Why should we have a military?

"What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
Madeline Albright, 1992

 Yes, what's the point of a military?

I suppose to answer this properly you need to go back to the question of what's the point of having a government.

The Western view since the the enlightenment is that government serves the people. We, the people, by majority agree to do things together for our own good - we are a community.

There were other reasons for governments in the past. Some motivations were
  • to seek security in greater numbers.
  • to do things together in order to be able to exploit others.
  • to organise an effort of many to worship some deities.
The enlightenment view  - as documented in the philosophical construct of the contrat social - has been the dominant in Western circles on the surface. Another rationale ("To do things together in order to be able to exploit others.") has been more of an undercurrent, particularly in countries that had a rather dysfunctional political culture or a dictatorial regime at the time.

"to seek security in greater numbers" became rather the motivation behind supranational alliances than behind individual governments.

The hawkish party (which is not necessarily congruent with a political party) tends to emphasise "to seek security in greater numbers" as a key purpose of government. This is particularly evident in the utterly ignorant nonsense that government is merely meant to provide security against criminals and foreigners. And I call this utterly ignorant because it is - the function of providing rule of law regarding properties is completely essential to any wealth, for example. There would be no private property and hardly any functional markets without enforcement of rules regarding property and trade.
So the hawkish party espouses that security is what government about (not social security, of course). The problem with this is that their actions betray them. They behave according to another paradigm - "to do things together in order to be able to exploit others" at any opportunity given, though with a minor variation nowadays: They're not so much proponents of exploiting as of harming, dictating and at times eliminating others. This variation is but a cosmetic one, though. Nowadays exploitation isn't about taking away more wealth than is effort required to take it. Exploitation is nowadays at best about exploiting the capacity of others top take a beating in order to make oneself more comfortable psychologically. Many "problems" that can supposedly be addressed with aggressive military power are not material problems to the hawkish party. Defiant loudmouths and people with a very much different culture seem to be outright favourite targets to the hawkish party.

To princes of old government served their own and their dynasty's well-being, to modern 'hawkish party' partisans it appears to serve to alleviate their psychological stress.

My line - as repeated again and again on this blog -  is a very different one, one rooted in economic theory. I follow the notion of government by and for the people
Government action for the people must not do more harm to the people than good - which leads to a simple (though only theoretical) criterion for judging government action: The net benefit (benefit minus costs) should be maximised.

To conquer in order to exploit is simply not profitable any more, and thus cannot be considered a subset of government by and for the people. The benefits that government can bestow on the people with military power are mostly keeping peace (sparing the people the damages of war) and in worst case restoring the peace at minimised costs. Deterrence and defence.
There's sometimes a little benefit to be gained by the entertainment factor - parades, fascinating videos of war (remember the 1991 war porn?), positive feelings of pride. There are also a few other benefits such as disaster aid. No such secondary benefits come anywhere close to the benefit of keeping the peace, and such secondary benefits can either be provided at lesser costs by civilian organisations or the military is the most efficient institution to deliver those because their costs are sunk anyway.

All this leads to another cornerstone of what I write a lot about; the benefits from military power are limited. You don't get much more benefit from spending more once you succeeded at keeping the peace without concessions. This leads to much criticism of overspending, inefficiencies and spending that's not cost-efficient for deterrence or defence.

There is one philosophical uncertainty in all this, though: Benefits are not absolute. Even famous economists like to pretend they are, and pretend that one currency unit means the same to one person as to another, but there's no evidence to back this up. It's merely an assumption that makes matters calculable.
Philosophers have not yet found a definitive answer to how to value benefits (or even only money). They have theories, but none are fully satisfactory. There's also the information problem - only a god-like being would know how much value goods and services truly have to a person.
This keeps us from being able to claim with 100 per cent certainty that the satisfaction from seeing things getting blown up is less important than the suffering of the people who used to live or work in those buildings, or lost friends and relatives in there.

