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Monday, February 27, 2006

Calculation and miscalculation in the causing of wars 

I had occasion this evening to page through Philip Bobbitt's magisterial history of law, strategy, war and the state system, The Shield of Achilles. Early in the book he considers miscalculation and calculation as causes of war:
Many persons in the West believe that war occurs only because of miscalculation; sometimes this opinion is combined with the view that only aggressors make war. Persons holding these two views would have a hard time justifying the wisdom of the Alliance resistance to Communism the last fifty years because it was usually the U.S. and her allies and not the Soviets who resolutely and studiedly escalated matters to crises threatening war. Besides the obvious cases involving Berlin in 1952, or Cuba in 1962, we might add the decisions to make the move to war in South Korea and in South Viet Nam, the nature and motivations of which decisions are underscored by the persistent refusals of the Americans and their allies to bomb China or invade North Viet Nam. That is, in both cases the allied forces fought to stop aggression by going to war and declined to employ decisive counteraggression.

Those persons who concede these facts and conclude that these decisions were wrong, and yet who applaud the victory of the democracies in the Cold War, are perhaps obliged to reconsider their views. For it was this peculiar combination of a willingness to make the move to war coupled with a benign nonaggression, even protectiveness, toward the other great powers that ultimately gave the Alliance victory.

Discuss in the comments, with reference to today's geopolitics.

7 Comments:

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Feb 27, 02:05:00 AM:

"For it was this peculiar combination of a willingness to make the move to war coupled with a benign nonaggression, even protectiveness, toward the other great powers that ultimately gave the Alliance victory."

Without qualifications/references, I reject this statement. Even with such, I would probably reject it. The USSR collapsed mainly because of economic reasons and secondarily because of the relaxation of political control in Communist nations. You could practically hear the creaking as soon as that E. German officer refused to open fire on the crowds at the Berlin Wall. Stalemating in Korea and losing in Vietnam did NOT hasten Soviet demise; such setbacks actually increased the appeal of Communist movements because they had been proven to succeed. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0465003117/104-6806071-7780714?v=glance&n=283155)

I cannot think of any "benign nonaggression, even protectiveness toward the other [I presume hostile] great powers" on the part of the Western (non-communist) allies.

It is entirely likely that China was not bombed not out of some sort of noble self restraint, but because the UN forces lacked the necessary air superiority. That was a tough war. Second, I have a reference here (http://www.math.yorku.ca/sfp/crises.html that says US Airmen were shot down over China, "-23 November: China sentences 13 U.S. airmen, shot down over China during
the Korean War" seemingly contrary to the book's claim.

North Vietnam was not invaded because it was generally feared (somewhat irrationally) that the Chinese would enter the war on behalf of the North, a la Korea, and no one really wanted a WWIII over Vietnam.

Aside, I find it ridiculous to assert that "it was usually the U.S. and her allies and not the Soviets who resolutely and studiedly escalated matters to crises threatening war," while giving Vietnam and Korea as examples... um, duh? Weren't the Soviet-backed communist puppet-governments the aggressors in those cases? And wasn't the USSR the tough-talking gambling brinksman before and during the 1967 Six Day War? Didn't the USSR invade Czechoslovakia and foment insurgencies all over the world?

Man, and this guy's from my school... although, it should be noted, he is a law professor, not a political science professor. If anyone from UT is going to write a book on the international system and reasons for war, it should be R. Harrison Wagner [even though he is mind numbingly boring to listen to, he specializes in warfare and its reasons for occurring and ending], George Gavrilis, [who specializes in security issues] or Alan Kessler. Kessler doesn't specialize in conflicts or anything, I just like him a lot. He's a smart guy. (http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/government/faculty/area/index/?area=Area+IV)

On a broader note, I wrote a thesis when I was a junior (I think) specifically to debunk the idea that wars are caused only by miscalculations. One simply has to read choice portions of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, like I did, to see that successful and short wars can be and have been planned, and justified, (at least domestically) rationally and purposefully before the beginning of hostilities and successful execution. Miscalculation tends to be the reason for *failed* wars.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Feb 27, 06:24:00 AM:

OK, Dawnfire82, interesting answer. Now Bobbitt's very next words, which I had not included in the original post, are these:

"Sometimes this matter is confused in the debate over precisely how this victory was achieved. Was the Cold War won because U.S.-led forces military denied Communist forces those strategic successes that would have sustained a world revolution? Or was it won because northern-tier markets were able to build an international capitalist system that vastly outperformed the socialist system (and an international communications network that informed the world of this achievement)? Such a debate misses the point, because it is suffused with the assumptions about war and miscalculation to which I have referred. Neither military nor economic success alone could have ended the Cold War, because neither alone could deliver legitimacy to the winning state, or deny it to the loser. Moreover, neither military nor economic success was possible without the other: can one imagine a European Union having developed without Germany, or with a Germany strategically detached from the West? Even the ill-fated American mission in Viet Nam contributed to the ultimate Alliance victory: a collapse of military resistance in Indochina in 1964 would have had political effects on the very states of the region whose economies have since become so dynamic (analogous to those effects that would have been felt in Japan following a collapse of resistance in Korea in 1950)."  

By Anonymous Squid, at Mon Feb 27, 12:05:00 PM:

Tigerhawk,

I'll agree with Bobbitt, and add a clarification. Part of the confusion is the definition of "aggressor." In verbal and written shorthand, anyone who starts a war -- even if it is undertaken for argueably defensive purposes -- is usually characterized as an aggressor. This can be useful for propaganda purposes during the war, as well as in winning the definitional arguments and writing the history after the war. Iraq 2003 is just the latest example of the old historiographical tussle.

Which is why you had those silly "white paper" arguments after WWI over whether or not Imperial Germany ought to be labelled *the* aggressor. It served the Entente nations to have old Germany take the fall, as it absolved them of their pre-war mistakes. Any careful reading of Clausewitz will find repeated references to "defensive" wars; i.e. crises that turned into shooting wars based on irreconcialable differences.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Feb 27, 02:33:00 PM:

Jeeze, you can tell this guy's a lawyer. He's hard to follow.

So he admits that economic factors were crucial to Cold War victory. That's good, except that he still seems to partner that with "benign nonaggression" which 1), I don't think existed and 2) even if it did exist I don't see how it would have contributed to success. One does not defeat one's enemies by being nice to them.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon Feb 27, 04:09:00 PM:

One does not defeat one's enemies by being nice to them.

Seems an obvious point, but I think there is something to be said for a policy of 'niceness' as a pre-emptive substitute for war. Isn't that what we are doing with China by engaging economically as a trading partner--hoping to stave off future hostilities? But that strategy carries risks of its own, given the scramble for resources and competing alliances (with Iran, as an example) that come with economic growth and expansion. At some point China may care less about being nice and care far more about securing access to oil. And then the utility of our being nice probably flies right out the window.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Feb 28, 02:09:00 AM:

"At some point China may care less about being nice and care far more about securing access to oil. And then the utility of our being nice probably flies right out the window."

Yep. All things surrender at the throne of power politics. A couple of interesting factoids I like to throw out when the topic of power v. economics comes up. (some people think that all things bow to the almighty dollar, no matter what)

1. The level of international trade in 1914 when WWI broke out was at an all-time high and was not surpassed until sometime in the 1970's.

2. Germany's largest trading partner in 1939 was... France.  

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