Bryan Caplan  

Against "Defensive War"

Caplan-Somin "Liberty and Fore... Re-Leveraging, Not De-Leveragi...
Almost everyone is incredulous at my pacifist opposition to so-called "defensive war."  In last week's debate, Ilya Somin's case began with this supposedly clear-cut case of legitimate war.  What could possibly be wrong with a country using military means to expel a foreign invaders?

My answer: the same thing wrong with every war

Premise #1: "Defensive" wars have very high short-run costs - most notably aggression against innocent bystanders.  Calling a war "defensive" doesn't change the hard fact that defensive wars always recklessly endanger innocents - and usually deliberately target them.  See the American Revolutionaries' treatment of Tories, most of whom were guilty of nothing beyond dissent.

Premise #2: "Defensive" wars have highly uncertain long-run benefits.  In particular:

a. The defenders often lose.
b. The defenders can often win with non-violent resistance, or merely by waiting.
c. Armed resistance usually provokes the invader to considerably greater brutality against the occupied population, both during and after hostilities.
d. The peacetime policy difference between the native and foreign regimes is often small.

As usual, if you're very confident that these uncertainties don't apply to a particular case, reflect that (a) people tend to be very confident on these matters even when they're dead wrong, and (b) hindsight is 20/20.
Premise #3: It's wrong to aggress against innocents unless the long-run benefits heavily outweigh the short-run costs.

Conclusion: Defensive war, like war in general, is rarely morally justified - and we aren't very good at spotting the exceptions.

If you have trouble understanding what might motivate my skepticism, see almost any war of "colonial liberation" against foreign occupation - including, of course, the American Revolution itself.  See Chinese resistance to Japan in the 30s and 40s - millions of Chinese died so a native-born Chinese dictator could murder even more.  For that matter, see Japanese resistance to the U.S. in World War II.  Vast numbers of Japanese soldiers died to defend mainland Japan from the horrible fate they imagined the Americans invaders had in store for their families.  If the Japanese had surrendered sooner, vast horrors culminating with Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been avoided.

If you think I'm cherry-picking, here's a bitter lemon of an example: What would have happened to Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe after World War II if the people of the occupied countries began an all-out guerrilla war against the Red Army?  Terrible as Stalinist occupation was for Eastern Europe, who will say with confidence that the consequences of violent resistance would have been better?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (34 to date)
steve writes:

Very cogent analysis. I hope your views get a wider hearing.

J Storrs Hall writes:

It would be pretty simple to implement this. Just amend the Geneva Convention to state that assassination of the enemy's political leaders isn't prohibited, but rather is considered more desirable than killing their poor conscripted grunts.

Rear, n.: In American military matters, that part of the Army closest to Congress. (Ambrose Bierce)

We might also amend the Constitution to state that no member of the government may be afforded more physical security than any member of the public enjoys.

Unnecessary wars would disappear in a hurry.

ThomasL writes:

As tragic as the result of WWII was for Eastern Europe, the only reason large sections of Western Europe weren't also under a similarly oppressive regime was because of violent resistance to it, sometimes by only a minority.

In more direct terms, if we ever meet, will you hand me you wallet? Will you hand me your wallet? (italics are for being menacing).

If you refuse, well, we can guess that will lead to resistance, but if you say, yes, to avoid the unpleasant consequences of resistance, here is the key question, will you call the police, knowing I would resist them? For fairness, say that I won't simply disappear before they get there.

Because if the answer to that question is yes, I think you are really just farming out your violence rather than abhorring it.

Pat writes:

Do you think we should we be pacifists about domestic crime? Should our police be trained in non-violent resistance and waiting?

medwards writes:

And what about freedom? Should we give up our freedom to whomever demands it?

SB7 writes:
Terrible as Stalinist occupation was for Eastern Europe, who will say with confidence that the consequences of violent resistance would have been better?
Sounds like Solzhenitsyn might say that:
And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?
Nicholas Weininger writes:

I agree partly with this-- many defensive wars, maybe most, are imprudent at best-- but Eastern European history after WWII provides a counterexample. The Hungarians revolted in 1956 and fought the Soviets hard for as long as they could, which wasn't very long. They lost. BUT they got a much less bad regime in place afterward than they had before, and a less bad one than other less resistant populations got, because the USSR realized that there was a limit to what they could impose on Hungary without paying a cost.

Furthermore, in assessing the cost of fighting defensive wars you must also consider the benefits of making a credible threat of defensive war, even when the threat is not carried out. Consider for example the benefit the Swiss derived from their credible threat of resistance to Hitler.

