Characteristics of the Blood-Letting War following a social revolution "win"

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Sep 2014


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 during this time he was considered a hero in the US 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. He invaded Kuwait and started the First Gulf War.

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, and in the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The fighting in these areas continued on for up to three more years. 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. This second time these revolutions evolved much more peacefully. 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."

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