Tuesday, April 06, 2010

War Weariness

I commented going in to the 2006 and 2008 elections that Americans are willing to put up with three years of war, and then they just want it to be over. I had noticed this time-frame when reading about the Civil War, and recognising that the growing popularity of the arguments of the Copperheads were extremely similar to the current American scene. I did a quick check on other wars. In WWII, we actually became involved in 1942, and were tired enough of the whole business by 1945 that we declined to put up much resistance to the Soviet Union's post-war demands. WWI, we were not in three years, as was true for the War of 1812, Mexican-American, Iraq I, and Spanish-American Wars. We signed an inconclusive armistice in Korea almost exactly three years after entering. We trickled into Vietnam, but the major troop buildups occurred in late 1965. By 1968 there were increasing protests and popular opinion moved toward getting out. After hazily developing the theory, I found it was in no way original: The Pentagon operated on exactly that timetable when we liberated Iraq. We would have to win decisively in 3 years or the American people would lose its will to continue. It was mentioned in many places that various enemies counted on the American unwillingness to stomach a long war, though I did not see the specific three-year figure anywhere.

I thought this was just Americans. Reading Chesterton's commentary in 1917, one finds him arguing against the exact same excuses we hear today. After three years, perhaps, certain excuses began to appeal to the Brits much as they now do a century later to Americans. The type of inconclusive peace that would leave Germany unpunished for its severe injustices against other nations was described as magnanimous, enlightened, and the best hope for a world of peace in the future. A good peace, doncha know, among equals who in wise an civilised fashion decided that war was unacceptable. Chesterton warned that any refusal to defeat Germany utterly would be quickly reinterpreted by that nation as a near-victory temporarily denied. Not that every nation must be thus thoroughly defeated in war, but that Germany's peculiar narcissism, its insistence on its ultimate superiority and destiny, would prevent any lesser defeat from penetrating its arrogance. He further predicted that such later wars would be even more horrible.

Which is exactly what happened. It is worth noting that the same attitude of historical inevitability was present in our communist enemies in the Cold War and is present in out Islamist enemies now. Even more significantly, the accusations of German atrocities were dismissed almost immediately after the war as exaggerations, propaganda, and outright lies. Even after they have been shown to be true, the disbelief remains the common wisdom of our time. Worse, on that basis, new accounts of German atrocities from 1933-45 were disbelieved as being part of the same type of propaganda.

I dare not quote the entirety of GKC's essay "Wars More Horrible" for reasons of length. Yet it is hard to know what to cut.
Long before the war a very modern moral theory of Pacifism had disseminated certain assumptions; and they are to-day the exact opposite of the actual facts. We were told that our brute passions or desires might drive us towards blood and destruction; that our more fanciful feelings of vanity or vengeance might inflame us for war; but that reason and right thinking, if they prevailed, would always prevail for peace. Turn this position entirely topsy-turvy, and you have something like the truth to-day. Our brute desires are now all for repose, and almost for sleep; our mere passions would flow in the direction of peace. It is exactly our reason, and almost exclusively our reason, which tells us to finish the work of war...Man is not a fighting animal; he is fighting because he is not an animal; he is fighting long after any animal would have fled.
I was sent a link about the opinions of some Republican congressmen expressed at the Cato Institute recently. A war lasting longer than three years was certainly a political disaster for Republicans, which may be influencing their view here. But that isn't the same thing as the cost to the nation. Their argument about blood is amnesiac: we expected to lose ten times more. The complaint about cost is much stronger - if we knew it would cost us a trillion going in, we might have decided we could get better result from other strategies. (Separate discussion) But I wonder about that "time," cost they refer to. It is not actually a cost at all. It correlates with money and casualties, of course, but once we have counted up the money and the casualties under their own categories, what extra cost does "time" impose?

Yet I think that time, though we recognise it not, is the cost we most minded paying. An emotional, not a rational response.

1 comment:

GM Roper said...

AVI, as you note, time is a cost that is emotional and clearly not rational.

To add to that, I would suggest that the behaviors of some encourage war. We have exhibit A which would be Chamberlain's "Peace in our time," gambit; exhibit B our own refusal to deal with the rising Japanese Empire as anything more than a medieval oligarchy by cutting off their oil supply and not thinking they would react. We have exhibit C of our refusal to take terrorist destruction and mayhem seriously and thus, not responding to obvious provications.

Lastly, we come to exhibit D, in which our fearless leader has all but taken nukes off the table to any kind of WMD attack except nuclear from a member of the Nuke Club. My fear is that perhaps the mad mullah's of Iran will see this as a cover for a chemo or bio attack or perhaps a resurgent Taliban or some replacement terrorist group will rise up to the bait.

We truly do need a philosophy of war and of peace. We have neither.