Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Are Wars Caused by Accidents?

by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review

 

History shows that a lack of deterrence, not loose rhetoric, spurs aggression.

 

As tensions mount with North Korea, fears arise that President Trump’s tit-for-tat bellicose rhetoric with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un might lead to miscalculations — and thus an accidental war that could have been prevented.

 

Is there evidence in history that wars break out largely because of an accident or over a misplaced word? Seldom.

 

Enemies Fight, but Neutrals, Rivals, and Friends Rarely Do

The precise timing of particular outbreaks of war, of course, can depend on unique factors. A sudden perception of a loss of deterrence can cause an army to mobilize. So can almost anything, from the introduction of a new weapon to a change in government.

 

Yet the larger events that originally drove two sides to fight are rarely, if ever, accidental in the manner of car wrecks.

 

Enemies go to war; rivals, neutrals, and friends rarely do. There is little chance that an accidental foreign incursion across the Canadian or even the Mexican border will result in war. The apparently accidental, but quite lethal, 1967 Israeli air attack on the USS Liberty did not result in a U.S. retaliatory strike on Tel Aviv, much less escalate to a general war. Yet a similar Soviet strike might have.

 

In general, the best deterrent policy in dealing with multiple aggressors is Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum to speak softly and carry a big stick — because loud speech is sometimes misinterpreted as a compensatory effort to disguise military incapability, and thus paradoxically it can lead to a fatal loss of deterrence.

 

Next best perhaps is speaking loudly while carrying a big stick. Intemperate words are not fatal if ultimately reinforced by overwhelming force.

 

Most dangerous is speaking loudly (and especially sanctimoniously) while carrying a twig — basically what we have seen in the past eight years with Russia, Iran, and Syria.

 

Was World War I Really an Accident?

It is often said that accidents and extraneous forces — nearly automatic and mindless mobilization, fumbled diplomacy, greedy arms merchants, archaic alliances on autopilot, confused messaging, or bellicose strutting and rhetoric in August 1914 — triggered World War I, which otherwise might have been prevented.

 

But a continental war had come close to breaking out earlier in 1911 over Morocco and again in 1912–13 in the Balkans. A war would likely have broken out later, if not in 1914. Berlin by 1914 held views that were incompatible with peaceful resolution:

 

1) Germany felt cheated that its economic dynamism, population, and military power somehow had not resulted in what Germany thought it deserved: commensurate colonial expansion overseas and dominant influence on the Continent;

 

2) the German army since 1871 had felt that its size, and organizational and technological excellence, increasingly replicated in a rising and powerful navy, made it nearly unstoppable vis-à-vis other European rivals;

 

3) any sudden German strike in either the East or West could not be immediately deterred or stopped by the existing forces of Britain, France, or Russia.

 

The net result of these unchallenged assumptions was a likely German war of aggression sometime in the second or third decade of the 20th century.

 

Preventing World War I would have required far closer coordination and greater deterrent capability among Germany’s intended targets. Or the Germans would’ve needed to be far less aggressive, perhaps with a Kaiser more like Wilhelm II’s grandfather, Wilhelm I, who under the influence of Otto von Bismarck had realized that long-term German aspirations were achievable without a sudden and destructive European war.

 

Or a more interventionist United States would have had to intervene on the side of the democracies before, rather than after, the war — somewhat akin to America’s proactive Cold War leadership after 1945.

 

Just days after the war broke out, German professor and diplomatic analyst Kurt Riezler issued his Septemberprogramm draft of annexing much of Western Europe — a plan of aggression that only summarized long-held German agendas.

 

Indeed, since 1871, Germans had believed that their empire was destined to do as it wished in Europe, and, more immediately, that another border war would, as in 1870–71, be rather short and earn great dividends that were richly deserved at tolerable costs.

 

Appeasement, Not Accidents, Start Wars

If rising tensions are not to lead to war, the key factor in confronting aggressors is avoiding accidental impressions that cause a loss of deterrent power.

 

What will start a war with North Korea is not a bellicose tweet from Trump. Instead, a war will follow if North Korea does a cost-benefit analysis that leads it to conclude that an attack will produce more positive results than setbacks, or if it has the impression that its forces can inflict lots of damage without the regime’s destruction.

 

Again, mellifluous appeasement is far more dangerous even than sloppy, bellicose rhetoric. Of course, the latter should be avoided if not backed by force, but “fire and fury” words, ipsis factis, will not provoke to action an otherwise stationary aggressor. Rather the danger is that rhetoric alone can project a sense of weakness that invites aggression, on the theory that fiery but empty words are intended to mask military inability.

