How Democracies Lose Small Wars

by John Quiggin on May 27, 2004

Below the fold is a draft review of Gil Merom’s How Democracies Lose Small Wars. Comments and criticism much appreciated.

This is an interesting, important and problematic book. In important respects, Gil Merom undermines central claims of the “realist” theory of international relations, in which issues such as war and peace are treated as the outcomes of interactions between nation-states, conceived as self-interested individual actors operating in a Hobbesian state of nature. In other respects, he has failed to escape from the assumptions implicit in the realist framework.

The analysis begins with the standard realist idea of the state as embodiment of the nation and takes it as more-or-less self-evident that the state will seek to act in the manner assumed in realist theories, including the use of war as a normal instrument of national policy. Merom then introduces ‘society’ as a counterweight, assumed to be motivated by a mixture of idealist and utilitarian/rational concerns, which typically incline towards pacifism. For convenience, I’ll use the term ‘polity’ to describe the state and society, taken together.

The state is constrained by its instrumental dependence on society, which takes two main forms. The first is the need for society to produce the resources such as material wealth and soldiers that a state needs to pursue its ends. The second is the capacity of society to change its rulers, which casts doubt on the idea of the state as a primary and independent actor.

On the first point, prosecuting a war requires the state to call on social resources, and this is difficult if society is indifferent or actively hostile to the war effort. This has been a problem, to greater or lesser degrees, in all kinds of polities, and the resulting conflicts are a common cause of regime change. For example, it was the demand for “ship money”, a contribution levied to support naval defence, that set in train the events leading to the English Civil War and the downfall of Charles I.

In liberal democratic polities, instrumental dependence becomes more problematic for the state because the processes of democracy require open debate. The kind of coercion required to mobilise resources, the most important form of which is military conscription, is difficult to practice when a war is faced with strong opposition, even from a relatively small minority of the population.

Note though, that Merom does not focus closely on representative democracy as a check on the war-making capacity of states. Rather, the problem is that, in liberal democracies, it is difficult to achieve the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained.

Before going on the Merom’s main point, it is worth noting that, although Merom does not explicitly define a “small war”, his analysis and examples imply both an upper and a lower bound for this category. A typical small war will consume between 0.5 and 3 per cent of GDP and will require a commitment of forces equal to a similar proportion of the population.

The reason for the upper bound is obvious enough. A war on a larger scale than this requires a major national war effort. In a democratic society, this will only happen in response to a direct threat to the survival of the society, and therefore the issues are different from those considered by Merom. (Arguably World War I provides a counterexample, since countries that were not directly threatened committed their full force to the war and since the war was maintained long after it should have been obvious that all sides would be better off with the status quo ante. But although it was not ‘The War to end all Wars’, the Great War permanently shifted public opinion in the democratic world to the point where a similar effort could never again be sustained.)

The lower bound follows from a point raised by Merom. Very small wars and “police operations”, such as the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 can be undertaken by the state using spare capacity in the professional armed forces, and funded without the need for any special authorisation. Moreover, these operations can generally be brought to a successful conclusion fairly rapidly, before opposition has time to develop and solidify. Thus, for very small wars there is little of the instrumental dependence central to Merom’s argument.

The key analytical point made by Merom can be developed in the light of this argument. The reason that states in democratic polities lose small wars is that the military resistance of the other side is sufficient to require either a commitment of resources larger than society is willing to sustain or the use of methods, such as torture and attacks on civilian targets, that society is unwilling to accept.

To establish this thesis, it’s necessary to show that, when society does not resist the demands of the state, victory in war generally goes to the stronger party. Merom presents a number of examples including the Athenian destruction of Melos, Cromwell’s war in Ireland, the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt, German operations in SW Africa, Saddam’s crushing the Kurds and Shiites after the First GulfWar, China and Tibet, Indonesia and East Timor and the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Merom argues that, in all these cases, unscrupulous brutality proved successful.

Yet in nearly every case cited by Merom, a long-term view yields the opposite outcome. The Athenians lost the war and their hegemonic power, as of course did the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Ireland, East Timor and Israel are independent states, identifying in each case with the side described by Merom as the losers. Tibet is not yet independent, but it seems safe to predict that it will become so not long after the Communist Party loses power in China. And then, of course, there’s Saddam.

No doubt better examples could be found, but these examples illustrate the falsity of the claim that is fundamental to the realist theory of international relations, namely, that military power can be used effectively to promote national interests. Even when force appears to work in the short run, it often fails in the long run.

The classic refutation of international realism was put forward in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion. Angell argued that in a globalised free-market economic system no economic benefit could be generated even by successful wars of conquest. Writing for a British audience, Angell’s basic point was that, even if Germany succeeded in establishing political mastery in Europe, workers in the newly subjected countries would still have to be paid, goods would have to be purchased at market prices and so on. Hence, individual Germans would gain nothing from being part of a larger country.

Angell’s argument works even better for social democracies, where territorial expansion or even extension of hegemony produces an unpalatable choice. If the benefits and obligations that go with citizenship welfare state are extended to those under the control of the expanded state, existing citizens will almost certainly be worse off. On the other hand, any attempt to maintain a distinction between citizens and noncitizens is bound to be highly problematic.

Angell’s argument showed, beyond reasonable doubt, that war and territorial expansion are not, in general sensible policies.. However, seeking to counteract the rising pressure for war, he argued that Germans would correctly perceive their own self-interest and would therefore not support an aggressive war. He was rapidly proved false on this point, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Nevertheless, the War confirmed his view that attempts to gain economic advantage through military power had become obsolete. Both sides suffered catastrophic losses. The attempt by the victors to recoup some of their losses through the reparations imposed in the Treaty of Versailles proved both fruitless and economically disastrous. Angell was right about the futility of war, but wrong in predicting that it wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, he is more remembered for being wrong than for being right.

If arguments like those of Angell are accepted, it can be seen that Merom’s thesis, and his title, need some adjustment. Rather than showing How Democracies Lose Small Wars his book could more appropriately be entitled How Democracies get out of Bad Wars.

This can be seen by looking at Merom’s two illustrative examples. The first is that of the French in Algeria. As the discussion shows, the French colonial position illustrates Angell’s arguments perfectly. In theory, Algeria was an inherent part of France, and this was certainly the view held by the million of so pieds-noirs, the French colonists who lived there. But if this claim were to be taken seriously, ten million Algerians would have had to be admitted to the full benefits of French citizenship, something that was simply not economically feasible.

As Merom observes, the limited group of businessmen and intellectuals who looked at colonial enterprise in economic terms drew the obvious conclusion that colonialism was, at best a “costly philanthropy”. Merom argues that this ‘utilitarian-rational’ position did not have much impact on French political debate, and in one sense this is probably true. On the other hand, if there had been substantial net economic benefits from colonialism, they would have made themselves felt one way or another.

The key issue that led to the collapse of the French war effort was the army’s routine reliance on torture to break the guerilla resistance of their opponents, the moujahadine of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), who were themselves guilty of routine, and arguably even worse, atrocities. Protests against the brutal prosecution of the war were met with domestic repression that soon came to be seen as a threat to democracy itself, a process that was mirrored in the US a decade or so later during the Vietnam war.

Once it became clear that the French were going to pull out regardless, the FLN was able to demand a more or less unconditional acquiescence in its demands. Almost certainly, a better deal, with much more protection for the interests of the pieds noirs could have been obtained if the French government had been willing to negotiate independence before going to war. More generally, the longer the war went on, and the greater the costs to France, the worse the ultimate conclusion was bound to be.

Hence, while the outcome of the Algerian war was certainly a defeat for the French state, leading as it did to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, it can scarcely be seen as a defeat for France, considered as a democratic polity. The only sensible policy was withdrawal and pressure from society ultimately forced the state to recognise this.

The other case Merom considers in detail is that of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983, ordered by then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon. Whereas Israel’s previous wars had all been defensive (Israel attacked first in 1956 and 1967, but in both cases there was a threat of imminent invasion, perceived as real by nearly all Israelis), the invasion of Lebanon was a strategic move aimed at depriving the PLO of its base and installing, by force, a friendly government that would suppress guerilla attacks on Israel. The first objective was achieved, at least in the short run, with the PLO being forced to flee to Tunis, though the organisation was probably strengthened in the long run. The second objective, never a realistic possibility, was rapidly rendered irrelevant by the assassination of the Israeli’s preferred leader, Bashir Gemayel.

