Or both? Last night I had the pleasure of watching Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwojima, which is a superb and beautiful movie with a genuine sensitivity to both Japan’s sad war history and to its wartime culture. It’s all the more impressive for having been directed by an American (and from a generation not renowned for their sensitivity towards Japanese feelings over the war), who obviously gave the Japanese a great deal of space to express their own culture within the movie. However, while I was watching it I found myself torn between repulsion and respect for the Japanese general, Kuribayashi, who had the sad task of setting up 20,000 Japanese men to die for no good purpose. Reflecting on this movie, I’m really not sure if it can be placed into the small number of movies that offer a genuine critique of the futility and stupidity of war (and especially of that war, for the Japanese), or whether it is just another chapter in the long and disappointing history of movies that defend or glorify war through the vehicle of its horrors and futility.

First, though, the good. This movie has a gentle and understated tone in the first half, as we watch the preparations for the island’s defense and the fears of the various Japanese soldiers are portrayed through letters home, and through the ordinary soldiers’ conversations with each other. We have occasional flashbacks to their lives before the war, the circumstances of their recruitment or their assignment to Iwo Jima, and some of the politics that undermine the efforts of General Kuribayashi to defend his island. Kuribayashi’s vicious defensive plan is described but not in so much detail that it bogs down the story. The story is primarily told through the eyes of an ordinary soldier called Saigo, who has a wife and child at home and is desperate not to die. He has many lucky escapes both from the cruelty of his own superior officers and from the vicissitudes of battle.

The film also offers a novel perspective on the US Marines, because it treats them just as the enemy is usually treated in a war movie of old: they are just faceless foes who need to be killed, and until near the end of the movie we do not see them or hear them, or learn anything about them. There are only really three face-to-face encounters between Japanese soldiers and Americans, and in one of these encounters we see US cruelty that is known about by historians but usually glossed over in war movies. In many ways this movie depicts the key properties of allied and Japanese propaganda that I described in my series of posts about the book War Without Mercy: the Japanese see the Americans as inferior and barbaric, their suspicions that they will be treated badly on surrender are confirmed by Marine savagery, but the movie itself ends with a (somewhat jarring) moment in which the Japanese soldiers adopt a moral message taken from a dead Marine’s letter: just as described in the last chapters of the book, this American movie maker begins to portray the Japanese as good captives, receptive to American moralisms and cultural tropes now that they have been subjugated.

This unconscious lapse into one of the classic propaganda tropes of the war’s victors made me aware of the possibility that this movie is not as radical as perhaps some reviewers of it might like to think. The decision to portray the entire episode through the eyes of the losers was a bold and impressive move, but I found myself ultimately disappointed by the depiction of General Kuribayashi. We’re obviously intended to view him sympathetically: he’s something of a radical in the war effort, rejecting suicide tactics and favouring gentle treatment of his men, and he obviously believes the war is lost. Having lived in the USA he understands (as did the ill-fated Admiral Yamamoto) that Japan cannot defeat such a titan, and yet he does all he is ordered to do, and does it well. I think this movie asks us to view this as a noble tragedy, of a man doing his best in circumstances he cannot escape, and maintaining his humanity throughout, but I think there were two fatal flaws in the depiction of this character: one, that his supposedly noble humanitarianism was really just a kind of utilitarian brutality; and two, that we never see him struggling with or justifying the one decision he never even considers – surrender.

The sense projected in the movie, through letters and flashbacks and his dealings with Saigo, are that he is a humanitarian, a general who cares about his men and their wellbeing. But whenever he deals with his men as soldiers, or as a group subject to his orders, his reasoning is always strictly utilitarian. He forbids suicide charges due to their futility, but at the end when there is nothing left to fight for he himself leads a charge, rather than surrender. He stops a captain from beating his soldiers, but not out of any leniency on footsoldiers who have been voicing the same doubts of victory that he voices to his comrade Nishi; rather, he doesn’t want men wasted – his issue is with the stupidity of the punishment, not with its necessity. Similarly when he rescues Saigo from an unnecessary beheading, his reasoning is that Saigo was following orders, not that beheading men for cowardice is wrong. Nothing in his actions questions the fundamentals of the war, his role in it or the inevitable expendability of his men – and he certainly doesn’t hesitate to leave his men for dead or to command their deaths when the battle begins. He is also remarkably uncritical of his own peers and his leadership: when he learns that the Navy have been lying to him about their defeat in the Marianas and the impossibility of naval support, he seems singularly unfazed. Would he react the same way if his privates were revealed to be shirking off work, or surrendering quickly?

The second, bigger problem I had with the supposed sensitivity of his portrayal is very simple: he didn’t surrender. I know it’s a historical movie, so he can’t (everyone here is trapped in an infinite loop of cruel slaughter that no one can escape), but this doesn’t mean I have to be subjected to a vision of him as a gentle and kind soldier when the inexorable flow of the story is to the pointless deaths of 30,000 men. Kuribayashi had another, simple option at the beginning of summer, about halfway through the movie, when he discovered that the Navy had been lying to him about the powers and disposal of the Combined Fleet: he could have arrested his admirals and navy commanders for treason, had them shot in front of their men, and then surrendered the island and all the men on it to the Americans. This would have meant the bloodless capture of Iwo Jima four months earlier, which would have ended the war – which Kuribayashi already knew was lost – four months earlier, which would have meant four months less of starvation, burning and mass murder on the Japanese mainland, as well as four months’ less brutality and oppression in China. Furthermore, this surrender would have sent shockwaves through the other isolated islands of the Pacific, and by shaking the Americans’ belief that the Japanese would never surrender, it might have led them to consider alternatives to the nuclear attacks on Japan. Of course, Kuribayashi didn’t surrender, and it’s good that the movie presents the actual events of Iwo Jima rather than my silly alternative universe ideals; but the fact that he didn’t surrender really makes me doubt the depiction of him as a man who cares for his men. Or perhaps more viscerally, it makes me doubt the depiction of him as a good man. I guess the movie would have been less popular if instead of showing a man tortured by his inevitable noble sacrifice, it showed a hard and cruel leader who used his men efficiently rather than with the casual brutality and scorn that seems to characterize much of the Japanese high command. It’s probably not a palatable alternative, and certainly wouldn’t have been popular in Japan, to have the central relationship of the movie not Saigo’s gentle respect for his noble leader, but the continuing dialectic of conflict between the human needs of the men and Kuribayashi’s burning desire to use them pitilessly and efficiently to kill as many Americans as possible, for no better purpose than to keep Japan independent for a few more months.

