Thoughts of September

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Sep 2014


The Blood-Letting War following a social revolution "win"


Social revolutions are times when difficult social challenges face a community, and the community finally chooses a fight, a revolution, to solve them. The fight of the revolution can be short or long, but in the end some side wins, and starts making choices about how to face the future. The interesting part, and the topic of this essay, is that the fighting doesn't stop with the victory. There is very often another war fought after the civil war ends and a winner is picked. In this essay this second war is what I call the "blood letting war". I call it that because its purpose seems to be to let those discontented with the win of the civil war itself to have an opportunity to fight, and perhaps die, for this new social order that is now running their country, the social order that they only partly believe is right.

These blood letting wars are most often long and indecisive -- a good example being the eight year long Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) that followed the Iranian Revolution of 1979. But occasionally they can be spectacularly successful -- the best example of this being the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) following the French Revolution (1789).

The three examples I will discuss are The Iran-Iraq War, World War II and the Korean War.

Iran-Iraq War

As mentioned above, the Iran-Iraq War was the blood-letting war for the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Prior to that revolution Iran was ruled by a Shah (king) who was guiding Iran through an industrializing phase that was transforming the social fabric of Iran. The social transformation was not a smooth one, amidst the growing prosperity there were lots of discontented people who were discontented for many reasons. Just one of these was Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1979 the Shah lost control. He was replaced by moderates, who also lost control. For the US this time became famous for the Iran Hostage Crisis where the US embassy was taken over by Iranian radicals. Ultimately it was Khomeini and a mix of theocrats and republicans who took control.

But their taking control did not end the discontentment or the uncertainty. There were still many factions active, many demonstrations, and some violence. Next-door-neighbor strongman Saddam Hussien decided the time was ripe to reap some benefit from all this chaos and he moved his Iraqi army to occupy some of Iran's oil fields on the Persian Gulf that were next to Iraq. (In addition to being an opportunist, he was dealing with the challenges of his own social revolution, too.)

This invasion didn't go well for Saddam. The Iranian army was still in good shape and it drove him back. A panic on the Iraqi side ensued and Hussien hollered loudly for help... and got it! It started coming quickly from his Sunni neighbors, the Saudi Arabians, who very much did not want to see this virulently Shiite religious theocracy in Iran gain any ground in the Middle East. Later, other Sunni groups also contributed, and he was considered a hero in the US at this time for his role in containing those nasty Iranians of the Iranian hostage crisis.

Geography in this case was squarely on the side of stalemate: This ground on the river delta between Iran and Iraq was a swampy, miserable place to fight battles and move supplies across. But for eight years the Iranians kept at trying to defeat the Iraqis and advance into their homeland, and for eight years the Iraqis found people who would finance their defense line and they held fast.

What was gained by this? The Iranians gained a place for blood-letting: it was a place for Iranians who were proud to be Iranian, but frustrated with the choice of Khomeini and the mullahs as rulers, to demonstrate their dedication to the motherland. (The Iraqis were also gaining this same kind of benefit, but not as obviously.) When the Iran-Iraq war ended, the Iranians finally found peace. Sadly for the Iraqis, they were not similarly blessed. Saddam was too adventurist at heart to let things lie, and he felt the world owed him a lot for holding off the Iranians like he had.

World War II

World War II was the blood-letting war for the social revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe that followed World War I -- Germany, Italy and Russia in particular -- and for Japan. The long, mostly stalemated war that World War I became unleashed social revolutions all through Central and Eastern Europe. The fighting there continued on for up to three more years in places such as Russia. What followed all that fighting was new governments with many new variations on socialist ideas.

But these new ideas and governments were upsetting to many people of the time. These winners of the mid-twenties violence had won the right to choose the new government forms, but they hadn't won the respect or peacefulness of the peoples they now governed. Then came the world-wide Great Depression of the 1930's and the unhappiness kept growing.

The solution to all this unhappiness was a series of blood-letting wars that are now lumped together and called World War II. In these wars the unhappy people of Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia got a chance to show their patriotism by fighting vigorously for their country against neighboring enemies -- first small ones, then huge ones.

In the end, Germany, Italy and Japan lost, and had to start their social revolutions all over again, starting from completely different foundations that were dictated by the victorious Allies. Russia won and kept its revolution going for another forty years until the downfall of the USSR in 1989.

Korean War

The Korean War (1950-53) was the blood-letting war for the Chinese Communist victory in China in 1948.

