Tag Archives: war

Solution unsatisfactory

In 1940, when the world war in Europe was mostly England versus Germany, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory (published in 1941). Heinlein anticipated the development of nuclear weaponry, although in his version, the weapon took the form of a radioactive dust that could easily wipe out a whole city, instead of a bomb. In the story, the new superweapon raises the horrific possibility of mass annihilation. The main character, Colonel Clyde Manning, summarizes it this way:

Here is the probable future, as I see it, potential in the smashing of the atom …. Some power makes a supply of the dust. They’ll hit us first to try to knock us out … But our army … would have planes and a supply of dust somewhere where the first dusting wouldn’t touch them. Our boys would bravely and righteously proceed to poison their big cities. Back and forth it would go until the organization of each country had broken down so completely that they were no longer able to maintain a sufficiently high level of industrialization to service planes and manufacture dust. … The other nations would get in the game. It’s a vicious circle that cannot possibly be stopped until the entire planet has dropped to a level of economy too low to support the techniques necessary to maintain it. My best guess is that such a point would be reached when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were dead of dust, disease, or hunger, and culture reduced to the peasant-and-village type.

After the dust has been used to force Germany to surrender, and after a brief nuclear war between the United States and the “Eurasian Union” (the Soviets), Manning takes the only way out of the trap. He uses the new weapon to establish a world-wide military dictatorship, with a monopoly of airpower and atomic weaponry, staffed by an international military force independent of any one nation under his personal command. The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power. And neither does Manning

Curiously, Bertrand Russell, later famous as a better-Red-than-Dead disarmament campaigner, followed the same logic in The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War, published in 1946. In his view, the future might hold an atomic war in which “destruction will continue until disorganization makes the further manufacture of atomic bombs impossible.” But there was a more hopeful alternative:

It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented, and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force. An international government, if it is to be able to preserve peace, must have the only atomic bombs, the only plant for producing them, the only air force, the only battleships … Its atomic staff, its air squadrons, the crews of its battleships, and its infantry regiments must … be composed of men of many different nations; there must be no possibility of the development of national feeling in any unit larger than a company.

Sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or at least threatening to break them:

Stalin … will have to be persuaded … to permit the creation of an effective international government. … The only possible way … is by a mixture of cajolery and threat, making it plain to the Soviet authorities that refusal will entail disaster, while acceptance will not.

I don’t know that Russell was a science fiction fan. (He did write some science fiction stories, which are not any better than Heinlein’s stabs at philosophy.) His agreement with Heinlein is more likely a case of great minds thinking alike – and in this case a little too rationally – about human affairs.


Ballad of the soldier’s wife

Here’s the song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,
performed by Marianne Faithfull (video) and by Amanda Palmer (video).

For the role of plunder in the Nazi political economy, there’s Götz Aly Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.

Here are the lyrics:

Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two
Came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Oslo over the sound?
From Oslo there came a collar of fur,
How it pleases her
The little collar of fur
From Oslo over the sound.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
From Amsterdam he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In the little Dutch hat
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Brussels in Belgian land?
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
To have and to wear,
Those laces so rare
From Brussels in Belgian land.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Paris city of light?
In Paris he got her a silken gown,
It was envied in town
That silken gown
From Paris city of light.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the south, from Bucharest?
From Bucharest he sent her a shirt
Embroidered and pert,
That Romanian shirt
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the far-off Russian land?
From Russia there came just a widow’s veil
For her dead to bewail
In her widow’s veil
From the far-off Russian land,
From the far-off Russian land.

Uneven development


If much of the history of Eurasia between 1000 BCE and 1600 CE was shaped by the clash between farmers and city folk, and pastoral nomads from the steppes and deserts, then much of the history of the twentieth century was defined by the collision between Western and non-Western societies. This is one way to see the rise of communism. Traditional Russia and China had developed autocratic institutions that allowed them to cope, more or less, with military threats from the steppe. But these institutions proved desperately unequal to coping with a new set of military challenges from the West and Japan.

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Natures portrays the march of history as a process of diffusion of enlightenment ideals. On a long enough time scale he may be right. But on a medium time scale we see something different – the formation of powerful states on either side of the meta-ethnic frontier dividing industrialized societies from independent but militarily vulnerable peasant societies. Chance and individual personalities played a role in the bloodshed of the twentieth century, but there were also larger forces at work in The World Revolution of Westernization.

