How Democracies Lose Small Wars

Below the fold is my draft review of Gil Merom’s How Democracies Lose Small Wars. Comments and criticism much appreciated.

UpdateAs regular readers will know, I have a habit of making small mental slips, and this post had two, with a reference to the downfall of Charles II following the English Civil War and to Saddam’s actions following the First Gulf War. Within hours of this post going up here and at Crooked Timber, four different people pointed these errors out to me in email and comments, in the nicest possible way (they’re fixed now)

It’s really great to know that I have so many attentive readers for a long, and rather academic post. And of course, it’s very helpful to have these errors picked up in Ozplogistan where errors are rife and correction is easy, before committing them to the unforgiving permanence of print.

Review of How Democracies Lose Small Wars

This is an interesting, important and problematic book. In important respects, Gil Merom undermines central claims of the “realist” theory of international relations, in which issues such as war and peace are treated as the outcomes of interactions between nation-states, conceived as self-interested individual actors operating in a Hobbesian state of nature. In other respects, he has failed to escape from the assumptions implicit in the realist framework.

The analysis begins with the standard realist idea of the state as embodiment of the nation and takes it as more-or-less self-evident that the state will seek to act in the manner assumed in realist theories, including the use of war as a normal instrument of national policy. Merom then introduces ‘society’ as a counterweight, assumed to be motivated by a mixture of idealist and utilitarian/rational concerns, which typically incline towards pacifism. For convenience, I’ll use the term ‘polity’ to describe the state and society, taken together.

The state is constrained by its instrumental dependence on society, which takes two main forms. The first is the need for society to produce the resources such as material wealth and soldiers that a state needs to pursue its ends. The second is the capacity of society to change its rulers, which casts doubt on the idea of the state as a primary and independent actor.

On the first point, prosecuting a war requires the state to call on social resources, and this is difficult if society is indifferent or actively hostile to the war effort. This has been a problem, to greater or lesser degrees, in all kinds of polities, and the resulting conflicts are a common cause of regime change. For example, it was the demand for “ship money”, a contribution levied to support naval defence, that set in train the events leading to the English Civil War and the downfall of Charles I.

In liberal democratic polities, instrumental dependence becomes more problematic for the state because the processes of democracy require open debate. The kind of coercion required to mobilise resources, the most important form of which is military conscription, is difficult to practice when a war is faced with strong opposition, even from a relatively small minority of the population.

Note though, that Merom does not focus closely on representative democracy as a check on the war-making capacity of states. Rather, the problem is that, in liberal democracies, it is difficult to achieve the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained.

Before going on the Merom’s main point, it is worth noting that, although Merom does not explicitly define a “small war”, his analysis and examples imply both an upper and a lower bound for this category. A typical small war will consume between 0.5 and 3 per cent of GDP and will require a commitment of forces equal to a similar proportion of the population.

The reason for the upper bound is obvious enough. A war on a larger scale than this requires a major national war effort. In a democratic society, this will only happen in response to a direct threat to the survival of the society, and therefore the issues are different from those considered by Merom. (Arguably World War I provides a counterexample, since countries that were not directly threatened committed their full force to the war and since the war was maintained long after it should have been obvious that all sides would be better off with the status quo ante. But although it was not ‘The War to end all Wars’, the Great War permanently shifted public opinion in the democratic world to the point where a similar effort could never again be sustained.)

The lower bound follows from a point raised by Merom. Very small wars and “police operations”, such as the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 can be undertaken by the state using spare capacity in the professional armed forces, and funded without the need for any special authorisation. Moreover, these operations can generally be brought to a successful conclusion fairly rapidly, before opposition has time to develop and solidify. Thus, for very small wars there is little of the instrumental dependence central to Merom’s argument.

The key analytical point made by Merom can be developed in the light of this argument. The reason that states in democratic polities lose small wars is that the military resistance of the other side is sufficient to require either a commitment of resources larger than society is willing to sustain or the use of methods, such as torture and attacks on civilian targets, that society is unwilling to accept.

To establish this thesis, it’s necessary to show that, when society does not resist the demands of the state, victory in war generally goes to the stronger party. Merom presents a number of examples including the Athenian destruction of Melos, Cromwell’s war in Ireland, the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt, German operations in SW Africa, Saddam’s crushing the Kurds and Shiites after the First Gulf War, China and Tibet, Indonesia and East Timor and the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Merom argues that, in all these cases, unscrupulous brutality proved successful.

Yet in nearly every case cited by Merom, a long-term view yields the opposite outcome. The Athenians lost the war and their hegemonic power, as of course did the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Ireland, East Timor and Israel are independent states, identifying in each case with the side described by Merom as the losers. Tibet is not yet independent, but it seems safe to predict that it will become so not long after the Communist Party loses power in China. And then, of course, there’s Saddam.

No doubt better examples could be found, but these examples illustrate the falsity of the claim that is fundamental to the realist theory of international relations, namely, that military power can be used effectively to promote national interests. Even when force appears to work in the short run, it often fails in the long run.

The classic refutation of international realism was put forward in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion. Angell argued that in a globalised free-market economic system no economic benefit could be generated even by successful wars of conquest. Writing for a British audience, Angell’s basic point was that, even if Germany succeeded in establishing political mastery in Europe, workers in the newly subjected countries would still have to be paid, goods would have to be purchased at market prices and so on. Hence, individual Germans would gain nothing from being part of a larger country.

Angell’s argument works even better for social democracies, where territorial expansion or even extension of hegemony produces an unpalatable choice. If the benefits and obligations that go with citizenship welfare state are extended to those under the control of the expanded state, existing citizens will almost certainly be worse off. On the other hand, any attempt to maintain a distinction between citizens and noncitizens is bound to be highly problematic.

