Home > Economics - General > The military failure machine — Crooked Timber

The military failure machine — Crooked Timber

December 28th, 2010

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NYT putting forward the heretical idea that the US should spend less on the military and more on diplomacy and education. The argument is obviously right as far as it goes, but it leaves one big question unasked. An obvious reason for the focus on military spending is that Americans have massive confidence in their military and much less in their education system, particularly the public school systems.

Yet judged by results, the opposite should surely be the case. Why is this so?

The US military has fought five large-scale wars in the past fifty years, resulting in a draw in Korea[1], a defeat in Vietnam, and three inconclusive outcomes in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. That’s a record that makes the worst inner-city public school look pretty good. At least the majority of students, even at the worst schools, end up more or less literate.

The US military does an excellent job in defeating anyone silly enough to put a conventional army in the field against it. But, as a result there aren’t many adversaries so silly (even Saddam didn’t expect war when he invaded Kuwait and did his best to avoid it in 2002-03). Potential opponents either try to acquire nukes or fight with IEDs and suicide bombers.

Kristof is right that even where the use of military power is successful in its own terms, it is unlikely to be cost-effective – his striking observation on this is that the cost of one US soldier in Afghanistan is the same as that of 20 schools. Similarly, Greg Mortensen observes that sending back 243 troops would be enough to finance the entire Afghan higher education system [2].

But the striking thing about military expenditure is that its failure rate is so high. More or less by definition, it’s impossible for both sides to win an armed conflict, but it’s certainly possible (and probably the par outcome) for both sides to lose. So, the US success rate since 1950 is probably about what would be expected. As I’ve mentioned previously, US experience of war (apart from the Civil War) before 1950 was by contrast exceptionally favorable – even the War of 1812 was claimed as a win

Moreover, in all sorts of respects the self-image of the US (as a land of opportunity and social mobility, a generous giver of foreign aid, a beacon of democracy in a generally undemocratic world and so on) seems in most respects to have been set in concrete by 1950. The failure to learn anything from a string of military failures and disappointments seems to fit with this.

I’m talking here mostly about the views of the American public, but these views are even more predominant among the policy elite and the Foreign Policy Community. I don’t think this is primarily because either the elite or the capitalist class they might be regarded as representing benefit from wars. It’s true that there is not much of a penalty for advocating disastrous wars, but as long as you steer clear of a handful of topics, there is not much of a penalty for anything in the US policy elite, once you are regarded as “serious”. And while some businesses obviously benefit from, and lobby for, war, there are plenty more who would prefer to make money trading with putative enemies like Iran and Iraq.

At least, the majority of Americans regard the Iraq and Afghan wars as mistakes where the costs have outweighed the benefits. If that (correct) judgement could be generalised into a recognition that military force rarely generates unequivocal victory, and is rarely worth the cost even when it does, arguments like those of Kristof might begin to prevail.

fn1. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to break the Korean War into two parts: a brief and victorious defensive war in 1950 in which the North’s invading army was thrown back across the border, and a counter-invasion of the North which resulted in a disastrous defeat, and three years of bloody struggle ending in the status quo ante. October 1950 marks the point when US military policy (at least as regards large-scale international conflicts) shifted from reluctant involvement in wars started by others to an increasing preference for pre-emptive military action.

fn2. I think this is an overestimate. Mortensen is estimating the cost of keeping a US soldier in the field at $1 million a year, but taking account of support costs and deferred costs, it’s probably closer to $5 million, which implies that withdrawing a single platoon would be enough.

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  1. BilB
    December 28th, 2010 at 08:41 | #1

    Well that is an awakening slap in the face! Whooff!

  2. BilB
    December 28th, 2010 at 09:40 | #2

    Having just watched the extended directors cut of Avatar, it occurs to me that the US are even losing in their movies, these days. Wars lost, economy shattered, movie battle losses, massive oil spills. The US’ll probably have to go the way of the British and start celebrating their great defeats.

