Rough Draft 2/8/00 accidental war in theory and practice

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Rough Draft 2/8/00


Scott D. Sagan

Department of Political Science

Stanford University

Stanford, CA 94305-2044




Has There Ever Been an Accidental War?

In the large literature on the causes of war, there is a stark contrast in the ways in which political scientists and historians view the concept of "accidental war" or "inadvertent war." The possibility that a war might occur "by accident" -- produced by the inadvertent dynamics of military organizations or systems, rather than by incompatible political intentions -- has played a central role in the way political scientists think about the causes of war in general and especially the risks of nuclear war.1 In the major works by historians on the causes of war, however, the whole idea of accidental war is either conspicuous by its absence or explicitly dismissed as conceptually confused and historically irrelevant.

Indeed, among historians there appears to be a consensus that there has never been an "accidental war." Geoffrey Blainey's The Causes of War, for example, reaches the conclusion that "no wars are unintended or `accidental':"

The idea of `unintentional war' and `accidental war' seems misleading. The sudden vogue for these concepts in the nuclear age reflects not only a justifiable nervousness about war but also the backward state of knowledge about the causes of war.2

Blainey's position reflects a wide-spread opinion among modern military and diplomatic historians. Michael Howard states that "however inchoate or disreputable the motives for war may be, its initiation is almost by definition a deliberate and carefully considered act...if history shows any record of `accidental' wars, I have yet to find them."3 "I know of no war in modern times," Bernard Brodie similarly wrote, "that one could truly call accidental in the sense that it came about despite both sides having a strong aversion to it, through not seeing where their diplomatic moves were taking them."4 Evan Luard's review of the causes of wars from 1300 to 1985 similarly concludes that "throughout the whole period of history we have been surveying it is impossible to identify a single case in which it can be said that a war started accidently: in which it was not, at the time when war broke out, the deliberate intention of at least one party that war should take place."5

In short, war is conceived by these historians in pure Clausewitzian terms. It is a rational tool controlled and used by statesmen to achieve important political objectives. Wars do not begin by accident.

Has there ever been an accidental war? One purpose of this essay is to answer "yes" to that specific question: this is an effort, an "existence proof" if you will, to provide the logic and evidence that cuts against the historian's consensus. A broader purpose of the piece, however, is to provide a better analytic framework for understanding the phenomenon of accidental war in general. What does it mean to say that a war was accidental or inadvertent? How should one assess such claims?

The essay has three basic parts. First, I will define the concept of accidental war and provide, through use of an analogy between accidental war and automobile accidents, a typology of scenarios that could be realistically produce an accidental war. Second, I will present in some detail an historical example of each of these types of an accidental war. Finally, I will discuss the significance of this concept for our theories about the causes of war in the past and, unfortunately, in the future as well.
Definitions and Analogies

The terms "accidental war" and "inadvertent war" could have many different meanings.6 Sometimes the terms have been used rather promiscuously to refer to any war in which such common factors as misperceptions of an adversary's intent, overconfidence in crises, imperfect decision-making processes, or miscalculation of the consequences of war played some role in the conflict. This is not helpful: by this loose definition, most wars in history could be seen as accidental. More commonly, however, the terms are used in the literature to refer to the idea that war could break out, at least in theory, not because it served the basic political interests of states or statesmen, but rather because of some unintended consequence of the structure or operations of military organizations. The theory of accidental war is therefore based on the insight that military organizations are, like other complex organizations and machines, inherently imperfect and therefore subject to break-downs and accidents. In this light, professional military organizations are seen as tools of national security, but tools that take on a life of their own and are very difficult to statesmen to control when implementing the state's security policy in an international crisis. Could these difficulties in organizational control be so intense that they could produce a war even when statesmen on both sides believe that there is "no fundamental basis for an attack" (to use Thomas Schelling's term7)?

Decisions, Counterfactuals, and Accidents

It is this more narrow conception of accidental war which has produced the large conceptual gap between political scientists and modern historians. As Marc Trachtenberg nicely summarizes the historian's central perspective:

The professional diplomatic historians as a rule never paid much attention to the military side of the story. While military power as such was always seen as very important, the coming of war was never viewed as the product of a dynamic that was largely military in nature. We all took if for granted that war was essentially the outcome of political conflict.8

But what does it mean to say that a war was "essentially the outcome of political conflict" and not an accident caused by a "dynamic that was largely military" in character? Certainly the "test" used by the historians cited above to asses the "political conflict theory" and criticize the "accidental war theory" is inadequate. In each of their works, the historians have an exceedingly narrow definition of accident in mind. For them, the simple fact that a choice or a decision to use military force was made implies that some degree of intent existed and that the war was therefore not accidental. One should note the language of soft rational choice at play here. Blainey, for example, argues that "there can be no war unless at least two nations prefer war to peace."9 Howard refers to "a deliberate and carefully considered act;" Brodie finds statesmen seeing where the diplomatic "moves" are taking them; and Luard states that war has always been "the deliberate intention" of one party "at the time when war broke out" in the discussions quoted above.