Angell’s argument showed, beyond reasonable doubt, that war and territorial expansion are not, in general sensible policies.. However, seeking to counteract the rising pressure for war, he argued that Germans would correctly perceive their own self-interest and would therefore not support an aggressive war. He was rapidly proved false on this point, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Nevertheless, the War confirmed his view that attempts to gain economic advantage through military power had become obsolete. Both sides suffered catastrophic losses. The attempt by the victors to recoup some of their losses through the reparations imposed in the Treaty of Versailles proved both fruitless and economically disastrous. Angell was right about the futility of war, but wrong in predicting that it wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, he is more remembered for being wrong than for being right.

If arguments like those of Angell are accepted, it can be seen that Merom’s thesis, and his title, need some adjustment. Rather than showing How Democracies Lose Small Wars his book could more appropriately be entitled How Democracies get out of Bad Wars.

This can be seen by looking at Merom’s two illustrative examples. The first is that of the French in Algeria. As the discussion shows, the French colonial position illustrates Angell’s arguments perfectly. In theory, Algeria was an inherent part of France, and this was certainly the view held by the million of so pieds-noirs, the French colonists who lived there. But if this claim were to be taken seriously, ten million Algerians would have had to be admitted to the full benefits of French citizenship, something that was simply not economically feasible.

As Merom observes, the limited group of businessmen and intellectuals who looked at colonial enterprise in economic terms drew the obvious conclusion that colonialism was, at best a “costly philanthropy”. Merom argues that this ‘utilitarian-rational’ position did not have much impact on French political debate, and in one sense this is probably true. On the other hand, if there had been substantial net economic benefits from colonialism, they would have made themselves felt one way or another.

The key issue that led to the collapse of the French war effort was the army’s routine reliance on torture to break the guerilla resistance of their opponents, the moujahadine of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), who were themselves guilty of routine, and arguably even worse, atrocities. Protests against the brutal prosecution of the war were met with domestic repression that soon came to be seen as a threat to democracy itself, a process that was mirrored in the US a decade or so later during the Vietnam war.

Once it became clear that the French were going to pull out regardless, the FLN was able to demand a more or less unconditional acquiescence in its demands. Almost certainly, a better deal, with much more protection for the interests of the pieds noirs could have been obtained if the French government had been willing to negotiate independence before going to war. More generally, the longer the war went on, and the greater the costs to France, the worse the ultimate conclusion was bound to be.

Hence, while the outcome of the Algerian war was certainly a defeat for the French state, leading as it did to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, it can scarcely be seen as a defeat for France, considered as a democratic polity. The only sensible policy was withdrawal and pressure from society ultimately forced the state to recognise this.

The other case Merom considers in detail is that of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983, ordered by then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon. Whereas Israel’s previous wars had all been defensive (Israel attacked first in 1956 and 1967, but in both cases there was a threat of imminent invasion, perceived as real by nearly all Israelis), the invasion of Lebanon was a strategic move aimed at depriving the PLO of its base and installing, by force, a friendly government that would suppress guerilla attacks on Israel. The first objective was achieved, at least in the short run, with the PLO being forced to flee to Tunis, though the organisation was probably strengthened in the long run. The second objective, never a realistic possibility, was rapidly rendered irrelevant by the assassination of the Israeli’s preferred leader, Bashir Gemayel.

Because of the nature of the war, Israeli society was unlikely to tolerate heavy casualties as it would have done in a defensive war. This led Sharon to rely on proxies, the Phalangist militias who were the armed representatives of the Maronite Christians. When these forces, encouraged by Sharon to raid Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila, committed brutal massacres, public opinion in Israel and around the world was outraged. The protests were not confined to activist groups such as Peace Now, but extended widely through Israeli society. The occupation was clearly doomed within weeks of the massacres, but it dragged on for another three years until the withdrawal to the South Lebanon buffer zone, which was not finally abandoned until 2000.

As with the French in Algeria, it is hard to see the withdrawal as a defeat for Israel as a democracy, though it was undoubtedly a defeat for the Israeli state. As Merom recognises, precisely the same analysis applies to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. As Merom says “the Palestinians are all but certain to lose military encounters with Israel, but are nevertheless likely to realize most of their political goals. Specifically, they will have an independent Palestinian state, most Jewish settlements in the territories will be dismantled, and the settlers will be repatriated. At the same time, Palestinian goals that concern Israel’s core sovereignty, particularly the demand for an Israeli recognition of the “right of return”, will not be realized.”

Merom’s analysis is obviously relevant to the current situation in Iraq, particularly as more gruesome evidence emerges from Saddam’s former prisons, now operated by the American occupiers. As in the other cases discussed above, the American public is unwilling to supply the resources that would be needed to establish effective control or to accept the casualty rates that would arise if, given current numbers, US troops attempted to operate like a police force, with direct contact with the Iraqi public, and rules of engagement that focused on minimising casualties among possibly-innocent Iraqi civilians.

The inevitable results are reliance on heavy weaponry with the associated civilian casualties, and the use of detention without trial, abusive interrogation sliding into torture, the taking of hostages and so on. The exposure of these methods inevitably eats away at domestic support for the war. Although it is still possible that the outcome in Iraq will be an improvement on what went before, the vision of a stable, democratic, pro-American Iraq has long since vanished.

Under the Bush Administration, the state has gone to immense lengths to insulate itself from social pressure. But the necessity of facing the electorate remains. It seems unlikely that, by November, American society will be convinced that this was a war worth winning.

25 thoughts on “How Democracies Lose Small Wars

  1. I have a major issue with the way you (or Merom ? – haven’t read the book ) put the issue as “states” losing wars or in terms of “state” versus society. The term “state” as a sovereign actor on the international scene is used commonly enough. But here the question should rather be discussed in terms of governments, rulers, governing parties or ruling classes versus society, rather than states versus their society. After all, “States” as used here treats a state as a unified, independent actor, which is no longer true if parts of a state’s population do not suppport the government’s actions.

    Karl Heinz

  2. In liberal democratic polities, instrumental dependence becomes more problematic for the state because the processes of democracy require open debate. The kind of coercion required to mobilise resources, the most important form of which is military conscription, is difficult to practice when a war is faced with strong opposition, even from a relatively small minority of the population … the problem is that, in liberal democracies, it is difficult to achieve the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained.

    Perhaps. Although it seems to me there is an elephant in the room which someone need to acknowledge. Dissent is not a neutral actor, automatically arising to oppose all small wars at the appointed time. Sure, there are small groups (Quakers etc) who will oppose all war on moral principle, but surely there is some relationship between the causes and rationales for wars, big or small, and the level of dissent. If, in a hypothetical instance, a government was to propose a doubtful rationale for going to war, and that rationale was quickly proved to be completely false, major dissent is be guaranteed in a democracy. The reverse, I imagine, wouldn’t necessarily hold.

  3. Even dictatorships have to take account of public opinion when waging wars. In WWII, both Germany and the Soviet Union invested heavily in propaganda to maintian support. In Germany eraly in the war, consumer goods production was alllowed to continue at a high level to keep the Germans well-supplied. Stalin reduced insistence on ideological purity, even making friends with the orthodox church and appealing to traditional patriotic mottoes.

    Another example of dictatorships not being able to support small wars are Portugal and Argentina. The Portuguese colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique led the military to a coup agaisnt its gonverment. Failure in the Falklands wars led to the end of the Argentine junta.

    Karl Heinz

  4. John, I’ll dare to take you at your word that criticism is appreciated. You don’t say where this is destined to be published or who is the intended audience. If it’s an academic review for some solemn social science journal, I’m sure it’s fine, but for any other purpose it’s pretty turgid, I’d have to say. If it is any part of your aim to entice the general reader to procure the book, you might like to ease up a little on the abstract terminology. And you might consider starting the piece with some startling concrete case that immediately conveys some of the basic issues and whets the reader’s curiosity.

  5. The target is the Fin ReView section, which usually runs stuff from NYT Review of Books and Prospect, so it’s relatively highbrow.

    But I was worried about the stodginess of the opening paras. I will probably start at the same point I finish, with Iraq.

    Karl Heinz, I agree that winning small wars is harder, even for dictatorships, than Merom suggests.

  6. JQ,

    Given your background, I’d caution you to avoid this phrasing:

    “Even when force appears to work in the short run, it often fails in the long run.”

    Fill in the missing word: “In the long run, we are all ….”.

    Also, the substance of your comment on the long-term futility of the wars cited is flawed, in my opinion. The Jewish revolt was crushed by the Romans in typically brutal, genocidal fashion – the existence of Israel today has nothing to do with the long-term failure of Roman military power. Likewise, Cromwell’s (and William III’s) success in Ireland resulted in 250 more years of British dominance of Ireland – most Irish don’t see Cromwell as a failure. The independence of East Timor has more to do with the collapse of Suharto’s regime than it does with the failure of Indonesian (read: Javanese) imperialism. You’re also dreaming if you think the Han Chinese are going to give up Tibet when they lose their communist ideology: Tibet is about competing nationalisms (Han Chinese vs. Tibetan), not communist ideology.

    The long history of humanity and warfare shows that wars happen because nation-states believe that military force is an effective tool of international politics.

  7. When people ask for criticism they usually want praise. Nevertheless..

    I was going to ask about the target audience, but JF and the reply to him cleared that up (I think it does need to be dumbed down a bit, even for that audience – remember the difference between ignorant and unintelligent). Also, there are many misunderstandings that I will have to address at length later – please wait until the weekend so I can.

    For now, you have misunderstood the thrust of what Angell was actually driving at. Brad DeLong recently looked into it and reported on it in his blog, commenting on the difference beween the meme and Angell proper; Angell actually made a lot more sense and was not getting a prophecy wrong, he was pointing out the implications of then-received wisdom.

    I hope to have more later.

  8. “When people ask for criticism they usually want praise. ”

    Well, I’m always happy to get praise, but I do really want criticism where people think it’s merited. There are clearly some points I’ve got wrong, some on which I haven’t explained myself as well as I should and some on which my critics and I will have to agree to differ.

    As I said in the update, I’d rather be criticised on the blog than go into print with something wrong.

  9. PML, could you clarify on Angell. I thought what I wrote was almost identical to what Brad had to say.

  10. Sort of a side note. If Michael Moores Documentary is to be released in Australia before the federal election, i wonder how far that will go towards changing the opinion of the australian society about this irrelevant and spurious war.

  11. JQ, I won’t have the chance to go into much before the weekend, but on the Brad DeLong/Angell matter, you write “[Angell] argued that Germans would correctly perceive their own self-interest and would therefore not support an aggressive war. He was rapidly proved false on this point… Angell was right about the futility of war, but wrong in predicting that it wouldn’t happen.”

    However at Brad DeLong has “It should be clear that Angell did not claim (from the evidence available to us) that war was impossible… We have arrived at grounds upon which to base a conclusion precisely opposite that of the popular judgment of Angell: Angell’s book was not a farcial claim of war’s impossibility because of the wisdom of Edwardian Man; it was a tragic prophecy of the course of the twentieth century.”

    You are perpetuating the meme, accusing Angell of endorsing what he merely pointed out. Your thesis is not what Brad DeLong brought out in that piece (he had one about a year before, before he looked deeper; you may be in better agreement with that one).

