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Have We Seen the End of Major Armed Conflicts?

January 3, 2012

During my radio interview today on Jon Justice’s show, Jon asked an interesting question. “Are we in a place in history right now,” he said, “where we won’t see a conflict on a massive scale because of how developed the nations are? Any type of major event would bring so many factions into it that we almost couldn’t get out. I just can’t envision us getting into another World War-type scenario.”

It was an interesting question — and a fair one that will certainly be asked again in an era of declining defense budgets — but I had to answer with a rather emphatic no. For a bit of historical perspective, about 100 years ago prominent European liberals thought that war had become increasingly unlikely because the intertwining of European economies made warfare prohibitively expensive. This argument was made most prominently by eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Angell in his 1910 book The Great Illusion. The First World War, of course, disproved this rather optimistic assessment of the future of armed conflict. But in another way, Angell was right: World War I was prohibitively expensive, a war in which it can be said that there were no real victors.

Today, we can rather confidently predict that another major conflict would be incredibly costly to whomever takes part. Certainly the U.S. will be quite reticent to commit its forces to another major conflict anytime soon, given the astronomical costs of the Iraq war, and the massive debts that the country has occurred. I think this reticence is justified: that is one reason that I opposed from the very outset the U.S. military intervention in Libya (a foreign policy decision that increasingly appears to have had significant negative unintended consequences). But one resounding lesson of the past hundred years is that unpredictable things will happen when it comes to armed conflict.

Most recently, very few strategic thinkers envisioned an event like 9/11 in advance; and indeed, these attacks heralded the rise of violent non-state actors as a strategic challenge, even to the world’s most powerful country. As I have argued, violent non-state actors are likely to pose an increasing rather than diminishing challenge over the course of the coming decade. And the fact that violent non-state actors are a significant force provides an answer to Norman Angell’s basic argument, as it might be applied today: though major conflicts are likely to be terrible for nation-states economically, non-state actors’ interests are not tied to those of the countries in which they find themselves. They won’t be deterred by the same strategic factors that might deter nation-states. As I argued in my latest book, the economic costs of conflict can in fact work to violent non-state actors’ benefit: one of al Qaeda’s key strategic goals over the past decade was to grind the U.S. down economically, and the jihadi group was quite successful in doing so.

Moreover, even outside the sphere of non-state actors, history rarely proceeds in predictable patterns. Multiple developments could suddenly usher in large-scale armed conflict: tensions fueled by resource scarcity, the escalation of civil wars or non-state violence into full-blown state-to-state fighting, a surprise attack on the global supply of oil, the rise of expansionist ideological parties in any number of vital countries, even a miscalculated nuclear launch in South Asia or elsewhere.

The unpredictability of armed conflict is one reason that, when it comes to current debates about counter-insurgency, I’m skeptical of the idea that the singular lesson of our recent experience is that we should never again put ourselves in a position where we are fighting against an insurgency. Surely, the position that we should be extremely hesitant to do so is reasonable, worthy of discussion; so too is the position that our current military posture is not worth its costs. But, at the end of the day, is never getting involved in another counter-insurgency situation our choice alone? Or not getting involved in another large-scale armed conflict?

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10 Comments
  1. January 3, 2012 3:30 pm

    I usually find questions starting with “never again” to be mostly futile for reasons explained in your post, but Jon’s question does initiate a useful exercise in comparing the present to the past. For example, your Angell reference is spot on.

    I don’t expect academics and analysts to popularize the “never again” argument with respect to Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. What historical analogues better match-up with the present? Are there periods during the British Empire or maybe during the U.S. expansion in the Pacific that better fit? The commercial pushes for empire were substantially different in those two examples and I’m struggling to find a good comp.

    I’m most interested in what lessons we can draw from the past so we can focus our conversations towards the most likely scenarios for conflict in an effort to better prepare for them. Thanks Daveed. Great as always.

  2. January 4, 2012 12:17 am

    ” World War I was prohibitively expensive, a war in which it can be said that there were no real victors….”

    I would hasten to point out that Vladimir Lenin and his associates made out rather well.

