Peace is for losers part, 2

In my last post on Iraq, I concluded with a somewhat snarky reference to pro-war bloggers who reasoned that, since Sadr offered a ceasefire, he must have lost the fight in Basra, and therefore the government must have won. As it turned out, the ceasefire was the product of some days of negotation, brokered by the Iranians, which made the original point moot.

Still, given that the same claim was made by John McCain, who said”Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire., I think it’s worth making a more serious point about the fundamental error in pro-war thinking that’s reflected in claims like this.

As usual with McCain’s statements in his alleged area of expertise, the claim is factually dubious (see below). More importantly, the implicit analysis here, and in nearly all pro-war thinking is that of a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gains equal the other side’s losses. The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms. Almost invariably, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought. With nearly equal certainty, anyone who passes up an opportunity for an early ceasefire will regret it in the end.

The negative sum nature of war is most obvious when, as predictably happened in Basra, the stage of bloody stalemate is reached. At this point, both sides typically want to come out of the fight with some gains to show for the exercise. Fighting on, they sometimes achieve this and sometimes do not. But the losses incurred in the process ensure that both sides are worse than they would have been with an immediate ceasefire.

In this respect, Basra is a microcosm of the whole Iraq war. Six years after the push for war began just about everyone is far worse off than if they had agreed to peace on the most humiliating terms imaginable. Saddam Hussein and most of the Baathist apparatus are mostly dead or one the run, and many of the survivors are glad to take a pittance from the US occupiers. The Shi’ites, despite gaining political power, have suffered more in the years of conflict (with the Americans, the Sunni and among themselves) than they ever did under Saddam. The Americans and British have poured endless blood and treasure into Iraq to no avail and both Bush and Blair are utterly discredited. Even the Kurds have overreached themselves and brought the Turkish army into their territory. The only winners have been the Iranians, as interested bystanders, and merchants of death like Halliburton and KBR, and even these may yet end up worse off

Coming back to McCain’s historical claim, it’s easy to point to cases, like the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 where the winning side declared a unilateral ceasefire. More pertinently, perhaps, governments fighting insurgent movements have frequently followed up successful military campaigns with unilateral ceasefires and amnesty campaigns, aimed at reintegrating the rebels into civil society. If the government forces had achieved their main goals in Basra within the three-day period initially suggested, it would have made good sense for Maliki to follow this example.

Even more relevant to the argument presented here are the many cases when initial success in war could have been followed by a ceasefire and a peace deal on favorable terms, but was not, with disaster as the common aftermath. Two examples:

* At the end of 1792, the French revolutionary armies were everywhere victorious against the invaders of the First Coalition. Against the arguments of Robespierre and others, the government pressed on, converting a defensive war into one of unlimited expansion. When the fighting ended more than 20 years later, with the restored Bourbons replacing the Bonaparte dictatorship, the millions of dead included nearly all of those who had made the decision to go to war.

* After four months of fighting in Korea, the US/UN forces threw back the North Korean invaders. A peace at least as favorable as the status quo ante could easily have been imposed unilaterally at this point. Instead Macarthur invaded the North and brought the Chinese into the war, resulting in one of the worst defeats ever suffered by US forces (until the greater disaster of Vietnam). Three years and countless deaths later, the prewar boundary was restored.

Finally reaching a conclusion, the central error in pro-war thinking is the belief that every war has a winner. On the contrary, in war there are only losers. Even those who seem to win have usually sowed the seeds of future disaster. The only sane response to war is to end it as soon as possible.

116 thoughts on “Peace is for losers part, 2

  1. I’ve got to admit, I was largely going on anecdotal evidence from old people. One described the problems with gas producers, another described an expedient blending paint stripper and similar to get fuel that made the car smell of mothballs. Certainly the government issued publications about how to make gas producers and the charcoal for them.

  2. Imagine that BHP tomorrow discovers an Iraq-sized oil deposit somewhere in the WA desert.
    As I said earlier, government revenues would soar as a result of taxation revenues and royalities. But that oil would be sold on the world market.
    Would Australia become a benefactor to the western alliance by using this market position to drive down the price of oil? Of course not. BHP would manage supply to benefit its own strategies and the wishes of stockholders.

    As we know, this won’t happen, but it is a good hypothetical, Katz.

    BHP would manage the oil in the interests of its shareholders.

    BHP would also become an far more important voice in the body politic. It would fund an Australian Enterprise Institute. It would hire hundreds of lobbyists.

    Soon, there would be a fair few less shades of distinction between the interests of BHP shareholders and the interests of the powers that be in Canberra. Australia might start to believe it had some divine mission to manage fossil fuel reserves in PNG etc.

    OK, standard politics, but let’s not forget that is the situation that has pertained in the USA for many a long year.

  3. As I beleive I have demonstrated, during WWII despite a radical interruption of supply sources and supply lines the like of which we are highly unlikely ever to experience again and yet maintain the material conditions of life, Australia was able to maintain supply of oil to the extent required to meet the national emergency of total war in the Pacific and in Asia.

    So the one set of circumstances that have been cited to support an alarmist account of the relationship between geopolitics and oil supply appear to be vastly overstated.

  4. Been busy haven’t been back in a while. Couldn’t let this pass.

    “I believe electricity fits this definition. The great majority of uses of oil can be replaced by electricity, and many of those that remain can be replaced by natural gas. Even oil-based aviation fuels can be replaced by biofuels as Branson’s stunt has shown.

    Of course, like oil, all of these fuels have problems. But the claim that oil is essential doesn’t stand up to even perfunctory examination, and I’m amazed at its continued popularity.”

