Friday, 26 October 2007

Unbounded folly

I have been reading a book by an American academic, John G. Stoessinger, Why Nations Go to War [5th edition, 1990]. He wrote it, he says, because he became increasingly convinced that the usual explanations [or excuses] for wars – nationalism, militarism, alliance systems, economic factors – were all bloodless abstractions which left out of account the human element: the personalities who unleash wars. “Who are these people that are dragging us to the abyss? What can we do to stop them? If we cannot stop them, can we limit the damage they are able to inflict?” Because war is not, as is commonly asserted, an ineradicable part of human nature, but a sickness that can be cured.

Each chapter is a case study of a 20th century war: World War I, Hitler’s attack on Russia, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the wars between India and Pakistan, the Israeli-Arab wars, and the Iraq-Iran war. Each of these wars started because of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and miscalculations by those who had the power to unleash or restrain the conflict. Unlike the 19th century, when the post-Napoleonic European wars had mostly been won by the aggressors, none of these 20th century wars were won by their initiators, who experienced defeat or, at best, stalemate. This, however, was a lesson which has still not been learned in the new wars of the 21st century.

What is glaringly obvious from these pages is the incredible degree of ignorance about adversaries, and the blithe conviction of ultimate victory, which impelled so many disastrous decisions. In the case of the Korean war, the Americans were completely disinformed about the real nature and strength of Communist China, and clung to their illusions that the longstanding friendship which they believed had existed between the American and Chinese peoples would prevent hostilities between the two countries. This ignored the basically paternalistic and patronising nature of American ‘friendship’ for Asian peoples, who have never been the willing recipients of American economic and cultural imperialism. The hubris of the iconic General MacArthur in driving on to the Chinese border at the Yalu River stemmed from his total ignorance of Chinese intentions and their real strength, and ended disastrously for the Americans.

Likewise, America’s deepening entanglement in the unwinnable quagmire of Vietnam was the outcome of the complete unawareness of successive American presidents of the real nature of the enemy, and of the terrain in which they had to fight. There was also a stubborn belief that Communism – that obsessive American bugaboo of the 1950s and beyond – was still, after Stalin’s death, a monolithic world conspiracy masterminded from Moscow rather than – as was in fact the case – an increasingly disparate localised phenomenon. Consequently, all conflicts in which America became engaged were wrongly perceived as limbs of the Cold War which America was nobly fighting on behalf of the ‘free world’. But the actual facts, says the author, were strikingly different from Truman’s, Eisenhower’s and Dulles’ perceptions. Lyndon Johnson, “totally ignorant of Asia in general and of Vietnam in particular”, precipitated disaster by upping the ante and pouring more troops and air power into an already unwinnable scenario – just as G.W. Bush is doing today in Iraq. And – also like Bush – Johnson, confronted by the power of the weak, was ultimately at a loss what to do except to escalate when he should have cut his losses. As Nietzsche said, “If you look too deeply into the abyss, the abyss will look into you”.

In his concluding chapter, Dr Stoessinger draws these conclusions:

No nation that began a major war in the 20th century emerged a winner.

In our time, unless the vanquished is destroyed completely, a victor’s peace is seldom lasting.

The personalities of leaders are crucially important in the outbreak of wars.

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 intentions towards 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. Doubt about the outcome is the voice of the enemy and therefore inconceivable.

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

A leader’s misperception of his adversary’s power is perhaps the quintessential cause of war.

Wise words which we would do well to heed as the Washington hawks drum up support for yet another Middle Eastern adventure while they still have an unfinished mess there on their hands.


Jose said...

Wars may not be won physically, but some interested parties do earn lots of money out of wars at the cost of innocent, naive blood of soldiers and colaterals who believe wars have an altruistic character, when it is true wars are fought for the benefit of capitalists who impel them.

So the same people always win any war. If you have any doubts ask Halliburton, Blackwater, the oilers in general and above all the banking system.

anticant said...

But Jose, it's the 'American Dream'. Little Mrs Halliburton pawned her wedding ring to give her hubby's backyard business a kick-start. Now they've moved their corporate headquarters to Dubai, the new fleshpots Mecca for global buccaneers. So it WORKS!

anticant said...

A quote from Stoessinger on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam:

“The record of the Johnson presidency in Vietnam is a story of self-delusion and misperception so vast that it turned into a national catastrophe. Despite relentless bombing raids on both North and South Vietnam and the introduction of more than half a million American troops, the enemy was not defeated. Instead, Johnson’s ego, stubbornness, and pride destroyed his presidency and divided his people in a spiritual civil war.

“At no single point when he made his decisions to escalate the bombing or the ground commitment did Johnson realize that he had crossed the Rubicon and unleashed a major American land war in Asia. He always hoped that a little more bombing or a few more troops would bring the enemy to the conference table. In doing this, he misperceived his enemy, misled his people, and ultimately deceived himself.”