The final scenes of this movie have Kuribayashi leading a so-called banzai charge, the single most futile expression of the cruelty and inhumanity of Japan’s WW2 military. This charge was led by a man who had banned such charges earlier as counter-productive, and it is obviously intended to be viewed as noble but tragic. Watching this, I just felt it was pathetic and hopeless, and I would like to see more war movies which, rather than just viewing the war through the ordinary soldier’s eyes, actually try to critique it through their eyes. I think Letters from Iwo Jima goes part of the way towards doing this, but it fails at the last, and it fails for a simple reason: Japan’s war in the Pacific was a horrible mistake that plunged millions of people across a huge swathe of the world into 15 years of bloody darkness, none more so than the people of Japan itself. Portraying Japan’s experience of this war sensitively is a sign that the west has matured in its approach to the USA’s (inevitable) victory in that senseless war, but portraying Japan’s experience sensitively is also a very difficult task, because of that simple fact. In my opinion, you can’t properly approach this task by the kind of narrative presented in Letters from Iwo Jima. Instead, I think a more radical narrative is required, one that presents a more nuanced and critical view of the relationship between the fascist, repressive Japanese military leadership and its supposedly passive military mass. Elevating the leadership to the position of noble losers doesn’t, in my view, achieve that goal: instead, it serves to reinforce the view that war is a fundamentally noble enterprise in which, unfortunately, a few eggs need to be broken in order to make the omelet.

Japan’s experience of World War 2 is a clear case of “war, what is it good for?” – a whole generation burned away in a conflagration with no purpose and no hope of victory. I don’t think that approaching the enemy from a position of sensitivity and understanding (as Clint Eastwood is obviously trying to do in this movie) should mean throwing away that simple fact. Rather, it means incorporating it, and presenting your view of the war first and foremost with a critique of the leadership, the criminals who pushed ordinary citizens like Saigo into that fire. While this movie does a beautiful and impressive job of presenting folks like Saigo as real people rather than faceless enemies, I think it fails to be sufficiently critical of Kuribayashi, who may have been a great guy to his family but still failed to intervene in the senseless deaths of 30,000 people, because he clearly thought that those deaths were right and just. Such men are history’s greatest criminals, and I think that there should be more space in the narrative for recognition of their flaws.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I could do a better job. This movie is a splendid piece of work, a great showcase of the subtleties of ordinary Japanese life and culture, and deserves its critical acclaim. It’s definitely worth watching and deserves acclaim, as well, for taking on the rare and difficult task of viewing “our” victory through “their” eyes. If you appreciate war movies and you’re interested in seeing an American perspective on the Japanese in the war, I definitely recommend it.

Today’s Guardian includes an interesting and thoughtful piece on the impact and morality of drone attacks in Afghanistan. Clive Stafford Smith is obviously a brave and committed man, and his eyewitness experiences in Afghanistan would probably reduce lesser men to a state of paralytic cynicism. But when I read his article I get the impression that the big problem he is discussing here is not military drones, but the US military’s casual approach to the laws of war. In this post I’m going to argue that drones are not a moral concern per se, and that we should be encouraging increased use of drones. I’m no expert on the laws of war or morality, so my arguments may be completely wrong, but my theory is that the big problem with any kind of aerial warfare is target selection, and this is a problem of “military intelligence,” not the type of object doing the killing. It’s a case of “drones don’t kill people, people do.”

Stafford Smith tells the sad story of the boy he met at a tribal meeting in Waziristan:

During the day I shook the hand of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike, and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. At the Reprieve charity, we have a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part, but I thought him too young.

Then, three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated “four militants”. In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt’s house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other “militants” – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.

This is pretty much exactly the same process by which large numbers of alleged militants ended up at Guantanamo Bay in the early years of the war: unscrupulous soldiers in the Northern Alliance picked up ordinary Taliban members and sold them to US or Pakistani interrogators for a fee. As we know from the case of Australian victims Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks, Americans don’t need to be 8000 km away behind a joystick to inflict cruelty on people: Habib was tortured in Guantanamo Bay, and Hicks is bound not to tell what happened to him by a confidentiality agreement signed as part of his release deal. Drones enable American soldiers to deliver death from afar, but the evidence Stafford Smith presents doesn’t indict the drone pilots: it indicts their political masters and their intelligence agents on the ground in Afghanistan. The same thing would happen if the pilots were in aircraft 5000m above the battlefield, or using artillery 1000m from their target, or snipers 50m from their target.

Other articles in the Guardian from previous eras show a similar fixation on the moral implications of drone combat. But they fall for the same problem of failing to separate the instrument of war – drones – from the morality of war, which defines such things as who pilots can drop bombs on, the chain of command by which targets are determined, and the laws under which these things happen. Those are the key factors in what happens when a drone drops its weapons, and whether the pilot is riding on top of the missiles or 8000 km away in Nevada is largely irrelevant to whether or not he or she is allowed to blow up wedding parties. It’s not as if egregious human rights abuses are a phenomenon unique to the drone age: it was done in the 1920s in Iraq by British pilots[1], and the firebombing of German and Japanese cities was clearly planned with no respect for even the most basic of the modern laws of war. When considering those firebombings, it’s worth recognizing the enormous number of individual human beings who had to cooperate to make them happen. The chain of events that led to German civilians boiling alive in reservoirs in central Dresden started with a group of scientists consciously planning how to destroy a city with fire, and ended with a very large number of men flying rattling tin cans across two countries at great personal risk to drop incendiaries on a city in a way they knew would kill thousands of innocents. Does it really matter whether they were sitting in the plane or on a couch in London? The problem was the policy, not the degree of computerization involved in its application.

Of course, some will complain that the computerization of war is itself a bad thing, but I think that’s bullshit. A man who bombs a wedding party is a bad person, but if that man is replaced by a computer then one less person is put at risk of a hideous death. Better still would be if someone higher up the chain decided not to bomb wedding parties, or better still if everyone involved would decide not to bomb anyone at all; but the guy who bombed the wedding party, though he should not have done it, has no say over those matters (especially since, from 5000m, he probably doesn’t know that it’s a wedding party at all). I guess the question that opponents of drone warfare should be considering is: would it be better if a group of soldiers – people you know, preferably, since you can remonstrate personally with them after the deed is done – walked into the wedding party and killed everyone there with some kind of melee weapon? Would that change anything about what happened? We know from events last week in Syria – and events in Afghanistan and Iraq, where British and US soldiers are being investigated for war crimes – and in Vietnam and in WW2 that personal proximity doesn’t necessarily reduce the risk that horrific things will happen to civilians. Whether or not men in planes or tanks or on foot are willing to kill civilians horribly is a matter of propaganda and its effectiveness, not computerization.

The article linked to above suggests that the rate of civilian deaths in drone attacks is about 1/3rd, but this is neither remarkable in war nor particularly scandalous. Civilian deaths in Dresden and Hiroshima far exceeded 1/3 of the total, and it’s likely that deaths in Iraq after the invasion had a much higher civilian-to-military ratio (of the million killed, probably 2/3rds were civilians). Death tolls in Vietnam and WW2 were so fantabulous as to be barely calculable, but it appears that the vast majority of deaths in WW2 were civilian – according to Wikipedia out of about 73 million dead, 24 million were soldiers. Of the civilian dead, the vast majority were murdered by individual men killing human beings at close range execution style. So it’s not as if drone warfare is doing a pretty bad job, from either a historic or a modern perspective.

