Friday, October 24, 2014
17

The Waste of War

NEW YORK – Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Yet when we look around nowadays, we can’t help but wonder whether tragedy will be followed by yet more tragedy. Here we are, at the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and we find ourselves surrounded by cascading violence, duplicity, and cynicism of the very sort that brought the world to disaster in 1914. And the world regions involved then are involved again.

WWI began with a mindset, one based on the belief that military means could resolve pressing social and political issues in Central Europe. A century earlier, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz had written that war is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Enough politicians in 1914 agreed.

Yet WWI proved Clausewitz tragically wrong for modern times. War in the industrial age is tragedy, disaster, and devastation; it solves no political problems. War is a continuation not of politics, but of political failure.

WWI ended four imperial regimes: the Prussian (Hohenzollern) dynasty, the Russian (Romanov) dynasty, the Turkish (Ottoman) dynasty, and the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) dynasty. The war not only caused millions of deaths; it also left a legacy of revolution, state bankruptcy, protectionism, and financial collapse that set the stage for Hitler’s rise, World War II, and the Cold War.

We are still reeling today. Territory that was once within the multi-ethnic, multi-state, multi-religious Ottoman Empire is again engulfed in conflict and war, stretching from Libya to Palestine-Israel, Syria, and Iraq. The Balkan region remains sullen and politically divided, with Bosnia and Herzegovina unable to institute an effective central government and Serbia deeply jolted by the 1999 NATO bombing and the contentious independence of Kosovo in 2008, over its bitter opposition.

The former Russian Empire is in growing turmoil as well, a kind of delayed reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with Russia attacking Ukraine and violence continuing to erupt in Georgia, Moldova, and elsewhere. In East Asia, tensions between China and Japan – echoes of the last century – are a growing danger.

As was the case a century ago, vain and ignorant leaders are pushing into battle without clear purpose or realistic prospects for resolution of the underlying political, economic, social, or ecological factors that are creating the tensions in the first place. The approach of too many governments is to shoot first, think later.

Take the US. Its basic strategy has been to send troops, drones, or bombers to any place that would threaten America’s access to oil, harbors Islamic fundamentalists, or otherwise creates problems – say, piracy off the coast of Somalia – for US interests. Hence, US troops, the CIA, drone missiles, or US-backed armies are engaged in fighting across a region stretching from the Sahel in West Africa, through Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

All of this military activity costs hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. But, rather than solving a single underlying problem, the chaos is growing, threatening an ever-widening war.

Russia is not handling itself any better. For a while, Russia backed international law, rightly complaining that the US and NATO were violating international law in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

But then President Vladimir Putin took aim at Ukraine, fearing that the country was about to drop into Europe’s pocket. Suddenly, he was silent about obeying international law. His government then illegally annexed Crimea and is fighting an increasingly brutal guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine, through proxies and, it now appears, direct engagement of Russian forces.

In this context, the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is terrifying not only for its brutality, but also in its intimation of a world gone mad. At the time of this writing, those who aimed and fired the missile remain unknown, though Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine are the most likely culprits. What is certain, however, is that the violence unleashed by Putin’s war on Ukraine has claimed hundreds of innocent lives and brought the world a step closer to disaster.

There are no heroes among the great powers today. Cynicism is rife on all sides. The US effectively violates international law by resorting to force without United Nations sanction. It sends drones and secret forces into sovereign countries without their approval. It spies relentlessly on friend and foe alike.

Russia does the same, inflicting death on Ukraine, Georgia, and other neighbors. The only constants in all of this are the easy resort to violence and the lies that inevitably accompany it.

There are four major differences between now and the world of 1914. For starters, we have since lived through two disastrous wars, a Great Depression, and a Cold War. We have had the opportunity to learn a thing or two about the stupidity and uselessness of organized collective violence. Second, the next global war, in this nuclear age, would almost surely end the world.

The third major difference is that today, with our wondrous technologies, we have every opportunity to solve the underlying problems of poverty, hunger, displacement, and environmental degradation that create so many dangerous tinderboxes.