CBrinton writes:

Any "libertarian" doctrine that says the Finns should have surrendered to Stalin in 1940 fails my personal laugh test.

It is telling that Caplan's examples of how fighting in national self-defense may not be a good idea all involve guerrilla war, not conventional war. A properly-conducted war of national self-defense, like the Winter War in Finland, can minimize "aggression" against "innocents" and also make harsh treatment by a foreign occupier (in the event of loss) less likely. Guerrilla wars, by (often deliberately) blurring the lines between combatants and noncombatants, make the unfavorable outcomes Caplan describes more likely.

In the case of the Winter War, the Finns forthrightly declared that they'd try to kill any Russian who set foot on Finnish soil. They did not attempt to kill Russians who did not do this. The Finns knew, from Stalin's long record, that his policies would almost certainly be horrible for Finland.

A similar analysis applies to South Korean resistance to North Korean aggression. And to Taiwanese resistance to military threats from Mao.

Caplan's doctrine is that people under a government that protects their rights pretty well should give up that protection whenever a neighboring group with guns tells them to. This is simply ludicrous. There are obviously times when surrender is the best option, but there are also many times when it is not.

CBrinton writes:

For "Russians" in my previous comment please substitute "Soviets." My apologies for the error--they are not at all the same.

Tom writes:

I'd be very surprised if this argument convinces anybody who doesn't already agree with you. I know I disagree with you, and this post makes me less likely to ever agree with you on this subject.

Tahtweasel writes:

All of Bryan's examples are all real-life examples - that is to say, they are examples from a world in which pacifism is not popular.

Some potential wars are foregone precisely because of potential resistance.

Trivial example: North Korean invasion of South Korea. This has never happened because North Korea would lose. Now, I would argue that resistance in the case of a North Korean invasion would be a good thing. However, I don't even need to argue that. I can just say that the credible threat of resistance has kept peace in that region for decades.

That example is still pretty grounded in the real world. But let's say that pacifism is very, very strongly adopted in most of the world, and only one belligerent, North-Korea type remains. Would we let it send its troops on slow-moving boats across the Pacific to invade the United States? Sinking only a few of those boats would discourage the invasion. In this case, the defenders wouldn't lose, they wouldn't provoke greater brutality from the invaders since the invasion would fail miserably, and the short-run costs would be relatively low, because the invasion would be trivial to stop.

These sorts of invasions are ridiculous to imagine, but only because the West hasn't adopted Bryan's pacifism.

I believe that a marginal increase in pacifism would be a very good thing, but a total change to pacifism reduces the costs of aggressive war to zero.

Clay writes:

Do you oppose all forms of law and justice? If you remove physical force and potential violence from any law, it becomes an optional guideline.

This style of absolute pacifism is ridiculous and only is sustainable since you live in a society of others who are willing to use force and violence to protect you.

Hasdrubal writes:

While historically there has generally been little difference to the civilian population regardless of who won a war of conquest, I wonder if that can be assumed to be the case in a libertarian-pacifist society. After all, historically government has been pretty exploitave of its citizenry, regardless of which government. If you are lucky enough to live in a freer than average society, wouldn't it be highly unlikely that a conquering government would treat you worse than your current government? I seriously doubt that the average American would have been better off if the US government capitulated to a hypothetical communist Russian invasion rather than fighting one off.

Secondly, doesn't a credible threat of defending oneself raise the expected short term cost of invasion? It sounds like your point three would work in favor of nations having a standing army and providing a credible threat of defensive war. That should significantly lower the likelihood of getting invaded.

Finally, I'm not sure that your conception of defensive war and mine are the same. I wouldn't consider a war instigated or started by your country to be defensive. The Japanese lost an offensive war in WWII, even if they were on the defensive in the last years since they initiated the war in the first place. Same for colonial wars of independence, the colonies certainly initiated the revolutionary war. Russia's defeat of Germany in WWII would be a better example of defensive war: They were attacked and fought back until they were no longer in danger.

ThomasL writes:


Could you comment on your doctrine in the context of the recent Indiana Supreme Court 4th Amendment decision regarding resistance of unlawful police action?

They said (

"We believe ... a right to resist an unlawful police entry into a home is against public policy and is incompatible with modern Fourth Amendment jurisprudence," David said. "We also find that allowing resistance unnecessarily escalates the level of violence and therefore the risk of injuries to all parties involved without preventing the arrest."

If I understand your argument rightly, this court decision is wholly compatible with your arguments against defensive war, and so may serve as an accessible, real-world example to base future questions and discussion upon.

