From Total Industrial to Limited War: An Outtake from "Slouching Towards Utopia?: An Economic History of the Long Twentieth Century 1870-2016"
Total Industrial War
A total industrial war sees a state taking control of an economy and society via bureaucracy, mobilizing most young and some old men into its armed forces, and then hurling as much as it can of men, metal, and nitrogen-based explosives at an enemy so using up more than half of society’s productive potential in works of destruction. What is the point? The first aim is to keep the adversary from doing the same to you. The next aim varies: to establish for Germany a proper place in the sun and control of enough land and resources to support a very large and prosperous population; to establish for Japan an empire—a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere—like those European powers had established in the 1800s; to end Hitler’s régime; to reform Germany’s politics and somehow transform it into a peaceful democracy; to end all wars; to keep imperial Germany from turning Russia into a puppet semi-colony; to end the encirclement of Germany by a hostile Russia and a hostile France; to demonstrate that Austria-Hungary can destroy Serbia in retaliation for its state-sponsored assassination of Austria-Hungary’s crown prince; to preserve the balance of power on the European continent; to demonstrate that one’s treaty promises are credible by preserving the independence and neutrality of Belgium as guaranteed by the provisions of the 1839 Treaty of London; to preserve the Union that is the United States of America; to end slavery on the North American continent; “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
Some of these secondary war aims are worth five years of death, destruction, temporary mass poverty, and strict rationing. Most are not.
And even total industrial wars were, historically, limited. Nobody in World War II wanted to use poison gas, even though its use would have been useful in a narrow military sense to one side (but which side?) at the cost of much greater civilian death. Civilian populations were not routinely exterminated as armies advanced—except sometimes (often?) by the German Nazis on the eastern front. Civilian populations were not routinely treated as the inhabitants of cities taken by storm had been treated in earlier wars, as the conquering soldiers than killed, raped, and looted the civilians inside for up to 72 hours—except during the 1945 Russian march through eastern Germany. Military operations could not have their primary aim be the killing of civilians who happened to be located near military targets—unless those civilians were in Japan and underneath General Curtis LeMay’s B-29s, or unless those civilians were in Germany and the British and American high commands were desperate to get some of the Nazi artillery barrels removed from the eastern front where they were firing at Russian soldiers, and by killing enough German civilians they could get some of them moved back into Germany and firing upwards.
We are unlikely to have another total industrial war—especially not now that we have nuclear weapons. What war aim could possibly be worth it—especially given that a war aim worth total industrial mobilization would run the risk of the losing side resorting to its nukes? Miscalculation, followed by nuclear retaliation in revenge, is the only form anything like a total war could take.
In a total industrial war you mobilize everything you can, destroy your adversary’s forces that can threaten your forces, destroy your adversary’s forces that can threaten your police, and then use your police to rule the territory and the people— ensuring that civilians behave as you wish them to behave and not as your adversary wishes them to behave. Perhaps you then negotiate a political settlement, on pain of reimposing rule by your police if the settlement is not kept satisfactory. Perhaps you negotiate a peace before victory (or defeat) is attained—but probably not, for one of the political costs of mobilization for total war is that defeat or even the absence of victory is likely to lead to the permanent downfall of the régime.
In a limited war the end is still the same: governing territory—or rather people—with police or the threat of police ensuring that civilians behave as you wish them to behave and not as your adversary wishes them to behave. But the means are different: rather than focusing first on destroying the adversary’s military forces, combat can and does occur at a number of levels at once: (1) degrading your adversary’s police capabilities, and thus degrading their ability to govern; (2) degrading your adversary’s forces that can degrade your own police; (3) attritting your adversary’s forces proper. And then there are the higher levels: (4) degrading your adversary’s capability of obtaining additional forces without total mobilization; (5) degrading your adversary’s perception that anything other than your desired end is possible. And all this must be accomplished: (6) without inducing your adversary to escalate the conflict to the “total war” level where the game is not worth the candle (which is made easier by the fact that, certainly in the nuclear age, the only way to win the game of total war is not to play); and (7) without making your adversary so angry that their calculations of risk and reward, of prudence, and of costs and benefits go out the window, and they launch against you a crusade.
