Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thoughts on American War and Death

We resolved, rather gradually but noticeably, to reduce the death rate of our soldiers by fighting war more expensively.  Learning as we went about the millions slaughtered in WWII on the Eastern Front, and concluding that Americans were somehow not like that, was likely the beginning.  We lost horrendous amounts of American soldiers by current standards, but not so many by international standards.  We began to see that we cared about individual lives even more than we had a generation earlier.

We went the technology route to wage war instead, increasingly clear that we were spending this money to reduce casualties.  By the First Gulf Wat we were quite explicit in our declaration that this is precisely what we are doing.  We've lost about 4,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We lost 4400 on D-Day.  Hell, we lost 750 in a training exercise (Tiger) for D-Day.

We have spent an enormous sum in dollars, comparatively few in lives on these two very small wars we are involved in.  That is exactly how we planned it, and with 4G warfare, drones, Stuxnet, and the like, we hope to make that even more pronounced.

An odd thing happened along the way.  We view war differently.  We say truly when we claim that losing soldiers is more expensive than losing money.  One would think, then, that the country would be less opposed to wars where we didn't lose soldiers.  But the reverse has been true in America.

The cost of lives lost is mixed.  We see it as tragedy and horror, but we also see it as providing a link to the cause.  Those who lost relatives often feel a deeper commitment to the rationale for the war, not less.  I noticed it in myself when a son went into the USMC in wartime.  We don't want to think there is no value in those deaths.  We will not see them as senseless.  The more soldiers we lose, the more valuable we think the cause was.

This is true in other countries as well, where long-deceased sons pictures are still displayed prominently, even when the cause was futile or evil.  It has something to do with the idea of sunk cost, and clan loyalty, and cognitive dissonance.  We value the cause, not for its own merits but because our loved one died for it.

Now that we are spending money instead of lives, that tie is weakened.  We say that soldiers lives are a greater loss, but we get something back, some psychic benefit.  But money spent is just money gone.  We don't see that we get much of anything back.  I am speaking at the most basic level here.  We can map out on paper what we gained for the loss of money or loss of lives, and we should make that calculation with our best reasoning, not our emotions.  But we will make the judgements largely with our emotions in the end.

As we reduce casualties and increase cost - a trend I expect to continue - we will increasingly see war as nothing more than a waste of money.  Whether we are right or wrong about any individual war will matter less and less.  It will cost money, we won't get a new pony from it, and we will see it as dollars pissed away.

Think about how this trade influences the populations of our enemies. At least along those primitive lines, they are cut from the same cloth we are.  If anything, this assigning of value to cause on the basis of how many sons they have spent over the generations must be even more powerful than it is for us.  Because sons are more valuable, they are paradoxically less of a deterrent loss to a nation.

We must learn to induce them to spend their money and not their sons on war.

No comments: