Effective vs. Harmful Anti-war Activism and Policy (part 1)

Policy around war, weapons,  and weapons of mass destruction is complex and important. Getting policy right can greatly decrease war deaths, and the odds of global disaster. While these may seem like reasons peace activism may be very important, these are also reasons peace activism can be very harmful if done poorly.

Looking at various instances of activism impacting policy of war, it is hard to say the record is entirely good. Below I summarize examples going both ways in bullet point form. As this is an exploratory post, many topics are covered with only an exploratory level of rigor.

Activism against landmines results in ban of anti-personnel landmines in Ottawa treaty

  • The good:
  • The bad:
    • There is pressure to not spend on landmine tech advancement due to the stigma
    • A very cost effective deterrent is removed from the list of war deterrents for signing countries
      • Finland and Ukraine want to back out of treaty due to Russian threat
        • If the possibility U.S. tactical nuclear first strike is no longer a deterrent to mass invasion of Europe (due to uncertainty about U.S. defending NATO), then landmines would be part of a cost effective way of stopping a Russian invasion. With modern tech, such minefields could simply be turned off in peacetime to reduce the odds of civilian harm (eg. IMS).
      • While it is obvious when children are harmed that indiscriminate landmines are bad, it is not obvious when their existence has deterred wars and possibly spared even more lives: we only see one side of the equation
  • The better policy:
    • The U.S. uses self-safing land mines that detonate automatically after a short period of time and have their batteries fail shortly afterward if self destruction fails
    • Intelligent minefields (longer term deterrent)
      • Can be turned off
      • Could possibly be designed to detect enemy troops and not be activated by civilians?
        • This could be countered by troops carrying less gear (so they weigh less) and not carrying weapons (so any sort of sensors that could detect weapons won’t turn on the minefield) but this would obviously still be a deterrent and greatly weaken the fighting force of attacking troops

Chemical Weapons Convention

  • The good:
    • Weapons which cause much greater suffering than gunfire used less
    • Gas is not discriminating: lethal gas in an area could easily move with the wind and kill civilians
  • The bad:
    • Entire classes of potentially effective non-lethal options entirely banned or restricted from war use
      • Though this could be viewed as good for preventing totalitarian governments from being able to use force more indiscriminately without repercussion
    • Countries trying to minimize civilian deaths get forced into much more heavy handed attacks when conducting urban warfare.
      • If you can’t use tear gas to incapacitate insurgents or get them to leave a structure, and you want to clear a building the basic options are:
        • Send in infantry
          • Which risks the lives of your soldiers, and takes a very long time, allowing insurgents to flee
        • Destroy buildings that you get shot at from
          • Which is highly likely to kill civilians
    • Countries get stigmatized disproportionately when trying to not kill people.
      • Israel gets stigmatized for using tear gas when civilians protesters are mixed with armed attackers (though this is outside the convention area technically)
      • Additional military research would probably have made the Moscow theater siege less of a disaster (first large scale use of sleeping gas)
        • Even then, it was much better than the alternative of the bomb going off and killing everyone
        • There also reason to believe casualties would be much lower in other circumstances
          • Less positional asphyxiation due to terrorists
          • Less incapacitant concentration gradient from very large rooms
          • Less restraint on use of counter drugs (sleeping agent would likely not be classified from EMS in future, though counter drugs might be restricted from being easily bought in the market)
            • Better science/fluid dynamics simulation is available now than in the past
  • The better policy:
    • Should have just banned lethal chemical weapons
      • Though it is hard to define lethality given that anything can cause death to some % of people, setting arbitrary limits each time a better non-lethal is developed would likely be a decent good policy option, as policy improvement is often a gradual step function of progress
        • To avoid human testing, dose calculations could be used based on past animal studies and these models could be updated following use in war (though obviously there will be incentive to lie about the numbers and non-ideal conditions). Using current riot control agents also seems unlikely to result in a lot of death compared to the replacements.

