War and peace

What prompts nations to surrender or fight on?

War, so the saying goes, is hell. Ending a war, it appears, isn’t easy either.

“There is voluminous literature on the causes of war, but very little about…how international and intranational conflicts actually end,” says Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, assistant professor of political science.

Taliaferro, whose forthcoming book, Balancing Risks: Great Power Intervention in the Periphery (Cornell University Press, 2004), looks at how nations become involved in regional conflicts, is now turning his attention to the question of how conflicts conclude—in particular, what motivates the political decisions that lead to surrender or to continued combat.

U.S. Army Third Infantry Division soldiers secure a field near Najaf, Iraq. © AP Photo/John Moore

“What leads major states to make the decision to capitulate?” Taliaferro asks. “What makes them make the decision to fight on?”

Drawing on two schools of thought—one from international relations, the other from psychology—Taliaferro believes that leaders may choose to capitulate for reasons more complex than they first appear.

To test his hypothesis, he is focusing his attention on events associated with the conclusion of the 20th century’s two bloodiest conflicts: the call for armistice by Germany at the end of World War I and the unconditional surrender by Japan that signaled the end of World War II.

“It’s puzzling in the sense that in both cases, their adversaries did not control significant portions of the nation,” Taliaferro says. “Germany was intact in 1918, and in 1945, the Allies only controlled the southernmost portion of Japan, which was the least valuable. So it’s puzzling.”

The two bodies of literature that Taliaferro is drawing upon for his pilot project are “defensive realism” and “prospect theory,” a concept that has been used to explain the behavior of stock market investors.

Defensive realism holds that in essence, the main concern of individual states is avoiding a diminishment of power. In the framework of defensive realism, the ability to “live to fight another day” is the motivating factor behind the behavior of states on the international stage. Prospect theory, meanwhile, holds that in general, people are inclined to avoid risk, unless they feel secure and believe the risk will bring them gain.

Taliaferro hopes to merge the two theories and see if the resulting framework better explains the actions of the German and Japanese leadership during the last days of the world wars—and whether it can be applied to other historical and current events.

In the summer and fall of 1918, Germany was in bad shape. In September, advancing Allied troops broke through the Hindenburg line, a defensive system of fortifications and trenches. In October, German sailors mutinied rather than continue fighting. Germany’s ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had shattered. At home the, economy was in shambles, and people were starving.

Yet, Taliaferro points out, all was not lost. “The western Allies had not entered Germany,” he says. “There was no large, imminent invasion. Unlike [World War II], Germany was not fighting a two-front war, since the Russians had left in 1917. Germany had miles of territory to the east.”

In August 1945, of course, Japan had been rocked by the impact of two atomic bombs. But, Taliaferro points out, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9, yet Japan did not surrender until August 14. Why the delay?

In both cases, Taliaferro said, leaders may have been motivated by factors other than the immediate situation. “For national leaders, there comes a point where the magnitude of loss is so great, so tremendous, that the relationship reverts to a survival level.”

It is difficult to separate the “end” of a war from the stream of historical events, Taliaferro says.

“To some extent, war never ends—that’s reality. And war never really begins—that’s reality, too,” Taliaferro says. “I could argue that since 1789, the United States has been involved in undeclared conflicts, starting with the war on the Barbary pirates.”

This is even more true with our most recent wars. “Vietnam—when did it begin? You could make the case it began on August 16, 1945,” when World War II ended, he says. Did the war in Iraq begin on March 23—or was it when the special ops forces first entered the country? Or, “you could make a convincing case” it began on January 16, 1991, with the start of Operation Desert Storm, Taliaferro says.

It will be even more difficult to determine an end to the new kind of war the United States is now fighting—the war on terrorism. “We have gone to war against a phenomenon, and it’s very hard to declare victory against randomized violence in defense of political objectives,” he says. “It’s one thing to keep the United States mobilized for four decades fighting Communism—another thing to fight something as diffuse as terrorism.”