« Timmy Elsewhere. | Main | Christmas Charity Appeal. »

December 31, 2005

Which Wars Have Been Worth It?

John Quiggin poses a very interesting question over at Crooked Timber.

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

Now I like this game. Clearly, the Vietnam War was a loser. No, forget the Americans, for the Vietnamese. Remaining a French colony until the 60s when they would have been let go anyway would have been preferable in a simple cost benefit analysis.

Looking at what Castro has done to Cuba leaving Batista there would have been better.

Somoza was indeed a vicious thug but do we actually think Nicaragua would have been worse off if the Sandanistas hadn’t toppled and then offed him?

Hhhmm. Would Chile have been better off under Allende than getting Pinochet in? Kuwait negotiating in 1991?

I think it’s pretty clear that the Israelis are better off after the 1947/67/73 wars, after all, they’re still there.

But other ones, it’s not all that clear that there are many that pass his test. Algeria better for having thrown off the French colonial yoke?


Hhhm. Nominations gratefuly accepted I think. Two classes. Since 1945 which wars, revolutions and civil strifes have been unambiguously a good thing, providing better results than negotiation? And the second class, which  leftist iconographic such, revolutions etc, have not in fact been a good thing.

Anyone want to claim that Iran was better off without The Shah?  Czech Republic without the Velvet Revolution? Estonia without the Singing one?

December 31, 2005 in Military | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Which Wars Have Been Worth It? :


The Falklands War for one.

Posted by: Tim Newman | Dec 31, 2005 2:09:53 PM

In the second class I'd say the colourful and usical revolutions that overthrew the communist regimes in E Europe might come down on the poitive side of the coin, purely because there was little or no bloodshed during or after. Whether the Soviets would have left without them is, of course a point of debate, but on balance, I'd say they were worth something. Then again could you call them revolutions in the traditional sense? I'd say they were more akin to Gandhi's "Quit India" campaign (at least up until the inter-communal rioting started).

As to outright wars, how about the Malaya campaign (1948-60)? It was relatively bloodless, at least compared to the other anti-communist wars in South-east Asia, and ultimately prevented that country going communist yet still giving it independence. I suspect the vast majority of Malays are very happy they are where they are and not in the same boat as Vietnam.


Posted by: Remittance Man | Dec 31, 2005 3:40:44 PM


The Malayan Crisis, although ideological, was settled along ethnic lines, which helps explain why the country ended up the way it did after the crisis finished.

The Eastern European revolutions - can they be called revolutions? Most of them just seemed to be pushing open doors - were good in the sense that they got rid of the Communists, for sure; however, the development of those countries since has not exactly given cause for wild celebrations of democracy. They all want into the EU, for goodness' sake....


I'd agree with you on the Falklands War. The Falklands was different from the vast majority of other late 20th Century wars in that it was a good old fashioned international scrap over inaccessible and (unless you're a penguin) largely worthless real estate. I might have missed something, but have the vaunted oil reserves ever appeared? There was, of course, a very profound principle at stake, and as such it was a good war to fight; however, we sometimes forget the impact the war had in South America.

With the loss of the war, the Galtieri junta was soon gone. After that, the peoples' of South America seemed to reject juntaism - for a wee while anyway. One can't help but wonder if there's a 'Plaza Del Margherita Bolivar Thatcher' somewhere in South America. If there isn't, there should be.

Tim W,

Nomination for Category One - Korea, modern warfare's zero sum game.

It served no useful purpose other than to show the defective nature of Communism, because half a century after it was over, if you put any two North and South Koreans side by side the Northerner will have been so malnourished he'll be shorter than the Southerner. Is that not useful in itself?

Nomination for Category Two -

This one might seem odd given previous comments, but I would venture to suggest the overthrow of the Soviet Union. Has what replaced the Comrades really made the life of the average Russian any easier?

