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Thursday, September 24, 2009

In search for Just Wars

Allied World War I soldiers by Dunechaser from flickr (CC-NC-SA)
I know people don't really read my political posts. If I wanted to be read, I'd be writing angry rants about video games, programming, and Harry Potter fan-fiction.

Here's a quick post about politics, namely about just wars, and other violence. Right wing nuts are generally pro-war, no matter who's fighting whom. What's surprising is that even left wing nuts are pro-war. Here's some Chomsky, it doesn't get much left-wing-nuttier than that:

ROBERT B. SILVERS: ... Under what conditions, if any, can violent action be said to be "legitimate"? ...

NOAM CHOMSKY: My general feeling is that this kind of question can't be answered in a meaningful way when it's abstracted from the context of particular historical concrete circumstances. Any rational person would agree that violence is not legitimate unless the consequences of such action are to eliminate a still greater evil. Now there are people of course who go much further and say that one must oppose violence in general, quite apart from any possible consequences. I think that such a person is asserting one of two things. Either he's saying that the resort to violence is illegitimate even if the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil; or he's saying that under no conceivable circumstances will the consequences ever be such as to eliminate a greater evil. The second of these is a factual assumption and it's almost certainly false. One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil. As to the first, it's a kind of irreducible moral judgment that one should not resort to violence even if it would eliminate a greater evil. And these judgments are very hard to argue. I can only say that to me it seems like an immoral judgment.

Oh, really? So, could you please point me to some examples of wars that successfully eliminated greater evils? The criteria are, you can agree that they are sane:
  1. Without the war, very large number of people would have died or otherwise suffered.
  2. There was no other plausible way of saving them, and all alternatives have been tried.
  3. Thanks to the war, most of those people were saved.
  4. Few people died or otherwise suffered in the war, especially civilians, but also participants. Some suffering is allowed, but only if it's vastly overwhelmed by suffering prevented.
  5. It must have been possible to predict it advance that this success was very likely. Lucky wins don't count. And of course, it must have worked. Failed good intentions don't count.
I have really difficult time finding out wars that fit these criteria, even with very liberal grading.

The latest war in Iraq

The latest war in Iraq is easily not anywhere close to a just war. Saddam wasn't a nice guy, but amount of suffering he was causing recently was quite insignificant as for third world dictator standards, so it fails on count one, and automatically two and three.

According to Lancet estimates there were 1.3 million excess deaths due to it. Many other Iraqis suffered in other ways. So fail on count four.

Only fools would have expected an easy win, and being greeted with flowers, it's the Middle East after all. All claims about WMD, Saddam's connections to Al-Qaeda and so on don't count, as they were known lies, and even if Bush believed them, they would fail by count five.

Score: 0/5

The latest war in Afghanistan

This war is slightly better, as number of casualties on all sides is closer to 60 thousand, not counting another 10 thousands or so in the spill-off to Pakistan, what's most likely an underestimate in a poorly researched place like Afghanistan, but still much lower than Iraq's. And Bin Laden was in Afghanistan.

Still, it fails on all counts. There were people who died in Al-Qaeda terrorism, but other than a single well-known case, repetition of which was fairly easy to prevent, their numbers were really low. Even with 9/11 much lower than number of people who could be expected to die in the war, so count one fails.

There were plenty of plausible alternatives for getting or killing Bin Laden, and dealing with terrorism, so fail at criterion two. See IRA and ETA for good examples. Or even Clinton-style targeted killings.

Terrorism increased greatly after the war, so it fails criterion three. Count four doesn't fail that badly, assuming figures are not overly underestimated (they usually are, counting only direct deaths), but it's still pretty large number just to catch one guy. Let's be generous and count it as a point.

Anyone who expected an easy win in Afghanistan must have slept through history classes. And Afghanistan is still in chaos, terrorists still terrorize, and Bin Laden was never caught or killed, so criterion five spectacularly fails.

Score: 1/5

The Second World War

Let's move back in time to World War II, widely proclaimed to be the most just war in history, without any basis in fact.

