War Is Horrible, but . . .

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Anyone who has done even a little reading about the theory and practice of war, whether in political theory, international relations, theology, history, or common journalistic commentary, has encountered a sentence of the form “war is horrible, but . . . .” In this construction, the phrase that follows the conjunction explains why a certain war was (or now is or someday will be) an action that ought to have been (or ought to be) undertaken notwithstanding its admitted horrors. The frequent, virtually formulaic use of this expression attests that nobody cares to argue, say, that war is a beautiful, humane, uplifting, or altogether splendid course of action and therefore the more often people fight, the better.

Some time ago―in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for example―one might encounter a writer, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who forthrightly affirmed that war is manly and invigorating for the nation and the soldiers that engage in it: war keeps a nation from “getting soft.” Although this opinion is no longer expressed openly with great frequency, something akin to it may yet survive, as Chris Hedges argues in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). Nowadays, however, even those who find meaning for their lives by involvement in war, perhaps only marginal or symbolic involvement, do not often extol war as such.

Instead, they are apt to justify a nation’s engagement in war by calling attention to alternative, even more horrible outcomes that, retrospectively, would have occurred if the nation had not gone to war or, prospectively, will occur if it does not go to war. This seemingly reasonable “balancing” form of argument often sounds stronger than it really is, especially when it is made more or less in passing. People may easily be swayed by a weak argument, however, if they fail to appreciate the defects of the typically expressed “horrible, but” apology for war.

Rather than plow through various sources on my bookshelves to compile examples, I have availed myself of modern technology. A Google search for the exact term “war is horrible but” on September 11, 2006, identified 1,450 instances. Rest assured that this sample is smaller than the entire universe of such usage―some texts have yet to be captured electronically. Among the examples I drew from the World Wide Web are the following fourteen statements. I identify the person who made the statement only when he is well-known.

(1) “War is horrible. But no one wants to see a world in which a regime with no regard whatsoever for international law―for the welfare of its own people―or for the will of the United Nations―has weapons of mass destruction.” [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage]

This statement was part of a speech Armitage gave on January 21, 2003, shortly before the U.S. government unleashed its armed forces to wreak “shock and awe” on the nearly defenseless people of Iraq. The speech repeated the Bush administration’s standard prewar litany of accusations, including several claims later revealed to be false, and so it cannot be viewed as anything but bellicose propaganda. Yet it does not differ much from what many others were saying at the time.

On its own terms, the statement scarcely serves to justify a war. A regime’s disregard of international law, its own people’s wellbeing, and the will of the United Nations, combined with possession of weapons of mass destruction―these conditions apply to several nations. They no more justify a military attack on Iraq than they justify an attack on Pakistan, France, India, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Israel or, for that matter, the United States itself.

(2) “War is terrible, war is horrible, but war is also at times necessary and the only means of stopping evil.”

The only means of stopping evil? How can such an exclusivity exist? Has evil conduct never been stopped except by war? For example, has shunning―exclusion from commerce, financial systems, communications, transportation systems, and other means of international cooperation―never served to discipline an evil nation-state? Might it do so if seriously tried? Why must we leap to the conclusion that only war will serve, when other measures have scarcely even been considered, much less been seriously attempted? If war is really as horrible as everyone says, then it would seem that we have a moral obligation to try very hard to achieve the desired suppression of evil-doing by means other than resort to warfare, which is itself always a manifest evil, even when it is the lesser one.

(3) “No news shows [during World War II] were showing German civilians getting fried and saying how sad it was. It was war against butchers and war is horrible, but it’s war, and to defend human decency, sometimes war is necessary.” [Ben Stein]

Stein is a knowledgeable man. He surely knows that the U.S. government imposed draconian censorship of war news during World War II. Perhaps the censors had their reasons for keeping scenes of incinerated German civilians away from the U.S. public. After all, even if Americans in general had extraordinarily cruel and callous attitudes toward German civilians during the war, many Americans had relatives and friends in Germany.

