“The Little Drummer Girl” and War

My wife and I recently watched a six-episode, made-for-TV adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl, a novel by John Le Carré‘ that was published in 1983. The story

follows the manipulations of Martin Kurtz, an Israeli spymaster who intends to kill Khalil – a Palestinian terrorist who is bombing Jewish-related targets in Europe, particularly Germany – and Charlie, an English actress and double agent working on behalf of the Israelis….

Kurtz … recruits Charlie, a “21 or 22-year-old” radical left-wing English actress, as part of an elaborate scheme to discover the whereabouts of Khalil… Joseph is Charlie’s case officer. Khalil’s younger brother Salim is abducted, interrogated, and killed by Kurtz’s unit. Joseph impersonates Salim and travels through Europe with Charlie to make Khalil believe that Charlie and Salim are lovers. When Khalil discovers the affair and contacts Charlie, the Israelis are able to track him down.

Charlie is taken to Palestinian refugee camps to be trained as a bomber. She becomes more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and her divided loyalties bring her close to collapse. Charlie is sent on a mission to place a bomb at a lecture given by an Israeli moderate whose peace proposals are not to Khalil’s liking. She carries out the mission under the Israelis’ supervision. As a result, Joseph kills Khalil. Charlie subsequently has a mental breakdown caused by the strain of her mission and her own internal contradictions.

I recall that the 1984 feature-film version was widely thought to be pro-Palestinian and, therefore, anti-Israeli.

Neither my wife nor I have seen the 1984 film. She has read the novel, though she doesn’t remember much about it. I haven’t read the novel. I therefore came to the made-for-TV series with little baggage, though I feared that it might prove to be anti-Israeli propaganda. I will render a verdict later in this post, after considering some relevant evidence about the novel and feature film.

According to a piece in The New York Times, published soon after the release of the feature film, the novel and film were meant to be neutral:

The main problem in attempting to remain faithful to the book was dealing with what the filmmakers saw as its political balance – striving to be even-handed in the portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians engaged in a violent struggle for their respective causes and survival in the super- charged, highly sensitive arena of current history involving the ongoing agony of the Middle East.

”We weren’t making a political film,” said [director George Roy] Hill. ”We have no political ax to grind. We were making a suspense story that happened to have a political background. But we wanted to be true to the book, which we believe to be even-handed. The book shows the Palestinians for the first time in a human light. Up until then, they were seen as bloodthirsty monsters.”…

Like the book, the film does humanize the Palestinians and, perhaps because of the medium itself which makes them and their ultimate decimation visually and painfully real to the audience, it seems likely that the film will engender even more controversy than did the book.

Mr. Le Carre thinks controversy arose because the Palestinians never had a fair hearing in the United States. ”It is true,” he said, ”that some people think that it is heretical, anti-Semitic and probably even anti- American to suggest that there is even anything to be said for the Palestinian side.”

The novelist has continued to arouse passions by publishing some articles sympathetic to the Palestinians after the Shatila massacre in 1982. Nevertheless, he denies that this makes him anti-Israeli. ”It’s almost a vulgarity to confuse a balance of compassion with a want of sympathy for Israel,” he said. ”If I had written the book later, after the full extent of the Israeli operation was known, I would have made it angrier. But I begin and I end, believe it or not, as a tremendous supporter of a concept of Israel.”…

Indeed, the movie does not proclaim itself explicitly on one side or the other. A catalog of the ills shown suffered by each side would probably add up to a fairly even score….

But still, making the movie called for tremendous amounts of surgery and, in some cases, amputation….

The change in Charlie’s character is interesting because Mr. Le Carre had specified in his original contract that Charlie be played by an English actress. ”We were unable to find a suitable English actress,” Mr. Hill said. ”When I first spoke to Diane about the part we discussed the possibility of playing it with an English accent. But then I saw the advantage of making her American – to isolate her even more from the European community. This difference, and her more advanced age, makes the whole ending scene more moving, gives it more impact. By the end she can no longer act, she can’t pretend. She has been destroyed.”…

While the changes in Charlie’s personality added a dimension, the changes in Kurtz’s removed an aspect of his character – a moral one.