Here is a short piece of mine (not from the blog) on History and Group Consciousness relating this topic to arguments about group selection. I argue that taking group selection seriously as an engine of historical dynamics may give us a better understanding of recent history.

Marxism is not very successful as a scientific theory, but in its heyday it was enormously successful as an ideology involved in subordinating masses of individuals in larger collective projects. Here’s a famous speech by Stalin to industrial managers in 1931, in the midst of the first Five Year Plan and the collectivization of agriculture, and on the eve of mass starvation in the Ukraine

It is sometimes asked whether it is not possible to slow down the tempo somewhat, to put a check on the movement. No, comrades, it is not possible! The tempo must not be reduced! On the contrary, we must increase it as much as is within our powers and possibilities. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the workers and peasants of the USSR. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the working class of the whole world.

To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual defeats she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and the French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her – because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. They beat her because to do so was profitable and could be done with impunity. You remember the words of the pre-revolutionary poet : ‘You are poor and abundant, mighty and impotent, Mother Russia.’ Those gentlemen were quite familiar with the verses of the old poet. They beat her, saying : ‘You are abundant’, so one can enrich oneself at your expense. They beat her, saying : ‘ You are poor and impotent,’ so you can be beaten and plundered with impunity. Such is the law of the exploiters – to beat the backward and the weak. It is the jungle law of capitalism. You are backward, you are weak – therefore you are wrong; hence you can be beaten and enslaved. You are mighty – therefore you are right; hence we must be wary of you.

That is why we must no longer lag behind.

In the past we had no fatherland, nor could we have had one. But now that we have overthrown capitalism and power is in our hands, in the hands of the people, we have a fatherland, and we will uphold its independence. Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence ? If you do not want this, you must put an end to its backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop a genuine Bolshevik temperament in building up its socialist economy. There is no other way…

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.

 Stalin’s policies were not just a response to perceived external threats, but helped to generate those threats: if the German Communist Party (which took direction from Moscow) had cooperated with the Social Democrats and other supporters of the Weimar government, they could have kept Hitler out of power.

“I’ll never be hungry again”

“… No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

Gone With the Wind


Steven Pinker wrote an important book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that along a number of dimensions and on a number of time scales, human societies have been getting less violent over time. I think he’s probably right, but there’s an obvious problem to be wrestled with, the battle deaths in the First and Second World Wars and further associated deaths from starvation, disease and other mass killing. Here’s a figure from his book:


Pinker argues that there’s a lot of random variation around the long-term trend to reduced violence. The frequency distribution of sizes of wars (measured by war deaths) looks like random noise following a power law (like the frequency distributions of the magnitudes of earthquakes and the population sizes of cities). For war deaths, the exponent of the power function is less than 2, so that a handful of large wars have killed more people than a multitude of smaller wars.

However, I think there are also two more systematic causes of twentieth century mass violence,

I’ll talk about the first here, and the second in a later posting.

The anthropologists Melvin and Carol Ember did a study of the correlates of war across cultures, and discovered that one of the strongest predictors of warfare is fear of natural disasters and subsistence crises. This is not about chronic (i.e. non-crisis) food shortages. The most warlike people are not those who know that there will be a hungry season every year, when some of the population is pushed to the edge of starvation, but those who may be doing well now, but fear a disaster – drought, flood, insect plague, typhoon – in the future.

Europeans in the early twentieth century were better fed than any time before in European history. But the international and national markets that kept them fed, bringing grain and animal products from the Americas and Eastern Europe, and from country to city, also made them exceptionally vulnerable to interruptions in food supply. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a move toward protectionism spurred in part by fear of food vulnerability. This reached a crisis with the First World War, when England and Germany both attempted to interrupt each others’ food imports. England and the Allies were more successful: the blockade of Germany helped force the country out of the war, and pressured Germany after the war to agree to the Versailles Treaty. About 750,000 Germans may have died as a result (although the number is disputed).

The war also interrupted food supplies between country and city, as urban industry shifted from supplying consumer goods for farmers to producing war materiel, and farmers held back on supplying food.  Urban food shortages in turn contributed to both Russian and German Revolutions. In both countries, the aftermath of war was a determination on the part of a new generation of political leaders never to let this happen again, to make sure that one’s folk – whether the German Volk or the Russian urban working class – stood at the top of the food chain, even if it meant sentencing others to starvation.