This definition of a "non-accidental" war -- that someone "decided" to initiate the use of force -- is highly misleading. Indeed, both accidental acts and deliberate actions usually involved some sort of decision. The point can perhaps best be made through the use of an analogy.

We all recognize that there are such things as automobile accidents. Yet, very few car crashes would be automobile "accidents" by the historians' logic since individuals "decide" or "choose" to steer their cars into other objects. Drivers "prefer" to veer to the left, instead of the right. They make a "deliberate" decision to switch lanes when a car is next to them. They "see" that they have "moved" into incoming traffic. They "intend" to enter the expressway, not knowing that it is a one-way ramp going in the opposite direction.

Individuals may still make decisions, and may still have their hands on the steering wheel, but they are involved in automobile accidents nonetheless. To continue the analogy, three pathways to an accidental war can be usefully compared to a kind of an automobile accidents: accidents can be caused by false warnings or information, by unauthorized activities, or by loss of control. In the body of this essay, each of these accident "scenarios" will be examined in some detail.

What does it mean, from a social science perspective, to call a war accidental? For a conflict to be considered an accidental war, there would have to be some activity or incident inside the military machine, without which war would not have occurred. It is not enough therefore to show that some military accident occurred and that it was the proximate cause of the outbreak of war; one must also argue that the war would not have occurred anyway. This obviously places the scholar squarely into the problematic world of counterfactuals, but there is little alternative to such thought experiments if we seek to understand whether a particular factor played "a very marginal role" or an essential role in causing any specific historical event.10

To make reasonable judgements in such matters it is essential, in my view, to avoid the common "fallacy of overdetermination." Looking backwards at historical events, it is always tempting to underestimate the importance of the immediate causes of a war and argue that the likelihood of conflict was so high that the war would have broken out sooner or later even without the specific incident that set it off. If taken too far, however, this tendency eliminates the role of contingency in history and diminishes our ability to perceive the alternative pathways that were present to historical actors.

The point is perhaps best made through a counterfactual about the Cold War. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a bizarre false warning incident in the U.S. radar systems facing Cuba led officers at the North American Air Defense Command to believe that the U.S. was under attack and that a nuclear weapon was about to go off in Florida.11 Now imagine the counterfactual event that this false warning was reported and believed by U.S. leaders and resulted in a U.S. nuclear "retaliation" against the Russians. How would future historians have seen the causes of World War III? One can easily imagine arguments stressing that the war between the U.S. and the USSR was inevitable. War was overdetermined: given the deep political hostility of the two superpowers, the conflicting ideology, the escalating arms race, nuclear war would have occurred eventually. If not during that specific crisis over Cuba, then over the next one in Berlin, or the Middle East, or Korea. From that perspective, focusing on this particular accidental event as a cause of war would be seen as misleading. Yet, we all now know, of course that a nuclear war was neither inevitable nor overdetermined during the Cold War.

Has there ever been an accidental war? In each brief case study offered below, I will first discuss the type of "accident" that occurred. I will then assess the likelihood that war would not have occurred had not that specific military incident taken place.

Scenario #1: False Warnings or Faulty Information

The political authorities who decide whether or not to go to war, must make the choices based upon warnings and information provided to them by others. Sometimes this information is false. If the county road crew placed the wrong signs on the expressway ramp, leading drivers to enter the road in the wrong direction, an accident would occur despite the driver having the "intent" to drive as he did. Similarly, a statesman who made a calculated decision to "retaliate" or "initiate" a conflict after having received inaccurate information that an adversary had already started or was about to start combat operations, would be launching an accidental war based on a false warning.

At a tactical level, it is clear that false warnings can precipitate accidental attacks and individual skirmishes, through a mistaken belief that the other side has fired or is about to fire first. The 1987 Vincennes Incident is a prominent example of an accidental attack and the Battle of Wounded Knee is a famous case of a false warning producing an accidental skirmish.12 But such incidents, however tragic, are not wars. Has there ever been a war that was caused by a such false warning events?
The Seven Years War in North America

Perhaps the best example of a major war caused by false warning incidents is the Seven Years War in North America, commonly (but inaccurately) known in the United States as "the French and Indian War."13 Many historians have traditionally viewed the French and Indian War of 1755 as the inevitable result of British and French imperial rivalries on the North American continent, with the immediate political issue at stake being the ownership of the Ohio Valley. More recent historical research, however, has shown that the British and French governments did not place sufficient value on the Ohio Valley so as to intend to fight a major war over the territory. (Indeed, in the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the French and British had not cared enough about the Ohio territory to even mention it.14) Instead, the war was the result of a set of false warnings to the government in London that the French had encroached upon British colonial territory and thereby threatened the security of the colonial communities.