Posted by: The g-Gnome | Dec 31, 2005 8:02:18 PM

I agree on Vietnam, but it's important to emphasise that it was a huge loss for the Americans and their Vietnamese allies as well. The war was far worse than the subsequent Communist regime.

And the extension of the war into Cambodia was a catastrophe.

Posted by: John Quiggin | Jan 1, 2006 3:07:08 AM

Tim, your reading of history is very strange.

I think it's pretty widely understood, at least among people who haven't been wholly brainwashed and co-opted by quasi-fascist neocon rightwing propaganda, that Israel was directly or indirectly responsible for all of the wars you mention (and all the others, too), and was harmed by none of them.

The fact that this observation is given no consideration at all in the media is chilling indeed. The Soviets, at least, were honest and aboveboard about engaging in thought control.

Posted by: P. Froward | Jan 1, 2006 4:19:36 AM

How about the little stishie in Borneo to stop the Indonesians conquering the northern bits? Judging by what they did to East Timor, that was a fight worth winning.

Posted by: dearieme | Jan 1, 2006 5:57:45 AM

Israel was directly or indirectly responsible for all of the wars you mention...

Yes, indirectly responsible by existing. Quite how else one could aportion blame to the Israelis for the Yom Kippur War is unclear to me.

Posted by: Tim Newman | Jan 1, 2006 7:07:30 AM

And another nice" little war that seemed to actually achieve something: Oman.

Bad guys - communist inspired rebels from Yemen trying to take over the country. Yeah, they did have a few justifiable gripes about the Old Sultan, but their preferred alternative probably wasn't much better.

Good guys - very small Omani military (ten men, five rusty Lee-Enfields and a camel) plus a couple of district officer type Brits and a pair of tricky SAS wallahs.

Result - Rebels defeated. Old Sultan 'persuaded' to go into exile in London. Forward thinking son takes throne. Oman reasonably modern and forward thinking country (at least in terms of the region).

Cost - Some rebels and one or two good guys dead. Most rebels bribed to join the good guys. Cost of salaries for colonial officer types and SAS paid for by UK plus some aid we'd probably have wasted on a more basket-like case anyway.

Not a bad result methinks and the second example that the Brits could defeat communist insurgencies better than most others.


Posted by: Remittance Man | Jan 1, 2006 4:22:37 PM


The reason that revolutions were successful in Cuba and Nicaragua was, in part, because Batista and Somoza were so odious that almost all sectors of society (particularly in the Nicaraguan case) were united against them. Frankly I don't know what you must have smoked to make you suggest that the people of these countries would have been better off under the rule of these thugs (and this is from someone who intensely dislikes Castro and beleives that the Sandanistas were flawed). The real question regarding whether wars are worth it ought to be asked by the US public to its government. Had it not taken an aggressive stand on Cuba, Castro (who wasn't always a communist, and wasn't always aligned to Russia) might not have become the monster he is today. Likewise, had the US government not conducted acts of terrorism against Nicaragua (that's not my definition that's the UN's) and funded the truely vicious Contras, the Sandanistas who mostly favoured a mixed market economy and - even macro economic stability - might have done alot better.

Posted by: terence | Jan 1, 2006 10:48:40 PM

Excluding civil wars where there is a real issue & winner takes all & defencive wars where the alternative is extermination (Israe's war & WW2 on the Soviet side) the only real deliberate aggressive war I can come up with is the Spanish American war of 1898.

The US got to become a world power, own Cuba & the Phillpines, set themselves up to build the Panama Canal & beating Spain was easy.

A significant part of this was that Spain was so easy to beat that this war wasmore a tidying up bit of imperialism rather than a way to sieze power. Also because Spain was so clearly outmatched they didn't harbour agrudge & plan for the next war - a common problem for most victors.

Pacifists & cynics could make the reasonable point that owning the Phillipines got the US attacked by Japan & freeing Cuba got them Castro.

Posted by: Neil Craig | Jan 23, 2006 3:14:54 PM