  3. January 4, 2012 6:00 pm

    Major wars might not be over, but I the U.S. won’t win any of them. Mass conscription in the U.S. is a thing of the past. Large segments of the population have been indoctrinated in anti-Americanism and hedonism. If you think we’re going to draft either illiterate minorities from urban ghettos or rich suburban college kids, you’re nuts. A large, permanent, anti-war faction exists.The Sixties culture has triumphed. The population is aging. We’re $15 trillion in debt. If the U.S. engages in another major war it is finished, even if it is a tactical victor. War is still a viable option for the Chinese, who have a surplus of young men and a 2 million man army.

    If the population of this country did not rally to war after 9/11 as it did after Pearl Harbor, nothing will ever rally it to war again.

  4. Aeolus permalink
    January 4, 2012 6:55 pm

    I’ve often state that–like other specialties such as accounting–history is best left to historians. Most people do not know how to use it and find simple, thoroughly unhelpful correlations.

    Let’s start with “x” and his contention that the US will never win another major war. This person’s history starts with Pearl Harbor, then goes to the 60s, and finally 9/11. All defining moments of American 20th century/early 21st century history. Mr. X, first there was a rallying after 9/11. In fact, the US military saw more enlistments in the months that followed than any time prior to World War 2. The Army and Marine Corps increased to their highest levels since World War 2. There were also more DEPLOYING soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen since World War 2. That’s right. Our military, at the height of the conflicts, was at its largest since World War 2 and saw the most amount of deploying personnel since World War 2. Bigger than Korea. Bigger than Vietnam. They did this without a draft. This part of your absurd contention falls.

    Again, with Mr. X, the 1960s are important because it is the triumph of the anti-American, draft dodging mindset. The draft dodging of the 1960s was a big acid party. And the 1960s are not the first time the draft was dodged. There was quiet a problem with draft dodging during World War 2; however, let’s go farther back to the Civil War and the draft riots of the 1860s. If you’re going to have a proper draft riot, these (not the impotent 1960s) need to be your paradigm. Unfortunately for Mr. X’s argument, the United States actually managed to win this war, despite staggering battlefield losses, political turmoil, and a populace that did not want the war, did not want to fight the war, and dodged drafts in the most creative of ways. But this is the 1860s I hear you cry. True, this is the time when states could secede from pure disgust with the government if they wanted. This anti-American draft dodging could have truly disintegrated the United States–if such an attitude were as dangerous as Mr. X contends–and yet it did not. Should we talk about the World War 1 draft? I think Mr. X’s argument has been dismantled thoroughly enough that any conscientious reader will be hard pressed to take anything more he might say seriously.

    Now, in response to the larger question, for the love of God can we stop looking at one hundred years of American history to try and answer every historical question? The ends of war have been proclaimed throughout history–and where does this idea come from that NOW, major wars are too expensive. The absolute grandiosity of the implied sentiment that WE are more enlightened than our predecessors in antiquity–the men who sailed from Phoecia to Britain by stars, the men who performed abstract mathematical calculations from shadows and holes, the men who built legal systems and culture than we mimic today; the absolute small-mindedness is astounding. Your civilized ass sits on nothing you built. The powers of antiquity are not so far removed. Major conflicts hurt all of them–and the majority of conflicts in world history have never had a “winner”. And yet still they happen. This is what I speak of–this pathetic small-mindedness that just NOW we have reached the point of no winners, which implies that in antiquity there were definite winners because they were simple conflicts for simple people. This fallacy corrupts the entire line of thought and invalidates it.

    People look back through history to find similar events and say, “Aha!” and they have no larger context in which to put the event. Major fallacy correction #1 and write this down. History DOES NOT repeat itself. Just like you can never step in the same river twice. Germany fights France and England again, so what? The circumstances are totally different. Hitler tries to recreate the Schliefen, which worked beautifully in WW1 and would have been astoundingly successful if it had been followed accurately. They do the same plan over the same terrain against the same defenses–it DOES NOT work. Vegetius once said, and it holds true today: “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.”