Is this position of the Court compatible with your own defensive war/resistance views? If not, why not?

Do you support the Court's ruling and interpretation of the Amendment? If you support the position of the ruling but not the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment (ie, they have a good position, it just isn't based on the text of the Fourth Amendment), do you think the Fourth Amendment itself is ill-conceived?

If you do not support the spirit of the ruling (irrespective of its interpretation of the text), why not?

Shane writes:

"The defenders can often win with non-violent resistance, or merely by waiting."

Growing up I was given the impression that Ireland barely escaped with independence from Britain, with a burst of revolutionary violence.

As I got older I learned that Ireland had already been promised Home Rule (limited independence, similar to the kind they ended up getting in the 1920s after the war of independence), which had been suspended because of the outbreak of World War I. Of course we don't know what would have happened, the continent was bristling with ethnic nationalist tensions at the time. But this peaceful, political path to freedom was underplayed in our history books - probably because the books were written by the victorious revolutionaries.

Taking a further step back I see the collapse of the British Empire after World War II, and even an upcoming independence referendum in modern Scotland. So it seems plausible at least that independence would have come to Ireland without a shot fired.

David C writes:

"c. Armed resistance usually provokes the invader to considerably greater brutality against the occupied population, both during and after hostilities.
d. The peacetime policy difference between the native and foreign regimes is often small."

I think these are the two weakest elements of your argument. My assumption is that brutality has a very low correlation with the natives' degree of resistance. On d, I think the difference is usually quite large. It'd be better for you to argue that it's difficult to say whether the difference is positive or negative. I still probably wouldn't agree though.

Tracy W writes:

The Maori engaged in armed resistance against the British, and did far better than say the Aborigines. (Delays in European mass settlement meant that the Maori got muskets and were very experienced in using them before mass European settlement.)

And the Moriori tried passive resistance against invading Maori and got wiped out (note the invading Maori included some of my own ancestors.)

I'm just not convinced by your assertions.

PrometheeFeu writes:

"b. The defenders can often win with non-violent resistance, or merely by waiting."

I would argue that non-violent resistance only works because the ones it oppose understand non-violent resistance as signaling that the resisters are willing to bear the cost of a violent resistance. In other words, I think violent resistance is a threat.

"c. Armed resistance usually provokes the invader to considerably greater brutality against the occupied population, both during and after hostilities."

I don't see how that is a valid moral argument. If the invader brutalizes the occupied population, that is exclusively the moral responsibility of the brutalizers. It is at best utilitarian. Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be laid clearly at the feet of those who ordered the bombing. The Japanese people who fought in the war bear no responsibility for it.

"d. The peacetime policy difference between the native and foreign regimes is often small."

That may be the best argument yet. However, that argument goes away when there is a difference between the two regimes. If we did succeed in making classical liberalism the principal guide of domestic policy in the USA and just about any other country invaded, that argument would depart. Your use of this argument is either incredibly optimistic (we will all become better at policy together) or incredibly pessimistic (we're stuck with bad policy forever).

ron writes:


These guys claim to be pacifists but will kill you if you persist.

from the article.
"Buddhists are not, therefore, hurting anyone; they merely refuse delivery of intended harm."

Jim Glass writes:

Premise #2: "Defensive" wars have highly uncertain long-run benefits. In particular: a. The defenders often lose

OTOH, not fighting a defensive war has a highly certain short-term cost: The defenders always lose.

Plus, I really don't understand how the incentives of the situation can be ignored by an economist. "We are rich. As a matter of policy we will not defend ourselves. Come and get it!"

Lars P writes:

Predeclared staunch pacifism changes incentives. Aggressive wars becomes far more profitable, and therefore more common.

I think this is the gaping hole in your argument. At the very least, you're not addressing it.

Jack Mason writes:

Mmmm... self-ownership, anyone? The principle thereof holds, as an integral part, the notion that if I cannot defend myself, I have no true ownership of self.
Since you are unwilling to defend, you concede your ownership of your self to the aggressor. Someone will soon collect, and that'll be the last we hear of this silliness. Argument failed.

Ari T writes:

Well to answer your question about Eastern Europe.

In Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Eastern Europe was divided by Germany and Soviet Union. Only Finland made resistance, making a defensive victory (retaining in independence) in Winter War and Continuation War. Winter War was purely "defensive" but Continuation War was more like revenge expedition.

The results up to the end of Cold War:
Estonia, 100+ thousand casualties, mostly civilian, Prof. Caplan probably knows this better
Finland, 345 thousand casualties, almost all soldiers

The social / death cost of Soviet occupation is hard to measure of course. Luckily it didn't last forever though and Estonians weren't targeted like Jews.