    I still have to bring out the misunderstandings in things like the Algerian situation; it wasn’t a match for your thesis either, and it’s not the only misreading. Fyodor has already said much of what I was going to say, so I have to be careful; I’ll probably end up repeating some of what others tell you anyway. But have a look at some similar things I put in earlier posts.

  12. PML, I’ll admit I’m quoting Angell from memory, but I’m quite sure that he predicted that Germany would not go to war. To clarify, I agree that Angell demonstrated that war was not a rational option, but the minor premise that the German government was rational turned out to be false.

    Fyodor, to expand my point, in all the cases I cited, the losers (of those who regarded themselves as their successors) maintained the desire to recoup their losses more-or-less continuously over lengthy periods, in most cases constituting a cause of trouble to the victors over this time that more than outweighed any gains (to the society as a whole, though maybe not to the ruling caste that controlled the state).

    As regards Tibet, how does its situation differ from that of the Baltic states, most notably Latvia which had a near-majority Russian population at the time it declared independence?

  13. I withdraw the claim above regarding Angell. I’ve checked the 1912 edition and my memory was obviously faulty. I’ll amend accordingly.

  14. JQ,

    It’s true that resistance to the imperialist power continued in the instances of East Timor, Ireland and Tibet, but it’s arguable whether the cost of this resistance to the occupying power outweighed the gains. In each case the occupying power has been rather keen on staying, despite the privations of an insubordinate population. British governments dominated Ireland for more than 400 years, Tibet shows no signs of real resistance (because the Chinese would crush it) and Israel today bears no relation to the Jewish kingdom of the 1st century CE. The Roman occupation of Judea, which they renamed Palestine, was a staggeringly successful example of genocide and “ethnic cleansing”. The creation of Israel after WWII by (mostly) European Jews was not a triumph of resistance against 1,900 years of Roman occupation!

    It’s an interesting question, however: what are the net gains from conquest, and to whom do they accrue? Your distinction between society and ruling clique makes resolving the question more interesting: if a ruling clique does gain from conquest, then isn’t the imperialist action of a state ruled by such a clique inherently rational? The natural, and cynical allegory to current events is the unusually high concentration of dudes from the energy industry congregating in Bush jnr’s ruling clique…

    Returning to Tibet/China, however, I don’t think your example of the baltic states is applicable. For one thing, Soviet communist ideology (at least in the early days of the USSR) was fervently anti-nationalist, and this resulted in the creation of Soviet Socialist Republics in each of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, despite the fact that these countries had not had independent government for more than 200 years. When the USSR was brought to its knees at the end of the cold war, these countries had the necessary skeleton of government to break away, and little threat of reprisal from a prostrate Russian Federation. I doubt very much whether Tibetans will receive such lenient treatment should they decide to break away from the PRC. I repeat the argument from my earlier post: the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in the PRC) see Tibet as part of Greater China, just like they see Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang (one of the other persecuted regions in China that Richard Gere doesn’t give a fudge about) as part of Greater China. This is nothing to do with communism, and everything to do with nationalism. I doubt very much that China will ever give up Tibet unless it is forced to, and that is highly unlikely while China is powerful and united, unlike the USSR, which was weak and divided.

  15. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, despite the fact that these countries had not had independent government for more than 200 years.

    Actually, they were independent countries from after WWI to 1939.

    Your comment is more appropiate to Ukraine and Belorussia.

    Karl Heinz

  16. Fyodor wrote “Most Irish don’t see Cromwell as a failure.” He was certainly a success at mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing, to adopt an anachronistic term. However, I think (not having read Merom’s book – and it’s not clear from John’s review) that one would be drawing a long bow to see Cromwell’s England as a democracy. Though there were intensely democratic forces at work (in the New Model Army, and with groups like the Diggers etc), Cromwell himself was essentially about imposing a modified authoritarian form of rule in an intensely chaotic situation. But given the social upheaval and the need to placate various social groups, it would be interesting to analyse whether Cromwell’s conduct in Ireland represents a turning point in the need to secure mass support for war (which he largely got on religious/political grounds) – since it is usually argued that war remained largely an interest of states and the elite (recruiting mercenaries and the underclass) until the formal entry of ‘democracy’ into the picture with the French Revolution and Napoleon’s subsequent wars of universalistic conquest. Most historical scholarship now casts doubt on Prussian resistance to the Napoleonic thrust as being in any sense ‘popular’, precisely because of the low level of democratic or mass political culture in the lands of the former Holy Roman Empire. There’s an old (and a little tired) historical debate about the English Civil War being the first ‘bourgeois revolution’ but I’m not aware of whether Cromwell’s subjugation of Ireland has been discussed in terms of the distinctly modern phenomenon of needing to mobilise the mass of the population in order to go to war successfully.

  17. More on the issue of winning small wars.

    During the colonial era (19th century and the early decades of the 20th)any half-way advanced nation could sucessfully invade primitive countries and also suppress rebellions there. This was quite independent of the type of home government. Democratic Great Britain, the US and France, semi-democratic Germany, as well as Japan and authoritarian Russia, but even Belgium, Italy and Spain (in Morocco) conquered colonies. There were few ultimate failures. I can only think of the French expedition to Mexico and the 19th century Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

    Progressing into the 20th century, this became harder and harder to do. Neither Germany nor Japan were actually able to eliminate resistance in the occupied territories. And the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a failure. Nowadays, they can’t even get a grip on Chechenia.

    Maybe it’s not so much a weakness of the major state that has created the change, but that rebels and guerillas now have relatively better weapons ? Portable, hideable weapons that can take out tanks or aircrafts, and the guerilla tactics and political methods to explöoit them ?