The "for the people" aspect adds another complication; how would we weigh the suffering of foreigners in a cost-benefit calculation?

Philosophy, economics and rational thought don't necessarily matter to people, of course. Some people are simply locked-in in opinions that were built on fears, aversions, disrespect and emotional needs. They would be fine with giant government expenses to beat up some loudmouths on another continent if only the government dudes don't show up on the doors and take share of the costs right away. Abstract public debt (delayed and magnified costs) is a much more comfortable price to pay. The connection is rarely seen this way - just as a dog doesn't understand why it gets punished for something it did hours ago. We, too, are animals with limited ability to process complex affairs.

Maybe you - the reader - are one of those who think (and write) that I should stick to military stuff and stay out of political issues because I'm "idiotic" about those.
Well, I like to think that the gargantuan efforts that sustain governments should be worth it. I do not see any evidence that aggressive military/foreign policies are worth it - but I see a lot of people whom I do not trust when they pretend that they have solid, conclusive reasoning behind their opinions.


P.S.: This was meant to be about inter-state warfare. Wars of independence are much less clear-cut. 

P.S. again: Well, I attempted to keep this blog post at an easily readable length.  That was probably a mistake, there's much more that should have been mentioned. I'll think about other ways to get the thoughts across.


  1. Some nations can make war work economically. If you are a global or regional hegimon it can be a net positive on your balance sheet.

    Other nations, mostly wrongly, believe they can supplant the status quo and so economically justify their actions by promising it will pay off in the long run. (Turkey, Russia, Qatar)

    "The new american century" BS essentially said that. It was wrong, the US was wrong for following it but that is beside the point. If the US does lose its global position it will suffer. Its economy will shrink. It will be geographically isolated. The dollar will drop. Its many internal problems will take up more of political time filling the void left by the lack of external war. Its glaring economic, infrastructure, demographic and philosophical faults will destroy it.

    Internal politics. External politics. Geo politics. Geo strategy. Trade war. Resource war. Corporate war.

    If Chiquita (United Fruit Company) requests that the US go to war again for them it will be a profitable war. The US would do it and they would gain from it.

    Should Europe do that? Nope. Does Europe do that? Well what the hell are France doing in the Sahel?

    Distance ourselves from the yanks. Display that we can face any challenge from Russia whenever wherever and give up on any extra continental entaglements. That would be my vote, but it is not going to happen.

    1. You made a logic error in your attempt to bring up some supporting evidence for your claim that war may work economically:
      The country that wages the war does not have a net benefit.
      Nobody doubts that the dictator of Kuwait benefited from foreign countries "liberating" "his" country, but there's no case of war post-1913 where war was economically net beneficient to the country that waged it.

      Your claim that a U.S. war on behalf of Chiquita would be economically net beneficial is utterly unrealistic in my opinion. You should look up the turnover the corporation has from certain countries, look at the Panama invasion costs, apply the military-specific inflation to adjust the expenses and then remember that there's always backlash against overtly aggressive behaviour these days.
      It would produce a net loss EVEN IF one would say Chiquita gains = U.S. gains, which is nonsense, of course. Chiquia is a Swiss company!

      The French are in Mali because their policy elites still think of France as the regime-backing policeman of francophone Africa. That's not the work of U.S. foreign policy.

    2. Apologies, but it appears you dont know about the 'Banana Wars'. Worth a read up if you dont.

      My point about France was an attempt to say that France operates a 'sphere' type foriegn policy on its own.

      Your reply expanded on your post. To me it alters my understanding of your original argument.

      I assumed you meant that the cost of war when viewed with a fair and somewhat exhaustive moral, financial and political accounting for its costs is not 'profitable'. You however seem to be hitting a less omnipotent bar.

      Can a small insurgency be profitable. Yes. Can a small COIN in support of a friendly government or cause be profitable. Yes.

      Economically? Easily yes.

