Is a zebra white with black stripes or is it black with white stripes? That is the zebra question. What does it matter how people answer?
I have recently asked this question to groups of military professionals. It started as something of a whimsical question, but it has had my mind reeling with possible meanings. The way I phrased the zebra question was is the normal state of the world peace punctuated by war (white with black stripes) or is it war punctuated by peace (black with white stripes).
How does it shape your thinking if you believe that the world is normally peace or normally war? Years ago I gave a presentation to a think tank associated with the United States Special Operations Command. Following the presentation I was challenged that my approach fell into the "good war" camp. By this, my challenger meant that I was suggesting that there was a good war to be had and if we had only adjusted our behavior than we would have had that good war. This accusation not only implied that I was looking for a good war, but that I was also naïve enough to believe that such wars exist. In this case, a good war could be construed as a war that we would have won and achieved a clear and final victory. Someone who sees the zebra as white with black stripes probably does believe that wars can achieve better endstates that might be some level of final and achieve some level of resolution.
On the other hand, how might the black with white stripes view shape your thinking? I lived and worked in Israel for a couple of years. I was present in the country during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2009-2010. I regularly spoke with Israeli military personnel and national security professionals who expressed the need to go back into Gaza every few years to "mow (or cut) the grass." The phrase expressed the idea that the problems in Gaza would never really go away. Like grass, the forces opposed to Israel in Gaza would always grow back necessitating a military intervention sooner or later to cut the grass back down to an acceptable level. I was assigned next to Iraq and while serving there I met numerous US military officers who expressed a similar set of ideas. ISIS (then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI) would never be finally dealt with and we simply needed to have a plan to come back in every few years to "mow the grass." This sentiment was even stronger in 2014 and 2015 as I returned to Iraq again.
I wish that I had asked the zebra question for years. I haven't. I have taught US military officers over the span of more than twenty years and I believe that twenty years ago officers saw the world differently than today. As I trained officers at the US Army Armor School in 2001 to 2003 and sent many directly to Afghanistan or Iraq I know that I thought we were going to fight so that we could win and then resolve problems so that we wouldn’t have to return (white with black stripes). As I have recently asked this question, more than 75% of those present have characterized the world as being black with white stripes – war is the normal condition and peace is the punctuated exception. I found it depressingly interesting that the more junior the officers the higher the percentage who had the pessimistic view.
The good news is that this has not been a scientific poll. It is simply anecdotal. Only about 100 people have been asked the question so far.
It is fascinating that when I have discussed the question in greater depth people start to see things differently. Most human beings (the vast majority) around the world are not in a war environment and most will never be in their entire life time. Most of the timeline of human history, if taking into account geographic dispersion and global population, is peace. There may always (or something close) be some war going on somewhere, but that war usually doesn’t affect most people anywhere else. The US is a great example of this. The US has not really been at war for the past nearly twenty years. Very few Americans have seen any violence associated with the Global War on Terrorism. Very few Americans have had a friend or loved one die in this war, yet we regularly characterize the entire country as participating in the war.
Is the world really black with white stripes? The true answer (assuming that there is such a thing) doesn’t matter. What matters is that a person is conscious of how his or her own answer shapes his or her thinking. Am I looking for the right way to fight this war to achieve a desired end – the good war – or am I expecting that whatever I do I will just be coming back again in a couple of years to do it again – mowing the grass? The answer matters as one tries to come to grips with national security policy implementation.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,