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When war becomes like mowing the lawn

October 8, 2019 - 9:00am

As Donald Trump announced that he is to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, the military academy at West Point is planning to hold an academic conference later this week on the question of how wars properly come to an end. The conference blurb describes it thus:

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War One.  The treaty is infamous for failing to resolve the conflict and setting the stage for World War Two.  As the United States struggles to find resolutions to its two longest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will gather to examine the theme, ‘How to End a War: Peace, Justice, and Repair.’
- Ethics of War and Peace Conference

The centuries old ‘just war’ theory had much to say about when it was morally acceptable to start a war, jus ad bellum, but remarkably little useful to add about when a war is finished – jus ex bellum, as it were. 

And this problem made all the more acute because of the changed circumstances of modern asymmetric warfare. Just as a great many of the wars that are being persecuted around the world are not wars between nation states, but between nation states and non-state actors like the Taliban, the idea that a war is concluded when a nation state waves a white flag or signs a peace treaty is a throwback to an older order of things.

In his speech to Congress three days after 9/11, George Bush remarked that the coming war on terror: “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Was this ever an achievable goal? And if not, then what does ‘ending’ look like?

See this Boston Review piece for a more in-depth look.

Here in Israel, a common metaphor used for military activity against Hamas in Gaza is ‘mowing the lawn’ – that is, a regular activity that has continually to be conducted in order to degrade the enemies’ capability. But what is envisaged by ‘mowing the lawn’ is a war without end. This is the blurring of the lines between war and peace, or even the idea of war as a continuous way of life. 

Perhaps this is why the cessation of military activity – like Trump’s withdrawal from Syria – can often look arbitrary and even irrational. As the French man of letters Paul Valery once said of poetry: “poems are never finished, only abandoned.” Perhaps the same could now be said of war. 

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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