David R. Henderson  

Bombing Makes People Mad

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This study uses discontinuities in U.S. strategies employed during the Vietnam War to estimate their causal impacts. It identifies the effects of bombing by exploiting rounding thresholds in an algorithm used to target air strikes. Bombing increased the military and political activities of the communist insurgency, weakened local governance, and reduced noncommunist civic engagement. The study also exploits a spatial discontinuity across neighboring military regions that pursued different counterinsurgency strategies. A strategy emphasizing overwhelming firepower plausibly increased insurgent attacks and worsened attitudes toward the U.S. and South Vietnamese government, relative to a more hearts-and-minds-oriented approach.
This is from Melissa Dell and Pablo Querubin, "Nation Building Through Foreign Intervention: Evidence from Discontinuities in Military Strategies," Quarterly Journal of Economics, December 21, 2017.

One excerpt:

The overwhelming firepower approach can be summed up by the Vietnam-era adage: "get the people by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow" (Kodosky 2007, p. 175). Military strategy emphasized that overwhelming firepower could reduce insurgent forces, disrupt operations, and crush morale. According to General William DePuy: "The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm" (Sheehan 1988, p. 619). Civilian strategists advocated that coercion could also incentivize citizen compliance, with National Security Adviser Walt Rostow arguing that countering communism required "a ruthless projection to the peasantry that the central government intends to be the wave of the future" (Milne 2008, p. 88). In contrast, skeptics highlighted that insurgents were difficult to locate and that overwhelming firepower could backfire if civilians were hit instead. It could create grievances that inspired citizens to join the insurgency and could widen the political legitimacy gap between the insurgents and the South Vietnamese government. As James Scott (1985, 2009) argues, a coercion-oriented approach will be ill-suited to gaining cooperation if citizens have many ways to undermine a state they do not genuinely support.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Mark writes:

I think something similar has been argued regarding the allied firebombing on Germany; that it just increased the Germans' resolve to fight.

On the other hand, Hiroshima and Nagasaki clearly incentivized surrender. It would seem the lesson is that if you bomb someone hard enough, fear overwhelms madness, and people give up, but that point is likely to be on the order of obliterating entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people instantly; and that if you're not willing to go that far, it probably isn't worth going very far at all.

Stephen Gradijan writes:

It is worth noting that massive bombing worked wonderfully (from the US point of view) during the first Gulf War in 1991 where the Iraqi enemy surrendered en masse time and again when the bombing ended.

The key difference there it seems that the US was bombing known positions of enemy troops vs what was outlined in your post.

David R Henderson writes:

@Stephen Gradijan,
Right. The authors handle these issues with their careful sifting of the data. I recommend reading the piece. The title of my post is inexact because I couldn’t think of an exact but short title.

Manfred writes:

My question is, what is a paper like that doing in QJE. I am not clear what Econ I learn.

Alexandre Padillla writes:

From an empirical viewpoint, this paper is very important but it doesn't explain why nation building works in some places and it doesn't work in others.

To understand the difference between Vietnam and Japan (someone mentioned bombing Japan having a "different" effect), I think it's worth pointing to Chris Coyne's work starting with After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy - http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=10207).

Chris Coyne has written extensively on this topic and he was interviewed by Russ Roberts for Econtalk: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2008/04/coyne_on_export.html

I think it's important to remind people that Chris Coyne has been at the forefront of research in this area.

E. Harding writes:

"On the other hand, Hiroshima and Nagasaki clearly incentivized surrender."
They were less destructive than the Tokyo firebombings earlier in the year. The Soviet declaration of war and the occupation of Manchuria led to a far greater blow to Japanese morale than any civilian deaths.

However, Operation Linebacker II did lead to the North Vietnamese accepting the Nixon Administration's conditions for full U.S. troop withdrawal.

Hans writes:

This is an example of sheer
academic nonsense.

There is no nexus between
economics and military strategy.

How these two economic professors
managed to produce 558 pages of proses
or in this case theory, is beyond
my comprehension.

They should have consulted a military
historian before commencing in this
"matter."

Hans writes:

"Manfred writes:
My question is, what is a paper like that doing in QJE. I am not clear what Econ I learn."

Manfred, a most excellent point.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Hans

There is no nexus between
economics and military strategy.

