Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Some Points to Consider Before Starting a War

[Revised 1-12-2013]

I wrote this silly essay not because I am a genius who knows everything, but because it sounds to me that people around me (and people in Washington) do not know much about this very complicated and emotional topic: what it is you should expect if you start a war.  Since I think I know a lot of what you can know about the subject from reading history, and because I keep getting irritated by some of the things I hear and read which sounds appallingly naive, I have written down a short list of things that I think everyone should know, more or less, before advocating a military solution (e.g. attacking Iran, Syria, etc).  In other words, if the things I describe below do not happen, you should be pleased.  But if they do happen, you should not be surprised.

Why can't war be fun, like on television?

1. Wars are generally easier to start than to stop.

History is filled with examples where some nation (or kingdom, whatever) was able to start a war, but having started it, discovered many reasons why it was a mistake, but could not disengage. Things had spun out of control.   

2. Wars are very expensive.

Very expensive indeed.  In all the ways we might define the term "expensive", e.g. money, lives, civic discord, etc.   Historically, nations have underestimated these costs, sometimes willfully, sometimes because they are hard to predict, and other reasons.  But at the end of the day, when a nation reviews a war after it is over, rarely do they say that it came in under budget. And these costs continue long after the fighting stops.

3. People die and get hurt in a war.

Well, golly, you may say, that's pretty obvious.  But I swear that there are people who do not know this.  They think they can have a war in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever and somehow people won't be killed.   But that's what happens in war.  You throw a lot of munitions around and they explode and kill people. Some of those people are in uniform, and some are not in uniform, and some of the latter are civilians and some are not.     You try to mostly kill soldiers and kill as few civilians as possible. Sometimes you end up killing your own people by mistake or carelessness. It happens all the time.

4. Mistakes happen during a war.

Wars are barely controlled chaos with real opposition and all sides using what are essentially dangerous prototypes and throwing bombs at each other.   Ever watch any of those videos on youtube from aircraft talking to people on the ground?  Notice how often they are yelling?   They're not yelling to be heard (well, maybe they are yelling to be heard), but they are also yelling because it is really stressful where they are.  People make choices and make mistakes.   People go the wrong way, people get the wrong coordinates, some people did not get the word, people got excited when other people were shooting at them. Mistakes happen.

Sometimes they are not mistakes, sometimes they are only mistakes after the fact.  Oh you blew up a wedding where a lot of the bad guys were going to be?   I see.  Maybe that was an intentional mistake, or maybe it wasn't.

But nothing makes me laugh harder than the civilian quarterbacking after the fact.  Why didn't they do this?  Why didn't they do that?  That sure was stupid.  Easy for you to say.

5. The laws of war are more guidelines than laws.

Not all cultures agree with the so-called laws of war. Not all nations have signed the Geneva Conventions. Even those that have signed them have a lot of leeway on how those laws or conventions are applied on a case-by-case basis.  So don't go throwing around words like "war crimes" without spending a lot of time figuring out what it is that people mean by this today, because you will just sound like an asshole, which you may very well be. 

6. When the war is over, the war isn't over.

Win or lose, someone has to clean up the mess. And someone has to pay for it. Win or lose, if you get into a war it is likely that you will have some obligations or costs going forward however it turns out.  

7. People care passionately about what happens in war both during and afterwards.

I use the story of the Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay to explain what I mean by "strong opinions".  As far as I can tell, by far most soldiers in uniform at the time the nuclear bombs were dropped believe/believed that those bombs saved their lives by causing Japan to surrender.  Now it turns out that maybe that is true and maybe that is not true.  People will be debating that for a very long time and we may never have a definitive answer that makes everyone happy.   But the people who were in uniform at the time, of which very few are still alive, have strong opinions on the topic.  And when the Smithsonian tried to do an exhibit which was so-politically-correct about whether or not the bombs caused Japan to surrender, they were torn to pieces by the veterans.   That's what I mean by "strong opinions".

Therefore do not start a war unless you are willing to have people around afterwards who have very strong opinions on the topic that you may or may not agree with.

