2010/01/16

The relative value of life in war & peace

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Life has seemingly a different value in war and peace. It's highly valued in peacetime, yet in wartime lives are spent for seemingly little gain and instead of material expenses.

Here's a scenario: It's a commander's choice (the expected outcome being the same) whether to accept the loss of few infantry at a high ammunition expense or to accept the loss of much infantry at a small ammunition expense.

The normal peace-time answer would be to minimise casualties because life is being valued highly in comparison to lifeless (aqnd already paid for) ammunition.

So why is this peacetime (and cabinet war) answer not representative for great wars as well?


The economic science has an answer: Market prices depend on choices, not on some constant value. The market price is in this scenario the relative price (severity of loss) of life and material.

Ammunition is in short supply in great wars. The preferable choice is therefore to economize its use; to prevent the worst and achive the most with given material resources (high payoff uses).
The purposes with smaller payoff have an insufficient priority and don't get enough material for a material-heavy answer to their problem. Life is still more valuable than lifeless matter, but blood is the only available currency in those cases.
The scarcity of material explains why even in situations where life and material are (ner-)perfect substitutes, life needs to be expended. The material scarcity drives up the price of material (which is a lesser way of expressing the problem because at that point there's no real analogy to a market any more).

In other words: Opportunity costs are manipulating the price of material. The expense of material in one place for saving few lives would be paid for by not being able to expend the material to save many lives elsewhere. This opportunity cost is understood and drives the relative price of material up in comparison to life.
This view shows how life actually stays highly valuable, just as in peacetime; the problem is that you need to expend it because you lack the means to save it.

In the end, much more wartime bills are paid for with blood than peacetime reasoning would suggest.


Why is material typically in short supply during wars?

Material is expensive and great wars are rarely likely enough to prepare for them in excess of the societies' ability to sustain the effort in the long run.
The potential consumption of material is much greater than the potential production, especially for ammunitions. It's a bottomless hole.
Another reason is that the expectation value of lives saved in a possible wartime does simply not cut it against the "expectation value of lives saved" by other measures than piling up military hardware (such as health care, environmental protection, safety regulations...).
On top of that the individuals of the society want to enjoy the fruits of their work through consumption.

There's at least one economic science approach that could explain why the value of life relative to the value of lifeless objects seems to shift between war and peace.

4 comments:

  1. Sir, when was the last time you saw an old sociopathic pro war so called "aplha male" willing to risk his life for his country?

    Sir, The relative value of life in war and in peace for your own troops boils down to whether you have integrated logistcal art into operational art.

    From what I've read of Jung I know know that the penultimate warrior archetype exists to serve life and that corresponds with Sun Tzu who ripped off his ideas about warfare from the Taoist Lao Tzu, which Jung read...

    ...there is no relative value of life. Life is precious except to sociopaths.

    So what is the relative value of sociopath's?

    Absurdist Commedy and destroying the mandate of heaven?

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  2. This sounds a bit too simplistic to, and I'll try to provide a few reasons:

    * technology or material is quite often simply not a viable solution to the problem, and therefore the choice "human vs. hardware" then isn't one

    * the reasoning behind the recent US approach in AFG to reduce air action in favour of boots is a good illustration that you look at this topic from too far above

    * could Britain have attacked Dresden with 100.000 troops instead of bombs?

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  3. Well, if this isn't complex enough for your taste then I'd like to see the blog that fits your taste for complexity!

    It's not complete, of course. That's also implied in the moral of the story (the final italic part).

    * material or human losses is the decision that provokes the choices that are of interest in the context. Non-substitution situations are not of interest for the topic.

    * OEF is a small war action, not a great war and I already pointed at the relevant differences. Some air support is in AFG furthermore a way to avoid the logistics bottleneck.

    * Dresden is a very poor choice of an example because the bombing didn't helpt he allied effort at all. It was an utterl needless attack 'because they still had all those bombers ready for a sortie' and lacked real targets after years of bombing. A classic case of "we've got to do something" and not related to the dilemma "human or material losses?".

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  4. Just like Lao Tzu opinion was that
    the void is
    the origin of existence,
    by the article not giving many specific examples of its hypothesis and going into much detail, it not only stays concise and interesting, but becomes more applicable to more areas of interest.

    The drawback of not going into much detail is of course a higher risk of misinterpretation, as has occurred here.

    I think the lives-material matter the author refers to relates more to such cases as:
    * 'Human wave tactics' by Soviets vs Nazi's and Iran vs Iran
    * Allied Atlantic shipping life line with Britain, which was poorly defended (in the beginning) and large numbers of poor quality corvettes were used instead of high quality battle groups.

    You go to war the army you have and not the one you would like.

    Although I would like to add that many acts of war (including economic) are indeed sociopathic, overkill and contrary to the Art of War/Life.

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