  3. Hal9000
    December 28th, 2010 at 10:24 | #3

    There were a number of actions the US media commonly refer to as ‘victories’, including the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and a range of political changes that the military boosters and hawks would see as victories brought about by the existence of the military, most notably the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defections to NATO of most former Comecon countries.

    The US mainstream refuses to notice that it is an empire, and so is blind to the fact that its wars are primarily imperial occupations. The fact that the ‘why do they hate us?’ question is asked and discussed shows how disconnected US political discourse is from the reality faced by most of the world.

  4. Fran Barlow
    December 28th, 2010 at 11:08 | #4

    I actually did some surveying on the costs of keeping troops in the field for the various ISAF forces. Precise figueres are hard to come by and involve plowing through published budget figures (which might not of course reveal the whole cost, and certainbly don’t include losses like rehabilitation of the injured, productivity losses on return, the cost to families of having to take time off work to attend to them and much else)

    As near as I could calculate, the cost per troop per year of the Candians and Americans is between $500,000-1,250,000 per annum. Not all of this is capable of being saved pro-rata of course because some of the costs would apply even if there were only a fraction of the troops now there. You’d still need to support supply, air cover, train and bribe locals, etc. You’d still need to keep training replacement troops back home at about the same rate. Having too few troops can increase casualty rates, so the net savings might be even more modest.

    Thus, recalling 243 troops would not produce a saving of the magnitude you suggest (though obviously you’d still save quite abit). Recalling the entire contingent would be much better, but of course then the government would probably fall and it would be quite some time before anything like an education system could function.

    That all said, I do support your more general point. The US spends a lot more per capita locking up people (often for fairly minor offences) than it spends on public education. California (with its three strikes rule) is an especially egregious offender in this respect.

  5. Ikonoclast
    December 28th, 2010 at 12:58 | #5

    The USA is heading for failed state status. You think, “There goes Ikonoclast exaggerating again.” But am I exaggerating? Let’s look at its string of failure from circa 1950.

    1. Failed in all major wars.
    2. Failed as a moral force for good.
    3. Failed as a democracy.
    4. Failed to fight poverty and the wealth divide.
    5. Failed to keep its own citizens free (incarceration rate)
    6. Failed to keep its states solvent (state debt crises).
    7. Failed to prevent GFC or regulate markets.
    8. Failed to house its citizens properly.
    9. Failed to maintain public order (atrocious homicide rate)
    10. Failed to confront global warming.
    11. Failed to tranition to a sustainable economy.
    12. Failed to reconstruct New Orleans.
    13. Failed to prevent hollowing out of the economy by the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Eestate.
    14. Failed to provide adeqaute health services to all citizens.
    15. failed to provide adequate employment.
    16. Failed to reduce military spending to a sustainable level.

    And so on.

    More generally, the USA’s problems are so great now it will distintegrate and become a failed state. Can anyone think of a single trend of the above 16 where the USA even looks like getting back to a pass mark? Frankly, they don’t have a chance.

  6. Hal9000
    December 28th, 2010 at 13:54 | #6

    ‘especially egregious’?

    …that’d be a pleonastic redundancy, wouldn’t it Fran?

  7. Fran Barlow
    December 28th, 2010 at 14:47 | #7

    @Hal9000

    Fair call. I started with the idea of especially prominent but decided on egregious on the fly without deleting the modifier.

  8. Freelander
    December 28th, 2010 at 14:58 | #8

    Failed State? Might explain why…

    Canadians are surreptitiously arming themselves with cattle prods while keeping careful watch on their southern border. Meanwhile Americans are paying for elocution lessons to learn the ‘correct’ way of pronouncing ‘about’.

  9. Fran Barlow
    December 28th, 2010 at 15:04 | #9

    @Hal9000

    Of course, pleonastic redundancy as a descriptor calls irony when used. ;-)

  10. Alice
    December 28th, 2010 at 20:23 | #10

    @Ikonoclast
    Ikono – we are watching the failure of the OS right now. The worst of it is our stupid politicians here in USstralia are following the same bound to fail script to the letter.
    We always were dumb. If it wasnt Great Britain we were following it always some overseas entity…and always too late…

    No confidence here in Aus – we think everything is better (even ideas) if it comes from Oseas. My god – we even let the yanks rate our unis and our governments..

    how pathetic is that? What a bunch of wimps.

