Jul 29

(Last week, On Violence discussed its “Most Thought Provoking Event of the First Six Months of 2011”, the event that probably isn’t the most important, but intrigues us the most. For this half year, that is the investigative reporting on Greg Mortenson by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer.

To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

We didn’t post this post last week--because we needed to put the finishing touches on it--and I’m glad we didn’t. News just broke that another post-9/11 war memoirist lied. Read about it here.

So, along with Mortenson and Luttrell & Robinson, there are at least three memoirs in the tiny post-9/11 war niche have been exposed as lies. It begs the question: is lying getting tougher?

I think so, even though I don’t like exceptionalism. Except for changes in technology, it’s hard to prove that the current era is any different than previous eras. Is our culture today cruder or more prudish than the culture in the fifties? The twenties? The 10th century? Are we more or less moral? No one really knows.

The most classic example, for me, is violence. Many people--but not long time On Violence readers--believe the world is more violent today than it was in the past. We’re not. Or take this New York Times Magazine profile on Newt Gingrich’s writing. In it, the former House Speaker states that America is at a precipice. Except Gingrich has written that America is on a precipice, and we’ve been standing on it for the last 28 years.

Arguing that it is harder to lie today constitutes a bit of current-moment exceptionalism, but in this case, I buy it. Looking at my least favorite medium, the memoir, it is way harder to lie in a memoir these days. At least, it is harder to get away with it. And we can thank technology for that.

First, research is just too damn easy. To prove it, I’ll compare the Three Cups of Tea fiasco to the debunked slave memoirs in the 19th century I mentioned last week.

Imagine you’re a pro-slavery Southerner in the 1836. Abolitionist memoirs by “Archy Moore” and “James Williams” take the North by storm. But you’re suspicious. They don’t seem authentic. What do you do?

Research.

But mail takes weeks to get anywhere. Trains aren’t even popular yet, certainly not in the South. The telegraph only gets invented that year. In short, absolutely everything takes much longer to disprove.

Flash forward to today. Steve Kroft Skype-chatted a Pakistani man from literally the other side of the planet to verify Mortenson’s story. It almost doesn’t seem fair. In short, and yes it is cliched, information is at our finger tips.

Second, it is so much easier to get the word out.

So, you’re still a pro-slavery Southerner and let’s say, as was the case, you disproved an anti-slavery memoir. What now? Basically, you write newspaper articles about it, because that’s the only form of mass communication available. (The modern widely circulated newspaper began in 1833.) But what if you live on a remote farm? Chances are you’ll never read the debunking (assuming you had access to the book anyway...)

Today, we have TV, radio and print. Most importantly, we have the Internet, which provides a permanent, unarguable record of debunking. Any curious reader can Google a questionable assertion. And in the era of Wikipedia, Snopes, Politifact, etc, the lifetime of a lie is much shorter.

(Which isn’t to say everyone looks for it. Just last year I found comments on websites about A Million Little Pieces by multiple people who thought the book was a memoir. Check out some brilliant comment threads here.)

I’m not arguing that memoirists don’t lie. Clearly they do, and probably at the same rate as they ever have. I just think we have more tools now to keep the liars from getting away with it.

Jul 27

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures.

Read the rest of the series at:

- Why I Got Out: That's Just The Way It Is

- More 'That's Just The Way It Is

- What The Army Spent 570 Million Hours Doing

- Get Yer Hands Outta Yer Darn Pockets

- Why I Got Out: Physical, Not Mental

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”.)

“Why did you do it Michael? Why did you get out?”

For some reason, I feel I have to answer this question, why? Part of it is for the reader; part of it is to justify it to myself. I could simply say, “My wife and I decided long ago the military was a five year service opportunity, and not a career,” and leave it at that.

But I need to answer a deeper question: why don’t I want to devote twenty-plus years to serving in the Army? Why, after I joined, did the Army not entice me to make it a career?

Last Friday I officially ended my active-duty service, so I now feel free to answer that question in a series of posts and guest posts. To start, I need to hop in the way-back machine to the year 2004, before I graduated from UCLA.

