Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Is There Ever a Case For War?

This piece was inspired by one of my own discussion board members who wrote:
I recently had a discussion with a few of my friends who happen to be very anti-war. They are stubborn, so the best I could do was to refer them to this chapter, specifically the part about the "bullies" and the "bullied."

The question I proposed to them was "Was it necessary for the U.S. to become involved in World War II, specifically the war in Europe?"

I believe it was absolutely necessary. Hitler's Nazi war machine was far to dangerous to be left unchecked.

I propose the same question to you and your readers, but on a broader scale.

Is it ever necessary for a country considered a world super power to become involved in the affairs of smaller countries, or countries of the same size, in order to protect the people's way of life in its own country?
To which I replied:
You wrote:
I recently had a discussion with a few of my friends who happen to be very anti-war. They are stubborn, so the best I could do was to refer them to this chapter, specifically the part about the "bullies" and the "bullied."
The way that reads, people who haven't read that chapter will be thinking it is (and therefore I am) "pro war". So I'd better start by putting that straight. I am VERY anti war. I am also, however, VERY anti Cancer. But shit happens. In other words, just being opposed to something doesn't mean you can prevent it and it doesn't mean you're not going to take an active part in it. Most people, for example, don't like being wage slaves - particularly if they do menial jobs for pathetic wages. But most of us still are wage slaves regardless.

I object to War but recognise that there are some circumstances when the alternative to fighting is dying and I am not sufficiently altruistic to accept that alternative without some extremely compelling argument. I am entirely normal in this respect. For obvious Darwinian reasons, humans with a saintly tendency to allow themselves to be killed rather than fight have a major handicap - they tend to be selected out of the gene pool. Hence not many perfect pacifist altruists are still around to persuade us. It may be that your friends are a very rare example.

We can test for the condition with a couple of sample questions.

Select the answers below each question which best reflects your own response:

1 You are about to be raped and cannot escape. Do you try to defend yourself?
a) No. I lie back and think of England (or whatever)
b) Only if I think I can win
c) Unless I was certain I would lose and be seriously damaged in the process
d) To the death

2 You walk in to find your 12 year old daughter is being raped. You have the weapon of your choice at your disposal and no physical iimitations. Do you:
a) Call the police and, while waiting for them to arrive, try, verbally, to persuade the attacker to desist
b) Exert just enough force to end the attack and arrest the attacker
c) Kill the bastard

OK, we should have weeded out the true pacifists by now. Anyone who answered a and a really ought to add a bit of red meat to the diet. The vast majority of people will answer b or c in both scenarios. Those with surplus testosterone will go for d and c. (which, I'm told, is very uncomfortable. Especially if you're male)

And, unless you did answer - and mean it - a and a, then you are not even qualified to argue that that there is no case for War. Period.

Really, that's no more than an SBO (Statement of the Bleedin Obvious - for the sake of new readers). If we didn't have the biological programming to defend ourselves or our loved ones from attack, we wouldn't have survived as long as we have.

Equally obviously, however, if we can't control our warlike tendencies, we won't survive too much longer - for all the reasons I spell out in the second part of Chapter 10.

Which is why I argue, in the first part, that the main innovation we should bring to modern warfare is the introduction of democratic control.

The normal reaction to that suggestion is a puzzled frown.

"We've already got democratic control and look where that's got us"


"I'm perfectly happy with the democratic control we've already got"

Here are some simple tests for the existence of Democracy in the country you regard as your own:

1 Does your country/grouping hold elections?
a) No - ours is a Monarchy or other form of unnaccountable dictatorship.
b) Yes - For a head of State with executive authority and for a chamber of representatives with executive authority
c) For an executive chamber(s) whose members are subject to recall.
d) For Delegates to a Debate and Drafting Chamber with conditional executive powers only and who are subject to recall.

2 Does your country make laws by referenda?
a) never
b) rarely
c) whenever the political establishment think its a good idea
d) whenever the people think its a good idea

3 Does your Army elect its officers?
a) Of course not.
b) Of course.

4 In your judicial system, who has the final word on any legal matter?
a) A Government Department or Official
b) An Unelected Supreme Court
c) An Elected Supreme court
d) The Jury

Anyone who answered d,d,b,d is living in a true democracy. I would guess it must be the Democratic Federation of Cloudcuckooland. The rest of us, however, don't. Live in a democracy that is. The best most of us can do - in the West - is b,b,a,b

Half of my book to date is attempting to explain what democracy really is and why we really need it. I don't intend to try to repeat that here. Suffice to say that the defining function of democracy is that ALL important decisions are made BY the people not FOR or on behalf of the people. (And "We The People" decide what IS important) Switzerland is the only country that gets close to this ideal by virtue of its people's ability to call for a referendum on virtually any issue at virtually any time. None of the rest of us come within light years of true democracy.

