The impact of the ‘long peace’ on modern military capabilities

gabythenerd | 268 points

> What is – quietly, because they haven’t tried to launch a major invasion recently – most militaries are probably similarly incapable of the basic tasks of industrial warfare?

I once read an article that argued in the absence of war, it's impossible to tell if a doctrine or commander is good or not.

Maybe you've got five officers up for promotion. One officer wants to give soldiers high-tech equipment, a heads-up display in every helmet and a grenade-dropping drone in every backpack.

One officer wants to train loads of soldiers as linguists, so they can win hearts and minds in any country they might occupy.

One officer wants to focus on PR at home, as maintaining a steady supply of cash and adventurous young men is key to winning any conflict.

One officer wants to cut bureaucracy and red tape, as every individual in a support function is someone not in a front-line function, and it's front line fighters that win battles.

One officer thinks the important thing is physical conditioning and classic soldiering - Marching, marksmanship, long hikes carrying heavy backpacks.

How do you decide who to promote, if it's 30 years since you were last at war and none of them has ever won a real battle?

michaelt | a year ago

This stuff about the world being peaceful due to the industrial revolution doesn't make a lot of sense to me. For one thing, the IR significantly predated WW1 and WW2. It didn't prevent those, so how'd it cause the "long peace" afterwards? The predominant theory about this in international relations is hegemonic stability theory - - there have been several periods throughout history that were relatively peaceful because an exceptionally strong nation state decided to step up and enforce a peace. Considering that the US was half of global GDP at the end of WW2 and has long been more than happy to sanction anyone who conducts in an (unapproved) war (such as Russia right now), the modern era of "long peace" fits this theory pretty well.

safety1st | a year ago

I thought I recognized the site. This the same author who wrote very detailed analysis of the Siege of Gondor and the Battle of Helms Deep from LOTR as well as articles about military and political topics from Game of Thrones, and many real-world historical topics. They're a military historian IRL and have a lot of content worth reading:

Merad | a year ago

The long post-war era of peace is due to a number of factors, but the one we don't talk about enough is that the U.S. spent untold trillions of dollars becoming a global police force. This may be the biggest factor. I believe it is certainly the prerequisite for any others to have had an effect.

The problem is that the U.S. has a tiger by the tail: if they want to continue in this role, they'll need to step up spending to cold war levels to have a chance of taking on China. This has a tremendous cost, culturally and economically.

If they don't, we'll see (as we are seeing) increased global disorder and rearmament by, for example, European and Asian powers. This will likely lead to more wars in the future.

One thing I am certain of: humans didn't just spontaneously become peaceful after WWII. Some energy is being expended to maintain what passes for global peace, and that energy will have to continue being expended for any conceivable time scale.

karaterobot | a year ago

The first time I heard Eric Weinstein call for periodic above ground nuclear weapons demonstrations[1], I thought it was nuts. That's because I grew up with the threat of the H-Bomb[2] and the impending nightmares that I've had ever since (though thankfully they are infrequent these days).

Seeing how casually people dismiss the possible effects of a war involving 10,000 of these weapons has caused me to re-evaluate things.

We should have am internationally sanctioned thermonuclear weapons demo every few years, at least once per decade, but less than annually. To remind everyone what's at stake.



mikewarot | a year ago

A lot of cogent analysis here, but I’m surprised the author doesn’t seem to know about the economic and political forms of warfare which the US has been pursuing as a cheaper alternative to conventional war.

To use Venezuela as an example, the author says no one has tried to invade it (which is actually not even true, see below) but also the US has been imposing crippling sanctions for over 15 years in an attempt to punish the people and weaken the government.

Moreover there was a US supported coup attempt in 2002 and one basically cooked up entirely by the US in 2020 (Operation Gideon). This was a plan to actually invade the country by boat with a small force to try to take control of the government.

This is part of a pattern of behavior for the US in the 20th century. The book Washington Bullets does a good job cataloguing the various interventions of this form.

ihm | a year ago

I think that Globalization has increased the costs of war. You don't want to attack your suppliers. I also think that China is probably a paper tiger on offense but they are trying not to look like an easy target on defense. Most of their recent battles have been fist fights in the Himalayas.

Deglobalization is an attempt to make war feasible because some strong countries feel like they are losing economic war and want to fall back on real war.

newuser94303 | a year ago

Another possibility for the period of relatively long peace is the modern equivalent of The Pax Romana. For reference Pax Romana, describes a 200-year era in the Roman Empire from 27 B.C.E. to 180 C.E. This timeframe marked a significant phase of peace and remarkable economic growth achieved through hegemony. The US has the biggest economy and the largest military spending by far.

JacobiX | a year ago

> I’ve discussed this before a few times, but I think Azar Gat is probably right to suggest that the long peace is itself a consequence of the changing incentives created by the industrial revolution and to an even greater extent, by nuclear weapons. Prior to the industrial revolution, war was the best way to get rich (if you won) because land and conquered subjects were so much more valuable than any kind of capital investment (infrastructure, manufacture, tools, etc.) that could have been developed with the same resources. The industrial revolution changes this, both by making war a lot more destructive (thus lowering returns to successful warfare)1 while at the same time massively raising returns to capital investment in things like infrastructure, factories and tractors. It suddenly made more sense, if you coveted your neighbors resources, to build more factories and buy those resources than to try to seize them by force. Nuclear weapons in turn took this same effect and ratcheted it up even further, by effectively making the cost of total war infinite.

I’m getting such Beltway Think Tank vibes for some reason.

avgcorrection | a year ago

Its not the main point of the article, but it made me wonder if finance is the new way “war” (predatory struggle for ownership & control) is waged in today’s world

droopyEyelids | a year ago

> But in a world where most invasions are – or at least ought to be – self-deterring, for countries that do not have revanchist neighbors who might launch a stupid war of conquest out of pique

Seems a bit dismissive about the degree of revanchism in many former empires (or among people who imagine themselves the descendants of those empires).

Turkey, Iran, China, and Russia at the very least are all waiting for or working towards a world where territorial acquisition by conquest is the norm.

iskander | a year ago

Nassim Taleb's critique of the "long peace":

"We investigate the theses of “long peace” and drop in violence and find that these are statistically invalid and resulting from flawed and naive methodologies, ..."

Our technology is smarter than our politics. We will be lucky if we don't blow up everything.

hackandthink | a year ago

I suspect things may be a tad simpler than discussed in this essay, even when most of it is compelling and rings true.

I want to highlight that the main difference in my opinion is, and always was, that of attacking versus defending. Attacking is more often a clusterfuck of complexity and a constant process of messing up as opposed to defending a territory. When attacking you must have that critical 3:1 or 5:1 ratio in all aspects of employing your force, and it’s expected that mistakes will be made, losses will accrue and even grander failures will abound along the way. I would claim that even the Russians eventually adapt, albeit rather slowly, and so does anyone else. It’s about morale, motivation and will, and here it is likely that defenders have an upper hand.

In short, when attacking, be ready for a hell of a suffering in almost any case, except for when you have a hundredfold superiority in all facets of warfare, or alternatively, if you have stellar intelligence capabilities and the benefit of surprise when your enemy least expects it. And I’m not even talking about maintaining order after you’ve conquered a territory…

iamsanteri | a year ago

I'm surprised to hear the author state that war is more destructive than in the past. Is that actually true? Certainly we are more capable of destruction than in the past, but modern millitaries have put a lot of effort into being less broadly destructive, unless they specifically intend to broadly destroy things. Photos of bombed-out cities in Syria are jarring, but even the worst devastation there doesn't look as bad as what we saw in WWII, WWI, or even the American Civil War. When is the last time a city was "sacked" or a countryside "pillaged"? When is the last time an entire city population was executed? If anything, it seems like war is much less destructive than it used to be, because weaponry and tactics are much more precise than they used to be.

nerdponx | a year ago

My only quibble with this article: it fails to apply its own conclusions to the US. The balance of evidence (Pentagon procurement processes and cost overruns of major projects) shows the US military too has a significant paper component.

akkartik | a year ago

Pinker's "long peace" theory with respect to global conflict is likely bad statistics - 20th-21st century under US military hegemony had a comparable if not higher number of conflicts, see Max Roser’s work documenting global conflicts over the past 600 years. What has changed is that war now is generally shorter and less deadly especially towards combatants, but that's more reflective of the pace of modern war enabled by modern weapons. High intensity wars don't last for 20+ years anymore because you can pretty much destroy nations in 1-5, and belligerents are quicker to exhaust and forced to settle. In aggregate war fatalities is down, but not # of conflicts. US hegemony didn't stop USSR and RU from warring in their periphery, nor PRC border skirmishes pre 90s when US had vast more naval power asymmetry. When countries want to fight for their interests, especially regional, they still do.

Ultimately, US military dominance is good for US+LIO interests / serenity, but hard to extrapolate anything more. IMO multipolarity will increase the chance of "smaller" conflicts as poles assert their own interests for sure, but it's going to be around the baseline of conflicts that's consistently been simmering throughout history. The fear is increasing large-scale conflict between poles/blocks - ending the cyclic gap between major wars among major powers - but that's what happens when declining hegemon pushes their interests to the exclusion of others too intensely for too long.

dirtyid | a year ago

In the Ukraine conflict, I was surprised that the military is more reasonable than the politicians.