For more on international trade, insecurity, and war there’s When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana. For food insecurity and war in England and Germany in World War I and after there’s The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation. And for food supply and mass starvation from World War I to World War II, there’s Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.



We’re now doing one decade per day on the blog.

The Taiping rebellion in China began in 1850 and was finally put down in 1864. It was led by a former school teacher who discovered, after repeatedly failing his civil service exams, that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, destined to bring China over to his own brand of Christianity.

The rebellion was by far the most destructive conflict in the nineteenth century. It illustrates a general characteristic of Chinese history: Chinese wars were fewer but more destructive than European ones. China was unified for most of the past two millennia, governed by dynasties which established peace for long periods of time, among a huge population, over a vast area. But when things fell apart in China, whether from invasions (usually involving steppe nomads) or internal rebellions, vast numbers of people died. Here’s a chart comparing estimated numbers of war deaths for major wars Europe (red) and China (blue)  between 1 and 1800 CE. China’s population during this period was somewhat less than twice that of Europe, so even per capita, China’s military catastrophes were more demographically catastrophic than Europe’s.


The Taiping rebellion comes too late to show up on the chart, but cost the lives of about 20 million people.

Debt and democracy


General rule: one can raise higher taxes, in proportion to the liberty of the subjects; and one is forced to moderate them to the degree that servitude increases. This has always been, and will always remain so. It is a rule drawn from nature, which does not vary at all; one finds it in all countries, in England, in Holland, and in all states in which liberty becomes degraded, right down to Turkey.


The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a bunch of major powers (Austria, France, Russia) ganging up to cut Prussia down to size. The English joined in on the Prussian side, on the theory that an enemy of France was a friend of theirs. The war was also a world war, long before World War One, involving fighting as far afield as North America and India. On the international side, it was a win for England, and a loss for France, with the French losing Quebec and India.

The war brought home an important advantage of a constitutional state over an absolutist one. England was able to raise higher taxes per capita on its subjects because they were voting for the taxes themselves, through Parliament. And England was able to borrow money for the war on easier terms than France, because English lenders were more confident that Parliament wouldn’t default on its debts: many of those who bought English war bonds either stood in Parliament, or voted for those who did. In spite of the “absolutist” label, French kings had a harder time squeezing money out of their subjects, and resorted to a lot of dubious expedients. For example, the government raised money by selling life annuities to investors: pay a lump sum for the annuity, and the government would pay back a fixed amount for every year the beneficiary was alive (sort of reverse life insurance). This led, among other things, to a syndicate of investors buying annuities on behalf of groups of young girls (such as The Thirty Geneva Maidens), judged the best bet, actuarially, for long life expectancies.

Generally they had to have reached the age of seven so as to be beyond the risk of smallpox. These maidens received the finest medical care, and Geneva’s wealthy bourgeoisie followed their health in the newspapers – not surprising given the huge investments that rested on their shoulders.

But the government was in such financial straits that it eventually started paying only a fraction of the promised annuities. The military weakness of the French state, stemming from its fiscal weakness, was the major cause of the French Revolution.

It would be nice to follow Montesquieu, and draw an improving moral lesson from this: constitutional liberty beats absolutism. But things played out differently in Eastern Europe, where there was less of a commercial sector to tap, and governments depended more on coercion – serfs serving their lords, lords serving the state – to keep up as great powers. There, the great constitutional state – the elective monarchy of Poland – was reduced to a second rank power, and eventually eliminated entirely. The most impressive military power, relative to its size, was Prussia, “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” This was not the last time that military exigencies would push social evolution in very different directions in Western and Eastern Europe.

See A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy


After Blenheim

With the death of Charles II the throne of Spain was up for grabs, and the French attempt to install a Bourbon (Louis XIV’s grandson) led to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The “famous victory” of the English and Bavarians over the French at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) would later (1796) be the subject of a famous anti-war poem by Robert Southey

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh,
”Tis some poor fellow’s skull,’ said he,
‘Who fell in the great victory.

‘I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,’ said he,
‘Were slain in that great victory.’

‘Now tell us what ’twas all about,’
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
‘Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.’

‘It was the English,’ Kaspar cried,
‘Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,’ quoth he,
‘That ’twas a famous victory.

‘My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

‘With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

‘They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

‘Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.’
‘Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!’
Said little Wilhelmine.
‘Nay… nay… my little girl,’ quoth he,
‘It was a famous victory.

‘And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.’
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’