The Road to Hell: Conclusions

Given this litany of disastrous invasions and bloody occupations, why do politicians continue to insist that their armies will be welcomed with open arms?

Oct. 29, 1962: U.S. President John F. Kennedy meets with Gen. David Shoup (left) Marine Corps Commandant, and Adm. George Anderson, at the White House after receiving word that the the Soviet Union had agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba. William J Smith /

As a matter of international law, humanitarian motives and claims of liberation continue to be made simply because they represent the last remaining justification for war itself. As political theorist Michael Walzer points out in Just and Unjust Wars.

“The defense of rights… is the only reason [for waging war]. The legalist paradigm rules out every other sort of war. Preventive wars, commercial wars, wars of expansion and conquest, religious crusades, revolutionary wars, military interventions – all these are barred and barred absolutely, in much the same way as their domestic equivalents are ruled out in municipal law.”

Invasions, therefore, need to be recast as rescue efforts in order to adhere to international law, drum up domestic public support and deflect criticism. But the necessity and the utility of justifying wars on humanitarian grounds doesn’t mean that the claims themselves should be automatically dismissed. Instead they should be understood as an essential part of the strategic optimism that Blainey identified as one of the key precursors to war. 

Rather than treating lofty claims of ‘liberating compatriots abroad’ or exporting ‘freedom and democracy’ as empty rhetoric, we should recognise such statements as symptoms of an infectious political delusion. These statements should warn us that those in charge are in the process of convincing both their audience and themselves that their decision to intervene will be welcomed by those on the receiving end of air strikes and artillery. Like John F. Kennedy in 1962, they are arguing that this time it will be different.

What can we learn from this historical pattern?

One thing that seems abundantly clear is that assumptions of local support, or even popular indifference, often prove catastrophic – first for the invaders and then for the invaded. These assumptions distort planning decisions at every level by interfering with the grim calculus of war – taking daunting estimates of force ratios, expected casualties, fuel and ammunition burn-rates and replacing them with fantasies of open arms and adoring crowds. From the French Grenadiers who marched across the Pyrenees in 1808 to the Russian tank crews that rolled across the Ukrainian frontier in 2022, invading armies continue to succumb to the wishful thinking of their political leaders. 

During the planning stage, this particular strand of optimism undoubtedly makes military objectives seem less daunting. Invasions that might otherwise be considered too risky are granted approval in expectation that locals will rally behind the invaders. Hence, in 1941, assumptions of support from dissident Cretans helped reassure Nazi officials who should have been sceptical of any plan that hinged on a mass aerial invasion. Likewise, Le Duan’s conviction that South Vietnam was on the verge of insurrection in 1967 was crucial to gaining approval for his Tet Offensive from the Hanoi Politburo, and his failure to read the public mood arguably doomed the operation to failure before it had even begun. 

Once infected with false hopes of liberation even otherwise pessimistic leaders show a willingness to roll the iron dice. Kennedy may have privately doubted his chances of triggering a Cuban counter-revolution with a handful of mercenaries but he still signed off on a plan that included ships filled with tanks and weapons for their presumptive local allies. 

Sometimes this wishful thinking results in an immediate catastrophic failure – as Kennedy’s Cuban paramilitaries experienced upon landing at the Bay of Pigs. But, more often, initial setbacks are followed by hasty contingency plans that call for a dramatic escalation on the part of the invaders. Small wars become large wars which spill across borders, draw in other factions and drag on for years at a time.

This pattern of underestimation followed by overcompensation can be seen in the U.S. strategy in Vietnam which began with a handful of military advisors and culminated in a series of massive aerial bombing campaigns. It can also be seen in the U.S. ‘troop surge’ in Iraq in 2007 and in the ‘partial mobilisation’ hastily carried out by Russia in response to recent setbacks in Ukraine. Under these circumstances the fallacy of liberation gives way to another common fallacy – that of the ‘sunk cost’.