Stein appears to lump all Germans into the class of “butchers” against whom he claims the war was being waged. He certainly must understand, however, that many persons in Germany―children, for example―were not butchers and bore absolutely no responsibility for the actions of government officials who were. Yet these innocents, too, suffered the dire effects of, among other things, the terror bombing the U.S. and British air forces inflicted on many German cities.

To say, as Stein and many others have said, that “war is war” gets us nowhere; in a moral sense, this tautology warrants nothing. Evidently, however, many people consider all moral questions about the conduct of war to have been settled simply by their having labeled or by their having accepted someone else’s labeling of certain actions as a “war.” Having uttered this exculpatory incantation over the state’s organized violence, they believe that all transgressions associated with it are automatically absolved―as they say, “all’s fair in love and war.” It does not help matters that regimes treat some of the most egregious transgressors as heroes.

Finally, Stein’s claim that “to defend human decency, sometimes war is necessary” is, at best, paradoxical, because it says in effect that sometimes human indecency, which war itself surely exemplifies, is necessary to defend human decency. Perhaps he had in mind the backfires that fire fighters sometimes set to help them extinguish fires. This metaphor, however, seems farfetched in connection with war. It is difficult to think of anything that consists of so many different forms of indecency as war does. Not only is its essence the large-scale wreaking of death and destruction, but its side effects and its consequences in the aftermath run a wide range of evils as well. Whatever else war may be, it surely qualifies as the most indecent type of action people can take: it reduces them to the level of the most ferocious beasts and often accomplishes little more than setting the stage for the next, reactive round of savagery. In any event, considered strictly as a way of sustaining human decency, it gets a failing grade every time, because it invariably magnifies the malignity that it purports to resist.

(4) “War is horrible, but slavery is worse.” [Winston Churchill]

Maybe slavery is worse, but maybe it’s not; it depends on the conditions of the war and the conditions of the slavery. Moreover, if one seeks to justify a war on the strength of this statement, he had best be completely certain that but for war, slavery will be the outcome. In many wars, however, slavery was never a possibility, because neither side sought to enslave its enemy. Many wars have been fought for limited objectives, if only because more ambitious objectives appeared unattainable or not worth the cost. No war in U.S. history may be accurately seen as having been waged to prevent the enslavement of the American people. Some people talk that way about World War II or, if it be counted as a war, the Cold War, but such talk has no firm foundation in facts.

(5) “You may think that the Iraq war is horrible, but there may be some times when you can justify [going to war].”

Perhaps war can be justified at “some times,” but that statement itself in no way shows that the Iraq war can be justified, and it seems all too obvious that it cannot be. If it could have been justified, the government that launched it would not have had to resort to a succession of lame excuses for waging it, each such excuse being manifestly inadequate or simply false. The obvious insufficiency of any of the grounds put forward explains why so many of us have been struggling to divine exactly what did impel the Bush administration’s rush to war.

(6) “War is horrible, but sometimes we need to fight.”

Need to fight for what? The objective dictates whether war is a necessary means for its attainment. Certainly, if the objective was to preserve Americans’ freedoms and “way of life,” the U.S. government did not need to fight most of the enemies against whom it waged war historically. Remarkably, the only time the enemy actually posed such a threat, which was during the Cold War, the United States did not go to war against that enemy directly, although it did fight (unnecessarily) the enemy’s less-menacing allies, North Korea, China, and North Vietnam. In the other wars, the United States might well have remained at peace had U.S. leaders been interested in peace rather than committed to warfare.

(7) “Of course war is horrible, but it will always exist, and I’m sick of these pacifist [expletive deleted] ruining any shred of political decency that they can manage.”

Many people have observed that wars have recurred for thousands of years and therefore will probably continue to occur from time to time. The unstated insinuation seems to be that in view of war’s long-running recurrence, nothing can be done about it, so we should all grow up and admit that war is as natural, and hence as unobjectionable, as the sun’s rising in the east each morning. It’s “how the world works.”

