Democracy, republicanism and war

Are democracies inherently flawed when it comes to running a war? Does a strong executive (to use the modern terminology) make the running of a war more efficient, if not always more successful?

Thucydides would say so, and indeed he lays the blame for Athenian defeat mostly at the hands on the demagogues, who were non-aristocrats who became leaders. Lincoln and Roosevelt would also say so, and both took extraordinary steps to suspend basic liberties in light of wars, intending to relinquish their hold once the crisis passed. Romans would agree, having two consuls run the war efforts, but when times became most critical they nominated a dictator to take over all power for six months and completely direct the war effort. Napoleon would agree, Han Solo would agree, and every president since Vietnam would agree, the list goes on.

The virtue of having a sole, or very small group of leaders does not guarantee success in a war, and in some instances the virtue of having one person in command of the overall strategy could guarantee defeat, but there is not the fickle aspect of democracy and there is a time when one person needs to step to the fore and expedite the process.

Museums and Displays

One of the problems I have with going to a museum that touts its history collection and suggests that it will teach the visitor something about history is that for the most part the audience will take for granted that the museum will tell “the truth.”1

Often these displays will not actually lie to said visitor, but they will certainly mislead. For example, the USS Constitution Museum2 wanted to give a very, very basic overview of what the age of sail was about, that era of American Naval History (mostly the Barbary Wars) and, of course, the USS Constitution. In part because of not going into that detail and in many ways regardless of the detail the museum promoted glorification of sailing ships, the US Navy and the founding heroes of that body. For example, Stephen Decatur had a little bio, including his exploits on the Intrepid and as captain of the Constitution; William Bainbridge also had a plaque (both men won gold plaques for distinguished service and bravery), but while Decatur’s death was mentioned, what was not mentioned was that Bainbridge hated Decatur, was his second in the duel where he died, and did not intervene when Decatur had things set against him.

Another display talked about the foundation of the original six frigates (Constitution, United States, President, Constellation, Chesapeake, and Congress) and how Joshua Humphrey won the contract to design the fleet. It didn’t mention that Josiah Fox also won the contract, that it was shared between the men and that Fox believed that Humphrey was wrong and therefore changed the design where ever he felt necessary.

The section about how the Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli Harbor was glossed over, whereas the emphasis was on Bainbridge’s communications out of the prison and to Commodore Preble (who was praised as a hero and for Preble’s boys, without mentioning that he was unpopular and sickly), and, of course, on the daring raid to sink the frigate before the Tripolitans could refloat and rearm her.

I suppose that if someone wanted a passing understanding of that era’s naval history and a generic tale of what happened, then the museum was passable, but a bit small. It just seemed in many ways to be a glorification monument to the United States.

1 Very much the same is true for books, tv documentaries and teachers, but I visited the USS Constitution museum today, which is what made me think of this.

2 Which was decidedly underwhelming.

Gunboat Diplomacy

Gunboat diplomacy is rarely the answer, even to piracy. I am not so naive as to say that asking the pirates nicely to stop would be sufficient, nor do I believe that piracy in the immediate generation is a problem that has peaceful solutions; the ultimate solution is peaceful, the final solution is to raise the economic and social conditions within the countries where piracy is common to sufficient levels wherein piracy is a dangerous and less-than-profitable alternative.

The threat of force is necessary to instill that there is a lethal drawback to piracy, however if conditions in regions of the world that foster piracy and religious fanaticism are not altered, force will be be insufficient. Force in the past was only effective wherein there was an organized aspect to the piracy which stood to suffer significant losses if the threat of force was ignored.

