Friday, November 16, 2012

On The Possible Utility Of Recent Wars - Part II

That I might comment at all on international violence and deterrence is in one sense laughable.  There are people who devote their lives to this study, and the list of things they know which I don’t is enormous.  We all know, in our own fields of knowledge, how incredibly stupid a blowhard sounds, making pronouncements that we are tired of pushing back year after year.

Yet that is not the whole story.  Entire fields of knowledge are upended by marginal character, or even complete outsiders, all the time.  Most outsiders are fools, not worth listening to.  But “expert” attitudes self-reinforce and eventually become less useful.  Sometimes they become quite useless and actually stupid.  There are many possible reasons for this, which we have touched on before but will not here.  But why it happens is not so important at the moment as that it happens, and I will cite some evidences that I can at least take a shot at explaining international events.

  1. I have seen it happen in fields that I know something about, right before my eyes.  Freudians and ego psychologists (many of whom misread Freud) were in their last ascendancy when I started in this field.  They now have to scramble to show that even any of their theories and treatments hold, with any diagnoses (some do, with some diagnoses), and they are laughed out of the room in discussing autism, schizophrenia, and other clearly physical conditions.  Along the way I have watched lots of therapies, backed by people with superb credentials, be revealed as useless fads.  In baseball, the stats guys have changed the way everyone evaluates players, including the guys who have contempt for stats guys.  Linguists tried to laugh off Greenberg and the other lumpers and connecters, but the geneticists are now giving solid evidence for three, rather than three hundred, Amerind groups, and no one even grudges him his African categories now.
  2. Those experts don’t agree with each other, not even close, and an outsider can see institutional leanings that an insider is blind to.  Ben’s friend at State knows acres more than I do about internecine rivalries in Indonesia – and he’s still young.  But he’s at State, which disagrees with the CIA, which disagrees with military intelligence, which disagrees with their respective counterparts in the UK or Australia, which disagrees with the think tanks and the academics in a dozen related fields and the group violence researchers.  In my most cynical moments, I believe that all of these are simply enacting their original prejudices in more and more complicated fashion.

So I have not only a citizen’s right to speak, but potentially, an intellectual right as well.

Perceived weakness gets attacked.  Do not take what people say are their reasons as their reasons.  Al Jazeera is still saying the embassies were attacked because of the movie. Groups point to historical events, recent or remote, as the source of their resentments and their reasons for violence.  They are quite convinced that these are their reasons, and they convince the people around them – say, for example, business contacts, State Dept officials, and visiting academics – that these are their real motivations.  I think they are wrong.  Resentments fester for centuries with little open hostility, and very minor resentments can activate violence – when there is vulnerability.
But surely, the Japanese didn’t attack Pearl Harbor because they thought America weak? Yes, they did, if you look at the specialised sense of weakness and the attack.  They thought America entering the war on her own terms and on equal footing was a problem.  But they knew many Americans did not want to go to war, and strongly suspected that military assets in a few locations were vulnerable.  Destroying those before America could get a fully-formed emotional readiness for war might discourage us enough to say.  Don’t bother.  Make the best deal we can, we’ll trade with them as we go, accepting their dominance in the Pacific.  We can still do business. That’s not an idea that we were weak in terms of their ability to invade San Diego, but weak in terms of a single objective of enormous value to them.  The Japanese certainly didn’t have any set of resentments against us, other than in the narcissistic sense of believing that Pacific dominance was their natural right which we interfered with.  Similarly, Al Qaeda did not think America weak in terms of being ripe to invasion of Washington and giving over the keys to the next Caliph, but in terms of not wanting to mess with extremist Islam around the world.  They wished to make it expensive enough to discourage us. They spoke often about waiting us out and winning through greater resolve.

Germany didn’t have especial resentment against Belgians and Norwegians, nor the Huns against Europeans.  It may be axiomatic in postcolonial thinking that it is resentment against the West that drives violence, but the areas in question are plenty violent with each other when we’re not there.  I used to give a fair amount of resigned credence to blaming the British for desert boundaries or Americans for trading with rich South Americans.  I now pretty solidly reject that as excuses – rationalizations.

Resentments aren’t irrelevant, but they aren’t the primary cause we tend to think they are.  The more knowledge we acquire, the more we tend to believe that these resentments are the key, and America eliminating them the key.  We fall into this trap naturally.  It goes with the territory of interacting with people.  What is the evidence that it is reliably true?  Do nations that we give stuff to like us better?  Not reliably.  With individuals, it is often the case that the more you give them, the more they resent you.  Nations…yeah, pretty much.

Next, the idea that the inconclusiveness of a war is an argument against it is not strong.  Very few wars are conclusive.  Even those which seem so at the time have ways of lingering.  In general, a war is not conclusive unless one side is absolutely demoralised and must surrender on any terms.  This is not always so.  Some conflicts just do gradually wither because people get other lives and priorities.  Let’s look at American history: the American Revolution bled on through impressment of sailors through the War of 1812, a late extension of the original war. WWII is now quite commonly seen as a continuation of an unresolved WWI. Vietnam was conclusive in our losing mostly because we didn’t want an inconclusive war, because we thought that impossible.  Compared to what?  The Mexican War?  Indian wars? Korea? WWII looks nice and conclusive because it was conclusive with our enemies, the Axis Powers, but our Russian ally made Eastern Europe an inconclusive mess for 45 more years. 

We may not like it, but inconclusive is what wars usually are.  Yet they often do solve things, like slavery, or genocide.


Dubbahdee said...

On inconclusive wars: you have an excellent point that very few conflicts are clean or simple. Then why do leaders seem to insist that a nation can enter a war, triumph quickly and then simply walk away smug in our spoils?

As you said, war is a legitimate tool of state and can solve certain otherwise intractable problems. And yet we must be mindful that wars always generate an entirely new and separate set of problems. The inconclusive nature of warfare would seem to me an argument for GREATER caution in the undertaking, not an encouragement.

It's that tar baby thing again.

I'm not saying don't ever do it. I'm not a pacifist. I'm saying don't fool yourself about what you are doing.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is a CS Lewis comment - written while WWII was occurring - to the effect that all such promises should be discounted by half from the start.

I don't know if leaders believe these things or are trying to sell their product. Either way, it's alarming.

Dubbahdee said...

Is it a kind of national manifestation of anosognosia? We simply can't comprehend how bad we are at judging when is the right time to pull the trigger?

Or perhaps there simply is no way to judge. The variables are just too...variable.

Sam L. said...

Well, Dub, if we actually DID "nuke 'em til they glow", we'd be pretty sue they couldn't trouble us for quite some time. Politically,as we know, it ain't gonna happen.

I note that there was great agreement after 9/11, and not long after the Dems started sniping at Bush. and moved on to heavier weapons than sniping rifles.