In the First Opium War (1839-42) the Western traders (primarily the British) showed the Chinese Manchu/Qing dynasty rulers how potent western military technology had become. This war opened up trade, and in the years following the Westerners showed the Chinese culture how potent their Industrial Age manufacturing techniques had become. Guns and factories -- coping with these virulent Western ideas and techniques started a crisis in China that would last a hundred years.

In 1927 yet another a civil war started. This one pitted Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek against Communist Mao Tse-tung. The fight continued off and on, interrupted by the Japanese invasion of 1936, until 1948 when the Communists won a series of decisive victories and occupied most of the Chinese mainland. The Nationalist withdrew to Taiwan and continued to rule that island, and hope for a triumphant return to the mainland. But it was just wishing and dreaming on the part of the Nationalists. The war was finally over and the Communists were winners. They could now start telling the Chinese people how to run their lives.

But there were a lot of Chinese people who were unhappy about the choices the Chinese Communists were making. There were protests and unrest and bloody crackdowns by the Communists.

Then came an opportunity for a distraction. Neighboring North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung, started a war to take over South Korea. He nearly succeeded, two months later his forces had the last of the South Koreans surrounded at the port of Pusan, but not quite. The United Nations voted to back South Korea. And with the US providing most of the early-arriving forces, they stopped the advance. Then the US/UN forces launched a brilliant counter-offensive and two months later the battle had moved all the way north to North Korea's border with China. Once again it looked like "game over" but this time for the North Koreans.

But as the battle moved north the Chinese Communists got seriously nervous. Would the UN stop at the border, or keep moving north and help the Nationalists get started on the mainland again?

The Chinese responded by jumping into the Korean War wholeheartedly, but sneakily. They called their soldiers "volunteers" and never officially admitted to helping out. After they got involved the war went on another two years and somewhere around three hundred thousand Chinese lost their lives.

In sum, this was a bloodletting war that followed the winning of the Chinese Revolution.

Note that this function of the war in Chinese social fabric explains the difference in how the Chinese reacted to the Vietnam War. They no longer needed a blood-letting so they offered lots of moral support, and some material support, but no soldiers. They let the Vietnamese handle this one themselves.

The "Safety Valve" Alternative

The American Civil War was not followed with a blood-letting war. I suspect this is because there was a potent alternative available for those who were deeply discontented: they moved west and took up the challenge of settling the last of the American Wilderness. This kept them busy and gave them something to think about beside being outraged. This "safety valve" helped America recover more peacefully from the trauma of the Civil War.

Extending the Concept: The Syrian War

The Arab Spring (2010-12) was a series of protests and revolts that extended across North Africa and the Middle East. It remained a decentralized event, with each country experiencing it differently. Tunisia, for example, changed government style, while Libya slipped into tribal chaos.

The Syrian War could be the bloodletting war for all this Arab Spring frustration. It has many of the earmarks: lots of fighting, lots of causes, and no progress to speak of. If it is a bloodletting war, then as it winds down it should bring relative peace to North Africa and the Middle East for at least a decade.


Blood-letting wars often follow social revolutions. Their purpose is to allow still-discontented members of the community find an outlet for their discontent that is patriotic. When they work well, at their end relative peace will come to the community and the surviving members can get on with the challenges of adapting to the new regime.

But they are expensive. I call them blood-letting for good reason.


Update: This 11 Oct 14 Economist article, The rule of the gunman Why post-colonial Arab states are breaking down, indirectly supports my contention that Syria is a bloodletting war. It basically says that much of the North Africa and Middle East region that was hit by the Arab Spring movement is suffering from dissolving governments.

From the article, "Three years after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya is in the throes of full-scale disintegration. Yet the collapse of Libya’s state no longer seems an anomaly. Across the Middle East non-state actors increasingly set the agenda, challenging governments, overthrowing them or prompting them to retrench behind increasingly repressive controls."

"The three-week-long battle for Kobane, a Kurdish enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey, has captured the headlines as a test for the American-led coalition fighting IS (see article). Yet the battle on the ground is one between militias, not armies. Similarly in Iraq, the counter-attack against IS’s shock advance towards the capital, Baghdad, has been led not by the Iraqi army but by local tribesmen, Shia party militias and Kurdish peshmerga. And even these Kurdish fighters, despite the semblance of unified command by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, are made up of two separate forces controlled by the rival parties that dominate different parts of Iraqi Kurdistan."

Characteristics of Proxy Wars


Proxy wars are some of the bloodiest and most damaging kinds of wars there are. For this reason it is good to analyze their characteristics. If they are better understood they may be prevented from starting, or be mitigated in their conduct so less damage and devastation is caused.