This outlook contains at least two difficulties. First, many other conditions also have had long-running histories: for example, reliance on astrologers as experts in foretelling the future; affliction with cancers; submission to rulers who claim to dominate their subjects by virtue of divine descent or appointment; and many others. Eventually, people overcame each of these long-established conditions. Science revealed that astrology is nothing more than an elaborate body of superstition; scientists and doctors discovered how to control or cure certain forms of cancer; and citizens learned to laugh at the pretensions of rulers who claim divine descent or appointment (at least, they had learned until George W. Bush successfully revived the doctrine among the benighted rubes who form the Republican base). Because wars spring in large part from people’s stupidity, ignorance, and gullibility, it is conceivable that alleviation of these conditions might have the effect of diminishing warfare, if not of eliminating it altogether.

Second, even if nothing can be done about the periodic outbreak of war, it does not follow that we ought to shut up and accept it without complaint. No serious person expects, say, that evil can be eliminated from the human condition, yet we condemn it and struggle against its expression in human affairs. We strive to divert potential evildoers from their malevolent course of action. Scientists and doctors continue to seek cures for cancers that have afflicted humanity for millennia. Even conditions that cannot be wholly eliminated can sometimes be mitigated, but only if someone tries to mitigate them.

Finally, whatever else one might say about the pacifists, one may surely say that if everyone were a pacifist, no wars would occur. Pacifism may be criticized on various grounds, as it always has been and still is, but to say that pacifists “lack any shred of political decency” seems itself to be indecent. Remember: war is horrible, as everybody now concedes but many immediately put out of mind.

(8) “Every war is horrible, but freedom and justice cannot be allowed to be defeated by tyranny and injustice. As hideous as war is it is not as hideous as the things it can stop and prevent.”

This statement assumes that war amounts to a contest between freedom and justice on one side and tyranny and injustice on the other. One scarcely commits the dreaded sin of moral equivalence, however, by observing that few wars present such a stark contrast, in which only the children of God fight on one side and only the children of Satan fight on the other. One reason why war is so horrible is that it invariably drags into its charnel house many―again, the children are the most undeniable examples―who must be held blameless for any actions or threats that might have incited the war.

Even if we set aside such clear-cut innocents and consider only persons in the upper echelons of the conflicting sides, it is rare to find all angels on one side and all demons on the other. In World War II, for example, the Allied states were led by such angels as Winston Churchill, who relished the horrific terror bombing of German cities; Josef Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time; Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whose moral uprightness the less said the better; and Harry S Truman, who took pleasure in annihilating hundreds of thousands of defenseless Japanese noncombatants first with incendiary bombs and ultimately with nuclear weapons. Yes, the other side had Adolf Hitler, whose fiendishness I have no desire to deny, but the overall character of the leadership on both sides sufficiently attests that there was enough evil to go around. As for the ordinary soldiers, of course, everyone who knows anything about actual combat appreciates that once engaged, the men on both sides quickly become brutalized and routinely commit atrocities of every imaginable size and shape.

So, it is far from clear that war is always or even typically “not as hideous as the things it can stop and prevent.” On many occasions, refusal to resort to war, even in the face of undeniable evils, may still be the better course. When World War II ended, leaving more than 62 million dead, most of them civilians, and hundreds of millions displaced, homeless, wounded, sick, or impoverished, the survivors might well have doubted whether conditions would have been even more terrible had the war not taken place. (The dead were unavailable for comment.) To make matters worse, owing to the war, the monster Stalin had gained control of an enormous area stretching from Czechoslovakia to Korea; and soon, because of the defeat of the Japanese Empire, the monster Mao Zedong would take complete control of China and impose a murderous reign of terror on the world’s most populous country that cost the lives of perhaps another 60 million persons (as many as 77 million, according to one plausible estimate). It is difficult to believe that the situation in China would have been so awful even if the Japanese had succeeded in incorporating the Chinese into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

(9) “I grant you the war is horrible, but it is a war, after all. You have to compare apples to apples, and when I do that, I see this war is going well.”