That winter I took a class at UCLA with Professor Lynn Hunt. Most of my readers will say, “and she is?” and I understand that. Simply, she’s the Eugen Weber Professor of European history at UCLA. In the field of history, she is something of a big deal. She was the President of the American Historical Association in 2002, and she’s ridiculously well published, in English and French.

She’s also a pioneer in cultural history, which is part of the reason I had such a problem with her when I first took her class, History of Western Civilization 1C. I just didn’t get the idea of cultural history. It seemed fuzzy to me. It seemed like I had somehow been dropped into my hippy brother’s English class, where up means down and Shakespeare advocated violent Marxism.

Despite my doubts about cultural history, I still ended up taking her classes again, specifically her course on the French Revolution, one of her areas of expertise. We compared her seminal Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution to Alexis de Tocqueville’s canonical The Old Regime and the French Revolution (which, I would argue, says more about the American theory of government than Democracy in America, take that as an overly bold, intellectual challenge). That second class gave me a key insight: this culture thing might really mean something. Sure, I still think the “great men” version of history is probably the best way to tell the story of history; but the images and symbols of the French Revolution meant something. They affected all the other versions of history, from the political to the social. You can’t ignore the culture without losing something.

Got it, Michael C. Cultural history means something. What does this have to do with you getting out of the Army?

Well, over the last seven years, through study, through travel and through deployment, I feel like I’ve experienced different cultures. I feel safe saying I know the Army’s culture.

And I’m not a huge fan.

The Army has a distinct culture apart from that of businesses, the private sector, the non-profit sector, academia or even the rest of the federal government. To argue otherwise--as pops up occasionally in the comment’s section on the Thomas Ricks blog “that a bureaucracy is a bureaucracy no matter what the name”--is to ignore reality.

In one sentence, I am getting out because the Army’s culture doesn’t challenge me enough. I need the risk and reward you can’t get from a career in the Army. When Tim Kane published “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving” in the Atlantic, this idea was on the tongues of all the officers he interviewed.

The Army doesn’t have a truly innovative culture that rewards creativity, originality and innovation. We can debate the merits conformity and discipline versus uncertainty and free thinking, but those are the terms. And this culture encompasses more than just risk and stability; it extends to valuing physical fitness over intellectual rigor, a complete disregard for language proficiency, a lack of understanding of other cultures, the use of official investigations as a hammer instead of a tool, talking about “helping soldiers” while not, and a refusal to acknowledge that the soldiers most in need of help are the ones getting dishonorably discharged. Oh, I forgot a profligate attitude towards money with little regard for the business principles of efficiency or productivity.

So Eric C and I have set out for a truly uncertain world, the world of writing. We are going to try to succeed by selling our ideas and ourselves in Hollywood, a immensely uncertain proposition, but also potentially extremely rewarding. This idea feels tremendously liberating: is there anything more different than the Army--where towing the line equates with success--than trying to sell screenplays in Los Angeles, where you are only as good as your last movie?

If that reason doesn’t satisfy you, then I will just say this: it is 90 plus degrees with humidity in Clarksville, Tennessee, and 70 degrees with no humidity in San Clemente, California.

Jul 21

(This week On Violence is discussing its “Most Thought Provoking Event of the First Six Months of 2011”, the event that probably isn’t the most important, but intrigues us the most. For this half year, that is the investigative reporting on Greg Mortenson by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer.

To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to write this post, emotionally I mean. I really liked Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. It inspired me. I agreed with it. I celebrated it. (Thankfully, not on this website, unlike Michael C...)

But it isn’t true.

As 60 Minutes and the essay “Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakaeur showed, a lot of the facts in Mortenson’s memoir just aren’t true. Mortenson and his co-writer condensed time, heightened the narrative, and, probably, flat-out lied. Mortenson might not have even been captured by the Taliban.

You lied, Mortenson. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.

I feel like I should defend the book. I’m not going to. Even though I agree with the book’s thesis and political point of view, that doesn’t matter. Lies in a left-leaning memoir are just as bad a lies in a right-wing memoir.