 

The last century of so-called accidental wars did not start over an unwise taunt or an accidental bombing. To the degree that there was a miscalculation during rising tensions, the culprit was most often a loss of deterrence, whether real or imagined:

 

Much of Europe and Britain weakly appeased Hitler’s serial aggressions in the 1930s rather than stopping them, persuading Hitler that his rather meager forces could nonetheless win a continental war against America, Britain, and the Soviet Union.

Japan wrongly surmised that U.S. isolationism in the 1930s and inaction from 1939 to 1941 would not lead to a muscular response after Pearl Harbor — and so Japan tried its luck.

Dean Acheson in 1950 suggested that South Korea was outside the U.S. protective shield; the miscue probably encouraged a North Korean invasion.

A series of unwise British actions in the early 1980s (from a parliamentarian’s occasional naïve reference to the Falklands as the “Malvinas” to the more serious tactic of withdrawing a small Royal Navy ship from the Falklands) suggested to the Argentine dictatorship that London did not see retaining the Falklands as worth a war.

April Glaspie sloppily remarked in 1990 that Arab border disputes were not of paramount interests to the U.S., which may have encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait.

The dismantling of supposed nuclear programs in Ukraine and Libya signaled that both had no deterrent against future big-power interventions, which eventually followed.

 

The Terrible Laboratory

War is a horrific laboratory experiment that confirms or rejects vague and inexact prewar guesses about relative strength or weakness.

 

The way, then, to prevent conflict from breaking out is to assure potential aggressors during peacetime that they are weaker than their targets and would lose catastrophically if they were foolish enough to test the obvious. Only in this way does war appear as a costly redundancy that is avoidable.

 

World Wars I and II were tragic and unnecessary demonstrations of what should have been obvious in 1914 and in 1939–41. In the former case, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey could never match the combined power of the eventual alliance of Britain and its Empire, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States.

 

In the latter war, Germany, Italy, and Japan had no business dreaming that their combined might could ever defeat the forces of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States. But for a variety of reasons (in the case of World War II, British appeasement, Russian collaboration, and the isolationism of the United States), that reality from 1939 to 1941 was not made clear. The result was that the Axis started a series of wars on false impressions; the truth would have been obvious if their enemies had adopted wiser prewar deterrent policies and military preparation.

 

An Accident — or an Accident Waiting to Happen?

 

So too it is with North Korea. Even the sloppiest outburst from Kim Jong Un or promises of fiery retaliation from Donald Trump are not likely to prompt a second Korean War — at least until the conditions for it are nearly preordained by tragically false perceptions of relative strength.

 

Still, Trump should be careful what he says, largely because rhetoric at best is a shrinking asset that encourages adventurism when not reinforced by concrete action. At worst, tough talk can be wrongly interpreted as a surrogate for a quiet willingness to use force to deter enemies.

 

In contrast, a clear and firm statement about what will happen if North Korea attacks either U.S. bases or American soil or its allies, backed by demonstrations of deterrent force, will likely prevent a war.

 

As far as North Korea, a deterrent policy involves periodic shows of overwhelming force by our alliance, a concerted effort to implement missile defense, and diplomatic efforts to line up big powers such as China, the European Union, India, and Russia to apprise North Korea that it will face only global hostility if it starts a war against the overwhelming strength of the U.S. alliance.

 

A bombastic outburst may change the date of an inevitable war with North Korea, but it won’t in itself ensure a war. In contrast, an inadvertent or deliberate effort to assure North Korea that the U.S. will not respond in apocalyptic fashion to its aggression is a guarantee that war will follow.

 

The Fear That We Are Still Reptilian

Why do we ignore this lesson of history?

 

Pacifism and appeasement in the short term often postpone war and are achieved at little cost. Both win popular and elite acclaim for demonstrating sophisticated moderation and forbearance. In thinking that war is always irrational, only an accident can explain why otherwise sober people would launch such an atrocious enterprise.

 

In contrast, military preparation, deterrence, and a willingness to use superior force against aggressors is a de facto admission that humans are still Neanderthals — and in their limbic brains fear not so much starting a war as being utterly defeated in a war.

 

Deterrence is a hard sell for an affluent and leisured society convinced that its supposed success at evolving and improving human nature has made the tough lessons of the past seem prosaic and irrelevant.

 

Let us pray that we accept the bitter reality that the world is still full of reptiles and not college professors.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: