Wednesday, May 31, 2006

[Week of the Dead]

Death and War.

Three hundred thousand Americans died in WWII, and yet conventional wisdom holds that those lives were expended saving a far greater number. In Vietnam, the figure was 58,000, but, due to the lack of proven risk, history levels a different judgment. There is always a calculation during wartime: will the lives saved by going to war offset the loss of life, disruption, and cost of waging the war? Call the cost/benefit ratio of war. Every time countries go into armed conflicts, presumably the answer at the time was "yes." Of course, that doesn't mean it was the right answer.

Since I hit moral sentience sometime in my mid-teens (mid-Reagan administration, late cold war), I have been a pacifist. Politically, I always will be, particularly as long as I remain an American. We are so quick to go to war, with so little provocation, that pacifists at least keep open the moral alternative. However, my beliefs were shaken when the US deposed the Taliban. I saw for the first time a just war and the ouster of a deeply malevolent regime. Everything that has happened since that war has diminished the sacrifice and commitment of the soldiers and Afghanis who were participants, but it doesn't change the reality that the Taliban was objectively worse than an invasion. Judged on a cost/benefit ratio (even a moral, rather than strategic, one) the decision to invade was just.

The current debacle in Iraq illustrates the morally unjustifiable war. When judging the benefits an invasion could conceivably have brought against the costs and dangers, it was a war that should never have been conducted. Even ignorant bloggers could see that. War is death, and so the burden of proof must be high. Wars of choice, conducted by vast empires against weaker foes, should be measured against even higher standards. Exercising death just because you can is one of the most morally dubious of all actions--and in Iraq we have seen the costs.

The so-called "war on terror" ("global struggle against violent extremists," whatever) is a more difficult question. Terror networks like al Qaida are dangerous and malevolent. Taking up arms against bin Laden would trouble few. But here's where our insularity as a great empire (with a volunteer army) blinds us. The warmongers on the right have successfully brainwashed Americans into thinking of the struggle as either the proposition of war versus a kind of de facto surrender. In this prescription, most Americans opt for war.

I'm convinced we have forgotten the reality of war--it is the exercise of death to accomplish an end. If that reality were strongly in our minds, we would see the fiction of the war/surrender dichotomy. Consider a different war in which the stakes were far higher--the cold war. The reality of death was very clear to Americans confronting nuclear annihilation, and we didn't risk a hot war. The casualties were miniscule.

It's not so obvious how to handle threats as different as terrorism, Darfur, North Korea, or China. When I look at each one, though, I only see a moral argument for war in one--and it's the one place I'm certain our leaders are not considering it. We use our military like it were a diplomatic tool, forgetting that its mechanism is death. Our calibration of the cost/benefit ratio has therefore gotten out of balance.

As a pacificist, I have learned there are times when war is the least harmful course. I hope that Iraq will have the effect of reminding people that those times are very rare.


Codjr said...

This makes sense to me but I have never tought of it in this way b4.

BTW: Is the one just acasion you were talking about, China,
Darfur or N. Korea, [to go to war against] Darfur?

Jeff Alworth said...


Idler said...

By your straightforward utilitarian calculation it would be hard to justify the Civil War. Perhaps you agree that it should not have been fought, given the shocking level of casualties.

I'm not sure how you calculate how the Iraq war is unjustified by this criterion, especially considering the relatively very low number of casualties.

zemeckis said...

where's emma?

you sound way more pragmatist than any paci/buddhist i've ever heard.

i bet you got some thoughts that dont fit in a standard box

Jeff Alworth said...

Idler, I don't actually want to try to justify any war. The post may not have been the clearest thing I've ever written, but it was intended to be an acknowledgement that the costs of war are muddy and what we weigh are deaths.

I'm not sure how you calculate how the Iraq war is unjustified by this criterion, especially considering the relatively very low number of casualties.

Actually, somewhere between 50-100k people have died. That may be relatively low compared to other wars, but it's extravagantly high compared to no invasion. Given that the long-term consequences look to be greater instability, war, and terror, the number is only one measure of how catastrophically the war has failed.

Jeff Alworth said...

i bet you got some thoughts that dont fit in a standard box

Well, maybe I'll get to those today or tomorrow--

Idler said...


What's curious is that you entirely omit reference to the scenario of Saddam Hussein in power long-term.

How can you perform a cost/benefit analysis when you don't consider the benefit (in this case the mitigation of the specific threat posed by the Saddam Hussein regime)? And why is it that you don't?

What were the liabilities of Saddam Hussein remaining in power? What were the likely numbers of civilian dead had the S.H. regime remained in place under the status quo short-term, and under whatever conditions were likely to prevail in the longer term?

