortnight, Indian aircraft launched an attack over the border, claiming to have hit a terrorist training camp, and Pakistan duly retaliated. Although one Indian fighter was shot down, closer examination of both attacks demonstrated that neither side’s bombs actually hit anything. Rather than supremely incompetent piloting, this actually demonstrates sophisticated crisis management. Both sides got to flex their military muscles and reassure their domestic audience, and neither risked a serious and bloody escalation.
Does that mean we now live in an age of harmony and good neighborliness? If only that was true. Just ask the Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghans, Nigerians, Kashmiris, and Somalis. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, which channeled so many other rivalries and tensions into a single confrontation, one could argue that a post-ideological age is also a deeply conflicted one. Close allies compete viciously for trade deals and a technological edge to gain precedence and prestige. If we have no real enemies now, the sad corollary is we have no real friends either.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism