Remembrance Day

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2014

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

{ 112 comments }

1

dsquared 11.11.14 at 10:53 am

“The relentless urge to action rather than inaction”

2

Mike Huben 11.11.14 at 11:03 am

People choose beliefs for stupid, emotional reasons starting in childhood. Then they find it very difficult to change those beliefs as long as they can find some group for which the beliefs are normative.

“One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses. Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.”
Sebastian Haffner, “Defying Hitler” pg. 17

Only a few years of having an enemy will create a generation of haters, who will propagate their hate even if it is only within a small subset of the community. Hate is highly motivating, and thus useful in a war setting. It is extremely difficult to turn off hate in an individual: the best alternative seems to be to reduce its propagation into the next generation.

Children are reared on stories of fighting to solve problems. It is a huge part of popular culture everywhere. And it is probably adaptive, because from an evolutionary standpoint what is important is winning in competitions, by force if you are losing a more peaceful competition. (Assuming that you believe in group selection.)

3

Metatone 11.11.14 at 11:47 am

Mike Huben points to some depressing truths about how we’re mostly reared on stories of fighting.

But I think there’s more. At the level of an individual life, most childhoods involve some fighting – and fighting works. Might does make right for some proportion of the time. It’s regulated by authority figures, but we instinctively learn that in the absence of said figures, fighting is at least potentially on the horizon.

So when we get to the world stage and there is no “world policeman” with any recognise authority… well fighting comes back on the horizon.

4

harry b 11.11.14 at 11:55 am

I thought you might enjoy the Jeremy Vine show yesterday — the final segment on WWI poetry (starts about 1hr 35 mns in):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04m4d9r

He asked the poetry professor (whose name I forget, but was very interesting) why we remember WWI poetry but not WWII poetry, and it occurred to me that it might be because the most memorable war poetry is about the futility and evils of war, and that it is easier to write that, well, when the war is futile and evil (which is, as you know, a pretty good bet, but not WWII).

Its funny you say that about your reaction to wars. My reaction is (almost) always negative; the wars I have been wrong about were wars I wrongly opposed (in one case extremely actively).

5

J Thomas 11.11.14 at 12:09 pm

In general, populations tend to increase to the carrying capacity of the environment.

Then they increase more. When there is a surplus of individuals, some will die.Whatever an individual does that makes it more likely somebody else will do the dying, increases the chance he and his family will survive to the next time of plenty.

Humans have been having particularly good times recently all over the world because our technology has increased the world’s carrying capacity. Coal-powered railroads made it easier to distribute food. Coal-powered nitrogen-fixation made it easier to grow food. Sanitation made it possible for people to live in large cities without continual epidemics. Each advance let the population rise, but then new technology relieved the pressure and let the population rise more.

It might have made sense to spend those centuries sharing, but we weren’t used to long periods of global prosperity. We kept fighting even in the good times. People acted like they just didn’t think there would be enough to go around, and sometimes that was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If we don’t want the world population to fall a whole lot in the next 50 years, we need cheap alternate energy. It can’t be nuclear power because the world can’t afford to have wars fought around, near, over, or in nuclear power plants, and if we have nuclear power plants those will all happen.

6

Anderson 11.11.14 at 1:35 pm

Policy issues are difficult. War seems straightforward by comparison.

You can share the ball with a kid, or hit him & take the ball. If you rationalize the consequences away, and have no scruples, easy choice.

Germany in 1914 had grave domestic issues and thought a nice little war would put the Social Dems in their place. There was little chance of a “nice little” war, but that’s what Germany wanted to think.

7

Sasha Clarkson 11.11.14 at 1:51 pm

I read this post several hours ago JQ, and it’s been depressing me ever since. Most of us would probably like peace, stability and a quiet life, so whence comes war?

The law of the jungle dictates that, for the individualist animal, conflict is the norm: there is no such thing as a right. There is, for example, no private property. You may own you genes and body (until someone eats you), but anything else you must fight to gain or keep. This is modified for social animals, but there is nonetheless competition for resources between groups of the same species, and there are also upheavals and revolutions within social groups.

Humans are highly social animals, usually with at least some loyalty extending beyond the immediate family to wider groupings, but rarely if ever in real terms to the entire species. Empathy is limited. We may help our neighbours, or someone who collapses in the street, or even give large amounts to charity. But, for example, I don’t know anyone who wants an unrestricted open door to all economic refugees and asylum seekers, to the extent of being prepared to share their own homes and food, and also help work and pay for the extra housing and community services needed.

Apart from stupid conflicts over mental constructs like religion, we have two problems:
1) Large groups still compete with each other for natural resources. They will not share with each other unless forced to do so. Indeed some societies thrive by subjugating and parasitising others.
2) Subgroups within a larger social group are also de-facto internal parasites, treating members of their own society as prey.

There is no global authority which can solve 1). Like its predecessor the League Of Nations, the UN was designed to be toothless. 2) can only be solved by internal revolt and revolution, with no guarantee that a new elite will not rise which will be worse than the first.

8

ZM 11.11.14 at 1:57 pm

I also find this depressing, especially after reading articles on Dresden and North Korea.

“But, for example, I don’t know anyone who wants an unrestricted open door to all economic refugees and asylum seekers, to the extent of being prepared to share their own homes and food, and also help work and pay for the extra housing and community services needed.”

I do know at least one person locally and have heard of others in the city who have done this for asylum seekers.

9

Main Street Muse 11.11.14 at 2:02 pm

My father served on the front lines of Korea back when the protection of that nation was essential for our national security. It was a hopeless, stupid war, but mercifully brief.

I reread Tuchman’s Guns of August this summer, in honor of the centennial anniversary of that long ago August. Still have no idea why those trenches were dug and the war lasted forever. Yes, there were reasons, but again, they were stupid and yet all of Europe dug in and the gene pool was decimated. Poppies, poppies, everywhere poppies blooming amidst the blood of all those men.

We go to war for reasons that are illogical and emotional. I’m still stumped over how GW Bush and company so easily aligned Iraq with the war on terror, but there you have it. (Speaking of warring for emotional reasons with Freudian overtones… God bless us everyone if Jeb Bush really does run in 2o16!!!)

We also (in America) no longer have the draft. Makes it much easier to look away from the kills and wounds of war. Our warriors volunteered for it…

10

Earwig 11.11.14 at 2:05 pm

“the wars I have been wrong about were wars I wrongly opposed”

This is so contrary to my own experience that I beg you, please, say more about the (many?) wars you should have supported.

11

Main Street Muse 11.11.14 at 2:08 pm

We like to make meaning out of our war dead. Here’s Lincoln on a long-ago November day, honoring the war dead:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

“We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we cannot hallow this ground.

“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

12

Joshua W. Burton 11.11.14 at 2:09 pm

“It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two, Master Warden,” answered Éowyn. ‘And those who have not swords can still die upon them.”

13

Lynne 11.11.14 at 2:10 pm

The meaning of Remembrance Day has become so muddied I no longer wear a poppy. I used to wear a pin that had a red poppy and a white dove on it and it said “To remember is to end all war.” I’d still wear that if I could find it.

Here in Canada the military has been increasingly glorified under our current prime minister. With the recent attack on Parliament this has only intensified, and the Legion reports a spike in poppy sales over previous years. Honouring dead soldiers has come to mean supporting whatever conflict they died in. You can’t criticize our foreign policy without sounding like you are saying these men died in vain.

My uncle fought in World War II, and never talked about it except to tell a humorous story. I was an adult before I learned he’d come across a group of men captured and left dead, and they were all from a village near his farm village.

My grandfather fought in both World Wars and carried shrapnel until the day he died.

I remember them.

14

Lynne 11.11.14 at 2:11 pm

About the ineffectiveness of the UN: it would be far more effective if the US didn’t consider itself to be above and apart from the other members.

