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War and “The Law of Unintended Consequences”

by Robert Brent Toplin on Oct 5, 2001

Robert Brent Toplin

President Bush has declared a “war” on terrorists and expressed his determination to smoke out the villains responsible for the terrible assaults of Sept. 11 as well as other vicious attacks of the past decade. He wants firm action to bring the guilty parties to justice and to prevent future episodes of terrorism.

What kind of war will the United States mount to deal with the threat? Will the country participate in a cautious, limited effort backed by support from many nations around the world, as advocated by Secretary of State Colin Powell? Or will war come in the form of numerous military strikes that engage the U.S. armed forces broadly, not only in Afghanistan but in other countries, as some of the president’s trigger-eager advisers recommend? We should hope for the former, because a massive response in bullets and bombs may not produce the results envisioned by some of the gung-ho strategists in Washington.

Consider what happened in the past under what some people call the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” This rule is a variant of Murphy’s Law, the familiar notion that if anything can go wrong, it will. Unintended consequences seem to occur with the gravest results in war. Large-scale military engagements can shake up political, economic and social conditions profoundly. Big wars often produce extraordinary changes over the years — changes not foreseen by those who planned the initial actions.

Examples of unintended consequences can be seen in the record of three conflicts in the 20th century: World War I, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War:

Shooting in 1914 began after leaders and citizens in a few countries enthusiastically demanded action in response to perceived insults and grievances. But the fighting did not produce quick and glorious victories. Instead, it burned on for four years and resulted in the death of tens of millions. The Great War (as it was called) created chaos in Russia, and offered an opportunity for a communist minority to seize power and begin a nightmare of dictatorship and oppression. These repercussions not only brought misery to the Russian people but led eventually to a dangerous Cold War. In Germany, similarly, serious postwar economic dislocations and a troublesome peace settlement contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s.

The Vietnam War also had unintended consequences. American engagement in Indo-China began as support for a popular struggle to stop communism, but it produced outcomes that took American strategists by surprise, even though they might have known better. When President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated America’s combat role in Vietnam in 1965, he did not anticipate that U.S. participation would stretch for eight more years, leaving 58,000 Americans dead and a third of a million wounded. He did not imagine that his commitment would quickly split U.S. society into bitterly contending ranks of “hawks” and “doves.”

Nor did Johnson envision that the fighting in Vietnam would affect conditions in neighboring Cambodia and push that neutral nation into years of communism and mass murder. And, of course, the president did not expect that ultimately American intervention would undermine rather than strengthen America’s international image.

The admirable struggle in 1991 to defend Kuwait from Iraqís invasion in the Persian Gulf War also produced surprising developments. The American enthusiasm for military engagement achieved a quick victory over Iraq, but Saddam Hussein remained in power and became more eager than ever to sponsor terrorism and develop weapons of mass destruction.

Further, American military engagement also provoked some extremists in the Middle East to declare a holy war against the United States. These zealots cared little that the principal American aim in the Persian Gulf conflict was to rescue a Muslim society from the grips of an aggressive, invading neighbor led, ironically, by a secular government. Instead, their distorted interpretation of the events led to the conclusion that the West, especially the United States, was a violent enemy of Islam. Their warped arguments, not shared by most Muslims, grew more influential through the 1990s. These reactions demonstrated once again that wars often create unexpected effects.

What are the implications of the Law of Unintended Consequences for today’s planners in Washington? The lessons should be clear. U.S. strategists need to work energetically to anticipate problems that have the potential of spinning out of control. The most evident immediate danger is the risk of losing the strong sympathy for the U.S. that has been expressed by peoples all over the world since the terrible disasters of Sept. 11. In the long run this international trust can prove more important than military actions.

America’s struggle to improve security and crush terrorist violence will depend heavily on cooperation from many nations, including countries in the Middle East. Bush now faces an extraordinary challenge. He has to combat terrorism effectively but also guard against alienating people in societies that are divided between admiration for the United States and suspicion of its influence. If the president’s actions unexpectedly destroy the international mood of good will toward America, the United States and the world could move along a dangerous course marked by unintended consequences.


Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.