When one steps down from the total war to the limited war level, then, war becomes, as somebody-or-other once said: “the continuation of politics by other means”. And the largest such fought by the U.S. after World War II was the Korean War “police action”.
There Was Not Supposed to Be a Cold War
There was not supposed to be a Korean War. In fact, there was not even supposed to be a Cold War.
Marxist theory—at least that branch of Marxist theory that became the cultic revealed religion guiding at least the official pronouncements of the governments ruling from behind Stalin and Mao’s Iron and Bamboo Curtains—was very clear on what was to come. Capitalism, in Lenin’s view, needed imperialism. Imperialism produced militarization with its enormous demand for weapons and colonies that offered captive markets. These were essential to preserve near-full employment, and so stave off the catastrophic economic crises—like the Great Depression—that would otherwise produce communist revolution. But imperalism also produced war. Thus capitalism was staving off revolution from economic catastrophe by courting revolution through political-military catastrophe.
As Lenin’s successors saw it, the capitalist-imperialist powers had successfully delayed revolution from the late 1890s though imperialism and militarism, but had then fallen into the catastrophe of World War I. And that brought Lenin to power in Russia, and the creation of the first really existing socialist country—or, rather, union of countries: the U.S.S.R. was a “union” of “republics” that were “socialist” and also “soviet”—that is, power was held by workers’ councils. In theory. Practice is always complicated. But that was as far as the revolution managed to march in the aftermath of World War I.
As Lenin’s successors saw it, the capitalists had then after World War I concluded that parliamentary democracy and representative institutions were no longer compatible with their continued rule, hence they swung their support behind fascists: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain, Petain in France, Tojo in Japan. But this did not remove the need for imperialism and militarism, but rather sharpened it. The second great imperialist war, World War II, had been worse than the first. That had led to the really existing socialist world’s expansion to the Elbe and the Adriatic—although not before Hitler’s legions had nearly destroyed the Soviet Union.
As Lenin’s successors saw it, after the post-WWII consolidation, they had five tasks:
Build up militarily to defend the territories of really existing socialism, because the fascist-militarist-capitalists might well try once again to destroy world socialism militarily—there were American generals who had wanted to start World War III the day after World War II had ended, there was at least one ex-president who thought that the U.S. had fought on the wrong side in World War II, and the U.S. had advanced scientific weapons of unbearable power.
Extend the really existing socialist order to the new territories.
Build up economically to create truly human societies, both to realize the promise of socialism and to demonstrate to peoples in the capitalist world how good life could be.\
Stand ready to assist socialist movements in capitalist countries when they decided they were strong enough to attempt a revolution.
Stalin, however, had exhibited a taste for snatching up territory when he thought it could be taken cheaply—starting with the suppression of the Mensheviks in Georgia at the end of the Russian Civil War. After World War II Stalin had curbed his appetite. He did not impose a communist government on Finland, but let it remain democratic as long as it was disarmed and joined no potentially anti-Soviet alliances—and as long as its government was riddled with Soviet agents. He cut off support to the communist party in Greece—largely. He counseled Mao to join a coalition with Chiang Kai-shek (the Cantonese romanization of Jiang Jieshi) and wait.
But in 1948 Stalin could not resist snatching up Czechslovakia in a coupe d’etat. And Mao ignored Stalin, defeated Chiang Kai-shek, and chased him and his Guomindang to Taiwan. But in 1948 Stalin could not resist snatching up Czechslovakia in a coupe d’etat. And Mao ignored Stalin, defeated Chiang Kai-shek, and chased him and his Guomindang to Taiwan. A Cold War had begun. But U.S. plans to wage it seriously—boosting defense spending to 10% of national income and deploying U.S. armies as tripwires and more-than-tripwires all across the globe—remained planners’ fantasies, until the Korean War.
And no doubt Stalin heard whispers that he was being overly cautious, and had lost his nerve as a result of the shocks of World War II.
