Money is Power—Since Last Week Maybe

So in addition to strategic planning with Habitat, and relaxing, this summer I have been drafting a manuscript on just-war theory and pacifism.  As part of that project, I am conducting a survey of about 150 major wars and conflicts throughout recorded history.  I want to get some sense of what actually causes wars and when they might be justified.  I have finished 40 so far and it is, in a word, fascinating.

I discovered the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763 in China, where potentially 15% of the worldwide population was wiped out.   I also discovered that Afghanistan was a very peaceful and stable monarchy from 1933-1973 that was progressively modernizing.  Trouble started when a progressive king pushed democratic reforms, which led to communists finding their way into the government, which led to a backlash, which led to a communist coup, which led to a soviet invasion, and the rest is history.

I will post more random observations that may or may not find their way into the manuscript, but I wanted to share one right now that likely will not: it is interesting how in earlier epochs of history military power was surprisingly unconnected to money and economic power.  In an earlier time, though still unlikely, the little guy could really take on the big guy and win.  Today, economic might is tied directly to military might, and the rich country is, almost automatically, the more powerful. Obviously, the country that can produce more tanks, guns, aircraft, ammunition, food, etc., should generally win.  However, before the industrial revolution, a bigger economy did not guarantee your safety and better military technology was not automatically had through vibrant industry.  Consider these examples:

  1. Ancient greece before Pericles or the Aetolian League was, compared to it’s neighbors Egypt and Persia for example, a cultural backwater of poor sots, of city-states trying to scratch out a living on relatively infertile lands and a comparatively fish-less sea.  Egypt was already a well-established and wealthy civilization.  When the Athenians and Spartans fought the Persians, it was roughly equivalent to America fighting Honduras, and Honduras winning.  The greeks might not have had much money, or commerce, or industry, but they had the phalanx, and that was enough to defend themselves against the mighty Persian empire.
  2. Even within the Greeks, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece, and beat the Athenians at the height of Athenian power.  But they were famously poor.  Please enjoy the following quote from Thucydides that I love dearly (I neglected to include this when I first published this post).  It comes at the beginning of his brilliant account of the Peloponnesian War. It seems to me incredibly far-sighted. The man had a proper sense of history, and makes a clear point: wealth does not equal power.”Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly skeptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.”  Source.   Emphasis added.
  3. Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered the persians, and the Egyptians, and the Greeks, and others too.  He did not have much more money.  Instead, he had a phalanx too, but one in which they got rid of their shields so they could hold longer spears.
  4. Rome, that pantheon of wealth and economic power, fell prey to relatively poor barbarian hordes.
  5. The mongols were poor nomadic peoples whose hordes conquered the wealthy Chinese civilization, the wealthy Persians, and many others.  Those steppe peoples had excellent cavalry, but very little money or economic power.
  6. The nomadic Arabs conquered Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Persia, the Byzantines, etc., and they also did not have incredible economic might.
  7. The English under queen Elizabeth went up against the mighty Spanish, who were far superior in money and arms, and yet were still defeated.

The list goes on…

It is hard to imagine this world because it is so different from our own.  Our basic understanding of geopolitics is thwarted.  Imagine if the richest countries in the world fearing invasion by poor neighbors who might covet foreign wealth.  This is a world where the United States would fear an invasion by Haiti, and where starving Haitians figure they might try their hand at an invasion, since, after all, it might succeed.

In theory, I like the old world.  I like the romance of powerful peasant countries.  But perhaps, in our new world order, war will become increasingly unlikely because a poor country can’t just invade a rich country because they covet foreign wealth.  But it also means that the rich will get richer, and their wealth will be unavailable to the poor, even if they are incredible soldiers led by Alexander the Great himself.

But maybe I am wrong.  But what about Vietnam?   What about Afghanistan?  Aren’t these modern examples of the little economy beating the big economy?  Perhaps, or perhaps these are exceptions that prove the rule, or perhaps victory of the little guy over the big guy is still possible—at least when the little guy’s military equipment is being shipped in from rival big guys’.