Because of the nature of the war, Israeli society was unlikely to tolerate heavy casualties as it would have done in a defensive war. This led Sharon to rely on proxies, the Phalangist militias who were the armed representatives of the Maronite Christians. When these forces, encouraged by Sharon to raid Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila, committed brutal massacres, public opinion in Israel and around the world was outraged. The protests were not confined to activist groups such as Peace Now, but extended widely through Israeli society. The occupation was clearly doomed within weeks of the massacres, but it dragged on for another three years until the withdrawal to the South Lebanon buffer zone, which was not finally abandoned until 2000.

As with the French in Algeria, it is hard to see the withdrawal as a defeat for Israel as a democracy, though it was undoubtedly a defeat for the Israeli state. As Merom recognises, precisely the same analysis applies to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. As Merom says “the Palestinians are all but certain to lose military encounters with Israel, but are nevertheless likely to realize most of their political goals. Specifically, they will have an independent Palestinian state, most Jewish settlements in the territories will be dismantled, and the settlers will be repatriated. At the same time, Palestinian goals that concern Israel’s core sovereignty, particularly the demand for an Israeli recognition of the “right of return”, will not be realized.”

Merom’s analysis is obviously relevant to the current situation in Iraq, particularly as more gruesome evidence emerges from Saddam’s former prisons, now operated by the American occupiers. As in the other cases discussed above, the American public is unwilling to supply the resources that would be needed to establish effective control or to accept the casualty rates that would arise if, given current numbers, US troops attempted to operate like a police force, with direct contact with the Iraqi public, and rules of engagement that focused on minimising casualties among possibly-innocent Iraqi civilians.

The inevitable results are reliance on heavy weaponry with the associated civilian casualties, and the use of detention without trial, abusive interrogation sliding into torture, the taking of hostages and so on. The exposure of these methods inevitably eats away at domestic support for the war. Although it is still possible that the outcome in Iraq will be an improvement on what went before, the vision of a stable, democratic, pro-American Iraq has long since vanished.

Under the Bush Administration, the state has gone to immense lengths to insulate itself from social pressure. But the necessity of facing the electorate remains. It seems unlikely that, by November, American society will be convinced that this was a war worth winning.

{ 56 comments }

1

Sebastian Holsclaw 05.27.04 at 8:54 am

“Tibet is not yet independent, but it seems safe to predict that it will become so not long after the Communist Party loses power in China.”

I know this isn’t your main point. But it is a common belief and I think quite wrong. China has killed enough Tibetians and replaced them with more than enough Chinese became amenable to a free Tibet today, Tibet would still be mostly Chinese. This becomes more true every year and the Communists won’t be gone anytime soon.

The problem with the War on Terrorism is that by my estimate it is one major attack in the US from being a large war with a large commitment of the US society and a low commitment to avoiding civilian casualties.

I don’t want that. I just think it is true.

2

bad Jim 05.27.04 at 9:04 am

Nitpick: the English Civil War and the downfall of Charles II

Charles I, please, and delete this comment.

3

bad Jim 05.27.04 at 9:28 am

The examples given suggest the dangers of maintaining a standing army, especially an experienced one:

Merom presents a number of examples including the Athenian destruction of Melos, Cromwell’s war in Ireland, the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt, German operations in SW Africa, Saddam’s crushing the Kurds and Shiites after the First Gulf War, China and Tibet, Indonesia and East Timor and the Germans and Japanese in World War II.

Democracies are likely to run to the upper limit of military adventurism when freshly blooded.

4

Scott Martens 05.27.04 at 9:59 am

Saddam’s crushing the Kurds and Shiites after the First World War

I think you mean the First Gulf War.

The classic refutation of international realism was put forward in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion.

Richard Cobden was there first, using the same arguments against colonialism. In both cases – colonialism and military realism – the problem was not in the economic logic. Neither wars of conquest nor other kinds of wars for status turn a profit in any measurable economic sense. But they never were intended to. Colonialism continued long after it was demonstrably economically worthless because of its side-effects. Colonies had to be guarded, and justified military spending. Colonies needed colonists, and justified hard-on-crime policies. Colonies were the glory of the state, especially in France and Britain.

And – alas – Sebastian is right that massive force, ethnic cleansing and copious state bullshit can undermine Merom’s case. WWI propaganda made a stupid and unnessary war a popular one. There is no prospect of America losing the Indian Wars in the long run, because once you’ve done enough ethnic cleansing there is no longer anyone to lose to. China can and is doing the same thing in Tibet and other borderline non-Han areas – although with less genocide and ethnic cleansing and more out-populating. There are certainly people in Israel advocating the same strategy, although they are clearly not the majority.

But I think the point holds. Limited warfare in the pursuit of state policy has a very checkered history because the enemy can always target the public’s sense of how limited a limited war should be; while very small applications of targeted force have been more successful and giant all-or-nothing-conflicts can lead to all-or-nothing outcomes.

5

ajay 05.27.04 at 10:16 am

Ship Money was a tax originally intended to provide for the defence of the coast in time of invasion, by compelling coastal towns to provide either ships or money to build ships. The whole point about Charles I’s (not Charles II’s) decision to raise it was that there was no threat of invasion – he just wanted to get his hands on a source of income that wasn’t controlled by his enemies in Parliament. Had there been an imminent threat of invasion, no one would have minded the King raising Ship Money.

I can think of many examples of massive commitment to wars in which the democratic state was not threatened; the Crimea and South Africa, for example.

“Rather, the problem is that, in liberal democracies, it is difficult to achieve the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained.” – assumes that there is dissent – in both the Crimea and South Africa there was little real antiwar sentiment, certainly initially.

Do you mean that a small war costs 0.5-3% of GDP per year or in total? What recent wars count as small?

Saddam crushing the Kurds and Shiites after the First World War? Something’s wrong here. Saddam didn’t take power until the late 1970s. Who do you mean?

6

Maynard Handley 05.27.04 at 12:21 pm

“The problem with the War on Terrorism is that by my estimate it is one major attack in the US from being a large war with a large commitment of the US society and a low commitment to avoiding civilian casualties.

I don’t want that. I just think it is true.”

Exactly how would that large war play out? Another attack on a country that had nothing to do with the problem?
This is the basic flaw in using moronic language — acting against terrorism is not “fighting a war”, any more than acting against drug abuse is “fighting a war”, and all the macho posturing in the world will not change that.

7

Dan Hardie 05.27.04 at 12:40 pm

Does Merom consider the examples of democracies winning small wars? And why doesn’t John Quiggin consider such examples? Those that spring to mind are: The British in Malaya (as it was then called) 1949-60; the British handling of the ‘Borneo Emergency’ and suppression of the Brunei coup, between 1963 and 1967; the British victory in Oman, 1970-1975; the Ahmed Tejan Kabbah government/UN/British victory in Sierra Leone.

Quick point: yes, some of these wars were fought by democracies acting in concert with undemocratic regimes (the Sultan of Oman, the King of Brunei), or with governments making a transition towards democracy (decolonising Malaya and recently decolonised Malaysia). But the Tejan Kabbah government did, I think, have democratic legitimacy; and most of these coalitions were moving in the direction of greater, not lesser, democratisation. It also has to be noted that the military campaigns were chiefly conducted by a democracy (Britain); and, further, were not characterised by anything like the systematic brutality of the French in Algeria.The ethnic distinction of the Malayan Chinese and the imperialism of the Indonesians doubtless had something to do with victory in those wars, but as far as I can see from John Q’s review, Merom is not interested in the operational specifics of particular wars. Anyway, the Sierra Leonean RUF and the Omani communists were indigenous rebels.

I’ll try to find time to post on these examples and what might connect them. But- and I haven’t read Merom’s book, just Quiggin’s review- if he does indeed consider ‘democracies fighting small wars’ without paying attention to the examples above, his book is historically ignorant.

Btw, anyone interested in questions of causation of war should read- besides Thucydides- the great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey (great despite his unpleasant views on immigrants). ‘The Causes of war’ is a provocative and very well-written piece of work- if Blainey had lived in the UK or US he would be far better known than he is.

8

John Quiggin 05.27.04 at 1:12 pm

Thanks to commentators who picked up typos (or whatever you call the kind of mental process that substitutes First World War for First Gulf War, and Charles II for Charles I).

