War as the Continuation of Politics by Inefficient Means

Responding to a recent post, my fellow blogger Creating Reciprocity commented on the idea of ‘premeditated war’, which I liked because of the verbal association with ‘premeditated murder’, which it often is. But then even setting aside morality, I thought war is not even an efficient means to achieve ends, to meet countries’ interests. Carl Von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously said that ‘war was the continuation of politics by other means‘, so I thought I would take a look at the major wars of the 20th century, who started them (though the causes were probably more complex and balanced, the decision to initiate war was on one side) and whether they ‘won’ aka achieved their goals:

  • World War 1 (1914-1918) was started by Germany and Austro-Hungary for reasons that still elude me, but in any event they lost comprehensively, and the peace settlement imposed on them by the victors at Versailles in 1919 was so awful, that the resulting German resentment (partly based on its war time delusions and propoganda that it was winning) eventually led to World War 2. (Though to be fair the Versailles Settlement was less harsh than the Germans imposed on France in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and far less harsh than the terms the Germans planned to impose had they won World War 1 as evidenced in their archives post-war.) Cost: 15 million dead
  • The Chaco War (1932-5) between Bolivia and Paraguay was started by Bolivia who lost and as a result lost the Gran Chaco area. Cost 100,000 dead so not a major war, but illustrative of the principle.
  • World War 2 (1931-45 including Japan-China war that started in 1931) was started by Germany and Japan, with Italy joining in, for reasons of resentment over the outcome of World War 1 and for reasons of territorial expansion. Comprehensively lost by Germany, Italy and Japan. The excellent book The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze by sets out very well the economic strength of the two sides in this war and shows how impossible it was for Germany and Japan to win right from the get go. They simply were not economically strong enough. Yamato the architect of Pearl Harbor had visited the US before the war and knew the inevitability of defeat and opposed the war with the US until he was ordered to launch it. Cost 60 million dead.
  • Korean War (1950-3) started by North Korea invading South Korea and involving the US and a host of Western nations and China. Costly stalemate that resulted in 3 million deaths mainly of Korean civilians
  • Israel-Egypt-Syria-Jordan Seven Day War (1967) was started by a pre-emptive Israeli strike and while it appears Israel ‘won’, it did not exploit its ‘victory’ effectively and in some ways the war was a strategic political loss unresolved to this day. Resulted in 20,000 deaths in seven days.
  • Vietnam War (1958-1975). Though the origins of this lie with France-Vietnam War, the US effectively decided to become involved and thus ‘started’ it to save South East Asia from communism and a ‘domino effect’….The US comprehensively lost at great cost to its economy (I might argue the resulting imbalances are still with us rippling the US economy off a healthy path) and a human cost of perhaps 2 million dead, mainly Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians.
  • Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) was started by Iraq, and was a costly stalemate that resulted in deaths of between 1 and 1.3 million.
  • First Gulf War (1991). Iraq invaded Kuwait to seize its oil. It was defeated by the coalition led by the US, and not only failed its war aims, but the subsequent sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, and bankrupted the economy. It also led indirectly to the Iraq War of 2002, which brought down the regime. Resulted in 35,000 deaths directly.
  • Afghan Invasion by US (2001-2). The Taliban allowed 9/11 to be planned by Al Qaeda and thus in effect started the war for religious reasons and it resulted in their explusion from power. Of course, the story continues….Deaths so far in the whole war that continues, around 70,000.

So the moral of this history is that war maybe the continuation of the politics by other means but these means are deeply inefficient. Rarely does the country starting the war, win it. Usually as Von Clausewitz pointed out, war transforms the landscape so utterly that it is a very risky ploy and one where close focus on what you are trying to achieve is essential but unusual. And even where wars are ‘won’, the victors often throw it away as in 1919 Europe, Israel in 1967, and of course Vietnam lost 2 million to eventually return to the capitalist road. Close analysis of each country’s real interests and the best way to achieve them, might well have avoided most of the major wars listed above. Though of course, some political elites like the German Nazi Party and the Japanese military in 1931 actually existed to start a war….

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Clausewitz

Carl Von Clausewitz:

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Economic Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to War as the Continuation of Politics by Inefficient Means

  1. Such an interesting post, – thanks – its worth looking closely at patterns like that I think if we are to learn – sometimes we just take things for granted.

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