Politics & Policy

War: What Is It Good For?

Quite a lot, actually.

The word “civil” was added to “engineering” in the 19th century because until then engineering had simply been understood to be a military science. When Leonardo da Vinci tallied his accomplishments in an appeal to a possible benefactor, almost half of them were military designs (he listed painting and sculpture as a single feat). Tartaglia, a giant in the history of mathematics and physics, did much of his best work figuring out the trajectories of cannon balls. In medicine, the number of breakthroughs attributable to war is literally incalculable. Today, death by infection in the United States is one-twentieth what it was in 1900 thanks to antibiotics that were largely developed during WWII.

Material progress is not the only boon of war. Society is often the beneficiary of battle as well. Democracy was born in Athens in the 6th century thanks to the Cleisthenean reforms, which were themselves the product of drastic military reforms. The rise of the infantry during the Middle Ages has been credited with sowing the seeds of democracy in the modern era. And even more recently, wars freed slaves here at home and abroad. Women’s suffrage would not have been possible without war.

These examples, most of which come from Robert Nisbet’s indispensable (though out-of-print) book Prejudices, are small illustrations of the fact that wars are not all bad. “From the eighteenth century on,” Nisbet writes, “war has had a bad press in Western society.” Thanks to such intellectuals as Abbe de Saint Pierre, Turgot, condorcet — among others — enlightened society became convinced that war was the chief impediment to social and intellectual progress. Once the weed of war could be eliminated from God’s garden, then, and only then, could humanity’s flower bloom.

Nisbet, one of the wisest social scientists of the 20th century and a veteran of World War II, was not ignorant of the fact that war is a horrible thing. But war also provides opportunities for young men that cannot be found in any other enterprise. Nisbet writes:

Thus, although I was horrified at times by what I saw overseas, in fear at other times, and frequently anguished by homesickness, I through war satisfied a desire for new experience, felt the exhilaration of serving directly in a noble cause, enjoyed the sense of superiority to all those who had chosen other ways of enduring the war, and in the process acquired new stimuli, new sources of psychic energy which served me well for many years. My experience can be multiplied by a large factor in the history of World War II. If war meant what it did in this respect to me who was well-favored, think what it meant to hundreds of thousands of young men and women to whom service meant liberation from squalor, drudgery, meniality and suffocating monotony.

I find Nisbet’s reminiscences of his own experience in WWII, while too brief, deeply refreshing — and not only because they puncture the bundle of clichés and false pieties demanding that we all treat war as if it were an onion: an evil at every level and depth, with no redeeming qualities no matter how furiously you peel. But also because they confirm the suspicion that I think countless young men, myself included, have about war. I doubt there are many men who are not at one time or another envious of those men who have seen battle. And I know there are many men who have seen battle who are in some way glad that they did. If they weren’t, soldiers would not wear their medals with such pride and the VFW halls would stand empty.

Still, having never served in uniform — and with the prospect that I ever will diminishing every day like the road less traveled by in my rear-view mirror — I’ve got little appetite for celebrating the benefits war can have on American men. We spend too much time worrying about the self-esteem of young Americans as it is, and it would be a moral horror to suggest war as nothing more than another avenue for self-improvement.

But I do think it’s important to point out that millions of young American men and women have joined the military and made careers there — and they are not fools. If war were always and at all times the irredeemable barbarity that many on the left and more than a few on the right believe it to be, then they would have to be fools for ever even contemplating such a trajectory for their lives.

The idea that wars are never forces for good is the geopolitical equivalent of the old canard that violence never solves anything. The slaves freed by the force of arms certainly thought violence solved the problem of human bondage on American soil. The residents of Dachau no doubt saw some utility to war when American GIs opened the gates. War can be horrible and cruel, but it can also be just and morally necessary.


The antiwar forces on the right, for example, correctly cite the Black Hawk Down disaster as a cautionary tale, saying it was an adventure outside the realm of our national interest. They condemn the use of American soldiers as “nation-builders” and policemen on foreign soil. But, they also neglect to credit those very soldiers who have said time and again that their outrage over the incident lies not in having been sent there, but in having been removed from Somali soil before they could “get the job done.” The cause was noble enough for the men, but their sacrifice was rendered meaningless by the inability of political leaders to have the courage of their convictions.