15

Bloix 11.11.14 at 2:17 pm

A World War II poem: Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

16

areanimator 11.11.14 at 2:19 pm

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate respect for the dead from the monstrous sunk cost fallacies that surround remembrance ceremonies of all wars. All those people, they couldn’t have died for nothing, could they? So the story goes. Their deaths must have meaning, of some kind, it is insisted. Mostly, the war dead are called upon to posthumously legitimize and support the current world order, whatever it is. “They died so I can have this”. I offer to reject the idea that war death can have meaning in any sense. I would like to purge remembrance of all these stifling platitudes and remember the horror, pure and undiluted. That way maybe there would be a couple second’s pause at least before the next batch of children are sent on the next crusade.

17

Sam Clark 11.11.14 at 2:38 pm

Another WWII poem: Keith Douglas, Vergissmeinnicht

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

18

marcel 11.11.14 at 2:43 pm

harry b wrote: “the most memorable war poetry is about the futility and evils of war” …

Like the Iliad or the Aeneid, or, somewhat closer to the present, The Song of Roland?

I am not esp. well read so far as literature goes, esp. not poetry, but my impression is that the most memorable, most prized poetry is about glory and manly virtue, and that this is true not just of Western Culture but in many cultures. Am I mistaken (in addition to being not as literate as I would like)?

19

JimV 11.11.14 at 2:56 pm

Bloix at 15: great poem, thanks.

20

Sasha Clarkson 11.11.14 at 2:57 pm

A good if grim performance of a translation of Wovon lebt der Mensch from Brecht/Weil’s Threepenny Opera

The German refrain is “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”

21

AB 11.11.14 at 2:58 pm

“Died some, pro patria, non dulce non et decor” (Pound)

22

Anarcissie 11.11.14 at 3:12 pm

Once upon a time, November 11 was called ‘Armistice Day’.

23

Stephen 11.11.14 at 3:17 pm

Yeats, with some but not I think total realism: An Irish airman foresees his death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

24

LFC 11.11.14 at 3:25 pm

Poems from the Desert by Members of the Eighth Army, with a foreword by Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery (Harper & Bros., 1944)

found in a used bkstore a while back

25

LFC 11.11.14 at 3:36 pm

Lynne @14
About the ineffectiveness of the UN

UN or other peacekeeping missions are quite effective in cases where parties to a civil war have reached a ceasefire. Ceasefire agreements are more likely to stick and be followed by disarmament/demobilization if there is a peacekeeping contingent inserted. In a study by V. Page Fortna of 94 ceasefires in 60 civil wars betw. 1989 and 1999, peacekeepers reduced the likelihood of a renewal of conflict by betw. 55 and 85 percent.

26

Anderson 11.11.14 at 3:58 pm

18: It is surprising how anti-war Homer can seem. He typically describes the horrible wounds that lead to a warrior’s death, how the man will never again see his native country, leaves a family behind, etc.

Possibly these are tragic relish to the dish of glory, but I think it’s more than that.

27

Shelley 11.11.14 at 4:13 pm

As a writer, I give thanks for the Yeats.

I think having an “enemy” as a target of rage helps people deal with the oppressive burdens of everyday life.

If only they would identify the “enemy” as corporate greed. But they can’t, because there’s no visual image for this elephant.

28

J Thomas 11.11.14 at 4:18 pm

“It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two, Master Warden,” answered Éowyn. ‘And those who have not swords can still die upon them.”

And yet how often we can easily find two or more foes.

Somebody says “I want X and I will take it unless somebody stops me.”
Somebody else says “You can have X only over my dead body.”

Which of them is the single foe who started it? If we think the first has no right to X then they are the one foe that bred the war, and if we think the second has no right to stop them then they are the one foe. But still it takes two.

About the ineffectiveness of the UN: it would be far more effective if the US didn’t consider itself to be above and apart from the other members.

If the UN had been set up so that the USA and the USSR could not consider themselves to be above and apart from the other members, there would not have been a UN.

Someday all the permanent members of the Security Council may be gone, and the UN still survives. It would be interesting to see what it turned into.

29

Doug K 11.11.14 at 5:54 pm

Lynne, “My uncle fought in World War II, and never talked about it except to tell a humorous story.”
This seems to be nearly universal. My wife organized a Veteran’s Day celebration at church and asked for pictures, stories etc from the vets. For the combat vets, most of these came from daughters, nieces etc, as the folks who were actually in the various wars did not want to talk about it at all. The career military were more forthcoming. My service was short and inglorious, I barely saw action, but even so it’s taken decades to be able to think of the memories without quick and strong revulsion.

The US changed from Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day in 1954, following Korea and WWII. That is part of the problem I guess, we stopped celebrating peace.

Bloix, thank you – I cannot to this day, strip down a rifle without going through the naming of parts, but had not actually read the poem in years.

“Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution ?”
simple and violent are really easy to sell.. peace, which in our case we have not got.

30

mattski 11.11.14 at 6:10 pm

What Mike Huben said. I was raised on Popeye and the ether of fisticuffs.

Watching video on Stalingrad last night I saw that in Hitlers speech celebrating what he thought was victory he said at one point, “we are a humble people.”

A humble master race, if you can beat that.

31

Sasha Clarkson 11.11.14 at 6:39 pm

“About the ineffectiveness of the UN: it would be far more effective if the US didn’t consider itself to be above and apart from the other members.

The UN was created by the WWII victors with permanent Security Council members who could veto decisions. It was set up to be a tool of, and therefore ineffective against, its founders. Britain of course has been largely a US lackey except in the 60s when Harold Wilson managed to keep us out of Vietnam. The US hosts the UN and contributes 22% of its budget. It would not do this unless, more often than not, the UN could be made a tool of US policy. I’m not saying that this is right – far from it – but it is realpolitik.

As an economic superpower, the US may be in long term decline. I suspect that the reality of that decline may play into the hands of the darker political forces within the US which, given its vast nuclear arsenal, is very frightening.

32

js. 11.11.14 at 6:46 pm

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems?

Speaking of complex and intractable problems, I am not particularly a fan of the appeals to “human nature” more or less evident in several of the comments. One thing to ask is: who is the “we” here and what exactly are we falling for? In the run-up to the Iraq war, e.g., there were not only rabid displays of jingoism, etc., but also by huge anti-war protests. Say the decision whether to go to war had been put up to a plebiscite with the facts as known then clearly presented. Is it so obvious that the ‘Yes’ vote would have won by anything like a commanding margin? Is it obvious that it would have won at all?

As far as I can tell, wars in the modern era are more often than not started for recognizable geopolitical reasons, they might aim to effect relations of dominance that wouldn’t or couldn’t be agreed to peaceably, and anyway, the decision whether or not to go to war is generally not up to “us”.

33

James Wimberley 11.11.14 at 6:51 pm

(Cross-commented from JQ’s site: sauce for goose …)

Ok with the sentiment. But I think JQ needs to look at the data, eg from SIPRI. The trend in casualties from war (and organized violence more generally) since 1945 has been steadily down. 2,000 soldiers died on the Western Front in the morning of November 11, 1918 before 11 a.m. after the Armistice had been signed. We don’t see anything like that today. The trend is even stronger if you leave out violence involving non-state actors on at least one side, like ISIL vs. peshmerga. Is there a single interstate war going on today anywhere?

The decline in numbers has coincided with the growth of the “global village” of TV and the Internet, bringing graphic images of violence to everybody’s house and, nearly, hut. That has created opportunities for clever psychos like ISIS to manipulate large audiences; but it has also increasingly constrained the options of governments in the use of violence. Contrast the actions of the Chinese government – essentially the same élite – in Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong in 2014. Other forms of oppression and control have become more effective, like electronic surveillance. A police state is an evil thing. But it does not rely on the glamour of war.

