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I’d like to start this week by making a point I’ve made over and over again:

It’s probably a mistake to assume that everyone in the past was horribly violent, irredeemably evil or massively ignorant.

Rather, as I have repeatedly pointed out, they probably had a reason for doing whatever it was they did. That reason may no longer exist, the world is a very different place than it was 500 years ago, or even 100 years ago. So we certainly don’t want to automatically assume that it’s a good idea to continue doing things the way we always have, but that hardly seems to be the mistake most people are making. Rather most people seem to be making the opposite mistake, the one I keep pointing out, declaring that all the reasons for how things were done in the past were bad reasons and we can safely ignore them.

If you were going to point out a place where people in the past acted irrationally you might point to the omnipresence of war. Something which, thankfully, seems to have experienced a massive decline since World War II (at least in terms of combat deaths as a percentage of population.) If there’s anything we can all agree is bad, it’s war. Though as it turns out, not everyone does agree with that, or at least a few people have raised some interesting questions.

I talked about one of these people just last week, Robin Hanson, and his assertion that we are engaged in rapid cultural exploration, which carries unknown risks we may not be properly accounting for. In his original post he gives seven examples of risky cultural exploration, including one related to the subject of war:

While the world has become much more peaceful over the last century, this has been accompanied by big declines in cultural support for military action and tolerance for military losses. Is the world now more vulnerable to conquest by a new military power with more local cultural support and tolerance for losses?

Another person to recently question the idea that war is a horrible mistake, is professor Benjamin Ginsberg, who I encountered recently on an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. (I should say that I’m grateful to frequent commenter Boonton for pointing the episode out to me.) Ginsberg is a political science professor at John Hopkins University and he recently published a book titled The Worth of War. I have not read it, but from what I gather he acknowledges the horrible death toll of war as well as the other associated suffering, but points out that there are some positives to war as well.

To begin with Ginsberg seems reasonably certain that true peace is impossible, that there will be war, and as long as that’s the case we shouldn’t completely demonize it because it will come back to haunt us when war does return. As you can see his thought process is very similar to Hanson’s though I get the sense that Ginsberg is more certain. For my own part it appears that the key question is whether there are cultures with dramatically more support for war and dramatically greater tolerance for losses than our own. And if so, why haven’t they conquered us already?

Off the top of my head it would appear that the Taliban checks both the “cultural support” and the “loss tolerance” box. Which leaves only the question of why haven’t they conquered us already? Well, there are only 34.5 million Afghanis (and not all belong to the Taliban) and there are 326 million Americans. Also Afghanistan’s blue water navy is notoriously underfunded, meaning a direct attack on America is only possible through terrorism. But we can examine our own attempts to conquer them, and as far as I can tell it’s not going well.

Here are a few recent headlines:

Some quotes from the last article.

Even Kabul is not secure. When I’m coming from home and I say hello to my baby and wife, I am thinking sometimes there is no guarantee to be back at home,” says Najibullah Hekmat, a third-generation Afghan surgeon trained and working at the hospital.

ISIS claimed responsibility for Kabul’s latest attack on Wednesday, twin blasts that killed 20 civilians and wounded 70 more.

An escalation in terrorist attacks and fighting between the Taliban and government forces has helped drive the number of civilian deaths this year to its highest point on record — 1,692 civilians killed by June 30, according to the UN.

No one is arguing that the US is in imminent danger of being conquered by the Taliban but despite spending billions and billions of dollars and thousands of lives we’re having a heck of a time conquering them. One would think that our huge advantage in resources and technology would prove to be a decisive advantage, but it has not. Obviously, in part, we’re restrained by humanitarian impulses, which, among other things, restricts indiscriminate killing on a large scale, but even taking that into account, the Taliban obviously have a will to fight, and to suffer hardship and casualties which we don’t.

Is there some future, where the Taliban, or some other nation, pulls even with the US as far as resources and technology, while at the same time maintaining that greater will to fight and sacrifice? This is an important question. As I said I just listened to the podcast, but I get the feeling that Ginsberg’s answer is yes, and that Hanson’s answer is maybe. Personally, I’m on the side of Hanson. It does seem like there might be something about the progress required to get resources and technology, which is inevitably pacifying. That perhaps, when you get to the point where you have a blue water navy and nukes you don’t want to use them. You might argue that the US does, at least, use its navy, but it’s hard to argue we use it in the same way the Taliban would.

Do we have any other examples we can use? On the one hand there is Europe and on the other hand, China. Europe clearly seems like a place which has the technology and resources to be a significant military power, but which also has zero will to fight, and almost as little desire to sacrifice. China has the resources, and is quickly catching up on the tech, and while certainly more aggressive than Europe, it’s unclear when it comes right down to it how warlike they actually are. When was the last time China invaded another country anyway? Does the Sino-Vietnamese War count?