(Vad and Kujat in Germany, Milley in USA).

Who want's to fight? It doesn't seem to be the military.

hackandthink | a year ago

Still, reading, but I'm looking forward to this. I've read a lot of the author's other posts about things like military organization in LOTR and theory of history in Crusader Kings. I typically find the tone to be careful and nuanced but also engaging. I am likely unqualified to really determine the merits of a given argument in this article, but I feel confident I can trust the author to present them fairly.

digging | a year ago

A book-length critique of the idea that the "long peace" means that the world in general has gotten more peaceful: Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age by Bear F. Braumoeller[0].

I came across the book recently, and it argues that we won't be able to statistically tell if the world is in fact getting more peaceful for about a century. The incidence of war as well as the number of dead doesn't seem to have appreciably decreased on average for the past two centuries, on a worldwide scale. It's true that there hasn't been a war as destructive as World War I and II since then (although the Iran-Iraq war rivals those in terms of number of deaths divided by the population of the combatant nations), but there's no particular reason to conclude that wars that kill so many people won't happen again.

It was quite convincing and sobering to me.


telotortium | a year ago

"Normally, when I say this is something that has happened, I find I encounter a great deal of incredulity among the general public."

No, not just the general public; the 'long peace' is a hotly contested idea amongst academic and professional circles too. And, it's arguably a rather large amount of hand-wavey bullshit trying to paint certain nation states in a particular light and narrowly define 'war', 'peace', and 'violence'.

jamesgill | a year ago

I am curious for one if the long peace is passing the test of time in the last two years.

Not only the Russia-Ukraine war is threatening to spiral out, but also there has been a very bloody war in Ethiopia. We are not at WWII levels of warfare, obviously, but I wonder where we are compared to the '80s or the '50s

sharikous | a year ago

>> " What is [sic] – quietly, because they haven’t tried to launch a major invasion recently – most militaries are probably similarly incapable of the basic tasks of industrial warfare?"

This premise is delusional. The Russian military may have degraded, but the war in Ukraine shows clearly that the only aspect of warfare that has significantly changed since WWII is the vastly increased efficiency in targeting weapons payloads. Which can be unwound at any moment when smart munitions run thin. The idea that today's conscripts are less willing to fight than those in 1940 is ludicrous. Neither wanted to fight and both were ignorant blobs / yobs.

The long peace has been sustained only by mutually assured destruction. That construct has not been slowly undermined by any determined wish for unity contrary to it on the part of the people living under the regimes which are yoked into that system. There is every indication that disrupting that system would lead to one party or another committing a nuclear holocaust, so therefore the balance of terror (including Putin's repression of Russians) must be preserved at all costs.

noduerme | a year ago

> Experience needs to be retained and institutionalized. Capable leaders need to be promoted and incapable but politically influential leaders sidelined.

Also applies to government, business, and academia.

GartzenDeHaes | a year ago

The important to note imo is the length of the period:80. A 17 year old 80 years ago is 97. The last of the generation that were alive during WW2 are dying. Putin himself grew up in the shadow of his brother who died in WW2.

Those that knew war, kept peace. But now, especially with gen-z, there is less alarm and awareness of war. All the tech and military advancement mean war would be even more horrific and cruel but also as you can see in ukraine the usage of drones and remore controlled artillery is reshaping war.

Keep in mind, the rules of war only apply to the loser. The wars most western people alive today are familiar with are fought in remote countries and between soldiers. If your homeland was threatened most of your people will support breaking every rule of war.

badrabbit | a year ago

I have no idea whether this person knows what they're talking about, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading that.

wly_cdgr | a year ago

> because it no longer makes economic sense to do so. The value of the oil and other resources would be less than the cost of maintaining control of the country

That's always been the case. People used to just murder or enslave the populations they conquered.

While you can get away with mass genocide and slavery internally, it has gotten far riskier to attempt such a thing against a neighboring state. It'll also destroy your status as a leader, when previously a violent conquest was often viewed as "glorious".

nitwit005 | a year ago

> For those unfamiliar with the concept, the ‘long peace’ is a term we apply to the period since WWII which has had a low and indeed falling level of war, both inter-state and intra-state.