If you write a book, stick to the truth. Don’t dress it up in fancy Sunday clothes when, in reality, the truth wore sweat pants. This book influenced soldiers, generals, politicians and the public; it didn’t need to lie. Tell the truth, don’t fudge any of the details, because it will tear the whole thing down.

In the end, Three Cups of Tea is more an historical document promoting both Mortenson’s charity and political cause than it is a piece of literature. (And I never would have ever made the case that this book is great literature.) But this only raises the factual standard that the book should have met. The abolitionists discovered this the hard way in the 19th century. Their first few attempts at slavery memoirs--pre-Frederick Douglass--were discovered to be factually inaccurate, and Southerners jumped on it, decrying the whole abolitionist movement.

From Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History:

“[Abolitionists] had worked on the ends-justify-the-means assumption that in a narrative that showed the true horrors of slavery, literal truth wasn’t important. Yet the alacrity with which their opponents seized on the falsehoods in the texts proved that in this literary battle, factual accuracy was very important indeed.”

People want the truth. While building schools in Central Asia may be awesome, “war is war”-iors won’t care. They’ll use one fake narrative to tear the whole philosophy down. If you want to write a memoir about your dog, double check your facts--or write a novel. But if you want to influence people, change their minds, triple check your facts. Then have someone else quadruple check them for you.

Or don’t write the book at all.

Jul 20

(This week On Violence is discussing its “Most Thought Provoking Event of the First Six Months of 2011”, the event that probably isn’t the most important, but intrigues us the most. For this half year, that is the investigative reporting on Greg Mortenson by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer.)

On Monday, I made a single claim about Greg Mortenson: he wasn’t/isn’t an “ugly American” in the sense of the book The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick. With the Kroft and Krakauer reporting, that’s now basically a fact. From that fact, though, many bloggers and reporters asked an even bolder question:

Are counter-insurgency and population-centric counter-insurgency dead?

The thinking behind this question went something like this: Mortenson started to get really popular around the time FM 3-24 was published. Mortenson’s books were on many U.S. Army reading lists. If anything captures the idea of “winning hearts and minds” it’s Three Cups of Tea. Hell, in Afghanistan drinking tea almost became a doctrinal task. If Mortenson’s approach is discredited, doesn’t that discredit the entire enterprise?

Probably not. “Counter-insurgency” was having public relations issues well before Mortenson; for example the Small Wars Journal and Kings of War blog both put up posts about counter-insurgency and its discontents. Beyond counter-insurgency’s intellectual problems, trying to take apart a military theory/strategy/tactics/type of warfare because of the actions of one man is a fraught enterprise.

Can one practitioner exaggerating his role destroy an entire theory? American military history is filled with examples of incompetent generals, does that mean that maneuver or attrition theories of war are now wrong? The Libyan air campaign isn’t really working, can we now give up on strategic air power?

A more apt example could be fishermen. They routinely exaggerate the size of their catches, that doesn’t mean that their approach or, fishing in general, is dead.

Even worse, it’s hard to see how Mortenson killed counter-insurgency when the problems aren’t really with his tactics, but the strategy of America in Afghanistan. Critics, like Col. Gian Gentile or Bing West, mainly abhor the strategic uses of counter-insurgency which, in their minds, veer suspiciously close to nation building. The strategic “decision” to rebuild Afghanistan was never really a decision, just the result of years of holding the course. If the “decision” to embark on counter-insurgency was made by President Obama in the winter of 2009, then what were our soldiers doing there for the previous seven years?

The debate around counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and war fighting in general has suffered from a vagueness in terms. Strictly speaking, a counter-insurgency is the combined efforts by a government and its partners to stop an insurgency. This can range from the Russian scorched earth approach in Afghanistan to the destruction of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankans to the British in North Ireland to the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Counter-insurgency is a type of warfare, and Mortenson can’t stop that. (This is probably more a knock on journalists than it is on military theorists or bloggers, who typically understand that distinction.)

Here is what Mortenson did do: he caused severe damage to what could be called the “soft power” school of international diplomacy.

By discrediting Mortenson, unfortunately, a lot of development and philanthropic work took a hit. As a result, American rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan took a hit as well. Does that mean we should stop the charity, or that all efforts are a waste of time? Not at all.