    Karl Heinz

  18. Yes. Colonial victory is based absolutely on the disunity of a subject population and the military superiority of the invader.

    All gone now. Even the Indonesians, who don’t (I presume) rely on domestic consensus and can be very ruthless, cannot completely suppress guerilla wars, and can be beaten.

    On top of this, the suppression of a subject population is becoming more and more difficult, and corrupts the invader’s society and economy.

    Maybe Iraq really is the last war of true invasion and occupation. But the alternatives are just as hideous – client states and simple genocide.

  19. I’ve just got the chance to comment fully.

    First to get some minor things out of the way.

    On a spectrum from one end to another, a 100% pure review does not criticise as such, it points out for readers the sort of thing they are getting so they can see for themselves if they want to look at the real thing. A 100% pure critique does criticise, bringing out errors and omissions, supplementing and correcting; it need not do the work of a review. Clearly 100% pure versions are rare if not impossible, but equally clearly this “review” is a long way along the spectrum towards being a critique.

    We commentators have already brought out the issue of the target audience; JQ should also consider what kind of job he is trying to do for them, whether he wants to bring it back nearer being a true review. In the end the decision is his and his own editor’s, but nevertheless they should consider their intended destination rather than take it all for granted. Like the prose style, which is not aimed at simplifying digesting the review for the intelligent but informed audience, the destination (a critique) seems more aimed at a quasi-academic objective.

    Another minor thing is that the genocide of Melos was 100% successful, as genocide. We even still call it Melos today, as the Athenians did – the inhabitants had called it Malos, according to numismatic evidence. That genocide never was revised, and the later inhabitants were Athenian colonists. What did fail was the use of the genocide as an awful example to others; the fact of Athenian failure in the Peloponesian [? please check spelling] War shows that it was bad statescraft, not ineffective genocide. Fyodor made a similar point about Ireland and Israel, pointing out that subsequent changes had practically nothing to do with any inherent flaw in what was achieved by massacre and/or banishment but stemmed from other developments. Elsewhere I have pointed out Buchan’s remarks about thorough massacre and/or banishment being needed to displace a local population’s interests enough to make rule by outsiders viable in the long run; implicitly, the trick is doing it, not getting sustained democratic support – it creates that once you do it thoroughly, and Buchan points out that Cromwell was too busy to be thorough enough to eliminate the Irish Problem that way. So it is only failed genocide that does not work in the long run; successful genocide does. Just ask the Jebusites or the Amalekites, or the prophet Balaam.

    The next minor thing is that – contrary to MB’s view – it is not a “distinctly modern phenomenon [to need] to mobilise the mass of the population in order to go to war successfully.” Rather, it is distinctly modern to need to do that in a prolonged way; the need to do it at all is actually a modern re-emergence of an old method, the tumultuary approach of clan warfare and even of Chinese legalism. I wrote on this general area for “Defender”, and I have the article on my site at – I will try to paste it in below this post. It also covers issues of percentage of GDP needed for war, and goes over the Portuguese colonial situation. It also points out – though not explicitly – that democratic support was not involved in giving France mass armies; rather, improved techniques of suppressing dissent made conscription practical on that scale, and from that popular ethos changed to support conscription. The state changed the people, not the other way about. Napoleon had no problem imposing mass conscription even when considerable antiwar sentiment had built up, even when his claim to legitimacy was based on incarnating the general will (“revolutionary monism”, also practised by Napoleon III – “practice” is a noun, incidentally, and JQ should have used “practise” for the verb). We know that that legitimacy was not compromised, since Napoleon aine was able to make a comeback before Waterloo.

    Now on to my main area, Algeria.

    Some historical background: French rule did not start under a democratic French regime but under the last would-be absolutist monarchs, as a diversion as much as anything. Consolidation took place under the parliamentary and bourgeois monarchy and later, however, and used atrocities like burning village populations alive once they had been driven into caves. The democratic process did raise huge objections to this – only, to no effect since the tactics had already cowed Algeria enough to pacify it and allow the stability of stunned repression as in Ireland during and after the Penal Laws, a peace with hidden pressures after local elites had been driven out or destroyed. The thing is, in neither case was the process continued as far as complete genocide; the patient stopped taking the treatment when he felt better, not when the disease was gone (I’m using a repressor’s point of view there for illustration, not agreeing with it!). Between 1870 and the 5th Republic France had an unusual form of democracy: certain issues were not up for discussion – responses to Algeria and Germany – while all the rest were so fluid that strong government and decisive change were impossible. This propped up the Third Republic but destroyed the Fourth (see my pages on republics and monarchies, too). For Algeria, it meant that democracy could not address its situation at all. The system was not set up for it to get on the agenda. (This is also an example of one of my three objections to formal democracy, mentioned elsewhere.)

    There were regular easily suppressed revolts, the last one just after the Second World War in the time my parents were there (they met in Algiers). The 1950s one looked much the same at first, and the French were sucked in by it. All these revolts were downplayed in metropolitan France, even censored.The thing is, France did treat Algeria like the rest of France. Algerian natives – both Arab and Kabyle (Berber) – were admitted to full citizenship, with a catch: not as a group but only as individuals once they gave up some of their customs that were inconsistent with French ideas of civilisation, like polygamy. This incremental approach meant that France faced no economic difficulties with granting citizenship as JQ supposed. Of course, the French set the barrier high enough to keep economic advantages for the “colons”, to help them so they could reinforce the French position there; that slowed the assimilation down enough to be manageable. The cultural repression was much like that practised against the Bretons to this day. Algerian Jews, for instance, were fully French citizens from the beginning (there was some cynical divide and rule to this, of course – and the French tried to divide Arabs and Berbers too). The Pieds Noirs were often not even poor French immigrants but settlers drawn from mediterranean Europe and made French, much as the British in Gibraltar, and took on a stronger version of patriotism than the originals; look at Camus’ ethnicity for an example. However – and this undercuts the democracy idea too – none of these were fully accepted by the French people if they ever went to France, any more than my mother (an Irish immigrant) was when growing up in a small village near Paris (that’s why she re-emigrated to Britain). This lack of acceptance undercut the new Frenchified Algerian elite who thought they had succeeded in crossing the divide and assimilating, going to metropolitan France only to find they had entered a dead end. This as much as anything gave the final revolt a cadre.