This statement about the current war in Iraq exemplifies what some call the not-as-bad-as-Hamburg-Dresden-Tokyo-Hiroshima-Nagasaki defense of brutal warfare. If we make such pinnacles of savagery our standard, then sure enough, everything else pales by comparison. But why should anyone adopt such a grotesque standard? To do so is to concede that anything less horrible than the very worst cases is “not so bad.” In truth, warfare’s effects are sufficiently hideous at every level. What the Israelis have been doing in Lebanon recently bears no comparison with the February 1945 Allied attack on Dresden, of course, but the sight of even one little Lebanese child, dead, her bloody body gruesomely mangled by an explosion, ought to be enough to give pause to any proponent of resort to war. Try putting yourself in the place of that child’s mother.

(10) “[Certain writers] all agreed that war is horrible but said the Bible gives government the authority to wage war to save innocent lives.”

Biblical scholars have been disputing what Christians may and may not do with regard to war for almost two thousand years. The dispute continues today, so the matter is certainly not resolved among devout Christians. Even if Christians may go to war to save innocent lives, however, a big question remains: is the government going to war for this purpose or for one of the countless other purposes that lead governments to make war? Saving the innocent makes an appealing excuse, but often, if not always, it is only a pretext. “Just war” writers from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Grotius to the latest contributors have agonized over the ready availability of such pretexts and warned against the wickedness of advancing them when the real motives are less justifiable or even plainly immoral.

For centuries, European combatants on all sides invoked God’s blessing for their wars against one another. As recently as World War II, the Germans had “Gott Mit Uns,” a declaration that adorned the belt buckles of Wehrmacht soldiers in both world wars. Strange to say, in 1917 and 1918, Christian ministers of the gospel in pulpits across the United States were assuring the congregations that their nation-state was engaged in a “war for righteousness” (the title of Richard M. Gamble’s splendid book about this repellent episode). So invoking Biblical authority really doesn’t get us very far: the enemy may be invoking the same authority.

Nowadays, of course, one side invokes the Jewish and Christian God, whereas the other calls upon the blessing of Allah. Whether this bifurcated manner of gaining divine sanction for the commission of mass murder and mayhem represents progress or not, I leave to the learned theologians.

(11) “War is horrible but thank God we have men and women who are willing and able to protect our people and our freedom.”

These men and women may be willing and able to supply such protection, but do they? Our leaders constantly proclaim that their wars are aimed at protecting us and our freedoms―”we go forward,” declares George W. Bush, “to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world”―but one has to wonder, considering that in the entire history of warfare in the United States, each war (with the possible exception of the War for Independence) has left the general run of the American people with fewer freedoms after the war than they enjoyed before the war. Every time the rulers set out to protect the village, they decide that the best way to do so is to destroy it in the process. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help wondering whether protection of the people and their freedoms was really the state’s objective, and after forty-five years of thinking about the matter, I’ve come up with some pretty attractive alternative hypotheses. One of them, as Marine General Smedley Butler famously expressed it, is that war is a racket, but I have others, too.

(12) “War is horrible but some economic good came out of World War II. It brought the United States out of one of the greatest slumps in history, the Great Depression.”

This venerable broken-window fallacy refuses to die, no matter how many times a stake is driven through its heart. Most Americans believe it. Worse, because less excusable, nearly all historians and even a large majority of economists do so as well. I’ve been whacking this nonsense for several decades, but so far as I can tell, I’ve scarcely made a dent in it. Should anyone care to see a complete counterargument, I recommend the first five chapters of my book Depression, War, and Cold War (2006).

(13) “War is horrible, but whining about it is worse. Either put up or shut up.”

Some people always reject the denunciation of any familiar social institution or conduct unless the denouncer offers a “constructive criticism,” that is, unless he puts forward a promising plan to eliminate the evil he denounces. I admit at once that I have discovered no cure for the human tendency to resort to war when much more intelligent and humane alternatives are available. I’m trying to convince people that on nearly all occasions, they are allowing their rulers to bamboozle them and to turn them into cannon fodder for purposes that serve the rulers’ interests, not the people’s. I’m getting nowhere in this effort, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m also going to continue to denounce stupidity, ignorance, ugliness, bullying, bad breath, and rap music, even though I don’t expect to succeed in those quests, either.

