War. Give up, go all out, or something in between

Just pick up after this stuff fromthis thread:

Historically, most wars are “something in between”. I don’t think the world would be a better place if every conflict was escalated to a total war. Conversely, as terrible as war is, I’m not ready to proclaim total pacificsm–sometimes groups of people do bad things, and other groups of people have to forcefully defend themselves.

To pick a concrete historical example, in the Korean War, North Korea invaded the South. We could have given up (done nothing). While the Korean War is not historically very popular (I think in a lot of people’s minds it kind of gets lumped in with Vietnam as one of those “post-World War II land wars in Asia against the Communists that we failed to win”), I think a very good case can be made that it was worth it for the U.S. and its allies to defend South Korea and repel the invasion–South Korea is now (and has been for some years) a free, democratic, and prosperous country; North Korea is one of the worst hellholes on Earth.

What we actually did was more or less “go all out”–after the North had overrun almost all of the South, we not only kicked the Communists back up to their half of the peninsula, but we overran practically all of North Korea. The logic and morality of this is understandable enough–the North had started the war, plus they were a bunch of damned dirty Communists, and the South was free and democr…OK, the South was anti-communist (and as it turns out would, some day, become free and democratic). And we were just a few years after World War II, one of the greatest examples of “going all out” in history, fought against a bunch of evil totalitarian regimes, so at the time it probably seemed natural that the war should end with victorious G.I.s triumphantly liberating the North. Certainly I think the North Korean people would have been a hell of a lot better off if we could have completely toppled the North Korean regime.

But with the benefit of hindsight, going all out didn’t work very well–after we overran almost all of the North, Communist China came in and kicked us most of the way back down the peninsula; the Allies fought their way back up to roughly the same border as had existed between the Koreas before the war, things stalemated for a while (while people contined to die) until eventually they called a truce. If we had simply stopped at the 38th parallel or somewhere in that vicinity to begin with, we would have gotten exactly what we pretty much wound up getting anyway, but fewer people would have died.

Of course there were hardliners who wanted to double down even more, and invade Manchuria, even use nuclear weopons–I suppose from there we could have “gone all out” against the People’s Republic of China, and then the USSR. Personally, while I think it’s a good thing that South Korea is now a free and democratic and prosperous country, I’m just as glad we didn’t fight World War III before I was even born.

You’re using a false starting point. ‘Give up’ is not a method of fighting a war, it is a way of ending one. ‘Go all out’ isn’t a useful end point either for that matter. Total war reached its logical conclusion with mutually assured destruction with the result of the annihilation of all belligerents. Not a particularly useful outcome to a war.

Total war isn’t useful or really applicable in a lot of circumstances. How would waging total war be useful of applicable in Iraq or Afghanistan? What would a general mobilization of the US population and economy result in other than a huge drain on the economy? Where are the targets upon which to unleash nuclear hellfire?

Where total war is applicable, it is now nothing but a means of national suicide, not a method to winning a war. Had the US prosecuted Vietnam as a total war, the end result would have been a strategic nuclear exchange between the USSR/China and the US. How would that have been a useful outcome for either side?

I think “all out” only makes sense when the end result of losing the war is destruction of your country’s way of life, and you are keen on preserving that way of life.

In the last 60 years there hasn’t been a war (for the US) that threatened our existence, so there is no reason to go “all out” in Vietnam, or Iraq, or Korea, even though we did put a lot into those, they didn’t remotely resemble the effort that went into WWII.

Countries that face a major regime change via war have frequently been ruled by dictatorships, or the like, and the regular folks (and army) may not be quite as keen to preserve (i.e. die in service of) their current way of life.

Part of the problem with the idea of total war is that many, perhaps most wars are in essence just muggings writ large. Country A wants something from Country B, and Country B doesn’t want to give it up. Total war means that Country A will spend a disproportionate amount of resources to conquer a pile of wreckage; even if it’s after raw resources and not industry, the extraction industry and workers will be dispersed or destroyed. It’s not like the past, where most wealth was either arable land or precious goods you could just stick in bags and haul off.

In other words, it’s like a mugger robbing you by blasting you with a flamethrower or RPG. Sure he wins, but there isn’t a whole lot left for him to take off of you.