So first, suffering. This is very likely - if everyone just gave Hitler what he wanted (mostly Central Europe to share with Stalin), millions of people would be reduced to status of second class citizens, and depending on how it would go, hundreds of thousands or even millions would die. It's not certain if large scale death camps would be implemented without the war - it seems Nazis were fine with Jews and everyone else they didn't like just getting out of their country (500,000 or so emigrated from Germany before the war, also see the famous Madagascar Plan), but let's assume they really wanted to perform massive genocide. In any case, the first criterion is quite plausible, so full point.

The second criterion fails. The obvious plausible alternative of letting people persecuted by Nazis emigrate to other countries, most were not terribly happy about letting them in, even through Nazis were quite glad about just kicking them out (first confiscating most of their property). Forced resettlement would suck, but it still beats getting gassed.

Now, the third one fails miserably - Nazis killed pretty much everyone they wanted to kill. Most people who would have suffered living under Nazi dictatorship, were instead forced to live under Soviet dictatorship. Approximately 70 million people have died, most of them outside territories that Nazis would have if the world decided against going to war with them. So it's spectacular failure on the counts three and four.

There could be no expectation of an easy victory - spectacular fall of France might have been unexpected, but World War I style trench warfare with millions of casualties was the primary alternative. It's not even obvious if Allies really cared about defeating Nazis - if they were serious about winning, going after them in September 1939 while they were busy in Poland seemed like the best moment, but they didn't do anything until they were attacked.

Score: 1/5

American Civil War

Here's another "glorious" war - American Civil War. It's really historically inaccurate, but let's grant the common myth that the cause of war was abolition of slavery. There were four million slaves in USA in 1860, to be freed. So a somewhat mythical point, but granted.

As for alternatives being untried, most of the world abolished already or soon after 1860, without getting into any major wars. Even countries highly dependent on slave labour, which quite smoothly transitioned into poor waged labour, with or without compensations for former slave owners. There's no reason why it wouldn't work in United States, sooner or later. No points here.

As for point three, yes, all slaves were freed, so entire point here. Sure, there was a century of discrimination ahead, but let's not get too nitpicking.

Point four utterly fails. 620 thousand soldiers were killed, plus some unspecified number of civilians. It was quite clean as far as wars go, so I wouldn't expect a huge value for civilian excess deaths. Still, that's only 6 slaves freed for one death. I'm sure most abolitionist activists had far better than this number - by collecting money, and buying off slaves' freedom, or by nagging slave-owners' conscience until they agreed to free slaves one person could surely free far more than 6 slaves with lifetime's effort.

As for point five, it was successful, and due to North massively overwhelming South in industrial capacity, military strength, and population, it could be expected to be an easy win. It wasn't all that easy, but point granted.

Score: 3/5

American War of Independence

American Revolutionary War is another big one, but I really don't see why.

First, suffering - there were some extra taxes white protestant elites weren't terribly fond of. That's zero points, or else Washington, D.C. has as much right to rebel right now.

Second, alternatives. It's automatic fail due to lack of significant suffering, but other countries like Canada successfully got as much autonomy as they wanted without armed rebellion.

Third, prevention of suffering. Also automatic fail, but notice how United States kept slavery long after the rest of British Empire abolished it. It's not at all obvious that it was more representative, or more democratic than other colonies.

Four, casualties. There were about 52 thousand soldiers killed, plus unknown number of civilians (but not too many, as it was one of the rare clean wars). Vast majority of those were from disease, most commonly scurvy, a disease that was already known to be easily preventable. Battle deaths were barely over 10 thousand. That's small by modern standards, but not trivial relative to two million people living in rebelling States back then - just about 2%. I'll grant a point, but it's just being generous.

As for point five, expecting an easy victory against British Empire at peak of its power was foolish. It was a lucky win. No points.

Score: 1/5

Cambodian–Vietnamese War

That covers the usual suspects, which I all mentioned mostly to point out how they fail at being just wars. Now let's look at some obscure wars that might actually succeed.

Cambodian–Vietnamese War is my best candidate. Khmer Rouge killed approximately 1.5 million people out of population of 7.1 million, and weren't stopping. They didn't even limit themselves to their borders, but also raided some towns in Vietnam and massacred civilians there. Overall, spectacular victory at point one.