So, the problem is not the “computerization of war” or the use of drones per se – it’s the decision to go to war, the use of cluster weapons, the employment of untrustworthy and partisan local agents,  a policy of targeting civilian areas, and the refusal of western powers to field enough troops to properly fight national liberation movements (though our experience in Vietnam suggests that the best and most humane way to deal with national liberation movements is to let them have their nation!) There are fears that further automization will lead to the implementation of machine learning algorithms for target acquisition (thus preventing the enemy from jamming radio communications). This could truly be a disaster if the algorithm is bad, but one thing’s for sure: a fully computer-driven targeting algorithm won’t suddenly go wild and decide to rampage through a Vietnamese village, raping and murdering everyone it can get its hands on until a group of unheralded soldiers risk a court martial to stop it.

The ultimate endpoint of drone warfare is something we should all be hoping comes as soon as possible: war fought on computer consoles between nations fielding only non-sentient robots. No civilian deaths, no young men and women dying horribly in distant lands. Just metal blowing up metal, until one side can’t fight anymore and has to surrender or face the prospect of the drones being unleashed on its own citizens. It opens up the prospect of wars without victims. And beyond that, the realization that the metal is just a waste of money, and a shift to entirely computer-game based, virtual wars, where issues of national sovereignty are resolved on a series of networked playstations. We should be ushering in that era as soon as we possibly can, because even the interim stage – of drones blowing up robot tanks far away from civilization – is a vast improvement on the kinds of things we were shown by wikileaks.

So I suppose the final point of this post is: if you’re worried about people being killed in a war, your concern should be with the war[2], and the moral code by which it is waged, rather than whether the bombers are controlled by a keyboard jockey in Nevada or a top gun in Waziristan. It’s not drone warfare that is wrong, but warfare.

fn1: how did Patrick Cockburn get a legitimate gig on the BBC? That’s dodgy, that is. But I can’t find a better link about this seedy aspect of British colonial history, so Cockburn it will have to be.

fn2: This is no criticism of Collin Stafford Smith, whose concern for the people of Waziristan and disgust with the war is clear and obvious.

The Guardian is doing a series on China this week, some of which is quite interesting – the article on Gansu’s solar revolution is quite fascinating to someone (i.e. me) who visited that province 10 years ago and saw nothing but Yak herders, for example. However, in amongst the interesting cultural discussion there is the usual western panic at the prospect of China’s military growth, with an article on its foreign policy declaring breathlessly

China’s military still lags far behind the US, but its official military budget has risen from $14.6bn to $106bn in 12 years – and many believe the true level of spending is far higher.

This kind of statement isn’t limited to the Guardian – newspapers all over Australia, the US and the UK like to point to this 7-fold increase in the military budget and talk about what it signifies. I think it signifies nothing. In fact, the same day this article was written the Guardian put up one of their bravely-named “datablogs” about Chinese GDP, and showed us that 12 years ago it was 390 billion US$, while now it is 6,990 billion US$. So military spending has dropped from 3.7% of GDP to 1.5% of GDP. Cause to worry?

China’s inflation in the early 1990s was running at up to 20% per year, and it’s easy to see that $14.6bn was going to devalue rapidly. In fact, applying the cpi inflation figures to China’s 1990 spending, we see that just to keep up with inflation military spending today would need to be 37 billion US$. So the true increase in spending is not 7-fold at all, but a maximum of 3-fold. In terms of absolute growth it’s a bit scary, but in terms of proportion of GDP China has been de-militarizing rapidly. And a lot of the spending has been catch up anyway.

So let’s compare China’s geo-strategic situation with the USA, which according to wikipedia had a 2011 budget of 1 trillion US$ – 10 times that of China, and 7.7% of its GDP. The USA shares land borders with two democratic, stable states, one of which has some instability on its border. It has no immediate regional rivals bar Cuba, and its nearest geopolitical rivals are an ocean away. There are no hostile military occupations by geopolitical rivals in nations that share a land border with it or its neighbours. By contrast, China:

  • Shares a border with Russia (enough said!)
  • Shares a border with Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a military base with one of its geopolitical rivals (the USA)
  • Shares a (sliver of) border with Afghanistan, a failed state currently occupied by a geopolitical rival
  • Shares a border with India, which (I think) has territorial claims on parts of China
  • Shares borders with Myanmar and North Korea, both failed or failing autocratic states
  • Is separated by a narrow sea lane from its nearest regional rival, Japan, which has a large and dangerous military and a history of aggressive war against China
  • Depends for trade on a series of sea-ways (e.g. the straits of Malacca) that are known to be subject to piracy
  • Has territorial claims on a nation that its main geopolitical rival is pledged to protect

Plus of course that geo-political rival maintains a significant military force in the Pacific and in neighbouring nations (e.g. Japan and Korea). Yet, China’s defense spending has declined as a percentage of GDP and has increased in absolute terms only three-fold over the past 12 years.

This makes China seem very far from a belligerent power, and if anything the very model of restraint and good neighbourliness. If the USA, France or Britain were subject to the kind of geopolitical situation China faces, would they be funding their military at these rates, or gearing up for a massive expansion? So why do newspapers bother with this simplistic pap about China?

In looking at the cost-effectiveness of health interventions in fantasy communities we have shown that the infinite lifespan of elves creates analytical problems, and other commenters have suggested that the cost-effectiveness of clerical interventions to reduce infant mortality should be balanced against the need for clerics to go to war. Well, Professor John Quiggin at the Crooked Timber blog recently broached the issue of doing a benefit-cost analysis of US military spending, and has found that the US defense department has killed a million Americans since 2001. His benefit-cost analysis is really just an exercise in peskiness, though it does have a valid underlying point, and I think actually you could show with a simple cost-effectiveness analysis that the wars of the last 10 years have, under quite reasonable assumptions, not been a cost-effective use of American money. Of course, we don’t make judgments about military spending on cost-effectiveness or cost-benefit grounds.

In comments at Crooked Timber[1], I listed a few examples of how US Defense Department money could be better spent, and one of those examples was vaccination. Obviously, disease eradication would be a very good use of this money, because of its long-term implications, but in thinking about the cost-effectiveness (or cost-benefit) of this particular intervention, I think we can see another clear example of how these purely economic approaches to important policy debates just don’t work. So, here I’m going to look at this in a little more detail, and give some examples of how we can come to outrageous policy conclusions through looking at things through a purely econometric lens. I think I came to this way of thinking by considering the cost-effectiveness of interventions in elven communities, and ultimately it’s relevant to the debate on global warming, because a common denialist tactic is to demand that AGW abatement strategies be assessed entirely in terms of cost-benefit analyses, which are very hard to do and, as one can see from the comments thread at Crooked Timber, are anathema to supporters of the military establishment. As we can see here, they also break down in quite viable real-life circumstances.