  5. January 4, 2012 11:16 pm

    Well. Where to begin??? Yes, there were SOME who rallied and deployed after 9/11. There are about 1 million Iraq vets. That’s 1/309th of our population. To put this in proper historical perspective as you desire, in WWII we drafted 12 million out of a population of 140 million. BIG difference.

    Of course there was draft-dodging in the past. I never said there wasn’t. What I AM saying is that the countercultural Left since the Sixties has had a lock on the educational establishment and has indoctrinated legions of students in anti-Americanism. Leftists, blacks, Latinos, feminists and other assorted “minority” groups will not rally the the United States. They have been indoctrinated with the ideas that the U.S. is nothing but a genocidal nation no different from Nazi Germany that perpetuated a great Rape of Mother Gaia. In fact, this is pretty much what our cultural elites including Mr. Hussein Obama believe.

    History does not repeat itself, but certain patterns of human behavior do. The theory of “imperial overstretch” argues this. The future of the U.S. looks to me like the future of Britain in 1945: war-weary, in debt, self-doubtful, its best days behind it, headed for withdrawal from global hegemony and toward welfare socialism at home.

    Oh — and finally — you totally misunderstand the Schlieffen Plan. In fact, it was a total failure in WW I, resulting in Germany’s defeat, but it worked quite well for Hitler in 1940. He ultimately failed on the Eastern Front, not the Western — actually the converse of what happened in 1918.

  6. Aeolus permalink
    January 5, 2012 1:37 am

    Allow me to respond. You cannot expect a major portion of the American population to enlist into what is a war against non-state actors. Nonetheless, the United States till posted, and sustained, the highest enlistments they had since World War 2. When looking at percentage of people enlisted (or drafted) during the war, it is a bit of a fallacy. During World War 2 all branches took men from 17 up to 40. If you look today, the age ability has much narrower. The Army–by far the widest gap is between 17-35. The other branches have maximum age limits of 27 or 28. Medical and criminal background parameters must also be looked at–as both the medical and criminal backgrounds are much, much stricter than World War 2. In fact, of the total military age population in the United States, less than a quarter can pass the weight, medical, and criminal screenings. That means that for every one person in the military more than four are discarded. And STILL the military increased to its largest size since World War 2 (these stricter parameters were put into place in the 1980s in order to limit the size of the military). So, one would wonder what the total number of people attempting to enlist in the post 9/11 era is–certainly higher than the 1 million veterans. Again, your contention of large amounts of people not flocking to the cause is unsubstantiated.

    I understand your argument about the Sixties and their indoctrination; however, what I am saying is that throughout history people have had far worse views of America. This picture of the evil, genocidal empire is not new. There was a wave of disgust and disillusion throughout the United States during and after the Mexican-American War to the point of open rebellion in the army. These men switched sides en masse to fight with the Mexicans. The minorities (especially feminism) led the charge against the United States government during the run-up to and declaration of war in 1917. The government was deemed and hated as imperial during the Polar Bear expedition and assistance for the White Army in Russia during 1917. A legitimate communist and progressive movement made the Occupy movement–and certainly the hippies of the 1960s look like child’s play as they wanted to overthrow the government. After the Civil War, and entire half of the country was brutalized, beaten, and seething with resentment. Minorities and parts of society angry with the government refused to come to the country’s aid during the War of 1812, and then made one of the great stands of our history at Baltimore, giving rise to our National Anthem. The point is, the factionalism we face today is so G-rated compared to what our predecessors faced that it’s not even funny.

    As far as debt goes, the United States did not recover from the war debt incurred during the Revolution until the 1800s, and was then involved in having to build a navy to fight an undeclared war with France (more debt), and then had the War of 1812–which the United States actually defaulted on. Needless to say, they did not have a AAA rating and faced much more debt problems than we today and were faced with even larger threats. However, they found ways to get around it, to get over it, to get through it. Any of these scenarios fit what you want to to call post-war Britain. The revolution, 1812, 1848–a war weary country that could have easily floundered and decayed. This is my point. People find some example similar to our times and suddenly that becomes our course, when any number of examples exist to show the opposite. For what it’s worth, the American people, historically, are ALWAYS self-loathing. During World War 2–after the Battle of Tarawa especially–the American people wanted out. There was a substantial anti-war effort complete with “The Marine Corps killed my son” movement by mothers (sounds familiar?) Nobody could figure out why we were fighting in Europe when Japan had attacked us (sounds familiar?) Most Americans wanted a negotiated peace with Japan and by 1945 we were stone cold broke. We couldn’t actually afford to prosecute the war anymore. But they found a way. I don’t understand why everyone is so ready to roll over and die just because they find ONE historical situation that looks like theirs.