In the book, Kurtz, the master-spy, has many of the same doubts as Joseph, the agent Charlie loves. The two resolve their doubts in different ways. Kurtz pushes past them by working to stop the Palestinians even if in the process he has to act against his own conscience….

In the movie Mr. Kinski, who has previously played many fierce and even demonic characters, plays Kurtz as a hard-liner. He becomes a super-efficient agent with a touch of fanaticism, who resolutely brushes away all moral qualms. The effect is to make the Israelis seem like a ruthlessly moving machine pitted against the more vulnerable Palestinians.

Mr. Le Carre originally objected to the casting of Mr. Kinski because ”I thought he carried too much baggage with him.” He said he thinks his own Kurtz is probably ”more Israeli” and not as harsh. Mr. Hill said the casting choice was made for dramatic reasons. It would have been boring, he maintains, to have on screen two characters as similar as Joseph and Kurtz. But it’s one example of how a change made for dramatic impact can subtly change the film’s psychological effect.

It would seem that the crucial casting of Kinski as Kurtz gave the film an anti-Israeli tone — intended or not — even if the novel was meant to be neutral, as Le Carré‘ insists. The made-for-TV series struck me as truer to the spirit of the novel, as Le Carré‘ describes it.

The TV series can be viewed superficially, as just another story with some compelling characters, suspenseful sequences, and a conclusive climax. The series can also seem pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, depending on the stance you bring to your viewing.

I admit to having been staunchly pro-Israeli for a long time, but on reflection I conclude that the TV series conveys a pro-Israeli message — and more.

Charlie’s pangs of conscience after the killings of Khalil and his henchpersons are short-lived. She retreats to a seaside resort, recovers quickly, and reconciles with Joseph. I see these anti-climactic events as indicative of a pro-Israeli slant. Although the anti-climactic events might have been contrived merely to give the series a happy ending, they rather obviously (though subtly) endorse the rightness of the cause to which Charlie was recruited.

The series also conveys, even more subtly, this crucial message: One cannot win a war — or stave off defeat — by being less than ruthless. It’s probably true that most Palestinians, like most Israelis, are just “ordinary people” trying to get on with daily life. But that doesn’t negate the reality of the unrelenting Arab-Muslim effort to terrorize and kill Israelis and to undermine Israel as a sovereign state.

The need for ruthlessness is a lesson that American leaders seemed to have learned in World War II, but which their successors failed to apply in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1990-91 Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Related posts:
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Defense Spending: One More Time
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Presidents and War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues
Planning for the Last War
A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror
Preemptive War Revisited
The Folly of Pacifism (III)

Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War

David Henderson writes at EconLog about “Noah Smith on the Islamic Civil War“:

Noah Smith has a beautifully numerate discussion of wars being fought by radical Muslims. He does it in the context of analyzing Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and that analysis is not bad.

But what really struck me was his response to this claim of Bannon:

[I]t’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it…
. . .I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam…If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to use [sic] the great institution that is the church of the West.

Smith then reports on the numbers on deaths from some Islamic groups fighting others. H writes:

Let’s look at the main wars currently being fought by radical Islamic forces. These are:Syrian Civil War (~470,000 dead)
2nd Iraqi Civil War (~56,000 dead)
Boko Haram Insurgency (~28,000 dead)
War in Afghanistan (126,000 dead)
Somali Civil War (~500,000 dead)
War in Northwest Pakistan (~60,000 dead)
Libyan Civil War (~14,000 dead)
Yemeni Civil War (~11,000 dead)
Sinai Insurgency (~4,500 dead)

Smith adds:

This is a lot of dead people – maybe about 2 million in all, counting all the smaller conflicts I didn’t list. But almost all of these dead people are Muslims – either radical Islamists, or their moderate Muslim opponents. Compare these death tolls to the radical Islamist terror attacks in the West. 9/11 killed about 3,000. The ISIS attack in Paris killed 130. The death tolls in the West from radical Islam have been three orders of magnitude smaller than the deaths in the Muslim world.Three orders of magnitude is an almost inconceivable difference in size. What it means is that only a tiny, tiny part of the wars of radical Islam is bleeding over into the West. What we’re seeing is not a clash of civilizations, it’s a global Islamic civil war. The enemy isn’t at the gates of Vienna – it’s at the gates of Mosul, Raqqa, and Kabul.