As always, the main victims are those living in the invaded territory – who bear the brunt of the initial invasion and then have to contend with the shambolic occupation that inevitably follows. As the invaders scramble to establish local authority, residents find themselves having to choose between a weak and capricious occupation force and an uncompromising resistance movement. For those living in the warzone the dilemma is not whether to collaborate, but who to collaborate with.

In June 1941 the village of Kandanos in Western Crete (Greece) was burned and roughly 180 of its inhabitants were executed by German occupation forces in reprisal for acts of resistance. The photo shows a German soldier standing in front of one of the signs erected after the razing. The text reads: “Kandanos was destroyed in retaliation for the bestial ambush murder of a paratrooper platoon and a half-platoon of military engineers by armed men and women.”

The fallacy of liberation also tells us that propaganda and disinformation are not precision instruments. History shows that when states broadcast comforting lies and assurances to the general public they also risk outbreaks of unfounded optimism in the halls of power. Sustained propaganda campaigns aimed at preparing the public for war invariably end up colouring the perceptions of soldiers and generals as well as those tasked with setting the strategy. This blowback effect appears to have influenced the U.S. invasions of Vietnam and Iraq and it has had enormous consequences for Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine.

This feedback loop extends beyond the planning phase. When invasions actually take place, early media depictions of triumph and gratitude play a major part in perpetuating the fallacy of liberation. By contriving a moment of public celebration in Baghdad’s Firdos Square the U.S. Army’s psychological-operations unit managed to convey the image of a successful liberation but, in the long run, this stunt led both U.S. officials and the American public to underestimate the steepness of the road that lay ahead of them. 

Likewise Putin’s carefully stage-managed victory parade in Crimea in 2014 undoubtedly helped cement his impression that Ukrainians wanted to be reunited with Russia. Thus, an event that should have been recognised (both domestically and abroad) as a public-relations exercise became part of the rationale for further claims on Ukrainian territory. This sort of self-deception might seem far-fetched but a host of psychological studies over the years suggest that awareness that one is participating in a charade doesn’t necessarily drain the experience of its emotional impact.

The lesson from all these conflicts is that members of any government or revolutionary political movement can easily end up trapped in their own media echo chamber – regardless of their level of education or the quality of their advisors. None of us are immune to bias and dictators might be more susceptible than most. As Irving Janis pointed out in his study of groupthink:

“The members of policy making groups, no matter how mindful they may be of their exulted national status and their heavy responsibilities, are subjected to the [same] pressures widely observed in ordinary citizens”

Understanding the architects of invasion

But how do we know that those responsible for waging war genuinely believe their own rhetoric? Did Kennedy believe that a handful of paramilitaries would be enough to kickstart a counter-revolution in Cuba? Did George W. Bush really think that U.S. troops would be welcomed by Iraqis? Or, to take a more recent example, did Vladimir Putin actually believe that a silent majority of Ukrainians were crying out to be liberated from a fascist junta in Kyiv?

Our instinctive outrage at the results of these interventions makes us want to dismiss these pronouncements as a cynical ploy to manipulate public opinion. We treat anyone taken in by this rhetoric as naïve fools with no appreciation for how the world really works. Instead, we come up with alternative explanations which appeal to our own prejudices. We might look back on Kennedy’s aggressive foreign policy as an attempt to prove that his administration wasn’t ‘soft’ on communism or we might chalk up George W. Bush’s fixation on Iraq to a family vendetta against Saddam Hussein or a risky attempt at self-aggrandisement.

The realists, on the other hand, reject the idea that personal and psychological factors play a significant part in decisions to go to war. According to their pragmatic model of international relations the Kennedy administration’s support for France in Indochina was a rational, if somewhat misguided, attempt to maintain the ‘balance of power’ between the United States and the Soviet Union. Likewise the Bush administration’s seemingly reckless decision to invade Iraq adhered to a certain realist logic. By deposing Saddam the United States could safeguard Israel –  its main regional ally – and exert pressure on oil prices via a friendly Iraqi government. 

