Friday, July 13, 2012

Time travel blogging, Gulf War edition: John Kenneth Galbraith on the Gulf War, 1991

John Kenneth Galbraith during the Gulf War wrote a piece cautioning against what is sometimes called the boys-with-toys phenemenon, i.e., over-estimated the effects of the latest gee-whiz improvements in the technology of air war. His piece came after the initiation of the air war on January 17, 1991 and before the ground attack had begun on February 24. (See Frontline's Gulf War chonology.)

John Kenneth "Ken" Galbraith in 1944, when he was head of the Office of Price Administration, where among his employees was Richard Nixon

In "Role of Technology in Battle" (San Francisco Chronicle 02/20/1991), he recalled his experience with the US Strategic Bombing Survey during and after the Second World War:

In the closing months of World War II, I became a director of the U.S. Strategic Bombmg Survey. It, was established on the instruction of Franklin D. Roosevelt through Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Much had been made during the war of the achievements of the great bombing raids on German, Italian and Japanese tar-ยท
gets.

All or nearly all that was known, however, was from photographic and visual observations from the sky. There was no tendency to understate accomplishment.
The lack of any "tendency to understate accomplishment" is alive and well with our politicians and our glorious generals. We see it currently in the claims for the usefulness of the latest whiz-bang air war technology, robot drones, coming soon to a municipal police department near you. (W.J. Hennigan, Drone trade group adopts guidelines for flying in U.S. airspace Los Angeles Times 07/05/2012).

Galbraith's experience looking closely at the empirical results of the "strategic bombing" of the Second World War left him with a lasting and healthy skepticism of the claims of air war enthusiasts, a skepticism which is sadly lacking among American policymakers today. In his 1991 piece, he wrote:

My assignment, and that of my economists, was to ascertain from the plentiful surviving records what the air attacks on Getman industry, cities and transportation had, in fact, accomplished. Did they arrest industrial production, notably that of weapons and munitions? Did they paralyze transportation? Did they, in consequence, win the war or substantially advance the day of victory?

Alas, they did not. No great wartime enterprise could, in fact, have been more disappointing, leading to sad moments of reflection on the lives lost in the effort.

The physical destruction was, indeed, frightful. But Germany's industrial production - weapons and munitions, in particular - continued to increase, with no visible halt until nearly the end of the war, when ground forces and their more immediate tactical air support had victory substantially in hand.

Sometimes, the bombing actually increased production. In late February 1943, with good intelligence, 90 percent of all German fighter-aircraft plants were attacked; 75 percent were destroyed. January production had been 1,525 planes; after the raids, it was 2,166 in March. The Germans had rallied to the task of restoring production with more than compensating effect. [my emphasis]
In the first edition of his classic The Affluent Society (1958), Galbraith gave an example of how the bombing in Hamburg in August 1943 produced this non-intuitive result:

Yet this terrible event taught a lesson about the economics of war which very few have learned and some, indeed, may have found it convenient to ignore. The industrial plants of Hamburg were around the edge of the city or, as in the case of the submarine pens, on the harbor. They were not greatly damaged by the raids; these struck the center of the city and the working class residential areas and suburbs. In the days immediately following the raids production faltered; in the first weeks it was down by as much as 20 or 25 per cent. But thereafter it returned to normal. By then the workers had scanned the ruins of their former homes, satisfied themselves that their possessions and sometimes their families were irretrievable, had found some rude clothes and the shelter of a room or part of a room in a still habitable house, and had returned to work. On these three nights of terror their standard of living, measured by houseroom, furnishings, clothing, food and drink, recreation, schools, and social and cultural opportunities, had been reduced to a fraction of what it had been before. But the efficiency of the worker as a worker was unimpaired by this loss. After a slight period of readjustment, he labored as diligently and as skillfully as before.

There is a further chapter to the story. Before the attacks, there had been a labor shortage in Hamburg. Afterward, despite the number killed and the number now engaged on indispensable repairs, there was no shortage. For, as a result of the attacks, thousands who were waiters in restaurants and cafes, attendants in garages, clerks in banks, salesmen in stores, shopkeepers, janitors, ticket takers, and employees in handicraft industries (which, being small and traditional, were more likely to be in the center of town) lost their places of employment. They had previously contributed nothing to war production. Their contribution to the standard of living proved dispensable. Now they turned to the war industries as the most plausible places to find employment. [my emphasis]
Another aspect of the results Galbraith described in the Second World War has to do with the fact that the Hitler regime ruled Germany by terror, but not only by terror. As Galbraith writes in The Affluent Society:

Even in the presumptively austere and dedicated world of the Third Reich, in the third year of a disastrous war, the average citizen had access to a wide range of comforts and amenities which habit had made to seem essential.
Elaborating in a footnote, he explains:

In fact, in 1943 the Germans were not concentrating their energies with particular severity on war production. In this respect they were almost certainly behind the British at the time. Until not long before there had been a heady mood of victory with, inevitably, some relaxation. Quite a few of the Nazi leaders were sybarites and were thus somewhat handicapped in imposing austerities which they would not practice themselves. A dictatorship which does not quite trust its people is likely to be hesitant in imposing hardships. Finally, the strategy of industrial mobilization was poorly understood in Germany and this strategy assumed a short war. This failure of understanding was most important of all and might be a lesson. [my emphasis]
It's always a risk that a country at war starts believing its own war propaganda.