Stephen Decatur Jr
was one of the grand heroes of early American naval history, and rightly so. He was a leading figure in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War, but is best known for the First Barbary War, in which he was comparatively low rank. Most notable amongst his exploits, Decatur captained the USS Intrepid into the harbor of Tripoli, seized control of the USS Philadelphia, which had previously run aground, captured and subsequently re-floated by the Tripolitans. For fear of a US frigate in the hands of the enemy, Decatur volunteered to fire it, and successfully did so. Admiral Nelson lauded this act as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

Less well known, but Decatur also led American crews on Neapolitan gunboats into the harbor of Tripoli, while the USS Constitution and other large ships slowly worked their way into the harbor to bombard the citadel. Decatur captured two gunboats and led both out of the harbor during this action, the second with a reduced crew after finding out that a gunboat had pretended to surrender and subsequently killed the captain–Decatur’s brother.

During the Second Barbary War, Decatur simply sailed to the Mediterranean with a powerful squadron to enforce upon the Barbary Powers that the United States would not pay any tribute. William Bainbridge followed up with visits from his own squadron. These visits were not negotiation; Decatur and Bainbridge arrived with overwhelming force and gave the choice between ending piracy and utter destruction. European powers later followed up with their own actions and the grip of North African, State-sponsored piracy largely came to a halt. The reason this worked was two-fold.

First, there was an organized, stationary head to the operation who was the political leader for the region. This provided a target without whom the piracy would collapse into individual operations which would be less deadly, but tougher to root out. Second, with these men who wanted nothing more than to stay in power, fleets capable of destroying them utterly arrived and gave them the choice of death or peace. Self-preservationist as most leaders tend to be, each Barbary power chose peace and piracy ended.

In certain situations Gunboat diplomacy works. Rooting out individual pirate groups is not one of these situations; what is considered here is not diplomacy. The nearest comparison is that this is a police action, whereas diplomacy is between states. Further, any unilateral action taken by the United States or another Western power to smother the piracy would be declared an intrusion into middle east affairs, especially in Yemen and Somalia. In short, the countries that wittingly or unwittingly harbor pirates must be convinced, trained and supported in destroying piracy, especially in situations where it is another facet of organized crime. This is both economic and military, and where asked for military aid, it should be provided, but not before. The common denominator is that military power and threat to livelihood is necessary to end piracy, but without fundamental changes to head off the supply of rank-and-file pirates, nothing will change. There needs to be suitable alternative and suitable disincentive if the problem is to be addressed.

The March of Folly, a diatribe

Define self interest.

A course of action that brings unto the participant success? Staying true to who one is? Amassing fortune and power? No one has ever willfully followed a course of action contrary to self interest. No one who could be genuinely considered a loyal citizen of a state has ever knowingly set it upon a course contrary to its interest; once they have, they are now traitors, deserters or both. This is one of the main issues with defining self-interest; if someone does something they don’t want to do, it is through coercion or through a different ambition within self interest.

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman takes the position that throughout history, from the Trojan Horse, to Solomon’s son, to the Great War and Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and beyond, leaders of states have been misguided or ignored good advice to pursue a course of action contrary to self interest. Set aside that she starts off citing mythic and legendary events as historical fact and you are still left a basic premise that people are stupid and self interest is something altogether different from belief. (For information about the historiocity of the Trojan War, read The Trojan War by Barry Strauss.)

To argue that many mistakes and “stupid” actions is an inarguable, albeit trite premise; to argue that history is filled with instances where leaders knowingly or willfully ignorantly perpetrated acts that led directly to catastrophe is simply perverse. Where beliefs, delusions, mistaken assumptions and the like often cause states to follow such policies, it is never the the intention or someone loyal to lose.

Tuchman argues that Japan turned a blind eye to the United States joining the war when it attacked Pearl Harbor. This may be so, and surely there were voices that opposed the attack, but a calculated risk is not the same as a folly that could have easily been avoided. In many respects the United States was already drifting towards war and while F.D. Roosevelt was neither the first nor the last head of state to use an attack as a galvanizing agent, war may have come regardless. The United States had already banned the sale of raw materials to Japan in 1940 and other US bases were attacked, too, just that Pearl was on US soil. Whether sooner or later, US forces would have been caught in the crossfire–FDR would have seen to it.

