Bryan Caplan  

What's the Use of Crying Over Spilled Blood?

George Hilton, RIP... Paul Krugman on Why We Fight...
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, you may recall, was dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Eleven years and over 100,000 civilian deaths later, the name is dark comedy.  The replacement Shiite-dominated government is a close ally of the Iranian theocracy, and is now immersed in a new civil war against a would-be Sunni caliphate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

When the original supporters of Operation Iraq Freedom urge further military action, it's rhetorically easy to mock them for their past failures.  But is it reasonable?  Sure, mistakes were made.  But shouldn't arguments about additional military action rest exclusively on the world we actually face right now?  In economic terms, harping about past failures sounds like the sunk cost fallacy writ large.  What's the use of crying over spilled blood?

Here's the use: Past failures predict future failures.  Most Americans thought Operation Iraq Freedom was a good idea at the time.  American hawks were especially hopeful.  Both groups' predictions turned out to be deeply mistaken.  For starters, their failures remind us that human beings are bad at predicting wars' long-run consequences.  More importantly, though, hawks' greater failures remind us that contemporary hawks are especially bad at predicting wars' long-run consequences. 

You could say, "We should focus on experts' arguments, not their track record."  But this is the height of naivete.  No one has time to thoughtfully evaluate experts' arguments on more than a handful of issues.  And even if you did have years of free time on your hands, the truism remains: past failures predict future failures.  Discounting experts with bad track records is as reasonable as deleting spam emails unread.

If we held every proponent of every war to these unforgiving standards, we'd fight very few wars.  Some wars work out well, but singling out such wars in advance is extraordinarily difficult.  Hawks may take this as a reductio ad absurdum of my position, but they're the ones being absurd.  If you can't calmly say, "We can be extremely confident that killing lots of innocents in the short-run will vastly improve the world in the long-run," you shouldn't kill lots of innocents.  And killing lots of innocents is what every modern war entails.

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Mike W writes:

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?

And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

vikingvista writes:

Past failures predict future failures? Isn't the current situation *the* past failure? The argument is, if US warring in Iraq gave us ISIS, what makes you think US warring in Iraq won't give us ISIS again?

Either you thought the previous warring in Iraq was a success, in which case, you shouldn't have a problem with the current situation and so have no reason to advocate war; or, you think the current situation is a disaster, in which case, why would you want to repeat that disaster?

I understand the emotional desire to put an abrupt end to people who choose to be cold-blooded murderers. I don't understand the belief that THIS time it will work. It all seems like a thoughtless lashing out--a proverbial fist through the wall.

Troy Barry writes:

Considering ISIS, the campaign to disrupt Taliban rule in Afghanistan by supporting the Northern Alliance is a more relevant example than the removal of the Ba'athists in Iraq. It seems the US is currently replicating that initial Afghanistan strategy and its success, having learned the lessons of history well.

Unfortunately that history does not provide a positive example of what to do next, only what not to do, i.e. occupy and garrison. It's not at all clear that there are any candidates to hold the monopoly of force who can bearably be supported, and Syria has proven that even a Ba'athist is far better than no-one.

Shane L writes:

There are many people struggling to be heard in foreign policy debates. When an individual has been discredited badly once, it seems natural that they be granted less access to the limited limelight next time around, so it is indeed puzzling to see the same old hawks still invited for their opinions while others remain in the darkness.

Daublin writes:

You are making a fast switch in this post, Bryan, between what is good for Iraqis versus good for Americans.

There are more Shiites in Iraq than Sunnis. As well, Iraqis are going to want to be friendly with their immediate neighbors.

For both of these reasons, the trends you describe are good for Iraqis, good for freedom, and good for peace. However, as you say, they might be bad for the U.S.

Daublin writes:

It's also not so evidedent that the regime change was net bad. Despite what the popular press says, democratic Iraq has many benefits compared to it's situation under Sadaam Hussein:
- Greater foreign trade.
- Better infrastructure.
- Illegality of honor killings.
- Absence of torture rooms in the capital.
- Many more women in the government.

There's also the benefit, to the world if not to Iraq, that a leader who'd committed genocide was tried and executed.

The recent power struggly is happening after the U.S. *pulled out*, thus leaving a power vacuum. I hate war as much as anyone, but Iraq seems like a case where consistent pressure was actually working to remove some atrocity from the world, not unlike World War II on a smaller scale.

Nathan Smith writes:

I see Daublin wrote much of what I was going to say.

The biggest argument on the hawks' side prior to the 2003 invasion was:


The biggest argument unrepentant hawks like me have now is:


Doves basically just don't talk about this. They don't try to explain why Saddam Hussein wasn't so terrible after all. They just stick their fingers in their hears and chant, "I can't hear you."