Galbraith continues in the main text:

And because they [comforts and amenities] were believed to be essential they were essential. On such matters governments, even dictatorships, must bow to the convictions of the people even if - the exceptional case - they do not share them. The German standard of living was far above what was physically necessary for survival and efficiency. The RAF broke through the psychological encrustation and brought living standards down somewhere nearer to the physical minimum. In doing so it forced a wholesale conversion of Germany's scarcest resource, that of manpower, to war production.
In those days, the Allied bombers were lucky to be able to hit the right city with their bombs. It has since become a permanent feature of advocacy by air power enthusiasts to stress the every-increasing precision of our super-weapons: "smart bombs" in the Gulf War, robot drones right now, something else is a few months or years.

Precision claims were already a feature of the air war promotion in the Second World War, as he notes in the 1991 piece:

There was much reference in World War II to our technological excellence in the air - to precision bombing and the greatly publicized Norden bombsight that made it possible. In practice, 'precision bombing was precise only within the range of around a quarter of a mile.
Yet the deviations of the actual results from the claims persist in every new iteration. Drones may be accurate. But the illusion that it makes acts of war quick and easy - and drone strikes are acts of war, even if the government of the country being struck is giving tacit approval for the strikes - and therefore leads policymakers to make deadly strikes in places that they wouldn't otherwise make.

Galbraith applied those lessons to the impending Gulf War. As it turned out, Iraq's troops were quickly pushed out of Kuwait. And Old Man Bush's Administration made the still-controversial decision not to push the ground war into Iraq proper. Otherwise, we would have experienced something like the Iraq War of his son's Administration and Obama's beginning in 1991. Galbraith's point was that achieving the war aims could require a protracted ground war, and that putting faith in the magic results of air power was highly risky:

World War II was won not by the strategic air forces. Nor was it appreciably shortened thereby. It was won by ground troops suffering all the misery of ground war and taking heavy casualties as they moved across France and Germany, up through Italy and with the greatest casualities of all across the Russian plain.

Japan was defeated by island-to-island fighting northward across the Pacific. The bombing of Japanese cities wrought terrible human and physical destruction. Japanese factories were more vulnerable that Germany's. Production was less rapidly restored.

But again the bombing did not shorten the war. The wonders of modern technology were in the air. Victory was on the islands and on the distant sea.
He recalled that the magic of air power also was less than advertised in conflicts during Reagan's and Old Man Bush's Administrations: "In more recent times, in Libya, Grenada and Panama, there were aerial exploits reflecting the highest in technical achievement. They either missed their targets or, sadly, as in Grenada, damaged a hospital by mistake."

And he expressed his concerns in relation to the Gulf War this way:

It will come as no great surprise that I was strongly against the opening of military hostilities in the Middle East. I testified to this effect before Congress and urged that sanctions and the oil embargo be allowed their full effect.

The past promise of aerial warfare and weapons technology was much on my mind, the human cost of a ground war against the battle-hardened forces of Iraq equally so.
Iraq had only relatively recently concluded its long war with Iran, during which the United States tilted toward Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime in Iraq.

I still hope that ground war may be long postponed and if there emerges a chance for negotiation, it can be seized. The takeover of one country by another cannot be condoned. But the ultimate penalty, if it can be avoided, should not be imposed on those whose fate is to fight in the tanks and on the sand.

Perhaps, this war is different - perhaps technology has now made that difference. But neither the old nor the more recent experience is cause for optimism. And amid the uncertainty, there is one near-certainity: the high human cost of a war on the ground.
As it turned out, Iraq's casualties in Kuwait were high. The US military was mainly prepared to fight the Soviet Red Army, and Saddam had organized his forces on a similar basis at that time. And instead of invading Iraq at the time, Old Man Bush's Administration, in which Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense, hoped that Saddam's regime would be overthrown by an internal uprising, which failed.

The US and Britain maintained a no-fly under UN authority, and later expanded it. Low-level air warfare continued until the Gulf War began in 2003, including an intensive phase during the bizarrely-named Operation Desert Fox in 1998. The sanctions originally imposed to get Iraq out of Kuwait were maintained with the goal of regime change in Baghdad. Both the continuing air warfare, despite its allegedly invincible power, and the sanctions earned the US a great deal of hostility in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Eventually the extended ground war that Galbraith warned against in 1991 occurred beginning in 2003. The results are now well known. Not least of which was removing Iran's main Sunni rival regime and leaving Iran the dominant Persian Gulf power.

Now the neoconservatives and perpetual warmongers who were so eager to invade Iraq in 1991 and 2003 now want to go to war with Iran.

Maybe a more cautious approach in 1990-1 could have produced a better result than the magic of air war.

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