Mortenson, ultimately, is an anecdote. He was one person who didn’t live up to the hype. His actions don’t answer whether soft power works in diplomacy or or whether population-centric counter-insurgency works in war. All his example shows is the difficulty in trusting one man with millions of dollars. But I think we knew that before Mortenson was discredited.

Jul 18

Read the rest of On Violence's Most Intriguing Event of the Last Six Months here:

- Greg Mortenson Killed Counter-Insurgency

- You Broke My Heart, Mortenson

- Is Lying Getting Tougher?

- Numbers Don't Lie: Putting the "Three Cups of Tea" Fiasco in Context

- Sorry, I Forgot to Mention Contractors Yesterday

At the end of 2009 and 2010, we decided to choose our “Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year” (Iran’s Green Revolution and WikiLeaks respectively). Well, half-way through 2011, it’s pretty clear what is 2011’s most intriguing event--*cough*Arab Spring*cough*.

Unfortunately, this year has just had too much thought provoking stuff. For an idea of how big this year has been, the Osama Bin Ladin take down is only in third place. To shoe horn in another week on just one topic, we decided to invent "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Event of the Last Six Months: the Three Cups of Tea Fiasco".

We mean, of course, the tag-team take down of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute by writer Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft. We waited until July to see if Mortenson could debunk his debunking. Since he hasn’t, and instead remains mired in legal controversy, it’s pretty safe to say that Krakauer/Kroft effectively rewrote the public narrative on a former hero.

Why does this debacle intrigue us more than, say, the bin Ladin killing? Because it touches on so many of the issues we write about at On Violence from war to counter-insurgency to memoirs and truth.

So over the next few days we’ll provide a few thoughts on the implications of the Three Cups of Tea fiasco, first with Michael C’s thoughts on Mortenson’s larger legacy with respect to philanthropy, and on Wednesday how he killed counter-insurgency; on Thursday, Eric C takes on the lifetime of a lie, and on Friday, what Mortenson means for memoirs.

First Thought: Mortenson was not an Ugly American

In a weird change of language over time, the phrase an “ugly American”--which currently means an overweight American tourist yelling loudly in English at a French waiter for serving water without ice in it--originally meant something positive.

The original phrase “ugly American” comes from the title of the book The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, which was also the subject of a glowing review by me (Michael C) a year ago. The titular “ugly American” is just ugly in appearance. But he’s an amazing foreign diplomat, aid worker and human being.

Sadly, we’ve ruined this phrase, turning it into an epithet, when it should be a compliment. (It didn’t help, as well, when the “Ugly American” was played by not-ugly Marlon Brando in the movie.)

Which is an even bigger shame because we need “ugly Americans” now more than ever. The Ugly American takes place during the ideological Cold War between the U.S. and Russia in the fictional country Sarkhan. The “ugly American” of the title, with others, struggles to promote the interests of America as the military and State department unintentionally derail most of that good will.

The “ugly American” is, in other words, a great counter-insurgent. He let’s the people of the fictional Sarkhan solve their own problems, and puts a Sarkhanese face on the solutions. He helps people and shows them the virtues of American values--ingenuity, self-reliance, and creativity. The war in Sarkhan isn’t a shooting war, but it’s hard not to see a similar ideological war raging in contemporary times between Islam, Western secularism, Christianity, Judaism and whatever ideology China ends up adopting.

I feel like I need to explain the background of “ugly American”-ness because, until I read Jon Krakauer’s essay Three Cups of Deceit, Mortenson fit into this mold. (Example: “We need more people like Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. He uses a budget of only a few million dollars to build hundreds of school. Imagine if the US could send hundreds of Greg Mortensens armed with tens of millions of dollars.”) An American with an inclination toward languages who could seamlessly blend between Pakistan and Afghanistan and America and builds hundreds of schools for several hundred thousand dollars each? Sounds like an “ugly American” to me, in the original, good sense of the phrase.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that Mortenson spends more time telling stories about his “ugly American”-ness then he does “ugly American”-ing. That, in short, is a shame.