Finally, we have international law, if we choose to use it. The belligerents in Europe and Asia 100 years ago could not turn to the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly, venues where diplomacy, rather than war, can be the true continuation of politics. We are blessed with the possibility to construct peace through a global institution that was founded to help ensure that global war would never recur.

As citizens of the world, our job now is to demand peace through diplomacy, and through global, regional, and national initiatives to address the scourges of poverty, disease, and environmental degradation. On this hundredth anniversary of one of the greatest disasters of human history, let us follow tragedy not by farce or more tragedy, but by the triumph of cooperation and decency.

Read more from "The Great War Revisited"

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  1. CommentedJoseph C Boylan

    Taking further the question of the immorality of governments (c.f. Casey Research: Can any government be moral) and their members and assistants especially with reference to military involvement! It may be well to contemplate this issue in the van of Jeffrey Sachs article: The Waste of War” Using the public to participate in any kind of military activity from police to soldiers to civil defence is a very tricky subject. Let’s start the use of the military to take part in international wars of any kind. I cannot justify any form of ‘coercion’ on individuals to become ‘volunteers’ in such activity. During the First World War men in England were appealed to by the authorities with the expression: “Your country needs you!” This was a very questionable matter. The war actually stemmed from a quarrel between some European countries trying to preserve their illegal gains of the territories of other and smaller, weaker countries. It was a typical Imperialist war, where the so-called emperor was trying to maintain his illegal position of the control of ‘his’ empire. The quarreling was enormously complicated and it included many disagreements among the instigators as to whether the war should ever have been started. The socialist movements of the time declared that such a war was not worth the loss of ONE ‘loyal’ soldier’s life in its pursuit – and this was before the war even started. The aftermath was undeniably a complete disaster. Because of the assassination of his heir which ‘sparked’ the war, when the Grand Duke died his empire fell apart. The German ‘Kaiser’, a complete partner in the war, abdicated, leaving his country to go bankrupt and its economy to collapse because of the money he had spent on the war. The whole of Germany was shortly taken over by unscrupulous tycoons, which led directly to the Second World War and all its horrors. Even the so-called settlements at the Trianon meetings were unjust and corrupt. And in England we were besought to join in the action and be ‘loyal’ to our country for the sake of ‘patriotism’!!! Young men were even labelled cowards if they did not step forward and take their place as ‘cannon fodder’ in the battles. In northern France 400,000 men died fighting over a six mile width of no-man’s land. When this particular battle was over the frontiers had barely changed.

    If this is not a complete illustration of the total immorality of international war then I don’t know what is. It is also a graphic illustration of the pretentious failure of all empires after only a few hundred years in the vast majority of cases, whereas independent nations with long developed customs and morals can last thousands of years e.g. The Hungarians and the Sumerians each at least 6,000 years. These are the entities I favour so self determination is by far the best.

  2. CommentedVIEDMA EMPRENDE

    Estimado Profesor, muchas personas pensamos tal cuál usted ha escrito. Permitame felicitarlo por su articulo. Saludos desde la Patagonia Argentina.

  3. CommentedArun Dube

    World War I begat active nationalism and that has led to the collapse of the notion of bigger, all-inclusive states and has given rise to the growth of aggressive nationalism without regard to peace.

  4. CommentedAndre Berlin

    Well, the problem of the first world war is that the late US involvement unbalanced the war theatre, prevented a mutual peace of the exhausted European powers, and the post-war aftermath cratered the Wilson idealistic principles credibility, which then caused a fundamental distrust in liberal democracy, a pretext for the second world war. Wilson't breaking of the Hungarian Empire was the worst, gave rise to nationalist tensions and popularised a new racist and culturalist idea of nation state that was later pursued by Hitler and others.

  5. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Sachs, when Karl Marx said: "History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce," he must have meant that human beings didn't seem to learn from their mistakes, which made them look more stupid than tragic, when repeated.
    War does destroy, hence it can be seen as "wasteful". "On War" - a 1832 magnum opus written by Carl von Clausewitz is commonly regarded as the most important book about military theory ever written. Should today's politicians and military top brass revisit the treatise on the theory and practice of warfare for inspiration?