+ Stephen #23: Yeats’ poem is very fine, but not honest. 200,000 Irishmen volunteered in the British armed forces in WWI, and were urged to do so by John Redmond. 49,200 died. Some no doubt volunteered out of a desire for adventure, but realism surely set in during the autumn of 1914. The obvious explanation is that they agreed with Redmond that the cause was just: defending Belgium, another small and bullied country. Pearse and company reflected the view of a tiny minority; it took the stupid repression of the Easter Rising to make them into important martyrs. Yeats’ poem manages the trick of half-honouring the Irish war dead in a way that denies their real reasons for serving. You could say the same of the Gettysburg Address.

34

Shirley0401 11.11.14 at 7:35 pm

I was lucky enough to visit France and Belgium this past summer, and visited a number of graveyards for soldiers killed in action. Many of the headstones were pretty touching, but one in particular stuck out for me. The solider was <20, 18 if I remember. Apologies if I get it jumbled, but it went something like this: "A good boy / He tried his best." That's it, aside from name and dates. I don't get choked up easily, but that one did it. (It was kind of chilly and overcast, too. At least as I remember it.)
I'm having trouble putting it into words, but I think of that tombstone sometimes when wondering how we keep getting ourselves into these messes.
Sidenote: the international effort that provided for the establishment, and continues to provide for the maintenance, of those graveyards is one of the things that gives me some hope for the possibilities of cooperation.

35

emmryss 11.11.14 at 7:47 pm

With so many contemporary wars being fought over ever-scarcer resources, I wonder what the future face of war will look like once we run out the resources that fuel it. Hand-to-hand combat with machetes and clubs? Because I don’t think you can run a modern army on windmills and the sun. But for now, the major powers are primed to wage war for oil so they’ll have enough oil to be able to continue to wage war for oil. I think it was Georges Clemenceau once said, It is the business of government to make peace more exciting than war by encouraging the arts.

36

Theophylact 11.11.14 at 8:06 pm

Here’s a WWII poem by Randall Jarrell:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Not, I think, very glorifying.

37

Mongo 11.11.14 at 8:07 pm

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems?

I found myself wondering why the reverse of this question is generally derided as hopeless idealism. And for some reason, a quote (which I’ll still have to paraphrase) came bubbling up out of memory — from, of all things, The Strawberry Statement by James Simon Kunen : ‘If you’re going to stop making war, you should just stop. Maybe that’s stupid, but it seems that simple to me.’

38

Steven 11.11.14 at 8:15 pm

Samuel Johnson: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”

39

Matt 11.11.14 at 8:17 pm

Surveillance drones are already extending flight times with photovoltaic cells on the wings. Large and light enough aircraft can charge during the day and fly on batteries at night. Several machines have already demonstrated the capability, though none are yet in serial production.

For that matter, Europe had about 400 years of warfare involving gunpowder before the Industrial Revolution. Military rockets, machine guns, and high explosives predate the military transition to liquid fueled transportation by decades. The prospects of national armies reverting to edged weapons at close quarters are quite remote.

40

Stephen Johnson 11.11.14 at 9:31 pm

Some fine and new (at least to me) WWII poetry there, for which thanks.

But, IMAO, “Dulce et decorum” est – http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html is still the best, notwithstanding the excellence of “Tommy” – http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/tommy.html
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,

41

clew 11.11.14 at 9:45 pm

I wonder what the future face of war will look like once we run out the resources that fuel it.

Genetically engineered plagues and immunities? Maybe our enemies and/or resource competitors just all fall asleep, or are perpetually on Ecstasy, or are only a tenth as fertile as we are, and so forth and so on. (Or turn into zombies or the Screwfly Solution. Excellent for stories, not likely to be pleasant really.)

42

LFC 11.11.14 at 9:56 pm

James Wimberley @33
The trend in casualties from war … since 1945 has been steadily down.
Yup (although the Syrian war is responsible for an upward move in the #s for v. recent yrs). We’ve been through all this before on CT so I’m not sure there’s much pt in going through the debate again.

emmryss @35
With so many contemporary wars being fought over ever-scarcer resources
The conflicts in the headlines right now (Syria, Ukraine) are not *primarily* about resources, though they prob play some role. The somewhat low-level but nasty war in S. Sudan (I haven’t been following it recently, perhaps it’s calmer at the moment?) is partly about resources, and there are no doubt some others, but the headline-grabbing conflicts right now are not. (Nor was the ’03 Iraq invasion, imo, but no pt in rehashing that.)

43

cassander 11.11.14 at 10:01 pm

@ anderson

>Possibly these are tragic relish to the dish of glory, but I think it’s more than that.

I’ve always come away feeling the opposite The Illiad is basically the story of a genocide with the people doing the killing portrayed unabashedly as the heros. Achilles might have some personal angst over his choice of glory over happiness, but no one ever says that he chose wrong. His path might not be easy, but it’s the path you’re supposed to take. making that path hard just elevates it.

44

LFC 11.11.14 at 10:05 pm

Sasha Clarkson @31
[US wouldn’t host the UN unless it] could be made a tool of US policy. I’m not saying that this is right – far from it – but it is realpolitik.

As I commented earlier @25, UN peacekeeping is, on balance, an effective tool of peace. People prob shd be urging an increase in the peacekeeping budget and other measures rather than recycling stale complaints about the UN as an instrument of US policy.

As an economic superpower, the US may be in long term decline. I suspect that the reality of that decline may play into the hands of the darker political forces within the US which, given its vast nuclear arsenal, is very frightening.
I don’t stay up at night worrying that some crazed right-wing loony is going to break into an ICBM site in Wyoming or wherever and figure out how to launch one, but whatever worries float yr boat…

45

LFC 11.11.14 at 10:07 pm

A depressing thing about the discussions of war and conflict here is that they almost entirely ignore the *enormous* amt of scholarship on these issues, in a way that wd be considered bizarre if done in a comparable thread on philosophy or political theory or whatever.

46

LFC 11.11.14 at 10:09 pm

p.s. Or economics, needless to say.

47

Dazed and Confused 11.11.14 at 10:15 pm

48

LFC 11.11.14 at 10:20 pm

J Wimberley
Yeats’ poem manages the trick of half-honouring the Irish war dead in a way that denies their real reasons for serving. You could say the same of the Gettysburg Address.

You could? (Strikes me offhand as a sort of odd thing to say about the Gettysburg Address.)

49

Anderson 11.11.14 at 10:43 pm

“half-honouring the Irish war dead”

He wrote it for his friend, Robert Gregory. Who was himself a volunteer. KIA 1918. I don’t think Yeats was “half-honoring” anybody.

Nor was he presenting it as a general statement about the Irish war dead. It’s titled “AN Irish Airman Foresees HIS Death.” I presume that William Butler Yeats was capable of choosing his words with some care.

50

Bloix 11.11.14 at 11:17 pm

#33, #45 – the Yeats poem is complex and perhaps somewhat disingenuous. Robert Gregory was not Yeats’ friend; he was the son of Yeats’ patron, Lady Gregory. He was an aristocratic (and Protestant) Irishman who lived most the time in England, owned a house in London, and thought of himself as British. Although he had talked of enlisting in 1914, he did not do so until late in 1915, and then only after his affair with the wife of a friend became public. (His own mother called him a “cad.”)

Yeats did not much like Gregory, and they had had long-standing disagreements over Lady Gregory’s disposition of her money and property. But Gregory turned out to be a brave and successful pilot – among other things, he shot down the Red Baron in single combat. When he was killed, Yeats felt tremendous pressure to write a eulogy for him.

Eventually, he wrote three poems about Gregory. This one is the best remembered – in large part because it is not entirely about Gregory in particular. Gregory was famous enough that readers would have known that the poem was about him; but by not using his name (it is not “Maj. Robert Gregory Foresees His Death”), Yeats allows it to be also about Ireland’s relationship with England and about a soldier’s relationship with death.

