Wars are rarely short and never simple.
It's recently become impossible to look at the news without being flooded with reports from pundits about the crisis in Ukraine and how Russia's aggression signals the beginning of a "new" Cold War or even World War III. While it's hard to overstate the importance of the events in Ukraine, it's very easy to misinterpret what's happening and why. Let's begin with a few common misunderstandings.
1. Wars are rarely short.
- Wars are rarely short. The shorter a war is, the more likely it is to be part of a larger ongoing conflict.
- Wars are never simple. They aren't fought over a single issue or ideal, and they can never be reduced to a single motivation.
- There is more to war than bullets and bombs.
This misconception comes from three factors. First, our increasingly short attention spans are made worse by the 24-hour news cycle, decreasing our ability to focus on ongoing events
as we flitter from topic to topic. Second, when we look at history we're subject to a form of observational bias where we often fail to grasp the amount of time involved. If you think you're immune to this, ask yourself how long did the hundred years war last. If you said "a hundred years," you're off by more than 15%.
Finally, we tend to break wars apart into smaller conflicts when they are, in fact, closely related. This is partly due to a misunderstanding of how and when wars end. Wars do not end because disagreements end, or a new government is installed. Wars only end when one or more party is no longer capable of continuing the conflict. History has shown that this typically doesn't end a conflict, it simply pauses it until it can be continued in one form or another.
There is nothing "new" about this Cold War.
2. Wars are never simple.
Whenever a pundit tells you that a war is "about" a single, relatively simple issue, it's time to stop listening. Wars are never simple. Ever. This can't be stressed enough, yet some pundits and analysts continue to insist that the Russian aggression in Ukraine is about energy resources, creating a Eurasian Union, fulfilling an ideal of Russian identity or restoring Russia's status as a true superpower. Reducing it to a single issue is like saying the Civil War was a war fought over slavery. While it was a catalyzing event, it was not what the war was fought over
Nor, as some would suggest, is it solely Putin's doing. While I am far from an admirer of his dictatorial tactics and I will remain forever suspicious of someone so closely tied to the Cheka, saying that Vladimir Putin is responsible for all of this is a gross misunderstanding of the realities of politics and power. There are many power interests in Russia, and Putin must work with them and keep them happy. To think that he proceeded without their consent or encouragement reduces a complex issue with decades of history to a single bogeyman.
3. There is more to war than bullets and bombs.
Wars don't end when soldiers lay down their arms. Physical coercion was the first and simplest kind of warfare, but it's far from the last. From the resource based trade wars and water wars
to the more esoteric psychological
and cognitive warfare
, or even the outright secret spy wars
, modern wars begin long before the first shot is fired and continue long after the armistices have been signed.
World War II lasted well beyond the fall of the Axis powers in the form of denazification
, a long-term cognitive war and psychological operation aimed at removing Nazi thinking from the popular consciousness of Germany as well as the leadership. If not for this effort, World War III would have violently erupted decades ago and the European Union would not exist, except perhaps as Nazi-controlled entity that would closely resemble the Soviet Union. If there is a single reason that the Cold War is resuming (and there isn't), it's because we failed to eliminate some of Russia's most troubling tendencies.
What does all of this mean for the coming conflict? Despite the cries of the Chicken Little pundits, this is not a new war or the end of the world. It's simply the newest phase of an old conflict that we failed to win before. If we don't learn from the victories and mistakes of past wars, we're doomed to repeat them - and possibly lose them.