So the question becomes, do Mortenson’s actions condemn the idea of “ugly Americans”? Does this mean that philanthropy and development and foreign aid are farces?

Not at all. If anything, good “ugly Americans” keep themselves out of the spotlight, which Mortenson clearly did not. And, more importantly, Mortenson will be replaced. As soon as the fiasco broke, Rye Barcott released his book, It Happened on the Way to War. Then NPR’s Planet Money podcast aired a few shows about their attempts to build a school in Haiti and the lessons they learned. And then the Economist ran an article about new, more intelligent ways to use philanthropic dollars.

Simply because Mortenson was not the “ugly American” we thought he was doesn’t mean we don’t need more “ugly Americans”. We do. And we have them. We just need more. Let’s hope this fiasco doesn’t derail those efforts.

Jul 15

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

In a heartbreaking scene from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins, with the at-the-time head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer, visits a hospital in Diwaniya, “a mostly Shiite city in southern Iraq”. Once there Filkins:

“...broke away from Bremer’s entourage and walked downstairs, where I fell into a conversation with some young Iraqi doctors. There had been no electricity in more than a week; it was only running, the doctors said, because Bremer was here. This had not been the case before the war, the doctors said. During the invasion, Mubarqa Maternity hospital had stayed open continuously. The lack of electricity was killing the babies, the doctors said. Without electricity the incubators were going cold and, after a time, the babies were going cold, too. The vaccines in the refrigerators were spoiling. So were the bacterial cultures. So was the blood...

“A few days later I went back to Mubarqa by myself. Roaming its halls, I stepped into a bare room where I found Hassan Naji, the hospital record keeper...

“Yes, yes, babies are dying,” he said, looking up...”Under Saddam, this did not happen. not like this.”

“...So do you miss Saddam?” I asked, “Naji. you sound like you miss him.”  

“Never, “ Naji said, shaking his head. “never. The Americans did a great thing when they got rid of that tyrant. Things could get even worse here and I would still feel that way.”

My first thought (or futile complaint) is that the American public didn’t take these babies into account before the Iraq war began. How many children were lost to the chaos of the war zone? How many civilians died? How many Americans know (or care) about this today?

For those who follow the Iraq War, either pro or against, there is an obsession with trying to quantify it; specifically, trying to quantify the death toll. Numerous studies and surveys have tried to fill that gap, with each new release garnering a small headline in the back of a paper, buried in the foreign affairs section. Some surveys--like the Iraq Body Count--tried to calculate an exact number, based on reported deaths in newspapers during attacks. Not surprisingly, those who support(ed) the Iraq War usually cite this low number.

But these studies don’t take these babies into account. And yes, there were studies--this Lancet survey in particular--that tried to take the tertiary effects into consideration, but to say those studies were controversial is an understatement.

The second point, and the most amazing thing about this passage, is that some Iraqi people--mainly Shiites--still supported the war, even with babies dying all around them. It absolutely shocks me.

Then again, like body counts, nothing in war is ever simple.

(For an interesting op-ed on a topic, check out this LA times article from this week on the death toll in Haiti.)

Jul 14

(For the last few weeks, On Violence, inspired by John Horgan and Radiolab, crowd sourced the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” to our readers. Today’s entry comes from Dennis Erwin, co-editor of the Philosophical Journal Purlieu. with what he calls “An amateur’s opinion on the Changing Nature of Conflict”. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

Most definitions of ‘war’ include “open armed conflict between countries or between factions within the same country” as well as the broader “any active hostility, contention, or struggle.” An answer to your question must first determine the usage of the term, and whether one, or both of these definitions may be addressed. The former definition, of war among nation-states, is obviously too narrow to apply to the last decade, and while the latter, second definition is much broader, it too fails to carefully explicate the myriad uses of ‘war’  in such phrases as ‘the war on terror’, the ‘war on drugs’, or the ‘Cold War.’

