In my last post on Iraq, I concluded with a somewhat snarky reference to pro-war bloggers who reasoned that, since Sadr offered a ceasefire, he must have lost the fight in Basra, and therefore the government must have won. As it turned out, the ceasefire was the product of some days of negotation, brokered by the Iranians, which made the original point moot.
Still, given that the same claim was made by John McCain, who said”Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire., I think it’s worth making a more serious point about the fundamental error in pro-war thinking that’s reflected in claims like this.
As usual with McCain’s statements in his alleged area of expertise, the claim is factually dubious (see below). More importantly, the implicit analysis here, and in nearly all pro-war thinking is that of a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gains equal the other side’s losses. The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms. In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought. With nearly equal certainty, anyone who passes up an opportunity for an early ceasefire will regret it in the end.
The negative sum nature of war is most obvious when, as predictably happened in Basra, the stage of bloody stalemate is reached. At this point, both sides typically want to come out of the fight with some gains to show for the exercise. Fighting on, they sometimes achieve this and sometimes do not. But the losses incurred in the process ensure that both sides are worse than they would have been with an immediate ceasefire.
In this respect, Basra is a microcosm of the whole Iraq war. Six years after the push for war began just about everyone is far worse off than if they had agreed to peace on the most humiliating terms imaginable. Saddam Hussein and most of the Baathist apparatus are mostly dead or one the run, and many of the survivors are glad to take a pittance from the US occupiers. The Shi’ites, despite gaining political power, have suffered more in the years of conflict (with the Americans, the Sunni and among themselves) than they ever did under Saddam. The Americans and British have poured endless blood and treasure into Iraq to no avail and both Bush and Blair are utterly discredited. Even the Kurds have overreached themselves and brought the Turkish army into their territory. The only winners have been the Iranians, as interested bystanders, and merchants of death like Halliburton and Blackwater, and even these may yet end up worse off.
Coming back to McCain’s historical claim, it’s easy to point to cases, like the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 where the winning side declared a unilateral ceasefire. More pertinently, perhaps, governments fighting insurgent movements have frequently followed up successful military campaigns with unilateral ceasefires and amnesty campaigns, aimed at reintegrating the rebels into civil society. If the government forces had achieved their main goals in Basra within the three-day period initially suggested, it would have made good sense for Maliki to follow this example.
Even more relevant to the argument presented here are the many cases when initial success in war could have been followed by a ceasefire and a peace deal on favorable terms, but was not, with disaster as the common aftermath. Two examples:
- At the end of 1792, the French revolutionary armies were everywhere victorious against the invaders of the First Coalition. Against the arguments of Robespierre and others, the government pressed on, converting a defensive war into one of unlimited expansion. When the fighting ended more than 20 years later, with the restored Bourbons replacing the Bonaparte dictatorship, the millions of dead included nearly all of those who had made the decision to go to war.
- After four months of fighting in Korea, the US/UN forces threw back the North Korean invaders. A peace at least as favorable as the status quo ante could easily have been imposed unilaterally at this point. Instead MacArthur invaded the North and brought the Chinese into the war, resulting in one of the worst defeats ever suffered by US forces (until the greater disaster of Vietnam). Three years and countless deaths later, the prewar boundary was restored.
Finally reaching a conclusion, the central error in pro-war thinking is the belief that every war has a winner. On the contrary, in war there are far more losers than winners, and in most cases there are no real winners apart from the merchants of death mentioned above. Even those who seem to win have usually sowed the seeds of future disaster. The only sane response to war is to end it as soon as possible.
fn1. Obviously, WWII will be raised as an exception. If a powerful state is controlled by a madman bent on war, there is nothing that can be done to avoid it. But I’m more and more convinced that arguments for war, or about the conduct of war, that rely solely on WWII should come under the same embargo as other arguments that invoke Hitler and Nazism.