51

mud man 11.11.14 at 11:27 pm

I’m just a joiner I guess. Now they keep making me stand up in church, and it’s embarrassing.

52

js. 11.11.14 at 11:32 pm

LFC @43:

Having been involved in several philosophy-related threads, I’m not sure I totally agree, but yes, this is a good point. People start talking about the jungle/the veld/the monkeys/childhood, etc. It’s all a bit bizarrely naively universalistic. (Ok, yes. I’m exaggerating a bit. Also, half-joking about the philosophy bit.)

53

maidhc 11.11.14 at 11:52 pm

Everyone I have met who served in WWI either refused to talk about it entirely, or said it was a pointless futile waste that needlessly squandered the lives of countless bright and talented young men. None of them ever said anything about glory or patriotism.

Now that the soldiers are all gone, the Jelly-bellied Flag-flappers have been allowed to take over the commemoration.

54

gianni 11.12.14 at 12:29 am

Being so close, in DC, I can’t help but notice. And all I can say is that the ‘commemoration’ of Veterans Day very was light on remembrance and reflection, heavy on the pomp and celebration.

As you all could have guessed, of course.

55

Matt 11.12.14 at 12:30 am

Primo Levi wrote,
We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.

My father was drafted to Vietnam, wounded in action, discharged without any serious lasting physical disabilities. In my whole life I think the longest I ever heard him speak continuously about the war was 3 or 4 minutes. His tiny speeches over the years amount to less than half an hour. The longer speeches were about more trivial things, like the tricks of heating your food over a burning lump of plastic explosive. The shorter ones made a deeper impression.

“How would you like it if someone poured burning gasoline on you?!” — his furious reaction to my over-enthusiastic reading of an encyclopedia entry on incendiary weapons, when I was 8.

“I learned that there are things much worse than boredom” — explaining how he lost his draft deferment by flunking out of college as a freshman, then becoming an A student when he re-enrolled after leaving the army.

Silently crying, as he watched the evening news about the US going to war with Iraq in 1991.

By the numbers I know the suffering was orders greater among the Vietnamese. The glimpse of the war’s misery that I catch through my father has already been projected through a pinhole and shielded behind dark glass. There are depths of misery that can only be intuited, never transmitted, because they are not survivable.

56

Harold 11.12.14 at 12:42 am

@43. The Trojan war wasn’t genocide. That was the normal way of waging war in those days. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trojan_Women

I am a bit tired of this kind of imprecise hyperbole.

57

Stephen 11.12.14 at 12:44 am

Bloix@50: for Robert Gregory (kia 23 Jan 1918) to have shot down the Red Baron (kia 21 April 1918) would have been a remarkable feat.

That it’s a complex poem, I quite agree.

58

Bloix 11.12.14 at 1:16 am

#57 – Gregory shot his plane down in March 1917. Von Richthofen survived.

59

John Quiggin 11.12.14 at 1:43 am

LFC @45 “A depressing thing about the discussions of war and conflict here is that they almost entirely ignore the *enormous* amt of scholarship on these issues”

Most of these discussions include a comment along these lines, and a suggestion that the original post is simplistic or naive. Usually, as here, there is no reference to literature. But where there is, it rarely tells me more than “it’s more complicated than that”.

I don’t claim to have succeeded in answering the questions I posed above, but if there is an answer (or more than one answer) in the scholarly literature, I’d be glad to have it pointed out. (Obviously, I know about things like sunk costs).

My own impression though, is that the experts have more detailed knowledge about particular conflicts, and may have better ways of analyzing some of the subsidiary issues (say, the relationship between democracy and war), but that the questions that concern me are excluded by assumption (true of economics and philosophy in important respects also).

60

Harold 11.12.14 at 2:45 am

Think of the 40,000 homeless men who used to crowd the Bowery, all the way up to Union Square — many of them war veterans, I’ll warrant. They seem to have died off by the late 1980s, or been gentrified out. Today’s generation of vets are often homeless and without health insurance. It would be better to take care of them than to have parades.

61

5566hh 11.12.14 at 3:36 am

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started?

Because lots of people, especially powerful elites, profit from war, isn’t it obvious?

62

A H 11.12.14 at 4:22 am

I think a big part of the problem is something Ta-Nehisi Coates is always taking about, the harm a society suffers from “the inability to look into the cold dark void of history.”

To realize the futility of war, a society needs to take a cold look at its own history, and that most likely means facing up to the fact that their country was not a force for good.

In the US we have ANDREW JACKSON on our money, so it’s not like the evil is being hidden away, people just really really don’t want to confront history.

63

jkay 11.12.14 at 4:34 am

We ALL love war, sadly. Or why else were neutral democracies in on Libya and Kosovo? And, too many generations, like ours,are extra cursed with warmongers. Wars last forever, because there’s so much turf, and you need a longer occupation phase because the police and army need distrusting.

Are you sure Russia isn’t similarly contemptuous of the UN as us? What about Ukraine? But I forget we’re the only bad guys in the world.

64

floopmeister 11.12.14 at 5:17 am

Lest We Forget

Fat chance of that this year in Oz with all the patriotic chest beating. I also have found it too hard to wear a poppy this year…

My holiday reading this year will be Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession:

‘A century ago we got it wrong. We sent thousands of young Australians on a military operation that was barely more than a disaster. It’s right that a hundred years later we should feel strongly about that. But have we got our remembrance right? What lessons haven’t we learned about war, and what might be the cost of our Anzac obsession?’

Defence analyst and former army officer James Brown believes that Australia is expending too much time, money and emotion on the Anzac legend, and that today’s soldiers are suffering for it.

Vividly evoking the war in Afghanistan, Brown reveals the experience of the modern soldier. He looks closely at the companies and clubs that trade on the Anzac story. He shows that Australians spend a lot more time looking after dead warriors than those who are alive. We focus on a cult of remembrance, instead of understanding a new world of soldiering and strategy. And we make it impossible to criticise the Australian Defence Force, even when it makes the same mistakes over and over. None of this is good for our soldiers or our ability to deal with a changing world. With respect and passion, Brown shines a new light on Anzac’s long shadow and calls for change.

65

floopmeister 11.12.14 at 5:17 am

Damn – should have been all three paragraphs in italics of course…

66

js. 11.12.14 at 5:33 am

I don’t claim to have succeeded in answering the questions I posed above, but if there is an answer (or more than one answer) in the scholarly literature, I’d be glad to have it pointed out.

I can’t speak for LFC, and anyway wouldn’t want to, and anyway too I don’t the literature in anything like a serious way. But: as someone who’s probably just about as opposed to any given war—or war per se—as you are, I have difficulty understanding what kind of answer you’re looking for. For example, I think Hobsbawm gives a really fantastic analysis at the end of The Age of Empire of the causes that led to WWI. LFC and others on here would probably disagree with with that statement. Fine. But you, i.e. JQ, seem to be making a different kind of claim—like, that’s the wrong kind of answer. So: what are the criteria of adequacy on the right kind of answer? Genuine question, this.

67

js. 11.12.14 at 5:46 am

Oh, and I think it’s in the first chapter of his Age of Extremes that Hobsbawm gives an account of why the war had to last as long as it did and end as it did, etc. More or less. I’m basically again interested in why you seem to find this kind of explanation for why wars continue as they do to be unsatisfactory.

68

Meredith 11.12.14 at 6:03 am

marcel, the Iliad and Aeneid do not glorify war (if that’s what you were suggesting) but rather raise John’s question. They mostly mourn the losses of war (on both — rather, all sides, since Dido comes to mind here, as much as Ilium). (The Odyssey is interesting here: is it celebrating Odysseus’ killing Iliad-like all the suitors, or quite something else?)

