Pre-Emptive Hallucinations

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Recently, there have been a lot of pundits advocating a pre-emptive
war against Iran, even if such talk was almost non-existent as of
the beginning of this year. The first pundit I saw who advocated
such a strike writes for the Asia
Times Online
under the pen name “Spengler”
— an apt characterization, for what he writes. “Spengler” is a professional

He does have a knack for being ahead of the curve on some issues.
Instead of a typical neo-con drum-thumper who mixes a standardized
education with war fumes, he's a thinker who shows both depth and
sense. His
advocacy of premature (pre-emptive) war
, published back on October
18, 2004, is the first advice of this sort I have read — but as
fumes grow thicker and heat up, it has become further and further
away from being the last.

"Spengler" does show a fair bit of erudition as he makes
his case for premature war. His thesis is: the usual balance-of-power
norm for keeping the peace ensures that, once an un-preventable
war erupts, it will be a blood-soaked war of attrition, like World
Wars 1 and 2, the American Civil War, the Thirty
Years' War
and the Peloponnesian
were. The clear implication of his article is that, once
war is inevitable, the peacemaker becomes an ineffectual “mother
goose-hen” who winds up making the conflict worse for both sides.

Since his analysis is rooted in a conditional — "if war is
inevitable, then pre-emptive war is less bloody than postponed war"
– it would be a mistake to single "Spengler" out
for blame if the U.S. government does launch a pre-emptive war.
He isn't the one who has the eminence, let alone the authority,
to decide whether or not a war is inevitable. Rather than pick on
him, it would be better to examine why such wars of attrition do
occur, and why pre-emptive war, a doctrine which has never failed
because it never really has been tried, fails when it is broached.

It would be neat to conclude that wars of attrition result from
war policy decisions turning arthritic. Instead of maintaining mental
flexibility, the governments who wind up fighting a long and bloody
attritional war have too-restrictive criteria for what constitutes
a casus belli. This is the meat-and-potatoes part of such
an analysis. The tasty dessert comes with blaming the "peace
creeps" for the stiffening of the war-policy joints: this post-dinner
appetizer always comes with a generous topping of schadenfreude
sauce. "Mmm…Bismarck Surprise!"

As I indicated, war policy always has a domestic component to it.
The present-day peace activists who oppose the present Iraqi operation
with the slogan "No Blood For Oil!" know it all too well:
they see the Iraqi war as a hegemonic exchange of American blood
for Middle East oil. More right wing scholars have made a similar
point about World Wars 1 and 2: their slogan could very well have
been "No Enslavement For Self-Determination!" Like many
professional cynics, "Spengler" presents a well-thought-out
analysis which omits the "why"s. Confining a second opinion
to America's participation in World Wars 1 and 2, as well as to
the Civil War, does hint at why wars launched by governments are
pre-postponed by citizens who are not "peace ninnies."
If your government is bellicose enough to break through norms which
counsel peace, then what domestic norms is it going to violate too?

This factor has no better supporting evidence than the recent story
by USA Today exposing
domestic “data mining” from telephone records by the NSA
. The
facts in that story should be mixed with the old maxim “when the
masses are restive, start a war.” What does a pre-emptive war really

Consider what is permitted — or even obligatory – during war
in the home front. What would be insufferable nosiness in
times of peace is considered patriotic in war. What would be no
more than free thought in peacetime runs the hazard of aiding and
abetting in times of war. War by a government all-but-forces its
citizens to anesthetize their motive-questioning faculty, except
in only one way. Paying lip service to "victory" excuses
many faults in times of war. War sets loose the finger pointer,
the blamer, the prudent troublemaker, the censor, the bully — and
not all of them wear a uniform. What is insufferable in normal times,
and barely tolerable during times of subversion hunting, becomes
glorified during times of war. Thus, there is little need to wonder
why the New Left's 1969 slogan "Bring The War Home" stuck
in so many minds.

There is also a geopolitical angle to consider, which relates to
geopolitical economy. Since war is so awful, the declarer of it
needs a very good reason to enter into one. Adding pre-emptive war
as a desirable good makes "attack u2018em while it's easy"
a casus belli. An economist would conclude that a sharp lowering
of the costs of war, in terms of blood and treasure, would result
in more pre-emptive wars being fought. It should always be remembered
that the overconfidence enjoyed by war strategists on the eve of
World War 1 resulted from earlier easy victories against "backward"
peoples. All it takes, once this mind-set is established, is
to see a strong foe as "backward" and the bloody war of
attrition is all-but launched. The counter-argument which renders
"Spengler"'s analysis doubtful is: what if the governments
who started those wars of attrition thought, after weighty deliberations,
that the right moment for a good and easy pre-emptive war had arrived
at the time when those wars were really started? It should be remembered
that "attack u2018em while it's easy" can only mean, "attack
u2018em while it seems easy" in real time.

What is also forgotten is the possibility that the "inevitability
doctrine" can be gamed. Given that what is called extremist
Islam has a penchant for using suicide bombers, it isn't a sign
of either pink blood or closet anti-Semitism to wonder whether or
not Iran's President Ahmadinejad is not the Hitler he is portrayed
as. A cigar-chomping cynic could ask, "what if he's pulling
a Hitler act in order to goad the United States to launch an aggressive
war for the sake of a bloody shirt, one which his allies — or political
masters — can later wave to the world? Is he just trying to get
our goat?"

Yes, this is the logical counter-stratagem to pre-emptive war:
goat-getting and throwing the game — perhaps as a prelude to a guerilla
sequel. The ultimate weakness of the doctrine of pre-emptive war
is that it makes guerilla counter-responses more practical because
the pre-emptive striker is easy to portray as an evil bully to the
conquered. The ultimate cost of pre-emptive war is the loss of world
trust. The British Empire did have "the mighty modern Maxim
gun, which sent the Dervish to the sun" but it later had a
series of guerilla insurgencies which cost it its Empire. Pre-emptive
war seems attractive because these secondary consequences are overlooked.

Come to think of it, the easy victory in Iraq is beginning to look
a lot like that kind of prequel, which suggests that the U.S. did
get suckered. It's a real pity that our war hawks with their "mo"
never got taken advantage of by a snooker hustler.

13, 2006

M. Ryan [send him mail]
is a Canadian with a well-known habit of blundering into fields
for which he is inadequately prepared. Visit his

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