Patrice Higonnet's important 1968 study provided the first sustained argument that the conflict was an accidental war:

No one wanted to fight this war. It would never have occurred if, in their sincere efforts to resolve it, the French and the British governments had not inadvertently magnified its insignificant original cause into a wider conflict. The coming of the Seven Years' War owes more to diplomatic misconception efficiently achieved than to `the course of history.'15

Three specific false warning incidents sparked the war. First, starting in 1753, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie repeatedly sent reports to London and to other British colonial governors that the French had encroached directly onto British claimed land and appeared to be planning an attack on Virginia. In June 1753, he wrote an official letter to the British Board of Trade (the body that oversaw the colonial governments at the time) falsely claiming that ongoing French excursions into the Ohio valley were part of "an impending French invasion" of the British colonies.16 Second, the fears produced by this warning were compounded by the claims of the Earl of Halifax, head of the Board of Trade, when he reported on Dinwiddie's letter to the cabinet in London in August 1753. Halifax claimed that the French had moved into territory "not more that 200 to 250 miles from the Sea Coast," including area inside Pennsylvania territory, which had resulted in "Your Majesty's subjects having abandoned their settlements in a great Panick."17 (In reality, no English settlements had been abandoned and, indeed, Virginian colonialists were so unenthusiastic about the prospects of fighting the French over minor forts on lands far from their settlements that Dinwiddie later had severe difficulties recruiting colonial soldiers for military operations there.18) Given this information, the London cabinet authorized Dinwiddie to "repel Force by Force" within "the undoubted limits of His Majesty's Dominions," which Dinwiddie interpreted to mean anywhere in the Ohio Valley, eventually sending a small detachment of troops under the command of George Washington who initiated a skirmish with a small French and Indian force and retreated to his new base camp, Fort Necessity.19

Fort Necessity was attacked and captured by the French on July 4, 1754. In the mean time, a third false warning incident occurred in Massachusetts territory, which appeared to be independent confirmation of French intent to invade the British colonies. In April 1754, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley reported to London that the French had made a fort or a settlement on the Kennebec River, which was clearly inside British colonial territory. This too was painted as a direct threat to the security of the colonies: if the French are permitted to stay, Shirley wrote, "there may be a Danger of their soon becoming Masters of the whole River Kennebeck; which Event would prove destructive to His Majesty's Subjects within this Province, and greatly Affect the Security of his Territories within the other Colonies of New England."20 Although this report turned out to be completely inaccurate, as the Massachusetts' soldiers found out when they eventually reached the site of the non-existent French settlement, the British cabinet and the Duke of Newcastle resolved upon receiving Shirley's letter and the report of the fall of Fort Necessity, to take immediate military actions against all French forces in North America. British regulars were therefore dispatched to the American colonies in September 1754; the French and Indian War had begun.

In the final analysis, what was the causal effect of these false warning incidents? Given their conflicts of interest concerning the balance of power in Europe at the time, it is certainly possible that a war between the French and British would have occurred anyway in the 1750s, without these events in North America. It is also possible, however, that even in the event of a military conflict between the two powers in Europe, war in North America could have been avoided altogether or severely limited between the colonial territories. What appears clear is that in 1753 neither London nor Paris sought to take complete control over the Ohio Valley. Without these false warning incidents, leading to the major war in 1754, the eventual division of the North America continent between France and Great Britain would have been settled by a significantly different set of negotiations and conflicts.

Scenario #2: Unauthorized Acts

Military forces are large and complex organizations, in which a significant degree of decentralized decision-making is inevitably involved. Decisions by subordinate individuals, if not authorized, can produce accidents from the perspective of the higher authority. If one is driving down a crowded highway and one's five year old son grabs the wheel to watch the car bump the pretty yellow bus on the outside lane, the resulting crash would be an accident from the driver's perspective even though the child "intended" to turn the wheel. Similarly, if an unauthorized action by a subordinate military commander caused a war, it would be an accidental war from the perspective of the central authorities.

In the fog of war, many individual battles are started by unauthorized acts. This is inevitable given the decentralized nature of military combat. But have their been wars caused by such acts?

