Not enough to save you from castration

Not enough to save you from castration

I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s The Second World War, and I have been very disappointed by its handling of cryptography. Overall the book is an interesting and fun read, not as engrossing or powerful as Stalingrad or Berlin but retaining his trademark narrative flow, mix of military and personal history, and leavened with analysis of the broader political currents flowing through the war. It also doesn’t ignore colonial history the way earlier generations’ stories did, and  it is willing to present a relatively unvarnished view of Allied commanders and atrocities. The book has many small flaws, and I don’t think it’s as good as previous work. In particular the writing style is not as polished and the tone slightly breathless, occasionally a little adolescent. I’m suspicious that his grasp of the Pacific war is not as great as of Europe, and that he may fall back on national stereotypes in place of detailed scholarship, though I have seen no evidence of that yet. But the main problem the book has is just that the war is too big to fit into one person’s scholarship or one book, and so he glosses over in a couple of sentences what might otherwise have formed a whole chapter. This was particularly striking with the Nanking Massacre, which gets a paragraph or less in this book. That, for those who aren’t sure of it, is about the same amount of coverage it gets in a Japanese middle school history textbook – which also has to cover the whole of World War 2. Interesting coincidence that …

Anyway, as a result of this a great many things that might be important are given very little description. For example, the famous technology of the war – the Spitfire, the Messerschmitt, the Zero – are introduced without explanation or elucidation, and though constantly referred to by their proper names we don’t know what their strong or weak points are – it’s as if Beevor assumed we were going to check it ourselves on wikipedia. I was a little disappointed when I realized that Beevor had decided to treat the decryption/encryption technologies of the war – and the resulting intelligence race – in this way. So at some point early in the Battle of the Atlantic he starts referring to “Ultra Decrypts,” as if they were simply another technology.

This is disappointing because Ultra decrypts aren’t just another technology. There was an ongoing battle between mathematicians and engineers of both sides of the war to produce updated technologies and to decrypt them, and the capture and utilization of intelligence related to encryption methods was essential to this effort. The people who participated in this battle were heroes in their own right, though they didn’t have to ever face a bullet, and their efforts were hugely important. Basically every description of every major engagement in the African campaign includes the phrase “fortunately, due to Ultra decrypts, the Allies knew that …”[1]; the battle of Midway was won entirely because of the use of decryption; and much of the battle of the Atlantic depended on it too. These men, though they never fired a shot in anger, saved hundreds of thousands of tons of allied materiel, tens of thousands of lives, and huge tracts of land and ocean from conquest. Yet they aren’t even mentioned by name, let alone given even a couple of sentences to describe what they did and how they worked. This is particularly disappointing given that Alan Turing, who was hugely important to this effort, was cruelly mistreated by the British government after the war and ended up committing suicide. It’s also disappointing because cryptography was an area where many unnamed women contributed to the war effort in a way that was hugely important. In one earlier sentence during the Battle of Britain Beevor refers to “Land Girls,” the famous women who farmed England while the men were at war. It would be nice to also see a reference to “the Calculators,” young women who crunched numbers before computers were invented.

I find this aspect of Beevor’s book disappointing, and I’m sure that there are similar oversights in reporting the contribution of other “back office” types. Maybe it’s reflective of the modern idea that only “frontline workers” count, and only their stories are important. Or maybe it’s a reflection of a culture in which the contribution of nerds and scientists is always devalued relative to the contribution of adventurers, sportspeople and soldiers. It’s a very disappointing missed opportunity to tell an important and often under-reported story about the huge contribution that science makes to advancing human freedom.

fn1: And usually also includes the phrase “Unfortunately, [insert British leader] was too [timid/stupid/slow/arrogant] to respond and thus …”

The struggle for improved town planning laws continues unabated...

The struggle for improved town planning laws continues unabated…

Today’s Guardian is running an article about the controversy of renaming Volgograd to Stalingrad for the annual celebrations of that particularly brutal period in World War 2. If anyone hasn’t read Anthony Beevor’s book on this topic, I strongly recommend it – I don’t know how factual it is but it’s an excellent read anyway. Apparently, according to this article, the decision to rename Volgograd to Stalingrad for this few days of the year (covering the time when the Nazis surrendered) is controversial because it is seen as honouring Stalin, who was in charge at the time. From the article:

Communists and other hardliners credit him with leading the country to victory in the second world war and making it a nuclear superpower, while others condemn his purges, during which millions were murdered.

Stalin was definitely a bad, bad man, who did bad, bad things, and although some have argued that many of the bad things he did were necessary conditions to enable the rapid industrialization that gave the USSR the power to destroy Hitler, others would probably just as likely argue that his excesses reduced the USSR’s power to resist invasion. Beevor doesn’t make a judgment either way but certainly describes how Stalin’s behavior before the war and in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa made the Nazis’ job easier, but by contrast Aly and Heim in Architects of Annihilation argue, at least by implication, that Stalin’s programs of “de-kulakization” and industrialization – which were accompanied by famine, mass relocation and the destruction of whole communities – were essential to the later war effort and were actually copied by Hitler’s planners and demographers as they set about the extermination of the Jewish race and the residents of Eastern Europe. So in this sense it could be argued that Stalin’s specific pre-war policy framework[1] may have been an essential pre-condition to the victory in the war[2]. If so, it’s a very odious fact but it does suggest that Stalin’s role was essential to winning the war[3], as were the sacrifices of the 20 million or so people who died as a result of his policies.

Beevor on the other hand quotes a general speaking to Stalin early in the war, when Stalin was panicking. I can’t remember exactly the quote, of course, but basically the general told Stalin “It doesn’t really matter how tough they are or how badly we fare now; just pack up our industry to the other side of the Urals, and eventually we’ll destroy them.” A lesson they learnt, of course, from Napoleon, though they did have help from vampires back then.

So reading that article on the reveneration of Stalingrad’s name, and the dispute about how much Stalin needs to be tied to the victory over Nazism (and, by extension, its fascist satellites), or whether the Soviet Union (and Russia) was/is the kind of place where it doesn’t matter who is in charge, no one will ever be able to conquer it. I guess it won’t change anything about the current debate (after all, since when are these debates ever actually about historical facts?) but it’s an interesting question about Stalin’s legacy, since implicit in it is the suggestion that the only way Russia could have defeated the Nazis is by a massive program of industrialization that cannot possibly be achieved without mass suffering. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to believe that the first half of the 20th century could have followed any trajectory that would not have ended in mass suffering – at least not once WW1 was over. And if so, that really is a sad, sad state of human affairs, and points to something cruel and terrible in the heart of modernity.

fn1: it sounds so innocuous when put like that, doesn’t it?

fn2: not to mention the massive contribution of the USA under lend-lease from 1941-1945, something for Americans to throw back in the face of unsympathetic foreigners who tell them they didn’t win the war.

fn3: another side reason that he may have been essential was that Hitler was obssessed with capturing Stalingrad because of its name, and had the city been named Puppygrad he might have been a little less focused on squandering hundreds of thousands of well-trained troops on it.

The Guardian has a short video featuring three British actors reading war poems. The first and last is Sean Bean reading Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and The Last Laugh. Wilfred Owen is one of my favourite poets but I’ve never heard him read professionally before. It’s quite moving, though I’m not sure what I think of the idea of actors reading war poems on remembrance day – the slickness and glamour of it is a bit offputting. Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of Boromir or just want to hear some sad poetry read by professionals, it’s worth a look.

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…


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…


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