Counter Force, Counter Value, Counter Earth

March 10, 1994
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzGrandiose military strategies are designed by nations as much to deter aggression as to undertake it. In the post-World War II Cold War era, foreign policy strategists designed a policy of Containment — contain communist regimes within their borders so that the ideology of communism could not be spread.

This policy was followed in 1954 by one of "Massive Retaliation." The idea here was to avoid having the free world nibbled to death by creeping communist-inspired wars, such as the Korean War in the early 1950s. If you cross some unspecified threshold, you would be met not with an equal and opposite force but with a massive strike — all or nothing.

Following that, with the election of a new president (each president seems to want to define his/her own unique military doctrine), then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed counterforce as an anticommunist strategy. The basic idea is that military might would focus on the military might of the enemy and not on its citizens. Thus, cities were not to be attacked directly but were more or less to be held hostage (a trump card, so-to-speak) if all else failed to deter the enemy.

To strike at people was called a countervalue strategy; i.e., terrorizing a population in order to convince an enemy government to avoid initiating a conflict altogether or letting them know that, if counterforce failed, countervalue would be implemented. Countervalue is a totally different but not uncommon approach to winning a military conflict. It resorts to terrorizing the populace. Perhaps the best example of this today is the Serbian siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

What is the military objective of mortar attacks on marketplaces and sniping at people seeking food and water on the streets and in the alleyways? Clearly, this siege is designed to break the will of the Bosnian Muslims, not to defeat them militarily on the battlefield. War stinks. But war on innocent people stinks even more so. Such attacks are not crimes against an enemy; they are crimes against humanity.

With the end of the Cold War and the retreat by former superpowers from resorting to proxy wars (using other countries as stand-ins, such as North and South Vietnam, North and South Korea, East and West Germany, etc.), a new strategy seems to have emerged — counterEarth. This strategy involves wanton attacks on the Earth, allegedly in the name of some sort of military objective or financial gain. The use of drift nets trapping anything that crosses their paths or the indiscriminant use of mercury in the search for gold in the Amazon rainforests are examples of counterEarth activities.

One of the most recent examples would be the Kuwait fires, when retreating Iraqi troops torched about 700 oil wells. This was a counterEarth strategy which had nothing to do with the Iraqi war effort. It was an attack on the Earth, pure and simple.

Kuwait oil fires
Photograph of a watercolor drawn by a Kuwaiti child of the 1991 Kuwait oil fires, exhibited at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992.

Another example is the present-day indiscriminant use of land mines. There are now estimated to be about 100 million of them in the ground worldwide, and the number is growing. They continue to function long after conflicts have ended. They make unsuspecting people working the land their victims, and they render large expanses of territory useless for human activity. While they cost only a few dollars to buy, the cost of removing them is on the order of a thousand dollars each. Even if one could afford to have them removed, there are not enough experts in the world to do so. It would take centuries to dig up those that have already been "planted."

Another example of counterEarth is Iraq's pursuit of a strategy of draining swamps in the southern part of its country. The purpose is to destroy the ecosystem that supports the culture and provides the livelihood for the so-called swamp Arabs, who have opposed the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Yet another example is the declining level of the Aral Sea. In this non-conflict situation, political leaders in the old Soviet Union and, today, in the newly independent Central Asian Republics, seem not to care at all about saving the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest inland sea in the world (now, it is seventh). While formal statements to save the sea are plentiful, political behavior suggests other motives will win out. As one small reason why, they see the sea water as providing no benefits to their economies, whereas the river water that flows into the sea can be diverted to grow cash crops such as cotton and rice.

Whereas counterforce and countervalue strategies are solely military doctrines, counterEarth is a strategy that has been resorted to in both war and in peacetime. It is something to watch for in future years, as the number of small wars around the globe tends to increase and as the pressures on governments to achieve higher levels of economic development mount.

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