The Problem of Disease Eradication

So, you’re the US president in 2001, and you’re reading a book on goats to some schoolkids, and as happens in this situation, you have to make a snap decision about how to spend 200 billion US $ over the next 10 years. You could spend it going to war with a small nation that harbours terrorists; let’s suppose that if you don’t your country will be subject to one 9/11 -style attack every year for the next 20 years (until OBL dies). If you do, you’ll commit your own and the next administration to spending 200 billion US $. Is this a good use of your money? 200 billion US $ to save about 50,000 US lives over 20 years, minus the casualties (wikipedia tells me it’s about 5000). So you get a net benefit of 45,000 lives, or 4,444,444  US $ per life – this actually comes under the US government’s 5 million US$-per-life-saved threshold, so it’s a viable use of your money. But one of your alternatives is to spend the money on eradicating HIV using a vaccine that was recently developed, and it has been shown that by spending 200 billion US$ over 10 years you could eliminate HIV from the face of the earth. You don’t care about the face of the earth, but you need to eradicate it everywhere to make Americans safe from it. Should you ignore the terrorist attacks and spend the money?

For a standard cost-effectiveness analysis you would calculate the incremental benefit (in lives saved) from this vaccine compared to the war on terror. Lives saved in the future are discounted at a fixed rate (usually about 3% a year) and decline in value over the term of the intervention. But the problem with this calculation for disease eradication (specifically) is that the term of the intervention is infinite. All future lives saved forever go into the calculation. The actual formula for this calculation is the integral over (the negative exponent of (discount rate*time t)) multiplied by (lives saved at time t)[2]. Usually we model a policy over 20 or 30 years, giving a finite result; but in this case we need to model the benefit over all future time, and the integral of any bounded function multiplied by the negative exponent, over an infinite range, is infinite. So even with furious discounting we get an infinite benefit from eradicating any disease. Not only does this make comparing disease eradication decisions – e.g. smallpox vs. HIV – impossible, but it makes comparing disease eradication to any other policy objective impossible, and it tells us – quite reasonably, I should say – that we should bend all our health care resources to this task.

In this case, the president of the USA should decide not to go to war because 20 September 11ths are a small price to pay for the eradication of HIV. Eventually Osama bin Laden will give up[3]; HIV won’t. But the stupidity of this decision doesn’t end here. If it costs a trillion dollars to eradicate HIV, the president would be better off defunding his army and paying the price than not; and if Mexico were to invade, killing a million Americans, the infinite benefit of having eradicated HIV would still outweigh the loss.

Now, one argument against this logic is that you shouldn’t include the yet-unborn in a policy evaluation; yet this is standard practice. For example, in considering the cost-effectiveness of different interventions to reduce HIV transmission, we might run a model on the 15-64 year old population, and when we do this we allow for maturity into and out of the population; if we run the model for more than 15 years we are implicitly allowing the yet-unborn into the model. Furthermore, you could surely argue that modeling disease eradication without including the unborn devalues the whole concept – what is disease eradication except a project to protect the unborn generations of the future?

So we can’t use econometric analyses by themselves to assess the value of interventions, because a perfectly reasonable economic analysis of a valid healthcare goal throws up an impossible contradiction. The world expects – with significant help from Bill Gates, I might add – to eliminate polio by 2015 and with the recent announcement of a vaccine for malaria you can bet that the international health movement will turn its gaze on that bastard protozoan next. And there is no economic argument you can mount against spending money on it – even if the cost is everything you own.

Implications for the Global Warming Debate

A common argument mounted by “hard-headed realists” and AGW deniers is that money spent on AGW mitigation needs to be justified by a solid cost-benefit analysis, because the alternative is to spend this money on targeting real problems now, especially in third world countries (often also the countries most vulnerable to AGW’s worst effects). Money spent on infant mortality now, they argue, is far better than money spent on AGW mitigation in the future – even if you accept that the negative effects of AGW are a certainty. This is a particularly powerful argument since we don’t have solid evidence for exactly how bad the effects of AGW will be, and we know that the future benefits of reducing infant mortality now are huge. This economic defense will usually also depend on discount rates – we’re much more interested in lives saved now than in the future, and AGW mitigation’s effects will be felt in the future, not now. Exactly what the relative benefits of mitigation will be are very sensitive to discount rates.

In this case, though, one can argue: well, let’s spend the entire defense department’s money on eradicating HIV. If we test everyone in Africa every 6 months – surely possible with the full funding of the US military on the case – and treat them immediately (or, hey, just treat everyone in Africa with anti-HIV drugs for the next 30 years – let’s put them in the water!) then we can eliminate HIV, and save an infinite number of lives. It’s guaranteed on both cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness grounds, with the added benefit that you don’t need to quibble over the discount rate – it’s guaranteed to be cost-effective under any finite discount rate. The natural argument against this will be that someone might invade America. But we can say in response to this, “uh uh! Precautionary principle! You don’t know how bad that invasion will be or even if it will happen.” If the precautionary principle doesn’t apply to the putative risks of AGW, why should it apply to defense? Or rather, if we need to attach a monetary value to the future risks of AGW, why not attach one to the future invasion of the USA? And when we do, it will be of lower value than the benefits from elimination of HIV, even if the entire population is wiped out during the invasion.

Which brings us back to the simple problem that we can’t assess any policy in isolation using only the econometric tools at our disposal. Everyone understands this, of course, which is why people on the Crooked Timber thread are bridling at Professor Quiggin’s analysis. They attach additional, non-economic considerations to these problems. But one of the rear-guard actions of the anti-AGW movement is to demand that we use exclusively economic methods for assessing the value of AGW mitigation – and it was in response to this fiction that the Stern review was commissioned. I think it needs to be recognized that these econometric tools offer false clarity, and only apply within a very limited framework, that of limited improvements in a limited temporal framework (pacemakers vs. aspirins, essentially). Defense, disease elimination, and AGW mitigation lie outside that framework. This should be abundantly clear to anyone who has tried to do a cost-effectiveness calculation of the relative merits of slavery and genocide for elven communities. It’s just a shame that most economists haven’t bent their mind to these truly important questions; fortunately, we at the C&C University are here to help with the more profound philosophical questions. No, don’t thank me, we do it for free. Or, alternatively, pick apart the argument in the comments … I’m eager to hear how a valid mathematical framework can be constructed for the analysis of disease eradication goals, because it’s relevant to my work…

Update

Actually while I was watching a band in Kichijoji at 3am last night I realized that my interpretation of the formula for total effectiveness in the disease eradication was wrong[5]. Ultimately, the benefits that accrue from disease eradication are approximately (1/(discount rate))*average number of lives saved in any year. So for a discount rate of 3% and 1,000,000 lives saved per year from (e.g. ) eradicating malaria you would get a total benefit of about 33 million. It’s not infinite but it’s very very large. So the general argument holds, but it is possible to compare disease eradication programs. Note that there’s an argument that can be made for a lower discount rate in the case of disease eradication (it is all about saving future generations, not the current generation) and even a small change in the discount rate makes a big difference to the outcome. Also, under certain conditions (exponential population growth bigger than the discount rate) the benefits of disease eradication are infinite; I think most people expect the population to stabilize at 7 billion though so this doesn’t apply on earth.