And radical Islam is losing the global Islamic civil war. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is losing. In all of these wars except for possibly Afghanistan, radical Islamic forces have been defeated by moderate Islamic forces.

Sometimes that’s because of Western aid to the moderates. But much of it is just because a medievalist regime holds very, very little appeal for the average Muslim in any country. Practically no one wants to live under the sadist, totalitarian control of groups like ISIS. These groups are fierce, but their manpower is small and their popular support is not very large anywhere.

How tragic it would be if Steve Bannon’s innumeracy helped cause the U.S. government to embroil itself in the Middle East even more than Bush and Obama did.

Henderson’s counsel to avoid “embroilment” overlooks Iran.

There sometimes comes a point at which it makes sense to become embroiled in a distant war. Take World War II, for example. FDR’s economic policies were disastrous for the U.S. — of that there’s never been any doubt in my mind. But I give FDR credit for his ability to see that if Germany and Japan gained dominance over Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. would eventually be squeezed into submission, economically and militarily. My point is that not all “embroilments” are necessarily bad.

Which brings me to the Middle East. If the U.S. allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons — which seems to be certain given Obama’s supine attitude toward Iran — disaster will follow. Iran will be able to control the region through nuclear blackmail, and given its reserves of oil and the willingness of its leaders to accept economic isolation, it (meaning its leaders) will be able to disrupt life in the West because of its ability to shut off the supply of oil to the West.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, the U.S. can stop Iran now, before it has done what Obama is allowing it to do, or the U.S. can stop it later, after it has done great economic damage, which the U.S. won’t escape inasmuch as the market for oil is unitary. Nor will the U.S. escape human damage if the U.S. doesn’t act until after Iran becomes capable of attacking the U.S.

It doesn’t matter who did what to cause Iran’s leaders to view the U.S. as “the great Satan.” (Sunk costs are sunk.) There’s no longer an option to butt out of Iran’s affairs. Given the fanatical enmity of Iran’s leaders toward the U.S. (which isn’t dispelled by superficial cordiality), it’s beyond belief that Iran isn’t steadily striving to acquire the ability to strike the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction — nuclear missiles, perhaps delivered from off-shore vessels instead of by ICBMs; “suitcase” bombs; coordinated strikes on the power grid, oil-production facilities, and water supplies; and much more that the U.S. intelligence apparatus should but may not anticipate, and which the U.S. government’s leaders may in any event fail to prepare for.

I may be wrong about all of this, but it’s the kind of thinking that should be done — even by economists — instead of latching onto Noah Smith’s superficial numeracy.

The Old Normal

The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Lahore might lead the impressionable to conclude that the world is falling apart. I submit that terrorist attacks shock because they occur against a backdrop of relative peacefulness. Yes, there are wars here and there, but they are mere skirmishes — albeit with tragic consequences for many — compared with what happened in the twentieth century.

From 1914 to 1973 — a span of two generations — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the genocides presided over by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao produced casualties on a scale never attained before or since.  Despite subsequent events — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Gulf War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dozens of terror attacks, large and small in scale — the world today is more quiescent than it has been in more than a century.

But the problem with history is that the future isn’t part of it. It is fatuous to suggest, as some have, that the better angels of our nature have conquered violence on a twentieth-century scale. That was the prevailing view in Europe for several years before the outbreak of World War I.

Violence is in fact an essential, ineradicable component of human nature. There will always be armed conflict, and sometimes it will involve the forces of many nations. The proximate causes and timing of war are unpredictable. Conciliatory gestures can be just as provocative as saber-rattling; the former can be taken as as sign of weakness and unpreparedness, the latter as a sign of resolve and preparedness.

If history holds any lesson regarding war, it is this one: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This is a lesson that American leftists seem dead set on ignoring.

Nonsense about Presidents, IQ, and War

Peter Singer outdoes his usual tendentious self in this review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In the course of the review, Singer writes:

Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. Among the wide range of evidence he produces in support of that argument is the tidbit that since 1946, there has been a negative correlation between an American president’s I.Q. and the number of battle deaths in wars involving the United States.

