Every Armistice Day I write more or less the same post, and every time I do, I’m struck by how hard it is to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence of war during my lifetime (the last 50 years or so). For around half that time, the US has been engaged in a large-scale war, with Australia as an ally/client. The wars have cost thousands of American, and hundreds of Australian, lives, and trillions of dollars, while wreaking death and destruction on a far more massive scale in the countries in which they have been fought. The outcomes have ranged from total defeat to unsatisfactory partial victories. In no case have there been benefits remotely commensurate with the cost, for either side (for all the millions of lives lost, is Vietnam much different now than if the war had never been fought?). In most of them, the case for war was built on blatant lies and in the remaining cases, the lies started as soon as the guns opened fire. The claims of military and foreign policy “experts” have proved to be false more often than not.
The obvious conclusion is that war is almost always a mistake as well as a crime.
Yet it seems impossible to get away from the assumption that war, or the threat of war, is a reliable method of achieving desired outcomes.
That’s obviously the default assumption of the Foreign Policy Community in the US and nearly everywhere else. It’s just about equally widespread on the Left in two forms. The first is simply the standard Foreign Policy Community belief that the US ruling class has been highly successful in using war to achieve its goals, but with the evaluation that this is bad, not good. The second, fading away a bit, but still influential, is the idea that the best/only way to resist oppression is through wars of national liberation or armed revolution.
I can’t exempt myself from this. Even though I know better intellectually, my intuitive response to lots of bad international situations (say, the current civil war in Syria) is that someone ought to do something (military) about it. Sometimes I’ve carried that intuition into initial support for wars of intervention on the assumption that, this time, they will get it right. Inevitably, I’ve realised in retrospect that I was wrong. Even when a military intervention goes as smoothly as possible, it sets a precedent for future disasters.
I’m not pretending to have a complete answer. But if we started any analysis of international relations with the assumption that war will end badly for all concerned, and that the threat of war will probably lead to war sooner or later, we would be right most of the time.