I Need Dirt, And I Don't Care


Steve Sailer has two long, good exegeses (one, two) on war and the national need for territory. The first post collects some general thoughts:

There just
aren't that many empty spots on the map anymore, the way the San
Francisco Bay Area, perhaps the finest spot for human habitation on
earth, was practically empty in 1845.

Moreover, the spread of
the idea of nationalism from Europe to the rest of the world, replacing
dynasticism as the reigning assumption, means that the kind of easy
occupations that, say, the British enjoyed in India for so long just
aren't feasible. If the masses assume that who rules them is none of
their business, then it's pretty easy for an outsider to take over.
But, nowadays, everybody believes that their rulers should be, more or
less, from among them.

In his follow-up Sailer unveils another one of his Theories—the mostly seamless historical or demographic trends that no one else ever seems to pick up. (They're too busy comparing everything to 1938, if they're talking war, and 1994, if they're talking politics.)

Sailer's Dirt
Theory of War
: In the past, when thinking about whom to conquer, the
   key fact was that most of the value of the potential conquest was in the dirt acquired. You could use the ground to raise crops or mine for valuable minerals, which made up two large parts of the economy back in the good old days. War couldn't hurt dirt. Conquering California in the 1840s, for example, did almost zero damage to the place, which turned
out, immediately afterwards, to have lots of gold in the ground.

… most fighting around the world these days is conducted less like Grant vs. Lee and more like the Corleones rubbing out the rival families at the end of the The Godfather. It's less honorable, and less destructive, but more profitable.

This clarifies what's been nagging at me when I hear the members of our executive branch compare the current crisis to an old, good war, like World War II. These people know, as much as Sailer knows, that preventing Muslim terrorists from blowing up airplanes or buildings or cities is a matter of police work and dirty work—like the Corleones rubbing out rivals, but also like a pre-White House Jack Ryan taking out his villain of the week. They know this and, for political reasons, obfuscate it. They pretend this is an old-fashioned army-vs-army war. But that leads to cognitive dissonance on a mass scale when the population, which is willing to support the war, and willing to send family members to fight it, doesn't see clear-cut victories; isn't asked to sacrifice anything; doesn't know when the war will end.

NEXT: The Left Hand Doesn't Know What the Left Hand Is Doing

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  1. Nice title. Funhouse is a totally underrated Stooges record.

  2. “… the population which is willing to support the war, and willing to send family members to fight it…”

    But for the most part we’re not willing to send family members to fight it. We’re only willing to send other people’s (read: lower class’) family members, and the military is having trouble these days finding enough of those.

    Bring back the draft and raise the taxes needed to pay for our wars (instead of borrowing). See what kind of support you get for it then.

  3. I have an idea. Let’s make Ahmadinejad an offer that he can’t refuse. Maybe he has a favorite horse?

  4. His opinions on darker-skinned people notwithstanding, Sailer is one of a shrinking pool of conservative pundits I feel obligated to read. (Saying that the only reason to fight over Baluchistan is to make the loser take more of it stands as my favorite sentence so far this year.) My father, the history professor, used to calm my teenaged fears of nuclear war with essentially the same argument — people have always fought wars to conquer territory, and a nuclear exchange renders the conquered dirt worse that useless, so no one is going to have a nuclear war. In this case, Sailer is perfectly correct. We have something going on, but it’s not a “war” as humans have understood the word for the last couple thousand years, because the objective isn’t really to hold on to a new piece of territory. I particularly liked his point about natural resources other than oil not being all that valuable these days, and certainly not worth the cost in lives to take over any signficant chunks of the stuff. I want Osama bin Laden dead; I don’t want to add Iraq or Baluchistan as new states. Until the administration finds some way to pull that off, I won’t support the administration.

  5. The most illuminating thing I’ve read on the topic of what kind of war we’re in now is “Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead” by Chet Richards, interviewed in Reason a few months back. AS the cliche goes, the generals always fight the last war…

    Also, there is certainly a police work dimension to this conflict, but that’s not all it is. The Corleones of the world don’t have global political ambitions, they’re only after profit, so that’s a comparison that only gets you so far.

  6. There just aren’t that many empty spots on the map anymore

    I think that this discredits him instantly. Has he never driven through, say, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee? The boonies of Alabama? All of these are pretty nice places to live (IMNSHO) and there is plenty of space.

  7. Not only is it not ?army vs. army?, it is not even state vs. state. It is state vs. non-state. This is 4th generation war (www.d-n-i.net). Our high-tech, air power driven military is poorly suited to fighting non-state forces. Just ask Israel after their fight with Hezbollah. No one has figured out how to successfully defeat 4th generation forces, but it is not going to be done with a military stuck in the air strikes / artillery strikes mentality. It does not help that our massive military spending has much more to do with pork than with defense, and our senior officer corps is more concerned with careerism than with creative solutions.

  8. All politicians need to do is use the word, “war,” and most voters immediately lose whatever ability they had to think.

  9. Destructive power has become far more affordable and compact. In a world of hand-held missile launchers and home-made biological weapons, the debate over firearms seems a bit quaint. There are ways to fight and win a 4th gen war… and they will be as sinister, ugly and effective as the other advances in warfare.

  10. Not only is it not ?army vs. army?, it is not even state vs. state. It is state vs. non-state.

    Its not even that simple.

    Some of the non-states are getting a lot of money and support from state-states (ouch). How strong would Hezbollah be without Syria and Iran, for example?

  11. That’s exactly what I was going to point out, Ayn Randian… and Ohio et al are positively teeming with life compared to, say, Wyoming. And on top of that, most of the Great Plains states are losing population – in another hundred years Denver will be the only settlement bigger than a single farm-house between St Joes and the Sierras.

  12. the way the San Francisco Bay Area, perhaps the finest spot for human habitation on earth, was practically empty in 1845.

    if it so fucking great then perhaps we can now stop spending federal dollars on earthquake rediness, earthquake relife, and building earthquake proof public buildings and transportaion systems?

  13. This view of war is remarkably limited. Though conquering territory has always been one justification for war, it has never been the only one. If it were how would we explain the desire of Thebes and Corinth, at the end of the Pelloponesian war, to destroy Athens completely reducing its survivors to a subsistence economy (rather than annexing the territory themselves) or the fact that at the end of WWII (former?) secretary of state morgenthau advocated doing the same to Germany? War has never been simple or straight forward, and, technology aside, there is nothing new or unique about our current war.

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