The Thick Fog of War

By Paul Sullivan,
Georgetown University

An oddity of the history of wars is that most pre-war expectations of wars regarding; lost lives, costs, lengths of the wars and more were completely wrong. We find similar errors as wars build up. Human beings have a warlike nature. Maybe this continues because few take the time to look at how costly previous wars have been or how much future wars could be.
Optimism seems to rule the day as countries and peoples head to wars. After a few years the costs begin to kick in. Then the war is eventually over. Many would rather forget the costs and focus on the victories. The real costs of wars are not transferred well to the next generations to help them with their decision making.
Many in the United States thought that the Civil War we fought amongst ourselves in the 1860s would be over fairly quickly and without much cost. Close to 700,000 died in that war. The economy of the southern states was ruined for years to come. The total amount of economic destruction was gigantic. It was a bloody war that carried with it the ravages of disease to many. Of all of the wars the U.S. has been involved with this one caused the most U.S. soldiers to die.
Many thought World War I would be over in months. Many thought World War II would be settled in agreements in quick order. Possibly 30-40 million people died in World War I. About 60-75 million died in World War II. Many of the deaths in these wars were non-combatants and they died from disease. Many of the deaths of the soldiers were also from disease and it seems nobody predicted that prior to these wars.
During the buildup to the Vietnam War during President Johnson’s time there was a day when Secretary of Defense McNamara told the President that the US needed to send 75,000 more troops in. A few months later he was telling him that another 100,000 were needed. In 1960 there were about very few American troops in Vietnam. By 1968 there were 536,000. Close to 10,000,000 American troops served during the entire time period of the war. McNamara claimed the war could be won and won quickly in the early 1960s. He changed his tune soon after he learned of the real nature of the war, especially after something called the Tet Offensive.
Prior to the United States’ war with Iraq in 2003 there were significant debates in Washington about how much this war may cost. One senior official was let go for saying that it might cost as much as $100 billion. The debate on the costs and length of the war in Afghanistan, when now looking back at it, seemed to be something of a fantasy land. These two wars was in the trillions.
The Afghanistan war is the longest war in American history. The deaths from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of American troops are not near to those in the Vietnam War. However, the brutal and life damaging injuries to the American troops in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars get into the tens of thousands. There are tens of thousands of wounded warriors. How many prior to these wars mentioned that possibility? Then, of course, there are the psychological illnesses that are created within some who are exposed to the horrors of war.
We are now facing down the possibility of yet another war. This may be with Iran. The potential costs from this war could be gigantic, yet few seem to talk of the costs. Iran is an important oil producer. It is in an area of major oil producers. About 70 percent of the know reserves of conventional oil are found in the Gulf region. Most of the oil facilities are within about 4-10 minutes rocket range from either potential party on the ground. Some think that this war may end in air sorties to take out the nuclear facilities of Iran. Those thinking in this manner do not know the history of Iran. They do not know the nationalistic nature of that country. They also do not know the basics of the history of wars. When did a war ever end with one-sided air sorties with no reaction from those who are attacked?
The potential for this spinning out of control in the Gulf and beyond is significant. There are worldwide economic and other implications of such a war. Under some scenarios the price of oil could go to $200 or even $350 per barrel. Think of how this could shatter an already brittle world economy. There are various facilities in the region that if damaged significantly could lead to significant drops in oil supplies for many months or longer. One of them is the 6-7 million barrel per day processing facility in Ab Qaiq in Iraq. The other is the Al Basra Oil Terminal off the shores of southern Iraq. This last facility is pretty much a huge part of the economy of Iraq packed into a relatively small docking space for oil tankers.
If oil prices go up to $200-350 there will be global wealth and income implications. Some of these are obvious, such as increased unemployment worldwide, increased inflations worldwide, and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) destruction in many places. However, GDP is just a measure of the production of goods and services, government spending and net exports for the given year or other time period.
The real hits to the world economy will be in the things that GDP does not cover. If there is demand destruction from an oil shock this will affect the value of assets worldwide. These mostly negative effects on assets will transfer into the derivatives markets being hit. Asset losses could be massive. The worldwide value of all assets, such as stocks, bonds, money market accounts, mutual funds, retirement accounts, automobiles, other transport vehicles, housing (new and old), factories, land, artwork, debt instruments, and so forth could take some serious tumbles. Derivatives based on some of these assets could also take tumbles. Various currencies could get hammered. The values of assets denominated in those currencies could also get hit hard. The value of worldwide total assets is likely in the quadrillions of dollars. A loss of 2-3 percent could be a massive amount of value. Now think of larger percentages.
We are just now trying to dig ourselves out of the last financial crisis. Do we need to walk right into another one?
I was recently part of a small group asked to think about the potential costs of a war in the Gulf as well as potential costs related to different scenarios of ratcheting up the tensions, sanctions, embargoes and more against Iran for The Federation of American Scientists, one of the most distinguished think tanks in the United States. This group was made up of some of the smartest people I have ever met. (Sometimes I wondered why I was asked.) We spent 9 hours non-stop going through various scenarios, while trying to rid ourselves of various biases and more. It was exhausting, frustrating and very challenging.
There is a lot of uncertainty involved in such attempted calculations. As we thought through the various scenarios it became clear to us, people from very different backgrounds, that some of the most important aspects of trying to figure out the potential costs of a future war were the things we did not know. Even more vexing was trying to figure out what we needed to know and whether we really knew or could ever know certain aspects of a future war.
Looking back in time is easier than looking forward. However, much can be learned from history. Sometimes it might even help stop us from making dreadful decisions on wars and peace. Sometimes it may open our eyes to the huge uncertainties involved. At other times it may make the horrors and the costs of wars much clearer in our minds.
Then there are all the questions about the benefits of war. Now try figuring that out when looking at the fog of the future with all of its vast uncertainties.
I do not envy those who make such decisions. They are difficult, daunting and emotional draining tasks. However, those who make such decisions have to consider that they are dealing with the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions and possibly billions of people in one way or another.
That is a heavy burden to carry. One could hope that they will give it due consideration and with the moral and ethical, as well as strategic and tactical, clarity required – if at all possible.


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Posted by on Nov 30 2012. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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