Monday, May 16, 2011

Is Victory worth the Price?

The True Costs of War. By Ian Bickerton. 
Melbourne University Press.241pp. 

Reviewed 14 May 2011

Our era of unresolved conflicts, between state and non-state antagonists with ill-defined or unstated goals, seems ripe for a review of the idea of victory.

Ian Bickerton is a senior historian at the University of New South Wales who has specialized in the study of US foreign policy and of conflict in the Middle East. He takes a dim view of war in general, and in this book, he tackles the problem of war backwards - rather than questioning the causes, he questions the results. The book hangs on his proposition that, in war, victory is an illusion, and in our current era has lost all meaning.

It's a fine topic for a vigorous debate, but first you have to define “victory”. Bickerton doesn't offer a concise definition, but he refers to “strategic victory” as imparting the ability to impose peace and stability, including within the politics of the defeated nations. That sets the bar quite high. My Oxford Dictionary defines victory more simply, at two levels: “the position or state of having overcome an enemy or adversary in battle, combat or war”; then “supremacy or superiority achieved as the result of armed conflict”. Bickerton's case is that victory of the first kind (overcoming an enemy in combat) does not guarantee any lasting strategic supremacy, superiority, or even peace for the nominal victors.

His analytical method is systematic but blunt. He takes a series of wars that involved Europe and/or America, from the Napoleonic to the "War on Terror", and lists what the “winners” demanded as their terms of victory.  He then checks the situation after twenty-five years. By his reckoning, almost never have the terms of victory turned out as the victors intended. In most cases, the “losers” have done at least as well as the winners. German and Japanese post-war industrial reconstruction are the classic examples.

On the other side of the ledger, he collates the vast human and material costs of war, which are as likely to have crippled generations of the winning side as of the losing side.

The horrors and costs of war have been recognized from the beginning of human history, but wars keep happening.  So is the idea of Victory really worth attacking in this day and age, or is it something of a straw man? Expectations of victory not be fulfilled, but does that prove that no war should never be fought?

The historical method ignores the counter-factual - what would have happened if there were no response, and no threat of response, to the temptation for a strong or angry party to use aggressive force? Bickerton quotes Ambrose Bierce that “peace is a period of cheating between two periods of fighting”, but his best alternative to war is “consideration of more creative political approaches to resolving differences between states, and between states and non-state groups”.

The human propensity for war seems intransigent, but not entirely beyond moderation.  Modern weaponry has vastly increased the rate of civilian casualties as "collateral damage" to combat - Bickerton says 90% of casualties in the Iraq conflict have been civilian. But the threat of mutually assured destruction, together with the greater accountability of governments to the governed, provides increasing restraint on the resort to warfare. On average, more democracy should mean less war.

So how is aggression is to be resisted or even discouraged?  Bickerton quotes Sun Tzu on the tactic of “defeating the enemy's strategy” by offering to meet the enemy's objectives by peaceful, mainly economic, inducements. He does not quote another part of Sun Tzu's Art of War, that the greatest general is he who wins the war without having to fight a battle - by isolating, encircling, bribing and intimidating a weakened adversary.

This is an interesting polemic that deserves to provoke debate.

Read the full review

Richard Thwaites has reported on wars and politics, and participated in policy wars, but has so far avoided personal engagement in mortal combat.