Singer does not give the source of the IQ estimates on which Pinker relies, but the supposed correlation points to a discredited piece of historiometry by Dean Keith Simonton, “Presidential IQ, Openness, Intellectual Brilliance, and Leadership: Estimates and Correlations for 42 U.S. Chief Executives” (Political Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2006). Simonton jumps through various hoops to assess the IQs of  every president from Washington to Bush II — to one decimal place. That is a feat on a par with reconstructing the final thoughts of Abel, ere Cain slew him.

Before I explain the discrediting of Simonton’s obviously discreditable “research,” there is some fun to be had with the Pinker-Singer story of presidential IQ (Simonton-style) for battle deaths. First, of course, there is the convenient cutoff point of 1946. Why 1946? Well, it enables Pinker-Singer to avoid the inconvenient fact that the Civil War, World War I, and World War II happened while the presidency was held by three men who (in Simonton’s estimation) had high IQs: Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR.

The next several graphs depict best-fit relationships between Simonton’s estimates of presidential IQ and the U.S. battle deaths that occurred during each president’s term of office.* The presidents, in order of their appearance in the titles of the graphs are Harry S Truman (HST), George W. Bush (GWB), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), (Thomas) Woodrow Wilson (WW), Abraham Lincoln (AL), and George Washington (GW). The number of battle deaths is rounded to the nearest thousand, so that the prevailing value is 0, even in the case of the Spanish-American War (385 U.S. combat deaths) and George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War (147 U.S. combat deaths).

This is probably the relationship referred to by Singer, though Pinker may show a linear fit, rather than the tighter polynomial fit used here:

It looks bad for the low “IQ” presidents — if you believe Simonton’s estimates of IQ, which you shouldn’t, and if you believe that battle deaths are a bad thing per se, which they aren’t. I will come back to those points. For now, just suspend your well-justified disbelief.

If the relationship for the HST-GWB era were statistically meaningful, it would not change much with the introduction of additional statistics about “IQ” and battle deaths, but it does:

If you buy the brand of snake oil being peddled by Pinker-Singer, you must believe that the “dumbest” and “smartest” presidents are unlikely to get the U.S. into wars that result in a lot of battle deaths, whereas some (but, mysteriously, not all) of the “medium-smart” presidents (Lincoln, Wilson, FDR) are likely to do so.

In any event, if you believe in Pinker-Singer’s snake oil, you must accept the consistent “humpback” relationship that is depicted in the preceding four graphs, rather than the highly selective, one-shot negative relationship of the HST-GWB graph.

More seriously, the relationship in the HST-GWB graph is an evident ploy to discredit certain presidents (especially GWB, I suspect), which is why it covers only the period since WWII. Why not just say that you think GWB is a chimp-like, war-mongering, moron and be done with it? Pseudo-statistics of the kind offered up by Pinker-Singer is nothing more than a talking point for those already convinced that Bush=Hitler.

But as long as this silly game is in progress, let us continue it, with a new rule. Let us advance from one to two explanatory variables. The second explanatory variable that strongly suggests itself is political party. And because it is not good practice to omit relevant statistics (a favorite gambit of liars), I estimated an equation based on “IQ” and battle deaths for the 27 men who served as president from the first Republican presidency (Lincoln’s) through the presidency of GWB.  The equation looks like this:

U.S. battle deaths (000) “owned” by a president =

-80.6 + 0.841 x “IQ” – 31.3 x party (where 0 = Dem, 1 = GOP)

In other words, battle deaths rise at the rate of 841 per IQ point (so much for Pinker-Singer). But there will be fewer deaths with a Republican in the White House (so much for Pinker-Singer’s implied swipe at GWB).

All of this is nonsense, of course, for two reasons: Simonton’s estimates of IQ are hogwash, and the number of U.S. battle deaths is a meaningless number, taken by itself.