President Bush, on the September 20, 2001 address to the joint session of congress, stated, “On September 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.” And then, shortly after,

The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. (Italics mine)

Much has already been written and discussed on the possible misuse of ‘war’ in these two statements, and the change between the President’s idea of ‘war’ and ‘war’ as defined by Webster’s is obvious. The 9/11 terrorist did not represent states, or political ideals, nor were their actions declarations of war, classically construed, for it is impossible for their actions, on their own, to usurp the social structure of the United States. Michael Ignatieff discusses this in his The Lesser Evil:

When political leaders declare a “war on terror,” they imply that terrorism poses a threat equivalent to war. Yet there is a world of difference between the threat posed by armed attack by another state and a terrorist incident . . . the attacks of September 11 did not endanger the social order of the United States or threaten its democracy with collapse. . . . [and] while September 11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor, Al Queda certainly has nothing like the resources of the Empire of Japan. (p. 54)

Despite my inclination to address the question of war as if the question was actually ‘on violence’ in general, I must insist on carefully defined terms, as many of the responses to your question have assumed, at least implicitly, the continued dominance of the nation-state. This assumption is seen in any Friedman-esque Democratic Peace Theory which argues that certain states become too financially/ economically intertwined with each other to go to war. Friedman’s “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” is rooted in the idea of statehood-representation, even though the last 10 years of war have been against an enemy whose national location is ancillary to their identity and operation. This is the “radical network” in President Bush’s speech and is why America’s operation to capture/ kill bin Laden in Pakistan can be excused as not having anything to do with Pakistan. This new war, beyond state boundaries against an enemy who has little to do with state, is better understood within the framework of more complex theories of globalization, such as those by Arjun Appadurai, who sees globalization as a trajectory beyond statehood, which renders ideas and definitions concerning war and peace even more convoluted.

Consider the recent laws passed in Europe: France’s ban on niqāb and burqa; the Swiss ban on Minarets; or even the continual and Western-specific ethnoreligious-political violence in Northern Ireland. While these examples do not contradict Friedman’s theory, they render it irrelevant. They are conflicts beyond political borders; they are cultural conflicts. To be at least as tongue-in-cheek as Friedman, the only thing standing between nation-states and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is a McDonald’s. Not very reassuring, and definitely not reason enough to dismiss war.

In answer to the question, ‘Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?’ my answer is, no. But nation-states might, and that will be something worth celebrating. However, the inextricable connection between limited resources, changing demographics, and differing conceptions of justice and the ‘good-life’ will inevitably lead to violent conflict amongst groups; it will lead to war.

I don’t believe my view is, as John Horgan argued in his Slate article, an immoral one. The recognition of the always-possible does not equate tacit acceptance. Rather, it can lead to preparedness and resoluteness. It can lead us to be on guard for movements toward conflict, and then to attempt to cease and resolve conflict before it becomes deadly. As historian and author Jan T. Gross said during a public lecture in reference to the atrocities of Nazi-occupied Poland, “Just because something happened, doesn’t mean it is less likely to happen again. It is more likely to happen again.” Conflict happens. That it does creates responsibility, not indifference.

Jul 13

Eric C and I were recently going through posts from our archives, and we stumbled across this one from May of 2040. (Eric C and I float through time like Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five. Don’t ask for details.) Called “China: The Threat That Never Materialized”, it shows the inherent danger in making predictions about the future.

Here’s what Michael C wrote:

“In 2011, I was pretty worried about China. It’s economy was growing like Jack’s beanstalk, and it was developing frightening, new weapons like anti-ship ballistic missiles. Oh, and China also had a population of over a billion people. At the time, many learned military theorists and international relations experts wrote many a paper, journal article or opinion piece on the impending demise of the United States. For example, here, or here, or here, or here, or here, and this Economist special report on China has another list of books on this topic.

Turns out that all this scaremongering was for not (unless trillions of dollars in defense spending qualifies as an accomplishment) as America and Europe continued to lead the world through 2040 in innovation and diplomacy.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that predicting the inevitable rise of China ignored the massive hurdles it still faced. From a rapidly aging population with a significant gender imbalance to rampant corruption, from massive social unrest to ethnic tensions in every corner of their nation, a sober assessment of China should not have seemed like a guarantee.