    To get to the moral. Once the revolt was succeeding, it was not the case that French opinion turned against staying in Algeria. Rather, it was in the process of turning as it faced up to reality, but the democratic system did not allow that to get on the agenda. What was being expressed was discontent with the Fourth Republic’s inability to cope. De Gaulle got in with the remit of finding a solution – implicitly, though, with a commitment to “Algerie Francaise”. The nation-in-arms idea that universal conscription unifies state, people and army does not work; military juntas succeed in places like Argentina and Spain precisely because the army actually works under the direction of its officers and NCOs (in European continental languages the term “officer” covers both). France faced a military threat much like that of Spain from Franco, using a North African base to gain power at home. The OAS military group was threatening this once they realised what De Gaulle was really up to. As a statesman he was leading the move to get out of Algeria, actually ahead of French opinion as a whole – so many French had served maintaining Algeria that they had formed emotional commitments, and France was not in favour of withdrawing. De Gaulle (according to some background in Frederick Forsyth’s “Day of the Jackal”) cunningly used radios issued to French other ranks to appeal directly to them and undercut the OAS influence on the French military and eliminate the nation-in-arms theory; as an overall leader he managed to bypass the democratic element that was supposed to be provided via conscription. So the moral is, it was the leader and not public opinion that forced France out of Algeria; it is not an example supporting JQ’s thesis after all.

    At some later point I will give my own views on the interaction between might and right, realpolitik and the ethical basis of it, but that would take too much space here and besides, it is rather off topic for a critique of a review of a book I have not read. It would be better suited if I were providing my own review/critique of the book’s area. So I will end by appending the “Defender” article referred to above.

    I am sorry for the delay, but I hope JQ and other readers find this post instructive and timely all the same.


    Article printed in Defender, the national journal of
    the Australia Defence Association, of Spring 2002
    (Northern Hemisphere Autumn)

    – not precisely on economics

    Connections between GDP and Defence.

    It is obvious that Australia’s defence has been sadly neglected over recent decades.
    Very often that has been brought out by looking at the percentage of GDP going into it,
    either in relation to other government spending or in comparison with the spending in
    other countries.

    That is a natural way to approach things if one is in the habit of looking at government
    activity and is only coming to defence issues with that as a toolkit. But it is of very little
    use in estimating just what sort of defence Australia is actually getting – how much bang
    for the buck. For that very reason, some people even deny that falling spending matters
    and make unquantifiable claims about how technological improvements are “really”
    giving a very different defence result.

    So this essay will explore GDP percentage spending over history, and try to use those
    very different historical circumstances to bring out just what other features do or don’t
    affect the defence results. In case anyone suggests that the comparisons are futile
    because (say) the world is very different since Napoleonic times, that is the whole
    point. By analysing what has remained the same and what has changed we will get a
    better perspective. And one thing the following quotations will bring out is how things
    looked to the writers in their own context, never mind how second hand their actual
    history may be; for instance I shall be quoting Gibbon to see how things looked in the
    18th century, not how the Roman Empire was.

    Here’s Gibbon, near the beginning of chapter 5 of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman
    Empire”, writing about the late 18th century: “It has been calculated by the ablest
    politicians, that no state, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the
    hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness.” – and he goes on to examine how
    that can be disproportionately effective when organised as suitably large and properly
    trained units.

    There are two things to notice here: that 1% figure is in terms of tied up manpower, not
    a money measure of GDP, and it is assessing a sustained use, a regular standing army.
    Both are typical of that age, just before the Napoleonic era when there had been few
    technological improvements of a sort that needed capital rather than technique and
    when manpower correlated well with economic activity in the comparatively
    undeveloped economies of the day.

    That is why there is no real contradiction with this quotation about the English Civil
    Wars of 1641 – 1651 (ish), from Buchan’s 1934 life of Cromwell (near the beginning
    of Book II, Chapter I): “Even in the later stages of the war the total number of soldiers
    in the field was scarcely one-fortieth of the population.” This shows us two things. To
    Buchan in 1934, this 2.5% figure – which was actually high – looked low. And it seems
    to contradict Gibbon’s 1% maximum. The reason it does not is that even over a ten
    year period there were interruptions and that that is not a standing army figure; it falls
    nearer another ancient model of warfare, the tumultuary one. That is what the Romans
    meant when they said “tumult among the Gauls”, apud Gallos – not that the natives
    were restless but that the clans were gathering. The last instance of this, with the fiery
    cross going through the land, was in the early 19th century when the Scots of
    Glengarry were called out and fought the southern invaders to a halt long enough for
    the regulars to come up, so that by their aggression the southerners gained not one inch
    of Canada.