Sure there is. The military has scarce resources and opportunity costs. To bb one target means to not bomb another. If bombing one target incentivizes rebellion and another surrender, then one would want to direct his scarce resources toward achieving the goal of surrender rather than rebellion.

And all this is ignoring the fact that resources used for war mean fewer resources used for consumption (every piece of steel used in a bomb means one less for a washing machine).

In a broader sense, economics is a social science. We are, ultimately, studying how people interact. War is, unfortunately, one form of human interaction and has many economic foundations (see, for example, Back Hirshleifer's book The Dark Side of the Force).

V L Elliott writes:

Alexandre Padilla: I agree that Professor Coyne's work is very valuable and second your recommendation. For a chronology of some related publications although centered on internal wars, I offer this: http://archive.li/L23EP
Hans: I agree that the input and advice of a military historian would be helpful when writing about wars. I have had the good fortune to the work with several and their contributions to my work, education and professional development has been substantial.

I respectfully disagree though about military strategy which, like all other strategies, links ways and means to the overall objective. The means include resources. I recognize there is a big step between the use of resources in the conduct of a war and the allocation and production processes that lead to that point, but there are economic applications either way. (See my discussion of Professor Jack Hirshleifer's work below.)

First, an aim in warfare is to make the opponent use their resources relative to their resource base faster than you use your resources relative to your resource base.
The concept of national income developed by William Petty in the 1600s and some of his initial work on it had to do with whether or not Britain had the means to defeat larger or apparently more powerful European countries, including the Dutch and the French. That was an application of economics in determining the strategic objective as well as the method(s) to be used in the conduct of the war.

There was a fairly substantial body of economic literature during WW I including works by John M. Clarke and Keynes ("How to Pay for the War") that was related but did not seem to go directly to the link between economics and military strategy. However, the formalization of defense economics before and during WW II did in fact do so. Rand was an early leader in the development of defense economics joined by the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Center for Analyses and the old Research Analysis Corporation. All of these organizations had substantial input to US military strategy with particular emphasis on the application of game theory to US nuclear strategy.

The best published example of the defense economics sub-field is the two volume Handbook of Defense Economics edited by Keith Hartley and Todd Sandler.

In volume I of the Hartley/Sandler Handbook, Professor Hirshleifer makes a major contribution by bringing the tools of general equilibrium to bear on destructive rather than productive activities. Basically, Professor Hirshleifer, working on a suggestion by Professor Gordon Tullock, introduced the use of a conflict success function in place of the production function. Hirshleifer's work is firmly grounded in the tools of the market but is hardly limited to them. However, he does not deal specifically with collective action. Professor Herschel Grossman's chapter in volume I is very valuable as well and should be read in conjunction with that of Hirshleifer.

Professor Tullock had extended Samuelson's arguments on public goods as amended by Charles Tiebout. Samuelson had of course defined pure public goods with the implication of loss of allocational efficiency which Tiebout enlarged upon with his arguments about "voting with the feet" which lessened the loss of allocational efficiency. Prof Tullock observed that "feet" need not be employed because people can simply change allegiance and they do not have to tell anyone they did so. They seceded but did so in place. Professors James M. Buchanan and Roger Faith expanded on this in "Secession and the Limits of Taxation: Toward a Theory of Internal Exit". (I suggest that this be read with Marcoullier and Young's "The Black Hole of Graft: The Predatory State and the Informal Economy".) This line of argument offers considerable insight into the strategies of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare which augments the strategies of more conventional forms of war.

Regarding Viet-Nam, at the time the rural pacification program was expanded and revised as CORDS, a related policy office was established to address economic stabilization certainly but also economic warfare. I worked in that office for 4 of the 5 years I was in Viet-Nam and I can attest that there was considerable economic research and analysis that went into US strategy at national, regional (military corps), province, district and more local levels. (See Douglas C. Dacy, Foreign Aid, War, and Economic Development: South Vietnam, 1955-1975.) The historical precedents were the re-construction program of Japan and the post-war efforts in Taiwan and Korea as well as Laos and Thailand. The role of economics in Malaya and Indonesia had not been as substantial.

Later work by Sandler on terrorism, Dr. Wayne Brough and myself on insurgency, Paul Collier, et al, on political violence and civil war, and Michelle Garfinkle and Stergios Skaperdas on defense economics have advanced the overall line of inquiry. Professor Coyne's excellent contributions and those of Charles Anderton are of considerable value as is the work of Daron Acemoglu, Jean-Paul Azam, Anke Hoeffler and Marta Querol-Reynal respectively, and are pushing the progress of several sub-fields.