There's an alternative view is that there was a long war essentially from the beginning of WW1 to the collapse of communism [0]. The so-called long peace also included the Korean War, the Vietnam war, various Arab-Israeli conflicts. I've seen it stated that there were only in fact a few days of peace in the entire 20C: the very brief period between Japan's surrender in August 1945 to the start of conflict that gradually ramped to the Vietnam war, when an Anglo/French force supported by rearmed Japanese took on the Viet Minh[1].



KineticLensman | a year ago

I see no mention of the UN in these discussions. The post-wwii international order has been maintained in large part thanks to the global agreement to recognize the UN as the venue to arbitrer large disputes. But there's a dangerous growing movement to denigrate the UN for various ideological reasons.

downWidOutaFite | a year ago

One of the less spoken but potentially significant reasons for Russia's invasion is that Putin felt the nuclear tables were about to turn with M.A.D. when the U.S. restarted Strategic Defense Initiative development.

georgeg23 | a year ago

"Prior to the long peace, there’s little question what happens to a country like Venezuela, which is essentially a giant pile of barely guarded wealth: one – or several – of its neighbors would move in, oust the government and seize the territory and its valuable resources (oil, in this case)."

While I don't advocate war and violence, I can't help think that such a hostile takeover of a poorly run country by another better run country can be perceived as creative destruction in capitalism. War is too costly now reassuringly, but the incentive of leaders to keep the country strong, economically as well as militarily, is much less. The fear of being wiped out by a neighbor may have kept leaders in check. Now that fear is gone, and nothing has replaced it yet. The optimist in me hopes that states abandon the pretense of being above markets. The fear we desire in those who run states, the fear that we hope will keep them in check, will be that of losing paying customers, their citizens, to other competitive jurisdictions.

kajumix | a year ago

What I find interesting specifically with Russia-Ukraine is that the Russian Offensive is NOT producing a modern capable military. They are just throwing bodies.

Ukraine however, will have the second best trained and seasoned military in the world with top NATO weaponry, and is building a national identity. It may be wringing corruption and ineffectual leadership from the civilian government, will have DEEP ties with elite western militaries from training relationships, and will prove themselves as a good investment for Western foreign aid.

Ukraine may or may not get all its territory back, but Russia has, strategically, utterly lost this war. THey wanted a buffer satellite state, and instead have the second most capable NATO military a couple hundred miles from their capital.

Also, I suspect that Belarus will flip to a similar relationship with the West in the next 10 years / when Putin dies. It will be surrounded by Ukraine and the Baltic states, and Lukashenko is already in a tenuous position.

AtlasBarfed | a year ago

> But because the leaders of a country like Venezuela know that, they may well try to avoid developing their country into such a weak state in the first place. Sure, bribery and corruption are fun, but only if you live long enough to use it; it’s not worth ruining the economy if the only consequence is being killed when Brazil, Colombia or the United States invades.

Interesting read but the above point is moot. History features many selfish leaders letting their kingdom, fief, colony, what have you fall into exactly that state of affairs. And when they were occupied, as often as not, the leadership was left intact so long as the tribute did flow. This is true from the ancient world up to through the 20th century.

> This is why, I’d argue, you see the proliferation of failed states globally: in the past it would be actively profitable for non-failed states to take advantage of them

Sure, there may be more independently standing "failed states" but occupation by a "more competent" power was rarely a corrective. These largely just became failed vassals. The little bit of bureaucratic support imposed by the occupier usually had the effect of depriving locals of the experience of self development and coordination and thus deepening and prolonging the crises within.

> I should note I find this version of the argument, based on incentives and interests more compelling than Steven Pinker’s version of the argument based on changing cultural mores.

> The value of the oil and other resources would be less than the cost of maintaining control of the country.

The reasons that managing such a country would be too costly now vs in the past are almost purely cultural. Treating an occupied place like a colony has diplomatic and internal consequences for the occupier (not enough in my opinion but much more than in the past). And much more importantly, the cultural inventions of nationalism and total insurgent warfare have made it much harder to maintain an occupation. Yes, there were insurgencies in the past but the cultural expectation that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people will live in craters, subsist on worms and rats, forgoe medicine, endure exposure, hunger, pain and trauma for years or decades or even generations to guarantee self rule.

The cultural invention of nationalistic mass resistance depends on technological innovations. You need modern small arms and explosives to make every cell of 20 or so fighters a threat which can't be ignored by an occupier. You need modern communication to coordinate these cells.

And of course the value of this cultural invention is in its ubiquity. So you need an era of sentimental propaganda that depends on modern mass media to disseminate it.

Ultimately technology and culture are not separate things. They shape each other as they develop and sometimes they are one in the same.