In response to Dan Hardie, Merom does indeed mention the Malayan Emergency and I should probably talk a bit about it in the review. I think I want to treat most of these cases as being “very small wars” analogous to Grenada.

ajay, I knew ship money didn’t work perfectly but it seemed like such a neat example I thought it would slide by. I’ll revise or delete this point.

Thanks also to scott, sebastian and bad jim – good points and please keep them coming.

9

Ralph Hitchens 05.27.04 at 1:34 pm

I reviewed Merom’s book for the Journal of Military History (April 2004). My feeling was that Merom — like a lot of political scientists — had more interest in theory than in facts. His two main case studies (the Algerial War in particular) were excellent, although jargon-heavy, but those of us more inclined toward historical narrative than political theory should recognize his caveat that he chose these two cases because they fit within the confines of his theoretical framework and “minimized the problem of confounding variables.” His third, much-abbreviated case (not really a “case study”) about the American experience in Vietnam was, in my opinion, a clear example of stretching a few facts to fit his theoretical preconceptions. I found it strange that anyone could analyze the end of the Vietnam War without mentioning the word “Watergate.” Clearly one of those “confounding variables” IMO — your mileage may vary.

10

Doug Muir 05.27.04 at 3:02 pm

As others have noted, Tibet is majority ethnic-Chinese, and has been for a little while now. Native Tibetans are a minority there, and their (relative) numbers are steadily declining. So a non-Communist China would not lead to an independent Tibet.

To be blunt, Tibet’s best hope at this point is a benign and tolerant Chinese regime, because an independent Tibet is no longer remotely plausible.

I’d probably agree with classifying the British suppression of the Malayan Communists as a “police action”; it falls well below the 0.5% GDP threshold for a “small war”. (The troop numbers and cash figures involved were quite remarkably small.)

There are a couple of other historical examples that haven’t been mentioned yet: the US in the Philippines after 1900, and the Boer War. Both of those saw significant opposition in the media, in the legislature and on the streets. And since neither involved a compelling strategic interest — really, nothing more important than national prestige was at stake — both should have been strong candidates for “loss” through the process that Merom describes. But both were carried through to a conclusion nonetheless.

Doug M.

11

Dan Hardie 05.27.04 at 3:23 pm

‘Merom does indeed mention the Malayan Emergency and I should probably talk a bit about it in the review. I think I want to treat most of these cases as being “very small wars” analogous to Grenada.’

Well you can’t: neither the Malayan Emergency nor the Borneo Confrontation were by the wildest stretch of the imagination ‘very small wars analogous to Grenada’. Grenada cost >100 American fatalities in a week’s fighting, and barely any significant financial costs. Malaya and Borneo involved the committment of tens of thousands (Malaya) or thousands (Borneo) of British troops, plus large outlays on civilian development and policing programmes; in Malaya at least, hundreds of UK fatalities and thousands of wounded ; Malaya lasted eleven years, Borneo over five; and, at the time of the Sterling Area, really significant additional pressure on an already overstretched UK balance of payments. The massive UK defence spending increase of 1950, prompted by Malaya and Korea, was a key factor in Attlee losing the 1951 election. Both wars also took place at a time when Britain was fighting a number of small wars.

12

q 05.27.04 at 3:36 pm

John Quiggin-Excellent Post. The theory is that a democracy cannot commit unscrupulous brutality.

Unscrupulous: Can we define scruples?

Democracy: First of all it is worth pointing out that democracy is a young and tender child. So if “democratic polities lose small wars” we need to be careful in how far back in history we go. Using Cromwell’s war in Ireland as source material strikes me as ambitious indeed!

If we restrict our examples after 1860, we see a transfer of world power from Britain to the USA – both of them relatively advanced democracies compared to the rest of the world, so even if they are losing the battles, they certainly won the overall war.

What is usefulness of the examples presented: one being the collapse of a poor French empire and the other the misadventures of an Israeli empire?

Taking the USA as a good example of a democracy, the sphere of influence of the USA over the last 50 years reached the non-protestant countries of Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Romania, Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Much of South and Central America and a few others as well. Much of that intervention was successful, some of it was brutal. Was some of it brutal and successful? Maybe the USA is never unscrupulous?

So do “democracies lose small wars”? Sometimes. The better question is: Can empires be democratic. And the answer to that, is yes.

13

des von bladet 05.27.04 at 3:52 pm

I’m not techincally a democracy, but I typically lose small wars down the back of the sofa. I’m scared to put my hand down there these days – the last time the countess had a go at spring cleaning she got a nasty cut off the Sumatran Liberation Front. Dashed awkward, really.

14

Dan Hardie 05.27.04 at 3:52 pm

‘Rather, the problem is that, in liberal democracies, it is difficult to achieve the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained.’
Don’t like the assumptions here at all. There are some very good discussions (eg in Michael Howard, ‘War in European History’, excellent book) of quite why the First World War lasted as long as it did despite the hideous casualties- and quite a lot of agreement among historians of the period that this was due to the popular fervour for war among the democratic or semi-democratic nations waging it. Now that fervour may to a large degree have been a product of popular mobilisation by elites, but it still existed.

In three wars that I can think of (Crimean and both World Wars) parliamentary dissent, backed to differing degrees by the populace, led to the fall of Prime Ministers seen (almost certainly correctly) as weak and incompetent and their replacement by more aggressive war leaders: Aberdeen replaced by Palmerston, Asquith by Lloyd George, Chamberlain by Churchill. I think much the same happened in Australia, when Curtin was forced out. I have to say that I believe either Asquith or Chamberlain (and Halifax, Chamberlain’s preferred successor) would almost certainly have lost the wars in question, and so the idea that successful wars require a suppression of dissent strikes me as very suspect.

15

Will 05.27.04 at 3:57 pm

Small point: I never heard of the 1956 war as “defensive” on the part of Israel (or Britain and France, for that matter). This doesn’t just apply to the initiation: Wasn’t Israel’s immediate action to annex parts of Egypt until Eisenhower told them to get out? That doesn’t sound like a defensive agenda.

16

Dan Hardie 05.27.04 at 4:29 pm

John Q writes: ‘As in the other cases discussed above, the American public is unwilling to supply the resources that would be needed to establish effective control or to accept the casualty rates that would arise if, given current numbers, US troops attempted to operate like a police force, with direct contact with the Iraqi public, and rules of engagement that focused on minimising casualties among possibly-innocent Iraqi civilians.

‘The inevitable results are reliance on heavy weaponry with the associated civilian casualties, and the use of detention without trial, abusive interrogation sliding into torture, the taking of hostages and so on.’

I don’t like your reasoning here at all.
Firstly, the idea that heavy-handed tactics risk fewer military casualties than subtler tactics strikes me as very dubious. I know what I would see as more vulnerable to guerrilla attack: not sneaky, unpredictable light infantry patrols, but heavily armed troops remote from the civilian population (and thus unpopular, and cut off from potential sources of warning) using support weapons and artillery strikes (even more unpopularity, which in turn eats into intelligence and makes the local populace more likely to support guerrillas), riding around in heavily armoured vehicles (which are noisy and highly visible and restrict where you can go). If you want to work out what this means in practice: if I wear a helmet, body armour and sit in an armoured vehicle, there is still some chance that an explosive device will hurt me, and very little chance that I will nab the guys planting the devices. If I and my mates are popping up in unexpected places all the time, that makes things a lot harder for the bomb-planters.

More importantly, you need to actually provide some reasons to believe that the sole or most significant cause of brutal, ‘non-policing’ tactics by the US military is the US public’s unwilingness to accept heavy casualties.
I can think of two rather more likely causes of the current US behaviour: bad decision-making by the current US military and especially political leadership with regard to Iraq, and a longer-running deficiency in US military training and doctrine.

In the first case, Shinseki did realise that an occupation would bring its own problems, did realise that it would necessitate the deployment of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of US troops, and, given his command experience in Bosnia, *may* have realised that this needed the training and indoctrination of US troops to fight guerrillas. Pity Shinseki was fired by Rumsfeld, having been ridiculed by Wolfowitz. And there have been all sorts of stories in the US press about Israel ‘advising’ the US on counterinsurgency, when the evidence is that the IDF doctrine on counterinsurgency is all about massive force, retaliation and seeing Arabs as a subject colonial people. No doubt someone will bring up Bloody Sunday (32 years ago), but I have to say that Sierra Leone, and Basra, do rather make me think that a decision to train the US Army in British counterinsurgency doctrine would have been a good decision.

