In a real way the dead vote. They vote through the living. The dead exercise a profound and often highly unpredictable pressure upon the political will of combatant populations and on the choices made by governments.
During World War I the peace initiative offered by Woodrow Wilson could not but fail even though neither the Entente Powers nor the Central Powers had any realistic hope of victory. The reason for that conclusion is both simple and stark. Had the French, the English, the German or even the Austrian government sought to make a "peace without victors" as the American president proposed, it would have been overthrown in a matter of days.
There was a single sentiment upon which the civilian populations of all the major belligerents could agree. Our dead shall not have died in vain. The populations of France, England, Germany, Austria, Belgium and even Italy were unwilling to see an end to the war without a benefit more than equivalent to the level of sacrifice.
During World War II the British and then the Americans sought to kill enough civilians through the "round the clock bombing campaign" that German civilian political will would collapse with fatal effects to the Nazi government and military. The "death from above" campaign was highly successful in breaking things and killing people, but it was totally counterproductive with regard to its goal of shattering morale. As the bombs fell and the civilian body count grew so also did German military production levels and overall popular commitment to the war.
Both World Wars were total wars of national survival for the primary combatants. They were existential in nature from the perspective of the Germans, the French, the British and the Russians. (Keep that in mind, we'll be coming back to the concept later.)
When a war is not existential for one of the belligerents, the impact of the "Dead Vote" is quite different. Take, for example, the American War in Vietnam. While the conflict was existential for the three Vietnamese belligerents, the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese and South Vietnam, it was not such for the United States. For the US and We the People, the war was a limited one in support of policy. It was not a matter of national life and death.
Through the long years of escalating fighting, the political will of the North Vietnamese grew substantially under the pressure of American bombs. The Viet Cong also experienced a growth of commitment even as their butcher's bill grew. Even the tenacity and will to fight among the supporters of the varied South Vietnamese governments increased--substantially in the closing years of the war following the American withdrawal.
In the United States the "dead vote" was cast differently by the living. Here the lengthening list of the dead resulted in a progressive decline of support for and commitment to the war. Here, We the Living concluded that we must not allow any more to die without useful purpose and in absence of a real, compelling goal.
In short, there are two antipodal "votes of the dead." One is expressed in the context of existential conflict. The other comes about in the lesser, limited wars: the police actions, the foreign interventions, the humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping missions.
The first demands a victory complete, comprehensive and beneficial enough to justify the lives lost. The second demands that no more lives be sacrificed for some hazy and debatable purpose.
Let's pull it down to slogan level. "Our sacred dead shall not have died in vain." Or. "No more wasted lives!"
Interpreting or forecasting the "dead vote" requires considering cultural and religious factors. The Japanese religious and cultural context assured the continuation of commitment regardless of the number of lives lost or the degree of physical destruction and deprivation experienced.
The seven and a half year War of Algerian Independence is a perfect case study of the dichotomy of effect between those whose dead have died in an existential cause and those whose dead have perished in pursuit of a policy goal. It is also a perfect example of the impact of religious and cultural factors on the way in which the living cast the votes of the dead.
In some ways the Algerian War was complex. It involved several distinct communities. It involved vastly different cultures and religions. Yet it can be simplified without doing harm to reality.,
There were two belligerent communities living in Algeria. One was the pieds noirs, the European minority population which had lived in the country for as many as five generations when the war commenced in 1954. The other was the mixed Arab and Berber Muslim majority whose ancestors had been present in some cases from the time of Carthage.
For both of these communities the war was existential. If the Europeans came out on top, then the Muslims would remain strangers in their own land. If the Arab-Berber majority won, then the Europeans would be refugees in the making.
Of course each of these two groups viewed the other through the prism of prejudice and hatred.
The outsider in the war was France. Despite the legalities which proclaimed Algeria to be part of Metropolitan France and ignoring the complications of the French national ego and delusions of continued imperial glory, the war in Algeria was one which was not existential but rather an exercise in support of often ill-defined policy. France could live as well or, as events proved, even better without Algeria as it could carrying the colonial burden.
The dead started voting from the first day of the war. Pied noir dead voted consistently to continue and intensify the war by all means. As the death toll among the Muslim population mounted to its final total of some three hundred thousand, Arab and Berber political will both strengthened in support of total independence and reduced the potential of a moderate "third force" emerging. (It must be mentioned that the nationalist insurgents, the NLF, engaged in ruthless killings to preclude a moderate force from raising its collective head.)
For the outsider, the French, the dead finally voted in the opposite way. War weariness, or what French commentators called "boredom" with the war, was the basis for the DeGaulle government's peace agreement with the NLF. DeGaulle wanted to liquidate the war before it destroyed both the French Army and economy. But, in so doing, he read the mood of the French public perfectly. The war was ended not so much with joy as with an massive sigh of resigned relief.
As some observers mentioned at the time, the Algerian insurgents had a potent advantage. That advantage was defined as the nature of Islam with its emphasis upon martyrdom and a concomitant focus on death--particularly a kind of death which would avoid the perils of hell.
It was also noted at the time that Islam sanctioned, even required, the ghastly ways in which the insurgents butchered their opponents as well as those co-religionists who were suspected of supporting or even not resolutely opposing the French. The throat slittings, the decapitations, the genital mutilations, the torturing of captives, the burnings alive which were features of the war were not incorrectly identified by the French and other observers as being features of Islamic religion and not simply mindless barbarisms.
These features as well as the use of indiscriminate techniques of terror such as bombs planted in cafeterias, lamp posts, beachside dancehalls gave rise to the French and pied noir employment of terror and torture in return. The dead died more savagely. And, their votes counted for more in the minds of all three belligerents.
Islam being death oriented, violently intolerant and afflicted with a propensity for rigid authoritarianism is a powerful force multiplier. The dead of Islam always vote for more war, more death in order that the (literally) sacred Muslim dead will not have died in vain.
This combination of religion and the Vote of the Dead limits fatally the potential for the moderate third force so often sought without success not only in Algeria but over the past decades in the Mideast. Likewise, it limits the potential for any sort of meaningful long-term success for American policy in Afghanistan.
Even if the Son of Surge concept works to assure that the US and its allies achieve the minimum goal of "not losing" in Afghanistan, there is no real potential of a "free democratic, secular" nation-state emerging from the corpses and rubble. The corpses will assure that.
In the Mideast, in the Gaza Strip, the dead vote for more death and the living respond accordingly. This is a very good reason to agree with former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
Eagleburger, who is a realpoliker to the core, recently opined that the Israeli-Palestinian contretemps is "virtually insoluble." His reasoning focused on the inevitability of any proponent of a moderate settlement ending up dead--sooner rather than later.
If Eagleburger is right, and history is on his side, then there is perhaps only one viable option open for the Israelis (and the world.) That option is unpalatable on the surface, but so also is the endless continuation of the blow-counter blow way of war which has typified recent years.
The unmentionable option might be termed the "Sherman Doctrine." To paraphrase a comment by old William T.: The hand of war must rest so heavily upon those who started and continue the fighting that their descendants will both fear and renounce war forevermore.
After enough dying, even those whose religion sanctifies the fine art of dying, will grow tired of the fear, grow tired of asking themselves and each other, "Where will the next bomb, the next missile, the next shell land?"
Even those who purport to love death, to seek the cold embrace of the grave, will shudder with the endless thought, "Will I be next?"
After enough death, those still alive may well decide that they hear the voices from the grave whispering, "Vote for life. Vote for peace."
Well, one can hope. Sometimes even the dead can come to their senses.