In the western press, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also presented in these geopolitical terms. According to John Mearshimer, Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian territory should be understood as a direct response to NATO expansion into Russia’s historical ‘sphere of influence’ while Putin’s rhetoric about restoring Russia to its former glory should be dismissed as grist for the mill of domestic public opinion.

Even when world leaders provide an explicit manifesto outlining their ideology and intent it’s often ignored in favour of geopolitical, realist explanations. A year before the assault in Kyiv, Western commentators dismissed Putin’s lengthy screed, On The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, as just another smokescreen to justify the ongoing occupation of Crimea and Donbas. Few recognised it as a statement of intent regarding Ukraine as a whole.

There’s no doubt that it’s tempting to ignore claims of liberation when other explanations are available. Realist narratives, in particular, will always appeal because most of us want to believe that very consequential decisions – like the decision to go to war – are the product of careful deliberation and planning by those in power. At heart, the realist model is an optimistic one – allowing us to project sense onto senseless decisions and convince ourselves that there are steady, if somewhat calloused, hands on the wheel. In a perverse way, the idea that the Bush administration intended to convert the Iraqi state into a puppet regime to gain leverage over Iran and the gulf monarchies is more reassuring than that idea that those same political officials believed they could simply turn Iraq into a friendly liberal democracy at gunpoint and get the same result.

For the political scientists and scholars of international relations the realist school of thought has its own advantages. Morgenthau’s template allows analysts to find any country on a world map, look up its major exports and confidently hold forth on that country’s strategic imperatives. If the logic of realism applies just as well to Mongolia as it does to Monaco then there’s no need for policymakers to employ or consult specialists in particular regions. As journalist Tom Nichols pointed out in a recent Twitter thread.

“[realist theories] are seductive because they relieve scholars of knowing anything about the areas they’re talking about. No need to learn languages or master cultural knowledge.”

In the case of the U.S., this one-size-fits-all approach to analysis, combined with a fixation on WWII as a template for every subsequent conflict, has contributed to a string of military fiascos.

But realism, as it has been applied to international relations, is no different from other variants of this cynical ideology. Economics has its own realist thinkers and their conclusions are also based on the idea of a world populated by beings who are consistently rational and narrowly self-interested. These assumptions allow economists to create neat models but they don’t shed much light on how the world actually works. As British journalist Cory Doctorow put it – “realism is a demand dressed up as an observation”.

Ultimately, both psychological and realist explanations for war rest on the idea that policy makers harbour all sorts of ulterior motives for war. In the former case these motives are impulsive and irrational and, in the latter case, these motives are calculated and pragmatic, but both sides agree that ‘official’ justifications can be safely ignored.

Oct. 29, 1962: U.S. President John F. Kennedy meets with Gen. David Shoup (left) Marine Corps Commandant, and Adm. George Anderson, at the White House after receiving word that the the Soviet Union had agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba.

What can military history tell us?

The details of historical invasions offer an insight into the mindset of political and military strategists. By looking at the actual operational plans and the assumptions baked into them we can, to some extent, gauge the sincerity of those in charge. Choices of equipment, tactics, logistics, timings, rules of engagement and the overall order of battle all tell us something about what military planners expect to encounter. Time and time again these decisions reveal a sincere belief that invading forces will be welcomed as liberators.

History also gives us some idea of what military strategy looks like when planners expect widespread resistance. In 1945 U.S. officials produced eye-watering casualty estimates for their planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. These estimates were based on the U.S. Army’s recent, and very bloody, campaigns to capture Saipan and Okinawa – during which Japanese forces employed suicidal attacks in the air and on the ground to delay the U.S. advance. At the same time, the Japanese army pressed tens of thousands of local civilians into military service – threatening them with death to discourage surrender. These tactics led U.S. planners to estimate that a ground invasion of the main Japanese islands would cost somewhere between 250 and 500 thousand U.S. lives. Faced with the prospect of this bloodbath the newly-appointed U.S. President Harry Truman approved the use of prototype nuclear bombs which had been secretly under development.