I suppose Russia is also an example, but as with most things, it’s something of an enigma, is their willingness to fight and sacrifice greater now than it was during the Cold War? What about their resources and tech? Their military is certainly smaller than it was during the Soviet era. Though their absolute tech level may have gotten better.  

I guess all of this is to say that if technology has no relationship to a country’s will to fight, then eventually you’re going to have a high tech society (with a blue water navy and nukes and the whole nine yards) who really wants to take over the world, and, if, as Hanson and Ginsberg fear, the US and other developed nations have lost that will, then they’re probably going to lose. (Which, as I pointed out, is kind of already happening in Afghanistan, and it didn’t even require equal resources and technology.)

If, on the other hand, technology and pacifism, are somewhat linked than maybe getting the military necessary to do something like take over the US, automatically means that you’re too “civilized” to actually do it. Perhaps, but to me this seems like a thin premise to bet the future of the nation on.

This idea of preparedness is the first positive Ginsberg points out, that war, or at least a warlike attitude, makes us more likely to emerge victorious when war inevitably arrives. I guess if you’re sure there’s going to be a big game, and if that game is for all the marbles, then it’s pretty silly not to practice. To which, guys like Steven Pinker argue, that there isn’t necessarily going to be another big game, that big games are horrible, and by practicing for them we make them more likely to happen. But this post is not about the likelihood of big games, I have other posts about that. It’s about whether there are any positives to having the occasional big game, so let’s move on to the next one.

Beyond the argument that preparing for war makes it more likely, Pinker and people like him also argue that having a warlike culture has negative effects on the culture itself. Ginsberg argues the exact opposite, and mentions it as a positive. This is another topic I’ve discussed in past posts, but to summarize: Pinker and people like him point out that warlike societies have a much greater risk of death due to violence. Case closed. The argument on the other side is more nuanced, and I’m not sure of the specifics of Ginsberg’s version of the argument, but the best argument I’ve come across is in the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. He points out that psychological problems go away and people report being happier during times of war.

The best example of this argument being played out is among the Native American tribes during the colonial period. On the one side, Pinker points out that people in these tribes had an appallingly high chance of dying due to violence. On the other side, Junger points out this quote from french émigré, Hector de Crèvecoeur, who actually was around at the time (unlike Pinker):

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

Obviously premature death due to violence is bad, but apparently not bad enough to make people prefer the less violent culture over the more violent one. Meaning that when actually given a choice between Pinker’s world or Junger’s world people choose the more warlike world of Junger. The reasons why or whether this can be extrapolated into the present or whether there’s some way to get the happiness without the violence are beyond the scope of this post. (If you’re interested the post where I reviewed Tribe does get into it.) But I think at a minimum it points to a more complicated picture of war than what most people entertain these days. Which is Ginsberg’s whole point.

Before leaving our discussion of the societal benefits of war, I want to also draw your attention to another post I did, which you may or may not have read. In this other post I discussed the book The Great Leveler, which argued that mass mobilization war is one of the few things that has ever reduced inequality. Opinions vary on how bad inequality is, but if you’re one of those people who thinks that it will eventually result in some kind of internal civil war or revolution, then there’s certainly an argument to be made that a nation is better off occasionally going to war, than eventually self-destructing in bloody violence. Or to put it more crudely if it takes death to reduce inequality there’s an argument to be made that deaths outside the nation are preferable to deaths inside the nation.

Ginsberg also spent a lot of time (as it seemed to me) talking about all of the technology which has come out of wars. Here, at least, I’m not convinced the benefit is as big a deal as he thinks. I imagine that most of the technology which was developed to help out during wartime would have been developed eventually even without the war. Also, oftentimes the technology being developed is solving a problem which is only significant because of war. Ginsberg mentions the advances in prosthetics which have occured recently. Advances he says we only have because of the recent wars. And it is true, a lot of people have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with a missing limb, and as a result we’ve gotten a lot better a building artificial limbs, but to be clear these artificial limbs wouldn’t be needed in the first place without the war. I’m not saying there aren’t other people who lose limbs in other ways (or who are born without them). I’m saying when you consider that most of this technology would have been developed eventually, I’m reasonably certain that spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives to hasten it by a few years is not worth it.

To put it another way, however bad you think the government is at directing research priorities. Imagine that instead of going to war they said here’s $5 trillion (one estimate for the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan) think of all the technology that might be developed in the course of a war, things like battlefield surgery, prosthetics, drones, etc. And see what you can come up with. Imagining this scenario, can you honestly say that we wouldn’t have developed everything that came out of the war and then some? I imagine we could probably do it for a tenth of that money.