My support for any war is conditional on that decision being made under true democratic conditions. Furthermore, were I living in a true democracy, my first argument, in regard to any prospective war, would be that the decision to fight should only be implemented if it can attract the support of at least 90-95% of the citizens. This is not a position I take on the question of war alone. I am opposed to the "simple majority" concept of democracy. Clearly, if a decision is genuinely made by 50% plus one of all those entitled to vote, that does indeed constitute a true democratic decision. But it is clearly also - on the right issue - a recipe for disaster up to and including Civil War. No important decision can afford to have nearly half the citizens opposed to it.

I would prefer 95 to 100% support for any serious decision but I accept that giving a veto to less than 1 in 20 of the population is likely, at this stage in human development, to cause sufficient resentment to make even "near consensus" neither achievable nor acceptable. My hope and ambition is that I can persuade people who aren't even used to the "simple majority" form of democracy to leapfrog over it and go straight to the "near consensus" form I prefer.

To proceed with any serious policy, particularly on such a contentious and dangerous undertaking as a war, with significantly less than unanimous approval is a recipe for - at best - a domestic "fifth column" of "traitors" "spies" and home grown terrorists who are sympathetic to the enemy or, at least, hostile to the state; and, as I've already mentioned, at worst, a full blown Civil War.

So, in my world, no war without massive support amounting to near consensus. That would have been enough to prevent the illegitimate war in Vietnam for example, which never attracted even significant majority support from the American public, let alone near consensus. And, more topically and recently, it would have also prevented the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But I do accept that even that high democratic hurdle will be crossed on some occasions. Following 9-11, the invasion of Afghanistan, with the support of most of the International community, for instance, probably did achieve the high level of support I would argue for.
You wrote:
Is it ever necessary for a country considered a world super power to become involved in the affairs of smaller countries, or countries of the same size, in order to protect the people's way of life in its own country?
Except for the 0.1% of pacifists who answered a and a above, we've already accepted that there are legitimate reasons to go to war.

Thucydies was an Athenian aristo who was active two and half thousand years ago, in the period the city state was developing its near perfect model of democracy. His claim to fame includes the definition of the causes of War. Fear (for our collective security) in the face of a potential enemy is number one. Prestige or self image is his second choice and the third motivation is material gain (theft or greed).

Many argue that his definitions hold true today but, frankly, I can't see "Prestige" playing too well on the 21st century public stage. Nor, of course, does material gain, but whereas I doubt that Prestige has even been a motivation since the 19th century, I think we can be quite confident that greed has been a primary motivator even in this century. But it is not a motivation they can own up to. (Ironically, it looks like they won't even make the gains they were hoping for but that's another story.) The point is that the only reason for going to War, which is acceptable in the modern world is "Fear" justified by evidence of malice or malicious and imminent intent. "Clear and Present Danger" wraps it up nicely.

It is not seriously contested that Hitler's Fascist Imperial ambitions, combined with Japanese Militarism constituted sufficient Clear and Present Danger to justify World War II. Yet it is also not seriously contested that America manipulated Japan into launching the attack on Pearl Harbour so that America would have the legitimate excuse it needed to join the War. Nor is it seriously contested that the economic conditions which led inexorably to Hitler's demand for "Lebensraum" were primarily the consequence of appalling political and economic mismanagement of the waning British Empire.

It always takes two to tango, of course, but a fair portion of the "blame" for that war can be squarely laid on both American and Britain for producing the conditions which led to it, but, nevertheless, having produced the mess, they had no choice but to clean it up - much as we are seeing in Iraq today.

The interesting question is whether we would or should have gone to War against Hitler had he not invaded Poland but still continued with his plans to eliminate the Jews. That directly touches on the final part of your own question. I have argued that we should have, but I doubt that we would have. At that time in history the notion of invading a country on behalf of its oppressed minorities had never even been seriously contemplated. They needed the more concrete excuse which invasion of a third party "ally" provided. American needed the excuse of a direct attack.