      Morally? WMD was the R's and they havent been made toxic by it, Bush still recieves applause and respect. Noone was locked up. With US politics in its current state I dont think a brush war would even register. There are likely contractors, CIA and SF in Venezuela at the moment. Noone cares. Objective morality? Civilisation is not in a state to be able to make an assesment on that and doesnt even seem to be interested in evaluating admitted moral failures in the past.

      Politically? Well, just look at the whos in the white house. There are no rules anymore.

      There has been no case post 1913....

      Six day war. Israel 'started it' and was bailed out by their allies and ended in a stronger position than when they started.

      I was going to continue with further examples. Instead...

      "...politics by other means."

      Old quote. Oft used. But true.
      What is a war, what isnt?
      How you do determine when a war has actually started.
      Who started the war? Six day war, was it the Israelis? They would say it was a pre emptive strike. Are they right?

      I am expanding the topic too much, for which I apologise. I however dont know how you can discuss this without accepting that hard and fast assertions such as "... no case of post 1913..." is supportable. Why 1913? Fall of the british empire? The same tactics they used to dominate trade were profitable then, they are profitable now. Why wouldnt they be?

      The US is the global hegimon. Being the global hegimon has undeniable economic advantages. Being the worlds default traded currency has undeniable economic advantages. Setting the rules in the 'global rules based order' has undeniable economic advantages.

      If the US does not fight. It loses its position. If the US does not undermine the strength of its allies and enemies through politics and 'other means', it loses its position. The US engages in 'war' against Petrobras, Airbus, the German intellegence services, climate change conferences. Those 'political' operations are profitable.

      You seem to be disagreing with that, which I find bemusing. We are maybe talking at cross purposes. Love your stuff, I was part way through writing a defence of frigates then realised you are pretty much correct. They are only built because the brass like wearing funny hats and sailing the ocean blue.

    3. I know about the Banana Wars, and that some happened post-1913. You knowing about them doesn't mean they were net beneficial to the country. They were known to benefit first and foremost a tiny clique of people.

      The Six Days War was not net beneficial in my opinion; there was considerable backlash especially from France, it's impossible to weigh the dead vs. the political gain and we don't know what an outcome a later alternative defensive war would had had.

      You may not have noticed, but there's a failproof argument built into the blog post that guarantees no war can be proved to be net beneficial; science and philosophy have no way of weighing loss of human or human suffering against even clear-cut economic advantages. We may at most have a hunch that some war was net beneficial, though at least some of the dead would inevitably disagree if they could. We can prove wars to have been net harmful to those who waged them, though - this happens in cases where no substantial gains were made whatsoever. The Kosovo War was a clear-cut net harmful war to Germany, for example.

      I seem to have neglected something in my attempt to keep the blog post at an acceptable length, though: Defensive wars make still sense as a net damage minimization activity. You don't need to expect a net gain from defending yourself - except in comparison to the alternative of not defending yourself.
      I myself value that "position" you're writing about as worth as much as a good movie production - few hundred million USD at most.
      Feel free to disagree, but better prepare an explanation for why Luxembourgers are happy and super-wealthy without said foreign policy "position" and what advantage the American "Joe sixpack" has from said "position" at all.

    4. France is mainly in the Sahel Area because they get Uranium from there and the French Energy feed-in is highly dependend on nuclear power plaints. So the colonial warfare in the sahel is necessary for france to ensure the unhindered supply of uranium from there (and other soil ressources too).

      As france has a military anyways which would cost much moeny indifferent if it is used or not it makes sense to use it in the sahel because the additional costs are fewer than the extra expenses for uranium if france would not control the sahel.

    5. SO:

      No government is by and for the people as you worte and therefore the question what advantages "joe sixpack" has from said policy is the wrong (because senseless) question. All government is for a relativly small number of people and every gains for others are only if they are necessary and for the overall profit of this small group.

      Luxembourgers are happy and super-wealthy by the way because this criminal and anti-social (in the greater european context) country is a tax heaven, a offshore paradise and profits tremendously from the fact that rich people from all over the world bring their moeny to this "country" for tax fraud.