    Same as the 1960s when our fashions were a full year behind the UK.

  11. December 28th, 2010 at 20:28 | #11

    The major economic problem facing America at present is the fact that some 100 of its cities are in danger of going feet up next year. Collectively they owe around US$2tn – that’s two trillion dollars.
    Most of us of course have some difficulty in understanding amounts that large and are content to have deal with managing the Christmas plastic overrun.
    Nobody knows how these cities will meet their debt. Nobody knows what will happen if they do not. But spending less seems as good a start as any other. And that might as well include America spending less on the illegal war in Afghanistan.

  12. paul walter
    December 28th, 2010 at 20:42 | #12

    Absolutely follow Ikonoclast except at the end. The US may well be a failed state, but it remains in hands of a dangerous elite that not only threaten themselves, but everyone else, also.
    “Pleonasms”, eh?
    Where is Mrs Malaprop?

  13. December 29th, 2010 at 07:51 | #13

    @Ikonoclast
    My feeling is that a state could recover from any or most of those but not once its culture has failed. I think that is definitely also occurring whether as symptom or cause I’m not sure but probably symptom in so far as what is now called american culture is increasingly just media and marketing.

    Interesting thoughts here by Olivier Roy http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/books/review/Wolfe-t.html?_r=2&ref=books on fundamentalism as example of modernity and secularism rather than in opposition to it. This seems vaguely related as an illustration of how capitalism can commodify culture. The destruction of community based sport is another example. Take it far enough and you have the Fox-Media-bot footsoldiers of the american right, completely ignorant of the very things they deludedly claim to represent and wreaking havoc on rational politics.

  14. Ikonoclast
    December 29th, 2010 at 09:05 | #14

    @Ian Milliss

    US culture has been a failure since its foundation. The salient feature of US culture, apart from imperialist capitalism and its lack of genuine democracy is (and has always been) its glorification of violence. US addiction to violence and violent solutions has been a continuing tragedy for itself and the world. Because of its manifest failures at all levels and because of resource depletion the US is doomed. Nobody has to attack it in any way. It will fail on its own. There is no joy for the rest of the world in this. We will collapse with them.

    I might add that by any reasonable standard of humanity, every nation and society created by humans has been a failure. The US is simply the most recent egregious example in historical terms.

    Humanity is a failed species in moral terms and is soon to be so in evolutionary terms. I’m sorry to harsh on my species but the facts of history, ecology and indeed physics allow no other conclusion.

  15. December 29th, 2010 at 09:17 | #15

    @Ikonoclast
    Sadly, I pretty much agree.

  16. Ben
    December 29th, 2010 at 12:22 | #16

    Given that private school enrolments are only around 10% in the United States [1], it seems that the crisis of confidence in education is not there, but here.

    1. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006319

  17. December 29th, 2010 at 15:22 | #17

    Perhaps there needs to be some work done on this theory, which would need to include the expenditure of ammunition, rockets, bombs and the like. I have not heard anything here about how much the US government might save by not employing Halliburton and others who have defrauded the US government of billions and the mercenary fighters who get massively more pay than the regular troops.

    But not only should the US pay for the treatment of PTSD (instead of claiming that the soldiers had pre-existing personality disorders) they should also calculate the opportunity costs forgone by removing potentially useful members of society and employing them in such unproductive ways as squeezing triggers to ‘eliminate’ civilians.

    In looking at only the well-publicised ‘declared’ wars the track record is horribly distorted in favour of popular mythology. North Americans genuinely believe that they have never lost a war – they have been told this at school and hundreds of times thereafter. If you get the list of secret, undeclared wars from John Prados, ‘Safe for Democracy’ or William Blum’s ‘Killing Hope’: Tibet, China, Burma, Laos, British Guyana, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Cuba, Nicaragua, The Congo … and so it goes on, every one of these resulted in failure, either absolute or partial (but mostly the former).