The Japanese Invasion of Manchuria

The 1931 Manchurian Incident, in which Japanese Kwantung Army units attacked Chinese forces in Mukden and then conquered all of Manchuria is perhaps the most clear-cut historical example of unauthorized activities by military officers causing a war which was unintended and therefore "accidental" from the perspective of the central political authorities. Serious disagreements between senior military officers and leading civilian official over policy in Manchuria existed in the late 1920s, as Japanese officers often expressed the desire to take direct military control over the territory and Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi consistently opposed such action. The willingness of the military to act in an unauthorized manner was heightened, however, by the Imperial cabinet's approval of the London Naval Treaty in April 1930, against the strong opposition of the Navy and Army General Staffs.21 In early 1931, senior officers in the Kwantung Army feared that the Tokyo government might reach a negotiated settlement concerning rights in Manchuria with the Chinese Government and decided to take matters into their own hands, "even if it means flouting the mother country."22 Secret contingency plans for a military conquest of Manchuria were drafted: Because the Kwantung Army was outnumbered by Chinese forces in the territory, the plans called for an overnight take-over of key areas of the south, after a manufactured bomb incident on the Mukden railroad provided an excuse for such aggression, to be followed by rapid offensive operations in the north.23

In the summer of 1931, government officials in Tokyo got wind of the plan. The imperial court and elder statesmen urged caution and the Army General Staff sent a senior officer to Manchuria to warn the Kwantung officers their against taking such actions. On the night he arrived, however, the Japanese Kwangtung Army took over the city of Mukden, ostensibly to protect the railroad facilities after an explosion there, and took advantage of the resulting fighting to attack Chinese military units through out Manchuria.

There is a virtual consensus in the historical literature that neither the initial Mukden incident nor the rapid expansion of the conflict were authorized by the senior members of the Tokyo government, who repeatedly sought to bring an end to the campaign in Manchuria against the Chinese forces.24 According to Akira Iriye, Kwantung "staff officers frequently fabricated crises, accumulated faits accomplis without obtaining prior endorsement from Tokyo, and privately complained of the supreme command's attitude."25 Indeed, defiance of Tokyo's wishes went beyond ordering unauthorized infantry assaults and bombing attacks; senior Kwantung Army officers were even rumored at the time to have boasted that they would declare an independent Manchuria and use it as a base for a coup-d'etat against the Tokyo government, if their efforts to conquer the territory were stymied by the central authorities.26

In short, while the war in Manchuria was "intentional" from the perspective of the senior officers of the Kwangtung Army, it was clearly "inadvertent or accidental" from the perspective of the Japanese government in Tokyo.27 Without the unauthorized actions of the Kwangtung Army, it is likely, though by no means certain, that the war would have been avoided. The central government in Tokyo had no intent to initiate direct military conflict with China at that time, had strong incentives to avoid the resulting political conflict with the international community over Manchuria, and had entered serious negotiations over control of Manchuria. The fact that the leaders of the Kwantung Army started the Mukden incident precisely because they feared that these negotiations would produce a peaceful compromise over Manchuria is the best evidence that the war could have been avoided.

Scenario #3: Loss of Control

Many automobile accidents, and by analogy many concerns about accidental war, fall under a third general category: the "loss of control" scenario in which individuals take a risky action, threatening, but not intending, to produce collision, but that is what occurs when the individual "loses control" of the automobile. Imagine two drivers arriving at an intersection at the same time. Both have an interest in crossing as quickly as possible and both therefore try to signal the other that they are going first by immediately moving into the intersection. Both drivers are jockeying for position: although neither intends for there to be an accident, both consciously raise the risks of a crash by continuing to move forward in an attempt to convince the other driver that he or she should slow down and stop first. Once this process begins, however, it is certainly possible that one or both of them will not stop in time. Perhaps one driver's foot slips off the steering wheel, or there is failure in the brake peddle, or both step on the accelerator at the same time. Neither driver intended to cause an accident, although both accepted, indeed deliberately created, some risk of a crash when they entered the intersection.

Although variants of this "loss of control" scenario are often seen in the theoretical and emperical literature concerning "games of chicken " or "brinkmanship" in international crises, assessing whether any war that results from such a process should be labeled as an accidental war is a complex matter. Just as there can be numerous reasons why drivers may fail to stop busy intersections, there may be many reasons why statesmen fail to avoid a war in a crisis. Different cases can therefore differ significantly in the degree to which even an unintended "collision" should be considered accidental in nature. U.S. tort law takes this into account by requiring that an assessment be made concerning whether the driver was driving recklessly or reasonably when courts assign responsibility for "unintended accidents." The degree of negligence, not original intent of the actor, is the issue at stake: a driver, for example, who had an unanticipated epileptic seizure or whose brake pads unexpectedly blew out while in the intersection, is not held responsible for a resulting accident; while, in contrast, the driver who did not care whether he or she hit another car, or was drunk, or knowingly drove a car with no brakes into the intersection would be responsible for the crash.28

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