The contrast between the current war in Ukraine and the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s ‘Prague Spring’ is similarly instructive. When the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, it mobilised 230,000 troops to secure a country with a fifth of the landmass and a third of the population of modern Ukraine. The plans for that operation were drawn up well in advance and the green light was given after extensive military exercises that served as both a pretext for mobilisation and a rehearsal for what would follow. Soviet leadership understood that their intervention would not be welcomed by Czechs and Slovaks and planned their invasion accordingly.

This is not to say that strategic optimism will always lead to military disaster or that pragmatic plans will always lead to military success. Terrible strategic decisions rooted in ignorance and misconceptions can still produce the desired outcome (case in point: the German invasion of Crete) and the best-laid plans can still lead to military disaster (despite months of meticulous planning the Tet Offensive failed to achieve any of its objectives and decimated the NLF in the process). 

Renowned German Field Marshal Moltke the Elder anticipated Murphy’s Law by a full century when he declared that “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength”. But even if we acknowledge the difficulty of prediction, Moltke’s warning at least assumed that war involved some sort of clash with a determined enemy. As several of our case studies have shown, many wars of the 20th century have been waged with little concern for the enemy and unfounded expectations of enthusiastic assistance from local allies. Ultimately, if realism guided foreign policy then we should, at the very least, see more realistic plans for invasion. Instead we see half-baked strategies built on ideological preconceptions and wishful thinking. 

What does this optimism tell us about war more generally? For one thing, it tells us that we should be wary of projecting our own cynicism towards military power onto our political leaders. The realists might dominate the academic debate over international relations but politicians and dictators often appear unaware or untroubled by the long history of failed invasions and nationalist resistance movements. It’s barely an exaggeration to point out that, over the last century, tens of millions of people have been condemned to death on the battlefield by political elites labouring under the Dunning-Kruger effect.

As American journalist Seymour Hersh noted in his book on the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (Chain of Command, 2004) – it’s difficult to gauge the sincerity of political leaders when they remain fundamentally divorced from reality: 

“There are many who believe George W. Bush is a liar, a President who knowingly and deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explication is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterances of the phrases make them real. It is a terrifying possibility.”

And this is the danger of looking at the world through a purely realist lens. By treating every foreign policy decision as a calculated move on some geopolitical chessboard we ignore the ever-present dangers of ideology, ignorance and wishful thinking. 

The grassroots of the fallacy of liberation

All that being said, we can’t lay the blame for the fallacy of liberation solely on optimistic or opportunistic heads of state. When we look back over the last two centuries it’s clear that claims of liberation are fed from two directions. Politicians and military officials make the claim from top-down in order to shore up public support for their war, while individual soldiers and members of the public make the claim from bottom-up in order to rationalise their role in what might otherwise seem like a criminal exercise. These two claims mutually reinforce one another – adding momentum to calls for intervention and making it all but impossible for states to reverse course once their expectations collide with reality. 

In some ways, the hunt for sincerity amongst political leaders misses the larger point – which is that simply declaring humanitarian objectives changes the way a war unfolds. Even when used as a smokescreen for some other strategic motive, claims of liberation take on a life of their own once they are conveyed to a wider audience. Both soldiers and civilians pick up the altruistic narrative and run with it because, despite our cherished cynicism, most of us want to believe that we are contributing to a righteous cause. This essential need for moral validation – to believe that one is doing the right thing – is arguably the most powerful contributor to the fallacy of liberation. 

A popular gag from the British sketch comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look depicts two Nazi officers on the eastern front of WWII engaged in some belated soul-searching. After considering the heavily skull-based iconography of the SS, one man turns to the other and asks “Are we the baddies?”.

The joke, of course, is that the Nazis should have immediately recognised that they were on the ‘wrong side of history’. But, as David Harrisville illustrated in his book on the myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’, the Nazi propaganda machine provided a range of justifications for war in order to reassure the rank and file. While it remains hard to understand how German soldiers managed to rationalise their involvement in the sort of routine atrocities carried out on the Eastern Front we can still see how their propaganda provided a scaffold for denial and deliberate ignorance. To paraphrase Rick James: ‘motivated reasoning is a helluva drug’.

