I Need Dirt, And I Don't Care

by David Weigel

Steve Sailer has two long, good exegeses (one, two) on war and the national need for territory. The first post collects some general thoughts:

There just aren't that many empty spots on the map anymore, the way the San Francisco Bay Area, perhaps the finest spot for human habitation on earth, was practically empty in 1845.

Moreover, the spread of the idea of nationalism from Europe to the rest of the world, replacing dynasticism as the reigning assumption, means that the kind of easy occupations that, say, the British enjoyed in India for so long just aren't feasible. If the masses assume that who rules them is none of their business, then it's pretty easy for an outsider to take over. But, nowadays, everybody believes that their rulers should be, more or less, from among them.

In his follow-up Sailer unveils another one of his Theories - the mostly seamless historical or demographic trends that no one else ever seems to pick up. (They're too busy comparing everything to 1938, if they're talking war, and 1994, if they're talking politics.)

Sailer's Dirt Theory of War: In the past, when thinking about whom to conquer, the    key fact was that most of the value of the potential conquest was in the dirt acquired. You could use the ground to raise crops or mine for valuable minerals, which made up two large parts of the economy back in the good old days. War couldn't hurt dirt. Conquering California in the 1840s, for example, did almost zero damage to the place, which turned out, immediately afterwards, to have lots of gold in the ground.

... most fighting around the world these days is conducted less like Grant vs. Lee and more like the Corleones rubbing out the rival families at the end of the The Godfather. It's less honorable, and less destructive, but more profitable.

This clarifies what's been nagging at me when I hear the members of our executive branch compare the current crisis to an old, good war, like World War II. These people know, as much as Sailer knows, that preventing Muslim terrorists from blowing up airplanes or buildings or cities is a matter of police work and dirty work - like the Corleones rubbing out rivals, but also like a pre-White House Jack Ryan taking out his villain of the week. They know this and, for political reasons, obfuscate it. They pretend this is an old-fashioned army-vs-army war. But that leads to cognitive dissonance on a mass scale when the population, which is willing to support the war, and willing to send family members to fight it, doesn't see clear-cut victories; isn't asked to sacrifice anything; doesn't know when the war will end.