Things have moved on considerably since then, to the extent that the international community is deeply ashamed of its failure to intervene in Rwanda in the mid 90s and realised that it had intervened too late to prevent massive suffering in the first Balkan war. It was thus able to tolerate, if not quite support, the demolition of the repressive Serbian regime in Kosovo and put an end to Milosevic's petty tyrrany before it got too big to deal with. These campaigns, together with the residual good will left over from 9-11 led the Americans to believe they could invade Iraq under the umbrella of pretending to be a liberation force. The leading neocons actually convinced themselves that their forces would be welcomed with open arms on the streets of Baghdad.

The upside of that is that the Americans have got a bloody nose in the process and learned a very very expensive lesson ($300 Billion and rising) which makes it much less likely that they'll indulge in further military empire building for a very long time.

The downside is that there still are regimes we probably ought to depose (North Korea and Zimbabwe for instance) for the real benefit of their people and with the world's remaining superpower licking its wounds, that is now even less likely to happen than it would have been 60 years ago.

Having said that, perhaps it opens the door to the strategy I have always favoured in preference to War - viz selective assassination. I've been saying it for years and said it again here just a few weeks before they invaded Iraq. Our real quarrel was with the leadership, which numbered about 1,000. Those were the only ones we had any kind of dispute with and, rather than kill another couple of hundred thousand innocent civilians or military conscripts, we could have used our superior technology to pick off those targets.

I can't say I'm a fan of "Assassination Politics" because I don't believe there is any dispute which cannot be resolved by intelligent negotiation. But given that there often isn't much intelligence at the negotiating table, and physical violence will, therefore, often be inevitable, it seems to me infinitely preferable to kill just the leaders who are unable to resolve their disputes, rather than their citizens who have no real voice or interest in those disputes.

Naturally, Assassination is not a popular policy with the elected and unelected dictators who lead us - from well behind the front line - into battle; not even when it is the obvious way to dispose of their sworn enemies. It seems that they're just about intelligent enough to recognise that what's sauce for the goose might become sauce for the gander...


mscmike said...


I was directed towards your "Conversation with God" a while back, but hadn't yet read your blog. Now I'm going back and reading some of your posts, and I'm impressed.

On this one, I'm curious about one thing. I agree with your position that true democracy is rare, and only described (in short) by the d,d,b,d answers. I also agree that what we have is more like b,b,a,b.

What I wonder, however, is whether human nature allows anything else to be possible. To quote an intelligent line from a movie, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

The number of political issues, or at least issues which has been politicized, is as complicated as a DNA strand. At its simplest, you're either for or against abortion, for or against the death penalty, for or against war, for or against gay marriage, whatever. There's gray areas in each, but that's the basic state of things. And then our two-party system boils it down to "You're either male or female, and then there's the hermaphrodites, but we'll ignore them".

So, how could you get all of these people to agree on small issues to the point of a near consensus? I think the bureaucracy would slow things down to a crawl. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but it does sound dangerous. Even on large issues, what do you do when a country is deeply divided on an issue? The rule of reason should allow a discussion that allows one side to attempt to convince the other, and vice versa, but there are plenty of opportunities for failure there.

And then there's the idea that people are not able to make these decisions for themselves, for reasons of education, knowledge, or just plain being too busy. How do you keep people from having incorrect opinions because they have bad information? I mean, if the world is flat, it doesn't make any sense to keep going west until you fall off - you'll waste good money on ships and manpower. If there are WMD's in Iraq, of course we should go in there and remove a dangerous dictator in control of them, and put somebody better in their place. wait.... isn't that how Saddam got into power in the first place? With your example of whether we would have gone to war against Hitler if he hadn't invaded Poland, did we know about the Jewish concentration camps? Did the people of the U.S. know? For that matter, did the people of Germany know? And if we didn't know about the Jews, and Hitler didn't invade Poland, we probably wouldn't have had anyone to defend.

All of those thoughts leave me scared of a "true democracy", even though I am totally for the freedom that a true democracy should, in theory, provide.

Anyway, food for thought.

Harry Stottle said...

er... (Nov 2007) I seem to have lost a comment. Sure I replied to this at the time. Any one find's it - let me know. In the meantime, I'll prepare a replacement...