    By not calculating this cost of running the CIA and several ‘airlines’ and other dodgy business ventures (gun-running, bribery, drugs), and add the cost of running the 700-800 overseas offensive military bases etc – well, you’ve got a hell of a lot of schools and medical services there. Currently there are believed to be something like 30 million hungry people in the USA, many also homeless.

  18. Fran Barlow
    December 29th, 2010 at 15:43 | #18

    @willy bach

    Well said Willy. Then there’s the cost of that other near century long war the US is losing: the war on drugs.

  19. December 29th, 2010 at 15:57 | #19

    Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NYT putting forward the heretical idea that the US should spend less on the military and more on diplomacy and education. The argument is obviously right as far as it goes…

    It may or may not be right; I for one have reason to believe that it would be in the US’s best interests to spend less on the military and less on diplomacy and education – always provided the USA made proper transitions. This is in part because the spending on the latter category is done to wrong-headed ends, which is not constructive, so merely increasing the spending would either achieve worse results or incur more waste for similar results; but I have other reasons too. Whichever the case, the assertion I have quoted, even if on further consideration and/or evidence it turns out to be right, is definitely not obviously right.

    The US military has fought five large-scale wars in the past fifty years, resulting in … three inconclusive outcomes in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan.

    You have not defined your terms. In my book, there have indeed been definite outcomes there, which will turn out to be conclusive, i.e. enduring, in certain respects; they are merely not outright victories. “Conclusive outcome” is not a synonym for “victory”.

    As I’ve mentioned previously, US experience of war (apart from the Civil War) before 1950 was by contrast exceptionally favorable – even the War of 1812 was claimed as a win.

    By that standard, they were all wins; certainly Bush had more reason to declare victory in Iraq than the USA ever had to claim it for the British-American War (not “War of 1812″, please – to anyone not US-centric that immediately suggests what Napoleon was doing in Russia). In the British-American War the USA gained not one of its war objectives by its aggression; even the end of impressment flowed from the end of the Napoleonic threat (which was counted prematurely, which didn’t matter in the end for naval purposes).

    If that (correct) judgement could be generalised into a recognition that military force rarely generates unequivocal victory, and is rarely worth the cost even when it does, arguments like those of Kristof might begin to prevail.

    I have suggested elsewhere that you are not in fact… how to put it tactfully… as familiar with strategic issues as you might be. While “military force rarely generates unequivocal victory, and is rarely worth the cost even when it does” is a fair description of the capability of large scale and/or formal military operations in our times and places, it is neither a universal truth correct for all times and places nor is it the necessary concomitant of all possible operations in ours. To give but one family of counter-examples, consider what India has gained that way since independence – Hyderabad and other princely states that sought independence, Goa and other Portuguese possessions, “peaceful penetration” of the Himalayan kingdoms (a colonialist technique in origin), and even Kashmir is a net gain by some measures (at least by moving disputed areas further back, so improving the direct gains from areas not on the border as a consequence).

  20. Alice
    December 29th, 2010 at 16:18 | #20

    Im always somewhat amazed by PM Lawrences understanding of war histories and outcomes…
    clearly studied well.

  21. paul walter
    December 29th, 2010 at 16:46 | #21

    Yes, Willy summed it up well for me, too.
    Welcome to Cheney World.

  22. John Quiggin
    December 29th, 2010 at 18:08 | #22

    PML, a couple of brief points. I agree that the 1812 War (sic) was in reality a loss for both sides – I was merely pointing out that, since the Americans believed they had won, it added support to the idea that the US was naturally victorious.

    On your “not universal” point, that is why I used the word “rarely” which allows for (fairly trivial) exceptions such as those you’ve noted.

    And the Goa example, which you’ve used before IIRC, is not a very good one. If India had done nothing, the Portuguese would have pulled out in 1975 anyway, so the (almost bloodless) takeover only brought forward the inevitable by a decade or so. Had there been any serious risk of Portuguese resistance, an invasion would have had costs that exceeded the benefits. Since there wasn’t, it wasn’t really a war at all.

