Saturday, March 22, 2008

Why nations go to war . . . ?

We live in an increasingly presentist society, wherein any book, movie, or concept over six minutes old is yesterday's news.

Unfortunately, that causes us to miss a lot of extremely important information.

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I read as an undergraduate in the 1970s was John Stoessinger's Why Nations Go to War (which made it into at least a 3rd by 1982, which I will be quoting below). (Aside to Waldo-assigned by Larry Schultz).

Stoessinger took a wide variety of case to examine the process that nations go through in deciding to start an aggressive war. His case studies include: Germany in World War I; Adolph Hitler's decision to attack the USSR in World War II; MacArthur's gamble with pushing his forces toward and even across the Yalu River; Vietnam (viewed through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations as five separate examples; Pakistan-India wars in 1947, 1965, 1971; Israeli-Arab conflicts in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973; and a (then-) speculative case about war in the Persian Gulf.

The analysis of these cases is excellent, and I commend it to you, but it is his conclusions that strike me:

The first general theme that compels attention is that no nation that began a major war in this century emerged a winner....

In the atomic age, war between nuclear powers is suicidal; wars between small countries with big friends are likely to be inconclusive and interminable, hence, decisive war in our time has become the privilege of the impotent....

In our time, unless the vanquished is destroyed completely, a victors peace is seldom lasting. Those peace settlements that are negotiated on a basis of equality are much more permanent and durable....

With regard to the problem of the outbreak of war, the case studies indicate the crucial importance of the personalities of leaders....

The case material reveals that perhaps the most important single precipitating factor in the outbreak of war is misperception. Such distortion may manifest itself in four different ways: in a leader's image of himself; a leader's view of his adversary's character; a leader's view of his adversary's intention toward himself; and, finally, a leader's view of his adversary's capabilities and power....

There is a remarkable consistency in the self-images of most national leaders on the brink of war. Each confidently expects victory after a brief and triumphant campaign....

This common belief in a short, decisive war is usually the overflow from a reservoir of self-delusions held about both itself and the nation....

Distorted views of the adversary's character also help to precipitate a conflict....

When a leader on the brink of war believes that his adversary will attack him, the chances of war are fairly high. When both leaders share this perception about each other's intent, war becomes a virtual certainty....

A leader's misperception of his adversary's power is perhaps the quintessential cause of war. It is vital to remember, however, that it is not the actual distribution of power that precipitates a war; it is the way in which a leader thinks that power is distributed....

Thus, on the eve of each war, at least one nation misperceives another's power. In that sense, the beginning of each war is a misperception or an accident. The war itself then slowly, and in agony, teaches the lesson of reality.


What emerges from this is the unnerving conclusion that American involvement in Iraq is not an anomaly, but a representative case study in war planning.

Just food for thought.

3 comments:

Drew80 said...

Does this really have much to offer to the present situation? I don't think so.

The 2003 Iraq War went splendidly. In fact, it was a cakewalk, as many--but not all--had predicted at the time.

The ensuing occupation, on the other hand, and not the war itself, has been the problem.

This raises a whole other set of complicated and even contentious issues, naturally, but none of these other issues has anything to do with Stoessinger and his study, or any prospective lessons to be learned therefrom.

I enjoy your blog.

Steve Newton said...

Actually, Drew, I think it does, as long as you don't confuse operational military success with winning a war (in general the mistake made by the German General Staff time after time). The miscalculation in the Iraq war was not the ability of the US Armed Forces to win a conventional victory, but the failure to realize that such a victory would not lead to winning (or even an end to) the war.

Drew80 said...

Rightly or wrongly, I DO read Stoessinger in the narrowest possible sense, "operational military success", as you very articulately have stated.

Otherwise his points are too amorphous, and invite disputatious counter arguments regarding practically any conflict that involved a period of occupation, as most wars have done.

If Stoessinger is not read narrowly, too many uncomfortable and provocative questions arise to challenge his theses, such as "When did the American Civil War truly end?" and "Is World War I's outcome still unsettled?"

And it WAS the "operational military success" of the Allies that ultimately defeated Germany in World War II.