That said, there may be a deeper issue, I can see making the more subtle argument that war forces us to focus on certain kinds of technology, technology that’s better at helping us survive rather than technology that’s better at keeping us happy (though “keeping us distracted” seems much closer to the mark.) I’ve talked in the past about the conflict between prioritizing survival and prioritizing happiness, and it could be that the farther you go down one of the roads, the harder it is to pay any attention to the other road. That the more new technology consists of things like Instagram, Twitch and Coffee meets Bagel, that the harder it will be to develop technology which actually contributes to our survival. Once again I think it just makes things take longer, but, on the other hand, there is plenty of science fiction where the whole course of the future was determined by early choices in what to prioritize, leading to technology that could only have been discovered on the exact path that was chosen. Certainly I have warned of the dangers of a long term focus on lotus eating, so maybe we are painting ourselves into a corner.

This does take us to the final and perhaps most compelling point Ginsberg makes about the benefits of war: War is the ultimate test of rationality. The meaning of this observation should be obvious, though I think people have forgotten it. Why? Because since the end of the cold war the US has been so strong militarily that it didn’t matter whether we had the ideal strategy or the perfect tactics, we were going to win regardless. Such was not the case during the Cold War, when there were huge debates about which ideology would provide the decisive edge in the inevitable war. Now we no longer worry about it because no one worries about war against some vastly inferior power, people only worry about a war when it’s going to be close (as most wars are, otherwise they never begin in the first place.)

From this the argument can be made that when a nation is powerful, (like the US is currently) they and their citizens can engage in irrational behavior for a very long time. Particularly if that behavior doesn’t carry the seeds of its own destruction. If your irrationality doesn’t cause you to starve to death or overdose (which it very well might) or something equally fatal, then it has no natural endpoint. This is particularly true given all of the things we’ve implemented to prevent irrationality from being fatal. But everything I’ve said so far applies only to internal destructive tendencies, not external destructive actors. Once those enter the equation, in the form of war, and if the sides are fairly evenly matched, as they generally are, irrationality will be quickly revealed. As Master Sergeant Farell (played by the late, great Bill Paxton in the criminally underrated movie Edge of Tomorrow) said:

Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.

I’m mostly interested in the “fiery crucible” part (though I think “parasitic scum” may have some bearing here as well). And the associated idea that if there is anything present in you or your civilization which doesn’t help you survive, it gets burned away. I realize I am once again making survival the primary value, but I think this is one area where it is definitely justified. Not only is survival directly threatened by war, but if your ideas won’t help you survive than there’s a good chance they won’t continue past your death.

We may not know where our irrationality lies until the moment we’re put to the test. But I can think of some candidates. One of the bitterly fought battles of the culture war has been expanding who can serve in combat, and in the military in general. In 2010 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed allowing LGB’s to serve openly. Then in 2013 the ban on women serving in combat was lifted. And of course just recently we’ve seen the fight over transgender individuals serving. I am not saying that any of these expansions are definitely irrational, though they certainly could be if, when the time comes, they make our military any less effective at its core responsibility of killing the other guy before they can kill us. Or as Hanson alludes to, if it reduces our support for military action and our tolerance for military losses.

What are the odds of that happening? Well there are four possible effects these expansions could have:

  1. They could be a great idea. I could be that if another big war comes our military will fight more effectively than they would have otherwise.
  2. It could be that it doesn’t matter, because we’re done with big, existential-level wars.
  3. It could be that it has no effect either way.
  4. It could be that these policies were irrational, and when put to the test they will have some negative impact on our ability to wage war effectively.

One seems unlikely to me. If it’s a good idea why hasn’t it been done historically? When wars were much more common why did no one arrive at this competitive advantage? Two, kind of seems to be the underlying argument of a lot of people I’ve talked to about this, who seem to consider the expansions more akin to ending job discrimination than anything which impacts military readiness. As far as three, it’s hard for me to imagine that it has zero effect, which leaves only the idea that, if put to the test, it will prove to have been a bad idea.

If it is it won’t be the first bad idea which was only uncovered in the heat of battle. Nor will it probably be the last. But what happens if we no longer have battle to uncover these bad ideas? Hard to say. I hope that we can uncover bad ideas without people dying. That we can decide important issues without the shedding of blood. But I don’t think the trends point in that direction. And this takes me to my concluding point.

As you may have noticed I have a large interest in Fermi’s Paradox. And when Boonton sent me the link to the Art of Manliness podcast he pointed out how it suggested an interesting explanation for the paradox:

War is required to advance civilization, and without it, civilization stalls out. But, once you acquire nukes, war is no longer an option. So either a civilization blows itself up, or it ceases to advance, either way it never ends up expanding outward into space.

As I said at the beginning, people in the past probably had a reason for doing what they did, and one of the things they did a lot of was go to war. Let’s hope that we have progressed past the point where war is necessary, but prepare for the possibility that it still is.

Another example of irrationality (though one which anyone can uncover) would clearly be donating to a marginal blog, specializing in esoteric musings, in an forgotten corner of the internet. Nevertheless I hope you’ll do it anyway.