  23. John Quiggin
    December 29th, 2010 at 18:09 | #23

    As regards Kashmir, if you think that either Pakistan or India has gained from their actions their, relative to unilaterally conceding the demands of the other side, I have some PowerGen contracts that you might want to buy.

  24. Alice
    December 29th, 2010 at 18:27 | #24

    @paul walter
    Yes well – the private sector blatant (and excessive – ??rorting) profiteering from tax revenues during the Iraq war did leave a taste of a completely irresponsible pro private sector government in the Bush Administration, didnt it? An ideologically blinded pro private sector wastrel government.

    Of course all that will come to and end now that the governments of so many states in the US have been banrupted…but Ill bet Bush is still attending lavish dinner parties hosted by his oil rich, Iraq rich mates….

  25. Peter T
    December 29th, 2010 at 18:44 | #25

    I think Prof Q is probably right about the relative costs and benefits of war since roughly 1945. But P M Lawrence is right that up to 1900 or so, a country could gain a great deal through successful war. It is, after all, how most empires are built, how Britain came to have 70% of the world’s merchant fleet, and how impoverished cottagers from the British Isles were able to make new and much more prosperous lives for themselves and their descendants in lands taken from others.

    So the interesting question is – what’s changed?

  26. December 29th, 2010 at 19:04 | #26

    John Quiggin :
    PML, a couple of brief points. I agree that the 1812 War (sic) was in reality a loss for both sides – I was merely pointing out that, since the Americans believed they had won, it added support to the idea that the US was naturally victorious.

    Please do not imply that I agree with a position that I did not state and do not in fact hold. The British not only won that war in the narrow technical sense of totally preventing any rewards to aggression, through a curious and fortuitous concatenation of circumstances it actually improved their situation as compared with what would otherwise have obtained: regiments were not disbanded according to usual practice with the apparent end of the Napoleonic Wars, but were on hand for the Waterloo Campaign (some troop ships made it back just in time). I will agree that this is unusual – but I most emphatically do not agree that that particular episode made Britain worse off.

    On your “not universal” point, that is why I used the word “rarely” which allows for (fairly trivial) exceptions such as those you’ve noted.

    Are you suggesting that you will insist that counter-examples are rare unless you are surfeited with them? But blog replies do not allow that.

    And the Goa example, which you’ve used before IIRC, is not a very good one. If India had done nothing, the Portuguese would have pulled out in 1975 anyway, so the (almost bloodless) takeover only brought forward the inevitable by a decade or so. Had there been any serious risk of Portuguese resistance, an invasion would have had costs that exceeded the benefits. Since there wasn’t, it wasn’t really a war at all.

    Again you (taking the charitable view) misunderstand. I went to some trouble to provide a whole family of counter-examples, and here you address just one. And of course that particular one was cost-effective (and, over time, would have been even if the Portuguese commander had obeyed his orders to fight to the bitter end). But that’s the whole point – it’s a better way of doing things, and gives wars that pay. Claiming that cost-effective military operations aren’t “really” wars is a No True Scotsman argument.

  27. December 29th, 2010 at 19:23 | #27

    John Quiggin :
    As regards Kashmir, if you think that either Pakistan or India has gained from their actions their, relative to unilaterally conceding the demands of the other side, I have some PowerGen contracts that you might want to buy.

    India is definitely better off, as compared with that alternative; it is likely that its hold on its provinces would be weaker (the same fear that Indonesia had about letting go of East Timor – with some justification), and it would certainly have been harder to penetrate the Himalayan Kingdoms. But I presented a different alternative, what would have happened if India had allowed a border closer than Kashmir. There would still have been just as much cost from just as troublesome a border, only with less hinterland to support it.

    For Pakistan, though I did not claim that as cost effective (it isn’t), it is actually a matter of long term survival. I have sometimes encountered Indian assertions that “there is no place called Pakistan”, very irredentist. Accepting long term absorption would be cost effective for the absorbed, of course, but that’s not their calculus.

