Friday, November 6, 2015

November 6, 2015 - The Boredom of Peacetime

A new biography of George H.W. Bush just came out and it offers unique look into the mindset of the politically powerful when it comes to matters of war and peace. And as the title might suggest, the upshot is that peace is boring. And unfortunately, Bush Sr.'s sentiments on this subject appear to have been shared by others.

Jon Schwarz at The Intercept has a great write-up on the subject that highlights the comments of a few Western leaders who dreaded peacetime. And it's worth reading to remember just how truly disconnected and desensitized these people from the suffering their policies induce. In the end, Schwarz's conclusion is a perfect summary:
Regular people hate war, because they pay the price. But powerful people love it. That’s why there’s so much.
Here's the link:


  1. Do regular people hate war? I'd like to believe they do, but a majority of Americans, if I recall correctly, supported ousting Saddam in 2002/2003.

    I suppose one way to vindicate Schwarz's claim is to argue that political elites drummed up support for the war by inveigling the public through constant fearmongering. Who can forget Rice's famous smoking gun/mushroom cloud metaphor? The government knows it can cow the public into capitulation.

    But as much as I hate to say it, I don't think regular people hate war. I don't think the rabble harbors any principled aversion to war. I'm reminded of the title of Chris Hedges book from a few years ago, chillingly titled: "War is a Force that Gives us Meaning." I think that's as true for regular people as it is for political elites.

  2. That's true, but I think it's because Americans generally now fit the same description laid out by Smith of people in the capital city. Because they are completely unaffected by it, no immediate financial impacts and no real risk of physical injury unless they're in the military, perhaps the statement can be best reconciled by saying Americans aren't included in that definition at this point.

    Regular Syrians or Iraqis or Afghans on the other hand, I'm sure this proposition holds quite true. In Smith's day, everyone was affected a little bit except for the political elite. I don't think it was ever a principled aversion, but a self-interested one. But now that the self-interest is unaffected, I feel like most of us have reverted to the adolescent state where we just think jets and bombs are cool and don't really go much deeper than that.

  3. So only "regular people" outside of the United States hate war? Or only those in war zones? If that's true, then I'm not sure it makes much sense to argue that regular people (those not in the upper echelons of society) hate war. Of course, it stands to reason that the people getting blown up hate the circumstances in which they find themselves. But that's not necessarily the same thing as hating war. I bet many of those affected would support—and probably do support—retaliatory measures against those responsible.

    Here's a challenge to your argument. According to an extensive poll of veterans conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 90 percent would still have joined to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq ( Now, there's going to be some kind of self-selection bias going on, as those who join the military are probably more willing to fight in war than the general population, because...well, revealed preferences. Nevertheless, these are, in many cases, "regular people." They're also the Americans most affected by war, by combat, by bombs and death and injury. And yet, they don't seem to hate war.

    Maybe a more cogent explanation, while undoubtedly less satisfying to those of us quite skeptical of war, is simply that most Americans don't share our values. Maybe the answer to why regular people often support war isn't simply that they're unaffected by the outcome, or that they're hoodwinked by beguiling propaganda and smooth politicians. Maybe, instead, the answer is that a lot of people genuinely believe war makes the world a better place. And maybe being in the thick of things wouldn't necessarily change that belief, because the issue is more ideological than anything else.

    Does that make sense?

  4. I will concede that regular people is being revealed as an increasingly inappropriate term, as it's inheriting a rather novel meaning now. But for consistency's sake, I will continue using it.

    I think, in general, people who involuntarily experience personal hardship (rationing, physical hardship, loss of loved ones, etc.) as a result of war / instability, will be opposed to war under most circumstances. That is, I would not expect them to be pacifists, but my contention is the overwhelming majority would oppose initiating a conflict. I fully leave open the possibility that they would be in favor of defensive war (but probably not the preventive nonsense).

    I think the mention of veterans is entirely inappropriate. They have a self-selection bias as you rightly note, but I think there's an even more important factor. Psychologically, it would be incredibly difficult to not be proud of / believe in the merits of your decision to serve in the contrary. Just think about it. These people may have suffered physical injury or PTSD, overseas service likely strained or possibly ruined their personal relationships with families, and a good number of them probably knew a friend in the service who was maimed or killed. Those are all tragic things. But how much worse would they become if you admitted to yourself that it was all for not--that your suffering was not only useless but maybe literally counterproductive? So yeah, 87% are proud and 90% would have joined again. If you regret the decision to join, you are in a very real way invalidating and thereby exacerbating that suffering. And given that, I think it's actually surprising even 10% dissented from that question.

    I think there's something to the hoodwinked notion because we have an egregious understanding of history, by and large. But I think this hoodwinking still would prove insufficient if regular Americans ever experienced even benign downsides of intervention--and understood the cause-effect relationship. For instance, if a politician had to make the explicit case that your taxes need to go up so we can bomb Libya into safety, I do not think that would go over well. But for regular people in conflicted areas, they know all too well the negative effects of war--which is why stability seems to be the overriding desire in these places.

  5. In other words, I don't think it is ever really a question of values for the majority of people. I think it is much more a question of self-interest. And because contemporary America has never experienced meaningful adverse side effects of war, it's willing to go along with a trope about making the world safe for democracy. But if costs were ever imposed on them, even if they were just financial, I think we would see considerably more opposition to war.

  6. I admit that I’m surprised to see you assert that ideology doesn’t explain why the majority of Americans frequently support war, especially after writing, as you did early last month, about the pervasive influence of nationalism in this country. I appreciate economic models as much as the next person, but this takes homo economicus to an entirely new level!

    In other words, I think ideology plays a much greater role in explaining why the average American supports war than you’re allowing for (“…I don't think it is ever really a question of values for the majority of people”). Just look at the rhetoric surrounding our military. We lionize the armed forces in a most effusive manner. Both Democrats and Republicans believe that we are, on the whole, a force for good in this world. This isn’t just self-interest; it’s ideology. And that ideology manifests itself in a belief in American exceptionalism and a strong presumption in favor of our foreign escapades.

    The American experience during WWI is instructive in this regard. We weren’t attacked, and yet the country, swept up in a patriotic fervor, not only endured hardship but actively sacrificed to make the world “safe for democracy.” The command-and-control economy during that time went far beyond rationing, as I’m sure you know. And what of WWII? It’s true that we were attacked by the Japanese, but the willingness Americans exhibited to sacrifice for the war effort strongly suggests there was more going on than rank “self-interest.” Even during Vietnam, support for the war was pretty high until the late ’60s, when people began to realize just how much of a quagmire the war was becoming.

    While I don’t doubt that we’d see more opposition to superfluous wars if some of the attendant costs redounded more acutely on the average person, I remain skeptical that much would change because I don’t see support for war stemming solely from self-interest. I think a lot of it stems from ideology, from a belief that war can produce good outcomes. Schwarz wants to believe that regular people hold his beliefs, share his values. I think they probably don’t, and that’s why we see a lot of support for war from people who aren’t political elites.

  7. As a side note, even though I understand your objection to focusing on soldiers and their support for war, I don’t think we can discount their experiences entirely. You’re probably right that many soldiers justify their time in the military for psychological reasons, but this doesn’t explain why so many sign up again and again and again. Few doubt that the ones on the frontline suffer the costs of war to an extent unparalleled among the general population, and the high rate of support you see from that group suggests, to me at least, that there are many other factors at play in explaining why people support war than just the "costs" (or lack thereof). As I said earlier, I wouldn't want to use the average solider as a proxy for the average civilian (self-selection bias, etc), but the high support we see from veterans for the wars in which they've fought raises some interesting questions, for me at least.