Of course, from our perch in 2040, it is much easier to criticize the China fear-mongers. While some have called the civil war over Tibet a “black swan” event, the signs were there in 2011. Others have held past politicians to task for not predicting the second Tienanmen Square revolution. Out-of-control inflation, and the subsequent bubble burst, should have seemed predictable in an economy filled with corruption that was growing at seven to ten percent a year.

I don’t blame the past theorists who tried to predict the future. I do, however, object to the certainty they attach to their viewpoints. Pundits predicting a inevitable Chinese hegemony can do so, but they should do so with an eye towards probability, not certainty. Saying, “China has a one in five chance of becoming a dominant military power” is better than saying, “China will inevitably replace America.”

This happens in both international relations and sports. The best analogy is March Madness. Every year the talking heads on CBS and ESPN answer the prompt, “Who are you picking to win it all?” Unsurprisingly, the experts usually pick the #1 seeds, with maybe a 2 or 3 seed thrown in. The question the announcer should ask is, “What is the probability that a #1 seed will win it all?” In some years, like 2007 every #1 seed made it to the Final Four. Most years, though, this doesn’t happen. In 2011, the highest seed was a #3. And even though UCLA went on a tremendous six year winning streak of men’s basketball national championships from 2012-2018, they should have been heavy favorites, not just the “guaranteed pick”.

When it came to China, this was the assessment the world needed from academics in 2011. What was the probability that China would replace America as the world’s hegemonic power? In hindsight, from 2040, it turns out it didn’t happen. It could have; it could not have. A whole host of factors conspired to spoil China’s “inevitable rise”. What was the probability of those events? What is the probability something unexpected would happen?

The China example turned out to be just one of a series. In the 1970s, America feared the rise of Russia. In the 1980s, Japan scared America with their fuel efficient automobiles. In the 2000s, the fear was China (and unbelievably, a couple hundred people hiding in caves, er, Pakistani suburbs).

Of course, now in 2040, we face a truly feared rival, robots. That is a threat we should all fear.”

(Current me again. Here are some of the more rational viewpoints from contemporary times. Also I will admit I borrowed this idea of writing a future history from Colonel Gian Gentile and his original piece at chicagoboyz.net.)

Jul 11

(In the last week, Michael C. signed out on terminal leave from the U.S. Army. Why did he leave active duty? In a few weeks, Michael will attempt to explain himself. In the meantime, we continue our series "Will humans ever stop fighting wars?" Today’s entry comes from a few of our close friends. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

Jon S. (Active Duty Soldier)
I think humans will stop fighting humans someday.  But it will require a) zombies b) evil robots or c) a golden path (divine or Isaac Asimov/Frank Herbert style).

Michael S. (Active Duty Soldier)
I partially agree with Jennifer. In order to eliminate conflict you would first need to eliminate the drivers of conflict, primarily scarcity with ideology playing a supporting role.
   
In the near and medium term I don’t think these problems are going away. For all you doctrine buffs out there FM 3-0 lays out a pretty convincing case that we’re entering an age of persistent instability (youth bulges, climate change, decreasing resources etc).
   
In the long term? I don’t know. Most Speculative Fiction writers seem to think that warfare is here to stay, but long term predictions are tricky things. XKCD did a good comic on this.

Jacob Y. (Active Duty Airmen)
Humans will never stop fighting wars because of lack of resources and pride.  Word.

Casey S. (Teacher)
Admittedly, when I considered the question, my initial reaction was “no, humans will never stop fighting wars”. But when I thought about it, I couldn’t see European nations or the United States fighting each other again. I couldn’t see us fighting Russia or China, or them fighting each other, or either of them fighting any European nations or Japan. The global economy has created a condition in which we are all far too dependent upon each other, and the risks are too great. In addition, I don’t believe that making war is human nature. In fact, I think war is quite unnatural. I think societies have grown under conditions which make war unavoidable, but democratization has made such efforts much more difficult. One only needs to look at the lack of international action in places like Rwanda and Darfur to realize that it has become extremely hard for industrialized democratic nations to commit to war. Hopefully, this trend will spread to the developing parts of the world, and society can become more universal and less fragmented. To a certain extent, I believe this is what we have seen in the decades since World War II. If that continues, then war may someday be a thing of the past.