    Try some game theory. The actual win-win option, which neither side was willing to try (possibly for fear of betrayal) was an independent buffer state – what the Maharajah of Kashmir had leaned towards, until the Congress politicians leaned back.

  28. Alice
    December 29th, 2010 at 19:36 | #28

    @Peter T
    Peter T asks “whats changed”

    Well maybe modern wars dont really get to appropriate so much land as before 1900? The Isrealis seem to be the only ones getting away with it (and its not much)…but Im not a war expert at all – it just seems there is not much room for expansion although you could have said the same when Hitler expanded across Europe but the Germans didnt get to keep much of that expansion in the end.

  29. December 29th, 2010 at 19:51 | #29

    Peter T :
    I think Prof Q is probably right about the relative costs and benefits of war since roughly 1945. But P M Lawrence is right that up to 1900 or so, a country could gain a great deal through successful war. It is, after all, how most empires are built, how Britain came to have 70% of the world’s merchant fleet, and how impoverished cottagers from the British Isles were able to make new and much more prosperous lives for themselves and their descendants in lands taken from others.
    So the interesting question is – what’s changed?

    Just some features of the current state of the Art of War and of available resources. The important thing is to realise that there could just as easily be a shift in another direction just as rapid, profound and consequential as that between (roughly) 1895 and 1914 – if the First World War had happened even ten years earlier, Germany couldn’t have made nitrates and wouldn’t have lasted a year. Shifts like that have happened before, e.g. at the beginning (heavy armoured horsemen, castles) and end (Swiss pikemen and their tactics, guns) end of the age of chivalry; it could never be anticipated, and so could happen again.

  30. jquiggin
    December 29th, 2010 at 20:14 | #30

    “how Britain came to have 70% of the world’s merchant fleet, ”

    Primarily, by being good and shipbuilding and running capital markets. But they were helped by the fact that much of the US fleet was destroyed during the civil war, which rather supports my point.

    PML, you seem to be having some methodological problems. A list of (counter) examples can’t refute a claim that such examples are rare exceptions to a general rule. This is particularly true if the examples are trivial/marginal like those you give.

    What you need is a quantitative study. But, if you could provide a plausible argument on Kashmir, I’d be impressed. Bear in mind the necessity that your argument should show a negative-sum outcome. That is, if your argument purports to show that India has benefited, it should show that Pakistan has lost. Since you’ve been admirably clear about your views of my analysis, I’ll suggest that you can’t do this, and that, for all your erudition, you’ve failed basic logic.

  31. December 29th, 2010 at 23:48 | #31

    jquiggin :
    “how Britain came to have 70% of the world’s merchant fleet, ”
    Primarily, by being good and shipbuilding and [at?] running capital markets. But they were helped by the fact that much of the US fleet was destroyed during the civil war, which rather supports my point.

    That last point seems tenuous, considering that the USA simply wasn’t a major economic force until much later. However, it did play a major role in specialised areas, like whaling and the China trade. And it certainly doesn’t account for Britain’s prevailing over existing European maritime powers.

    But, curiously, Britain wasn’t “better” at shipbuilding in a qualitative sense, as regards its products, apart from a brief period in the 1870s between overtaking the French in quality and the rise of German ships that had less of a burden of past practice. The very real superiority was in a production engineering sense, from being able to make more ships more cost-effectively, and from seafaring skills acquired by practice, either or both of which may have been what you meant.

    PML, you seem to be having some methodological problems. A list of (counter) examples can’t refute a claim that such examples are rare exceptions to a general rule. This is particularly true if the examples are trivial/marginal like those you give.

