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Realism and the Fog of War

The study of international relations has lots of different theoretical approaches. Some emerged from within the discipline itself; others have been imported from disciplines such as economics or sociology and also these different approaches try to provide a complete explanation for the dynamics of the international political system. The main and dominant ideology or approach which emerged as a discipline is “realism”.

International Relations scholars especially realists define war ‘as a large scale organized violence’ or ‘war is organized violence carried on by political units against each other'[1].  The study of war hugely in theoretical orientation, empirical domain and there is a huge diversity in the study of war and the international relations field. According to Clausewitz’s war as ‘a continuation of politics by other means’[2] and war is an instrument of political interest; namely the decisions that we make generally is about our political situation and it shaped our political situations. In addition war has sociological and political consequences, location, participations and so on.

Realism surfaced as a stronger, valid and logical theory in explaining the world politics as well as domestic politics during 15th and 16th century. This theory of international politics remained successful in the answers to question about causes and effects of war. In order to understand it, we should look at the question of ‘What is realism?’ and ‘features of realism.’

Realism is an international relations theory. Realism is a traditional theory and it centered some main points. For realists, the international system is anarchic and anarchy means the absence of a central authority. According to realists, the most important actors and there is no actor above states. In an anarchic system, state power is the key variable of interest because only through power can states defend themselves and hope to survive. Actually states try to survive in the international system, try to maximize their interests and they use their power in a variety ways such as militarily, economically and diplomatically for realists. States will seek to maximize their power relative to others. Realists emphasize the stability of the balance of power systems for defensive realists, where an approximately equal distribution of power amongst states ensures that none will risk attacking another. Polarity is thus a key concept in Realist theory. Polarity refers to the number of blocs of states that expert power in international system. On the other hand, multi-polar system is composed of three or more blocs, bipolar system is composed of two blocs, and a unipolar is dominated by a single power or hegemony. Hegemony is the best strategy for a country to pursue for offensive realists.

In realist theory, we see relative gain and absolute gain. Relative gain means states concerned with how much power and influence other states might achieve in any cooperative attempt and in Absolute gain, states are interested in increasing their power and influence. States which are the main concept of international relations also create an international institutions and international law. International law is a symptom of state behavior. In an anarchic system with no hierarchical authority, realists argue that law can only be enforced through state power. Out of all these, Realists theory focuses on three core elements and these three elements identify with realism: Statism, Survival, Self-help.

Return to relationship between realism and war, describing the best of it is the movie of ‘The Fog of War’. There are eleven lessons in this movie from Robert McNamara. He shares his ideas, experiences and his thought in these documents. According to Mr. McNamara, general view said[3] that ‘Don’t make a same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes’ and he said that „my rule is try to learn, try to mistake what happen and improve your mistakes and then transmit them to another people. Based on this movie, first, I am going to briefly explain the lesson 5 ‘Proportionality should be a guideline in war’ and secondly I am going to briefly explain the lesson 11 ‘You cannot change human nature’ by referring realism. Lastly, I analyze all lessons.

The fifth lessons starts with the question of ‘Was the idea of bombing come from?’ Mr. McNamara said that this is wrong question because issue is not bomb, issue is related to this question: ‘Is it necessary that 100.000 people must be dead in one day?’ LeMay’s (general in the United States Air Force between 1906 and 1990) answers is should be ‘yes’. Should be less than the number of the dead? Does it moral? Although LeMay vandalized the Japan, is nuclear bomb necessary? And he continued the bombing other cities after the Tokyo. %58 per cent of the Yokohama, %51 per cent of the Tokyo, %99 per cent of the Toyama and %40 per cent of Nagoya were bombed before the nuclear bomb which was thrown by the LeMay. In this point some peoples criticize us to not be disproportional because lots of people was died in Japan and after that two nuclear bomb was thrown by LeMay; and there is a disproportion between these events and objectives we want to achieve.

Mr. McNamara tells I do not criticize Truman for throwing the bomb. USA and Japan War is uncivilized war the history of humanity. Deaths, suicides and so on are incredible. According to Mr. McNamara, something that should be criticized is that human race do not fight with the rules of war from past to now. There is not any rule about this war, usage of nuclear bomb or killing people in overnight. When we evaluate this war in terms of LeMay, he would say ‘If we lost the war, we are war criminals and everyone can prosecute about us.’ According to Mr. McNamara, he is right. However, here there is a dilemma because they won the war and they are humanitarian according to LeMay. What makes us to humanitarian when we won war? or What makes us to war criminal when we did not won war?

The other part of the movie, Mr. McNamara explains March 2, 1964. Mr. McNamara talked on the phone between Lyadon B. Johnson and they talked about the Vietnam War. Johnson wanted to Vietnam Chart which explained the situation in Vietnam to Mr. McNamara. Moreover, Johnson said that there need to someone here who was inform to us more than over and bring plans about Vietnam; and he also said that I want to collect plans because, thus, I can mesh these man. At this time, Senator Scott talked with Mr. McNamara. Scott said that the idea of war which could not win, gain and abandon is the proof of our instabilities. Variable decisions and our timid policy of conciliation are disturbing. At the end of the fifth lesson, Mr. McNamara answered the question of „How would you describe Vietnam?’ and also he said that we have to depend it cold war period to describe it.

When we analyzed this lesson, I want to stand on these points: morality as a use of terms of rationality and asymmetric warfare. Rationality is one of the most important things in international relations and particularly for decision-making. Here, decision-making must be rational and in this lesson LeMay decided to bombing. We do not know this decision and those made are moral because in realist theory we see that they generally act a rational. According to them, decision-making mechanism based on state interests. On the other hand, proportionality is related to war. Asymmetric warfare is kind of war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly.

The eleventh lesson is ‘You cannot change human nature.’ In this lesson, Mr. McNamara said that ‘We all make mistakes and we know we make mistakes. I did not know any commander who is honest, who is mistakes.’ For example; Wilson said we won this war to end all wars. However Mr. McNamara does not believe the end all wars and for him we do not change human nature never and never. It is not we cannot be rational, we are rational but reason is the mind has limits. He said T.S Eliot’s vows: ‘We should not sees from explore and at the end of our exploration we will return the we started and know the place firstly.’

I emphasize the human nature; and Hobbes and Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature. According to Hobbes, Man is not by nature a social animal, society could not exist except by the power of the state. Leviathan is one of the most important evidence about Hobbes human nature. He maintains that the nature of man is to desire certain things, not least of all power, and to work toward those desires, and argues that the pursuit of these desires will lead to a war of ‘all against all’, in which the constant threat of violent death will loom over every man. To prevent this war, men must choose to cede their power to a Leviathan, who must then have absolute control over them and their lives. According to Machiavelli, his understanding of human nature was a complete contradiction of what humanists believed and taught.

Consequently, when we think about the war, Mr. McNamara’s perspective is very important and when we watched this movie we understand that all these aspects or lessons are related with the war in terms of realism in the international system. He generally emphasized the decision-making mechanism and rationality. According to Mr. McNamara, the main idea is the fog of war. For him, War is complicated to understand all the variables that go beyond human intelligence. Posses to ability to decide and our understanding are not enough and we kill people unnecessarily.

Simge ATAOĞLU, Marmara Üniversitesi Siyaset Bilimi ve Uluslararası İlişkiler 4. Sınıf öğrencisi.

06 Temmuz 2014


[1]Michael, Sheeman,The Changing Character of War, p.218.

[2]Jack S. , Levy , War and Peace, p.1.

[3]Tim, Dunne, Realism, p.86-99.


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