Has the Human Cost of War Gotten Too Low?

File this under “counterintuitive things economists say.”

Has the cost of war gotten too low?  The United States has been at war for almost my whole life.  I was born in 1989.  In 1991, on my birthday, the Operation Desert Storm began.  Throughout the 90’s, the US was launching strikes on Iraq, Bosnia, and Africa.  In 2001, we invaded and occupied Afghanistan.  In 2003, we invaded and occupied Iraq.  In the 2010’s, we attacked Lybia, Yemen, multiple places in Africa, and now Syria.  I’m nearly 30 and the US has been at war in some capacity almost every year.

Last night (EDT), the US and allies launched a missile strike on Syria.  The French put out a video of the strikes presumably from a French warship (it’s the second video in the link.  I can’t link directly to the video because technology is hard).  What I notice in the video is computer screens.  Lots and lots of computer screens.  The launches are being made many miles from their targets.  To the extent the people attacking see their targets, it’s from drones.  They face no immediate danger nor immediate feedback of the carnage they wrought.  Just like when we watch an action movie and we don’t smell the horrors of the battlefield, neither do they.

US and Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said: “It is good war is so terrible, lest we grow fond of it.”  The burden of war was once shared by both sides.  On the battlefields of the Civil War, the World Wars, the Far East, the soldiers had to combat each other face to face.  Wave after wave of men crashed into each other in Fredericksburg.  The mud and creeks of Antietam flowed red with blood.  The soldiers of Normandy had to scale walls and engage in hand-to-hand combat.  There was a major human cost to war and the military leaders (with exceptions) were cautious about going to war.

But war has become less terrible.  We can strike at an enemy from the comfort of our beds.  Much of modern war is played like a video game.  This, in turn, reduces the cost of war; the aggressor no longer feels the pain if he can attack from thousands of miles away.  The comfort of the politician to wage war from the safety of his capital is now enjoyed by the soldier, too.  Yes, this means (initially) fewer deaths of servicemen, but will it also lead to more war?  If the US had to actually invade Syria, not be able to rely on missiles, would have the strike happened?  Will the use of drones, of long-range bombers, of other technological killers, create a perpetual war by reducing the human costs?  I suspect so.

So, let me ask the unpopular question: are wars too safe?

3 thoughts on “Has the Human Cost of War Gotten Too Low?

  1. “So, let me ask the unpopular question: are wars too safe?”

    Yes, but many things are safer and easier now than in the past, and there’s probably no way to separate the good results and the bad results from that fact. I’m viewing the world through 62-year-old eyes, but I find your viewpoints through younger eyes both interesting and valuable.

    It’s going to be up to you guys to shape the world you want to live in; however, i can’t fathom the technology that allow safer wars going backwards. Maybe that’s where negotiations with adversaries will prove helpful (some of that process will likely include tariffs and sanctions — it’s a tradeoff). Is it possible technology that brings easier death can also improve negotiations somehow and cancel out some of the technology casualties?

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    • I agree 100% Walt. It’s not clear one way or the other if the trade-off is worth it or not. My brother is in the military. I’m glad he’s safe. But what if the technology makes war more common? It’s a conundrum.


  2. I’ve commented elsewhere on the Star Trek episode, “A Taste of Armageddon”.
    Two planets have been at war with each other for centuries. Attacks are made, and casualties inflicted. However, the crew of the Enterprise can’t detect any signs of attacks. There’s no wreckage, no radiation, no sign of the damage actual attacks would cause.

    It turns out the wars are being fought in computer simulations. An attack is made by computer, and the computers determine whether the attack succeeds and what the casualties are. People who are marked as casualties then report to disintegration chambers to be painlessly killed.

    Well, Captain Kirk puts a stop to that, destroying the computer controlling the war on one planet’s side.

    Since this planet is about to default in its obligations to fulfill its part in the virtual war, we now have the threat of real war breaking out. And real wars are messy. The prospect of a real war, with real bombs, real damage, and people dying in painful and messy ways scares the administration s#!tless.

    Fortunately, the Enterprise just happens to have an ambassador on board who can help negotiate a real peace.

    The point is, this war had become too cheap, too clean, and too painless. There was no real incentive for the leaders to end it. It took the threat of real pain to bring it to a stop.


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