Thursday, April 24, 2014

Something Else War is Good For

Ian Morris has written a book that will be provocative for sure and definitely infuriating to many. The book is War! What Is It Good For?,(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and an excerpt was published in The Atlantic (April 14, 2014) entitled War, What Is It Good for For? These Four Things, Actually.

Morris quotes lyrics from Edwin Starr’s Motown classic “War”

    Huh, good God.
    What is it good for?
    Absolutely nothing….

And then proceeds to list four things war accomplishes
  1. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently. 
  2. My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. “Lord knows, there’s got to be a better way,” Edwin Starr sang, but apparently there isn't. 
  3. My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards. 
  4. War, then, has been good for something—so good, in fact, that my fourth argument is that war is now putting itself out of business. For millennia, war has created peace, and destruction has created wealth, but in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting—our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient—that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.  
Current trends suggest that robots will begin taking over our fighting in the 2040s—just around the time, the trends also suggest, that the United States, the world’s globocop, will be losing control of the international order. In the 1910s, the combination of a weakening globocop (Britain) and revolutionary new fighting machines (dreadnoughts, machine guns, aircraft, quick-firing artillery, internal combustion engines) ended a century of smaller, less bloody wars and set off a storm of steel. The 2040s promise a similar combination. The next 40 years could be the most dangerous in history. 
And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better. And since nuclear weapons came into the world in 1945, the incentives in the game have changed faster than ever before, and our reactions have accelerated along with them. As a result, the average person is now roughly 20 times less likely to die violently than the average person was in the Stone Age. 
As the returns to violence have declined, we have found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon.
Pretty much all of Morris' arguments boil down to war as a deterrent to trivial group violence. When I was in Bosnia in 1996, we were required to travel in four-vehicle convoys. It wasn't until late in my deployment that I saw the briefing document that explained why. The purpose was to avoid hostage situations and, even worse, small unit defeats. If anybody was going to pick a fight with peacekeeping forces, it was going to be a big fight, big enough to require serious second thoughts before starting something. A single vehicle, on the other hand, might easily be overpowered by a couple of angry hotheads or even a lone sniper. And if the occupants successfully fought off the attack, then you'd have people angry over local civilians being killed. It didn't stop the four-vehicle rule from being a royal pain, but at least it became clear it wasn't simply a capricious military regulation.

Lewis F. Richardson, in "The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels," plotted the casualties of conflicts versus frequency and found a power law distribution. At the lower end of the scale, the rate of conflict, extrapolated down to one or two casualties, merged roughly with the crime rate. This prompted the observation that war is simply crime on a large scale, or crime is just war on a small scale. But the deterrent effects noted by Morris suggest that war may be law enforcement on a large scale. Or maybe that violence in general marks the point where deterrence breaks down and the advantages of violence outweigh the risks of challenging deterrence.

I'd add a fifth "benefit." War is often the only way, or the most effective way, to sweep aside obsolete, corrupt and moribund social institutions. Perhaps the pre-eminent example in Western history was the Thirty Years' War. In the classic 1980 version of Cosmos, two episodes re-enact vignettes from the 17th century. The first, in "Harmony of the Worlds," depicts the life and times of Johannes Kepler early in the century as bleak and superstitious. (Sagan quite overdoes it; by this time America had been known for over 100 years, the printing press had been around for 150, and William Shakespeare was alive. It was hardly medieval.) The other episode, "Travelers' Tales," depicts the world of Christian Huygens late in the century. Although a single long lifetime could have encompassed both, the atmosphere of the two is utterly different. The Holland of Huygens is affluent, enlightened, liberated and inquisitive. With due allowance for the change in locale from Germany to Holland and dramatic license, it was a different world. And the intervening years were dominated by the mega-conflict of the day, the Thirty Years War.

The war has fascinating parallels to World War I. It began absurdly, just as World War I did. The ruler of Bohemia began packing his royal council with Catholics. A Protestant mob cornered two of them and threw them out an upper story window. Miraculously, they survived, either by Divine protection (Catholic version) or landing on a dungheap (Protestant version - even though I'm a Catholic, I favor the Protestant version.) Protestants then revolted, prompting the ruler to call for assistance from other Catholic rulers, in turn motivating nearby Protestant rulers to send in troops to prevent a massacre. Like World War I, a minor local squabble sucked one major power after another into the vortex as each tried to keep the balance of power from tipping. How far the war spread can be seen by looking at the four major phases of the conflict: the Bohemian, Danish, Swedish and French phases. Note there was no German phase; it was an away game for everyone and Germany was the playing field. When the war was over, the population of Germany had decreased by a third, Germany was fragmented into over a hundred tiny statelets that wouldn't be unified until 1871. And German historians still refer to this war as "the Great War."

And it was also the last major religious war in Europe. When the war gasped to a final "peace of exhaustion," the peace agreements settled on the formula "cuius regio, cuius religio" - "whose region, his religion." This had been the formula for the armed truce after the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation a century earlier, only then, nobody really meant it. Everyone was merely biding his time, hoping for the day to come when the forces of righteousness could sweep heresy from the face of the earth (label sides to taste). This time, it stuck. The notion of national sovereignty in the modern sense came into being, and the germ of the idea of freedom of religion. Nations might have established churches, but there were guarantees for other groups as well. The Vatican, of course, was not pleased at formal recognition of the legitimacy of other sects. Pope Innocent X railed against the peace settlements and was roundly ignored. (That in itself was probably a good thing and began the political marginalization of the Papacy.) What seems to have happened is that the parties realized the practical impossibility of redrawing the religious map of Europe, plus realizing that the old fear of religious diversity leading to anarchy and civil war was unfounded, and realizing it was in their own best interests to have a general consensus that internal matters were internal. What was this war good for? It broke the back of theocracy in the West.