In the end, I don't think it necessarily turned out that bad for Eeastern Europe but Finland avoided massive civilian casualties and all the benefits of the occupation with the resistance.

Of course such a hand-picked sample is hardly any useful proof but an interesting example.

Alice Finkel writes:

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Harrison Searles writes:

I reject this argument because it is invalid in form and is therefore unsound. There is barely any necessity between the premises and conclusion as a result I can accept the premises while rejecting the conclusion.

This is why there seems to be so little criticism of this argument: many accept the premises, reject the conclusion and are scratching their heads wondering what the fuss is about.

Yehuda writes:

I do not find this at all convincing. Point by point:
On premise #1: if the defenders simply kill or attempt to kill all invaders (who by definition are not innocent bystanders) then innocents are not threatened. It is true that most modern wars go far beyond this, but that does not make defensive war invalid in and of itself.
On premise #2:
a. True, but if they do not fight then they definitely lose.
b. Proof/examples? I can think of Satyagraha succeeding against the British, but even that was only after much death and harm to Indians and their rights.
c. This assumes the attacker succeeds. More disturbingly, it conflates the attacker's and defender's responsibilities: It makes the defender responsible for the attackers immoral behavior=greater brutality. The defender is responsible for his/her actions, as is the attacker.
d. The eggregious examples are unfortunately relevant - do you think that was true of Germany or Japan in WWII or the Soviet Union in the Cold War? The variance of foreign regime action in conquered territory is relevant, not just the average. How small a probability of ethnic cleaning/nationalization of all property/mass slavery/religious tyranny (pick your poison) is small enough for defensive war and deterance to be worthwhile and moral?

Stanley John Smith III writes:

The Jews had to make this decision when the Nazis came for them. They seem to have chosen Mr. Caplan's way, and history records the consequences of their choice.

There is no perfect world, no perfect choices to be made. We live in a rare moment of extended pax when such ideas can even be entertained.

Peter writes:

How could defensive wars be immoral? Fighting is in our blood. It is hard to see how you can describe broadly held natural inclinations as immoral. Unless you believe in god I don't see how you can make the claim. PS, most concepts of god don't support the claim either.

darjen writes:

Another great post from Brian. I believe the evidence almost always supports Brian's theory. Someone mentioned North Korea as a counter-example. I believe that also supports Brian's case.

Think about Vietnam. The south lost their war against the communist north. In other words, they could have avoided a lot of senseless bloodshed if the south would have just given up in the first place. And when you look at Vietnam now, as a whole, it has become a much freer country than North Korea ever will be. Plus they don't have to endure the spectre of permanent militarization and fear that hangs over South Korea. So we should add both Vietnam and Korea to the list of useless wars that never should have been fought.

B.R. Merrick writes:

"If the Japanese had surrendered sooner, vast horrors culminating with Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been avoided."

The Japanese did try to surrender sooner. According to Herbert Hoover's diary:

"I told MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would be accomplished. MacArthur said that was correct and that we would have avoided all of the losses, the Atomic bomb, and the entry of Russia into Manchuria."

The state thrives on the fear it inculcates through the warped history it teaches: the voracious Japanese, the unstoppable Germans, the menacing Russians, ad nauseam. Those that support the state share these fears, and they always legitimize them with history.

We should remember that history is only a small part of actual history, much of which disappears when it is not recorded and when the rememberer dies. Whether or not a certain violent action can be considered initiatory or defensive, or whether collateral killing can be tolerated if a desired long-term outcome can be achieved, should take a backseat to the Hoover quote above, after appropriate pause to reflect on the mentality of state actors: their fears, incomprehension, violent thoughts, lies, obfuscations, and insularity from the violence they routinely unleash.

That, to me, is a far more important and salient thing to always remember.

CBrinton writes:

"According to Herbert Hoover's diary:

"'I told MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would be accomplished. MacArthur said that was correct . . .'

Uh huh. In 1946, MacArthur knew what should have been done in 1945.

This was the same MacArthur who, in 1950, knew that the Chinese wouldn't intervene in Korea. MacArthur's understanding of "the Oriental mind" told him that. He didn't care how many Chinese, in Chinese uniform, US forces in Korea captured.

Hoover's proposal was to let the Imperial Japanese hang on to Korea and Manchuria. The idea that Stalin would have placidly accepted this, or that his forces would not have stomped all over the Japanese in 1945 just as they previously had in 1939 (at Nomonhan / Khalkhin Gol) is ridiculous.

jva writes:

Luckily for you, there is a very nice test case for your theory. Finland and Estonia - two almost neighbouring small countries that share mentality and almost share a language. I'd like to see their per capita GDP plotted for 1940 to 2000.