When we say that all soldiers want to feel like they are fighting for a righteous cause we have to be careful not to draw false equivalences between conflicts and circumstances. Obviously there’s a vast difference between men like George Orwell who volunteered to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War and men like Otto Skorzeny who leapt at the opportunity to join Hitler’s Nazi Party. Ideology certainly plays an enormous part in how soldiers behave and yet Harisville’s research highlights the resilience of some of our more deep-seated human values. When it came to Nazi propaganda regarding the invasion of the Soviet Union, Harrisville reminds us that:

“The rhetoric of liberation and the actions that lent it a modicum of credibility were grounded in traditional, universalist moral principles, such as the value of all human life, the importance of freedom for all peoples, and the imperative to help those in need”

Clearly a case can be made that fascist stormtroopers, cigar-chomping Socialist revolutionaries and U.S. Marines with Punisher tattoos all subscribe to roughly the same chivalric ideals – even if they rarely live up to them. Even those who join explicitly mercenary organisations profess to care about who employs them and why. In a survey of U.S. ‘private military contractors’ conducted in 2011 almost all respondents considered the work a ‘calling’ and the majority cited the opportunity to help others and to serve their country as the main motivation for joining. Likewise Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group has produced two major films designed to whitewash their involvement in African civil conflicts. Despite persistent attempts at indoctrination it seems safe to say that no military institution has thus far managed to fully separate its recruits from their humanity. 

In an essay on the ‘alienated right to do good’ anthropologist David Graeber emphasised that many of those who join volunteer armies like those found in Australia and the U.S., aspire to the same high-minded ideals as those who go into various branches of the public service. He pointed out that the U.S. government’s official aid agency – The Peace Corps – requires a college degree and that similar barriers of class and education prevent many young people from finding work in NGOs or human rights organisations. Given these hurdles Graeber argued that the U.S. military has become ‘a haven for frustrated altruists’.

“As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter­recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.”

For soldiers sent to invade a foreign country the fallacy of liberation offers reassurance and moral certainty but, at the same time, it can also set the stage for atrocity by blinding soldiers to what they will inevitably encounter. When optimistic expectations of local support collide with the reality of policing a hostile population the cognitive dissonance can be hard to overcome. In those circumstances even passive resistance can feel like treachery. The insurgency – whether it’s from Spanish guerrilleros, elderly Cretan farmers or unemployed Iraqis – is treated not as the natural reaction of outraged patriots, but as a form of collective betrayal. 

Moreover, this dogged belief in the righteousness of their cause may encourage soldiers to take extreme measures in the belief that the ends justifies the means. Looking back through recent history it’s worth asking the question; to what extent did the fallacy of liberation contribute to massacres at places like Kondomari, Mỹ Lai, Haditha or Bucha?

As hard as it can be to stomach, the recognition that invaders possess the same essential humanity as the rest of us can help bring an end to conflicts. This baseline level of empathy is what allows warring factions to arrange ceasefires and conduct peace talks and negotiations.

How do we mitigate this fallacy?

To begin with, we need ways of discussing war aims and justifications without appearing to endorse them. Part of the reason that commentators and journalists fall back on realist explanations for inter-state violence is that official justifications are generally riddled with misinformation (mistakes), disinformation (lies) and all sorts of thorny racial or historical grievances. Given the complexities of history and nationalism it might seem safer to simply ignore these subjects outright. 

For example, in the lead up to the current war in Ukraine most journalists avoided directly responding to Putin’s manifesto On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Those in a position to respond seemed to decide that its claims were not being made in good faith and that any rebuttal would only lend credibility to Putin’s distorted view of the world. The case for this sort of self-censorship was made succinctly by historian Timothy Snyder in an article for The New York Review of Books following Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014.