Yes, there's more to it than whether the new situation in Iraq is worse than Saddam. Some of the "more to it" strengthens the case for war (ex ante or ex post), while some of the "more to it" weighs against the war. But all of the "more to it," put together, is considerably less important than the main point: that Iraqis are better off not under Saddam Hussein.

I can't think of another issue where I've held an unpopular opinion in defiance of a widespread consensus, yet had so little reason to think twice about the correctness of my position. Yes, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" may seem like dark comedy to Americans, because they're very ignorant about the world generally, and have largely forgotten, as you seem to have done as well, that Iraq before the 2003 invasion was an appalling totalitarian tyranny. Liberated Iraq looks like a pretty bad place compared to America, so they judge the war a failure.

However, I'll admit that the name "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is a little embarrassing, not because 100,000 were killed-- fighting for freedom is always risky business and I expected more bloodshed than that; and if I were an Iraqi I would have regarded 50 times more bloodshed than that as a price worth paying for even patchy and unstable freedom-- but because "freedom" is too unambiguously positive a label for what has emerged in Iraq, and for what I expected to emerge in Iraq before the war. But Operation Replace One of the World's Worst Tyrannies with a Messy and Chaotic Semi-Democracy (OROOTWWTWAMACSD) would have been too hard to pronounce.

In hindsight, I'm impressed by the wisdom of my 24-year-old self in supporting the war. I always assumed the Bush administration was overselling it and that it would lead into a messy quagmire, but I thought it could hardly help being a change for the better. I was right.

JA writes:

I was opposed to the initial Iraq War, and predicted along with many other people that it would be simple to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, but we'd be fighting an insurgency for decades.

The current situation with ISIS is very different. The Kurds in the north are willing to fight (just as the were against Saddam), and if properly armed with mortars, artillery, etc. and better trained by special forces "advisors" could hold off ISIS from Kurdistan.

ISIS is becoming, as it aspires to be, much more State-like. This means it is easier to disrupt. The USA doesn't need to "win" a war with ISIS, but just severely disrupt its capabilities. I'd argue that the USA is very good at doing that with minimal American and civilian causalities. The USA essentially would be running an insurgency against ISIS.

As far as civilian deaths and pacifism go, you must at least weigh the civilians that ISIS will massacre if not stopped. ISIS will kill anyone who does not practice their particular interpretation of Sunni Islam, in any area they control.

Hazel Meade writes:

Counter argument.

Maybe their past failures are not due to incompetence, but because the conflict were are engaged in is a difficult one. Maybe it's just really, really, hard to combat groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Any maybe what we're dealing with isn't some piss-ant country we can easily defeat militarily, but something more like the 100-years-war. We're dealing with what is effectively a fanatical religious sect, and I don't see it going away no matter whether we're interventionist or not. It has to run it's course. obviously, they aren't going to bring back the caliphate, that's a delusional fantasy. The question really is how many people are they going to kill trying.

Carl writes:
However, I'll admit that the name "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is a little embarrassing, not because 100,000 were killed-- fighting for freedom is always risky business and I expected more bloodshed than that

Omelettes, eggs. (100,000 eggs)

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "Omelettes, eggs. (100,000 eggs)"

I believe this is a reference to the saying "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs," supposedly used by a Bolshevik revolutionary in defense of the revolution's killings.

But, what does that saying mean exactly? I think it means something like (behind the sarcasm) "the ends don't justify the means," but what does *that* mean, exactly? If it isn't a blanket rejection of all means-ends rationality, it can only mean that there are certain human rights that must not be violated. Must not be violated, ever, no matter what? I might sign up to some form of that claim, but any sensible form of it would involve an affirmation of some sort of rules of just war, e.g., don't deliberately kill civilians, rather than pacifism.

Governments must be prepared to defend the law with lethal force if need be. Otherwise any foreign invader or internal gangster revolution could overthrow them and they'd be too principled to resist. Once you've conceded that lethal force may be used, where do you draw the line? The only coherent position pacifist scruples lead to is a kind of Tolstoyan pacifist-anarchism, for which I have, let it be noted, plenty of respect. But most of us don't want to go there, and there aren't any obvious historical examples of that working out particularly well on the scale of an entire society. If you endorse government at all, well, government is an omelette that takes some broken eggs to make.

So I don't take that kind of snark seriously. Only Tolstoyan pacifist-anarchists can legitimately smear people for supporting violence under at least some conditions, and they wouldn't talk that way, because they're too morally serious, and too much of an isolated minority.

Carl S. writes:

Nathan, what's your evidence that Iraqis are better off? The end of sanctions, U.S. foreign aid (which could have gone to other countries with higher effect) and good oil sales may have helped raise economic output from the levels of the sanctions era (which was itself a US action).

