Based on some historical examples (bearing in mind that I’m a Historian of Modern Europe), the point of this piece is to argue that the phrase “military economics” is about as much of an oxymoron as those other standbys: “military justice” and “military intelligence.” Whether looked at from the perspective of the nation that instigated the conflict or that of the elites of any active combatant, war makes no sense and it is usually triggered by what can only be called (if loosely) national insanity.
In the old days (i.e., pre-French Revolution), the principal purpose of war was conquest; amassing more land and people to the greater glory and wealth of the monarch and elites. This was also an era when economic thinking (such as it is) was in its infancy, without the analytic tools and statistics which enable us to assess such political moves and outcomes. After the British-led coalition finally put Napoleon down in 1815, wars of conquest were either localized (within Europe) or exported to take control of empires around the world. For the following century.
During this time, war became more complex, bureaucratic, and industrialized. At the same time, the European economies became more intertwined and globally integrated to such a degree that Ivan (Jan) Bloch famously wrote a massive treatise in the 1890s arguing that inter-European war made no sense given the interdependence of industrial economies. This gave some support to those who that that modern European civilization had matured and that humanity had moved to a new stage; hopes that were dashed by WWI.
The lack of strategic thinking that led the WWI combatants, especially Austria-Hungary and Germany, to instigate the war has since become legendary spawning a vast critical literature. But among the errors made was the dismissal not only of Bloch’s rationale, but also of an assessment of the economic strength of the combatants which, outside the most optimistic (naïve?) scenarios, would lead to their eventual economic (and therefore military) exhaustion. While Austria and Germany might have fought Britain and France to a standstill, the entry of the US, despite the (semi-coincidental) exit of Russia put the Allies far ahead of the Central Powers.
Indeed, the only pre-cursor of significant industrialized warfare prior to WWI provided ample demonstration (if anyone had been looking) of the need to assess the relative economic power of combatants. This was, of course, the US Civil War, in which the military prowess of the South was insufficient to defeat the Union and, in due course, the larger, industrialized and economically progressive infrastructure of the Union overwhelmed the agrarian Confederacy.
World War II provides an even better example, even accounting for Hitler’s strategic blunders (somewhat offset by his good fortune and the moral collapse of France). Once Britain woke up (even if quite late in the 1930s), its industrial production was formidable. When you add in the heft of the newly (if slowly) modernizing Soviet Union; much less the plurality of US military-industrial might that was devoted to Europe, it was really no contest.
It is true that the Nazi domination of Europe enabled it to draw upon a wide array of resources beyond the formal Axis reach. What we don’t know is whether, if Hitler had been more circumspect, Germany could have leveraged these resources over the long term or whether the enforcement costs of totalitarian oppression, coupled with the reduced productivity of subjected peoples, would have proved insufficient to a resurgent Allied power. (The South’s inability to mobilize the considerable manpower of its economy (for obvious reasons of not arming its slaves), may provide a clue here.)
Much the same could be (and indeed was said at the time) about Japan and its effort to out-gun the US in the Pacific.
Germany’s failure opened the door to its successor in totalitarian oppression manifested in the Soviet Union’s mid-century empire in Central Europe. While it secured control over these countries more for reasons of providing a bulwark against future invasion from the West and it’s conquest was nominally vis-à-vis Germany (rather than Poland, Hungary, et al.), the effect looked to be based on goals of pre-modern military conquest, albeit with an intense ideological overlay.
While the “Cold War” featured less shooting than its 20C predecessors, the degree of (both military and economic) competition remained high. As with the Confederacy and (likely) a longer-term Reich, the Soviets faced a uphill battle; and lost.
None of this is to make any argument about inevitability or imply that any one of these military enterprises was “doomed to failure.” There are so many ways things could have turned out differently (e.g., British mid-19C commercial/imperialistic triumphalism aiding the South, French collapse at the Marne in 1914, a few lucky torpedoes at Midway, German aviation and rocket technology in the ‘40s, or a US loss of nerve after WWII, to name a few scenarios). So, we can never know: what if…?
Which leads us to today’s crises where it’s difficult to find a scenario in which Putin is really better off for having taken on Ukraine. Russian losses are already substantial and it’s hard to see how even a series of military successes will end up given the Russians a net profit on the deal. Much the same can be said of China and Taiwan. In both cases, even assuming successful conquests, the economic destruction (and domestic force losses) make for an awfully tall bill to pay and a (very) long time needed for recovering those costs (not to mention occupation/oppression costs and lost productivity in the newly-(re-?) conquered territories).
So, it seems that Bloch was right. It just takes a while to prove in his calculations that such projects have a net loss and, in the meantime, we can only look sadly on as the delusion of would-be conquerors causes so much death, loss, and destruction.