    One has to bear in mind that the celebrated theorist wrote with the insight conferred by self knowledge, having fought against the mighty armies of Napoleon himself. His work sheds light not just on the practicalities of warfare, but offers a subtle philosophical analysis of the nature of war and its relationship with politics. Notions such as the Clausewitzian Trinity have had an enormous effect on later military commanders. Its influence is still felt today not just on the battlefield but also in politics and business.
    It shows that human nature has not changed since Adam and Eve. The "trinity" is composed of "primordial violence, hatred and enmity", which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone”. Clausewitz was Prussian, so his three aspects - the people, the military and the government were quite characteristic of his era. It explains why he saw war as “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.”
    Sachs tries to prove Clausewitz wrong that " War in the industrial age is tragedy, disaster, and devastation; it solves no political problems. War is a continuation not of politics, but of political failure". It depends! Clausewitz argued that "defence is the stronger form of waging war". Fundamentally, it is easier to hold ground than to take it". The Kurds in Iraq may bring a good example.
    The architects of the Iraq War in 2003 believed that it was possible to use the forces of good to protect the rights of those who were defenceless and to assist in the liberation of those who were persecuted. It turned out to be a disaster, as they had overlooked the chaotic nature of war and the myriad unexpected and uncontrollable factors that affect combat troops. One has to have a plan for the battle and it has better include plenty of room for uncertainties. What many military officiers find today is that Clausewitz had a military strategy that helped understand politicians' strategy. Indeed, if diplomacy fails and military action were the last resort, one has to know that the outcome is not only measured by body counts, it is being judged by history and the international community.

  6. CommentedNelson Tkatch

    Firstly, while Sachs captures the consequence (and waste) of war accurately I can't say I agree with everything in the article. This isn't as much an academic work as the work of an academic and I'd suggest that the 20th and 21st centuries saw the rise of peoples of the world awaking to their abilities to be recognized and become independent ... just as the USA wanted and made happen in 1776. Civil wars continue today, as also happened in the USA - just earlier in history.

    Not that global or continental economic conditions and or megalomania won't influence war by themselves.

    Of course it would make sense for us to take up the job to demand peace. But let's make sure everyone's agreed on one very specific definition of peace. Launching rockets from outside a country into that country seems to clearly be the opposite of peace.

    Speaking of the Israel-Palestinian situation, it's well-documented that the Palestinians have been invited to negotiate for their own state and peaceful existence more than once and have never followed-through - even after actually agreeing to some things in Oslo. It is very sad that innocents are being killed or hurt. If Hamas had respect for the average population to stick out from civilians more than it wants to achieve it's media agenda this would directly reduce the casualties. The media reported that Hamas rejected ceasefires multiple times, so the question is why aren't they being held accountable for the innocents they failed to protect by continuing the warfare?

    And, why wasn't the world talking World Court and becoming so upset and calling for humanitarian ceasefires when Israelis where being blown up left, right and centre by these and their brethren terrorists?

    The reality is that there is the waste of war on both sides of any war and not being neutral always gets in the way of the job Sachs proposes.

  7. CommentedCourtney McConnochie

    A well written article - however to me this article still paints a heart-breaking picture. The existance of hope, the existance of a solution does not guarantee it will be acted upon by those with the means to create change.

    For sure innocent people who truly wish peace on the world, continually compromised by leadership out of their control. I'm not denying than to a degree leadership must be centralised to be effective - however for those in positions of power, the responsibility is freighted with the obligation to act as a caretaker for both those you represent and future generations.

    Without doubt the potential for peace is there. WE have the means - and a growing global base of support. And the danger of a nuclear war is surely immense. However for world leaders - in both legitimate and illegitimate positions of power, this does not seem to hold a candle to their immediate interests in accumulating power, wealth, resource or control.