There have been hundreds of thousands of casualties in a population of around 30 million, and life expectancy is down (by something like a year and a half).

Centralized oppression is down, and Shia Muslims have the reigns of power, but decentralized violence, oppression, and insecurity (which affects well-being greatly) is way up. Persecuted minorities fled the countries en masse, e.g. most of the Christians are gone. ISIS may scale up its attempts at genocide of the Yezidis and others.

What's your measure of Iraqi well-being?

Mike W writes:

"What's your measure of Iraqi well-being?"

A peaceful turnover of power...a rarity in that part of the world. The failed leader of its government just stepped down without calling out the security forces to retain his position. That's the kind of first step that S. Korea and Taiwan took in the 80s.

Troy Barry writes:
I think it means something like..."the ends don't justify the means," but what does *that* mean, exactly?

Perhaps it's a challenge to empathise with the eggs rather than the cook? "How many lives is freedom worth?" is a question best answered by those bearing the cost.

TMC writes:

Five or six years ago we were marveling how there were fewer killing in Iraq than in
Chicago. Announcing that we are pulling out and then pulling out completely was the worst blunder of the Iraq war. Iraq could have been united enough internally and powerful enough with very limited help from us to have fought off ISIS. There have been many mistakes in Iraq, as all wars, but abandoning them was the worst, and had the most foreseeable results.

Keith K. writes:

It seems to me a rather bizarre assertion to say they are "better off" now than they were before.

1st of all, the 100,000 non-combatants dead sure as hell are not better off.

2nd, the christian and other minority populations sure as hell are not better off (many thousands murdered by islamists and millions thrown into exile).

And no, the argument that Hussein was worse IS NOT sufficient justification for the war. This pre-supposes that there was no other means except war, which is absurd. If the idea was simply to overthrow Hussein, it seems to me it would have been much more effective to do the opposite of what we did with sanctions, and engage in 100% free trade with Iraq. Followed by incentivizing massive smuggling of state-unapproved goods to erode the governments powerbase.

"Announcing that we are pulling out and then pulling out completely was the worst blunder of the Iraq war."

I'm sorry but I think your history is a bit off here. If I remember correctly, the democratically elected government of Iraq THREW US OUT because we could not come to a consensus on a status of forces agreement between our government and theirs.

india white writes:

We should separate the DoD into 2 parts: The War Department and the Defense Department.

The first is responsible for killing foreigners for fun and profit, fulfilling ego fantasies for the elites in DC.

The second would be the national guard.

Whether Iraqis are better off or not is irrelevant. We are not quite yet a military dictatorship, a semblance of civilian control remains, though with little respect for constitutional limits or the War Powers Act. If US citizens broadly support killing, it will continue. If not, it will stop. Vietnam was stopped by funding failure, not rhetoric, not law, not protest. Iraq/Afgh will be no different.

The US will continue to pound holes in sand or jungle, stacking bodies, so long as we can afford to do so, and so long as the public buys the PR chant that foreign intervention/murder = freedom.

It took 10 years of brutal inflation and unemployment to escape the 70's and pay for vietnam. With gubmint health care and retirement going negative around the same time, plan for a difficult 2018+. The ugly chickens of hierarchical command/control military economy are coming home to roost. This is your official warning, rough economic waters ahead.

Ned Nowotny writes:

And what of the "lots of innocents" already being murdered by the Islamic State? Do they not count? Are acts of omission really more tolerable than acts of commission even when the consequences are clearly known?

vikingvista writes:

"And what of the "lots of innocents" already being murdered by the Islamic State? Do they not count?"

Yes. They count as consequences of the last time the US went warring in Iraq. Perhaps going forward, it would be more prudent to think of solutions that haven't already proven to lead to "lots of innocents" being murdered.

Robert writes:

If I may jump into the debate about whether Iraq is better off now since the 2003 war I think its safe to say Iraqi women are sure in a worse position now since the invasion. Womens rights have regressed in all sorts of ways, to give just one example do you know theres no such thing as marital rape in Iraq anymore? That is to say that while it may still go on officially it is no longer recognised in the new laws of Iraq as a crime so a woman has no legal recourse if she becomes a victim of it.
Saddam was obviously a monster but at least he was a secular monster under which women had some rudimentary rights unlike now where they have to endure the usual fundamentalist Islamic mindset where they are viewed as nothing more than the property of men, first their fathers and then their husbands

Ned Nowotny writes:

So, vikingvista, the "Islamic State" which arose in Syria in its civil war would not occupy much of Iraq if Saddam Hussein still held power? Therefore, the "lots of innocents" would only be the...what, less innocent Syrians? Or, the whole "Arab Spring" phenomenon, including the civil war in Syria, would never have happened without the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Or...any host of other scenarios which all lead back to "lots of innocents" being killed by someone other than the United States is still the fault of the United States so we all might as well let thousands more innocents die...but then, isn't that still the fault of the United States? Or...what the hell? How about we deal with the problem as it exists today? Is doing nothing now really "better" than pounding the "Islamic State" back into a locally managable threat? Assuming, of course, the United States and any allies will once again fail to engage an enemy relentlessly until it is decisively defeated...