    Can electricity ‘alone’ produce fertilizer? Yes, but its more energy intensive/pollutive than simply petroleum.

    I’m not sure how we are supposed to meet our Kyoto requirements by simply moving to more energy intensive and polluting technologies. I suppose we could simply outsource our new polluting industries to a third world country, thus completely negating the whole point of Kyoto(However, making ourselves feel good).

    Can electricity be used to produce Aviation fuel? No. Not really.

    Biofuels to put it a uniquely Australian manner are a load of bullshit. They are energy negative, they need more energy to produce the actual biofuel than that can actually be gained from biofuels. This is why the biofuel industry has only really been able to survive through subsidies.

    The only biofuel method that has been reasonably successful is the capturing of methane from garbage dumps and the use of bacteria to break down garbage and release methane. But like solar energy, the output is tiny (in comparison to our energy needs) and cannot be scaled up.

    Can we use electrify for cars? Yes, but since there are about 600 million cars in the world, there is simply not enough platinum (used as a catalyst in fuel cell) to replace the entire global fleet.

    People are being misleading when they say there are alternatives to oil. They seem to be suggesting that life will continue on as usual, or the change will be unnoticeable.

    Biofuels and Enthonal production have already been driving up the price of food in poor countries.

    Oil is king, nothing at the moment can replace it uses without dramatically scaling up the amount of energy we currently use.

    It’s hard to believe we blew so much of it so quickly. Future generations will be wondering how we could such nobs.

    Countries like Australia will be fine. We have coal, uranium, etc. Other countries, that are not as resource rich may have problems.

  5. Where to begin?

    To start with there’s a complete misconception of the point at issue. The question isn’t whether we should replace current uses of oil with equally or more CO2-intensive alternatives, it’s whether oil is the only feasible/practical fuel for various tasks. Considered in this light your claims are, as far as I can see, wrong on most points and debatable on the rest.

    * Fertilizer is mainly produced using natural gas, not oil. I’m pretty sure it could be done with coal gas also.

    * Biofuel may be literally or metaphorically bullshit but it is liquid fuel, which is the crucial requirement for aircraft. The question of whether there is a net gain in energy is simply not relevant

    * Your point on platinum pretty much illustrates the problem with this whole line of arguments. If you confine your technological choices enough it turns out that platinum and not oil is the crucial material we can’t do with out. And I’ve seen similar stuff about tungsten/wolfram and other metals

    Of course, none of these things mean that we can go on as we are, and I’m surprised that you would use a non-specific “people go an as if …” in this context. I pretty clearly haven’t said this, and I can’t see anyone else in the thread saying it.

  6. Katz,

    The US was, by a large measure, the largest oil producer in the world in the 1940’s.

    Prior to Pearl Harbor, Australia would have been getting most of it’s oil from Burma and Malaya (“Imperial Preference” and all that) and would have been under supply pressure due to the demand from Britain and North Africa.

    Once the US entered the war, they would have supplied their own forces here (hence the big surge in supply in 1943/4, tailing off as the war shifted north).

    I suspect too that if you compared the pattern of consumption in 39 and 42, while total consumption was the same, civilian consumption would have fallen significantly with agricultural, industrial and military use rising dramatically.

  7. “Biofuels to put it a uniquely Australian manner are a load of bullsh*t. They are energy negative, they need more energy to produce the actual biofuel than that can actually be gained from biofuels. This is why the biofuel industry has only really been able to survive through subsidies.”

    No, corn-based ethanol in North America MAY be energy negative. (Although there are many experts who dispute this.)

    Brazil has demonstrated that large-scale ethanol use is in fact possible and in the right circumstances can considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Brazil’s per capita emissions are half or less those of Mexico and Argentina.)

    “Biofuels and Enthonal production have already been driving up the price of food in poor countries.”

    There are a whole range of factors driving up food prices in the developing world.

    Let’s start by noting, that food prices are rising rapidly in the rice-consuming countries of South Asia. Rice is not used for ethanol production and these countries are largely self-sufficient in rice.

    The principal causes of the price rises are increasing demand for grain for meat production and rising oil and fertiliser prices.

    Ethanol is at best a secondary or tertiary contributor to the rise n food prices and anyone who is genuinely concerned about the price of food for the world’s poor can do something about it very simply by reducing their meat consumption or replacing some of it with Kangaroo. (It’s yummy and it’s free range. No grain is used to produce it.)

  8. PM, I didn’t think anyone would be pedantic enough to argue that Sarawak and Sabah weren’t part of Malaya. Evidently, I was mistaken.

  9. That’s not pedantry, they really were distinct political entities, handled differently. It made and still makes a lot of difference. For instance, if someone went and looked up statistical tables from the period, he would find entries for Malaya and Sarawak, but he wouldn’t find “Sabah” at all unless it occurred to him to look up British North Borneo.

  10. I agree with IG about the changing patterns of oil consumption in Australia, 1942-1945.

    Re Malaya, Sabah, Borneo, etc., the fascinating thing is that it is now impossible to construct from the public record where Australian oil came from during the war era.

  11. I have heard that Kangaroo is not “yummy” if you cook it enough to be sure of destroying the parasites that free range Kangaroo can get and which also affect people.

  12. Sure – I was just commenting on the free range version in the sense of wild.

    For what it’s worth, I know some people with two huge cats. They made the mistake of feeding them on kangaroo meat from when they were small, only to find that it promotes growth in cats. I don’t think the same applies to people…

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