Tim Starr writes:

As usual, almost all your premises are quite simply false, or ignore the alternatives:

1) Surrender also has high short-run costs, frequently a good deal higher than fighting back.

2) Defenders usually have the advantage; the standard prescription for victory in offensive battle is numerical superiority of at least 2-to-1 in qualitatively equal conventional forces. Offensive battles only happen when the offense believes it has sufficient advantage to have a good enough chance of winning. Thus, the absence of offensive warfare is in itself proof of the efficacy of military preparation.

3) No, non-violent defenders do not "often win." I've already pointed out the complete absence of any such victories from the historical record many times, without any sign of you grasping this. I've challenged you many times to try to come up with any examples of it, and you never have. And no, the Soviet collapse doesn't count at all, as there was quite a good deal of violent resistance to the Soviet Empire. Just picking the Reagan era alone, there was violent resistance to the Soviets and/or their proxies in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, etc.

4) If armed resistance provokes reprisals by the occupiers, that usually backfires against the occupiers, as Napoleon learned in Spain, Hitler learned in Russia, etc.

5) Most aggressive warfare has been by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes in the past century; the peacetime policies of such regimes are usually much worse than their intended victims, especially for the foreign populations they intend to conquer. Such regimes are most likely to mass-murder civilians in peacetime, and most likely to mass-murder foreigners. Giving them a large population of captive foreigners and all the peacetime they need to do with them as they please is not a recipe for happy conquered subjects.

6) The wars of "colonial liberation" of the 20th century were almost all wars of Communist aggression, thus disqualified as "defensive warfare."

7) There _was_ an all-out guerilla war in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during the Great Patriotic War, mostly in Belarus and Poland, but also in the Baltics, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Greece, etc. Since the Nazis plan for the Slavs was to simply starve them to death (the makers of GeneralPlan Ost said if Stalin hadn't collectivized agriculture they would've had to invent it), their fate was hardly worse for their taking up arms against their occupier. And the survival rate of the Nazi death camps where armed resistance occurred was higher. What you need to prove is that total surrender to Nazi occupation would've actually been better for the East Europeans.

Tim Starr writes:

To address some of the points others have brought up:

The Hungarian Revolution is a good example of armed resistance to Soviet occupation that was partly successful in that it led to the liberalization of the occupation regime. However, there are more: Polish agriculture was never collectivized due to a Polish threat of armed resistance which was credible because of Polish armed resistance to Nazi occupation; the Baltic Republics had milder Soviet occupation regimes because they had the had the longest-lasting guerilla resistance to Soviet occupation in Europe (the Forest Brothers). Yugoslavia was also able to gain independence from Stalin thanks to Tito's experience as a wartime guerilla commander, and Yugoslavia was better off during the Cold War than any of the Balkan regimes that remained in either the Soviet or Chinese camps (i.e., Bulgaria, Albania, etc.).

Finland has already been brought up as a good example of successful armed resistance to Soviet invasion, but the Finns had a neat way of minimizing their civilian casualties: They evacuated their civilians from the battlefield prior to hostilities. They then proceeded to stack the bodies of Soviet invaders like cordwood in the snow.

The de-colonization of the British Empire is hardly an example of peaceful resistance. It took two world wars, the displacement of the European colonial regimes in the South Pacific & Southeast Asia by the Japanese, and revolts like the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya and the Israeli uprising in Palestine to get the Brits to give up their colonial possessions.

South Vietnamese armed resistance to Communist aggression bought another 30 years of freedom for South Vietnam (along w/ Laos & Cambodia), from 1945 to 1975. About 3 million people were mass-murdered by the Commies in Indochina after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh. I fail to see how it would've been better if that had happened 30 years earlier. As for the efficacy of simply "waiting" for Asian commie regimes to collapse, compare the average standard of living in Ho Chi Min City to that of Soeul.

Finally, Japan did not offer to surrender before Hiroshima. An official surrender offer would've required unanimous consent from the Japanese ruling council, and the Army was hell-bent on continuing the war at all costs. Only a minority of the council expressed any interest in peace through the Soviets, and that was only for an armistice-in-place, not total surrender. Even after Hiroshima & Nagasaki, the Emperor had to survive a military coup attempt aimed at preventing his surrender speech radio broadcast, so the Army could continue the war. Truman accepted the first official surrender offer he got from Japan, even though it didn't accept all America's terms.

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