    Is that first sentence projection? I never offered a list of counter-examples, for precisely the reason that it was impractical and would not prove the point; I just wondered if that was what you were after. That last sentence is a repetition of the implicit No True Scotsman argument I mentioned: any cost-effective military operations must necessarily appear “trivial/marginal” by the standards you have applied to the cases I did offer (explicitly in the Portuguese case, and implicitly to the others since you also do not accept those). I will readily agree that any military operations that have huge costs and/or downside risks are not cost-effective – but that is a tautology. To me, the important point is whether military operations can still find a place in statesmen’s repertoire, and I would suggest that the record shows that they can because from time to time they do indeed work out. So what if the occasions for them are rare? When they work, they work – and, between times, having military resources is an overhead justified by genuinely defensive reasons. And that means that a truly defensive defence policy must allow for, and seek to head off, any opportunities of that sort that others might spot, e.g. not concentrating on out and out invasions alone.

    What you need is a quantitative study. But, if you could provide a plausible argument on Kashmir, I’d be impressed.

    Um… isn’t that a tautology too? If you are not impressed, for whatever reason, it’s not plausible – to you, at any rate. As things stand, that is. Can you suggest criteria for a short reply that you would find persuasive? It would have to be short for me to manage it here, but if only a long one would serve, its absence wouldn’t be evidence against. Rather, it would leave the matter either false, or true without being provable – without you having evidence either way.

    Bear in mind the necessity that your argument should show a negative-sum outcome. That is, if your argument purports to show that India has benefited, it should show that Pakistan has lost.

    Actually, it needn’t, unless you assume that both sides use the same assessment (and that the costs cannot be passed off to third parties – that was what happened in the Middle Ages, when knights kept ransoms from their captives but their vassals had to pay their ransoms if they were captured themselves). Are you familiar with the paradox of the “two tie bet”? Two friends meet in a pub, and notice that they have each bought a new tie, each at the same price. Each thinks that his is better, so they bet on it with the barman as adjudicator, with the one with the best tie to buy another one the same for his friend. Each reasons that either he will get a tie better than his, or buy a tie just the same, so at fifty-fifty odds he can expect a gain. How can this be true for both, with a symmetrical bet? The answer lies in the fact that they aren’t using the same values.

    You will note that I explicitly pointed out that Pakistan’s calculus includes a very high value for long term national survival, which is far less material for India, and that consequently Pakistan didn’t use ordinary notions of cost-effectiveness.

    Since you’ve been admirably clear about your views of my analysis, I’ll suggest that you can’t do this, and that, for all your erudition, you’ve failed basic logic.

    Then, if I may suggest it, you have been supplying your own assumptions and reasoning in place of what I actually used. If you feel there is something wrong with what I am bringing out, the tactful approach would be to ask for clarification and not simply to assume that I am using data or arguments that don’t hold up. Every single one of the flaws you believe you have spotted are indeed flaws, some of them even fatal ones; only, they are not in what I presented or in what led me to it. For you to read them in is to make a straw man without knowing or intending it.

    For what it’s worth, I think your analysis is on the whole sound, but rests on faulty assumptions that are so close to you that they remain unexamined – and, in some cases, they do not apply. That works out like an intermittent fault in machinery, which in many ways is worse than machinery that is outright broken. Since defence issues are so important – from their downside risks – it does rather matter not to get things that work now but might fail on us when we need them.

  32. gregh
    December 30th, 2010 at 14:43 | #32

    The problem with the whole “they won or lost the war thing” is always identifying wars as being between States. They seldom are in modern timies and certainly not for the USA. Wars are great money makers for some and for those people the US wars have been a fabulous success. The great trick has been to keep enough people convinced that these wars are somehow or other for the people of the USA, or for Australia for that matter.

  33. Fran Barlow
    December 30th, 2010 at 15:11 | #33

    @P.M.Lawrence

    You will note that I explicitly pointed out that Pakistan’s calculus includes a very high value for long term national survival, which is far less material for India, and that consequently Pakistan didn’t use ordinary notions of cost-effectiveness.

    This rather puts its finger on the problem of subjecting war to cost-benefit analysis. Much of the prospective benefit is unquantifiable and in any event rests on counterfactuals of doubtful standing. One can wonder what benefit one puts on not being occupied by a foreign power — if that is what is asserted and clearly would ensue — and much of that is simply impossible to model.