fn1: for historical reasons I comment there as sg

fn2: or something similar

fn3: Actually it’s an interesting question, isn’t it? If you ignore a terrorist who is incapable of waging a conventional war on you, refuse to give into his demands, mount a purely law-enforcement operation to prevent his worst excesses, and wait him out, how long will it be before he just gives up and goes away? How long can OBL recruit people for if killing Americans leads to … nothing? And if after a few years the US said quietly to the Taliban, “we’ll give you a billion a year in aid if you get rid of him,” how long would it be before he had no safe bases?

fn4: I find this very interesting. A few years ago it was getting hard to find doctors in the west who would perform circumcisions on babies; ten years ago doctors were equivocal on the issue and there has been a long-standing community opposition to circumcision for non-medical reasons; yet now we’re recommending it (and funding it!) en masse in African countries. I wonder how Americans would have felt if, in 1987, Nelson Mandela or Robert Mugabe had come to the USA and suggested that the solution to their growing HIV problem was to circumcise all adult gay men?

fn5: I did this calculation only recently, so I really should have got this right from the start…

This is to be my last post on what I’ve learnt from John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and it is also to be my most speculative. Did the feverish anti-Japanese propaganda of the Pacific war era influence at all the allies’ decision to engage in large scale bombing of urban areas in Japan, and/or their decision to use nuclear weapons? In this sense I’m not interested in whether these tactics were “right” or “wrong,” though I think we can all take it as read that a decision to drop a nuclear weapon on a city is definitely wrong in anything except the most extreme of circumstances. My question is more about whether our subsequent interpretation of these decisions (which remain controversial) and the decisions themselves is clouded by the propaganda that was being used at the time, and the general beliefs about Japanese and allied behavior in the war, as they existed then and exist now.

I have always accepted what for this post I will call the “standard” view of the urban bombing campaign and the nuclear attacks: that in the absence of convincing proof that they would be destroyed as a nation the Japanese were not going to surrender and were going to fight a long and protracted military campaign that would lead to the deaths of millions of Japanese and potentially hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers. In the standard view, the allies discovered on Okinawa that the invasion of the mainland was going to be a hideous affair, and decided to use terror bombing to bring the war to a close so that they didn’t have to expend many lives. This view can even take the pesky form of having been for the good of the Japanese too: I don’t think it’s hard to find examples of people saying that less civilians died in the bombing campaign than would have died if the allies had invaded the mainland.

I have also read Dresden, which contains a passionate defense of the terror bombing of German cities on strategic grounds and argues that the frantic German efforts to defend major cities represented a huge drain on their military resources and hastened the end of the war. I’m inclined to accept this view of the strategic value of the terror bombings of Germany, and against the backdrop of all the horrors of that war I can understand why Stalin was pleading with the allies to do more of the same. But just because it worked in Germany doesn’t mean it was strategically necessary in the Pacific, and my suspicion is that decisions about when to start the bombing, how intense to make it, and why it was necessary, were influenced by the extreme propaganda about Japan. We have established that there was an eliminationist sentiment to this propaganda, that it was extremely racist and that the underlying principles of the propaganda were believed by the public and war planners alike. We also know that the allies got up to all manner of nasty war crimes in the Pacific, were not particularly inclined to see the Japanese as human, and that just as their behavior towards Japanese was different to Germans, so was their propaganda. So it doesn’t seem a stretch to me to imagine that the allies were also inclined to favor brutal tactics, and that decisions about the necessity of these tactics would be colored by some genuinely held beliefs about how unreasonable, crazy, childish and brutal the Japanese were. Also underlying the allied response to the Japanese is a need to remind the other “sub-humans” of the Pacific that rising up against the accepted international order is a very bad idea, and a fear that the Japanese “lesson” might be learnt by others in Malaysia and Indonesia. There are also a few examples from Dower’s book of specific beliefs about the unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender, and specific actions taken by the allies that suggest that the terror bombings weren’t embarked on reluctantly or purely for military/strategic reasons. I’ll cover these first.

Beliefs About the Chances of Surrender

The allies based their understanding of Japanese war-time thinking on a whole suite of crazy sociological theories about the Japanese psyche: that the nation was stuck in a child-like stage of development, that they were crazy, that they could not be reasoned with, and that they could not be trusted. Many allied planners seemed to think that the Japanese would use any kind of honourable or conditional surrender as a chance to regroup before attacking again, and the Japanese were generally viewed as treacherous and shifty. Dower describes the generally held view that the Japanese would need to be thoroughly defeated, possibly “to the last man” because their nation had a suicide psychology and needed a “psychological purge.” Allied planners may have expected the Japanese to behave as a nation the way they (also erroneously) believed Japanese as individuals preferred suicide to surrender. Furthermore, Japanese treachery and savagery meant that only by the complete destruction of their current order could the Japanese desire to dominate Asia be prevented. Allied propaganda also maintained that the Japanese were “patient” and sinister (common traits ascribed to Orientals) and would happily wait 100 years to launch another war of domination, as Germany had done after world war 1, and so the only way to prevent them going to war again was their complete destruction. This view is particularly interesting because there really was no historical basis for thinking that the Japanese have a long-standing interest in dominating their region – they had chosen isolation over expansion, and their first international military activity was against Russia in 1905. The allies were nonetheless willing to believe that the war represented a manifestation of some constant belief in Japanese culture.

Lack of Interest in Surrender

In addition to a general belief that Japanese did not surrender, allied soldiers and their leaders did not show much interest in obtaining surrender from their enemies. In military engagements allied soldiers would kill soldiers who did surrender, or would refuse to accept a surrender and force Japanese soldiers to fight on to their deaths. Dennis Warner reports this exchange between two high-ranking officers in Bouganville:

“But sir, they are wounded and want to surrender,” a colonel protested [to a major general] at the edge of the cleared perimeter after a massive and unsuccessful Japanese attack.

“You heard me, Colonel,” replied [the major general], who was only yards away from upstretched Japanese hands. “I want no prisoners. Shoot them all.”

They were shot.

Accounts from Marines in Okinawa also suggest the same behavior in Okinawa, and not just towards soldiers: marines also killed civilians. This account from a war correspondent summarizes the battlefield philosophy of the Americans:

What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? … We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.

This was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1946, when the memories and philosophies of the war were still clear in people’s minds and admitting such atrocities was still acceptable. By now, of course, we look back on our soldiers as having fought for a noble cause, and no longer discuss the barbarity of the time. It’s clear from these accounts that the mistreatment of prisoners and refusal to accept surrender crossed military types (navy, air force and army) and was held at all levels of command. It’s also clear that the blood-letting on Okinawa was not entirely the fault of Japanese unwillingness to surrender, and suggests that whatever judgments military planners were making about a battle on the mainland, to some extent at least the numbers of dead they were expecting to see were being partly brought about by their own soldiers’ misconduct. With such a disinterest in either surrender or treating the enemy population kindly, perhaps they were inclined to see a protracted campaign of urban destruction as a good thing on its own terms?