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

4 responses to “Money is Power—Since Last Week Maybe

  • Jer Clifton

    I forgot to include this quote that I love, written by Thucydides at the beginning of his brilliant account of the Peloponnesian War. It seems to me incredibly far-sighted. The man had a proper sense of history. And that wealth did not equal power.

    “Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly sceptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.”

    http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/thucydides/thucydides-passages.php?pleaseget=1.10-14

  • Whit

    to the fourth grader inside of me’s chagrin, Sparta is to North Korea, as South Korea is to Athens. North Korea get’s ebbed out by Turkmenistand and slightly bests Nepal in GDP, yet they hold (even nukes aside) East Asia’s Geopolitics hostage for vast slices of the year.
    Yet still, this isn’t the story. Sparta, who groomed itself for combat, was not impressive for winning the Peloponnesian War. It is Athens, who almost won it, who was impressive. After I found out how cool Spartans were my fourth grade heart had a hard time wrapping it’s head around why it was so hard for Sparta to beat Athens. Athens; who zealously bickered over politics, Athens, who loved the theater, Athens who philosophized, that loved architecture, good wine and good points – went toe to toe with the most esteemed warriors that ever lived.
    What young me didn’t understand was this:
    Men who love – love something more then themselves – are ferocious creatures indeed.
    now that love sometimes never exists on either side of conflicts. But if it does it’s heft rivals the war chests of Persia, it’s stomp is Hannibal’s elephants, sails like a hundred aircraft carriers, and it’s hordes march to the rhythm of a thousand bagpipes, and you cannot track that, not with a thousand blood hounds, and you cannot break it, not with a thousand swords, ooops, yep, that’s from the princess bride. Time to be done.
    -peace

    • Jer Clifton

      btw, I am reading Tides of War and loving it. It’s pretty much true to the historical narrative.

      I’m glad you brought up Korea. However, if south and North korea went toe to toe in a long conventional war, with no one else involved, the south would win, hands down. (actually I’m not sure about that, what do you think. The north would have the initial advantage because they have such a large standing army, so perhaps they would take the south before the North starved to death).

      You are a bit off about Sparta though. The Athenians never went “toe to toe” with the spartans. Not really. They never invaded the Peloponnese, and when the Spartans invaded Attica, they hid behind their long walls season after season. They did not fight them in sicily (one general), and then they fought the spartans, but really fought them at Sea, which was the Athenian domain.

      You are right though that men who love something more than themselves are ferocious creatures indeed. Which is why all good soldiers are red meat conservatives like yourself : )

  • Whit

    nope, yep, so true, they never really did. (which is weird right, never thought about siege equipment, really? Being the best warrior means being the best at winning, not the best at sword fighting. The Spartan’s definitely could have used some more philosophy.) But my point was: If your army isn’t made up of conscripts, and your countryside believes in the cause, than that’s still a pivotal factor, just like always. (as important of a calculation as technological and industrial superiority; you can win without it, sure – but if you don’t make allowances for it, even in this modern time, it can still be an army’s undoing.) I’d also argue that communication advances changed things in warfare as much, if not more, then industrialization. This is snazzy position to hold because communication technology took off at the same time as the swiftly repeating rifle and bazookas and interchagable parts, so it’s hard to prove wrong. (but somebody should.) (you should: would the world today look all that different if all we had were muskets but we still progressed to the internet and cell phones, and radios and sat-phones on the battle field? Kind of a stupid question, but humor me. [I say it’s the radio, not the gatling gun, that made the greater impact on war])
    As for the Koreas, I totally agree, like the anti-climatic ending of War of The Wards, South Korea could be forced back down to Pusan and suddenly a Morgan Freeman voice-over would bast: “from the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, and oh fuck had no food, they were doomed.”
    However, considering Seoul is a C-hair away from the 38th parallel, South Korea is in a lose lose situation should war break out. Again, being the best warrior means being the best at winning; so in this case -war means losing. So the best warriors in South Korea are slimy silver tongued politicians.

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