The Iliad (I can’t help it — it’s just the best, there I said it) presents itself as a tomb of mourning. Which is what we do on Armistice/Veterans/Remembrance Day. Mourning is all about praise and, wtf, you had to go and die on me? Lament (the women’s genre) is very complicated.

69

Z 11.12.14 at 9:59 am

But: as someone who’s probably just about as opposed to any given war—or war per se—as you are, I have difficulty understanding what kind of answer you’re looking for.[…] But you, i.e. JQ, seem to be making a different kind of claim—like, that’s the wrong kind of answer. So: what are the criteria of adequacy on the right kind of answer? Genuine question, this.

As I think I told John once in person, I completely share this sentiment and I find particularly hard to understand what John is getting at in the context of WWI, which involved a web of decisions spanning decades at least. What kind of argument (moral? historical? intellectual?) could possibly count as a justification for it?

70

John Quiggin 11.12.14 at 10:14 am

I haven’t read Hobsbawm for a while, let alone the academic scholarly literature, but I’d assume the reasons why the Great War didn’t end earlier include

Sunk cost fallacies
War propaganda promising victory and demonising the enemy
The displacement of the relatively moderate leaders who started the war by aggressors committed to victory at any costs

And the same for most others.

My question is why we keep on making the same disastrous mistakes. If there’s an answer to that question in Hobsbawm I missed it.

71

John Quiggin 11.12.14 at 10:25 am

“Because lots of people, especially powerful elites, profit from war, isn’t it obvious?’

This is an obvious but wrong answer. By 1918, four of the empires that went to war had been swept away, and the other two fatally damaged. The sons of the elite died in disproportionate numbers. Similarly it’s hard to see how US elites have benefited from any of the wars (mostly losing) in which the US has engaged in the past 50 years or so.

72

ZM 11.12.14 at 10:35 am

My brief sketch of why we always are in wars goes:

European imperialism/colonialism started around 400 years ago, and they got control of many countries’ land, people, and resources to various degrees.

The strong European countries economies were dependent on this imperial vacuuming of labour and resources.

Two world wars, particularly the second, put a sort of end on this imperialism. Except the first world including former European powers and Germany as well as colonies such as US and Australia (to a lesser degree due to low population-to-land ratio) did not want to go back to being largely self-sufficient.

The second world tried to implement socialism , numbers of things went badly wrong, but regardless the first world saw this as a threat to their resource stealing practices so we have the Cold War .

Third world countries being drawn to being part of the second world or to sorts of third world nationalism were seen as threats in some cases so we have proxy wars, CIA ASIS and whatever the UK equivalent is conducting intrigue and being involved in massacres and torture and destabilization /support of dictators etc.

first world interventions in the middle east began soon after ww2 with the Suez thing , and continue now

The first world wants to have economies no poorer than before colonialism taking other countries resources labour and land – this would be unacceptable except the first world countries have most powerful militaries.

Therefore we have constant war mongering

73

areanimator 11.12.14 at 10:42 am

To my mind, at least a portion of the answer to the question of “why we keep on making the same disastrous mistakes” lies in the way

a) the new mistakes are perceived as fundamentally, qualitatively different from the old ones (as in “we used to go to war for reasons of imperialism/oil/bad thing, but THIS WAR is for democracy/legitimate self-defense/good thing”),

b) the military establishment can claim that they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and can wage war in a way that spares the innocent/lets “our” soldiers survive/lead to technological breakthroughs in civilian fields, and

c) the way “we” does a lot of work in this sentence, since as upthread commenters have already noted (in particular, js @ 32) the “we” consists of a large number of “I”‘s that never voted, supported or particularly wanted war.

One can also talk about the way commemoration and rememberance of past wars shapes the narrative into supporting either a) or b) above, how much text and talk is devoted to either telling about the mistakes of the past so that we can wage war better next time rather than avoid it entirely.

74

PatrickinIowa 11.12.14 at 10:53 am

#58 Exactly.

“Sometimes Trina doesn’t understand why I have trouble sleeping,” said a Vietnam vet friend of mine, once.

Working class guy. Small pot bust. Army or jail.

“I guessed wrong.”

75

gianni 11.12.14 at 10:54 am

“why we keep on making the same disastrous mistakes”

lots of different theories out there, of course. IR theory will want people to look at this from 3 ‘levels of analysis’, namely: 1) war is about individuals. either the specific personalities of key leaders, or the general ‘human nature’ and psychological habits that define us, these drive us to conflict. 2) it is about the character of specific states. democracies don’t fight wars but autocracies do; or the USSR is aggressive cause they are founded on Leninism; or certain domestic institutions like a free press or etc stop states from jumping into wars blindly. 3) it is about the international system, which lacks reliable conflict mediation short of war, and which is a space where security is a first order concern for all and security for state A implies insecurity for its neighbors necessarily (the security dilemma).

I am not entirely satisfied with this tripartite model for approaching international conflict, however, as it does not have much space for approaches with more idiosyncratic views of the state.

If we want to talk about WWI and draw forward, we could do worse than extend the AJ Mayer thesis, namely: reactionary aristocrats in the gov. (especially German) saw the writing on the wall for their class, but the war offered them a chance to keep hold on power as it re-affirmed their usefulness (as the martial class). The classic myths cited in the textbook WWI literature (ie: fast war, offensive bias, etc) were thus entirely self-serving and therefore very appealing. The potential that the war would either splinter the social democrats/communists gathering strength across Europe into either separate domestic factions, or paint them as traitors to the war effort (if the internationale held), was just gravy.

Can we extend this into today? Possibly. You need to dis-aggregate the polity and get rid of the notion of the ‘national interest’ to do so. Identify some 1) a reactionary elite class; 2) some threat to that elite class, whether structural or more classic party politics; 3) class incentive to pursue conflict abroad.

I have long contended that the Bush White House’s foray into Iraq in 2003 was driven in no small part by the political calculation by Karl Rove/others that ‘war presidents’ get re-elected. (the data is clear that this is a solid bet). They had an agenda they wanted to pursue, but holding on to power was the first step in getting in done, and the war would be an easy way to secure incumbency. All these old HW administration stalwarts knew the chance they blew in the Gulf War, and this time they did not want to blow it, especially given how great a new war would be for their stock portfolios. I am not sure if there was an political-economy component to it as well (military Keynesianism), given what we now all know about the state of affairs in the US economy around that time.

It is not as persuasive as the AJ Mayer thesis applied to WWI, of course, because there is far less coherence to ‘the Bush White house’ as a coherent class actor than there was for the Junkers in Wilhemine Germany. You need to add some additional layers to the approach – recognizing that the Bush presidency was the titular head of a broader alliance between more disparite social forces and such. But I think there is an important lesson in dis aggregating the society a bit, and parsing out who really stands to gain from conflict abroad, in terms of economic gain as well as who can use that conflict to gain political standing or dissolve mounting political challenges.

I would be very interested in hearing what others posit as an answer to this question.

76

Stephen 11.12.14 at 10:55 am

Bloix@58

It’s a point of no great importance, but I think it would add something to the resonance of Yeats’ poem if Robert Gregory had, as you say, shot down the Red Baron in single combat.

I’m not an expert on Big Mistake I, but Wikipedia (yes, I know) claims that von Richthofen was shot down twice: once on 6 July 1917, by Captain Donald Cullen of 20 Squadron, RFC, the second time fatally in April 1918. Gregory in July 1917 was with 40 Squadron, and of course by April 1918 he was dead.

I would be interested to know the source of your claim.

77

PatrickinIowa 11.12.14 at 10:56 am

Whoops. Sorry. #55, of course.

78

gianni 11.12.14 at 11:07 am

@71 is confusing outcomes with expectations. The outcome of WWI was radically different from the expected outcome, especially for the aristocrats. They thought they would have a short war, won on the offensive with a lot of glory. They thought they would be home by Christmas.