You're obviously concentrating on civilian casualties, since military casualties have been extremely low by the standards set by earlier wars.

Fifty thousand seems a very high number, let alone 100,000. A sober comparison of these figures with civilian deaths during the area bombing (carpet bombing of urban residential areas) of the Second World War will shed some light on their plausibility.

Leaving aside the contentious raw numbers, there is a question about the justice of commenting on these casualties without further elucidation, given that much of the deaths are being inflicted precisely to encourage arguments like your own. By using the numbers the way you do, you allow yourself to be the tool of the ruthless thugs that commit the atrocities that cause these deaths and you perversely lay the blame at the feet of those thugs' enemies, rather than blaming the inhuman thugs themselves.

Naturally you don't want to justify any war, but moral calculation is the game you're playing here. I'm asking you to face up to its harsh imperatives. I do so with my habitual respect for your intelligence and thoughtfulness.

It's hard to look at the Civil War or the Second World War and say "It was worth it," especially considering the raw casualty numbers. But should the U.S. government not have gotten involved in those conflicts? You say "what we weigh are deaths," but the continuation of slavery would surely have involved less carnage than the Civil War. It's not inconceivable that the Japanese and Nazi empires could have been established on a more or less permanent basis without the staggering casualties that resulted from the resistance of the allies.

Jeff Alworth said...

Idler--you make no idle critique of my post! All right then:

you entirely omit reference to the scenario of Saddam Hussein in power long-term.

It's true, and the reason is because the comparisons begin to get awfully hypothetical awfully quick. I don't want to get into the game of comparing bodies, because it's so hypothetical, but also because it is actually the inverse of the point I was (failing) to make. Which is, wars are death, and so the moral clarity for conducting them must be really compelling. But let's take up the charge. Saddam stays in power. He continues his reign of barbarity. It is difficult to say whether this is good or bad because we have no way of knowing what comes next. Is he replaced, Ceausescu-like, Orange-revolution-like, or is there a period of civil war leading to a worse leader? We can't know.

But, if we're going to play that game, we have to play it in both directions. What if Iraq collapses into civil war now only to replace Saddam with the next Saddam. Then we've had a war that kills tens of thousands followed by civil war followed by ... barbarous tyranny. Awfully hypothetical.

I can't resist this: Fifty thousand seems a very high number, let alone 100,000. It's fifty at the very minimum. Iraq body count puts the figure at between 38-42,000, and that includes only deaths reported to the media. The much maligned Lancet study actually had an incredible methodology that is far superior to anything anyone else has done, and they put the figure at 100k 18 months ago.

In the final analysis, I'd like to think we're both making the same argument. War is an extremely murky business, and the costs are incredible. You pose the question of lives vs. slavery in the Civil War which is one I might have made. In my post, I said this was how we decide to go to war:

Will the lives saved by going to war offset the loss of life, disruption, and cost of waging the war?

The answers will differ depending on the person and the war. Once I might have said the answer in all cases is no. I don't think it's that easy, though.

Anonymous said...

We agree that “War is an extremely murky business, and the costs are incredible.” What I’m emphasizing is that avoiding war is not any less costly or murky, except perhaps in the very near term. I also share with you what might be called the agony of uncertainty or the frustratingly hypothetical nature of the kinds of calculations we’re talking about. But that’s unavoidable whether one argues for action or inaction.

I don’t see how the Civil War example is one you would have used, precisely because it deals with questions other than death. That said, I think death certainly is a very important factor in any cost/benefit analysis.

It’s worth observing that in some respects “moral clarity” and statistical clarity are different things. There was no lack of moral clarity with regard to the nature of the Saddam Hussein (nor either clarity about the formal justifications, as I see it). However, to the extent that we apply a more strict consequentialist criterion, the "statistical" affects the “moral.” But then we’re back to square one: the consequences of both action and inaction (or of various alternatives of action) are both murky and speculative to some degree.

I dispute your claim of “fifty at the very minimum.” I followed the Lancet controversy from the start and believe it was “much maligned” for good reason. I remember reading some persuasive arguments by people qualified in statistical disciplines, but even before that I found the 100,000 figure extremely implausible. The first thing that occurred to me was that something like 54,000 American personnel died during the Vietnam War. That’s just over half of what was claimed for Iraqi civilians, though it refers to military casualties in a hot (or at least simmering) war over a period of roughly a decade. I then thought about precedents of civilian deaths when they were more or less inflicted deliberatly. Roughly 61,000 British civilians were killed by German bombing during WWII, much of that bombing being indiscriminate area attacks against urban populations. Many of these resulted from the massive attacks from 1939-41 for which the "Blitz" era was known, but further attacks from V1s and V2s continued to take a toll through 1945. Bearing these figures in mind it should be obvious that the precision bombing of the U.S. against Iraq targets isn’t responsible for figures of the magnitude of those cited by the Lancet. Nor is it plausible that ground engagements could have resulted in such numbers, given the infrequency of such operations on any considerable scale.