I will discuss three examples: The Spanish Civil War of 1936, the Korean War of 1950 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011. I will talk about what they have in common.

Defining a Proxy War

A proxy war is one in which the locals in a conflict are joined by outsiders who contribute lots of money, equipment and manpower to both sides of the fray. If just one side is getting all this help it usually makes the conflict end more quickly and the result is not a proxy war. An example of this happening is Russia supporting rebels in Georgia in 2008. The war lasted five days.

In a proxy war two or more sides are getting lots of outside aid. This has the effect of both lengthening the conflict and dramatically escalating the damage done.

Here are some specifics on the three cases mentioned above.

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War started in July 1936 and lasted until April 1939, nearly to the beginning of World War II (which started in September of that year) ( At the start of the war there were many factions well established in Spain that were based on politics and regional cultures, but when the fighting became serious these quickly narrowed down to picking one of two sides, the Republicans and the Nationalists. The Republicans represented the recently elected government, the Nationalists represented those who felt this new government was deeply flawed and should be replaced by something more conservative -- the war started as a half-bungled coup attempt by the proto-Nationalists.

The conflict gained lots of international attention. Both sides had enthusiastic supporters outside Spain, and both sides started picking up tangible support from these external groups. The Republicans picked up support from Europe's intelligentsia as well as the USSR and Mexico. Many of the intelligentsia came to fight in person. They formed what were called the International Brigades and these became a famous part of this war. The Nationalists picked up support from the Nazis and Fascists of Germany and Italy. These two donated a lot of military hardware and technical people. The Nationalist won and general Francisco Franco became head of state, a title he kept until his death decades later in 1975.

The result of all this external help was a war that was much longer and bloodier than it would have otherwise been. The result of all the intelligentsia getting directly involved was a whole lot getting written about the war during and after it ended. Earnest Hemingway ended up being the most famous writer of this group.

The Korean War

Between 1945 and 1953 East Asia was full of history-making surprises. The Korean War (1950-53) was the capper. ( In August 1945 Japan surrendered after experiencing two atom bombs. Korea got split in half in a historical accident surrounding that surrender: In the north half the Japanese surrendered to the USSR troops who were rapidly advancing south after having declared war only ten days earlier. In the south half they surrendered to American troops who were sailing north from the newly liberated Philippines.

Much to the surprise of all involved that split turned into two countries. Further to the surprise of all involved the Chinese Civil War being fought next door wound up in 1948 with the Chinese Communists winning a series of big victories that gave them control of all the mainland and the left the Chinese Nationalists holding out only on the island of Taiwan. (this Nationalist/Communist conflict had been going on, off and on, since 1924 so this series of successes and the decisive victory came out of the blue) This surprise of "Losing China to the Communists", plus the surprise of the "Iron Curtain" coming down in Europe to turn half of it Communist, scared a lot of Americans. During World War II the USSR had been a US ally fighting Hitler so this was quite a turnaround in the American public eye. This frightening combination brought on the Mc Carthy era in the US. (

When North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung, decided it was his turn to ride the wave of unstoppable Communist destiny, he launched a blitzkrieg-style assault against South Korea in the summer of 1950 that took his forces to the outskirts of the southern port of Pusan in just two months. His plan almost worked as planned, and he almost won a quick war. Exciting!

But the Korean War turned out entirely differently than those last two years of Chinese civil war next door had done. The Korean War turned into a a proxy war. The now "Red Scared" Americans and the United Nations backed the South Koreans with a lot of troops and a seasoned, competent general, Douglas MacArthur, and in two months drove the North Korean army all the way back to its border on the north with China. Exciting! So exciting that now it was time for the Chinese Communists to get alarmed. They feared that MacArthur wouldn't stop at the border, he would keep moving north into China to support the Nationalists cheering him on from Taiwan. They responded by launching a massive attack south from their border with Korea. The attack was so surprising that it drove the US/UN forces back to south of Seoul in another two months! Exciting!

But that was the end of the flashy maneuvering surprises for this war. After that the war front stabilized; the border was once again in the center of Korea. But the fighting and killing continued on at full scale for another two years. Instead of lots of back and forth, it became an updated version of WW I-style static trench warfare.

The proxy part of this conflict meant that tens of thousands of UN and Chinese soldiers were fighting and dying on Korean soil, and the Korean soldiers and civilians had to live with war time conditions for three years. By the time the armistice was signed in 1953 (the war never officially ended) the Korean per capita GDP had tumbled and was comparable to Ghana's, a very poor nation in Africa.