    6. Denmark, Netherlands, Germany are not tax havens, very wealthy - and still don't miss that "position".

    7. about Mali, France and uranium:

      Mali's exports to France totalled less than USD 19 million in 2016.

    8. Lets stay in germany: the people of germany are not very wealthy, to the opposite. The property is averaged one of the lowest in western europe.


      Even if one not regard the high percentage of renters in germany (which one should) germany stays ways behind luxembourg.

      And the uranium does not come mainly from mali, but as i wrote: the Sahel Area which includes for example the Tschad and other countries like Burkino Faso, the Niger etc and in all this countries are tuareg minorities. Failure in Mali and a souveran tuareg nation o azawad would therefore lead to insurgencies in all this said countries, that is the reason why this tuareg insurgency in mali threatens the uranium supply of france.

      The french company areva for example gets much uranium from niger and tschad, both countries with tuaregs and a low level insurgency which are neighbouring mali. A souveren azawad state would increase this insurgencies surley very much. And around 70% of the uranium comes alone from the niger for example:


      The insurgeny there is smoldering since 2013 and is direcly linked to islamist/tuareg groups in mali:


    9. It's widely known that those rankings are utterly flawed. It' an accounting impossibility that Germany is that poor relative to other European countries. They badly failed in their methodology.

      The uranium case as you present it now is still implausible. France can easily replace those sources. The Sahel zones makes up less than 10% of world uranium production, and France has plenty convertible currency to buy from other countries.

      The export value of Niger's uranium is only about USD 300 million per year.
      The French politicians would be first degree economics idiots if that supply was their rationale.

      The conflicts in the Sahel zone are an amalgam of desertification due to overgrazing and possibly climate change (at least droughts), borders not reflecting the nomadic Muslims in North and farming Christians/animists in South divide, the siting of popular majorities and capitals in the South with resulting political neglect of the North and finally a little bit of influx of men from Arab civil war countries.

      France can stabilise the South-dominated governments as it did since the 80's, so those governments regain the ability to suppress/oppress the North until the Muslim Northerners were forced by economics to migrate into the Southern cities and become an irrelevant minority there.
      French pols are doing this to preserve the ancien régime of the colonial borders, not for some 6% or world uranium supply. Those 6% could be replaced without a major uptick in prices (and it's pretty certain that North-dominated regimes would want to sell their cash cow uranium as well).

    10. North-dominated regimes would be not stable enough and would not have the skills/abilities to exploit the uranium in the same way, they would be mainly "failed states" and very similiar in this aspect to lybia and the oil production there because of tribal structures and tribal differences (because they would be tribal societies).

      By the way, this 6% cannot be replaced easily from the deposits of other countries and this 6% deliever at least 70% of the french consumption. If you take 10% of the uranium worldwide out of the market the prices would increase heavily and they are so cheap for france as you wrote only because france gives military assistance to the southern regimes there and has therefore such a strong influence there. The prices on the world market would be much higher.

      So Areva the french mega-con could not buy such cheap uranium if the sahel could not be exploited in the way it is.

    11. Look, you're talking economics here. This means one can do homework before believing things.
      Homework such as looking up how tiny the contribution of uranium ore costs to nuclear power electricity costs really is.
      Like 0.0017 €/kWh. The urnaium's share of the electricity price is only about 1% of the sales price of electricity.

      Again; the French politicians would be first degree economics idiots if [Uranium] supply was their rationale [behind intervention in Sahel zone].

    12. BTW, this really reminds me of the "there's oil close to the Falklands islands" nonsense.

      It's as if people were easily triggered to support military action if one just makes up a natural resources argument in favour of it. Maybe it's hardcoded into our hunter-gatherer minds that fighting over some green valley full of game is always worth it?

    13. The even so called "uranium-gate" affair should show you otherwise - that mega-cons like areva has substantial influence and you underestimate 1: how stupid politicans are and 2: how big the influence of energy sector cons is in politics.