Substitute ‘Bush’ for ‘Johnson’, ‘Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran’ for ‘Vietnam, and ‘the Middle East’ for Asia, and re-read.

When will they ever learn?

Jose said...

Perhaps when the word "greed" is erased from our vocabulary, Anticant. That motivation is too strong for them to resist.

You and me have lived too long to not know what that means and how it can move mountains. It used to be said of FAITH.

How hypocritical!

anticant said...

I don't think it was greed that drew the Americans into Vietnam, Jose. It was their near-paranoid fear of Communism, and their conviction that the Cold War had to be fought and won on a global basis. Also their invincible ignorance of other countries, which led them to totally misconstrue the real nature of the anti-colonial movement there. Stoessinger explains this very clearly in his book.

Jose said...

What I have read about post-war Korean South tells me that this side of Asia became after the war an excellent market for multinationals. I think that was the real aim behind the Vietnam War. As you know South Korea is an economically energetic country, unlike its northern neighbour.

Taiwan also has splendid figures in trade, and my idea about that failed Vietnam war was the economic control of a major part of Asia, which had been ignored for a long time.

Philipines was the kick-off in the Eastern adventure.

Neutralising the Chinese monster I'd say.

anticant said...

Well, Jose, you know the old British saying "trade follows the flag". But I think it is much too simplistic to say that economics are the SOLE underlying motive for wars. That strikes me as tired old Marxist clap-trap.

The reasons things happen are always multi-faceted and complex. There may well be powerful people with ulterior motives pulling hidden strings, but those numerous others who genuinely believe they are defending freedom, or fighting for their religion, are by no means always dupes.

I am surprised that someone as intelligent as Michael can maintain that religion has "nothing" to do with the Middle East conflict, and that it is "all" about oil. Even if oil IS the main motive for American actions, bigoted Protestant beliefs and long-held US delusions about "spreading democracy" add fuel to the flames.

Where I think you, Richard, and Michael go wrong is in your seeming belief that EVERYTHING that happens is manipulated by sinister hidden forces, and that religious and political ideas play no significant part. You speak as if these hidden forces are a humanised version of God. This strikes me as credulous.

I don't agree that the bulk of humanity are such helpless witless puppets as you maintain. We should sometimes take what people say at face value, even if we think they are deceiving themselves.

Jose said...

That religion has accompanied materialism in many wars, most wars in the past, is something that I have no doubt about. I have never seen, though, that religion has undertaken any war if there was not something attractive for money earners to participate, too. The converse case - that is initiatives impelled by the latter - has been happening in all our contemporary wars, but without the accompaniment of religion except when it is considered by leaders to be a useful symbolical persuasive argument to attract public prticipation. I mean, of course, the western side of the wars. Because religion is being undoubtedly used on the eastern side. I mean the Middle East.

Communism in Asia - and everywhere else for that matter - was looked upon by the West as a way to lose large market quotas. Hence the Korea and Vietnam wars. And to my knowledge there does not appear to be a religious connection in those cases on the eastern side.

My background permits me reach these conclusions which may appear simplistic but which if examined carefully with he necessary experience could lead to the same end as I have come to.

The influence of faith is so embedded in multitude of people, that the mere mention that aliens could be trying to destroy it, turns them into incontrollable bigots. That's the human foreseeable reaction of which psychology could give many examples.

But I insist the most important principle for a war to be fought is economic. Not religious.

anticant said...

Economic determinism is just another pseudo-religious 'closed system' of thinking, like Marxism, Freudianism, and all the other 'single cause' explanations of phenomena. As Popper has pointed out, the fact that they cannot be disproved makes them untestable - just like any religion.

With respect, Jose, I don't think it makes any sense to discount religion and ideology as motivating factors in wars in the dismissive manner that you do.

Michael said...

QUOTE "Where I think you, Richard, and Michael go wrong is in your seeming belief that EVERYTHING that happens is manipulated by sinister hidden forces, and that religious and political ideas play no significant part."

Well I'm not going to speak for Richard, but I've never suggested at any time that there are "sinister hidden forces" causing things to happen. Clearly there are forces involved but suggesting they are "hidden" merely indicates ignorance on your part. Indeed it's you Anticant that suggests religion plays a significant part in the problems which are evident today. My views are that it's straight forward economics which have caused the illegal invasion of Iraq and the occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan and will be behind the forthcoming attack on Iran.
So Anticant, please try and bring a little honesty into your comments as it will go a long way in salvaging your credibility.

anticant said...

MICHAEL - I don't mind being called ignorant or mistaken, but 'dishonest' is another kettle of fish.

If you think my comments aren't honestly held views formed after considerable thought and wide reading, and that my credibility needs 'salvaging', please don't post here again. And kindly remove my registration from your site.

