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The empirical basis of the Green Lantern theory

By John Quiggin - posted Tuesday, 23 January 2007

The idea that winning wars is a matter of willpower (what Matt Yglesias calls the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics) has been getting more and more attention as the situation in Iraq deteriorates.

At one level, the triumph of will theory is immune to meaningful empirical refutation. Whenever a nation loses a war, it can be argued that, with more willpower it would have prevailed. The one exception is where the nation is utterly destroyed, in which case, there will be no one interested in observing the failure of will.

There is, however, a specifically American version, which can be given some kind of empirical support. Until Vietnam, the United States had, at least according to the official accounts, never lost a war. The willpower theory holds that this loss was due to domestic weakness rather than defeat on the battlefield, and that subsequent failures of US forces in Lebanon, Somalia and elsewhere represent “Vietnam syndrome”.


The Iraq war was supposed to spell the end of the Vietnam syndrome, and the Bush Administration still seems to be committed to this idea. It seems increasingly clear that, rather than begin a withdrawal, the Administration is planning for a short-lived “surge” in troop numbers, achieved by accelerating deployments and delaying rotations out.

There doesn’t seem to be any clear idea what the troops are supposed to do: secure Baghdad by some accounts, crush Sadr’s Mahdi army by others, join the Shia to crush the Sunni insurgency by others. As an unnamed official says in a New York Times story “There has not been a full articulation of what we would want the surge to accomplish”. The Big Push is being pushed for its own sake.

At this point, it seems clear that some alternative to the willpower theory is needed. The starting point is the observation that war is a negative-sum game, so the fact that one side loses does not mean that the other wins. If losing a war means coming out of it worse than you went in, then Vietnam is not the first war the US has lost. The War of 1812 ended with the restoration of the status quo ante, but 25,000 Americans were dead, Washington had been burned, and huge economic damage had been done. The Philippine-American War cost the lives of thousands of Americans, and at least a quarter of a million Filipinos, but yielded the US no long-term benefit.

Finally, there’s the Korean War. By October 1950, a few months after the war began, the US-led UN force had pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. At that point, it would have been possible to impose peace terms at least as favourable as those eventually reached. Instead, Macarthur and Truman decided to push on to the Yalu River, China entered the war, and three years of bloody fighting ensued, with no net gain for anyone.

The common feature of all these events was that they were expansionist wars of choice, though in each case with a more or less plausible defensive casus belli (British impressment of US sailors, the explosion of the Maine, the North Korean attack on the South). The war party in 1812 wanted to conquer Canada, that of 1898 wanted the remnants of the Spanish empire. In 1950, having repelled the North Korean invasion, Macarthur wanted to roll back, rather than merely contain, communism, retaking North Korea and putting pressure on Red China. Vietnam fits the pattern, beginning with support for the French attempt to regain their Asian empire after World War II, and using the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for full-scale US entry into the war.

Iraq seems to embody all of the errors of the past. The bogus weapons of mass destruction correspond neatly to the claims of sabotage of the Maine and the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident. Seen as a continuation of Gulf War I, GWII seems like a repetition of the march to the Yalu River, rejecting Bush I’s willingness to settle for a comprehensive military victory and restoration of the territorial status quo ante. Seen in terms of an ideological struggle against Islamism, it looks like Vietnam all over again.


As in 1898, the US has overthrown an oppressive regime, but has sought to substitute its own rule, or that of pliable clients like Chalabhi, while trying to marginalise those (like the Shia militias) who had actually fought against the regime. And, at the back of it all have been prophets of a new American Empire.

If Iraq has demonstrated once and for all that the Green Lantern theory does not stand up to empirical scrutiny, is there an alternative that still leaves a substantial role for the US in the world. The Iraq war showed, yet again, that in conventional military conflicts the US is unbeatable, and, for practical purposes unstoppable. On the other hand, the weakness of US military power when faced with an insurgency with significant popular support has been demonstrated yet again.

So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity. In the context of civil conflicts like those in Bosnia and Kosovo, US intervention can nullify the advantage possessed by the side that has a conventional army at its disposal. But this military power is useful only if there exists a widely-accepted political solution waiting to be implemented.

On the one hand, the fact that the US is, as has often been observed, the indispensable nation in matters of this kind gives it a claim to special consideration more defensible than that arising simply from the fact that it is large and powerful. On the other hand, if the US is to be accepted in this role, it must be particularly careful not to use its power to pursue its own narrow self-interest.

The idea that the US could act in this way, and ignore the rest of the world was perhaps the most important single claim of the warbloggers and neocons, and the consequences are now on display for all to see.

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First published in John Quiggin’s blog on December 21, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

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About the Author

Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow based at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

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