Destruction for its Own Sake

The saddest example of this interest in destruction as an end in itself is the final air raid on Tokyo. This happened on the night of August 14th, just hours before the Japanese officially surrendered, and when everyone on both sides knew the surrender was going to happen. The raid was the biggest of the war, consisting of 1014 planes, and suffered not a single loss. The planes had not yet returned to their bases when Japan’s unconditional surrender was announced. There is no chance that this raid was necessary, or that even a single death it caused could possibly have advanced the end of the war by even a heartbeat. It is perhaps the clearest example of simple cruelty on the part of the allies, in which a city was destroyed merely for the sake of it. From this act we can see that the allies valued destruction for its own sake, and were acting on Churchill’s demand to lay all the cities of Japan to ash, even where they didn’t need to.

The Question of the Bombings

This leads us to the question at the heart of this post: could the allies have negotiated an end to the war in some other way, without the use of terror bombing and atomic weapons; could they have used less terror bombing and no atomic attacks? Were their decisions driven by a desire to destroy as much of Japan as possible, rather than purely strategic concerns? And if their decisions were based on a genuine belief that the Japanese would not surrender and would fight to the last, to what extent was that belief correct, and was it at least partially clouded by their own stereotypes of and fantastic notions about the Japanese psyche? What portion of the decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki was strategic, what portion was cruel, and what portion was based on misconceptions about the Japanese psyche that were, ultimately, founded in racism?

The decision to end the war in this way may also have been driven by the desire to assert colonial power over Asia – a conditional surrender would probably have meant allowing the Japanese to retain some colonial possessions, and the implication from this would be that Asia could control its own destiny. Furthermore, they needed to end the war before the Soviets invaded Japan. But it seems to me that there are other approaches they could have taken: for example, after Okinawa they could have ceased all aggressive action targeting civilians, used their overwhelming naval power to enforce Japan’s isolation, and just waited them out. I don’t know, but I have never heard from any source that the allies genuinely attempted to negotiate surrender before the bitter end. One doesn’t hear stories of attempts to subvert the military clique in charge, to foment civil disorder, or to use captured Japanese soldiers as propaganda tools – it’s as if they just all assumed such actions would be impossible, and I think these assumptions may have been wrong.

In essence then, I strongly suspect that much of the barbarity of the final year of the war, and especially the terror-bombing campaign, was unnecessary and was driven by a complex mix of racist and colonialist beliefs. I think the allies may have been able to negotiate a different end to the war, but they didn’t believe it was possible due to racist assumptions about “orientals,” and they didn’t want to because they wanted to punish the Japanese and inflict a defeat on them that would send a signal throughout Asia. I think this means that, while in retrospect the bombing of Japan has been painted as a necessary tactic, it can only be portrayed as such if we accept the racist premises of the propaganda of the time, and overlook the wanton cruelty of the allied forces. Is a more realistic historical interpretation that allied thinking about Japan and the Japanese was deeply flawed, and the policy of mass destruction that “won” the war was both unnecessary and heavily influenced by this same racist worldview?

I’m fascinated with finding elements of culture that have resisted the force of culture, because I think that many societies retain a socio-cultural core that is resistant to mere events, and drives the society through massive cultural changes with its fundamental structure intact. I have tried applying this idea to east Asian history, and now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and thinking I see some elements of British history that maybe show the same continuity. I’m quite happy to take Cornwell’s work as definitive historical content, because it’s a fun book. So what continuity do I find between modern British history and the ancient era?

The Essex Dog

In the Arthurian era depicted by Cornwell, the British are fighting the Saxons in Britain. The British occupy Wales, Wessex, and the West Country, while the Saxons have captured Kent, Essex, London and the Southeast. That is, the Saxons are the original Chavs, and the source of the cultural force that divides modern Britain[1]. Just like in modern Britain, on the weekend they teem westward and get into fights with the locals, who have to beat them off in scenes of violence that are just like those you might see in modern London: lines of men with spears locked fighting against chavs. Except in the ancient era, the chavs also had shields: in Arthur’s time soldiers fought in lines of shields locked close together and penetrated by shields, a tactic they picked up from the Romans, and success in battle depended on keeping your wall of shields locked together and disciplined, and beating your enemy on their mistakes.

So what did the Saxons bring to this battle to give them an edge? Huge, nasty dogs that they would unleash on the lines of British warriors, breaking the shield wall. Anyone who has lived in London for more than a week is familiar with the phenomenon of the chav with their nasty dog, a great big fucked up bulldog or some other nasty arse-faced wolf-fucker that they have beaten since childhood and can barely control when they walk it down the street (if they can be bothered putting it on a lead, the anti-social arseholes). These are the dogs whose shit you have to dance around whenever you walk anywhere in London, and woe betide the man or woman who asks the tracksuited “owner” to clean up after their nasty slobbering canine. Reading about a horde of saxons in stinking bear furs, pointing their massive dogs at the British lines and yelling “oi” is pretty much exactly like reading about a Sunday afternoon in Finsbury Park or Tottenham. That, my friends, is continuity in history.

King Arthur and the Scrum

The crucial part of your average Arthurian stoush is the shield wall. Bascially this involves a bunch of tanked-up blokes carrying shields and spears, pushing against each other and sweating and screaming and spitting while the men behind them push them forward and try to force them to break their opponents’ line. Reading this while also regularly watching Rugby World Cup matches I could only really conclude one thing: it’s exactly like a massive scrum, with spears. Every description Cornwell proffers for this battle tactic sounds like a huge scrum. Tonight, watching Ireland play rugby (against Italy) with a fire in their bellies, I found myself imagining the same men draped in wolf fur, carrying spears and shields, coming towards me in scrum-like formation with the intent of beating their way past me to get to my farm and my children, and it was a disturbing idea. Rugby (and all modern ball sports?) struck me then as a formalized version of an ancient and very nasty code … is this also continuity in history?

A Final Semi-Prediction

Like a good Briton, at this point I should stab a slave in the belly and read the splatterings of their blood as they die to get an augury for the coming battle. Alternatively, I could just say that after watching Italy today I have a premonition that Ireland could make the final and maybe, possibly, even win. Their performance against Italy was exemplary and although Italy are a second tier team, they aren’t pushovers, and Ireland have already beaten Australia … and that was not a one-off (I think they did the same thing earlier this year). Their path to the final will involve first Wales (a probable victory) and then England (in a world of off-pitch trouble) or France (who just fell to Tonga and seem to be suffering from severe internal tension). On the other side, NZ’s path to the final should be assured; first Argentina, then either South Africa or Australia. But NZ are famous chokers and a semi-final against SA is the perfect opportunity for them to call on their famous curse, which would set up a SA vs. Ireland final. If Ireland get that far they will have beaten Wales, who almost beat South Africa … so it’s entirely possible.

Of course as an Australian I am supporting the All Blacks, but after they choke I’ll be supporting the underdog (even though I like South African rugby and I really really like Brian Habana). So I think there’s a chance I’ll be cheering Ireland in the final. Who’s with me?!!