The Syrian War

The Syrian Civil War stared as part of the Arab Spring of 2011. ( ( The Arab Spring was a series of popular protests that spread through Arab countries from Morocco through Syria. The protests got serious enough to topple many governments in the area starting with Tunisia's. Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, was expected to be one of those toppled, but he called upon and received lots of military aid, mostly from Russia. Instead of toppling, he stayed in power and conducted a shooting war.

But he didn't win quickly... and he didn't lose quickly... the fighting went on and on. And as this fighting went on and on, Bashar's many enemies in Syria found their own outside supporters and the fighting went on even longer and got lots more damaging.

By 2014 this conflict is resembling the Spanish Civil War in many ways. It has gone on a long time. There has been lots of fighting being supported by outsiders. There are many factions involved. And lots of foreign intelligentsia are coming to Syria to get personally involved. And, as in all proxy wars, the civilians have been the worst suffers from all this outside intervention. There have been over 100,000 people killed and millions turned into refugees. (the total population is about 17 million) One difference between the Syrian and Spanish wars is that there are still many sides in the Syrian version, they haven't yet consolidated down to just two.

What Can Be Learned?

Here are the common patterns I see in these three conflicts.


o The proxy wars start as social revolutions. These wars are the children of chaos. The communities vulnerable to proxy war are undergoing time of a lot more uncertainty than they usually do. This uncertainty becomes violence and the government is threatened. There is also a lot of outside interest in what is happening.

o There is enough outside interest that support starts flowing in. This is why many police officials dealing with protesting fear "outside agitators". In the minds of those police officials those outsiders are going to bring in a lot of violence with them. An example of a nation that has had unrest but not a proxy war is Thailand. There was a coup in 2014, but lots of external support has not come flowing to either side of this unrest.

o More than one side gets support. Of these three the Syrian conflict has supported the most sides.

o The more outside enthusiasm, the more damage done to the locals. Sad but true. "I'm an outside supporter and I'm here to help you." sounds great... until you watch the damage-dealing done escalate because of the outside help.

o The war ends when the outsiders' interests move on. When the outsiders tire of contributing money, men and equipment, the war will wind down. This is usually a frustratingly slow process. Getting the Korean War armistice took months of negotiating. The negotiating. was documented, and looking at it now, much of it looked like childish one-upmanship delaying tactics. This silliness happened because when the negotiations started both sides were not ready to end the blood-letting.


These are some patterns I have noted in proxy wars. The most distinctive feature is that they turn very ugly for the locals and they can continue for a long time. For this reason it is really good to avoid getting involved in one if at all possible.



Haymarket compared to 9-11

(this part is from the Terrorist chapter in my upcoming book Goat Sacrificing in the 21st Century)


Haymarket and 9-11 were both terrorist acts that changed the course of American dialog about what were important problems to solve. What do the Haymarket Bombing incident of 1886 and the 9-11 Disaster of 2001 have in common?

A whole lot in turns out. The most important being that they were hugely memorable terrorist incidents in their decades, and they changed the course of public thinking on hot social issues of their day. The burning Twin Towers are an icon of the 2001 event and are still a potent image today. The caricature of a bomb-toting anarchist ready to cause trouble is a similar iconic image that dates from the 1886 Haymarket incident.

Three other things they have in common is what makes both memorable:

• Public authority figures were killed.

• Foreigners were involved.

• New technology was involved.

Here are some details.

Public authority figures killed - in the 9-11 incident about 400 first responders died. At Haymarket seven policemen were killed by a bomb thrown into their midst.

Foreigners involved - the 19 hijackers who died on the four planes of the 9-11 incident were all from Yemen. They had been living in Hamburg when the plot was hatched. Who threw the bomb at Haymarket was never actually determined - there was a lot of confusion in what was happening at the rally at the time it was thrown. But in the panic of the following days a mix of one American and six immigrants were accused, arrested, and soon tried and convicted. What they had in common was supporting the anarchy movement. And in the panic that followed the Haymarket bombing, in the public’s eyes Anarchy became the al-Qaeda of those days – the evil, scary movement ready to support all kinds of sneaky violence. (Prior to Haymarket, Anarchy goals and ideals sounded a lot like today’s Libertarian goals and ideals.)

