Would the conflicts in the Middle East suddenly grind to a halt if 21st-century political leaders had to ride into battle like the kings and emperors of yore?
“Yes,” says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanon-born-and-bred American writer who has a history of thinking the unthinkable. If politicians had skin in the game, they would make very different decisions, he says.
While war has often been described as old men sending young men to die, this is, Taleb says, “the very first generation of warmongers not dying in battle.” They sit in “air-conditioned offices” instead and make consequential decisions that convulse countries.
It is a provocative argument and particularly relevant as the Syrian conflict metastasises. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have been trying to bomb a rebellious area outside Damascus into submission, leading to a surge in deaths and ever more urgent warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to “besiege” the centre of the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin but militia loyal to Assad’s regime have reclaimed the territory. All of this suggests an escalation of the long-running Syrian war but, by Taleb’s reasoning, that’s not because of politics but politicians without skin in the game.
“Skin in the Game” is the title of Taleb’s book, published in February. It lays out the writer’s long-held belief that people should only be heeded or trusted if they have a personal stake in the outcome.
Which is to say, America’s commander-in-chief should live up to his title. The US president should be at the ready on the battlefield if he declares war. Or at least, he should have a family member — son, daughter, grandchild — whose life and well-being are substantially affected by the decision to make war. Ditto for other politicians who commit their countries to long periods of bloodshed in pursuit of esoteric goals.
Might George W. Bush have been more mindful of the consequences of his 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq had he served in Vietnam rather than the Texas National Guard or sent one of his daughters into battle?
Would Assad have been less blase about the grinding 7-year fight for regime-survival had he, like Abbasid caliphs and Roman emperors, been positioned at the head of his forces?
Might Erdogan be less bellicose about clearing “terror organisations” out of Syria if he were accompanying his soldiers into Afrin?
Probably, at least according to Taleb’s theory. Historically, those with the power to declare war — Hannibal, Alexander, Caesar, Julian — lived or died by their decisions, he says. Certainly, they suffered for and from them, spending years away from home leading military campaigns.
Not so American presidents, at least for the past 29 years. They have neither seen combat nor had to physically suffer the consequences of their actions. Neither have their direct descendants. Donald Trump, the current occupant of the White House, has never entered a war zone. He evaded the Vietnam draft citing bone spurs in his feet.
The nearest a US decision-maker recently came to feeling the pain of war is former Vice-President Joe Biden. His son, Beau, was deployed to Iraq towards the end of the 2008 presidential election campaign. However, as armed drones make America’s wars ever more remote (and remotely controlled) disconnect between bloodshed and battlefield is growing.
Clearly, “skin in the game” is just another way of repeating the truism: Actions should have consequences. Our ancestors understood this, which is why the nearly 4,000-year-old Babylonian law popularly called Hammurabi’s Code stipulated death for a builder whose construction collapses and kills someone.
It is a brutal but honourable way of ensuring accountability. Modern attempts such as the International Criminal Court to hold warmongers responsible are ignored by those most likely to start cataclysmic conflicts.
This is why some argue for another, rougher form of justice.