    It's not a question how the myriad of geo-political conflicts are dealt with on a case by case basis. It's a macro-cosm of the social contract. Only by putting geo-political interests aside could peace ever truly be realised. However that very much seems an ideal that could never be reached. Power corrupts. Altruistic notions by those in power are rarely without self interest. This is genetic - biology programs us to look out for ourselves. Only by realising a creater threat is present can individual motivations be overcome. Until the disasterous effect of instability is truly understood and appreciated by each and every person freighted with the responsibility to guide a political/religious/ethnic group of any size, we will never overcome the geo-political motvation causing our fracticious global environment.

    Any long-standing solution must come from this instrinsic change, as any extrinsic forces - such as international accountability - are unlikely to cause the paradign shif in dogma that will form the foundations for a world without disasterous conflict. A concerted effort should focus on how to bring the real possibility of nuclear war and other disasterous consequences home to those with the potential to influence change.


    I don't have the answer. Perhaps the paradigm shift starts with a new generation. Or perhaps it will be a real case of Noah and the Arc. The solution may only come from a clean slate. And then who is to say we would have learned something?

      CommentedVIEDMA EMPRENDE

      Mrs MCCONNOCHIE, i hope this issues can be resolved in this generation, because the next will have to face others menaces. But some issues would be discussed globally by using the soaring communications and social networks. Politics will have to be permeable to the social agenda. Yes Accountablillity is a key issue. U.N. + UNIVERSAL COURT = Peace . Best wishes .

  8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I agree with the author that in today's global, integral world where every individual and nations is inter-dependent we need a system of laws, supra-national governance and subsequent lifestyle that can safeguard such a complex integrated network.

    But I also agree with some of the comments that there is a huge question, on what principles should such an "international law" be based on?

    If we look at the world today, we can see that there is no nation, economic, political or governance system that would be suitable, sustainable.

    The "liberal and democratic" Western society is gradually turning out not so liberal and not democratic after all, it seems to work well until things are going well, but has no answer to domestic or international conflicts, crisis situations "when the chips are down".

    We could even argue that most of the geo-political disasters, economic problems, environmental dangers we are all fighting today are actually the direct results of the actions, policies of the most developed Western nations.

    And in terms of being trustworthy, visionary, offering solutions...well with all due respect outside of the US nobody takes seriously anything the American administration says, claims or does these days, and in the UK for example even the British people themselves do not believe what their leaders are saying or doing, Europe in general is in full denial and depression and other regions haven't even reached the "quasi liberal/democratic state".

    Overall we are operating without any tangible, stable coordinates, all the failures originate from our notion that humanity is a separate entity from the vast natural system we evolved from, and in fact are still part of.

    We built special but artificial human systems which are now crumbling in front of our eyes as they have no natural foundations.

    In short in a global, integral, natural system, where general harmony and homeostasis reigns, where all parts are tightly interconnected and inter-dependent, only mutually complementing cooperative governance and natural necessity and available means based economy can survive.

    We need to build a completely new human system based on these natural principles, re-adapting humanity to the system.

  9. CommentedRaj Thamotheram

    A timely reminder of what we need to do to learn and avoid repeating the past. Part of our challenge is that power has now moved to institutions which are largely disinterested in systemic risk. The lack of financial sector response to geopolitical risk is worrying: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/fdfff836-119a-11e4-a17a-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk#axzz38Hfx9lrr

  10. CommentedTom Berkowitz

    Tom Berkowitz July 23.2014 - Your high school mate
    Jeffrey, it seems to me that everybody assumes that Russia is back to trying to build an empire. I tend to think just the opposite - that they fear that they fear for their survival as they are being surrounded by NATO and by on and off threats by the U.S. to put missiles in Eastern Europe. This is why they are so concerned with their borders. Given the evidence that they see (the recruitment of all European countries into NATO except Russia), their viewpoint is really fairly reasonable. The Soviet Union broke up and through off communism, and Russia and the US had pretty good relations for a while, but NATO had expansionary dreams (not Russia) and this is the result. What say you?

  11. CommentedMatt Stillerman

    Dear Prof. Sachs,

    I am generally sympathetic to your point of view. The world certainly seems headed for widespread trouble. And, international law seems at first glance to be an attractive basis for avoiding this trouble. But, I just don't see how it is suppose to work -- in detail.