Biological Weapons Convention

  • The good:
    • Reduced risk of pandemic(!!!)
      • Countries likely intended to abandon the uncontrollable ones anyway,1 part of why they agreed to such a treaty in the first place, but the risk of accident is still worth mitigating
      • Even with weak enforcement, the ban likely sabotages the coordination necessary to produce effective bio-weapons in most cases by forcing secrecy
  • The bad:
    • Can’t design merely temporarily incapacitating bio weapons
  • The better policy?
    • This is possibly one of the most effective treaties and it is probably good to have an overly prohibitive ban in this case than to walk down a road toward increasing pandemic risk while countries experiment with weapons. As long as the ban remains in place, the cost of research is high (for now, it will likely become cheap again in the future anyway) and countries are likely to be deterred from doing such research.
    • There will probably be a need for better means of verification in the future, but since that is a very hard problem to solve, it doesn’t imply much is wrong with this convention.

Ban on frangible/expanding projectiles (from Hague Convention)

  • The good:
    • Makes conventional trench style warfare more humane
      • Soldiers can be saved by medics2
      • Death replaced by casualties
  • The bad:
    • The last time there was a real trench war was the Iran-Iraq War: this is not how most wars are fought…
    • People are likely to be left bleeding out over long periods of time which is probably more painful than rapid death
    • Lethal wounds are not quickly incapacitating
      • This increases the effectiveness of suicide bombers
      • Encourages troops to expend numerous rounds on individuals (especially those charging with melee weapons) 
        • High chance for collateral damage
        • Negative media perception
    • Frangible projectiles don’t over-penetrate
      • Lower collateral damage in urban environments (bullets won’t go through a few walls and hit innocent civilians)
      • Reduced risk fighting near oil storage/rigs, securing nuclear plants, etc.
      • Lighter body armor becomes more effective, and insurgents/terrorists normally can’t afford decent body armor
        • Though if the risk is from a totalitarian state, this might be bad
  • The better policy:
    • Given how bad this is, it might be better to have the opposite policy for war (frangible projectiles only, no full metal jackets)
    • Having a choice in ammunition type might also make sense, since there could be adaptation to frangible only warfare, in which case there just shouldn’t be a ban. The ammunition type which minimizes collateral damage in a given situation is also likely to be the most combat effective because it will stop targets with a lower number of rounds expended. 

Activism against Iraq war

  • The good:
    • Likely reduced prisoner abuse
    • Protests started before the war
      • It likely would have been good to not go in the first place, but once the U.S. invaded, I don’t think this pressure had much of any additional positive effect
  • The bad:
    • We left after not establishing a strong new government = semi-power vacuum = now there is ISIS in Iraq
      • Though maybe it never made sense for the Iraqi government to ration enough force to stop such gains by ISIS initially (they were in lower population areas)
      • Further counter: the U.S. may have had reason to believe the Iraqi military had the ability to stop ISIS due to better size, training, and equipment
  • The better policy?
    • It is unclear what actions aside from keeping a similar form of government in power without Saddam running it could have prevented this and have achieved U.S. objectives
      • Some argue we just should have initially sent much higher troop levels to reduce looting and maintain security: disbanding the Iraqi Army and then not having enough force to protect the population seems like a good recipe for a lot of unemployed fighters to take up arms
    • The use of quantitative probability assessment as seen in the Good Judgement Project and other ways of improving intelligence seem in retrospect to be the highest leverage ways to prevent such a bad war… but it seems unlikely that anti-war protesters would protest for increasing funding of CIA/IARPA research

Activism against the Vietnam War

  • The good:
    • This activism likely created a external pressure to mitigate collateral damage in the military which did not previously exist
      • That being said, the invention of precision munitions also made this possible, and both the technology and pressure were likely necessary to get the military to act differently
  • The bad:
    • No credible threat upon leaving = South Vietnamese massacred after ceasefire
    • Khmer Rouge kills 2 million people in Cambodia without threat from U.S. air power
      • Fortunately the Vietnamese stopped them eventually…
      • It also also possible that air war had propaganda value for the Khmer Rouge, but it seems unlikely this outweighs the damage done to them
        • Two data points in favor of this hypothesis are that North Vietnam took the South and Khmer Rouge took Cambodia only after U.S. involvement ceased.
          • Though perhaps the U.S. knew it was going to lose with what it was willing to spend and it just good mitigating its own casualties while losing.
        • Though some argue the Khmer Rouge might have been less violent if they had not taken such damage, this strikes me as rather naive as they were pretty indiscriminate (they were killing their own people and the Vietnamese, not Americans)
  • The better policy?
    • Perhaps the U.S. should have still provided air support and supply but the public pressure pushed congress away from authorizing this
      • North may have won anyway, but they would not have been able to mass up and advance so easily
        • Though in this case it may have been better for both sides for the remaining conflict to be one sided rather than close, in which case air support would just increase casualties without achieving any objective
    • This is a case where hindsight would be nice to have in advance: few knew the Khmer Rouge was going to be so much worse than North Vietnam, or that the Vietnam War would be impossible to win. A path for Vietnam to gain independence without communism and violence would have been ideal, but it is unclear what could have fostered that.