    That was no mere aside. It both shows us another model with much higher
    unsustainable surge proportions of resources committed, and it shows that money
    numbers aren’t everything. Clan risings typically left one in five or six behind to mind the
    farms while the rest turned out, but the money cost was low – and the quality of the
    troops related to the link between their culture, their habits and expectations, and their
    tactics; read, training. Here is Nassau Senior describing the economic discrepancy in
    part of his early 19th century work on wages: “In the early stages of society, the rank
    and even the safety of the landed proprietor is principally determined by the number of
    his dependents. The best mode of increasing that number is to allow the land, which he
    does not occupy as his own demesne, to be subdivided into small tenements, each
    cultivated by one family, and just sufficient for their support. Such tenants can of course
    pay little rent, but they are enabled by their abundant leisure, and forced by their
    absolute dependence, to swell the retinue, and aid the political influence, of their
    landlord in peace, and to follow his banner in public and private war. Cameron of
    Lochiel, whose rental did not exceed 500 l. [pounds] a year, carried with him into the
    rebellion of 1745, eight hundred men raised from his own tenantry. But in the progress
    of civilization, as wealth becomes the principal means of distinction and influence,
    landowners prefer rent to dependents.” Or as Buchan put it in Book I, Chapter I of his
    life of Cromwell: “The sixteenth century saw the breakdown of all the old
    relationships… landowners regarded their estates not as a nursery of men-at-arms but
    as a source of financial profit.” – a change that worked through earlier in England, of

    Well, just what changes did happen in warfare after the 18th century? It is not a
    coincidence or an academic exercise to ask about just that point of time, because that
    was the end of an era and the beginning of new ones with common features that last to
    this day – and may be ending with the Revolution in Military Affairs. Napoleon came
    on a scene in which tactics and weaponry had changed little in nearly two centuries.
    Things had come up against their constraints, and his genius was able to apply new
    techniques on top of these – but he did not actually displace them. The arms of war
    were the same, armies still marched on their stomachs, and so on – he just found new
    ways of working within those constraints, found them among the work of earlier

    One change was to release the strict control of supply from organised lines – but not
    totally. (Interested readers may consult the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia
    Britannica about military supply and transport [continued here], valuable for a
    pre-1914 insight, which is available on the internet though I was able to consult a
    physical copy.) Another was to change the basis of conscription and bring in mass
    armies raised by mass conscription. Earlier, conscription had been needed in order to
    get manpower for long periods of service so the larger proportion of service could be
    after proper training; with discipline it made sense to get recruits from outside the
    homeland, since patriotism was unnecessary and that did not diminish the tax base. But
    Napoleon made “war feed on war”, drawing down other areas’ resources, and his
    mass armies had less training and so needed more motivation; he drew on France itself
    for men. That means that, even though Gibbon’s 1% still applied, it wasn’t France’s
    own economy pro rata to that 1% except to the extent that French manpower was
    involved – and, with brief campaigns, in theory each class of recruits could be released
    in short order (that didn’t work in his last days of rule).

    Mass conscription brings problems of its own. It was imposed by mass billeting of
    troops, something that was complained of by the rebellious Americans; under the name
    of dragooning it was a well known technique. Draft evaders had nowhere to hide if
    their home village was occupied. But there was an economic cost. It is not often
    appreciated that French agricultural subsidies, which on the face of it appear pointlessly
    inefficient, were there to promote a peasant lifestyle; their output wasn’t measured in
    profit or foodstuffs but in conscripts. It meant a shift in an entire way of life, one which
    is producing massive disruption now conscription there is ending (just as it did when it
    ended in Britain in the early 1960s). What this means is that it is hard to capture GDP
    numbers, and it is important to provide both financial and manpower numbers to get a
    true picture – and sometimes we have to estimate one from the other.

    By the 1860s things had changed. Most Americans think “of course” the north was
    going to win their civil war, from its combination of superior manpower and industrial
    strength. But there was no of course about it; the world had only just changed, and
    indeed if there had not been compromises delaying that war there was a serious chance
    the south would have won. The thing is, the northern manpower was not that superior
    and actually represented a coalition of north and west (now midwest), which might
    have been split by more frequent defeats and so dealt with in detail. But industry was
    making a difference by then, particularly through mechanised transport. (Another
    change of that era was an increase in groups adopting guerrilla tactics; previously there
    had been insufficient strength available for their enemies to have garrisons in place to
    prevent insurrections going straight to armies in being, albeit untrained ones.) And, of
    course, more advanced economies and more sophisticated techniques of drawing on
    their resources – taxes etc. – meant that Gibbon’s 1% limit on manpower and its
    implied limit on the underlying economy were increasing.

    One thing that had not changed was the level of training needed for a rounded soldier,
    some two years of salting with real casualties in training; while it is possible to give
    more limited training for special aspects, such as skipping dealing with defeat or the
    way 1918 British soldiers were only trained for the trenches and not for the German
    breakthrough, all round training has not yet moved on. That is what today’s problem is
    with rapid recruitment in the face of emergency, or with putting reservists straight into
    the role of regulars. This is something I shall return to.

    Most of today’s Americans think that the USA is militarily strong because it is backed
    by a strong military-industrial complex, and that this will simply continue. The American
    military know that this is partly true but that it is not the whole story. They are aware of
    training needs that include time as well as money, of how the economic connection is
    recent – and that it might change with the Revolution in Military Affairs, and that that
    revolution, while coming, has not yet quite come. Let’s look at the connection as it was
    a quarter of a century ago, using 1975 figures in the “Book of Lists”: in 1st place Israel
    had 5.53% of its population in the armed services, while 7th and 8th were North
    Korea and Portugal with 2.85% and 2.55%. Going back that far lets us use a little
    hindsight in seeing what figures like that mean – it lets us train our sight for looking at

    The first thing is, there’s a multiplier. There’s a lot more GDP going in than that.

    The second is, countries like Israel and North Korea aren’t getting their financial costs
    covered simply by their own economies – they were drawing resources from their
    respective cold war sponsors.