It's hard to tell what alternatives could be tried, but none are obvious, and due to massive urgent suffering we cannot blame the Vietnamese for not looking too hard. A second point.

Pol Pot was successfully overthrown. Guerrilla lasted for another decade, but it was on much smaller scale. Full point.

Point four is not entirely successful, as China attacked Vietnam to stop their Cambodian operation, with wide variety of estimated, but something of order of 100,000 soldiers and civilians killed. Still, that's far less than number of Khmer Rouge casualties, so point granted.

War could be expected to be easy - huge, well equipped, and experienced Vietnamese army could and did easily overwhelm Khmer army, and it did so successfully. Full point.

Score: 5/5

Most other wars of independence

Cambodian-Vietnamese War proves a just war is possible, even if really rare. Let's go back to other wars for a moment. One very popular kind are all independence/liberation wars, and uprisings against dictatorships.

They usually fail on suffering front - most colonial powers don't engage in massive killing, so the suffering is mostly widespread discrimination, and lack of representative democracy.

They fail on the second front, as countless countries succeeded in getting significant autonomy, or independence, by political action. It worked even against the Soviets, so it doesn't depend on the colonial power being "nice".

As for the third point, most governments that get into power after such wars are dominated by military, or otherwise very far from democratic ideal, and hardly much better than previous colonial powers. You might be lucky sometimes, but I wouldn't count on it.

Fourth - there's usually plenty of civilian casualties. Independence wars, unless the colonial power simply decides to give up early, tend to be really dirty. No points.

Fifth - by balance of power, it's really naive to expect a victory here. Yes, sometimes it happens, not that rarely even, but lucky wins don't count. And there's even lower chance of the new government being much better than the one being replaced. No points.

Related reading: From Dictatorship To Democracy.

Score: usually 0/5, occasionally higher score.


If we go even further from guerrilla uprisings to terrorism, it gets even worse.

Now occasionally like in Palestine the suffering is real, so point granted. In many places like Basque Country it's fairly insignificant.

As for alternatives, political methods not involving violence have been quite successful in countless cases. So zero points.

One interesting thing about terrorism, is that is pretty much always fails. Of very long list of organizations employing terrorism, the only totally successful case is Hezbollah, which kicked Israelis out of Lebanon. Tamil Tigers - who had semi-independent state in North Sri Lanka for quite a long time before being defeated recently, and Hamas and other Palestinian groups, which fought out some very limited autonomy for Palestinians, can be counted as partially successful. Everything else was a spectacular failure. Notice how the successful cases are really guerrillas employing some limited terrorism against mostly military targets as a small side activity, so they shouldn't even count as primarily terrorist organizations. Zero points here.

As for random unrelated casualties, they're present by design. Usually they're not terribly numerous compared to a proper war, so actually we could grant half a point here, but that would be stretching it. And that would only count if it worked, what not a single case of terrorism so far did.

As for chances of success - well, so far they're 0 successes in far too many tries, so no points.

Score: 0/5

Bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Let's look at operations like bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

First, suffering. Over 100,000 people died in the war, about half of them civilians, so it was a pretty good cause. Plus millions displaced, usual looting, rape, and what you usually see in dirty wars. Full point.

Second, alternatives. Some effort was taken, and out of three fighting parties, UN managed to get two to agree to stop. There were also attempts to limit civilian casualties by creating safe zones (openly abused for military advantage, but that's a completely different issues). You could argue about lack of fairness by UN, and if really everything that was possible was tried, but I'll grant the full point. Also military action was quite limited, aimed at getting quick political solution, not full annihilation of Serbian military capacity.

Third, prevention of further suffering - that's an easy point, operation was fully successful.

Fourth, no extra casualties - bombing is estimated to kill over 100 Serbian soldiers, a trivial number, and many more of just Serbian soldiers would have died if the fighting continued. Full point.

As for estimating chances of victory... well, wars are rarely won by just dropping a few bombs, but NATO was overwhelmingly stronger than any of the fighting parties in Bosnia, and it was successful, so full point.