    Consider your example of Kosovo. This was, in effect, a civil war between two parts of Serbia. With hatred running deep, and with a significant asymmetry of forces, this was going to be a really horrible massacre. That massacre was prevented by intervention, in contravention of international law -- Russia would always veto. So, are you saying that we should have stood by and watched? Would that have been better? In this case, the deterrent force of international law would be exactly this: With some very small probability, the perpetrators of atrocities will, in their old age, face justice in the Hague. If they are convicted, they may spend a few years in prison, protected from their adversaries, and with better medical care than they could obtain at home.

    Clausewitz, who you cite approvingly also pointed out that all wars (in his era) are started by defenders. If the invading force is not resisted, then there is no war. So, perhaps those Kosovars should have laid down their arms? Just accepted their second-class citizenship in their own country?

    So, I really would like international law to be the answer. I just don't see how it is supposed to work.

  12. CommentedSubhro Prokas Mukherjee

    International Law is primarily biased towards the ideology of western democracies. One wonders if it can accommodate countries with different socio-economic conditions or political systems. Read articles on TWAIL for more information.

  13. Commentedhari naidu

    Jeffery Sachs and Richard Haas are dealing with two different world-view of War. One is philosophical; the other is policy prescriptive.

    Neither appear circumspect or mention the current use of military power by Israeli/IDF against unarmed Palestinian civilian population. Nor do they admit it is American supplied military weapons which IDF is deploying against unarmed Palestinians. Bibi also has the audacity to claim that Hamas is responsible for +500 Palestinians killed by IDF, so far. IDF is actually killing the innocent with its monopoly of (American) fire power. If this is not a racist war, by definition, it’s difficult to explain it in any other context – and the issue is how it all ends finally?

    Erdogan (Turkey) has called it worse than Hitler’s WWII genocide. Bibi responded by labeling Erdogan *anti-sematic*. Erdogan may be elected next President of Turkey - in September. So, the conflict is being exacerbated by Bibi with Egypt’s (tacit) concurrence by President Assisi – Hamas & Muslim Brotherhood are birds of the same feather.

    This is a combustible mix of regional developments, so far.

    Today, Ex-Israeli Ambassador to US - Michael Oren – told The Times of Israel - Secretary Kerry was not invited for ceasefire talks by Egypt. But Kerry is nevertheless in Cairo today!

    Putin’s aggression against Ukraine - what was once the citadel of ancient Russia: Kiev. The argument that EU association negotiations and Berlin’s demarche may have inadvertently exacerbated the conflict is politically admissible; reason why now expect EU to finally ramp-up its sectoral sanctions against Russia – until there is a final peaceful resolution of the conflict.

    The death of 154 Dutch citizens on the Malaysian Airline’s disaster in Eastern Ukraine really complicates Putin’s policy alternatives.

    And, depending on who finally succeeds Ashton, by end of year, it’s likely Putin will not like the subsequent medicine prescribed by Brussels.

      CommentedEdward Ponderer

      Mr. Naidu appears to have himself missed something of the reality, regarding the too blatant continuing distortion about the Israelis whom Hamas likes to call, per their Jihadist ideology "pigs and monkeys" to be slaughtered, as well as the more politically correct "racist," is best understood in terms of what the Palestinians themselves say among themselves. This piece reported on by YNET about a recent interview on PA television:

      -- "Each and every missile launched from Gaza against Israel constitutes a crime against humanity, whether it hits or misses," Ibrahim Khraishi, the Palestinian Authority's representative at the UN Human Rights Council, said in an interview to the PA television.

      Khraishi has not become a Zionist. He has complaints against Israel. He knows that the council he sits in has an automatic majority against Israel, and that if the Palestinians were to suggest that the council condemn Israel for spreading malaria in Africa, that proposal would be accepted.

      But he was referring to a body which is supposed to a bit more serious: The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. The idea to sue Israel there is raised every now and then. Khraishi tried to explain to the instigators that it’s a double-edged sword. The Palestinians have a unity government. Every crime committed by Hamas is a crime committed by the Palestinian Authority. They share mutual responsibility.

