August 8, 2010

Whale Insurgency Heating Up

Off the Antarctic coast hides a fascinating insurgency. Even here ecoguerrilla warfare can be found, unconventional as it is. Japan and Sea Shepherd qualify for legitimate fourth generation warfare: state vs. non-state actor, blurring of military and non-military, foreign sanctuary, and the insurgent’s use of national and international media to break the government's will to fight.

Sea Shepherd will never possess Japan’s resources and it doesn’t need to. Having conceded Japan’s resource advantage, Sea Shepherd seeks to break its political will through international law and media. But this is no easy task and the situation’s trend indicates escalation - more funds, ships, tactics, and potential violence - in the coming seasons. The international community can’t delay beyond next year and wait for the war to turn deadly.

Like any insurgency the resolution lies in a political agreement, in this case defining and enforcing whaling laws.

Operation Waltzing Matilda, shadowing prior campaigns, has unfolded into another low-intensity battle - the Ady Gil’s destruction and attacks on the Bob Barker aren’t exactly shocking. Frustration is a volatile element as it facilitates unpredictably strong emotions and actions: jumping out of a helicopter onto a moving boat or ramming full speed into another boat while surrounded by ocean.

Having eliminated the Ady Gil a month earlier, one measly boat still managed to tail Japan’s factory ship. Its resource advantage had vanished, billions of dollars, four guard-ships, and advanced technology equalized by the asymmetric Bob Barker. Determination is a critical factor in insurgency - and losing to outnumbered foes drives a state crazy.

While the Ady Gil offered a soft target presenting no threat to the Shōnan Maru 2, chancing a run-in with the Bob Barker risked disabling both ships. The Shōnan Maru 2’s hull is likely reinforced and designed for such an act, all the more telling of Japan’s desperation. The encircling tactic and its grand finale have obviously been drilled before. The Shōnan Maru 2 is paid to stop Sea Shepherd at any cost, and would accumulate vexation were the crew to carry over between seasons.

Japan appears perfectly willing to sacrifice one of its ships for a Sea Shepherd vessel, something Sea Shepherd must treat with deep thought in order to counter. Canceling out one ship while leaving four others would make sense on Japan’s part - but only in the short-term. Operation Waltzing Matilda would finish a rousing success, halving the whaling fleet’s expected quota along with their profit.

So imagine how intense next year will be.

Where the war becomes most frightening is that all parties recognize the present escalation but have reached a point of no return. The more physical each season becomes, the more normal ship-to-ship contact becomes, the higher the odds of an eventual shooting incident. Sea Shepherd chief Paul Watson already claims to have been targeted with “warning balls” or “flash-bangs,” possibly an exaggeration but still revealing of the larger trend. Pressure has built over the years and will continue to cook the war until reaching death - the whale insurgency doesn’t have much space before that point.

At the same time, killing insurgents alone is never enough to destroy a movement and offers no salvation for Japan. Sea Shepherd may be ridiculed in some quarters but it’s also justified in the eyes of many, some richer than others, which is typical relations for insurgents. And the more Japan cracks down, the more funding Sea Shepherd will theoretically receive. Sink one boat and another will replace it like a guerrilla. The Ady Gil 2 is inevitable.

And the bigger Sea Shepherd grows, the more severe action Japan may be compelled to take.

Like any other insurgency, only neutralizing the root conflict holds out the prospect of resolving the whale war. Whaling laws must be defined and enforced if the international community wants Sea Shepherd to cease its activity, otherwise the war will intensify. Japan (along with Norway and Iceland) thus faces a tough decision. Though it may feel its sovereignty is being violated, many state and non-state actors feel the opposite. Ultimately Japan’s overwhelming resources could fall victim to fourth generation warfare, its political will broken by international opinion.

Japan should find an honorable compromise to the situation because it’s unlikely to outlast Sea Shepherd’s political advantage. The question is, if Sea Shepherd continues halving the Japanese quota, is whether Japan gives into inevitability or pushes the war over the edge.

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