Hans writes:

Mr Murphy, thank you for your comment.

Please note my careful select of the word strategy.

In a general concept, economic does play an important role in warfare. That is certainly beyond debate.

There is litany of examples; North vs South; Boer War; WWI.

" And all this is ignoring the fact that resources used for war mean fewer resources used for consumption (every piece of steel used in a bomb means one less for a washing machine)."

As a Arch-Conservative, war spending is the most unproductive expenditure by the Federales !

The only issue that matter for war, are depletion of material resources and or manpower.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Hans

The only issue that matter for war, are depletion of material resources and or manpower.

I'd think achieving the objective with the lowest cost possible would be the issue that matters. And that is an economic problem.

Not to mention the follow-up issues of occupation/nation-building.

V L Elliott writes:

Mr. Murphy,

Regarding "I'd think achieving the objective with the lowest cost possible would be the issue that matters. And that is an economic problem."

Agreed. The defining characteristic of war according to Clauswitz is a clash of arms (fighting). Sun Tzu notes that the greatest achievement in warfare is winning without having to fight. To accommodate Sun Tzu, I note the clash may be threatened as during the Cold War between the US and the former USSR. I suggest Sun Tzu recognized that war is, at least until concluded, a negative sum game reflecting the immediate loss of "blood and treasure" that is inescapable once fighting starts. This seems to support your point.

When a country/group decides to go to war it makes a political decision to do so, whatever its motivations may be. However, how it will fight (positional vs evasive, annihilation vs attrition) the choices cannot be made with only political considerations because they are driven by the country/group's weakness. A part of its strength/weakness, is the country/group's resource base and access. Since resources are scarce the need for their efficient use through effective military means is essential.

Regarding "the follow-up issues of occupation/nation-building", at least so far as internal wars goes, the World Bank found that there is a one in three chance of a country that has had an internal war will be back in an internal war within five years. The exception was the region of Sub-Saharan Africa where the odds were 50-50. The countries that escaped this conflict trap per Collier, et al, noting in particular the contributions of Anke Hoeffler and Nicholas Sambanis, all achieved and maintained a rate of GDP growth of at least 5% per year. The resource and policy demands are substantial. If James Murdoch and Todd Sandler's work on spillovers is then taken into account (spillovers from an internal war go out to about 900km from the unstable country's borders), there is an economic factor in strategic decision-making across geographic regions.

While noting the useful and important economic factors that are involved in analyzing and conducting warfare, unless Sun Tzu's ideal is achieved, one side must destroy its opponent's ability to resist or it willingness to resist or its ability to decide whether it can or should resist. And that is where the military art and science take precedence.

Hans writes:

Mr V.L. Elliot, thank you so kindly for your voluminous response.

The consequences and outcome of any war is unknown, to all combatants. Henceforth, the economic projections and capabilities offer only a minimum guidance of future production.

"I respectfully disagree though about military strategy which, like all other strategies, links ways and means to the overall objective. The means include resources."

If accountants and economists sat on the War staff, Japan would have not expanded its belligerence; Mussolini would not have invaded Africa; the North Vietnamese would have not been masters of Saigon; and Dien Bien Phu would never have made the history books.

There are countless examples of inferior combatants whom have accepted battle, despite their particular resource inferiority. Nippon Admiral Yamamoto, a brilliant naval commander, warned his hierarchy about the most dire consequences of war with America. It was unilaterally rejected by many, including the army staff.

War is so complex, that not a single element plays a vanguard role; let alone economics. Furthermore, we all can grasp that a nation on a war footing, can also alter its scarce resources for the war machine. Nations, that are invaded shall fight regardless of material resources.

"First, an aim in warfare is to make the opponent use their resources relative to their resource base faster than you use your resources relative to your resource base."

If this means that one defeats his enemies in detail, I agree. Simply reducing one's opponent
economic wealth does not assure victory.

On War (von Clausewitz), mentions little or nothing of a nation's economic wealth, in prosecuting war.

He said, that war is "simply the continuation of diplomacy." With both topics, economics is just an afterthought. Be rest assured, that in most cases, the front collapses before the economy.

