Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor and the Folly of War

This isn't going to end well, Admiral
On this anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the global conflict that had already been raging for years, it's worth thinking about the mindset that drives a nation's leadership to undertake war as a solution to some kind of problem. Whether we're thinking about the German attack across the Polish frontier in 1939, their much more problematic (for them) decision to attack east a year later, Kim il-Sung's disastrous blitz across the 38th parallel in 1950, GW Bush's mindless invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the events in Hawaii 74 years ago today, there are commonalities behind these monumental decisions that bear discussion.

Launching an offensive war is often an existential gamble for a nation's leadership. It is the rare set of circumstances that allow a government to lose that gamble and remain alive and in power. So it's even more remarkable to consider how many times leaders choose to initiate hostilities without a viable, rational plan for ending them. If Japan had quickly consolidated their gains in the western Pacific and sued for peace with the US, she might have been able to hold on to many of the resource already conquered - perhaps agreeing to return the Philippines to to the US - and in a few years would have been able to stand with the US as an ally against Stalin. Likewise, if Hitler had negotiated peace with the UK after the fall of France and before he sent his armies toward Moscow, the outcome might have been much different for all. And where might we be today if the American troops stood up a Sunni strongman in Baghdad and withdrawn from Iraq before the end of 2003?

At the International Tribunals in Nuremberg, American Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson famously said:

To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
The world today has been shaped by national leaders who decided their best option was to start a war. In most cases, it turned out to be a disastrous choice, and in all cases it resulted in immense suffering. We're currently demonstrating our inability to learn from the history of our own lived experience, so it comes as no surprise that leaders have repeatedly made the same mistakes, committed the same crimes for the same reasons and paid the same consequences.

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