Saturday, June 20, 2009

How the weak win wars

This is an odd book, but interesting nevertheless. It seems that political science departments have been infected with a mania for quantifying things that can't be quantified, causing Professor Arreguin-Toft to attempt an exact measurement of all the 'small wars' of the past two centuries. They run from Peru rising against Spain in 1809 to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. His attempts to manipulate this data are sometimes risible, as when he solemnly assures us (in a footnote on page 109) that when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, 'the halved ratio of relative material power comes to 24.21 to 1 in favor of Italy'. Not twenty-four, and not twenty-five. but 24.21 to 1. Put that in your spreadsheet and smoke it!

Still, I enjoyed the book. It's based on five case studies: Russia's first rape of Chechnya, 1830-1859; the Boer War, 1899-1902; Italy in Ethiopia, 1935-1940; the Vietnam War, 1965-1973; and Russia's misadventure in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. And there's our first lesson about insurgencies: they tend to last a very long time, with the median of these five being our eight-year slog in Vietnam. That's two presidential terms--far too long for most American appetites. (It's notable that the two longest conflicts were both pursued by a totalitarian government in Moscow.)

I've posted my notes here. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford


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