    The third is that it takes a while for things to work through; Americans confidently
    expected a rapid collapse of North Korea after the fall of the USSR, but it didn’t
    happen that way. There were two reasons, the fact that they didn’t have anywhere else
    to go – defeat was disaster – and that these things do take time to work through. We
    can use the Portuguese case to see that; it was fighting at least three colonial wars at
    the time, drawing on the home country’s manpower when once colonies supplied
    manpower to it (in the 1960s the Goa garrison was largely recruited in Mozambique).
    While Portugal had fought Angola to a standstill so it was no longer a drain (and didn’t
    have any paramount guerrilla group in waiting), and Mozambique was the largest single
    drain, there was an anomaly in Guinea-Bissau that was the real breaker. The
    Portuguese used a double-dip conscription, that brought back middle aged middle
    class professionals like doctors and engineers to support the counter-insurgency effort,
    and it was more serious in the smallest colony, Guinea-Bissau. It was represented that
    the way the Portuguese put up with it showed an underlying level of popular support
    for the regime – but in fact it did not, and built up a pressure in support of overthrowing
    it. Again, there was a time lag. The comparison with France shows that there is no
    problem with conscription if only most people have been through it and are not facing it
    – France has objections to ending it from people who have just served! But the main
    lesson here is that conscription was needed to get servicemen of the right calibre,
    where conscription in many other countries – in peacetime – was not so much to
    provide a standing army (as it had in the 18th century, though it did still do that) as to
    provide a pool of adequately trained reservists.

    To the here and now. There is a change across the board, which we have to brace
    ourselves for. Once the Revolution in Military Affairs really does arrive, it will no longer
    need such a long support tail to work and it won’t need a huge economy behind that.
    Does that mean that present low spending levels won’t matter? Not at all, though it
    does mean it would be futile to invest in huge collections of obsolescent materiel now
    to make possible using fewer people later. And that has been our emphasis so far – to
    use capital and technology to stretch out other resources, particularly manpower.
    Capital and technology will correlate less well with each other, just as they have
    already ceased to correlate well with manpower – but there is still a connection.
    Spending levels would reflect comparative levels of defence, as between this country
    and others, as before, but we would lose any accumulated lead and have to rebuild it
    (something like this happened to British naval superiority a century ago). But it does
    mean that countries like Israel – which even as far back as the 1980s showed an
    American General in the Lebanon that it could have killed him with a drone – will no
    longer have an edge; inside a decade almost any country in the area, or even some
    groups, will be able to do that. The thing about mere technological advantages, as
    against capital ones, is that they can easily be superseded.

    So Australian spending levels do have to be kept up, only the important issue is not just
    how much they should be but on what they should be spent. While spending forms a
    constraint on what we can achieve, spending alone does not achieve things – it can go
    astray. A simple increase in defence spending across the board, while it might revive
    quite a few things that are on the point of expiring, would as it were only go to fat and
    not muscle if it wasn’t accompanied by the right exercise regime. So those are the
    things we have to decide – what the right exercises are. My personal gut feeling –
    totally without anything to back it up – is that 10% financial increases across the board
    would be useful without risking waste, while even 30% increases at regimental level
    would be useful that way. More would require detailed planning on how to use them
    before we made them.

    Clearly manpower matters; in this day and age it is impractical to recruit outsiders, so it
    is important to have that large pool of trained reservists, ready to be upgraded to
    regulars at short notice even though they would always need some further training.
    Even if the training isn’t produced by conscription, it will still cost money as well as time
    in itself and time taken from people’s productive careers. But also the spending has to
    go on R & D, to get a locally supported technology base – you really can’t buy it in,
    since the higher skill levels it itself needs preclude that working any quicker and
    cheaper than doing it yourself anyway (I’ve seen it in the computer area). Also, like
    stretching out manpower, it is possible to use capital in low technology ways to stretch
    out the available high technology – like using armoured cars in proper combination with
    tanks, though this again increases the load on skills and training since the resources
    have to be combined effectively in the field, which needs good junior officers and

    Taken all together, this shows some places we should look for our shortfalls and some
    things we would like to achieve to redress them. Now, how do we achieve them?

  20. Oops – I meant “the intelligent but un informed audience”. (Oh, and I welcome praise, acclamation, adulation – lay it on with a trowel if you want, MB).

  21. While I made it clear that De Gaulle was ahead of opiinion for getting out of Algeria, there was something else I didn’t make explicit enough. The part of French opinion that had already turned wasn’t doing so only out of revulsion for atrocities; much French opinion accepted those, after being inured to a low level in Algeria over decades, like the usual savage repression of revolts that had worked even in the 1940s. Rather, part of the opposition was to how poorly the Fourth Republic was doing the job, not to the means involved.

    In this, French handling of Algeria was unlike British handling of Ireland in the 1920s. There, it really was an innovation to use irregular Black and Tans and colonial methods, and it was a shock to Irish and British opinion to see Ireland being treated colonially. Not so in Algeria.

    I should point out that Black and Tans, i.e. an irregular force composed of local recruits (Blacks) and down on their luck Europeans etc (Tans) were known before the Irish troubles, in colonial situations. Kipling refers to them in his short story “the Devil and the Deep Sea”, where he also derives the term from “blakgang-tana”, or “back country” where they were usually deployed.

  22. PML, I’ve normally seen the term Black and Tans attributed to the uniform for this specific outfit, an account given here.

    But you’re quite right that it appears in Kipling.

    This kind of multiple derivation is quite common.

  23. I was trying to bring out the multiple etymology thing too. But the main point just there was that 1920s opinion wasn’t drawing on post-1916 derivations of “Black and Tan” that hadn’t yet worked through, it was mostly influenced by the earlier ones with all their colonial associations. Insult affects these things in a worse way than injury.

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