War and waste (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Even by left/liberal standards, I seem to have become an extreme pacifist. That’s surprising to me, because I was a mainstream liberal internationalist 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my views in any fundamental way. In particular, I don’t have any fundamental objection in principle to war, or even to constraints like the need for a UN resolution. I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. Even ‘successful’ wars cost more, in terms of lives and wasted resources, than the benefits they deliver.

I don’t particularly like being out on a limb, so I’m generally encouraged to find other people starting to think the same way. In particular, I was pleased to see this column by Matt Yglesias, making the point that Military strikes are an extremely expensive way to help foreigners with specific reference to Libya. I made exactly the same case at the time.

With a little more ambivalence, I read this piece by Tom “Suck. On. This” Friedman who observes that Middle East oil no longer matters, and concludes

Obama’s foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.

I don’t share the tone of regret (“Happy the land that has no history” is my view), but apart from that, Friedman is very close to the view I put in the National Interest a year ago, that there is no clearly defined U.S. national interest at stake in the Middle East and, more succinctly, in this comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East … [^1]

Even at the cost of lining up with Friedman, I’d be pleased if the idea that war is an expensive waste of money became conventional wisdom. Switching to utopian mode, wouldn’t it be amazing if the urge to “do something” could be channeled into, say, ending hunger in the world or universal literacy (both cheaper than even one Iraq-sized war)?

[^1]: The joke doesn’t quite work as a link. You have to imagine the [click to continue] fold after the first para.

34 thoughts on “War and waste (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

  1. @Val
    I’m curious to know what makes you say most of the commenters seem to be male. Not counting yourself, there have been ten commenters. Three are using masculine names, one is using a masculine image, and one is using both, for a total of five out of ten. There’s nothing I can see to indicate that any of the other five are male (one, only, is using a feminine name). Any or all of them might be, but there’s nothing I can see to go on.

  2. Because I’ve looked at this blog a lot and have the distinct impression that Ikonoclast and Derrida derider are male. Don’t know about yourself and sunshine. If I’m wrong maybe people will let me know?

  3. Having just seen a documentary on 9-11 last night, it is difficult to imagine that the USA’s population would have settled for anything less than military action to capture/kill the perpetrators, and where possible, to prosecute them and their helpers. Heck, if I’d been in the thick of it, I’d be thinking the same thing, I’d imagine. The attack was on the scale of Pearl Harbor, and that brought America into the Second World War, guns blazing.

    Apart from these two cases, however, the other modern military interventions of the US in other countries’ affairs has been a poster for why flexing military muscle offensively is a mug’s game. The wreckage wrought and the humanitarian crises such interventions have caused, leaves little room for justification of these interventions. And this is just the US: plenty of other countries have tried the same thing, and their track records mirror that of the US.

    It seems fair to say that in the modern era, a pacifist position against military offensive action is a rational position to adopt, with military action reserved for immediate defence against a military threat, or in the exceptional situation of the 9-11 event, for the purpose of getting hold of the perpetrators of an attack on home soil (an action which could be considered as part of a defensive use of military action).

  4. @Val
    By accident of birth, I am male. My identifying image was taken from a costume party I went to with my parents; my wearing of the boxing gloves is purely in the spirit of dressing up, and certainly isn’t an indication that I am a boxer. In fact, I don’t think any sport that involves intentionally clobbering someone else in the head is acceptable in this day and age.

    Having said that, I can think of at least one boxer who was a pacifist—Muhammed Ali. He point blank refused to participate in military action, something which very nearly cost him his career and certainly his freedom. Considering how aggressive he was in the ring, at first blush it would be easy to think Ali would be a supporter of aggressive use of military power, or at least defensive use of it. People are generally more complex than they first appear.

  5. @Donald Oats
    My comment about women not participating in the debate referenced the world wide evidence that women are often not represented in these discussions – have written an essay about this, can dig it out if I’ve still got it. Hence the need for corrective action such as Australia undertook to support through the security council – sadly now dropped, as my comment #28 notes.

    I took the apparent under-representation of women in this thread as reflecting those broader social trends. It was not meant as any kind of criticism of the people commenting. Actually I hadn’t noticed your image (they are very small). I’m also aware that people are complex btw.

  6. Maybe it’s just that the people pushing wars have been so unbelievably stupid lately.

    I don’t consider myself a pacifist at all.

    Smedley Butler had a view: “There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”

    I don’t *quite* agree with Smedley Butler… but the only foreign military intervention I’ve seen in my lifetime which I thought was definitively worthwhile was Kosovo/Bosnia. That worked: it was a Genuinely Successful Peacekeeping Operation. The rest of the wars in my lifetime have been *stupid*.

    Now forget the morals for a moment. From an entirely ends-justify-the-means standpoint, if you don’t have at least a decent chance of winning via pure war of maneuver, a foreign invasion is an error, strategically. The invader is generally going to lose more than he gains.

    What would be the exception? The exception would be if the war can be won through psychology and maneuver causing the other side to surrender, almost bloodlessly However, this can *only* happen when you are perceived by the locals to be on the side of the locals “defending their homes”. Nobody who is defending their home ever surrenders to foreign invasion. This is why Kosovo and Bosnia worked, and no other foreign intervention has: they fit the pattern.

    “I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. ”
    Look at the revolutions again. Revolutions are very different from foreign invasions. I consider revolutions *inevitable*. People don’t, on the whole, join revolutions unless the situation is so bad that *anything* is considered an improvement. Every revolution I’ve looked at throughout history has, in fact, improved things in some measurable way which was important to people at the time.

  7. @Nathanael
    Interesting, interesting. As per my comment above you are thinking from a perspective of nations against others, rather than one world. Also could I ask you to think deeply about what assumptions may be embedded in the concept of ‘home’ that Butler is talking about? Is it just a house, physical shelter? Or does it mean family, caring, love – the feminine sphere that exists ‘outside’ the sphere of politics, conflict and war?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s