the Verge of War, Look Before You Leap
K.R. Constantine Gutzman
History News Service
understandably clamor for some response to the events of September
11, 2001. Devastating acts of war sear the souls of witnesses and
the suffering alike. Yet history teaches that resorting to war often
has consequences unimagined by policymakers.
For the world's greatest power, the terrorist attack seems too much
to bear. Professional commentators, and current and former government
officials agree with citizens in the street: Military force must
be employed, and overwhelmingly.
Possession of great military power has proved a curse to many civilizations.
To the Romans, for example, a reputation as an outstanding military
power drew an appeal to intervene in a war in remote Sicily in 264
B.C. The Romans said yes. When the other side asked Carthage for
help, the Romans found themselves embarked on a century-long struggle
for survival with the other most powerful city on the western Mediterranean.
Carthage's great general, Hannibal Barca, became a symbol of the
fearsome foe, the bogeyman of Roman memory. Even Rome's eventual
victory over Carthage came at an enduring price: the end of the
Roman Republic. When Americans are told that they must sacrifice
some of their liberty in order to ward off the terrorist threat,
they might recall that the Romans found that victory on distant
battlefields made conquering generals too wealthy and influential
for the Senate to control.
In 1914, a terrorist murdered the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, then fled to nearby Serbia. When tiny Serbia refused to
extradite him, mighty Austria felt itself compelled by great-power
politics (not to mention by the emperor's anger) to invade Serbia.
The result was World War I, the largest war in history to that time.
Among that war's fruits were the defeat and dismemberment of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire and the abolition of the 600-year-old House
It is not only foreign countries that have encountered negative
results unimagined by the statesmen who launched wars to which there
seemed to be no alternative. American statesmen as well have felt
the full effects of great-power politics. On assuming the presidency
in 1801, one of Thomas Jefferson's first acts was to send a naval
squadron of four vessels to confront the Barbary states of north
Africa. Jefferson calculated that this approach would be cheaper
than paying ransom to those dens of pirates.
The policy's results satisfied Jefferson. However, Jefferson feared
the influence of the military on civilian government more than any
other president in American history. What he could not have known
was that his use of the Navy had set a precedent that later presidents
would exploit in deploying the military with only the occasional
wink and nod to the principle of congressional authority.
Four decades later, reporting the opening of the Mexican War, Mexican
General Mariano Arista wrote to his government, "I had the pleasure
of being the first to start the war." His unit had killed and wounded
several American soldiers and taken others prisoner. President James
K. Polk, who had designs on the Mexican province of California,
responded by requesting a congressional declaration of war. Within
two years, American forces had captured the Mexican capital.
Polk unleashed consequences he had never contemplated. In the aftermath
of the Mexican War, the northern half of Mexico was transferred
to the United States. In the northern United States, a majority
congealed around federal legislation excluding slavery from the
new territories, while southerners overwhelmingly favored leaving
the matter to the states. In the end, this argument brought on the
Civil War. That war transformed the American constitution, led directly
to the abolition of slavery and claimed the lives of more Americans
than all other wars combined.
Terrorism is an instrument that is perfectly calculated to undermine
republican government. By frightening the populace of the United
States, terrorists can hope both to cause Americans to change the
nature of the American regime and to respond with violence.
If Americans choose the military option, they should be prepared
for further acts of terrorism. Terrorists recruit most successfully
among populations who believe they have suffered injustice. Since
military countermeasures likely will injure innocent bystanders,
the "collateral damage" can be expected to include the friends and
families of people who will consequently become terrorists in the
use of military force often has consequences beyond the immediate
battlefield results. Policymakers and citizens must bear that fact
in mind as they formulate a response to the attack of September
Constantine Gutzman (send him
mail) is a professor of history at Western Connecticut State
University in Danbury, Conn., and a writer for the History News
© 2001 LewRockwell.com