With regard to hogwash, Simonton’s estimates of presidents’ IQs put every one of them — including the “dumbest,” U.S. Grant — in the top 2.3 percent of the population. And the mean of Simonton’s estimates puts the average president in the top 0.1 percent (one-tenth of one percent) of the population. That is literally incredible. Good evidence of the unreliability of Simonton’s estimates is found in an entry by Thomas C. Reeves at George Mason University’s History New Network. Reeves is the author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, the negative reviews of which are evidently the work of JFK idolators who refuse to be disillusioned by facts. Anyway, here is Reeves:

I’m a biographer of two of the top nine presidents on Simonton’s list and am highly familiar with the histories of the other seven. In my judgment, this study has little if any value. Let’s take JFK and Chester A. Arthur as examples.

Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119…. There is no evidence to support the claim that his score should have been more than 40 points higher [i.e., the IQ of 160 attributed to Kennedy by Simonton]. As I described in detail in A Question Of Character [link added], Kennedy’s academic achievements were modest and respectable, his published writing and speeches were largely done by others (no study of Kennedy is worthwhile that downplays the role of Ted Sorensen)….

Chester Alan Arthur was largely unknown before my Gentleman Boss was published in 1975. The discovery of many valuable primary sources gave us a clear look at the president for the first time. Among the most interesting facts that emerged involved his service during the Civil War, his direct involvement in the spoils system, and the bizarre way in which he was elevated to the GOP presidential ticket in 1880. His concealed and fatal illness while in the White House also came to light.

While Arthur was a college graduate, and was widely considered to be a gentleman, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that his IQ was extraordinary. That a psychologist can rank his intelligence 2.3 points ahead of Lincoln’s suggests access to a treasure of primary sources from and about Arthur that does not exist.

This historian thinks it impossible to assign IQ numbers to historical figures. If there is sufficient evidence (as there usually is in the case of American presidents), we can call people from the past extremely intelligent. Adams, Wilson, TR, Jefferson, and Lincoln were clearly well above average intellectually. But let us not pretend that we can rank them by tenths of a percentage point or declare that a man in one era stands well above another from a different time and place.

My educated guess is that this recent study was designed in part to denigrate the intelligence of the current occupant of the White House….

That is an excellent guess.

The meaninglessness of battle deaths as a measure of anything — but battle deaths — should be evident. But in case it is not evident, here goes:

  • Wars are sometimes necessary, sometimes not. (I give my views about the wisdom of America’s various wars at this post.) Necessary or not, presidents usually act in accordance with popular and elite opinion about the desirability of a particular war. Imagine, for example, the reaction if FDR had not gone to Congress on December 8, 1941, to ask for a declaration of war against Japan, or if GWB had not sought the approval of Congress for action in Afghanistan.
  • Presidents may have a lot to do with the decision to enter a war, but they have little to do with the external forces that help to shape that decision. GHWB, for example, had nothing to do with Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait and thereby threaten vital U.S. interests in the Middle East. GWB, to take another example, was not a party to the choices of earlier presidents (GHWB and Clinton) that enabled Saddam to stay in power and encouraged Osama bin Laden to believe that America could be brought to its knees by a catastrophic attack.
  • The number of battle deaths in a war depends on many things outside the control of a particular president; for example, the size and capabilities of enemy forces, the size and capabilities of U.S. forces (which have a lot to do with the decisions of earlier administrations and Congresses), and the scope and scale of a war (again, largely dependent on the enemy).
  • Battle deaths represent personal tragedies, but — in and of themselves — are not a measure of a president’s wisdom or acumen. Whether the deaths were in vain is a separate issue that depends on the aforementioned considerations. To use battle deaths as a single, negative measure of a president’s ability is rank cynicism — the rankness of which is revealed in Pinker’s decision to ignore Lincoln and FDR and their “good” but deadly wars.

To put the last point another way, if the number of battle death deaths is a bad thing, Lincoln and FDR should be rotting in hell for the wars that brought an end to slavery and Hitler.

* The numbers of U.S. battle deaths, by war, are available at infoplease.com, “America’s Wars: U.S. Casualties and Veterans.” The deaths are “assigned” to presidents as follows (numbers in parentheses indicate thousands of deaths):

All of the deaths (2) in the War of 1812 occurred on Madison’s watch.

All of the deaths (2) in the Mexican-American War occurred on Polk’s watch.

I count only Union battle deaths (140) during the Civil War; all are “Lincoln’s.” Let the Confederate dead be on the head of Jefferson Davis. This is a gift, of sorts, to Pinker-Singer because if Confederate dead were counted as Lincoln, with his high “IQ,” it would make Pinker-Singer’s hypothesis even more ludicrous than it is.