Beyond that, the US Army has spent decades viewing warfighting as distinct from, and superior to, peacekeeping or counter-guerrilla operations: the US Army School of Peackeeeping was shut two years ago, but was an underfunded, low-prestige school even when it existed. You can teach basic counterinsurgency techniques to a private soldier in a few weeks, like the British Army’s NITAT programme, but to actually conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, you need senior NCOs, unit commanders, Generals and their staffs all realising what the demands of an anti-guerrilla war will be. You need some kind of institutional preparedness for the demands of such a war. If you aren’t sending your troops out on regular anti-guerrilla postings- as the British Army has been ever since 1969 in Ulster- then you need to train them up to meet the challenge. And counter-guerrilla and peacekeeping work have not been a regular part of the training of most US officers and their units, which has to be a big reason for the problems they face now.

17

jimbo 05.27.04 at 4:51 pm

So the fact that Isreal regained it’s statehood in 1948 means that the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt nearly 2000 years later was pointless? Jeez – you DO take the long view, huh?

18

Doug Muir 05.27.04 at 6:58 pm

Well you can’t: neither the Malayan Emergency nor the Borneo Confrontation were by the wildest stretch of the imagination ‘very small wars analogous to Grenada’.

I’d be very surprised to hear that the Emergency ever consumed as much as 0.5% of Britain’s GDP.

British troop strength peaked at about 35,000 men, but that was certainly not sustained throughout the Emergency. British casualties were 519 dead and about 1,500 wounded or missing.

That’s a lot more than Grenada, sure. But it pales in comparison to, say, Vietnam. US troop strength there peaked at nearly half a million men, resulting in nearly 60,000 US dead and about 150,000 wounded.

Even considering the difference in the size of the economies involved (the US of the mid-’60s was a lot wealthier than the Britain of the early ’50s), we’re still talking about roughly an order of magnitude of difference.

The cost of operations in Vietnam peaked at around 6% of US GDP in 1968. However, it was a fairly sharp peak; between 1964 and 1973, the Vietnam war ran closer to 2.5% of GDP per year. (Note that the US GDP grew by about 50% over those years — it was the last period of fast-growth postwar prosperity.)

Iraq seems to be on-the-order-of 1% of GDP for 2203 and (projected) 2004, but don’t hold me to that; conflicting figures are still being thrown around.

Anyhow, point is — Malaya, while no cakewalk, doesn’t seem to be of the same order of magnitude, and I doubt it reached the (admittedly arbitrary) standard of 0.5% of GDP. If I’m wrong about that, though, I welcome correction.

Doug M.

19

bob mcmanus 05.27.04 at 7:11 pm

” And counter-guerrilla and peacekeeping work have not been a regular part of the training of most US officers and their units”

Who exactly did our brilliant expensive military think they would be most likely to fight? Panzers?

20

Giles 05.27.04 at 8:26 pm

Since, inevitably the whole point of this review was always leading to a comparison with Iraq and Bush perhaps the statistically closest comparison is the Falklands war – cost 236 dead (US per capita equivalent 1,000) and a cost of about 0.6% of GDP. It was also nearly lost. But I don’t think that it offers much insight other than statistically it was another small war that was won.

I think the Borneo war is closer in that a British deployment of 50,000 is equivalent to 200,000 US and it was sustained over a long period which may need to be the case in Iraq.

However what is missing from the analysis is any win loss statistics – between 1860-1960 I reckon the UK fought perhaps 30-40 small wars and lost only 3 or 4- the Boer War, Afghan war, Cyprus, Iraq/Israel. I.e. about a 10% loss rate which doesn’t suggest to me that democracies have any problem fighting small wars.

Between 1890 and 1990 the US fought about 10 and lost 1 – the Vietnam War. This suggest to me that that . Again a 10% loss rate which supports the conclusions that democracies have no problem fighting small wars.

It seem to me that the major problem democracies have is when the cost approaches the small war cusp – 5% of GDP – which was true of both the Vietnam and Boer war.

So it would probably be more accurate to say that democracies are bad at winning medium sized wars but very good at winning small wars.

21

Giles 05.27.04 at 8:49 pm

actaully the Falklands cost over 1.1% of GDP so statitically its very close to Iraq today.

22

Robert McDougall 05.27.04 at 8:59 pm

dan hardie:

I think much the same happened in Australia, when Curtin was forced out.

Get a clue.

23

John Quiggin 05.27.04 at 9:08 pm

” I think much the same happened in Australia, when Curtin was forced out.”

Actually Curtin took over from Menzies, and domestic factors were more important as concern over the prosecution of the war. Also I wouldn’t count Crimea as a win.

But it seems clear that, as I mentioned in the review, WWI produced a permanent shift to more anti-war attitudes.

Giles, your “medium-sized vs small” distinction is very much the same as my “small vs very small”.

24

John Quiggin 05.27.04 at 9:12 pm

As regards Tibet, I’ll admit that this is a speculative judgement. But those who have pointed to Sinification as a reason Tibet won’t become independent should look at the example of the Baltic states, especially Latvia.

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Giles 05.27.04 at 9:29 pm

My point is that your lower bound for very small wars is far too low – we don’t yet have an example of a small war less than say 1-2% of GDP that was lost by a democracy. Per capita Algeria was larger for France than Vietnam was for the US so it was another 3-5% war. So I think it would be more accurate to say the democracies have problems with small wars in the 2-5% range.

26

Dominic Murphy 05.27.04 at 11:38 pm

About realism: I don’t see how the argument you attribute to Angell refutes realism. Surely a realist doesn’t have to believe that it’s sensible for powers to wage aggressive wars, just that in fact that’s how the world works. After all, Mearsheimer called his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, and depicted great powers as constantly on the attack because they were afraid of being attacked themselves, not because they pursued glory and profit.(And he though attacking Iraq last year was stupid.) Really, I think that you’re making, via Merom, a different point against realism, viz. that realists often treat states as black boxes whose behavior depends only on the intrinsic demands of the international order, whereas in fact their behavior towards other states also has a lot to do with what civil society will let them get away with. But, another point you might be making weakens this as a general claim. You say that these effects of civil society only need to be taken into account in explaining state action with respect to wars of a certain scale. And hence, not with respect to explaining great power v great power wars, which is what realists often focus on. Those wars will be seen, as you note, as serious threats that mobilize society, which means that for big wars we might as well treat all states as alike in being able to mobilize the population behind them. That is, I think the upshot is a claim about the scope, rather than the content, of realism

27

q 05.28.04 at 1:13 am

Giles / Doug Muir –
Great statistics. Is it all off the top of your heads?

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Giles 05.28.04 at 4:53 am

which stats do you want refs on?

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John 05.28.04 at 5:45 am

How, exactly, would Halifax or Chamberlain have lost World War II? What, exactly, did the British need to do, that wouldn’t have gotten done if Churchill hadn’t been in charge? The climate of public opinion was such that even such weak-willed fellows as Halifax and Chamberlain couldn’t have made peace after the fall of France on the terms that Hitler was offering. As such, all Britain has to do is hang out and wait. Churchill gave some nice speeches, sure, but I fail to see what he did that was particularly instrumental.

As others have pointed out, it’s hard to see the Crimea as a win. Not as sure about Asquith and Lloyd George – certainly Asquith was not an effective war-time leader at all. So that might work.

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Doug Muir 05.28.04 at 6:27 am

those who have pointed to Sinification as a reason Tibet won’t become independent should look at the example of the Baltic states, especially Latvia.

Um. The Russian minority in Latvia is about 30%. Add in Ukrainians and Belorussians and it’s still only about 37%. Latvians are about 57%.

The Chinese population of Tibet, on the other hand, is a clear majority — about 55%. And their numbers are growing rapidly.

So I don’t think the Latvia analogy is a very strong one.

Doug M.

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Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 10:01 am

How, exactly, would Halifax or Chamberlain have lost World War II?
Oh, by agreeing to peace terms after the fall of France- which would have been sufficient all by itself- but if not by lots of other means: by failing to reorganise fighter production during the Battle of Britain; by failing to bring in Bevin as Minister of Labour and raise industrial productivity and secure the conscription of labour; by failing to offer an alliance to Soviet Russia, by failing to convince FDR to extend Lend Lease and unofficial Naval support in the Battle of the Atlantic…possibilities are endless. But above all, Halifax wanted to cave in in June 1940. This was rejected by Churchill and by the Labour ministers that Churchill had invited into the War Cabinet.’Churchill gave some nice speeches, sure, but I fail to see what he did that was particularly instrumental.’ My God, I’m embarrassed to even read that.

