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Moravian College students study in Japan

A Question Of Deterrence

June 1, 2017

It didn’t happen. Despite the world’s last two remaining super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, considering each other enemies for most of the second half of the twentieth century, a third world war didn’t happen between them. But why? Why didn’t the Soviet Union and the communist nations allied with them and the United States and the rest of N.A.T.O. resolve their disputes in the way that nations had resolved their disputes in the first half of the twentieth century, through all out warfare? A popular response to this question is that, because of the increase in the power of weaponry, once nations obtain a certain level of military proficiency they are capable of inflicting so much damage on an attacking enemy that it would never be rational for another nation to engage in such an attack. Usually, the invention of nuclear weaponry is thought to be the explicit technology that has brought about the new “deterrent” mode of military thinking.

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On Saturday May 20th I, along with the other members of Moravian College’s PJUS 290 course, visited the Iwakuni Marine Air Corps base to learn more about the argument that strong militaries prevent war by acting as deterrents. Our guides for the day were Major Gilbert and Sgt. Cruz. They gave us a base tour. I was taken aback by how large the base was. Although I knew the United States maintained military bases throughout the world, I fundamentally misunderstood what this meant.  I had imagined a U.S. base was composed only of things like barracks, jet hangers, and runways. I was wrong. The base at Iwakuni is a sprawling complex of residences, restaurants, schools, athletic fields, office buildings, and troop training facilities.  To those who accept the deterrence argument, it sends the message that the United States is serious in its commitment to defending Japan on a permanent basis. To those skeptical of deterrence, it is another example of the overgrown military industrial complex and a legitimate source of fear for those countries that might be attacked from it.

Major Gilbert either explicitly or implicitly made the case for deterrence throughout the day. He proudly showed our group a slide show presentation describing the inner workings and history of the Marine Corps. He described how the U.S. marines and the Japan Self-Defense Forces work together to defend Japan. Additionally, he described the efforts the marines on base made to have a positive impact on the local community. Among those efforts, most impressive was Air Day. It is a day when the U.S. military opens the base up to the Japanese public and provides entertainment, such as air shows.


Although clearly a supporter of a large and powerful military, he was far from the war mongering caricature one might expect to encounter. He spoke affectionately of Japan and said it was the place he felt most at home in the world. He expressed regret about and made no attempt to minimize the recent crimes committed by U.S. marines in Okinawa. He was also worried that the new stricter regulations on marines leaving the base meant more of them might opt to stay on base instead of exploring Japan.

Although a tentative supporter of the deterrence argument, I wish I had more time to ask Major Gilbert about some of its flaws. Spurred on by the deterrence strategy, the United States massively expanded the number of military bases it has in other countries throughout the world. In his book Base Nation, David Vine states that, according to the U.S. government’s most recent figures, there are currently 686 American bases operating outside the United States.  He points out that this is probably more foreign bases than any other military in history has possessed. Even more incredibly, most of these bases have come into existence since the Second World War. On financial grounds alone, this rate of expansion is a strong argument against the use of deterrence to maintain peace. Given that the United States debt currently stands at $13.62 trillion, we simply can’t afford it anymore.

As far as I can tell, the strongest argument against deterrence is that it hasn’t guaranteed peace in the past. Prior to the First World War, the great powers of Europe entered into a byzantine series of alliances meant to maintain a balance of power on the continent. In post Napoleon Europe, this approach likely prevented some wars that otherwise would have occurred. However, when war finally did come, it also guaranteed that the war would be much bloodier than it otherwise would have been. Countries made use of the weapons they acquired in the arms race with one another and called on allied nations to honor their treaties. I wonder if Major Gilbert has ever considered how fragile peace through deterrence really is.