Thursday, July 15, 2010

History Book -- THE CAUSES OF WAR, by Geoffrey Blainey

Essentially, Geoffrey Blainey's The Causes of War is a remarkably unbiased work on the various factors that have generated conflict for the past three centuries. He breaks down a number of factors which not only create wars, but also create peace as well.

Personally, I think that the measures he identifies as causes are more accurately described as enablers or perhaps deterrents for both war and peace. Blainey correctly states that wars and peace are causally linked. His view is couched in realpolitik. Might doesn't make right to him, it just is. He doesn't want to decide who is right or wrong, but rather, why war and peace occur in human affairs. To this end, he sees morality, especially on the international stage, as a nonentity. Nations in conflict actively choose to go to war.

This is beautifully illustrated by his brief description of the start of the Pacific War (1941-5). Everybody is taught to believe that the Japanese started the war and bear the brunt of the war-guilt. In reality, the United States and Britain felt secure enough in their military situations to economically bully the Japanese. Without US and UK backing, Australia wouldn't have been willing to take a hardline with the Japanese. Had the Soviets not been hard-pressed by Nazi forces, the Japanese wouldn't have felt their northwestern flank was secure enough to invade the soft colonial possessions of the US, UK, and Netherlands for resources they so desperately needed (thanks to economic sanctions). According to Blainey, the Japanese weren't the only country who preferred war to peace in this situation--the US, England and Australia did as well. They just didn't expect the Japanese to be quite as a) tough and b) determined to fight. They figured if they backed Japan into an economic corner she'd crack at some point. Instead, she chose to fight what she had hoped would be a fast war for resources and, with those resources, hold her enemies at bay long enough to sue for peace.

In light of the current war in Iraq, and the 1960s war in Vietnam, Blainey's methodology is quite revealing. Indeed, in the modern era of globalization, Blainey's contention that war and peace have not changed an iota is a reflection of the rapid integration and growth of communications one hundred years ago--advances that were interrupted by the First World War. Understanding, communication, and economic investment do not facilitate peace.

Peace is fostered when one or both sides feel they have more to lose by fighting than by offering up concessions. That's it. PERIOD. Blainey's right. Because wars are begun by the same causes, only in reverse--both sides feel that they have more to lose by peace than by war.

What Blainey overlooks are Thucydides' three factors that cause war--fear, honor, and interest. Although he is clear that the actions of nations are driven by these factors, he never actually enunciates them. He is too focused on the conditions that facilitate or deter the decision to go to war, but these are the fundamental underlying drives which generate the conflicts between nations in the first place.

The book is well worth the read, and raises a great many important questions for the pacifist, liberal and conservative alike. Perhaps more than The Guns of August (by Barbara Tuchman) would it have been smart for Kennedy to make his staff read this during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, I don't think this book was out at the time. Surely, this book should be required reading at any military academy or in any officer training program.


intrcptr said...

I want to say we've discussed this book before, but I'm not sure.

Does Blainey actually ignore the reason that the Western powers were "bullying" the Empire, ie. the 4-year old war in China?

It wasn't the sanctions, in and of themselves, that made Japan's economy require more resources; it was the weapons that needed them. Does Blainey miss the incursions Japan made in Indochina, a full 18 months before the Pearl Harbor attack?
Japan was the aggressor in the Pacific Rim.
Where the economic situation really comes to bear is in the late colonial maneuvering that Japan was trying to benefit from; at the end of the First World War, which Japan sat out, everybody carved up the former German possessions. The Empire did in fact get a few pieces. But nothing like what they wanted, nor recognized that the Europeans and America still had, especially in China.

All things told, I'm not sure how much better Kennedy's Whiz Kids could have played Cuba. Everyone wants to second-guess them, because we've since learned that the missiles the Soviets had deployed were a good deal better than we'd concluded at the time. But what everyone is willing to forget, or perhaps simply does forget, is that in 1961 the "missile gap" was horribly in our favor, as was the unmentioned "warhead gap"; any strike by the Soviets, no matter how destructive of US cities, would have led to a response from the US that would have created a wasteland larger than the Sahara.
The Soviets knew this, and both sides were well aware that the USSR was in no place to match blows with the US nuclear arsenal. Europe may have been overrun by the Red Army (Given the performance of Soviet arms in Korea, that itself was not a given), but within hours, nearly every single Soviet city and military installation would have been on radioactive fire.

I still need to grab a copy of this, yes. And I agree with him that war has not changed, even since Thucydides' day. Of course the first time I said this, I didn't cite enough sources and got a C on the mid-term... nice to see I did know what I was about.

Dave Cesarano said...

I may have mentioned it. I'd read it in high school, but I definitely needed to return to it as an adult.

Blainey takes China into account, but he's not quite interested in the reasons/excuses for war, but rather the risk-reward calculations that nations make before they commit to fighting or to peace. So, in reality, I think the book is mistitled. It's not so much about what causes a war, although he does explore that a great deal. His primary drive is that risk-reward calculation, and Blainey argues that morals and ethics rarely go into those calculations. He's all about cold, hard realpolitik.