8. Do not have a war unless it is OK with you that people will hate each other.

One of the most irritating recent issues regarding the war in Afghanistan was the investigation to find out if one of our soldiers had urinated (e.g. pissed) on a dead enemy to show his disrespect.  How could that be!  That's not very civilized!  War is not very civilized, either.  War is about killing people and being killed, about people being betrayed and dying. And about hate. Therefore do not go into a war and expect that people are going to be completely dispassionate. No offense or anything, but that would be extremely unrealistic.

9. Some people do not appreciate our good intentions.

Its hard to believe, but some people do not want Americans to come in and "show them how its done". They do not care that having a base in the desert saves us a lot of money. They don't trust us. If something happens that they don't like or don't understand, they are very likely going to think that we are doing something evil, or that we planned it, or otherwise take the worst possible point of view on the topic because, as I said, they don't trust us.

And other nations, watching what is going on somewhere else, maybe also doubt our intentions and maybe fear us because we went to war in order to "fix things" and they may wonder if they are the next to be "fixed". 

10. Some people have longer memories than you do.

America as a culture has a selective and self-serving amnesia and tends to disregard other people's history, or history in general, as unimportant.

Americans may have neither known nor cared that the French were in Vietnam before we were, but the Vietnamese certainly did.  I know many of my fellow citizens who neither know nor care that Israel exists because of events in Europe over two millennia, but the Jews who live in Israel know this very well.  Most people I know may not know or care that the Grand Army of the Republic raped, murdered and burned its way through the South (1), but the people who live in the South do. 

Other people know their history, whether or not you care to know their history.  Maybe you don't agree with that history, maybe you think they got it wrong.  That doesn't really matter, what matters is what they think their history is.

11. Do not get involved in someone else's problems without thinking twice.

I think this one should be self-explanatory but obviously not.  If you break it, you buy it.  I am not sure we were much responsible for Iraq being a nightmare of problems before we got there, but we sure are involved now.   Afghanistan is an amazingly complex, historically rich area (note, not country, area) and we did have something to do with making it what it was before 2001, but not as much as some people think (2).  But the Sunni and the Shiites in Iraq are at each other's throats, again, and that is not going to stop anytime soon.  The people who live in the place we call Afghanistan are never going to stop growing and selling opium as long as there is a demand for it. And they are never going to stop being corrupt in our eyes, because in a deep and fundamental way they don't see it as corruption or they don't care what we think.   And the rich of Kandahar will famously "keep" little boys for sex as they have for a long time and you wont stop them unless you kill them all. And I don't think we should kill them all, personally.

12. Be careful what you ask for and think about what happens next.

Saddam Hussein ruthlessly suppressed his Shiite majority in Iraq, I hear.  Those Shiites are the cousins of the Shiites that rule Iran with an oppressive, women-hating, Jew-hating, Sunni-hating theocratic dictatorship.  You get rid of Hussein, the Shiites who are a majority in Iraq come into power, and wish to ally with and maybe imitate that lovely theocratic Iran next door.  Good move, boys.

13. Wars do not always go the way you want or expect.

Many Americans are used to believing that a war will go their way, that they will be victorious in some sense of that word.   This is sheer delusion and ignorance.  First, Americans have not always won wars but many wars end with ambiguous results.   Second, you can win and lose a war at the same time.  Third, you can win every battle and still lose the war.   Fourth, wars have a life of their own, and unexpected things happen.  A small war may become a big war and a big war may become an annoying small war.   You will not know for sure going in.

Therefore and in conclusion, if a war is discretionary, and not all wars are, think real hard before you start it. All of the points above apply now and in the future. And if somehow one or two of them do not apply, then consider yourself lucky.

Now, are you really, really sure you need to start that war?


1. Sherman's "March to the Sea".

2. Read Steven Coll's "Ghost Wars" about our involvement in Afghanistan after the Soviet Invasion.  We did support the resistance against the Soviet Union, but our involvement was always with the Pakistani's and the Saudi Arabians, and they have had much more to do with what transpired than we did, in spite of our self-image as being all powerful.   We were one of many players in that episode.

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