Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:17 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:17 | SYDNEY

War: Winning isn't everything


Hugh White

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

2 June 2010 09:58

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Like Michael Wesley, I am a great fan of Geoffrey Blainey's work on the causes of war, but I think his idea that people only decide on war when they believe they can win must be subject to two big caveats.

Caveat Number One: they do not have to rationally believe they can win. There are plenty of wars in which it is not clear at all that one side or the other rationally thought it could win. Starting with the Greeks against the Persians, via the North Vietnamese against the US, and ending with...well, the Coalition against the Taliban? And who would rationally believe that either the US or China could win a war over Taiwan? What would 'winning' mean?

Indeed, Blainey's model does seem to depend on a rather simple idea of what counts as 'winning'. The world wars of the last century had clear winners and losers, like football matches, but many wars are less clear – like the 1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. 

The Finnish example, and many others, shows that war depends not just on the balance of strength between opponents but on the balance of motivation. A weaker power can 'win' over a stronger one if it can raise the costs of victory beyond what the stronger side is willing to pay for the fruits of victory, and thereby stop the stronger power before it succeeds in its objectives. 

So choices for war very often swing, not on a calculation of the balance between the material strength of the two sides, but on the balance between matériel on one side and motivation on the other. That's much harder to calculate, and it can often make sense for a weaker state to fight a war it knows it cannot win, if it believes it can stop the enemy from winning.

Which leads to Caveat Number Two: believing you will 'win' is at most necessary, not sufficient, to choose war. You must also believe that the costs of winning are worth the benefits. And this is where the irrationality really comes into the picture. Again, the Taiwan case is telling: most people agree that the US and China could choose war. But even if one side or the other could expect to win (however defined), how could Taiwan's political future possibly be worth what such a victory would cost the winner?

This brings me to Chris Skinner's interesting contribution. While agreeing that resource scarcity is an important issue, I'm not sure I agree that what drives states to war are rational, material concerns like that. My hunch is that states do not start wars to win resources — at least not big wars, even when access becomes a zero-sum struggle. The market can resolve the allocation of resources more cheaply and efficiently than wars ever can. 

The thing that drives people to fight big wars is most often fear or status ('honour', Thucydides calls it). The competition for status is much more zero-sum than for resources, and much more emotive. That, of course, is what is at stake over Taiwan.

Speaking of markets, Mark's post on the value of life is illuminating. It reminds me of Kipling's Arithmetic of the Frontier: 'Two thousand pounds of education falls to a ten rupee Jezail'. Of course, Kipling was being ironic, because the material value of human life, real and rising though it is, does not reflect the full human cost of war – which was my point to Sam.

In fact, Kipling's poem captures the West's predicament in Afghanistan perfectly, and brings us back to the importance of imponderable and irrational motives in war – on both sides. How would Blainey describe what either side there is fighting for? 

Smart guy, Kipling. Was there ever a poet with a better grasp of strategy? He also gave us the wonderful line in Recessional, foreshadowing at its apogee the sunset of empire: 'Far called, the navies melt away/the captains and the kings depart’. It comes to mind, these days.

Photo by Flickr user mr.beaver, used under a Creative Commons license.