Activism against drones:

  • The good
    • Makes military planners more reluctant to roll out untested technology?
    • Increased the planning competence of CIA/Air Force due to pressure for reduced collateral damage?
      • This pressure seems to already exist internally, but reporting on civilian casualties (along with false reports of civilian casualties) likely made the CIA/Air Force less likely to use drones in situations where only they know a given target is not civilian which reduces both real collateral damage and terrorist propaganda value (though surviving targets may conduct bombings which ultimately kill more civilians).
  • The bad
  • A better policy?
    • Apply stigma more proportionally to risk
      • Drones could be disproportionately bad due to future AI advances, or other ways they could destabilize existing deterrence or they could contribute to new forms of deterrence
        • If drone technology were to give one country a decisive strategic advantage, other AI risks could be greatly delayed (super speculative, this would obviously be risky)
          • It is more likely to just make governments more powerful against insurgents but not necessarily against each other, which poses totalitarian regime risk (regime doesn’t need to keep as many people happy if a large proportion of its force is automated).

Nuclear protests:

  • The good:
    • New START
      • Nuclear arms further reduced, reducing odds of Nuclear Winter(!!!)
  • The bad:
    • Disproportionately more expensive for democracies
      • Activism often locally focused rather than on big risks
        • Lower altitude anti-ballistic missiles taken away from protecting valuable population centers in response to nuclear protest in some cities
          • While anti-ballistic missiles might not stop everything, they may encourage more weapons to be focused on military targets to avoid wasting warheads
            • Of course in the long run a nuclear power can put even more warheads on a single missile and beat the economics of such intercepting missiles, but peace treaties have limited U.S. and Russian arsenals, and it is ambiguous what effect missile defense has on deterrence when only partially effective
        • Reduced cost effectiveness of nuclear power
      • Pressure to ban nuclear weapons may produce strategic advantage for Russia, especially in Europe

Convention on Cluster Munitions

  • The good:
    • Due to the civilian injuries and death toll from unexploded ordinance in the first Gulf War, this was likely a good weapon to protest
  • The bad:
    • Less development, but the ones in existence still get sold instead of replaced
  • The better policy:
    • More modern variants less likely to leave unexploded ordnance around
      • Primary problem is reliability
        • But stigma which reduces funding is not likely to solve to reliability problem
      • The secondary problem is indiscriminate use by other states
    • A better parameterized ban would have encouraged the U.S. to sign, and not sell the dangerous sort of cluster munitions to other countries
      • Why would the U.S. sign in this case? Because it would be able to keep cluster bombs with low collateral damage risks and gain a moral propaganda victory against other countries that don’t sign

Overall, from these examples I am trying to get at a few core points:

  • A lot of activism comes too late to be productive
  • Stopping adaptation at the bottom of an adaptive valley is bad
  • Activism which is not deeply intellectual and versed in real politics is a blunt instrument which may take away globally optimal policies as options inside democracies
  • Policy is complex, the history of anti-war activism is not only good, there are times it has caused harm and supported the strategic advantage of less democratic world actors.
  • Attempts to limits arms of one sort will lead to disproportionate investment in arms of another sort.

Part 2 of this post goes further in depth focusing on nuclear risks, deterrence,  risk from nuclear winter, and what sort of activism may cause good vs. harm.



1. I heard the argument that most countries would have abandoned the most risky biological weapons programs anyway several times during class and other discussions at the Air Force Academy. Return to Article

2. Non-expanding bullets, especially if they do not tumble, are likely to cut through soft targets they hit, as they are still in a drag minimizing shape. This means that they impart less of their energy, and are more likely to pass though people they hit, resulting in less severe injuries. Return to Article



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