I leave my other readers to judge who is the most credible - and least arrogant - of the two of us. Goodbye.

Michael said...

QUOTE "Where I think you, Richard, and Michael go wrong is in your seeming belief that EVERYTHING that happens is manipulated by sinister hidden forces."

If you can give me just one example, on this forum or any other, where I've indicated a belief that everything which happens is manipulated by sinister hidden forces I will apologise to you. Otherwise I suggest you apologise to me.
Good riddance

Jose said...

Well, Anticant, what I perceive from your comments is that you do not have the slightest idea how the system works. I am sorry to be so blunt but you have left me no other option after your post addressed to me. That I remember in not one of all my comments on the world's economy, not only here but everywhere else, have I mentioned that any conspiracy has been going on to set up determined steps for a dominance. Not at all. What I have always said is that it is the system, the financial system. If I have written something that may have led you to think differently, please believe that that has not being my intention.

I am going to tell you a little story that has happened in my island.

A building company, I believe the most important here, employed some immigrants that had arrived here illegally from the sub-Sahara zones of Africa. He made for them to learn how houses were built and he paid them the minimum salary those tycoons use to pay the poor, ignorant immigrants. Once they had learnt enough, he sent someone he trusted with them back to their country of origin and there he set up an organisation to build houses in that country, appointing the immigrants to the most important posts in that company, mind you with the same salaries they were perceiving in Tenerife. Those salaries made them rich in their land.

This guy here thought correctly that the possibilities to continue his building business here were about to come to an end, given that land availability was no longer so accessible, and decided to expand his activities out of our frontiers.

The same thing, Anticant, happens with any commercial or industrial activity all over the world.

Every year large corporations set their targets for the following year, targets which normally increase the percentages of activities and profits, and their Chief Executie Officers must see to it that those targets be achieved by any means at their reach if they want to keep their posts. It is so simple as that, believe me. It is not conspiracies or malign characters behind those decisions, it is simply that businesses of any kind try by all means to keep growing at any cost, even if that may mean the declaration of wars on any country which may seem reluctant to let them go their way.

Marketing theories, if you have a look at them, may confirm that what I am telling you here are the reality of the facts.

You may also know how big shipping companies have ships in operation that do not show the flag of their country but a flag of convenience belonging to a country where taxes are lower, where the salaries of the crews are not under the control of western unions and where the accounts are not audited by the chartered accountants under the employment of "civilised" governments.

And there are many more aspects which obviously I have neither time nor space here to detail.

I am not a dreamer, my age is not that of an adolescent who has not had the time to see how matters work in this world nor has been inside this so-called world of finances.

And yes you are too adamant in your conclusions, perhaps you should carefully choose your words regarding the opinions of others in a way that they do not feel offended. There are many questions that books do not teach, experiencing them may have taught you more.

anticant said...

As I "do not have the slightest idea how the system works", Jose, I really don't know why you bother condescending to talk to such an ignoramus.

I do happen to know about the profit motive, and the unscrupulous and immoral lengths some powerful people go in its pursuit. I have recently mentioned a book, "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man", which leaves no doubts about it.

But that is an entirely different matter from the belief, which you, Richard and Michael all apparently share, that economic motivations are the ONLY significant factor in the unfolding world situation.

That strikes me as a mistaken and blinkered view.

I really do get utterly bored and weary with all the tunnel-vision stuff which otherwise intelligent people come up with.

That is why I've decided not to post any more on Richard's Forum.

No personal ill-will or hard feelings involved - although I would prefer not to be repeatedly called a liar by Michael and have asked him not to post here any more.

Jose said...

I don't think you are an ignoramus, Anticant, far from it, but I have seen that you talk from "what you have read", without any direct experience.

I have also read the book you mention, which in my opinion its author has written to earn money and I don't think he has said the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth of what he has been a witness to.

anticant said...

Really, Jose, please don't try to tell me that you only speak from direct experience, and learn nothing from reading.

And what do you know about my experience of life? Precious little. But mine has been at least as extensive as yours, and probably more varied.

Unfortunately, as you well know, I am no longer physically capable of direct experience, and must perforce glean my knowlege of the contemporary world from what I read, see and hear.

I do wish you wouldn't be quite so de haut en bas; your lofty pose as the Sage of the Canary Islands is more than a little obnoxious.

Excuse my frankness.

Jose said...

You are excused, Anticant. I don't think I have anything else to add after reading this post. Except that I am sure your experience has been more extensive and varied than mine, but... as far as I can gather from what you have written your experience in the field of economy does not appear to be extensive. And I abstain from adding anything else because I don't want to offend you, something you seem to forget often as though you had a free charter.

Enough is enough.

Farewell, I wish you all the best.