Now, these were largely self-serving myths, but not entirely. Germany almost took Paris – they don’t call it the ‘Miracle of the Marne’ for nothing, and some war historians will argue that it was actually due to Moltke the Younger’s timidity that they lost – Moltke at the near last minute chickened out and moved too many divisions from the Western end of the Schlieffen, sending some to the Eastern front and others being used to even out the other flank of the French front (directly contrary to the spirit of the Schlieffen plan).

So just because WWI ended with a lot of dead Junkers does not mean that the interests of the Junkers were not crucially important in explaining the drive to war. They were just wrong – on a world-historical level of course – about how the war would play out .

By the time you get to modern wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan (US and USSR chapters), and Iraq, the elites are so far removed from the actual fighting that they can maneuver such that they stand almost entirely to gain. And even still, in these cases, the expected outcome of these conflicts is radically more optimistic than the reality. So, just like back in WWI, self serving myth making plays a role, but by now these elites have learned how to better shelter from the fallout.

also goes a bit of a way to explaining why we never got to a Hot War from the Cold. Proxy wars at the fault lines of global capitalism/communism could be waged by the masses, but a WarsawPact/NATO conflict in Europe proper would threaten the trans-national class of elites making the decisions.

79

Sasha Clarkson 11.12.14 at 11:08 am

LFC: “I don’t stay up at night worrying that some crazed right-wing loony is going to break into an ICBM site in Wyoming”

Nor do I – I worry that some crazed right-wing loony is going to be given the keys to the White House and hence all the ICBM sites. In fact, many current US senators seem to be proud to be ignorant to the point of stupidity. Another 10 years of Fox-led GOP glorification of the Dunning–Kruger effect in science and economics will cause (more) serious economic and social stress in the US. Then suppose the Chinese set up a moonbase and it becomes obvious that the US isn’t top-dog any more. The only way to salvage national pride will be by increasing military adventurism. Enter President Palin.

I’ve often wondered whether Rupert Murdoch wasn’t a secret Chinese agent anyway. Every policy he and his networks support damage the long term future of the US, and help the ascendency of the Middle Kingdom.

80

ZM 11.12.14 at 11:37 am

“I’ve often wondered whether Rupert Murdoch wasn’t a secret Chinese agent anyway.”

We have a new political party here in Australua – the Palmer united Party, named after Clive Palmer mining baron, party leader, and now parliamentarian.

This has made Australian politics somewhat more interesting this parliament as you never know what this new party and its leader will say or do.

Palmer and Murdoch are feuding billionaires. And Palmer did claim that Rupert Murdoch’s (now former ) wife Wendi Deng was a Chinese spy
http://m.sunshinecoastdaily.com.au/news/clive-palmer-says-hell-sue-murdoch-over-newspaper/2010601/

81

Ronan(rf) 11.12.14 at 11:51 am

“The obvious explanation is that they agreed with Redmond that the cause was just: defending Belgium, another small and bullied country.”

Would you say so ? I dont know enough about the history, but my impression was that the Redmond volunteers were a small enough contingent of the overall Irish forces, so people probably signed up for a number of reasons (already in the British army, allegiance to/want to protect Britain, peer (social/political) pressure/commitment, adventure, money etc) of which ‘wanting to defend Belgium’ featured pretty low ?
This seems to be the thing with soldiering. Everyone wants to give the soldier/revolutionary a perspective that aligns with their own priors, but really they’re a mix of indecipherable motives. (or so I’d guess. I’d assume very few understood or cared about the geopolitics in any meaningful way, but I could be very off base on that)

82

J Thomas 11.12.14 at 12:13 pm

I was struck by Z’s comment about “a web of decisions spanning decades, at least”.

A while ago I read a book somebody on CT had recommended, about the evolution of warfare in a particular time in europe. Europe was dotted with stone fortifications which were obsolete because of mobile artillery. To stop modern attack methods on large cities required giant earthwork walls (likely faced with something to improve maintenance). Keeping troops away from the walls required smaller fortifications with artillery that could rake along the walls. Those could help protect each other too. Incredibly expensive, so the governments developed taxation systems that could pay those costs.

The result was that rich places never got attacked because they had defenses that were mostly uncrackable. Places that couldn’t afford that, got continual war. Mobile armies tramped over them, with artillery that blasted away at any important targets, there was no place that could keep them out so they went where they will. And so the rich lands got richer, and the poor lands got armies living off of them.

Once a nation was already spending enough money to support the giant earthworks, it didn’t cost that much more to outfit expeditionary armies to invade poor places. Not so much that they would pay off, but if some competitor *won* there, then it would pay off for *them* and that would be intolerable….

Everybody played their roles because they had to. If you didn’t pay for giant earthworks your city would be looted. If you couldn’t pay, you got to host foreign armies. If you were unemployed and reasonably healthy, you might find joining an army almost your only choice. Etc.

It turns into a question something like “Why do ecological niches get filled?”. If nobody created or joined an army with mobile artillery, europe would be a different place, likely a far richer place. But in a world where nobody did that, there would be great opportunities for somebody to do it….

If nobody made cannon … but there was a market, it paid OK, if you didn’t do it somebody else would….

As the power has gotten concentrated, things become less inevitable. If Bush hadn’t chosen to invade Iraq, definitely nobody else would. But our historical background is one where it was inevitable, where any small power that did things which worked could become a larger power. When the only known way to defend against mobile armies was giant fortifications, you made the fortifications or you lived (or died) with the armies. Because the armies existed, and they went where they could. And if you hired a mobile army to defend you, they would take what they needed just like the ones they were defending against would, after the first one left.

A lot of people know in their bones that there is no alternative.

You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.

83

James Wimberley 11.12.14 at 2:22 pm

LFC #48: The Gettysburg Adrress is so good that we forget its problematic side. The Union soldiers had fought and died very largely to get rid of slavery, the Confederate soldiers had fought and died to keep and extend it. That as not quite why Lincoln himself had led the Union into the war. He was IMHO rewriting history for posterity so that somehow the defeated Confederates could identify with the future peace. As we know, postwar the initial attempts to complete the abolitionist project through reconstructing Southern society were abandoned in the face of violent opposition, and the establishment of Jim Crow given historical cover by the historical myth that the issue of secession was simply secession vs. union – a myth that drew sustenance from Lincoln’s words.

84

LFC 11.12.14 at 3:27 pm

John Quiggin @59

LFC @45 “A depressing thing about the discussions of war and conflict here is that they almost entirely ignore the *enormous* amt of scholarship on these issues”

Most of these discussions include a comment along these lines, and a suggestion that the original post is simplistic or naive. Usually, as here, there is no reference to literature. But where there is, it rarely tells me more than “it’s more complicated than that”.

JQ: I was referring mainly to the tenor of the comment thread (up to the pt at which I made my comment), not to your OP (which I took to be mostly an invitation to comments). I have some thoughts on the general question at the end of yr OP, but no time rt now to go into them, unfortunately.

85

LFC 11.12.14 at 3:33 pm

P.s. I do think the statement in the OP that “there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging” is likely wrong, but I would have to check the numbers, and anyway it’s sort of a side point. The overall trend in battle deaths over the past several decades is downward, as J Wimberley noted upthread. (The Syrian war has produced an uptick, however.) That doesn’t, of course, mean the problem of armed conflict has been solved, which it obvs. hasn’t, but the recent overall trends have been in the right direction.

86

LFC 11.12.14 at 3:46 pm

JQ @70
My question is why we keep on making the same disastrous mistakes.

This is not a particularly good question, b/c ‘we’ have not kept on making the same mistakes. There has not been a great-power war (two or more great powers directly fighting each other) since 1945, or 1953, depending on one’s definition of ‘great power’. That represents progress. There’s one stream of IR literature that basically theorizes this as normative evolution, which not everyone agrees with of course, but anyway if interested see for example: Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday; Fettweis, Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace; or my review of the latter in International Studies Review v.13 n.4, December 2011.