“…Russian propaganda conceits do not need to convince everyone, only to set the terms of debate. If people in free societies have their discussions framed for them by rulers of unfree societies, then they will not notice the history unfolding around them (a revolution just happened in Europe!) or sense the urgency of formulating policy in a desperate situation (a European country has just invaded another!). Propaganda can serve this technical purpose no matter how absurd it is.”

Even war propaganda that might be considered ‘historical’ can remain radioactive long after the conflict in question has ended. Case in point, to find photos for the section on Nazi Germany and the volksdeutsche I had to venture into some very dark crevices of the internet. These images are the iconography of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ myth and they represent the thin end of a wedge which expands into holocaust denial and neo-Nazism. So it’s fair to ask; what do we gain by rehashing pro-war propaganda? 

The answer is that pro-war arguments, no matter how odious, give us an insight into the mentality of those on the ‘other side’ of national or ideological divides. Manifestos, policy documents, popular films, memes and media talking points all show us glimpses of the world as it appears to our opponents. If we continue to ignore this material in favour of our own conspiratorial assumptions we’ll continue to be blindsided by seemingly irrational foreign policy decisions.

The truth, of course, is that the motivations behind any decision to go to war are always mixed. None of the conflicts summarised above appear to have been motivated purely by humanitarian concerns but none of them appear to have been waged solely for conquest either. Each decision was, to use the term favoured by theorists, ‘overdetermined’. 

Nevertheless the prevailing, realist, interpretation of these events only ever tells part of the story and, in the absence of humanitarian or ideological motivations, a great deal of foreign policy remains inexplicable. At best, realist models help outline the strategic and economic incentives for war but they can’t account for the moral urgency that so often infects political decisionmaking and pushes states to use military force. Like the elusive ‘homo economicus’ that underpins all free market economic theory, the purely realist world leader is a mythical figure. As David Welch observed in Justice and the Genesis of War.

“The dominant image of the human being in the study of war was of a narrow, self-interested, calculating, unsentimental creature, who held principle worth nothing, and felt nothing worth dying for. It was as though political science had cut away and discarded the human soul.”

On the other hand, by blaming military fiascos on some combination of ignorance and idealism it can seem as though we are letting the war-makers off the hook for the devastation that they unleash. To some, it may seem like a dangerously small leap from ‘they really believed in their cause’ to ‘they can’t really be blamed for the outcome’. But ignorance – especially wilful ignorance – doesn’t absolve those responsible for reckless decisions. Wars of choice provide ample opportunity for their architects to consider what they are likely to set in motion. 

The instinctive outrage we feel towards wartime atrocities makes us willing to believe the worst about those who bear ultimate responsibility. We crave a world inhabited by good politicians with pure intentions and evil politicians with secretive plans for world domination but this manichean view of politics doesn’t doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and won’t help us avert future foreign policy disasters. 

In order to compensate for the fallacy of liberation we have to embrace a worldview that treats most inter-state conflict as a product of ignorance rather than hatred. Honestly assessing the motivations of political leaders means starting with Hanlon’s Razor – which maintains that we should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Highlighting the fallacy of liberation is one small way of restoring the human soul to the study of international politics. While misguided decisions to wage war have caused immeasurable suffering throughout history the motives behind these decisions should still give us some cause for hope. The fallacy of liberation tells us that, for better and for worse, we are not governed by political leaders who believe in a Hobbesian competition of all against all. Instead our politicians and statesmen are, for the most part, animated by the same basic fears and desires as the rest of us. We might not share their moral vision but we can at least recognise that they see the world in moral terms.

Recognising this fact is the first step towards preventing the next disastrous attempt at liberation.

David Welch (1993) – Justice and the Genesis of War
Michael Walzer (2015) – Just and Unjust Wars
Geoffrey Blainey (1973), The Causes of War
Irving Lester Janis (1972) – Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-policy Decisions and Fiascoes
Seymour M. Hersh (2004) – Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
David Graeber (2007) – Army of Altruists: On the alienated right to do good
David A. Harrisville (2021) – The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944
Timothy Snyder (2014) – Crimea: Putin vs. Reality 
Cory Doctorow (2023) – Ostromizing Democracy

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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