We are talking about wars of detainder, but before we get into the meat of the matter let me emphasize that a war of detainder is pertinent mainly in the special situation of the United States of America.

As we all know, America is far and away the most powerful country on earth, a “hyperpower,”(1) so far ahead of everyone else it really doesn’t matter who’s in second place. Global power is so lopsidedly apportioned that it’s conceivable that if all the countries of the world launched a war against the US, the world would lose. That places us in some pretty exotic company: Rome from Octavian to Constantine I; Persia between Cyrus the Great and the Islamic conquest; Britain for about a century from the early 1800s to the early 1900s.(2)

But America is even more singular than that, because we don’t have, and don’t want to have, an empire. In the past, when a nation achieved anything remotely like the power of modern America, it promptly set out to conquer everyone in sight. This strategy seemed blindingly obvious. Why defeat an enemy and then go away and let him rebuild himself? And if you’re going to keep your enemy down, why not milk him for everything he’s got, sending the fruits back to the mother country?

The problem with this approach is that people don’t actually like being colonized. They are constantly rebelling, forcing the hyperpower to station troops onsite and to govern brutally. But even when the colonies aren’t in open rebellion, they are in silent rebellion, doing everything they can to undercut the colonizer. You might get away with this here and there, but eventually you will have so many colonies – because hyperpowers have so many enemies – that the burden of governing all this chaos becomes more expensive than whatever the colonies are producing. End of empire.

When we Americans think about our Declaration of Independence we tend to focus on the stirring words in the first few paragraphs: “When in the course of human events…,” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women!] are created equal…”

But we don’t have to read very far before the Declaration stops sounding like a ringing paean to human freedom and starts sounding like a divorce pleading. The soon-to-be ex-wife lists all the reasons her soon-to-be ex-husband is a cad:

He has refused his Assent to Laws…

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance…

He has refused to pass other Laws…

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant…

and so on for 13 tiresome paragraphs. By the time we’ve finally reached the end our eyes are rolling and we’re sputtering, “Hey, pal, it takes two to make a bad marriage!”

But the colonies wanted out and they got out and made it stick, and we’ve remembered ever since how wretched it is to be somebody’s colony. (Unfortunately, however – second marriages representing, as we all know, the triumph of hope over experience – the next marriage was also bad and had to be dealt with via the Civil War. But, whatever.)

So America is a hyperpower that has enemies everywhere, that being the lot of any hyperpower. But America doesn’t want to build an empire, à la the Roman Empire or the British Empire. This changes the nature of war for America, and changes it profoundly. For a normal country, wars have these outcomes:

1. We won

2. We lost

3. We drew

And the political fallout from wars has these outcomes:

1. The war is popular

2. The war is unpopular (thus vastly increasing the odds of War Outcomes 2 and 3, above)

3. Nobody pays much attention to the war

But for global-hyperpower-no-colonies-allowed America, all of this is mostly irrelevant. But how can this be, you are thinking? It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose wars, or whether they are popular or not? Right. In the first place, we can take outcome 2 off the table, at least in its ultimate sense: nobody is going to invade the US, conquer us, and install a puppet government in Washington, DC. We can only “lose” a war in the sense that whatever our objectives were didn’t happen.

Thus, War Outcomes 1 (Desert Storm) make everybody happy, but only briefly. War Outcomes 2 and 3 piss everybody off, but only briefly. The same goes for Political Outcomes 1, 2 and 3. Life goes on. As long as Ultimate War Outcome 2 is off the table, as it is for a hyperpower, the worst that happens is, some general gets fired (William Westmoreland) or some President decides not to run for reelection (LBJ). Big deal.

No, for global-hyperpower-no-colonies-allowed America, what really matters is the long-term geopolitical implications of the war. And from this perspective, a “lost” war can easily have very positive long-term implications, just as a “won” war can have very negative long-term implications. How? Because hyperpower wars, whether they are won, lost or tied, interrupt the geopolitical status quo, just like a writ of detainder interrupts the status quo. And, therefore, what would otherwise have happened doesn’t happen – something different happens, geopolitically speaking.

The best way to illustrate how wars of detainder operate, and how win-lose-draw tends to be mostly irrelevant, is to take a look at examples of America’s wars, at least since we became a hyperpower. We’ll start down that interesting road next week.

(1) A French coinage referring to a nation that not only has no rival, but is orders of magnitude more powerful than its next closest competitor.

(2) As a point of reference, just before World War I Britain accounted for 8% of the entire world economy. For many decades America has accounted for about 25% of the world’s economy.

Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 3

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