    I don’t know why but I keep coming back to Gloria’s words from White Men Can’t Jump whenever this topic arises:

    Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs

  34. Peter T
    December 30th, 2010 at 15:55 | #34

    “Primarily, by being good and shipbuilding and running capital markets. But they were helped by the fact that much of the US fleet was destroyed during the civil war, which rather supports my point.”

    Really? When the Dutch had the next largest (and the most efficient) merchant fleet? Not by capturing or destroying the Dutch, Spanish and French merchant fleets, and making trade other than in British bottoms risky and unprofitable? Check the Navigation Acts and look at statistics on the British share of the European trans-shipment trades.

    I think that what has changes is that effective government now needs the continuing cooperation of the governed if the cost of the garrison is not to be larger than the taxes. But, as i said, note that this is a development of modernity – we still sit on the fruits of conquest.

  35. Donald Oats
    December 31st, 2010 at 10:47 | #35

    @Hal9000
    I just call them “superfluous redundancies”. However, the use of the word “pleonastic” is especially appropriate as in my case the two words ie “superfluous” and “redundancy” are being used as true synonyms; interchangeable within the context of use. On the other hand the expression “especially egregious” is clearly not using the two words as true synoms, however much it is a true fact. For these situations “pleonastic redundancy” seems “more adequate than “superfluous redundancy”.

    What do others think – “superfluous” or “pleonastic”?

    To The Topic: military troops are extremely expensive to maintain at operational capacity; the subdivision of costs runs foul of the problem of fixed assets/costs, the variable but regularly incurred costs (ie variable costs), and to questions of risk assessment of troop in-field incapacitisation, and the subsequent rehabilition/removal, as circumstances may require.

    I guess the variable costs split broadly into theatre-specific variable costs (ie ones that any soldier would be at risk of incurring under the circumstances) and idiosyncratic variable costs (ie ones that are truly individual, applying to a given soldier, rather than being a statistical average of soldiers in a common context).

    A soldier asset that makes it far enough in-field to inflict harm-maximising experiental FMJ rounds upon the non-payrolled oppositioners (aka people attacking us who we weren’t able to buy over before the fighting started), has also made it far enough for their integrated human integrity parameter to be at severe risk of rapid decrease from its natural non-combat maximum. At this point the variable costs are of the non-idiosyncratic variety, for any soldier asset in this situation would be subject to the same risks as any other soldier asset, ie the soldier assets are largely interchangeable (within reason) in this context. Once the asset has sustained a compromising structural deviation, then we are in the realm of the idiosyncratic variable cost (new limbs, long vs short rehab, or even a death event).

    Here is where the calculus of worth (of the soldier asset) ramifies into a messy tangle of contradictory rules, obligations, ethics, and pragmatics. For example, once a minor structural compromise to a soldier asset’s integrated human integrity parameter has occurred, the question becomes one of whether it is better to retrain the newly fitted “alternatively limbed” client in the more specialised combat operations methodology for the “differently abled”, or to decommission this asset and assign a replacement.

    The question is one of risk: do we risk an already compromised soldier asset in a similar environment to the one in which the asset failed to protect integrity, or do we assign a newly formed, uncompromised soldier asset, for which the variable cost projections are perhaps more accurate as the non-idiosyncratic and idiosyncratic risk factors are quite different at this point.

    Happy New Year, civvies and grunts alike.

    Regards,
    Donald Oats

    PS: and, yes, I was making yet another feeble attempt at humour. If anyone needs a flexibly downwardly remunerated first line obscurator armed with a pen, give me a call :-) yeah, you, Mike R.

  36. Simon
    December 31st, 2010 at 16:31 | #36

    This theory depends on the idea that that becoming involved in a war is a choice. I think that it is, but I imagine a large part of the US population sees it differently – that the US only gets involved in wars when they have been attacked, and that in those circumstances the only choice is to fight or to face annihilation. At least that’s the way the wars are sold to the population.

  37. paul walter
    January 2nd, 2011 at 02:40 | #37

    All hail. Donald Oats!
    The man has set forth in mortal combat with and succeeeded in defeating. a malignant pleonasm.
    Or was that neologism?

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