87

js. 11.12.14 at 3:47 pm

My question is why we keep on making the same disastrous mistakes.

One, I would take on gianni’s point (@78) about distinguishing expectations from outcomes. Two, I would drop the premise that whatever goals some state or group hopes to achieve through war or violent conflict could be peaceably achieved (I can’t quite tell, but something like this premise seems to be operative). In some cases, the premise may hold, but there’s no reason to think it generally does.

Now it may still be true that the outcomes of violent conflict are almost always significantly worse than the expectations, and it may be the case that the costs of engaging in war end up outweighing the benefits of whatever goal the state was pursuing. If something like this is true, then you could rephrase the question along the lines of: “Why do actors get these calculations consistently disastrously wrong?”

I don’t have an answer to this question, but at this point I wonder whether it only applies to cases of violent conflict. I suppose I’m tempted to counterpose something like: “Why don’t ‘we’ do something climate change when we know the cost/benefit analysis heavily favors doing something about climate change?” Etc.

88

Anderson 11.12.14 at 4:01 pm

83: “The Union soldiers had fought and died very largely to get rid of slavery”

James, that is a controversial statement, at least as of Gettysburg. I would like to see your source.

The index in McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is defeating me, but at 497: “northern soldiers … fought for Union and against treason” (as of 1862 anyway).

I believe emancipation sentiment increased in the Army of the Tennessee (the main Union army in the west) as they encountered “contrabands” and saw the effects of slavery.

89

LFC 11.12.14 at 4:07 pm

There’s also disagreement in the literature about the effect of nuclear weapons, i.e. to what degree nuclear weapons are responsible for the absence of great-power war in the last 70 or so years. For example, Mearsheimer (in Tragedy of Great Power Politics) stresses nukes’ role in (somewhat) reducing the likelihood of great-power war, whereas Mueller in Retreat from Doomsday (p.116) says the memory of WW2 is a deterrent against a repetition of it, even without nuclear weapons. It’s probably a mixture of various factors, as these things tend to be.

90

J Thomas 11.12.14 at 5:37 pm

Now it may still be true that the outcomes of violent conflict are almost always significantly worse than the expectations, and it may be the case that the costs of engaging in war end up outweighing the benefits of whatever goal the state was pursuing. If something like this is true, then you could rephrase the question along the lines of: “Why do actors get these calculations consistently disastrously wrong?”

Because you only count the hits.

If you look at the number of wars that nations chose not to start because they got the calculations correct…. How could we count those?

It’s been 10 years since the USA might have invaded Iran, and it still hasn’t happened. Sharon told us to invade Iran first and Bush didn’t.

The USA has not invaded Venezuaela.

The USA has not invaded Libya, and Libya even has some oil.

The USA has not invaded Syria. Neither has Turkey or Israel. (This time around, not like Israel has never invaded Syria.)

Israel has not taken the Sinai a third time, when they have the military strength to do it easily. And Israel has never taken any of Saudi Arabia, when SA has no military that could slow them down.

The USSR has taken back essentially none of eastern europe. It could be argued that they don’t want Turkistan, azerbaijan etc, but eastern europe is valuable. For that matter, they never ever attacked western europe. When they took Manchuria in WWII they gave it back to China and they haven’t taken it again even though it’s valuable. When China was starting to get nukes, the Russians thought it was now-or-never, and they were probably strong enough to both get rid of the chinese nuclear program for awhile and also take those valuable resources, and they didn’t do it.

Turkey and Greece haven’t fought each other since 1922.

The USA hasn’t invaded Mexico without the Mexican government’s permission since1918.

There are lots and lots of things that could have turned into big wars and didn’t. But it’s hard to be sure how to count them. When a big war starts it’s obvious. When it doesn’t start, it’s kind of a matter of opinion whether it could have.

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mattski 11.12.14 at 6:20 pm

I don’t think blaming human nature is the same as saying war is inevitable bc human nature is evolving like everything else. But I do think, as others have suggested above, that our inability to look squarely at reality (including history of course) is the main culprit. We suffer as a species from wishful thinking.

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LFC 11.12.14 at 6:40 pm

@js.:
Hobsbawm’s chapter on the coming of WW1 at the end of Age of Empire is ok, I guess, but I don’t think it’s Hobsbawm at his best. (Plus it’s more than a quarter-century old, which arguably matters, to an extent, on this subject.) The rest of the book, which I’ve only dipped into here and there, I think is better.

It’s the same story w Age of Extremes: the material on WW1 and WW2 at the beginning is far from the strongest part of that generally good book — not helped by a couple of basic factual errors (e.g., he gets the British casualty figures wrong for the first day of the Somme) which apparently no one bothered to check before publication.

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js. 11.12.14 at 6:53 pm

LFC @92:

That’s totally fair. My point in bringing up Hobsbawm wasn’t so much to defend his analysis as to highlight the distinction between a response that says (a) that gives the wrong answer to my question, and one that says (b) that doesn’t even answer the question I was asking. As I expected, JQ went with (b).

I think I at least now understand what question JQ is asking and (sort of) what kind of answer he is looking for. I guess I don’t see why there need be any general answer of that sort—at least, a relatively simple one.

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James Bach 11.12.14 at 9:24 pm

I don’t know what you’re talking about. There hasn’t been a war in Eastsound, WA in a very long time. I think the last recorded battle as such was a tribe of Native Americans that slaughtered another tribe. They call that place Skull Island, now.

Since then it has been very quiet. War is actually pretty rare in most parts of the United States. I have no statistics, but I feel comfortable in that hunch.

On the other hand, not all localities have the same level of trust and responsibility as exists in Eastsound. Without that cultural strength, perhaps war is not futile– perhaps it is useful. Perhaps one way that war is useful is that it results in the eradication of one’s immediate enemy at an acceptable risk to ones’ self.

To sum up:

Futility is in the eye of the beholder.

1. Where it is futile, perhaps it is not happening.
2. Where it is happening, perhaps it is not futile.

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James Bach 11.12.14 at 9:35 pm

I suspect that at least some of the 40+ Mexican students who were abducted and killed were thinking, at some point, that war is NOT futile– I bet some of them wished they had been better able to make war against their captors.

So, who is saying that war is futile? Someone who feels that he can withdraw safely to his home, where his family is not in danger? Where war is optional, war is wrong. That seems clear. But of course, the argument is made that many wars that may seem optional are really not.

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dbk 11.12.14 at 10:28 pm

John, thank you as always for your annual post on Remembrance Day.

I’ll just link once more to the song I’ve linked to the past few years, by Great Big Sea, in memory of the Blue Puttees:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knxR-Q2VoBE&list=RDknxR-Q2VoBE#t=0
“… and they entered into Hell”

and add one this year, a fairly recent favorite:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUh68DvJY74
(Springsteen live in Dublin with “Mrs. McGrath” … “and I left my two fine legs behind”)

I had a discussion–no conclusions, no agreement–with several other expat Americans last night. One is extremely well-read, knowledgeable about “just war” theory, following developments in the ME on a daily basis. The conclusion to our discussion, to which none of us had anything to add: “Failed species, humankind.”

And yet, and yet … we also continue to hope for something more from our nature. So perhaps we are not a failed species, only a misguided one.

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ChrisB 11.12.14 at 10:37 pm

“the reasons why the Great War didn’t end earlier include
Sunk cost fallacies
War propaganda promising victory and demonising the enemy
The displacement of the relatively moderate leaders who started the war by aggressors committed to victory at any costs”
and, as always, the absolutely correct beliefs by the governments concerned that peace without victory would lead to the fall of that government and its replacement by another, an outcome that governments tend to look on as a good deal worse than (a little) more war till victory is reached.