      By the way: 1% of the electricity price sounds not much (the same false argument as in your post above how much the percentage of uranium is from the sahel area in comparison to the worldwide overall).

      But lets take this 1%: France needs around 7000 kw per person and has ca 67 mio inhabitans which means: 469000000000 kw/h and you now claim 0,0017 Euro per kw we have as an result: 797 300 000 Euro.

      This 1 % according to your own letters is nearly 800 Million Euros.

      Lets now assume france must buy its uranium from the world market which prices are much higher this could easily increase the costs for the energy sector companies by hundreds of millions of euros.

      For the gouvernment the costs of the wars there are perhaps higher, but for the mega-cons this does not matter. Only the profit of the con matters.

      Moreover france would become very dependent on other countries which france could not control in the same way, for example for kazhakstan and russia is influental in kazakhstan - and so on. Everywhere dependencies and disadvantages. Better to dig it for yourself and have control over a constant flow of uranium.

      If you not longer dig uranium in the sahel area, simply mega-cons like areva could get into serious trouble, could even get bancrupt. And the influence of such a big con is tremendous.

      PS: all (french) politicans are not economic idiots, but there only interest is self-interest. They know about the cohersions but it does not interest them if it is useful for the people of france or not.

      The only question for all (french) politicans is: is it useful for me. For example in getting a job at the mega-con after quitting in politics etc

      But to add reasons:

      if you do not control the sahel area, the smuggling of drugs (from south/middle america via western afrika - through the sahel into europe would increase and also would islamistic groups get more and more control and power and would control the natural ressources and all smuggling routes and moreover more refugees would come to europe etc

      So there are reasons to intervene in the sahel area - and you have costs for a military anyway - so it is better to use it because otherwise this costs would be wasted.

      Super simple summary: not for and by the people, but for and by the mega-cons, which influence the politicans - in the interest and for the profit of the cons regardless how much this costs the tax-payer.

    14. Operation Serval was already expensive back in 2013:
      There's no way how France's Sahel intervention can be rooted in national interest economics.
      I don't think I underestimate politicians' stupidity. I suppose their preferences are way off the general interest and there's insufficient oversight to keep them on the right track. I think we agree there.

      The smuggling argument of yours is bollocks IMO. Developing countries' law enforcement typically is too corrupt to interdict such smuggling anyway.

  2. You mentioned some time ago that barbarism could come back into international relations and warfare. From history we know that warfare existed that was directed at obtaining loot and captives, often captives with valuable skills. Our current mode of war is a development from colonial warfare that was about the administration of a population for greater longterm benefits. A more short term benefit approach could reemerge as alternate power centers and world views rise. The existence of professional militaries for such purposes is also possible, turning it presumably into a self-financing industry. ISIS pioneered in this regard as they went beyond the usual economic base via narcotics. I don't morally endorse their acts, but it was a viable strategy to maximize short term gains. Extrapolating such a hypothetical, would an invasion withextortion, enslavement and looting have been as costly as Iraq and Afghanistan were for the US? When there's a more cost effective way to do things, it is likely that it will be done at some point in the future. And it's possible that such acts will be commited by people with whom we have little moral common ground.
    It's however also true that military power always has been a way for conspicious consumption and to reenforce the trust in the social network that forms the political entity. So warfare usually wasn't a pure mercantile cost-benefit analysis.

    1. There are vastly more cost-efficient ways of meddling in wars than the West (or Russia) uses, but they're incompatible with our institutions and expectations. These mroe cost-efficient ways have been known for decades, and the institutional forces are so powerful they suppress these alternatives reliably.

      There's still - even with reduced costs - little to no reason to expect a net benefit.

      I wrote "post-1913" in the previous reply because of the Balkans Wars where vast and lasting territorial gains were made in short wars against the Ottoman Empire. That's the last example where a net benefit seems reasonable under certain assumptions.