"While noting the useful and important economic factors that are involved in analyzing and conducting warfare, unless Sun Tzu's ideal is achieved, one side must destroy its opponent's ability to resist or it willingness to resist or its ability to decide whether it can or should resist. And that is where the military art and science take precedence."

Mr Elliot, brilliant and succinctly put !!

I found Sun Tzu's difficult to read and interpret nevertheless, his understanding and execution of battle, is required reading for all those whom wish to understand the art of war.

Happy New Year to all.

Jon Murphy writes:

@V. L. Elliot

While noting the useful and important economic factors that are involved in analyzing and conducting warfare, unless Sun Tzu's ideal is achieved, one side must destroy its opponent's ability to resist or it willingness to resist or its ability to decide whether it can or should resist. And that is where the military art and science take precedence.

But even that is an economic question. It's simple cost-benefit analysis (see, for example, Jack Hirshleifer's book "The Dark Side of the Force").

VL Elliott writes:

Mr. Murphy: Yes, agreed that there is a clear economic link and Prof Hirshleifer gave us a great many insights (and a splendidly titled book in "The Dark Side of the Force"). But that just brings us to the battle field where economic intangibles come to bear.

The timing of the Union cavalry's arrival at Seminary Ridge on the first day of Gettysburg and the selection of "the ground" and Chamberlain's actions on the shoulder of Little Round Top on the second day are examples, The Battle of the Bulge, especially in and around Bastogne (101st Airborne, and elements of the 9th and 10th Armored), the US Marines throughout the Pacific and at Hue in 1968 or defending the US Embassy on the night the TET Offensive began point to what I am driving at (sense of duty, leadership, unit cohesion, etc.). There is some very good work on leadership being led by Prof Sandra Peart at U of Richmond but, without any diminishment of what Prof Peart and her colleagues (and others) have accomplished, there are as yet undefined and unmeasured aspects of leadership and other intangibles that the military art and science can account for but other disciplines cannot, at least not as well. But, being a two-handed economist, I have to return to and agree with your cost-benefit point -- up to a point (pun regretted).

One point tangential to this discussion but nevertheless relevant is that different concepts of efficiency in use. For example, military efficiency is achieved with a unit is fully supplied and its vehicles are in top working order and parked in the motor pool waiting for a "Go" order. Most of its assets are not then in use.

Hans: For whatever it may be worth - I don't know if any economists were on Japan's war staff but Japan's presence in Manchuria and China as well as its move into Southeast Asia were resource driven. And economist Harry Dexter White, a senior US Treasury official and a clandestine Soviet operative (see Kosters, Operation Snow), developed the plan to provoke the Japanese to attack the US by threatening their vital resources needs and doing so in a way that was humiliating to the Japanese. I will bet the rent money that there were no economists on Hanoi's equivalent war staff but there were a lot of economists supporting one economist on the US Mission Council in Saigon (the Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs). Same for Laos and Cambodia.

I suggest that the analysis of resources in war be done as a comparative ratio of costs to resource base of either side and that the analysis consider the form of war being pursued by each side, especially the choices with regard to positional vs evasive and annihilation vs attrition. I believe that will provide an opening for insights into the ability of combatants using less conventional means. (FYI: Clausewitz's book does not really get into unconventional forms of war but his notes are reported to do so and the US Army War College has -- again reportedly -- been involved in a project to incorporate those notes into a revision of On War.)

" "First, an aim in warfare is to make the opponent use their resources relative to their resource base faster than you use your resources relative to your resource base."

" "If this means that one defeats his enemies in detail, I agree. Simply reducing one's opponent economic wealth does not assure victory."

It surely can mean "defeat in detail" but is not limited to it. Lee's decision to surrender is an example of my point. The Confederate forces could still resist (there were at least two other Confederate armies in the field that Spring). The Union armies had suffered enormous casualties and loss of materiel, greater than those suffered by the South. However, the South's use of resources relative to its base was greater than the Union's and Lee made his decision with an understanding of this idea if not of the terminology that I have used.

Sun Tzu can be very difficult and not only because of the subject matter (good translators are worth much). However, Sun Tzu does give greater insight into unconventional war than did Clausewitz as published. If you are interested, I commend Donald J Hanle, Terrorism: The Newest Face of War and TX Hammes, The Sling and the Stone.

Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my posts. Wonderful discussion.

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