The Korean War
In 1950 the strongman Kim Il Sung, whom Stalin had installed in North Korea at the end of World War II when the Russians occupied the north off the country above and the Americans occupied the south below the 38th parallel, begged him for tanks and support to take over the south. There were then no U.S. garrisons in the south. The U.S. had declined to send troops to support Chiang Kai-shek—it had sent weapons, but had stopped when it realized that the most effective way to arm Mao’s People’s Liberation Army was to ship weapons of the Guomindang. U.S. strategic thinking was that in Asia it should use air and sea rather than land power as its weapons. And the U.S. was for decolonization—the British out of India, the Dutch out of Indonesia. While the U.S. was happy to provide logistical support to the French war against the communist Vietminh in southeast Asia, it wanted the French to promise independence rather than further colonial rule as the endpoint.
In the summer of 1950 Stalin let slip the dog of war that was Kim Il Sung and his Soviet-trained and supplied army. And the Korean War began, as the U.S. surprised Kim Jong Il, Stalin, Mao—and itself—by rallying the United Nations to send an army largely provided by the United States to defend South Korea.
Fighting raged all across the Korean peninsula, from near the Yalu River in the north to the port of Pusan in the south. South Koreans and North Koreans fought on land; Americans fought on land, in the sea, and in the air; Chinese fought on land; Russians fought in the air (with 350 planes shot down). In three years, about a million Korean civilians died, perhaps 400000 South Koreans were abducted from their homes and taken to North Korea, and the military dead and missing were, roughly: 500000 Chinese, 300000 North Koreans, 150000 South Koreans, 50000 Americans, 1000 British, 1000 Turkish, 500 Canadian, 400 Australian, 300 Russian, 250 French, 200 Greek, 150 Columbian, 130 Thai, 120 Ethiopian, 120 Dutch, 100 Belgian, 90 Filipino, 30 South African, 30 New Zealand, 3 Norwegian, 2 Luxembourgese, and 1 Indian soldier. The U.S. Air Force dropped half a million tons of bombs during the war—that is 40 pounds of bomb for every North Korean then alive.
The United States did not use its nuclear weapons—it was a war, but it was a limited war. U.S. theater of operations commander Douglas MacArthur asked for their use at the end of 1950 when Chinese People’s Liberation Army attacks forced the United Nations’ army to retreat from near the Yalu River back to south of Seoul. The Pentagon and U.S. President Harry Truman refused. Starting in March 1951, with the battlefront stabilized near the 38th parallel that had divided North and South Korea before the war, the Pentagon and Truman began to seek a ceasefire and a return to the status quo ante bellum—to the state of things before the war—leaving neither victor nor vanquished.
Yet the war dragged on for two more years. And the casualties mounted: military comm https://www.britannica.com/event/Korean-War/North-to-the-Yalu anders on both sides thought that leverage at the peace table was to be gained by attritting their adversary’s forces and depriving them of jumping-off points in case the war was widened. Key, in the minds of United Nations commanders Matthew Ridgway and James van Fleet, was the “Iron Triangle” about 100 square miles in area, near the 38th parallel, running from Pyonggang in the north to Kimhwa in the east to Chorwon in the west.
The ultimate sticking point in the negotiations, however, was the status of prisoners of war. The Chinese and North Koreans wanted all prisoners of war returned to their countries of origin. The United Nations and the South Koreans wanted to keep prisoners of war who wished not to return from being forced to do so. On March 5, 1953, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin died of a stroke. Stalin’s heirs decided that the Korean War was pointless and should end. Mao’s negotiators accepted the United Nations’s prisoner-of-war position. 10000 of 15000 Chinese prisoners of war decided not to return to China 5000 or 70000 North Korean prisoners of war decided not to return to North Korea. 327 South Korean prisoners of war decided to stay in North Korea, as did 21 Americans and 1 Briton. 18 of the 22 eventually returned to the western bloc. However 8000 missing from the United Nations forces (and 80000 missing from the South Korean forces) remained unaccounted for. Most of them surely died in battle, but…
And so the current state of things—with North Korea under the autocratic rule of the current Kim dynasty which has presided over the worst famine of the post-World War II period, and with South Korea independent and now a rich industrial power and a democracy—began.
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