The antiwar forces on the left, meanwhile, see virtually every military exercise since World War II as morally suspect or vividly corrupt. In Korea, a terrible war in every respect, America fought to liberate a nation from Communism. The Left, unleashing through I. F. Stone a torrent of lies, distortions, and outright Soviet propaganda about American conduct, deemed the war illegitimate. And yet, as a second and third generation of North Koreans learns to eat grass and make soup of old shoes to survive — while South Korean children spend their allowances on ski trips and handheld electronics — can an honest person dispute that that war was an unalloyed boon to the South Koreans? Can anyone fault a North Korean for fantasizing about a past that never was, in which MacArthur’s troops liberated the entire peninsula?

Indeed — as a purely moral argument, leaving aside the legitimate arguments about what was and was not possible — how can anyone disagree that an all-out war on Stalin’s Soviet Union wouldn’t have been preferable to the Cold War? In a nation which has declared time and again that death is preferable to tyranny (“Give me liberty or give me death,” “Live free or die,” “Millions for defense, not one penny for tribute!” etc., etc.), how is it possible to argue that leaving whole generations of entire societies imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain was an instance of taking the high road? Indeed, the trillions of dollars Americans sacrificed for the sake of the Cold War cost lives too.

In 1991, the Left, with most of the Democratic party in tow, argued that Saddam Hussein would have left Kuwait under the pressure of sanctions. They then argued that sanctions alone would keep Hussein from pursuing weapons of mass destruction, even as he expelled inspectors. Indeed, at times it seems the Left advocates repealing the sanctions even while arguing that sanctions are sufficient to keep Saddam from pursuing these weapons — and even as he pursues them. The obviously inflated numbers of Iraqi children who’ve died since the war are constantly cited as some vague evidence in the case against the war in the first place. And yet it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that if the U.S. had pressed the war further, removing Saddam entirely, those children’s lives would doubtless have been saved.

There are two arguments for war with Hussein’s Iraq. The first is grounded in realism: Saddam Hussein poses a threat to our security. This case can be made in a complete moral vacuum. It isn’t contingent on moral categories like tyranny, cruelty, whatever. Saddam is an actor on the global stage whose aspirations conflict with America’s, and since the international system is a Hobbesian state of nature, we have every “right” to protect our interests by any means necessary. Such arguments are important, necessary, and in this case, I believe, persuasive.

But it is the second argument, the one rooted in morality, which I find more compelling. To some, this colors me a warmonger or imperialist — a term invariably thrown around by people eager to close off a debate, rather than have one. But so be it.

The cultures of the Middle East are rich and impressive. But at the moment, they are also stagnating in a cesspool of bigotry, poverty, and oppression of every sort. Even the — by most accounts — decent societies of the region, like that of Jordan, are being held back by the undertow of bile which flows freely through the Arab street. In 1990, for example, the king of Jordan had to show fealty to an Iraqi dictator he surely must have despised.

What a staggering embarrassment it must be for the denizens of North Africa that many of their poor neighbors south of the Sahara have been more successful at embracing democracy and the rule of law than has any Arab regime. I have every confidence that there are untold millions of Arabs who desperately want to live normal lives and that there are millions more who would shed their ideological blinders if given the opportunity. Donald Rumsfeld was right when he said we should think of these populations as hostages, not as citizens.

Those who fetishize “stability in the region” really mean the stability of cruelty and tyranny (and those who blame Israel for the attitudes of the Arab street are arguing, in effect, that it would be better to abandon one friendly democracy than to establish 50 of them). A stable, Nazi-run Europe would have been no friend and an unstable but democratizing Middle East would be no foe. After the Gulf War, the signs were there for a U.S.-led transformation of the region, but we turned our backs on those we had encouraged to rise up and embraced, once again, those committed to keeping their subjects down. Until that status quo is crushed and flushed clean by the tide of history, there will always be bin Ladens. Indeed, that is where the moral and realpolitik cases for war intertwine.

The biggest favor the United States ever did to militaristic Japan was to crush it militarily. Our victory ushered in prosperity, democracy, and a productive peace. The Iraqi people would be lucky if we did them the same favor.


The Latest