Score: 5/5

Kosovo and other operations

While bombing of Bosnia was really successful, other peace enforcement campaigns like one in Kosovo much less so.

There were around 2000 casualties of the war between Serbian military and police and KLA, but no massive genocide ongoing. The best example of war crimes found was Račak massacre of about 40-45 people, and even that isn't really terribly solid. There was killing due to fighting, and large scale displacement, but that's rather underwhelming, so just half point this time.

Alternatives were under-explored. There was some attempt at negotiating, but it's not really obvious if NATO seriously wanted a solution that would be acceptable to both parties, as opposed to just getting some cover. No pressure was put on KLA, even though they would be fairly easy to press. And during the negotiations all sides issued a joint statement agreeing to "substantial autonomy for Kosovo", and "invited international civilian and military presence in Kosovo", so it's not really obvious what the subsequent fighting was about. No points.

Prevention of suffering was also quite unsuccessful, the war erupted even more strongly after bombing started, with some proper massacres this time. 80% of people killed, and 90% of people displaced happened after the bombing started. 250 thousand Serbian refugees never returned to Kosovo. No points.

Bombing as such didn't kill terribly many people, around 500 civilians, but due to massive increase in fighting on the ground huge number of people died. There was also a later spill-over of fighting into Macedonia, but it wasn't that severe. No points again.

I'm undecided if the last point should be granted or not - previous successes like Bosnia suggested that it would be an easy victory, but it worked only so-so, and large scale ground fighting caused a lot more suffering that was prevented. Half point.

Score: 1/5


According to criteria of successfully and reliably preventing significant suffering, the only good wars I could find where overwhelming force is used to stop already happening war or other large scale atrocities, and they limit themselves to minimalist goals instead of trying major political restructuring.

All wars where one side is not overwhelming, like WW2, and American Civil War, tend to cause massive suffering, comparable or worse than whatever can be prevented, even if one of the sides is clearly doing a lot of evil.

"Wars to End All Wars" are as old as known history, and include not only WW1, and WW2, but events as ancient as civil wars of late Roman Empire, and probably many before it. Success rate - 0%. Using this argument to support any war is just ridiculous.

All fighting from position of weakness - anywhere from terrorism to full scare insurgency - tend to cause massive suffering, and have even few successes at preventing major suffering.

If you know of any other wars that score very high according to my criteria, or have problems with my rating system (ratings are quite subjective, but it's hard to come up with anything much better), post it in comments.

Chomsky is a total idiot

Which all means that Chomsky is a total idiot, as he is a big fan of the kind of unsuccessful wars from position of weakness like Tamils in Sri Lanka (80 thousand or more people killed with nothing to show for it), and a big critic of successful wars like Bosnia (apparently Srebrenica was "not really a massacre" with only 8,000 or so people killed).

Yes, American government engages in many stupid wars, and causes a lot of suffering. But that doesn't mean that everyone who happens to criticize American government is automatically right and entitled to the high moral ground. Reversed Stupidity Is Not Intelligence, as my favourite philosopher Eliezer Yudkowsky says.


Quickshot said...

Hmmm, while you have a fair amount of points here. How should you consider the situation where a foreign agressor invades your country? Is it correct then to defend yourself, or should you always just let yourself be conquered?

Though if you take the latter path, one should probably consider the issue of how it would probably make any real political progress impossible... atleast, that would seem the likely outcome. So taking that in to account, is defending yourself from invasion 'Just'?

taw said...

Quickshot: Who came out better out of World War 2 - people in countries that gave only token resistance like Denmark, or people in countries that seriously fought like Poland?

Now if you have a serious chance of winning, and without suffering loses far greater than whatever would result from occupation, then the case for resistance can be argued, but extremely rarely it looks like that.

There are also some game theoretic arguments for resistance even when you know you'll lose, but I was never particularly enthusiastic about them.

Quickshot said...

Yeah, I realize that point of view. However..., I think it only really works when you assume both attackers and defenders are entirely rational about the thing.