Character named McDougall who is angry that I got my Australian primer ministers wrong- okay, Curtin forced out Menzies, not v.v. Mea culpa, but to be honest my Australian history is not so hot, which doesn’t bother me since- dare I say it- you guys aren’t, and never have been, important in the perspective of world history.

John Q- the Crimean war ended when Tsarist Russia accepted peace terms dictated by their opponents, which I would call a victory. (More importantly, so would Clausewitz, who said that a war is won when one either exterminates one’s enemies or forces them to accept one’s political terms). And it’s not even worth denying that WW1 and WW2 were won by sides where war leaders were deposed by parliamentary and public pressure.

I have to say I think you’re wasting your time trying to find something of value in Merom. Read Blainey instead. And I hate to keep bitching, but does anybody intelligent really take all this ‘realist/idealist’ stuff seriously? As the profound theorist of international relations Stephen Fry said: ‘The world is divided into two sorts of people- those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who don’t.’

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Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 10:26 am

Giles- nice posts, but you’re definitely wrong on this one: ‘between 1860-1960 I reckon the UK fought perhaps 30-40 small wars and lost only 3 or 4- the Boer War, Afghan war, Cyprus, Iraq/Israel.’
I’m not sure at all why you conflate military operations in Iraq and Israel (presumably the Palestine Mandate Territories)- they were different wars in different places at different times with different results. But yes, the Brits lost in Palestine. The Boer war (ie 1899-1902) was a British victory, with the Boers surrendering and accepting British peace terms. Yes, the Boers were able to live with the terms and Campbell-Bannerman substantially revised them, but I don’t see that as a British defeat. But the two earlier Boer wars were British defeats; as, in my view, were the Anglo-Irish war 1919-21, the Mau Mau campaign, the Suez canal operations up to 1954, the Suez war of 1956, and Aden 1967-69- which brings us up to 11 defeats. Some people might question whether Mau Mau was a defeat or whether the earlier Suez campaign was a war, but that still makes 9 defeats. Also the British fought against the Greek communists from 1944, but were compelled to withdraw and hand over to the Americans from 1947. And the shift in Attlee’s position on India- from granting Dominion status to giving full independence- had at least something to do with the increasing loss of British military control in the face of rising Indian violence.

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Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 10:50 am

‘Arguably World War I provides a counterexample, since countries that were not directly threatened committed their full force to the war and since the war was maintained long after it should have been obvious that all sides would be better off with the status quo ante. But although it was not ‘The War to end all Wars’, the Great War permanently shifted public opinion in the democratic world to the point where a similar effort could never again be sustained.)’

But a similar effort *was* sustained by democracies 21 years after the end of the Great War. ‘it should have been obvious that all sides would be better off with the status quo ante.’- Well, yes, but you omit to mention that no combatant government at any time offered its opponents peace on the basis of the status quo ante.
‘since countries that were not directly threatened committed their full force to the war ‘- Name one, please.

Australia wasn’t directly threatened but didn’t commit anything like its full force to the war effort- ditto Canada and the USA. Looking at the stated war aims of the belligerents, it’s very hard indeed to argue that any of the European powers were ‘not directly threatened’ by their opponents. Even Italy, once she entered the war, was facing the prospect of major territorial annexations. All the other European belligerents faced major threats to their territorial integrity or continued existence. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk mean anything to you, John?

Maybe I’m doing everyone a huge injustice here, but to judge from John Q’s review, Merom knows very little modern history, Quiggin is in the same boat, and a discussion of modern war on this kind of basis is not going to yield anything much of value. It’s true that I don’t know my Curtins from my Chifleys, so I will either go and read some Australian history or forswear all future references to the place, which is no great sacrifice.

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John Quiggin 05.28.04 at 10:52 am

Acccording to Merom, state expenses in Algeria rose from 1.0 per cent of GDP in 1955 to a peak of 2.8 per cent in 1959 of which about 2/3 were military. So the cost of the war was under 2 per cent of GDP throughout.

dan, I don’t take any offence at the observation that Australia has never been important on the world-historical stage. Blessed is the country that has no history.

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Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 11:12 am

‘Acccording to Merom, state expenses in Algeria rose from 1.0 per cent of GDP in 1955 to a peak of 2.8 per cent in 1959 of which about 2/3 were military. So the cost of the war was under 2 per cent of GDP throughout.’

I cringe at Merom’s ignorance. Given that the Algerian war kicked off in 1954, the base year in this comparison ought to be 1953 as the last year of peace, not 1955. Do political scientists like Merom lose their jobs if they know any history? And any luck in thinking of a WW1 combatant which wasn’t threatened by its opponents but committed its full force to the war?

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John Quiggin 05.28.04 at 11:19 am

I will however, correct your claim that “Australia wasn’t directly threatened but didn’t commit anything like its full force to the war effort”.

As you could easily have checked, Australian war deaths were 50000, which is roughly the same proportion as those for Britain.

For someone who presumes to lecture others on their knowledge of modern history, your grasp of the facts seems pretty weak.

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Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 12:00 pm

Yes, the Australian casualty rate was comparable to (ie slightly lower than) the British casualty rate, but only about half the French casualty rate; and the Australian proportion of GDP spent on the war does not compare to that spent by Britain, which pretty much bankrupted itself fighting WW1. So, especially given your and Merom’s concentration on GDP figures, no I don’t accept that Australia committed its ‘full force’ to the war.

‘For someone who presumes to lecture others on their knowledge of modern history, your grasp of the facts seems pretty weak.’
Could I ‘presume’ to suggest that you learn any of the following facts?
1)The date of the outbreak of the Algerian war. (Given that you are thinking of publishing an essay on a book which takes said war as a case study, this might seem advisable).
2)The outcome of the Crimean war.
3)The political history in Great Britain of World War One and World War Two- concentration on which might save you from such embarrassing phrases as ‘the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained’.
4) The length of time that elapsed between the destruction of the temple by the Romans and the establishment of the State of Israel following World War 2.

That will do for starters.

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John Quiggin 05.28.04 at 12:24 pm

All of your alleged errors are either misreadings of what I have said or dubious readings of the facts.

I’m not willing to engage in further discussion with someone who maintains a thoroughly offensive tone while excusing his own absurd errors because they refer to a country too unimportant to bother with.

Thanks to other contributors to the discussion.

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q 05.28.04 at 12:39 pm

_which stats do you want refs on?_

All of them.
-Wars fought in each year per country
-Wars winners/losers
-War spending Total Amount and as % of GDP
-Troops committed per war
-Casualties per war dead/wounded

40

Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 12:58 pm

‘his own absurd errors because they refer to a country too unimportant to bother with.’ Errors?
One error: Curtin for Menzies. God, the shame. Go read some history books, starting with anything by Geoffrey Blainey, who comes from ‘a country too unimportant to bother with.’

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q 05.28.04 at 1:13 pm

_I’m not sure at all why you conflate military operations in Iraq and Israel (presumably the Palestine Mandate Territories)- they were different wars in different places at different times with different results. But yes, the Brits lost in Palestine._

I would clarify the classification of the situation over the Palestine Mandate Territories as a lost war. There was initially no clear enemy, the original mandate started relatively peacefully, just Jewish and Arab rivalry and guerilla warfare later on towards the end of the mandate.

“In fact, the last thirty years in this country have seen nothing but fluctuations of policy, hesitations, or no policy at all…. It is this continual surrender to pressure of one sort or another–American Jewry or Arab rebellion–that has made British policy in Palestine, with all its first-class administrative achievements, unintelligible to, and mistrusted by both sides”
-Sir Henry Gurney quoted in AJ Sherman: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948.

The British pulled out because of lack of interest, the chaos, and lack of funds and power. The outcome was the US sponsored 2-state solution which delivered a Jewish state. If it was a “lost war” then you are saying that the British “lost” to the Americans!

But of course one could characterise the 1911-1945 World Wars as: The German Imperialists started it and lost, the British Imperialists lost (an empire) and the Americans Imperialists won a new world order.