Did peoples' values change? No, their perception of the facts changed. As C.S. Lewis once observed, if we really still believed that there were powerful malevolent spirits and some people had sold out to them in exchange for power, we would certainly feel justified in treating them as traitors to humanity. We stopped persecuting witches because we stopped believing they had any power, not because we changed our ideas about betraying the human race. Religious wars stopped in Western Europe because rulers began to realize that religious plurality did not lead to civil strife and anarchy. 

And so that leads us to World War I, the quintessential example of a useless war, according to the overwhelming majority of commentators. Millions slaughtered trying to apply antiquated tactics to modern battlefields, a vindictive peace settlement that set the stage for a sequel, the Middle East carved into arbitrary chunks, Russia plunged into civil war and subjugation to Communism. Surely nothing useful could have come out of such a conflict. Except perhaps the dissolution of the ossified empires that were largely responsible for the war in the first place: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. And it was pretty much the last war that could produce a pompous twit like Rupert Brooke who could write "Blow out, you bugles, over the rich dead." Given the treacly stuff Brooke wrote about the war, one is left with the feeling it would be a positive tragedy for him to survive. And he didn't. He died of septicemia without ever firing a shot in anger. The karma, it stings. World War I was really the last ancient war in which people could pretend there was anything glorious about battle.

But World War I didn't really sweep away the old. Watch the dining room scenes in Titanic, and then watch The Great Gatsby, and see how similar the social milieu is. The European land empires were swept away, but the overseas empires of France and Britain still lingered, and the empire-building impetus still lingered, to be revived shortly by Germany, Italy and Japan. It took World War II to complete the process. Not only did the attempts to build new empires fail, but the groundwork was laid in India, Indonesia and Indochina for the eventual breakup of Europe's overseas empires as well. Films set in the 1930's seem quaint and remote, those set in World War II seem modern, even those made during the war itself. I am convinced that historians a few centuries hence will see World War II as one of the great watersheds in history.

What happens to people who supported the defeated social institutions? The most positive results happen when people had been forced at the point of a gun to support them, and are liberated from oppression. Nobody really felt much emotion for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so nobody has ever tried to revive it. But if the institutions had wide support, what then? Supporters can be killed off, subjugated, marginalized, discredited, die off or persuaded. Killing them all off is impossible and while persuasion is nice, not all will be persuaded. If they are discredited sufficiently so that they eventually die off, then the cure may be permanent, but any other solution will leave a remnant of embittered losers. As time goes by and the post-war world presents its own problems, they'll romanticize their lost world and may attempt to restore it. Thus we find Russians who idealize Communism, Neo-Nazi groups in Europe and neo-Confederates in the U.S. For that matter, we have neo-geocentrists who assert the Church was right and Galileo was wrong.

One common way to clear out moribund social institutions is revolution. But it's disappointingly uncommon to have "clean" revolutions that don't degenerate into vendettas as bad as the old regime: the French and Russian Revolutions being the prime examples. The American Revolution wasn't as clean as we like to think. Portugal's conflict after the death of dictator Antonio Salazar was refreshingly restrained. 

A social system may pose a serious threat to its neighbors, but preemptive action to topple a regime that is merely crazy or morally repugnant is fairly uncommon. Almost always there are more practical motives involved. An attempt to overthrow the regimes of North Korea or Myanmar would almost certainly kill more of the oppressed victims of those regimes than the regimes themselves do, not to mention their would-be liberators. So full scale wars to overthrow morally repugnant regimes are rare, maybe nonexistent. Modern cases fall under one of two types. A regime may be targeted through a coup or through aid to insurgents. One good example is Operation Barracuda, the 1979 French-led coup that overthrew the lunatic tyrant Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic. The other way to attack a regime is through terrorism, which is how Islamic extremists are attacking our system, which they find repugnant.

One of the most common end states is for a dysfunctional social system to trigger a self-destructive conflict. A dysfunctional social system, pretty much by definition, doesn't think straight. The bloodthirsty dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, met his downfall when he attempted to annex a province of Tanzania, triggering an invasion that toppled his regime. More dramatically, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan both allowed their ideologies to lead them into suicidal conflicts. The U.S. Civil War is also an example. Although moral opposition to slavery was a cause, there are a number of avenues the Confederacy could have pursued before fighting. They could have proposed legislation in Congress, or gone to the Supreme Court. They did neither. They wanted a fight. The scene in Gone With The Wind where Rhett Butler tallies the military and industrial balance and is challenged by a young hothead to a duel pretty much tells the story.

The best of all possible worlds is for a decrepit system to collapse internally without major violence, and perhaps the preeminent example in history is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even better is for a system to evolve, as did Great Britain in the 1830's. The reason the political systems of the U.S. and Canada are so different is that our system is a reaction to a corrupt British system and Canada's reflects a reformed British system. It was during a time of high social unrest in the 1830's that Britain began passing long overdue reform acts. More recently, China and Vietnam have moved away from doctrinaire Marxism to more pragmatic policies. If Tienanmen Square doesn't strike you as "moderate," compare it to Mao's Cultural Revolution.