WW is the sole “owner” of WWI battle deaths (53).

Some of the U.S. battle deaths in WWII (292) occurred while HST was president, but Truman was merely presiding over the final months of a war that was almost won when FDR died. Truman’s main role was to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific by electing to drop the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So FDR gets “credit” for all WWII battle deaths.

The Korean War did not end until after Eisenhower succeeded Truman, but it was “Truman’s war,” so he gets “credit” for all Korean War battle deaths (34). This is another “gift” to Pinker-Singer because Ike’s “IQ” is higher than Truman’s.

Vietnam was “LBJ’s war,” but I’m sure that Singer would not want Nixon to go without “credit” for the battle deaths that occurred during his administration. Moreover, LBJ had effectively lost the Vietnam war through his gradualism, but Nixon chose nevertheless to prolong the agony. So I have shared the “credit” for Vietnam War battle deaths between LBJ (deaths in 1965-68: 29) and RMN (deaths in 1969-73: 17). To do that, I apportioned total Vietnam War battle deaths, as given by infoplease.com, according to the total number of U.S. deaths in each year of the war, 1965-1973.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are “GWB’s wars,” even though Obama has continued them. So I have “credited” GWB with all the battle deaths in those wars, as of May 27, 2011 (5).

The relative paucity of U.S. combat  deaths in other post-WWII actions (e.g., Lebanon, Somalia, Persian Gulf) is attested to by “Post-Vietnam Combat Casualties,” at infoplease.com.

Related posts about war and peace:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Libertarianism and Pre-emptive War: Part I
An Aside about Libertarianism and the War
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Why Sovereignty?
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It Almost Right about Iraq
Philosophical Obtuseness
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
Thomas Woods and War
“Proportionate Response” in Perspective
Parsing Peace
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
I Have an Idea
September 11: Five Years On
How to View Defense Spending
Reaching the Limit?
The Best Defense . . .
More Stupidity from Cato
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
Anarchistic Balderdash
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

It *Is* the Oil
The End of Slavery in the United States
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
A Point of Agreement
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Next 9/11?
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”

Previous posts about Peter Singer:
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Singer Said It
Rationing and Health Care
Peter Presumes to Preach

The National Psyche and Foreign Wars

I belong to a Google Group whose active members are retired scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists — some in their upper 80s — who worked on defense issues from the 1940s to the 2000s. The issues ranged in scope from devising improved tactics for naval, air, and ground operations to assessing the costs and effectiveness of proposed new weapon systems.

Most members of the group were government employees and/or employees of government contractors. Their attraction to government service — and its steady and rather handsome paychecks — derives, in good part, from their belief in the power of government to “solve problems,” and in the need for government to do just that. It is only natural, then, that many members of the group hold an unrealistically exalted view of the power of quantitative methods to “solve problems,” while holding naive views about the machinations of government, human nature, and history. (The pioneers of military operations research in the United States, by contrast, were realistic about the relative impotence of quantitative analysis of complex, dynamic processes.)

Here, for example, is a slightly edited exchange I had with an older member of the group:

Older member (OM):

Does anyone know whether the people of the U.S. were as little involved in the Indian Wars and the opening of the west (some would say stealing) as we seem to be involved with the wars in the Middle East and South Asia.

The greatest asset of our military is its “can do” attitude. The greatest weakness of our military is its “can do” attitude.

Me (Thomas):

I’m not sure what it means for a people to be “involved” in a war. If by “involved” you mean the popularity or unpopularity of the various wars, I have no relevant facts to offer.

But the transient popularity or unpopularity of a war (or any governmental action) shouldn’t matter. If public policy responded to the whims of the “man in the street,” we would be in deep trouble. That’s why there are prescribed processes for making governmental policy. Following the processes doesn’t ensure wise policies, but it beats the alternative of capricious governance.

Our present wars were duly authorized by Congress, and are funded by appropriations made by Congress. Given that the members of Congress are elected representatives of the people, then the people are as involved as they can be under any sensible system of government.