 

 

fn1: You might say I’m drawing a long bow here, but Saxons didn’t really use missile weapons, so as the Saxons would say, “fuck off!”

Following my thoughts on post-scarcity fantasy, I found myself reading the Chronicles of the Black Company, which presented me with a range of examples of a world where the relationship between magic and culture is not static, and magic is not treated as a technology that fell from the sky. Where a lot of fantasy worlds seem to have been designed as straight depictions of a medieval world with magic unthinkingly bolted on, Cook treats it as a living part of the world, rare but subject to innovation and capable both of causing social change and being adapted and enhanced by it’s society, as well as interacting with undone technology. We are also presented with an idea that is often ignored or under-played in classic fantasy: the importance of research, literacy and the historical record.

There are many examples of innovative use of magic in this book, mostly in the military context. The simplest example is its use in spying and finding spies. The Black Company keeps its use of wizards very secret, like Guinness and its use of statistics, and as a result its enemies never understand how the Company can know so much about them, nor how they can catch spies and scouts so well. The Company exploits this by spreading misinformation and suspicion, giving the impression that it has spies everywhere and deliberately spreading a reputation for cunning and counter-espionage. Wizards in this world are rare, and the Company ruthlessly exploits the relative advantage they give it, as well as both protecting them and keeping them secret.

The wizards also fashion minor amulets and magic items when they are really essential, and though they aren’t powerful they serve to give Company members a slight edge at certain times. Their mighty leaders, the Taken, go further than this, however, employing magic liberally in battle to destroy, mislead and hamper the enemy. Storms, powerful chemical weapons, fireballs, illusions and all manner of enchantment tricks are employed, as well as magic to rally the troops. The Taken also have flying carpets, which early on in the war they use primarily for their own personal missions. Later on, as matters get more pressing, they use them to ferry key Company members about and later still for troop transport. Finally they start building larger carpets which are designed to glide, fitted with ballistas, and used as aerial attack platforms. Eventually simple bombs are designed, and they enter a kind of aerial warfare arms race with their enemy. This is the kind of thing that I expect magic to do in the world, but very rarely see described with any sense in the genre. Cook further backs this up with occasional references to other innovations: at one point, for example, Croaker is given a painkiller derived from a rare locally-sourced herb. He immediately seeks out it’s name and suggests stockpiling it for the Company, only to discover that the Taken are considering cultivating it after the war for civilian use. This is how I expect any rational person to react to a magic or medicinal herb, but in most fantasy stories this knowledge remains strangely sequestered, and is never converted into any benefit for the wider community. In this book, the eternal bad guys think about it as soon as they see the possibilities it contains.

The most refreshing aspect of Cook’s approach to fantasy in his world is his depiction of research. Croaker,being the Annalist, is literate and aware of the importance of documents, and his Company consider documents to be more important than loot. At one point they stumble on a cache of key rebel documents in a captured camp and as soon as they learn what they’ve got they become ruthless beyond compare. They kill every rebel captive who might identify that they were there, set a trap to delay reinforcements, and flee with the documents before the soldiers have had any time for pillage. Amongst these documents they find evidence that they may be able to learn the true names and history of the Taken, and possession of these documents becomes the most important consideration of the story. At later stages of the series Croaker and some of the Taken prioritize the safety of these documents over that of their men or their treasure, and exhaust themselves researching them. Even the knowledge that they possess them is a death sentence for anyone not of the Company. I don’t think I have ever read a fantasy story where research is so explicitly worked into the narrative and so key to military success, and it’s both refreshing and enlightening. Obviously other stories – e.g. The Lord of the Rings – have the success of research as a trigger in the narrative, but this story works the ideas of research, espionage and secrecy into the fabric of the story in a much more sophisticated way.

This book’s treatment of magic as an integral and living component of the world is a good example of what I was pining for in my discussion of post-scarcity fantasy. It shows how much richer and more interesting the fantasy genre can be when people think more deeply about the role magic plays in the world than just seeing it as the domain of pre-destined teenagers and bearded old men.

In my reading of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company I was, of course, confronted with scenes of violence and rapine such as one might expect of a company of mercenaries fighting on the side of an undead evil. However, I was also struck by the difference between the depiction of this aspect of the story and it’s depiction in, for example, the tv adaptation of A Game of Thrones, about which I have complained previously.

Taking A Game of Thrones as an example, we see a modern “gritty” fantasy writer’s view of the behavior we might expect of men and soldiers in a world where women have few rights, war has no laws, and the all moral decisions are supposedly painted in shades of grey. In Martin’s depiction, men are constantly spouting venomous, misogynist language, sex work is ubiquitous and glamorized, women are under constant threat of rape and rape culture is omnipresent and accepted. There is very little sense that men even see rape as wrong (except perhaps as a property crime), or that soldiers and victors should (or even could) be expected to act with any decency. We also don’t see any evidence that gender inequality might be differently constructed in a world of magic and dragons. Instead we have a vision of a world that you can’t help but think of as a misogynist teenager’s daydreams.

In Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company we see the same setting, of gender inequality and war with no laws, but instead of reading the tale of men who have to make hard moral decisions to win, we find ourselves squarely on the side of a bunch of famously bad-arsed mercenaries fighting on behalf of an ancient and powerful evil. This is an evil that takes no prisoners and allows it’s favorites to commit any crime. So how is this setting depicted?

First of all, we see that our soldiers take no prisoners – they often kill their captives, and torture is done wherever necessary. They also use rape as both a tool of war and a reward. But neither activity is dwelt on in the text at all, and there is not really any point in the story where the plot takes a turn such as to make these unsavoury activities necessary to the story or to bring them to the fore in the narrative. Furthermore, although we get the impression that some of the main characters may be capable of it or may have done it – certainly Croaker orders or condones the murder of both military and civilian prisoners, including the elderly – we don’t see it as necessarily pleasant for them, and we don’t get the impression they think it is not wrong. In general rape is seen as a crime that soldiers can get away with, those who don’t want to are respected for it, and men who commit acts of violence to protect e.g. children are even given extra leniency in considering their punishments. There is no revelling in rape culture here, but a kind of guilty acceptance of it as one of the many bad things that happen in war. The Black Company is composed of exiles and criminals and held together only by it’s own internal honor and allegiances, so it is generally expected that soldiers don’t turn on their own over external moral principles, but this doesn’t stop them from condemning the crimes their members commit, and it certainly doesn’t require that the author revel in them, or enable his readers to. This is rape culture with a context, not stripped of its historical and social meaning and presented to the reader as a kind of warporn.