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DCharles 05.28.04 at 1:29 pm

JQ/DH-
There is a long tradition of philosophical debate in which all parties feel valued members of the discussion. Why don’t you two just “kiss and make up” (electronically of course)!

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John Quiggin 05.28.04 at 1:45 pm

dcharles, I agree that I should not have lost my temper with DH, so I will attempt a civil response to one point he makes and see how we go from there.

JQ: Acccording to Merom, state expenses in Algeria rose from 1.0 per cent of GDP in 1955 to a peak of 2.8 per cent in 1959 of which about 2/3 were military. So the cost of the war was under 2 per cent of GDP throughout.’

DH: I cringe at Merom’s ignorance. Given that the Algerian war kicked off in 1954, the base year in this comparison ought to be 1953 as the last year of peace, not 1955.

My response: This was not presented a comparison with 1955 as a base year. The point is that on the evidence given, peak military expenditure 2/3 of 2.8 was less than 2 per cent, and for most of the war, expenditure was well below this level.

I suppose the other reading is possible if you assume that Merom knows nothing about his subject or that I haven’t read his book, but I don’t see why DH feels justified in making these assumptions.

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Brian Weatherson 05.28.04 at 2:19 pm

I’m not sure how relevant this is to the overall thread, but just for the record it’s worth noting that Menzies wasn’t forced out by Curtin. He lost support within his own party, and was replaced as PM by “Arthur Fadden”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Fadden. Fadden’s government collapsed in little over a month (because it lost the support of conservative independents) and then Curtin took over. And, like FDR, stayed in office until he died near the end of the war.

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Dan Hardie 05.28.04 at 2:31 pm

q- the British certainly lost the Palestine war, and US pressure was certainly a factor in their defeat- as it later was in Suez in 1956. Iraq and Palestine were separate wars.

dcharles- I agree and thank you for your efforts.

JQ: I read your para on Merom’s Algeria data as meaning that the war led to an increase of expenditure on Algeria of 1.8 points of GDP from peacetime levels. Okay, you didn’t mean that; I admit to being mystified as to why Merom doesn’t say what the increase following the outbreak of war was. I would have thought Merom should have presented expenditure on Algeria in the last year of peace and then given the data for wartime expenditure; he’d also need to look at increases in, and changes to priorities within, French defence spending.

I was annoyed at my own silly mistake on Curtin/Menzies, and at the guy who sneered at me because of it, and consequently came out with the uncalled-for remark about Australian unimportance. Not really true, apart from anything else: Australia was in many ways the most advanced social democracy of the last 100 years, as well as militarily crucial to the defeat of Japan. Obviously this annoyed JQ, and I can see why.

My further point about Australia not being fully mobilised for WW1 also seems to have annoyed JQ, who angrily pointed to the -truly dreadful- Australian casualties. Please believe me that I would never disparage Australian sacrifice in WW1 or WW2 (or Korea, Malaya- the list is very long). Australian willingness to fight for the Empire was extraordinary, and Australian military performance far better than British. But I do say that the Australian polity did not mobilise for war as completely as the major European combatants. Merom, and Quiggin in his review, refer pretty much exclusively to proportion of GDP spent on war as a measure of how ‘big’ or ‘small’ a war was for a country. Using this metric, Australia wasn’t mobilised as thoroughly as Britain. Nor was it if you use other metrics: eg the proportion of manpower in the services and in directly war-related industries. Again, Australian enlistment in the armed forces (voluntary throughout the war) was comparable to the British rate; but the mobilisation of the Australian workforce did not compare to the British ditto, which by the end of the war entailed the effective conscription of pretty much the entire male population plus much of the female population for either war work or military service. (Strictly speaking British military enlistment was voluntary until 1916, but de facto if not de jure pressures worked to get many men into uniform before then.)

As I say, that point of mine annoyed JQ- but a) it wasn’t meant to and b) if JQ objects to my classifying Australia as not fully mobilised for war, he needs to address Merom’s reliance on GDP figures as a metric of mobilisation.

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DCharles 05.28.04 at 2:52 pm

Aaaah. I am happy now. ;)

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Giles 05.28.04 at 6:55 pm

Dan
sorry to keep moving the goal posts but I’m now reckoning the number of British Wars of the size you cite is closer to 70 or 80 looking down this list
http://www.regiments.org/milhist/wars/intro.htm
Obvioulsy it would be nice if someone would compile stats of every war greater than x but….

However
Loses Agreed – Palestine (although this is a bit of a harsh judgement since he brisith were sent there as peace keepers, not to enforce any particular policy of their own).
The Boer War – I classify as a defeat in that the British military victory wasn’t sufficient to enable them to dictate future events. Again I think the previous conflicst should be included as part of the main conflict.
the Suez war of 1956 – loss
Aden 1967-69- maybe
The Suez canal operations up to 1954 – agin why a loss –just a difficult police and not really of sufficient size to classify as a war and can really be seen as preliminary to 1956
the Anglo-Irish war 1919-21 was a civil war and so doesn’t count.
The Mau Mau campaign – I’m not sure how this can be classified as a loss since the Mau Mau were comprehensively wiped out.
I think though you’re clutching at straw by trying to include Greece – if you dissemble major wars include every sub campaign of WW1 and WW2 we soon goning to get to 1000+ wars. And India was a “potential war” not an actual one.

So I still think we’re looking a about a 10% loss rate.

48

q 05.28.04 at 7:02 pm

_the Anglo-Irish war 1919-21 was a civil war and so doesn’t count._

Ooooooh … contentious from at least 5 different angles … you might want to start at 1916 and even the 1921 settlement did not settle all the issues.

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John Quiggin 05.28.04 at 9:49 pm

I’m glad we’re back to civil discussion. I agree with Dan H that Blainey is well worth reading. I’ve cited him, though at second hand, here.

Coming to the more general point raised particularly by Giles, Merom’s argument is that , in societies, social resistance to the brutality needed for victory in small wars has risen steadily over time since the early 19th century in line with increasing state dependence on society that characterizes democracy. He takes the fact that the advanced societies normally won small wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries as evidence in support of this.

I put more emphasis than Merom on the disillusioning impact of World War I, which had an immediate impact in reducing support for war in Britain and France and a more delayed one elsewhere (particularly in Australia because of the mixed message of the Anzac legend). Over time, WWI has become a central reference point for all who want to point to war as a futile waste – this may be why we have seen recent attempts to make the case that it was, in some sense, necessary or justified.

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Giles 05.29.04 at 1:33 am

I think that WW1 is the sociological answer misses many subtitles and isn’t very good at explaining the timing – France and Britain continued to fight small wars with casualties in their thousands for 40 years after the end of the First world war. The US, which didn’t suffer large casualties refrain for 20.

Looking at it from a resources perspective is much better at explaining the gradual trend.

Technology and young men are the main inputs for small wars; – as expected there ahs been a substitution of technology for humans over the period – hence in people terms the threshold for a medium war has fallen while the GDP quantifier remains constant.

It may also explain the tail off in small wars after about 1965, the point at which Western population and productivity growth slowed. Increased productivity and population growth also explains the increased propensity of the US to engage in small wars in the 90’s.
And it also explains the differing attitude between Europe and the US as to Iraq; on the basis of technology and population growth, the small war/ very small war threshold may be say 0.5% for Europe (low pop, low productivity) while it is say 1.5% for the US.

If we say its consuming about 1% now, this may explain why Europeans are acting as though it’s a huge deal while Americans are more worried that it may become a big deal.

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Dan Hardie 05.29.04 at 8:16 pm

Many thanks to Brian Weatherson for having corrected the errors made by myself and John Quiggin on Australian Prime Ministers in WW2, and putting us both straight.

‘Merom’s argument is that , in societies, social resistance to the brutality needed for victory in small wars has risen steadily over time since the early 19th century in line with increasing state dependence on society that characterizes democracy. ‘

‘the brutality needed for victory in small wars?’ I strongly suggest that- at a minimum- Sierra Leone and the Malayan Emergency indicate that a small war can be won by a democracy without brutality- if ‘brutality’ means free-fire zones, death squads or Algerian style torture. If brutality means that all wars involve shooting people dead, then democracies were still prepared to fight and win these wars.