    History is best left to the historians.

    Incidentally: The Schlieffen plan worked brilliantly up until the German High Command stopped following (The ceased extending the flanking attack to envelop the French army, moving the bulk of the army, instead to face the French army head-on. Thus, the enveloping army of the Plan–which was to have been the real power, surprising the French army and flanking and enveloping them–was reduced to little more than an annoyance.)

    “Deployment Instructions No.1” borrowed from the Schlieffen Plan; however, it too put too much emphasis on the frontal attack. Thus, the plan was altered by Hitler and luckily the French were too busy being French (i.e. in the First War they used taxis to rush their soldiers to the front and stop the German frontal attack. In the Second War they adopted your tactic and rolled over). However, significant resistance was met in Belgium unlike the First War. Too bad for them, France had already given up.

  7. igor permalink
    January 6, 2012 12:28 am

    Everyone knows that after country has lost war and is occupied, the insurgency will continue for years to come against the occupiers, even if it is suicidal and almost futile.
    Civilized countries will still try to pacify civilians in the area and make them cooperate with the occupier army. But it is still costly warfare.

    Because this is known, i fear that next global war will bring mass murdering and ethnical cleansing in a scale that has not been seen before in any war, ever.

    Its way easy to control area if you can just shoot to kill anything that moves and not try to talk to them first. I know civilized, human countries will not do such horrible thing…but there are countries that could…not naming any but you all know…

  8. Nicholas Marsh permalink
    January 24, 2012 7:13 am

    I’m a bit late to this but…

    One factor that you only mentioned in passing in your post is nuclear weapons. If we take the the sentence in the first paragraph as being a major war involving mobilisation of all armed forces between two or more of the largest economic and military powers then the candidates are roughly – the USA, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Brazil, Italy, India, Canada, Russia.

    Six of those states have nuclear weapons. Moreover, if we exclude implausible wars (the UK isn’t going to attack France, Italy, Germany or the USA) and war between states with no bordering territory or interests (Brazil isn’t going to invade an Asian power and vice versa) and assume that NATO would remain (either as a formal alliance or as a bloc of democratic free market countries) then we are looking at the following plausible wars:

    India -v- China
    China -v- Japan
    China -v- Japan and the USA (and possibly NATO)
    China -v- the USA
    Russia -v- China
    Russia -v- the USA and NATO
    Russia -v- Japan (plus various combinations of China on either side)
    Russia -v- Japan and the USA (plus NATO)

    The list goes on with various permutations but you get the picture.

    In almost every plausible eventuality we have nuclear armed states fighting each other. Sure you could think about a war between non-nuclear great powers – Japan versus Brazil? – but is that really likely?

    Now we can forget about the costs argument touted by Agnell. If, say, Russia and NATO were to be involved in a full scale nuclear exchange then we’d be looking at not just the destruction of all the major cities in Western Europe, Russia and North America. The same applies to a nuclear exchange between India and China. But mass extinction in the rest of the world due to the effects of a nuclear winter and fallout.

    The risk of that happening is what prevented major war (border skirmishes and proxy wars excluded) between NATO, the Warsaw Pact and China during the Cold War. I would argue that the costs of nuclear war will still prevent such an all out war between the world’s largest powers long into the future.

    So we may well see proxy wars in which the powers don’t directly fight each other, and border skirmishes that aren’t allowed to escalate (such as occurred between the Soviet Union and China or between India and Pakistan). But an all out total war between the major powers of the day – I doubt it. If it turns nuclear the costs are incalculable and the benefits non-existent.

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