What I mean with this is, is if you always surrender to attackers to reduce your losses, then all countries will be run by people who attack. From this you can easily derive that in practise we'd end up in a fairly anarchic situation where countries are constantly attacking one another for territory. And there these people are humans, it's rather doubtful you'd end up with one nation in the end, but that you'd end up with parties that refuse to surrender and just keep on spawning new wars. Considering each of them probably wants to take over the world.

So on net, I place a few questions on if it is sane to leave the aggressively minded people in charge, wouldn't that ultimately lead to total disaster as they would no longer be constrained by defensive orientated countries?

taw said...

Quickshot: That's the standard game theory answer, but I see no empirical evidence for it. Wars, defensive or not, usually result in more wars and violence, and less democracy and freedom, almost never in the "aggressive leaders" being put out of power, and new era of peace shining.

Also aggressions where two sides are more or less equal are extremely rare. Usually aggressor's power is completely overwhelming. They can sometimes be kicked out, but only by long, dirty, guerrilla fighting, costing hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, unless they lose political will to keep the occupation going. After such "victory" usually you get corrupt government dominated by military (like Taliban after they defeated Soviets in Afghanistan, or the Central European dictatorships after World War I, or most newly decolonized states in Africa).

The alternative of just accepting the invasion and giving up usually costs little. Most aggressors just set up "more friendly" government, some unfair trade agreements especially on raw materials like oil, and maybe a few military bases, and that's about it.

It sort of sucks, but it's nothing compared to what would happen in an actual war. And life before that was rarely any utopia, local elites most likely exploited most of the society in way that's not significantly different from the new elites.

This is true with most aggressors from Romans to Mongols to Soviets, all of which were outright genocidal towards those that put serious effort to defend themselves.

Quickshot said...

I'll give you the overwhelming advantage one, where resistance probably isn't going to be very helpful. But what about say, hmm, the situation in Europe for many centuries, where many of the nations were fairly equivalent. Wouldn't in that situation the other situation become more prevalent?

Though one should note that even the Roman time there were a few factions that were not overwhelmingly outclassed by the Romans, like for instance the Parthians, who handily defended themselves, or attacked. Being just as an aggressive faction as the Romans themselves really. Thus leading to the question, leaving those two jostling with each other led to centuries of useless warfare, no? Even after the West Romans fell, the Parthians and East Romans continued to compete till the end of the Parthan Empire. Basically what I'm saying is, would things actually turn out for the better thus if you did nothing? Or would they just find new ways to create ruin?

taw said...

Yes, everyone in Europe was so successful at defending themselves that we had a millennium or so of constant warfare.

A great example was ancient Greece - warfare was a constant situation, until Persians (unsuccessfully) and then Romans (successfully) tried to meddle and enforce peace.

Because Greeks managed to defend themselves against Persians, a few more centuries of constant warfare followed.

Doug S. said...

I take it that your analysis of World War II doesn't include a potential Nazi conquest of North America? AFACT, Hitler really wasn't going to settle for at anything less than world conquest.

taw said...

Doug: Basis of this nonsense being? Hitler was trying to get peace with British Empire all the time, and without having even enough Navy to invade England, it's a ridiculous idea that he could invade United States.

Note how in 1940 after capitulation of France everybody was certain that peace was a matter of weeks.

Doug S. said...

Hitler's Germany was developing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. By 1950, it could have been capable of compelling Britain's surrender without putting a single man on British soil, and would also have missiles capable of reaching the United States from Europe. The United States and Russia would both have no defense against German ICBMs and long-range bombers. He wouldn't have to actually invade in order to conquer the world.

taw said...

Doug: Enjoy your fantasies, I doubt anything I could say or any facts I can quote can chance your mind.

Doug S. said...

I'm confused. Are you saying that you don't believe that world conquest is an accurate representation of Hitler's long-term goals, that Hitler's Germany wouldn't have had an atomic bomb by 1950 if it hadn't lost the war by then, that the Amerika Bomber project never existed, and/or that the U.S. could have endured an attack by nuclear ICBMs? As far as I know, everything I've said is the view of mainstream historians and is much less of a "fantasy" than anything you've said about peace with Hitler's Germany.

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