As for the military’s “can do” attitude, decisions about going to war — and staying at war — are the province of civilian authority. When given a war to fight, the only sensible way for the military to approach it is with a “can do” attitude. Does the military’s “can do” attitude color the advice it gives when civilian authority is considering whether to go to war, how to prosecute a war, and whether to persevere in a war? Or are military leaders duly cautious in the advice they give civilian authority, knowing the consequences for their troops and the nation if a war goes badly? I haven’t been close enough to the “inside” — nor have I read deeply enough into military history — to essay answers to those questions.


I wanted to go a little beyond what might be called the legalities and into the national psyche. The decision to go to war is an awesome political and moral  decision. It has often been said that “old men send young men to war”. In our modern adventures only a fraction of the Country has other than a remote financial involvement in our wars. A small fraction of our Legislative Branch have direct Military Service experience (the smallest in history). An even smaller number has sons or daughters in the Armed Services. We are much moe detached than when the Signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their honor, their fortune, and their good right hand. (Quote not quite accurate).

During the Vietnam War the Country lowered its support as the costs and casualties rose. Now we do not have the draft though even so military leaders warn the political entities that we must not lose the confidence of the people even as we seem to drift away from the “Powell” Doctrine. We certainly see the heavy imprint of the Military-Industrial Complex against which President Eisenhower warned. (That speech is still on Wikipedia).

During Vietnam we had the bugbear of the “Domino Theory”. There are some who argue along those lines now regarding threats to Israel and other major American Interests. Can a small special interests group lead American policy?

I was wondering what other precedents in American History might apply. Most of the 19th Century was dominated by America’s Manifest Destiny (and losses were modes). Then came the War to end all wars. Then the Era of Good Feeling punctuated by the Washington Naval Conference, the Great Depression, and then the rise of Nazi Germany and its Axis with Italy and Japan. Have we found a bizarre combination of of Depression and Manifest Destiny with a liberal dose of hubris as we dismantle our Navy having already essentially worn out much of our Armour and still at the mercy of land mines and IED (a form of landmine).

One parallel that seems to track from the 19th Century is the corruption of the Suttlers [sic] that has transformed nicely into the Military Industrial Complex.


I have great difficulty with the concept of “national psyche,” and thus with generalizations about what “we” (as a nation) have done and should do. I cannot describe my own psyche, let alone the psyches of millions of other Americans, dead and alive, who differ from me (often greatly) in nature and nurture.

In any event, you come close to answering your own questions in your third paragraph, where you ask “Can a small special interests group lead American policy?” My answer is a resounding “yes.” Two, relatively small, interlocking groups of strong-willed individuals were responsible for the Revolution and the Constitution, and those groups were bound by two special interests (at least): independence from Britain (not a universally popular idea at the time) and freedom from Britain’s interference in the colonies’ commerce. (The second interest is a “bad thing” only if one view commercial interests as a “bad thing.” Unlike the historians of the Beard school, I do not.)

Various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups have determined the foreign and domestic policies of the United States government from its beginning, and always will do so. There is no escape from such an arrangement, given our system of government — the “legalities” to which you refer. Those “legalities” — and the absence of a national psyche which somehow translates the consolidated wisdom of “the nation” into governmental policy — make it inevitable that governmental policy will be the product of various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups. You (I mean the generic “you” and not you, [OM]) may like the resulting policies in some cases (e.g., if you are a fan of British-style health care you will consider Obamacare a great leap forward) and dislike them in other cases (e.g., if you are an opponent of foreign wars except those that in retrospect seem worthwhile, you will generally oppose foreign wars).

The “dismantling” of the Navy to which you refer is the specific policy of a specific administration (or administrations). It was not the policy of the Reagan administration, nor was it a policy of the Kennedy administration. And, I hope, it will not be the policy of the next administration. In any case, governmental policy toward the Navy is part of a larger set of policies, the combination of which is dictated by the complex interplay of various special interests and the particular psyches of elected and appointed officials. In the present case, the “dismantling” of the Navy arises from a particular view of how to defend Americans and their property and, not coincidentally, also makes certain kinds of domestic government programs more affordable. It should go without saying that the particular view of how to defend Americans (diplomacy, good will, lower defense budgets) finds opposition in millions of Americans’ psyches, as does the present administration’s commitment to various domestic programs. Liberal hawks — to the extent that they still exist — must be having a hard time digesting the present administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies, just as conservative hawks — whose are legion — had a hard time digesting the previous administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies.