I suggest that Malaya and Sierra Leone imply that brutality is not sufficient or necessary to guarantee victory in a small war. An alternative strategic approach exists: building up political support among the civil population to weaken the guerrilla opponent, in tandem with targeted military operations against his armed men. The interesting argument then becomes whether such a strategy can be potentially followed in all guerrilla wars or whether certain preconditions must exist for ‘hearts and minds’ approaches to be potentially successful. But brutality=success is just insupportable given the historical record.

You also quote Merom as defining a small war by proportion of GDP consumed, but then the guff he comes out with about democracies needing to be brutal to win small wars- and his three case studies of Algeria, the guerrilla war in Lebanon, and Vietnam- suggest that he equates ‘small war’ with ‘war fought mainly or solely against guerrillas’. But going by his first, GDP-based definition, a small war could be fought between two sets of uniformed professionals, both eschewing brutality because they were more or less abiding by the Geneva Conventions- as, say, the Falklands war was.

‘social resistance has risen steadily over time since the early 19th century’- but this *can’t* be true. Imperial campaigns became more rather than less common in the mid and late 19th centuries- at a time when the French had (post 1871) universal male suffrage, the British at any rate were expanding male suffrage and the Americans (who fought a particularly brutal campaign in the Phillipines) had universal male suffrage bar Southern blacks. World War I as a bar to small wars? The British fought at least six small wars 1919-39- Ireland,involvement in the Russian Civil war, Third Afghan war, Sudan/British Somaliland, Iraq and Palestine. They fought considerably more post 1945; to mention some of the successful ones, if Oman was fought more or less secretly and Borneo kept quiet, Ministers openly boasted of succesful operations in Malaya in the ’50s and Sierra Leone three and four years ago.

Finally, don’t quote Merom’s schema of military, society and state as if he’d invented it himself. It is lifted more or less straight from Clausewitz, whose ‘triad’ is a notable feature of ‘On War’. If I reviewed one of your papers and spoke of ‘John Quiggin’s invention of a concept he calls comparative advantage’, people would giggle.

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Dan Hardie 05.29.04 at 10:35 pm

‘between two sets of uniformed professionals’-

Make that ‘uniformed regulars’, obviously.

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John Quiggin 05.30.04 at 6:18 am

(1) The point you object to about GDP is mine rather than Merom’s, and I think you have misread it. Merom only quotes GDP data to show that the economic burden of the wars in question was not so great as to force defeat.

The relevant sentence in my review reads “ A typical small war will consume between 0.5 and 3 per cent of GDP and will require a commitment of forces equal to a similar proportion of the population (emphasis added). That is, wars cost both blood and treasure. In most cases, for obvious reasons, the two proportions are going to be broadly similar, and it’s a question of which is more convenient to look at in any given case.

(2) I think you’re right that Merom takes small wars to be guerilla wars, on the grounds that the balance of conventional forces is normally so lopsided as to guarantee an easy win for the more advanced country. The few examples I can think of confirm this, though the Falklands looked close at times. I think the Falklands was an anomalous case in a lot of respects, and that it’s not useful to try to fit it into a general theory.

(3) Most of the British wars you refer to in the 1919-39 period were fought in the immediate aftermath of WWI and were in important respects continuations of the War. Ireland seems to fit Merom’s model perfectly. More generally, I don’t see that any of them are particularly damaging to my claim that antiwar sentiment was greatly enhanced by WWI

(4) With the exception of Malaya (which I’ll discuss below), the postwar British examples you mention are what I’d call very small wars, undertaken by the state using spare capacity in the professional armed forces, funded without the need for any special authorisation, and not involving large casualties

(6) On Clausewitz, I had trouble with the expression of this, and clearly need to revise it. What I meant to say was that whereas Clausewitz and his successors see unity between state, military and society as natural and war as the military pursuit of the interests of society, Merom sees wars (at least small wars) as activities undertaken by the state, but liable to fail because of the opposition of society.

(5) Coming to the general issue, I want to come down to a position something like the Powell/Shinseki doctrine. That is, the problem of winning a small war without resort to brutal means requires that the resources committed be sufficient to achieve overwhelming military superiority. This in turn means that the maximum scale of operations that can be undertaken is smaller than might be supposed on the basis of a conventional assessment of military capabilities.

(7) In this model, the Malayan case seems to me to be at the upper end of what a democratic state is likely to be able to manage. The best estimates I can find are that the Communists had about 8000 fighters against 30 000 British and 100 000 Malay troops and that they had the support of about 10 per cent of the population.

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Dan Hardie 05.31.04 at 6:08 pm

I can see what you’re saying much more clearly now, and I think the definition of ‘very small wars’ is important. I still disagree with both yourself and Merom. I’ll post notes to your specific numbered points later.

If I can summarise what Merom is saying, and how you dissent from him:

Merom: Any nation fighting a small (usually guerrilla) war will only stand a chance of success if it fights with brutality. (Brutality means any combination of free-fire zones, death squads, torture or retaliation against civilians.) Democratic electorates will not long tolerate brutality by their armies: thus democracies are fated to either lose, or never start, small wars. It is this distaste for brutality which explains the historical un-success of democracies in fighting small wars since WW2; they have not suffered military defeats nor had to withdraw on grounds of economic cost, since no small war has ever exceeded 3% of GDP in its costs. Clausewitz regarded war as an instrument of state policy, and believed that the military and society generally accept the state’s definition of war aims, but this is too simple.

Quiggin: Any nation fighting a small war will only stand a chance of success if it fights with brutality, or commits overwhelming military force to the struggle. (Overwhelming military force is not really defined, but appears to mean a high ratio of troops to the local civilian population backed by spending sufficient to give commanders the supplies they asked for.) Democratic electorates are very unlikely to authorise the defence spending necessary to fund such campaigns. The underlying reason for this unwillingness is a general cultural distaste for war, increasingly prevalent in the democracies since WW1. Hence democracies are unlikely to be able to win any wars except ‘very small wars’, undertaken by the state using spare capacity in the professional armed forces, funded without the need for any special authorisation, and not involving large casualties. I agree with Merom about Clausewitz.

My take on this:
Brutality is one way of fighting a guerrilla war, but does not guarantee success, and may even diminish the chances of success. It is not the sole rational choice of a country engaged in a small war. It does also not necessarily disenchant the electorate: some wars fought by democracies using brutality have evoked disgust among electorates, other have not. Whether a democracy wins a small war depends on more than tolerance of brutality or the willingness to fund overwhelming force. Other factors include:
-formulation of an overall political and strategic goal- eg ‘establish an independent government and leave’- capable of gaining the support of a majority of the local civilian population;
preconditions that make such a goal realistic (eg a certain level of economic and social development);
military capacity to undertake offensive operations, which will probably reflect the proportion of GDP spent on defence;
military training and doctrine which enable troops to take the offensive against the enemy without alienating the local civilian population.

The willingness to fight wars and suffer losses is probably best described by the kind of process sketched by Geoffrey Blainey- in each decision to fight or continue a specific war, both elites and society will be influenced by the prevailing attitudes to war, the experience of recent wars, the current and expected costs in life and money, the importance to them of the stated goals, the character of the current political leadership, etc. Btw, Clausewitz never saw war as a simple instrument of policy (mistranslation into English) and always posited a dynamic relationship between state, military and society, with each actor capable of influencing the others.

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Dan Hardie 05.31.04 at 6:12 pm

As a footnote, one must doubt Merom’s point that since GDP spent on wars never exceeded 3% of GDP, cost was never a factor in deciding to exit, or never start, such a war. Tolerance for the costs of a war will depend on other factors: eg how it is financed (eg the inflationary means of financing the Vietnam war chosen by Lyndon Johnson in 1965-7, followed by his 1968 fiscal clampdown, may have diminished support for the war); or on the overall proportion of GDP spent on non-military government spending: higher non-military spending will tend to lead to a) lower military spending in peacetime and thus reduced military capacity at the start of a war; b) to less ‘wriggle room’ to fund a war by special allocations. (Merom’s calculation of the cost of the Algerian war strikes me as extremely dubious, since he should at a minimum include any wartime increase in civil spending in Algeria.)

