During the twentieth century, the style of warfighting has changed many times. The first half of the century witnessed two world wars, multinational efforts that claimed millions of lives in the name of ending imperialism. These world wars were fought between grand alliances that committed conventional forces to the battlefield in hopes of wearing the other side down through attrition. The advent of the atom bomb and the coming of the nuclear age at the end of World War II made wars of attrition unnecessary. Nuclear weapons did not make conventional warfare obsolete, but they did ensure that conventional tactics could always be trumped by nuclear strike capabilities.
The two superpowers that possessed the greatest nuclear strike capacity—the United States and the Soviet Union— squared off against each other in a Cold War, during which neither was eager to confront the other on the battlefield. During this period, conventional wars continued to be fought in other nations. Some of these wars, such as the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, involved cross-border fighting. Others, such as the Korean War or the Vietnam War, were political struggles within a country’s own borders. Unlike the world wars, these wars were not about global conquest and they did not jeopardize the safety of the world. A global war was not unthinkable, but its occurrence would likely include nuclear devastation, a possibility few nations were willing to court.
The world community—in the form of the United Nations (founded in 1945)—worked hard to resolve conflicts during the Cold War era. The United Nations was eager to play the role of arbiter to prevent isolated wars from spilling over their boundaries and draw in more countries, thus inviting superpower intervention. Unfortunately the effectiveness of the United Nations was often determined by the level of commitment of the United States, whose economic sanctions and military force are the backbone of the UN’s bargaining power. The United States could be slow to act, especially when its interests were not at stake. The tribal war in Rwanda in the mid-1990s is a case in point. After images of large-scale massacres of Rwandan civilians appeared on television, the United States reluctantly agreed to support the UN’s efforts to prevent the slaughter from continuing. But by the time U.S. forces were committed to the small UN contingent, the major fighting was over and 500,000 to one million Rwandans had perished. One U.S. foreign policy analyst explained a possible reason for the delay in sending troops to halt the bloodbath:
A genocidal campaign in Europe, in a country with modern cities like Sarajevo, seemed more disturbing than massacres of a far greater dimension on a continent where vast human suffering is a common occurrence.
The media has played a large part in bringing warfare to public attention. News coverage of the Vietnam War is thought to have had a great influence on the decision of the United States to withdraw from the conflict. On the other hand, media portrayals often prompt the world community to intervene in foreign wars. Columnist Jonathan Power even speculates that nations like the United States would get involved in more foreign conflicts if only the television broadcasters could find a way to make each war sensational and distinct. “American television itself can only manage one and a half foreign wars at a time,” Power wryly asserts. “Public opinion is not engaged in Tadjikistan, Liberia or Rwanda, etc., because ever more heart-rending, anger-making pictures, night after night, are not there to wind it up.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, new forms of warfare garnered media attention. In former Soviet states and Soviet-controlled satellites, crumbling communist governments opened the door to conflicts between different ethnic groups that had lived side by side for decades.With the fear of Soviet military reprisal lifted, ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia fought to establish independent nations that were derived by ethnic and not national identity. In the Soviet Union itself the ethnic enclave of Chechnya tried to secede from Russia in the1990s. Ethnic warfare was not new to the world, but the number of nations wracked by ethnic strife did multiply in the post-Cold War period. “Ethnic cleansing” remains a media buzzword in the closing years of the twentieth century.
Faced with the rising number of ethnic conflicts the United Nations has had to adjust its role from peacemaker to peacekeeper. Caught between recognizing the validity of an ethnic group’s fight for independence and the sovereign right of a country to resist the secession of its ethnic provinces, the UN has most often chosen to separate the warring factions with peacekeeping troops until some diplomatic resolution can be achieved. Unfortunately, these civil wars have placed UN soldiers in harm’s way, making them targets for attack by the ethnic groups who are concerned only with separation, not arbitration. Media coverage of UN casualties can also lead to the weakening of a united peacekeeping effort. For example, footage of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, by an ethnic faction prompted the withdrawal of United States’ troops from the UN peacekeeping mission in that nation during the early 1990s.
The major concern of the United Nations in dealing with these ethnic wars seems to be how to keep them from generating widespread conflict outside of their regional boundaries. The coming of another world war is still thought by many to be a real threat. In 1992, state department official George Kenney predicted that the conflict between ethnic Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia would inflame ethnic tensions in the Serbian province of Kosovo and cause the whole region to plunge Europe into another world war within six months. Kenney’s prediction of global warfare has not materialized, but Kosovo did erupt in ethnic violence in 1998, and tensions there between Serbs and ethnic Albanians are only being held in check by the threat of NATO air strikes against the dominating Serbian forces. Behind all the talk of world war still lies the fear of nuclear devastation.With more nations gaining nuclear capabilities and a growing concern that Russian warheads may end up in the hands of foreign governments, the world retains part of its Cold War tension.
The issue of intervention as a means of maintaining peace is central to War: Opposing Viewpoints. Chapters entitled What Causes War? Should the International Community Intervene in the World’s Conflicts? What Role Should the U.S. Play in Maintaining Peace? and How Can War Be Prevented? offer insight into the changing shape of twentieth-century warfare and the policies that are proffered to contend with and prevent it.