Britain’s Economic Decline and the rise of Mechanized War

I chat regularly with some British guys. One is from England proper, the other actually has roots in Rhodesia but whose family originated in England. I had commented on the fact that England was pretty wealthy right up until the end of World War 2. Both of them responded almost immediately that WWII had bankrupted England. I took this at face value, and assumed they were exaggerating.

After some long reading, it turns out that whole “lend-lease” program we learned about in high school (and then promptly forgot) was due to the fact that we had already sold Europe all of the weapons they could possibly afford, at which point we extended them an apparent infinite line of credit for further weapons, the debt which we immediately forgave at the end of the war. WWI had depleted a full quarter of England’s wealth, and England was for all intents and purposes bankrupt by the end of WWII. England still had to pay the bills and support their economy transitioning away from a wartime economy, which ended up with the US making what today would have been a half a trillion dollar loan to England. That’s roughly equivalent to 2008′s TARP funds.

So yes, war effectively bankrupted England. This brings an interesting question – with modern, mechanized war, is there still a way to affordably go to war? If you look at the great millitary powers of our history – Alexander the Great, the Mongolians, the Romans, Napoleon – they came out on top, made their country incredibly wealthy and were unarguably the peak of their respective civilzations. Even comparably minor skirmishes in mainland Europe didn’t threaten to fully bankrupt nations the way WWII did for Britan.

I’m sitting here wondering, as we spend $20 billion USD a month in Afghanistan, if mechanized armies are only useful as deterrents against invasion. Mobilizing tanks and occupying countries these days is ludicrously expensive. North Korea has a half-starving army 1-million strong, and have not invaded anyone in nearly 50 years but at the same time, nobody’s tried to invade them either. There’s no way North Korea could leverage their creaking fleet of tanks to invade South Korea without causing their country to implode due to the support costs.

And here we are, finally(?) pulling out of Iraq on threat of losing our legal immunity in their country, I wonder – staring down Iraq over an attempted assassination – can we really afford another 10 year mechanized war?

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