On cultural matters: WW1 did indeed increase distaste for war among democratic societies, but did not prevent most of the same societies from making a similar or greater war effort twenty years later. WW2 had different cultural effects in different ex-combatants. German culture is to a very large degree pacifist even today, and even non-pacifists have a much lower tolerance of the possible use of armed force than many British or American citizens do. The same kind of cultural effects may well have occurred in Japan, the Benelux countries or Scandinavia. British, American, Australian and New Zealand electorates- and possibly also the French- appear to feel that WW2 was ‘justified and successful’, and this, to a considerable extent, counteracts the pacific influence of WW1. Other democracies- India, for example- do not attach great cultural importance to either World War. The delayed cultural effects of the Holocaust have probably discredited the idea among most democratic electorates that ‘western’ societies have a right to impose their rule upon darker-skinned people. Cultural pacifism or bellicosity should be seen as changeable and historically contingent: US support for war and tolerance for casualties probably decreased with the failure in Vietnam or the election of a President derided as a ‘draft dodger’, and probably increased with the September 11th attacks; support for war in Afghanistan is probably higher than support for war in Iraq, since the first is seen as a matter of vital self-defence, and the second is not. Again, Geoffrey Blainey is the best guide to this process.

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Dan Hardie 06.01.04 at 12:26 am

I won’t be posting for a while, which I’m sure is a relief. But here are some replies to your numbered arguments. I shall try to send you some econometric papers I’ve found on the incidence of African wars, if you’re interested.

(2) I think you’re right that Merom takes small wars to be guerilla wars, on the grounds that the balance of conventional forces is normally so lopsided as to guarantee an easy win for the more advanced country. This is very Martin Van Creveld (in his book ‘On Future War’ – UK title- or ‘The Transformation of War’). I suspect Merom has been strongly influenced by Van Creveld, who is worth a look. I found him stimulating but crushingly teleological- states can never beat guerrillas, hence all states are more or less doomed. He does instance Malaya and Northern Ireland as the two exceptions. Malaya, he says, was unique because the imperial power had made a pledge to get out as soon as the war was won; he can’t really explain why N. Ireland wasn’t lost by the British. There are at least two other probable causes of the proliferation of guerrilla wars- one is that many wars begin with the grievances of non-state groups, which start without regular armies; another is the decline and collapse of the state in many parts of the modern world, especially Africa. Saddam started 2003 with a state and with a regular army, and took a decision to fight a guerrilla war because, as you say, he didn’t have much of a chance fighting conventionally. But, apart from the Saddam Fedayeen, many of the participants in the current Iraq guerrilla war either took the decision because they don’t have a state to fight for (the jihadis), or because the state has gone tits up, and they’ve moved into banditry (the ex-Iraqi army guys).

I think the Falklands was an anomalous case in a lot of respects. Certainly since 1945 wars between two sets of regular forces have become less common, but they have occurred. The two Sino-Indian wars, the three Indo-Pakistani wars all involved at least one democracy; also the NATO-FRY conflict, with the admixture of the KLA; others, eg the Turkish-Greek war, were between dictatorships.

(3) Most of the British wars you refer to in the 1919-39 period were fought in the immediate aftermath of WWI and were in important respects continuations of the War.
Yes, but they were fought and in only two cases (Russia and Ireland) were domestic opposition to war significant factors in ending the wars. Sudan/Somaliland dragged on into the ’30s; Palestine was fought in the 30s; the same decade saw very high levels of violence in British-ruled India and Burma.
Ireland seems to fit Merom’s model perfectly. It fits it quite well in part: the British fought a notably brutal campaign in Ireland, 1919-21, answering the brutality of their IRA enemies, but both popular and elite opinion was divided on whether this campaign was justifiable, and this was a factor in bringing the British to the negotiating table and making considerable, though not unlimited, concessions.

But there was a simultaneous IRA campaign in Northern Ireland, which was defeated with great brutality (brutality which was none the less tolerated by the British public) and there were subsequent IRA campaigns which were defeated without large-scale brutality (WW2, 1957-62); and the most recent, most sophisticated IRA campaign ended after more than thirty years with no better result than a draw, arguably a defeat, against a British state which, after 1972, drew back from brutality. Merom needs a theory that can explain these conflicts too.

On the brutality question, I can think of a number of very brutal small wars where democratic electorates didn’t get terribly worked up. Britain in Iraq in the 1920s, where poison gas may have been used; Britain in Kenya (row over Hola camp killings, no prosecutions, lots of dead Kenyans elsewhere); France just about anywhere in black Africa, including the successful 1994 rescue of many of the worst Rwandese genocide planners; any Indian counterinsurgency campaign; the Reagan era Special Forces operations in Central America. Some of these were kept from public view, but some weren’t. The US in Vietnam is often given as an example of a democracy not tolerating brutality, but I wonder if that was true. One junior officer served less than three years’ house arrest for My Lai, before being pardoned due to massive popular demand, and no-one else was ever convicted. As to ‘free fire zones’, ‘Project Phoenix’, the denial of Geneva Convention rights to all NVA prisoners, the routine use of torture- these were policy, and in my experience very few Americans even have much idea that they happened. The Vietnam war was unpopular because it was expensive, badly managed and killed lots of draftees.

(4) With the exception of Malaya (which I’ll discuss below), the postwar British examples you mention are what I’d call very small wars, undertaken by the state using spare capacity in the professional armed forces, funded without the need for any special authorisation, and not involving large casualties. But this begs some questions: why were some states in possession of professional armed forces? Why did some democracies spend much more on defence, and thus have much more ‘spare capacity’, than others?

After 1962, the British forces were volunteer only- as far as I can tell, they were unique in Europe, except for the Irish, until the French and Dutch went professional at the beginning of the ’90s. The Americans and Australians ditched the draft after Vietnam, in the early ’70s. In the 1950s, there were no problems with committing British, American or Australian conscripts to high-casualty wars (Korea). In the 1960s, when conscript wars did become a political problem, several English-speaking democracies made the shift to professional forces, and thus maintained the ability to fight wars, while the French surmounted this to a degree throughout the post-war period by having forces (the Foreign Legion, Algerian and Vietnamese troops and ‘La Coloniale’) who were either foreign mercenaries or French professionals.

And the same question recurs with regard to defence spending. Since the end of the Cold War the Americans under Clinton spent 3% of GDP on defence, and are somewhere over 4% since 9-11; the British spent 2.7% under Major and have fluctuated between 2.5% and 2.7% under Blair; the French spend around 2.7%; the Germans 1.7%, and the Italians 1.1%, much of which goes on the Carabinieri. Even given US-UK-French spending on nuclear weapons, we are clearly looking at huge differences in military capacity, exacerbated by the German continuation of conscription. If some democratic states can fight ‘very small wars’, it’s because they spend enough on defence, and have professional armies. Why don’t all democracies do that? I can think of reasons (low level of non-military govt. spending; popularity of military spending with electorate or with elected representatives, eg the siting of bases as a form of US federal ‘pork’; perceived strategic threats) but all these reasons are, I think, outside the ken of Merom’s model.

(6) On Clausewitz, I had trouble with the expression of this, and clearly need to revise it. What I meant to say was that whereas Clausewitz and his successors see unity between state, military and society as natural and war as the military pursuit of the interests of society, Merom sees wars (at least small wars) as activities undertaken by the state, but liable to fail because of the opposition of society. I disagree with you, and more importantly, so do Peter Paret and Sir Michael Howard, Clausewitz’s leading translators and exegetes. Clausewitz didn’t see ‘ unity between state, military and society as natural’- it was something historically quite new and extraordinary, and wouldn’t necessarily endure. He was one of a number of Prussian military and political reformers, led by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, horrified by Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia and the other German states. Seeking an answer for this, Clausewitz’s peers- and he was very much a junior member- came up with the idea that Revolutionary and Napoleonic France had had a society which identified with the nation to a degree hitherto unprecedented, which the state was able to translate into military power by spending more on weapons, and conscripting more men, who behaved with unusual fanaticism on the battlefield. ‘On war’ makes it clear that there can be many possible conflicts of state, society and military. Yes, many Germans after Clausewitz took the view that the state was always right, and you could just shut up. It’s like the difference between Hegel and Fichte. I’d recommend Howard’s short book ‘Clausewitz’.

(5) ..the problem of winning a small war without resort to brutal means requires that the resources committed be sufficient to achieve overwhelming military superiority. You need to define ‘overwhelming military superiority’. I also think that this can’t be done in terms of numbers of troops plus spending. I would, modestly, like to argue for the virtues of the model I gave in a post above, giving regard to strategic aims, civil and political conditions among the local civilians, military capacity and training and doctrine.

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