DubiousPusher | a year ago

"We have all noticed that the Russian military appears far less capable than we thought it was; frankly it seems incapable of even some of the very basic tasks of modern industrial armies engaged in conventional military operations."

I wondered about that. For the record, I have zero evidence of this as reliable records are hard to find in that arena. Chechnya was Russia's bigger conflict and now, unlike Syria and few other spots, Russia's approach resembled anti-terrorist stance ( pop in for a quick action and hold a small group keeping tabs on things ).

The societies that seem to have a handle on this are ones that currently do not have peace ( say Ukraine or Israel, where both deal with an enemy threat on a regular basis ).

"Instead, the new incentive for most countries would be to build a military in a way that aims to minimize the political costs, rather than maximize combat power or even ‘security'."

I am willing to agree on this one. There is a clear weariness in US for giving military even more money. I am seeing something similar in the old country and that is despite Russian aggression aimed at Ukraine.

"Meanwhile, maximizing the army for repression means developing paramilitary internal police forces at scale (Rosgvardiya is an obvious example), which direct resources away from core conventional military; such security-oriented forces aren’t designed for a conventional war and perform poorly at it."

The argument seems valid, but I am not entirely convinced. Secret police is not new to Russia and if any country has their apparatus working, it likely is Russia. If that is the case, it makes it difficult for me to believe that they do not have a working system that recognizes and gives some leeway, like any wars before that, to people doing the actual fighting ( like.. you don't put a front soldier in Gulag just because he openly says Putin is a dick ). That said, the argument does provide an explanation for Russia's failure. I am just not sure I agree though.

"revanchist powers (Israel, Taiwan, Poland, Finland, Ukraine, etc.)"

I found the listing of Poland and Finland interesting, but I am not sure what argument for keeping them on that list is.

" Of course the big unanswered and at the moment unanswerable question is where countries like India or the People’s Republic of China fit."

I am not sure it is unanswerable. Some people have definitely taken a stab at it. Right now, the momentum seems to be generating a new axis with both India and China rising as new powers and flexing their individual muscles ( we hear a lot about China, but that seems like it is mostly, because it is US's current main concern ).

A4ET8a8uTh0 | a year ago
| a year ago

The Grand Illusion II

IceHegel | a year ago

This blog post has some curious blind spots that, if taken into account, negate most of its primary thesis about 'the long peace'.

The focus of the post is two-fold: the recent outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, in truncated form (the war has been going on at a low level since 2014, with militia forces supplied by Russia and Ukraine fighting one another in eastern Ukraine throughout that period), and a recommendation for a book about a naval battle in World War II. Hmm... what about Vietnam and Iraq?

This is pretty standard American exceptionalist propaganda-speak, as seen in corporate media and Hollywood: lots of material on WWII, and on today's conflict. It's obvious why neither Vietnam nor Iraq/Afghanistan are mentioned in the post, those being the largest post-war conflicts the US was involved in. The Vietnam War was in many ways the result of European colonial powers (France) to hold onto their colonial possessions post-WWII; the US could have supported Vietnam independence in 1945 but chose to allow France to try to seize control again, and then took over from the French under JFK's tenure, and spent about a decade killing Vietnamese people in a futile effort to keep the puppet South Vietnam government in power. There was also an element of Cold War proxy fight.

The Iraq War is even less defensible; the WMD claims were deliberate lies concocted by the CIA on the orders of the Bush Administration and supported by the UK's Blair government. Basically a class A war crime. Similarly, the debacles in Afghanistan (NATO-backed), and Libya (NATO-backed) don't get any scrutiny.

As far as nuclear weapons, well, they haven't stopped war, just pushed the conflicts into various proxy wars, as seen in the India-Pakistan border region. The architects and profiteers of war don't want to get nuked themselves, though they are quite happy to send kids off to die in these conflicts, so nuclear weapons are somewhat stabilizing, barring some accident or other.

photochemsyn | a year ago

This article is based on the flawed premise that the Russia-Ukraine war was overwhelmingly one-sided in Russia's favor, eliding the fact that Ukraine had, over nearly a decade, amassed the next largest land army in Europe, trained by NATO, armed by NATO, guided by NATO intelligence, and side-by-side with Western PMCs.

In many aspects, they were peer competitors on the battlefield. The "paper tiger" argument would have made more sense had Russia unsuccessfully invaded Kiev in 2014. But a lot can change in 8 years.

Yes, Russia has had the advantage in long-range strike capability, but they chose not to strike command centers early in the war (contrast with the surprise airstrike on Saddam Hussein's palace 20 years ago, which kicked off Washington's unprovoked invasion).

pphysch | a year ago