Dan Reiter


On his book How Wars End

Cover Interview of December 31, 2009

The wide angle

I started thinking about this book in the early 2000s.  On the policy side, in 2002 the George W. Bush administration announced the National Security Strategy, sometimes called the Bush Doctrine, which declared, among other things, that the United States could not trust rogue states to abide by their international commitments to eschew weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorist groups.  Facing these new threats, the U.S. would reserve the option of attacking and overthrowing these regimes.  This policy was the intellectual foundation of the 2003 decision to invade Iraq.  The assumption was that Saddam Hussein had violated and would violate United Nations Security Council Resolutions to abandon weapons of mass destruction, and so the only solution was to oust him from power.

In the book, I develop a general argument which helps put the Bush Doctrine into a larger context.  I also talk about whether or not the American national interest is served by launching wars which seek to unseat dictators who support terrorists or who seek nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

On the scholarly side, several political scientists around that time talked about this idea that war is political, and were crafting arguments about how leaders end wars when the costs of fighting escalate or the perceived chances of winning diminish.  But I noticed that there were lots of wars which seemed to drag on and on even as the costs of war escalated.  Furthermore, some belligerents refused to negotiate even as they were clearly losing.  These wars struck me as historical puzzles worth exploring.

How Wars End contains case studies from the American Civil War, World War I, the 1939-1940 Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, World War II, and the Korean War, offering solutions to several of the historical puzzles in which belligerents fought on even when the costs of war were mounting and the likelihood of victory seemed to be decreasing.

For instance, why didn’t the Confederacy accept President’s Lincoln’s February 1865 peace deal when the war was clearly lost?  In early 1918, why didn’t Germany accept peace and a prewar status quo with Britain and France after it had defeated Russia and conquered huge swaths of territory in the East?  During World War II, why did Japan refuse to negotiate for years, even though many in the Japanese leadership knew the war was lost as early as the 1942 Guadalcanal campaign?  Why, after the North Korean invasion of South Korea, did President Truman decide to pursue the conquest of North Korea before the military tide had turned in the favor of the U.S. and South Korea?  Why did Truman then abandon that goal after China intervened in fall 1950?  And why did the Korean War drag on in bloody pointlessness for two more years after the front settled into stalemate in 1951?