We also see a very different depiction of female characters in this story. Being a story about a company of male soldiers, most characters are male, but two characters in particular are women, and some are of indeterminate gender for much of the story. The women come from both sides, and both wield great power. One is perhaps supernatural and both are magical. Both expect equality as a consequence of their temporal power and the men around them give it without question. These women, like most of the characters in the story, have human flaws, but their flaws are not the usual kind of gender-specific hysterics and weaknesses one expects of a fantasy story. Indeed, one of these women is a rape survivor, but it’s not particularly relevant to her character and she has no obvious weaknesses or flaws as a consequence of it. Certainly her character and narrative role remain largely unrelated to this, so she is not defined by the acts of men. Indeed, although both characters enter the story initially in relation to the evil acts of the men around them, they soon define their own place in the world and supplant the men whose shadow they might otherwise have been expected to remain within. And there is certainly no way you can claim, as some do in relation to Martin’s work, that only a terrible fate befalls powerful and successful women.

Another aspect of this story that I really liked was the ability of these women to form non-sexual relationships with men. There is one relationship particularly that would surely be expected to become sexual under the standard fantasy conventions, but in this story it remains a friendship, and neither member of the friendship seems challenged by this. These are real human relations as we might imagine them in a medieval world where gender inequality is commonplace.

This book offers us examples of how we should expect modern writers to provide us a realistic view of a dark and vicious fantasy world, without either sugar-coating the bad stuff or revelling in it. Cook manages to present a world of gender inequality where vile deeds are commonplace without making us think that he admires it or we should enjoy it. He also asks questions about how women’s role might change in the presence of magic, and assumes that essentially our relations would retain their fundamental humanity in such a world. This is very different from what I saw in A Game of Thrones, and, I submit, a far more mature approach to the sub-genre and to fantasy writer’s interpretation of misogyny and violence in the medieval world.

I am watching England being slowly ground into humiliation by an astounding Argentinian team On the second day of the biggest contest of the world’s most important sport. It’s a war of attrition out there but the Argentinians are proving once again that the future of sport lies in the southern hemisphere. Sadly I am neither in the south nor the east for the first two weeks of this titanic struggle: I am in scungy, embittered London for a (great!) course on mathematical modeling of disease[1]. This means I have to watch the games in the morning and will miss most, but I can at least enjoy this weekend’s.

I love watching rugby. It’s the perfect synthesis of physical contest, teamwork, bravery and skill, and it happens at a pace and intensity that other contact ball sports lack. I love also the special tactics that derive from the specialization of the players when they are forced to mix it up in a chaotic melee. It also lacks the posturing and false machismo of soccer, and the nationalism of rugby doesn’t come with the nasty violence or racism of that sport. It’s culturally a million miles away from the other British code… It’s the best side of sport.

In today’s other game in a remarkable upset, Japan stood up to France right up to the last 10 minutes, even looking like they might win at one point, until their fitness gave out and les bleus marched home. Fans all around the world were hoping for a miracle there, but it didn’t come. However, I have hopes that this time around they will be able to get some victories. In 2007 they got their first ever points in a cup; this time they can hope for victories.

And of course I am hoping for a NZ victory, but they are famous for choking at the last. Can they do it in their home country in 2011? And if they can’t should Australia annex them?


fn1: one of my fellow students is the Australian Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, who identified the cause of stomach ulcers[2]

Fn2: and thus proved that the future of science is also in the southern hemisphere

We continue our series on Tim Power’s War Without Mercy with a discussion of the role of social scientists in the construction of propaganda. We have already seen that Japan’s social scientists were working on the question of how to construct a new social order for the pacific under a Japanese empire, but their role by no means ended there, and nor was this kind of distasteful theorizing limited to Japanese scholars. In fact the work we saw in our previous post was largely conducted in secret,and served less to construct propaganda as it drew on existing racial ideology to develop practical plans. And in this we see the nub of a fascinating problem. By the time Japan had spent 10 or more years at war in the Pacific her propaganda had become so entrenched that the social scientists’ work had itself been infected by the kind of foolish ideologies that so much effort had previously been put into convincing the population to believe.

The same can be observed of allied war planers before the war. Based on the theories of racial and social scientists, Britain’s military planners really believed that Japanese would make bad pilots and couldn’t win aerial warfare – they had been told by their scientists that the way Japanese women carry their infants affects their inner ear and makes them unsuited for aerial manoeuvres. Also they believed the Japanese to be short-sighted and timid, and had been told that their lack of initiative would make them predictable and uncreative war planners. Even at Iwo Jima, when the Japanese defence used coordinated heavy artillery, they decided the Japanese must have German support; they assumed this after initial victories in the Pacific as well, because their racial theories didn’t allow non-white races to win.

These fallacies in the support of propaganda were not accidental, either. Sometimes considerable effort would be put into research and justifications for certain political views. Social scientists played a key role here, presenting both academic and popularized descriptions of Japanese culture that supported the views being presented by government propagandists. Extensive effort was put into proving that the Japanese as a race were trapped in a childlike mental state, with the preferred theory appearing to be that Japanese toilet training techniques were so horrific that they arrested the development of the Japanese psyche, rendering them also vicious-tempered and subservient to authority figures. That’s right, a whole race’s psychology traced to it’s choice of toilet paper, and entire theories of wartime conduct developed on this basis.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a whole bunch of social scientists spent a large amount of time working on a complex set of theories that ultimately ended up agreeing very closely with the base propaganda of the US government and Leatherneck magazine, any more than that a previous generation of scientists labored to prove that blacks were inferior to whites; or archaeologists managed to prove that the white race settled India. It’s a salient lesson to all of us – especially those of us in or near academia – that the much-vaunted intellectual freedom and independence of academia always ends up telling us what we want to hear. This shouldn’t seem so surprising, given human nature and the way society works, but the history of academia’s service to unpleasant ideas should stop us being too self congratulatory about how free-thinking we really are in our ivory towers. My own field of statistics prides itself, I think, on being quite independent and free-thinking[1], but it’s worth remembering the somewhat unpleasant eugenics of Fisher, and the role of demographers and population planners in the Nazi occupation of eastern Europe – all very good examples of academics supporting the status quo when, in retrospect, the status quo was obviously wrong and in many ways evil.

Maybe things have improved since world war 2, but maybe also they have just become more sophisticated, or the stakes have been lowered. We’ve seen plenty of social science in support of foreign intervention (e.g. The domino effect) and dictatorship (some of our more morally bankrupt economists on Chile, and a wide smattering of pre-70s leftists on Eastern Europe), and the history of population planning hasn’t been free of controversy in the post-war era. So it’s worth remembering that quite often scientists are working as hard to reflect perceived wisdom as they are to uncover genuinely new ideas. Where the propaganda is needed the academics seem to be able to find a basis for it; and where it has already taken hold they are as likely to perpetuate it (or just lend it a little nuanced sophistication) as they are to challenge it. And you certainly can’t rely on us to bear the load of intellectual honesty when the stakes are high. So next time a scientist tells you they have stunning proof of a commonly-held prejudice, you should probably just smile and back away politely. Who knows where their work will end – it could be a population planning document whose contents have long since passed into preposterous fantasy; or it could be a firestorm in Tokyo. But like as not, their work isn’t going to get you to any profound truths – or at least, that is the lesson we can learn from the involvement of academics in the development of the theory underlying propaganda and race hate in world war 2.

fn1: though maybe this field is better characterized as a bunch of ratbag leftists, at least in my experience

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