New technology involved – in the case of 9-11 no one had ever turned a jet plane into a suicide bomb. There had been many hijackings previously, but in every case before 9-11 it was the goal of everyone - hijackers, passengers, pilots and negotiators - to have the plane land safely. In addition, the al-Qaeda terrorists added a huge cherry on top by flying into a skyscraper. Wow! What a scary combination! (Plowing one into the Pentagon was a nice try at topping it.) In the Haymarket case dynamite had been patented in 1867, just twenty years earlier. Dynamite was the first compact, portable explosive that was easily obtained by the public. Like using a jet plane, using dynamite for an act of public violence was a concept that had been thought about, but never acted upon prior to this incident. It was scary in much the same way.

Authority figures killed, foreigners involved, modern technology being used in a new way to do the killing. This is a potent combination for making a memorable terrorist event. This combination deeply powers the protective instinct in the community, but this is a time when good analytic thinking is needed to decide what to protect against.

The Mystery of the 8-hour Workday

One of the oddities of the Haymarket environment was how emotional the length of the workday was. Deciding what was the right number of hours for a wage earner to spend on the job was boiling blood in that era.

Surprisingly, this is still an issue which boils blood in the 2010's. Many futurists have forecast a steadily declining number of hours in the work week as workers have become more prosperous. For some reason it hasn't happened. The knowledge workers of the 2010's put in long hours just as their steel working 1880's predecessors did. It seems that workers who enjoy their work and feel valued by the companies they work for don't mind putting in long hours. But their contemporary social justice activists see their long hours as evidence of the company they are working for exploiting them.

Either way you look at it, it's an interesting emotional mix.


Book Review of

Death in the Haymarket:

A story of Chicago, the first labor movement and the bombing that divided Gilded Age America

by James Green

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Sep 2014


This book was excellent at bringing to life an incident I knew little about: the Haymarket bombing in 1886. My love of history has centered on wars, diplomacy and technology. This book is about economic growth and social history so it added to my knowledge. Sadly, due to the large reading workload of this course, it was a rushed read, so I wasn't able to fit as much into my existing patterns of history as I would have liked to.

The Growth of Chicago

As the book points out in its early chapters, the setting for the Haymarket incident was the astounding growth of the city of Chicago. Several newly emerging technologies resonated with creating a big city at the south end of Lake Michigan: steel, railroads, lumber and meat packing were the most spectacular.

These industries created a lot of new companies, jobs and wealth. The new companies entered all the above listed areas, and the new jobs they created were available to all comers. The new wealth that all this industrializing created was used to create even more new companies, hire more new workers and create one of the first large-scale wealthy classes of Americans. Sadly, many of the workers coming to this booming Chicago felt they weren't getting their fair share of this prosperity, so there was lots of labor unrest mixed in with all the other excitement of this rapidly growing Chicago social scene.

The Great Chicago Fire

Chapter Three talks about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire was the result of freaky weather conditions mixing with of a lot of hasty building in the city using lots of lumber.( Much of the city burned to a crisp.

But the foundations for why the city had been growing were not shaken, so the city rebuilt quickly. One surprising fallout of this natural disaster was to bring together various immigrant worker groups into a larger sense of cooperation. As the city rebuilt these groups unified in their efforts to get better working conditions for the workers and in November 1871 the Reform Ticket won the mayoral election. For years thereafter these cooperating workers remained a potent force in Chicago politics and protesting.

Things Keep Changing

But this was a time of change, and the change didn't stop with the Great Fire. The city kept booming and business groups and the new wealthy got back in charge a few years later. The next cycle of worker-inspired uproar was the one in 1886 of which Haymarket was a part.

Haymarket: The 9-11 Of Its Day

The final chapters of the book talk about the bombing itself and its aftermath. Haymarket bombing was an act of violence at a public rally. This part was nothing new for the period. What made it distinctive from other acts of that time was it strongly resonated with the emotional social worries of its day. Policemen were killed, foreigners were involved, and new technology was used. (this was the first use of a home-made bomb filled with dynamite, something which had been invented only twenty years previously.) ( As a result of the deep fearful resonance much that happened in the aftermath was driven by fearful emotions, not facts.

o People were arrested, tried and convicted because they fit what people of Chicago feared, not what the facts supported.

o The Anarchist and the 8-hour day movements got tarred with an image of being supported by dangerous, sneaky and violent people. The Anarchist movement never recovered, the 8-hour day movement was delayed for decades.

The Style of the Book

James Green has a nice narrative style in this book. In the first half he does a nice job of describing the big trends, such as Chicago's growth. In the second half he does a nice job of describing the day-to-day details of how those who would be accused spent their time. I also found his newspaper quotes interesting, mostly because they reveal that freedom of speech in that era seemed to allow a lot more... enthusiasm... in expressing emotions about the current events of the day.



--The End--