      Khraishi added that "many of our people in Gaza appeared on TV and said that the Israelis warned them to evacuate their homes before the bombardment. In such a case, if someone is killed, the law considers it a mistake rather than an intentional killing." He added that the Palestinians did not warn anyone about where the missiles launched from their side were about to fall, and so it was considered a crime according to international law.

      Therefore, you should stop being so enthusiastic about appealing to the ICC, he told the Palestinians.

      This is the reality of the missile aggression by Hamas--which is supposed to be the elected representative of the Gaza Palestinians and part of the unity government with the PA.

      There was a truce called by Egypt, supported by the Arab league, the PA, and the USA, that Israel honored and Hamas spat on--continuing to intensify its random barrage of civilian targets. The stopping of European and airline traffic to Tel Aviv is indicative of the simple reality that it would only take one hit of an aircraft, hospital, school or office building to "balance the numbers." Hamas wants this desperately, and it it only operation iron dome and "bad luck" on Hamas's part that has prevented such.

      The IDF warned civilian populations of intent and to evacuate, and if they remain it is their choice, as well as pressure from their supposed elected government. [The German people during WWII cannot be considered innocent victims of Hitler--so that the allies had no right to fight Germany if that meant that German civilians could get killed.]

      The Israelis sought to stop missile batteries fired from those locations--purposely placed there by Hamas. Hamas had no intent to warn, but rather sought, as policy, to kill civilians. The Palestinians themselves testify to this, so the blood libel against the IDF ought to stop.

      As to the "numbers game" of 500 Palestinians vs. "not enough Israelis"--without caring about intention, 50,000 Americans die on the road each year--so Detroit car manufacturers are clearly the biggest of war criminals.

  14. CommentedStephen Pain

    Some say that Putin has a shopping list and wants to restore Russia back to its forner glory. China has the same kind of shopping list. It involves territory and natural resources. Nearly every conflict has that at the bottom of it. In a world of a still growing and developing countries and populations, there will be additional cause for aggression. This is our future while resources diminish quickly. We need more than ever to challenge the hegemony of the old energy sources and seek to reduce our dependency on oil and gas through massive investment in wind solar and tidal solutions. This must be the way. In addition we must change the trade rules so that we can effectively penalise states and individuals who incite violence to people or natute. I think if we did we would check the deleterious power and influence of the big boys on the block.

  15. CommentedKen Presting

    Prof. Sachs is correct to identify us all as "citizens of the world" and the solution to our residual conflicts as increasing the role of international law and supra-national institutions. I would disagree only to suggest that Pres. Obama is doing his best to follow Sachs' advice.

    These ideas are at least as old as Thomas Hobbes. The thesis of his "Leviathan" was that only an absolute sovereign could end the cycle of civil wars plaguing Europe in the 17th century. The principle appears again in Max Weber's famous definition of government as a regional monopoly of violence, in “Politics as a Vocation.”

    The world has arrived at a time when the relevant region is the whole globe. Trade, travel, finance, and communication are each globalized. Sub-national violence in (eg) the Islamic countries is supported by both donations and recruits from Malaysia to Massachusetts. Our globe is certainly no village, but there is a resemblance to a Metropolis – think of Karachi, Mexico City, or Chicago. An ongoing struggle between forces of order vs those who profit from chaos is endemic in all these places.

    I hear echoes of Sachs' concerns in Obama's West Point address. There would be no terrorist enclaves if every recognized government really did have a regional monopoly on violence. Sachs is correct to say our times are distant from those of Clausewitz. We are now in the time of the military-industrial complex, where war is the continuation of business by other means. There really is no political role for international violence in our time, but the arms industry can't help trying to maintain its market share. They and their paid politicians are re-framing organized crime syndicates as if they were foreign enemies, and meanwhile militarizing local police departments with tanks and drones. And again making money when military equipment intended for police ends up in terrorist hands.

    It's true that war is waste for most of us. But it's a win-win-win situation for the merchants of death. To solve the problem of global violence, we have to reduce the role of money in American politics. It may sound impossible, but it has been done in the past.

    This is a history we should repeat.

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