As for the military-industrial complex, there is a coalition of interests that can be described broadly by that term, though it is a coalition fraught with internal conflicts and rivalries. If that coalition deserves blame for any excesses in defense spending and misadventures in foreign fields, it also deserves a large share of the credit for the outcomes of World War II and the Cold War.

Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local. I say that all political developments reflect the clash, compromise, and collaboration of special interests — and thus cannot be ascribed to a national psyche.

The Media, the Left, and War

Ralph Peters writes:

The phenomenon of Western and world journalists championing the “rights” and causes of blood-drenched butchers who, given the opportunity, would torture and slaughter them, disproves the notion—were any additional proof required—that human beings are rational creatures. Indeed, the passionate belief of so much of the intelligentsia that our civilization is evil and only the savage is noble looks rather like an anemic version of the self-delusions of the terrorists themselves. And, of course, there is a penalty for the intellectual’s dismissal of religion: humans need to believe in something greater than themselves, even if they have a degree from Harvard. Rejecting the god of their fathers, the neo-pagans who dominate the media serve as lackeys at the terrorists’ bloody altar. (“Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars,” Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2009.)

Seems about right to me. As I once said of an American “intellectual,”

He and his ilk cannot satisfy their power-lust in the real world, so they retaliate by imagining a theoretical world of doom. It is as if they walk around under a thought balloon which reads “Take that!”

It is the politics of adolescent rebelliousness:

The Left is in an arrested state of adolescent rebellion: “Daddy” doesn’t want me to smoke, so I’m going to smoke; “Daddy” doesn’t want me to drink, so I’m going to drink; “Daddy” doesn’t want me to have sex, so I’m going to have sex. But, regardless of my behavior, I expect “Daddy” to give me an allowance, and birthday presents, and cell phones, and so on….

Persons of the Left simply are simply unthinking, selfish adolescents who want what they want, regardless of the consequences for others.

And now that they are “in charge,” that’s precisely what they’re doing. Where will it all end? I reflected here on the following passage from an essay by Thomas Sowell:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

Peters has a similar thought:

Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media. [Emphasis added, with glee.] Perceiving themselves as superior beings, journalists have positioned themselves as protected-species combatants. But freedom of the press stops when its abuse kills our soldiers and strengthens our enemies. Such a view arouses disdain today, but a media establishment that has forgotten any sense of sober patriotism may find that it has become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom….

He concludes:

The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.

In closing, we must dispose of one last mantra that has been too broadly and uncritically accepted: the nonsense that, if we win by fighting as fiercely as our enemies, we will “become just like them.” To convince Imperial Japan of its defeat, we not only had to fire-bomb Japanese cities, but drop two atomic bombs. Did we then become like the Japanese of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere? Did we subsequently invade other lands with the goal of permanent conquest, enslaving their populations? Did our destruction of German cities—also necessary for victory—turn us into Nazis? Of course, you can find a few campus leftists who think so, but they have yet to reveal the location of our death camps….

Of all the enemies we face today and may face tomorrow, the most dangerous is our own wishful thinking.

The wishful thinking is for quick, clean wars, and preferably, no wars at all — because we can avoid wars through “dialogue” and “understanding.” Bosh! As Peters says,

The violent, like the poor, will always be with us, and we must be willing to kill those who would kill others.

Moreover, we must be prepared for long, dirty wars. With whom? It doesn’t much matter, as Peters suggests:

It may not be China that challenges us, after all, but the unexpected rise of a dormant power. The precedent is there: in 1929, Germany had a playground military limited to 100,000 men. Ten years later, a re-armed Germany had embarked on the most destructive campaign of aggression in history, its killing power and savagery exceeding that of the Mongols.

Which nation or stateless power will be the next Germany or Japan? We don’t know and can’t know. All we can do — and must do — is prepare for the inevitable rise of the next butcher state.

The question is whether we can survive a political regime that is hell-bent on bread, circuses, and surrender.