Secondly, Japan had every reason to suspect that a quick strike to demolish the Pacific Fleet would be sufficient. Of all major states, the US had one of the weakest militaries and “the American Spirit” had never really been tested since it had never really been attacked after the wars of Independence. The sudden and ferocious public outrage is nothing new to anyone who knew the history of the war between the states, but on the world stage, it is of the 30th century. Japan struck a blow even without the US carriers in port, but if they had been there, Japan would have raged uncontested for far longer, the Coral Sea and Midway merely skirmishes instead of Japanese Bloody noses. Fighting spirit or no, the US was fortunate that enough force survived December 7 to hold back the tide.

US success in the Second World War hinged on industrial capacity and while it was the largest producer in the world before the war, no one expected the extent to which civilian industry converted to military production and to which the US outproduced every other nation. Yes, Japan poked a sleeping giant who then rose and returned the gesture a hundred-fold, but by any conceivable standard, US industry in 1942 did the impossible.

Now, to bring this diatribe full circle, is it folly to succeed so spectacularly in a gamble or take any action wherein your opponent does the inconceivable? No, it is not. Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but foresight is anything but. This is the crux of the problem.

As an aside, was it folly for Hitler, Napoleon and Charles XII to invade Russia after there forebears had failed? Probably, but each also had reason to suspect victory that Russian topography and climate foiled. They also had never played Risk.

ADDENDUM: Her real argument, such as one exists, is that people are misguided fools who often take unnecessary risks on account of beliefs, whims, obsessions and other psychological issues. This, combined with a succession of like-minded leaders has caused the split of hierarchies or prolonged following of courses not in the best interest of an organization. The problem with this analysis is that she takes stories at face value and will only dig as far as to prove her point. For example, she derides Louis XIV as a failed ruler because his kingdom was war-torn and broke from his military ventures after his long reign, but lauds Marcus Aurelius for his good government; the two had much the same track record as Marcus Aurelius took it upon himself to conquer Germania and prove that the era of Roman expansion had not ended with Hadrian. From the point that a historian is supposed to make judgments about the pas to prove points and successfully persuade, this should not be done by mis-representing or not bothering to find the truth. More than anything this is what bothers me about her book.

ADDENDUM II: The fact is she is a poor historian and while there is just too much misinformation and unjustified assumptions to counter them all, here is my real problem with the book: the premise and thesis is mis-represented. She goes on and on about how FOLLY is something that belief, ambition, shortsightedness and willful ignorance lead into and that it should be avoided, but at the same time argues that grand mistakes, the ones that we can see through the lens of history (whether or not modern morals, values and social expectations are applied) were knowingly or willfully ignorantly perpetrated. Whatever her thesis actually says, the argument of the book is that throughout history mistakes, arrogance and greed have led to catastrophes, to which I can only respond: “duh.”

The problem here is that there is only a tenuous unifying theme throughout the book (i.e. mistakes), and no real historical inquiry. Instead of delving and finding underlying currents, looking at socio-economic, political and religious situations in each time, as well as the trappings of power, nature of monarchy and commonly held misconceptions by one group of people over another, there is just a general narrative of four major events framed within “this is folly.”

Lastly, I am a stickler for turns of phrase. Never should a historian say “A strange reminder of ancient folly appeared at this time: the classic marble Laocoon was rediscovered, as if to warn the Church–as its protoype had once warned Troy.”–especially if they then go on to say that the Pope’s did not heed the warning. Historians should be studied in their time and such statements from a supposed modern historian discredit them to me; even in older writers, if they say something like that, it tends to discredit them, but due to the paucity of sources, it just adds qualifiers to the work instead of tarnishing their scholarship.

ADDENDUM III: I HATE socio-economic history…did I really just say that she needed to pay attention to it? I must be joining the collective…