(14) “Of course, war is horrible, but at present, it’s still the only guarantee to maintain peace.”

The statement as it stands is self-contradictory because it affirms that the only way to make sure that we will have peace is to go to war. Perhaps, if we are feeling generous, we may interpret the statement as the time-honored exhortation that to maintain the peace, we should prepare for war, hoping that by dissuading any aggressor from moving against us, our preparation will preserve the peace. Although this policy is not self-contradictory, it is dangerous, because the preparation we make for war may itself move us toward actually going to war. For example, preparation for war may entail increasing the number of military officers and allowing the top brass to exert greater influence in policy making. Those officers may see that without war, their careers will go nowhere, and hence they may tilt their advice to civilian authorities toward risking or actually making war, even when peace might easily be preserved. Likewise, military suppliers may use their political influence to foster international suspicions and fears that otherwise might be allayed. Wars are not good for business in general, but they are good for the munitions contractors. Certain legislators may develop an interest in militarism; perhaps it helps them to attract campaign contributions from arms contractors, veterans’ groups, and members of the national guard and military reserve organizations. Pretty soon we may find ourselves dealing, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower did, with a military-industrial-congressional complex, and we may find that it packs a great deal of political punch and acts in a way that, all things considered, diminishes the chances of keeping the country at peace.

From the foregoing commentary, a recurrent theme may be extracted: those who argue that “war is horrible, but . . .” nearly always use this rhetorical construction not to frame a genuinely serious and honest balancing of reasons for and against war, but only to acknowledge what cannot be hidden―that war is horrible―and then to pass on immediately to an affirmation that notwithstanding the horrors, whose actual forms and dimensions they neither specify nor examine in detail, a certain war ought to be fought.

The reasons given to justify its being fought, however, generally amount to claims that cannot support a strong case. Often they are not even bona fide reasons, but mere propaganda, especially when they emanate from official sources. Sometimes they rest on historical errors, such as the claim that the armed forces in past wars have somehow kept foreigners from depriving us of our liberties. Often the case for war rests on ill-founded speculation about what will happen if we do not go to war.

People need to recognize, however, that government officials and their running dogs in the media, among others, are not soothsayers. None of us knows the future, but these interested parties lack a disinterested motive for making a careful, well-informed forecast. They have, as the saying goes, an agenda of their own. “The best and the brightest” of our leaders and their kept experts generally amount to little more than what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realists,” and on occasion, such as the present one, they don’t meet even that standard. Hence, lately, these geniuses, equipped with all that secret information they constantly emphasize their critics don’t possess, have put forward forecasts of a “cake walk” through Iraq, a “slam dunk” on finding lots of weapons of mass destruction there, and liberal-democratic dominoes falling across the Middle East―forecasts that fit more comfortably in a lunatic asylum than in a discussion among rational, well-informed people.

The government generally relies on marshalling patriotic emotion and reflexive loyalty rather than on making a sensible case for going to war. Much of the discussion that does take place is a sham, because the government officials who pretend to listen to other opinions, as U.S. leaders did most recently during 2002 and early 2003, have already decided what they are going to do, no matter what other people may say. The rulers know that once the war starts, nearly everybody will fall into line and “support the troops.”

If someone demands that the skeptic about war offer constructive criticism, here is my proposal: always insist that the burden of proof rest heavily on the warmonger. This protocol, which is now anything but standard operating procedure, is eminently judicious because, as we all recognize, war is horrible. Given its horrors, which in reality are much greater than most people appreciate, it only makes sense that those who propose to enter into those horrors make a very, very strong case for doing so. If they cannot―and I submit that they almost never can―then people will serve their interests best by declining an invitation to war. As a rule, the most rational, humane, and auspicious course of action is indeed to give peace a chance.

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.

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