If one attributes the great majority of deaths to terroristic attacks then, as I have already argued, the moral calculus acquires a new difficulty. In any case, by my calculation a figure of 50,000 equates to something like 40 deaths on average every day since the war began in March 2003. I think that’s a highly questionable estimate. The John’s Hopkins study published in the Lancet implied something like 187 civilian deaths per day (it studied 17.8 months following the launch of the war). I think that’s simply outlandish.

Some other thoughts on the death-toll calculus: Many have argued that sanctions would have continued to work in Iraq, meaning however many war deaths there have been (and there have been lots of them, without a doubt) could have been avoided. I think this is true only for the short term, and it fudges the deaths routinely caused by the S.H. regime while in power. It’s worth remembering that before the U.S. showed interest in invading Iraq, sanctions were blamed for as many as 500,000 civilian deaths annually. It’s easy to ridicule such claims now, but they enjoyed quite a bit of popularity before 9/11. A much lower estimate would have helped to erode domestic support for sanctions domestically, but far more important factors were other influential governments lack of resolve to keep the sanctions in place. There’s no good reason to think that France, Germany or Russia would have indefinitely supported meaningful sanctions since they were already violating them before the war began. It was quite easy to foresee that there would not be enthusiastic support in many influential quarters for either perpetuating sanctions or going to war.

It is, without a doubt, hard to know what the eventual result of inaction would have been, but it’s safe to assume that it wouldn’t be good and could have been very bad indeed. That said, the results of the road taken could be very bad in ways that weren’t anticipated. But matters of national security are hardly ever choices between good and evil, but only of what one bets will be the lesser of evils.


Jeff Alworth said...

I'll respond to you more in a separate post, because we do disagree somewhat profoundly on this point: "What I’m emphasizing is that avoiding war is not any less costly or murky, except perhaps in the very near term." I think that's true in a very small minority of cases, but I'll take it up separately.

As for the Lancet bit, here's the methodology. I actually am a researcher, and the study methodology that they used to arrive at 100k was by far the most rigorous ever applied to the question. And, even if it weren't the 38-42k of reported deaths must surely, you have to admit, be an under-report.

Idler said...


Not being a researcher (at least not in the sense required here) I have limited confidence in my ability to evaluate all the critiques of the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study in a timely manner, but the study obviously is highly controversial. I’d be willing to bet that we could find critics of the study with credentials to rival your own. Here’s one that I came across. Here’s another.

Mark Twain’s comment about “lies, damned lies and statistics” was so incisive not only because statistics can be twisted misleadingly but also because their scientific veneer gives them a kind of automatic credibility. That’s true of both truly reliable and misleading presentations of statistics, of course. But I bring it up because my initial impression looked beyond the patina of scientific reliability of the study and found it almost bizarrely implausible. Since you haven’t responded directly to what I said on that score, I appeal to you to go back to what I read and reconsider it. If I’m not mistaken, many of the deaths projected by the JH/L study were attributed by air strikes (the figure 95% showed up in something I read). In a conflict where air strikes are conducted with a level of unprecedented precision is it likely that in a shorter period of time that many more civilians would be killed than were killed as a result of German carpet bombing of British cities? What populous zones of Iraq received anything like that kind of treatment? I think this is a great reality check for some highly abstract and contentious statistical manipulation. If you think it’s not, please tell me why.

Something seems to be missing from your last sentence, but you seem at least to be arguing that the IBC newspaper-based reports must be underreports. Maybe they are, at least in some respect. But they’re also likely to be overreports in another, key, respect. The enemies that coalition forces have engaged in places like Fallujah and elsewhere do not wear uniforms or otherwise overtly identify themselves as combatants. It’s hard to doubt that a significant proportion of deaths reportedly civilian are actually combatant deaths.

Jeff Alworth said...

Something seems to be missing from your last sentence...

Yee--you're right about that. What the hell was I trying to say?

but you seem at least to be arguing that the IBC newspaper-based reports must be underreports.

Yeah. And while what you say might shift some deaths into a different category, I can't see any logic in which the reported number of deaths isn't an underreport. In wartime, recordkeeping suffers.