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5566hh 11.13.14 at 12:28 am

John Quiggin @ 71

Similarly it’s hard to see how US elites have benefited from any of the wars (mostly losing) in which the US has engaged in the past 50 years or so.

I think it is relatively easy to see that:
– Shareholders in various companies benefited from the Iraq war, e.g Cheney and his cronies connected to Halliburton, shareholders in weapons companies etc., Tony Blair with his various dealings
(See also http://www.thenation.com/article/181601/whos-paying-pro-war-pundits)
– elites can use ‘threats’ posed by various groups as distraction tactics. Few people die in terrorist attacks in the US yet the ‘war on terror’ continues. The ‘land of the free’ can be presented in elite narratives has having to bear the burden of being the world’s policeman, and in a country like China for example the CPC can use the need for a ‘strong military’ to defend China’s ‘sacred territory’ as a nationalistic means of distracting from domestic issues

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gianni 11.13.14 at 12:40 am

@87 raises some important considerations.

You note that some outcomes are only attainable through war. An example of this is the sort of national unity and support for the current ruling elite that can be counted on in times of war. This is the whole idea behind the strong link between fascism and war. Because fascism all about national unity, it has strong incentives to artificially create unity through external aggression and the ‘rally around the flag’ effect. Pyschologically, see the Tajfel hypothesis

You then talk a bit about rational deliberations over potential outcomes. If we are in the mood to be consulting academic work, the foundational piece in IR on this question is J Fearon, ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’

Basically talks about how uncertainty over resolve requires costs be borne in order to effectively signal intent, also talks about how some goods are non-divisible (who controls the Holy Land) and as such conflicts over them cannot be resolved by bargaining. Additionally, there are strong incentives for states to over-state their warmaking capabilities, and as such you cannot effectively bargain prior to conflict because you cannot accurately discern who would win, and at what cost.

My summary here does the essay a disservice. You can find it here:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2706903?uid=3739704&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21104524401811

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LFC 11.13.14 at 12:56 am

gianni @98
I mentioned the Fearon article in the long WW2-related thread (400+ comments) attached to Corey Robin’s recent post on Arendt and Eichmann. I also linked to Phil Arena’s explication of Fearon’s article. (People who are interested can go to P. Arena’s blog and in the blog’s search box, type “Fearon 1995.”)

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LFC 11.13.14 at 1:04 am

Or they can just the read the article directly, if they have access. There are prob free pdfs of it available. (It’s a basic piece, as you said, behind one kind of analytical approach. Doesn’t nec. mean it’s right about everything, of course.)

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js. 11.13.14 at 5:59 am

gianni @99:

I actually had in mind more straightforwardly geopolitical kinds of goals—you need to get rid of the Sandanistas and democracy’s not up to the job, that kind of thing. But the kind of case you mention could fit too, I suppose. And thanks, I’ll check out the Fearon, given your and LFC’s recommendation.

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gianni 11.13.14 at 6:21 am

js.
Yeah, I am a bit of an IR heretic in seeing domestic considerations as taking primacy over geopolitical ones in many instances. I guess my rendition would be – oust the Sandanistas for what purpose? (probably to clear the ground for US corporate interests). But your basic point that warfare is a unique tool has obvious merit.

As for Fearon, the essay is really remarkable in terms of analytic clarity. I can’t praise it highly enough, (despite thinking that its considerations are largely irrelevant to the question at hand!).

LFC
Do you know if Phil Arena is still blogging? I used to follow him but he stopped for some reason and I have not really checked back.
I missed your mention of Fearon, as I try to steer clear of discussions of WWII as a rule. I am interested in how it came up tho so I guess I’ll dig through that thread as I continue to procrastinate tonight.

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LFC 11.13.14 at 2:32 pm

Do you know if Phil Arena is still blogging?

I think he posts intermittently. The blog itself is still up (certainly was the last time I was there).

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LFC 11.13.14 at 2:51 pm

p.s. which is tautological, I know…

btw, I never read Fearon in grad school, prob b.c the article came out around the time I was taking the required 1st-yr seminar on contemp IR theory, so it didn’t make it onto the syllabus. So can’t say I ever really bothered to grapple w it properly. (Nor did I learn how to follow the sophisticated reaches of formal modeling, etc., etc., etc.)

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Andrew F. 11.15.14 at 5:54 pm

I’ve always appreciated these posts, even when I’ve disagreed with some part or another.

There’s an interesting, if too short, Wikipedia entry on the inefficiency puzzle of war.

Does it describe what you have in mind re: the futility of war?

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

This isn’t inconsistent with a view that there were better alternatives available to all parties at one point in time, and that it’s puzzling that these alternatives were not taken.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

Is war viewed as a simple solution?

Re WW1, and why states pressed on despite the costs, Michael Howard (I think) somewhere pointed out that one can agree with Britain’s political decision that the prevention of German domination of Europe was worth war without agreeing that the particular operational and tactical means used, and their costs, were appropriate.

One implication of this is that the war wasn’t simple at all – there was an immense learning curve for all parties involved. Add the obstacles to the effective absorption and analysis of the information necessary for that learning to occur, the daily cognitive demands made on all personnel involved simply to execute decisions made on existing understandings, the structure of the institutions involved, the effort and time required to change incorrect courses, etc., and at least the outline of why better actions were not taken becomes visible.

This may speak to your larger point re our learning curve regarding war as a general phenomenon. The wars that we think we are embarking upon sometimes turn out not to be the wars we end up fighting, and the conditions of an ongoing war may be less than ideal for fast learning and course correction.

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LFC 11.15.14 at 7:39 pm

Andrew F. @106:
There’s an interesting, if too short, Wikipedia entry on the inefficiency puzzle of war.

On an admittedly extremely quick glance, this Wikipedia entry would appear to be basically a short summary of the Fearon article mentioned by gianni and by me in the comments immediately preceding yours. (Though the intro to the Wiki entry also refers to something by Robert Powell.)

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LFC 11.15.14 at 7:44 pm

p.s. which I’m sure is in a similar vein/style of analysis.

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Anarcissie 11.16.14 at 4:09 pm

The inefficiency puzzle of war assumes, incorrectly, that human beings are rational.

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LFC 11.16.14 at 4:32 pm

Anarcissie:
The inefficiency puzzle of war assumes, incorrectly, that human beings are rational.

Not exactly. It assumes that states are rational actors (or if you prefer, decision-makers are rational actors), in a pretty minimal sense of ‘rational’. That assumption may also be open to question, but it’s a somewhat different and narrower assumption than “human beings are rational.” (Btw, I see that a pdf of the Fearon is linked in that Wiki entry’s reference section.)

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LFC 11.16.14 at 4:47 pm

p.s. It’s a simplifying assumption of the sort that P.Arena (for one) wd argue can be useful for certain purposes even if it’s not entirely ‘realistic’.

But there is by now a pretty big lit. on foreign policy decisionmaking that tries to bring in psychological (and/or neuroscientific) findings. See, e.g., Stephen Rosen, War and Human Nature (2005), esp ch.2 on “Emotions, Memory, and Decision Making”; Y.F. Khong, Analogies at War (1992) (a study of analogical reasoning w/r/t the LBJ admin’s Vietnam decisions of 1965). And a ton of other stuff that I have neither the time nor expertise to list here.

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Anarcissie 11.16.14 at 6:35 pm

It seems to me that the human beings who rule or influence states, while they may be locally rational (that is, in employing tactics to carry out limited purposes), overall are the least rational of humans. I probably need not cite Mr. Gibbon’s remark about history.

Of course, here I am perhaps assuming too much about ‘rational’. If suffering, destruction, and death are actually highly desired, at least when imposed on others, then it is rational to pursue them with the resolution we observe in that history, and in the present behavior of the world’s leaders. But then there is no inefficiency.

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