Julien Couvreur writes:

Reminds me of a Shadok quote (a whimsical french cartoon): by continuously failing we are bound to succeed, therefore the more you fail the greater the chance that you'll succeed ;-)


In the cartoon, this leads them to build and "launch" disastrous rocket ships without any learning or refinement. Just random attempts. They keep a tally of how many failures they had, since more failures mean they are closer to success.

vikingvista writes:

Ned Nowotny,

Would you say that the US military intervention in Iraq was trivial or without significant influence? If not (particularly if not by a far cry) then regardless of the complete spectrum of causal factors, it is pretty hard to say that the current situation isn't to that degree the result of US intervention.

So, given that you don't appear to like the result of prior US intervention, why in Odin's name would you even consider doing it again? You think having the US military destroy property and lives will have a different effect? You think today's policy makers are morally or intellectually superior than yesterday's? You think that today's romanticized predictions of clever military strategies are more realistic than yesterday's?

Now, if you want to argue that Iraq is today better off than prior to US intervention, you would be making more sense *if* you were advocating a *more forceful* repeat. Otherwise, the most sensible reaction to repeated involvement is--"That's already been tried".

But instead, your argument seems to be: If lots of innocents are going to be killed either way, let's not lose the opportunity to ensure that US foreign policy is correctly seen as one of the culpable factors.

Forgive me if I don't see the wisdom or morality in that.

Societal interactions are complex enough where you or anyone else can readily imagine an interventionist scenario playing out however you desire. You are welcome to join everyone else in that sort of fantasizing, especially since neither you nor I nor hardly anyone else really has any influence on the matter anyway. But it would be nice if one day such state romanticization was substantially less popular.

Mark Bahner writes:
And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty.

Lots and lots of good lines in that film. (Anyone who hasn't seen "A Few Good Men"'s a "must see.")

But a couple responses:

1) He was the commander at Gitmo (pre 9/11). I sure don't want him or need him or anyone in Gitmo. Cuba isn't much of a military threat to the U.S.

2) He says, "We use words like honor, code, and loayalty." But he had absolutely no honor. He was a liar who commanded his troops to perform an immoral act. Exactly as McAfee says, "...and when it went bad, you cut these guys loose."

P.S. The only very bad part about that film was the ending. I definitely *do* want Harold Dawson on a wall. (Though not the wall in Gitmo.) I especially want him on a wall after he learns an important lesson.

P.P.S. Which was a lesson he already sort of knew, if it hadn't been for the evil Kiefer Sutherland punishing him for it.

Mark Bahner writes:
However, I'll admit that the name "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is a little embarrassing, not because 100,000 were killed-- fighting for freedom is always risky business and I expected more bloodshed than that; and if I were an Iraqi I would have regarded 50 times more bloodshed than that as a price worth paying for even patchy and unstable freedom

The population in Iraq before "Iraqi Freedom" was about 25 million. Fifty times 100,000 is 5 million people. That would be 20 percent of the population. The U.S. population in 1941 was about 133 million, so that would be like 27 million deaths. About 1/70th of that number died in WWII in the U.S. Even the Civil War didn't come close close to 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Mark Bahner writes:
Is doing nothing now really "better" than pounding the "Islamic State" back into a locally managable threat? Assuming, of course, the United States and any allies will once again fail to engage an enemy relentlessly until it is decisively defeated...

Do you think this "pounding the 'Islamic State' back" should occur after Barack Obama gets a declaration of war from the U.S. Congress, or do you think he should just go ahead on his own?

Flocccina writes:

Sadly Nathan Smith and Daublin might be right that Iraqis are better off now than under Sadaam.

Death under Sadamm

Along with other human rights organizations, The Documental Centre for Human Rights in Iraq has compiled documentation on over 600,000 civilian executions in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that in one operation alone, the Anfal, Saddam killed 100,000 Kurdish Iraqis. Another 500,000 are estimated to have died in Saddam's needless war with Iran. Coldly taken as a daily average for the 24 years of Saddam's reign, these numbers give us a horrifying picture of between 70 and 125 civilian deaths per day for every one of Saddam's 8,000-odd days in power

Of course Bryan might say he is never the less not compelled by morality to address the people of Iraq's problems because they are strangers to him. He might also argue that allowing anyone who wants to leave Iraq and come to west is a better solution to their problems than helping them win the war with ISIS.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top