War presents a curious paradox. Interstate war is arguably the most carefully planned endeavor by states, yet military history is filled with disasters and blunders of monumental proportions. These anomalies happen because most military history presumes that states are pursuing optimal strategies in a competitive environment. In Tokens of Power, UCI sociologist Ann Hironaka offers an alternative narrative in which the pillars of military planning - evaluations of power, strategy, and interests - are theorized as social constructions rather than simple material realities. States may be fighting wars primarily to gain or maintain power, yet in any given historical era such pursuits serve only to propel competition; they do not ensure military success in subsequent generations. Allowing states to embark on hapless military ventures is fraught with risks, while the rewards are few.
Below, Hironaka highlights some lessons learned and a cautionary message for future world leaders.
Q. Your book premise seems to be that wars aren’t a long-term strategy for military success; rather, they’re a strategy for ensuring on-going competition between fighting nations. Can you highlight a few examples that you cover in the book that illustrate this?
The book examines major wars of the twentieth century, including the First and Second World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Often, the aggressor pays a terrible price, as when Hitler’s aggression resulted in the defeat and division of Germany. In other cases, such as the U.S. war in Vietnam, great expenditures of blood and treasure yielded little in return. The aftermath of all of these conflicts has led people to wonder whether the victors actually gained in terms of national security and prosperity. I argue that the main benefit of victory is that countries gain status, which has some benefits, but wars usually do not make countries safer. Instead, powerful nations often meet their demise by getting involved in too many wars.
Q. What specific war studied stands out as an example of a military planning exercise done right – or are there any at all?
It is really hard to find historical examples where military planning goes well. Warfare is so complex, and military technology changes so quickly that one can find massive mistakes in essentially every conflict. Even the victors frequently make huge errors. Consider the recent U.S. war in Iraq (2003). Ultimately, the U.S. “won” the war by defeating Saddam Hussein. However, the U.S. was certainly not “greeted as liberators” as the Bush Administration expected, and it is far from clear that the benefits to the U.S. were worth the costs – which are now estimated in the trillions of dollars. I argue that this is par for the course. States cannot plan effectively, given the complexity of war. War is a costly gamble in every instance.
Q. What lessons can be gleaned for future generations that must live with the long-term consequences?
In hindsight, wars are almost always a mistake. If people – and leaders – understood this better, we would have fewer wars and the world would be a much safer place. The issues that trigger wars are usually just not worth it. Remember the Maine? Or the sinking of the Lusitania? Or the supposed WMD in Iraq? In the past, people thought these issues were worth fighting over. Most wars are fought over surprisingly minor issues. Yet, the benefits of war, even to the victorious state, are likely to be obscure. At the same time, the risks of war are huge. Over the past few centuries, states that have lived by the sword have usually died by it: the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, Ottoman Empire, Britain, and France were all humbled on the battlefield or by the astronomical costs of military competition. At the moment the United States is king of the hill. But this moment in the sun will not last forever. History shows that entering recklessly into wars is the quickest way for a Great Power to hasten their demise.
Q. And at what period in history do you see our current international scenario most aligned with? Are we dangerously close to another war, using previous examples as our guide? And if so, what steps must be taken to ensure we’re not just starting another never-ending competition?
In one sense, my book strikes a hopeful note: War is not inevitable. The lesson of my book is that war is much more risky than people think. If we – and our leaders – do a better job of learning from the past we will be more cautious about entering into wars in the future… and the world will be a safer place. The danger – which is unfortunately observed in every generation I have studied – is that leaders and military planners believe that this time is different – every military contingency has been planned for. Each generation thinks they have avoided the pitfalls that defeated their predecessors, and that the next war will go off without a hitch. This overconfidence – which continues today – is what leads countries to enter into disastrous conflicts again and again. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we are any better off now than in any other historical period.
However, as the military and economic leader of the world, the United States has tremendous influence in international affairs. The United States can continue the centuries-old tradition of exercising military power to continue being the “top dog.” Or the U.S. could focus on other areas, such as pursuing economic prosperity, instead of short-term gains in military prestige. One popular myth is that military power and economic prosperity go together. Historically, this has not been the case. States that pursue military power may succeed in the short term, but eventually the immense cost of military preparation brings about economic downfall in the long run.
Tokens of Power is available online from Cambridge University Press.