The Culture of War

This article is transcribed from the author’s presentation at the Mises Institute’s Costs of War conference in Atlanta, May 20-22, 1994.

My friends and I sometimes play a game that you might enjoy; we call it “oxymoron.” The object is to come up with phrases which, while superficially plausible, prove on skeptical examination to involve intellectually comical contradictions in terms. Take, for example, creation science, or journalistic ethics, or the Maoist concept of a cultural revolution. How about the term scholar-athlete or, looking toward the university faculty instead of the students, the scholar-activist. That is actually a phrase the Washington Post used recently to describe the newly appointed president of the University of the District of Columbia. Some deeply cynical players of the game “oxymoron,” contemplating much of higher education today, might go so far as to propose as the winning oxymoron: college education.

Now I start this way because my title, “The Culture of War,” might be regarded as that kind of flagrant oxymoron. And so it would be if I were evoking the term culture in any artistic or intellectual sense, implying within the armed forces a considerable amount of viola playing, classical acting, liberal drawing, painting, modeling, poetry, fiction writing, and difficult reading. But actually it is not these sorts of things that I am trying to suggest by the word culture. I am using it in a quasi—anthropological sense: the way T.S. Eliot used it when he wrote a book called Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,[1] a book in which he considered the possibility of a healthy and interesting society based on something like religious principles. In that book, Eliot understands how much, as he puts it, is embraced by the word culture, a term not designating merely artistic or ennobling activities but the general forms and usages and techniques of a given society including military society. To Eliot, culture includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people. Using the British people and their culture as his[amazon asin=0571063136&template=*lrc ad (right)] examples, he goes on to list as components of British culture these things: Derby Day, the Henley regatta, dog racing, dart boards, boiled cabbage cut into sections (a rather disgusting idea surely), 19th-century Gothic churches, and the music of Sir Edward Elgar. In the same way, probably any one of us could make a list of things comprising the culture of war. At the outset I should warn you that the items I mention are collected not by any military strategist, theoretician, historian, or scholar. They are the views of a superannuated, badly wounded, former infantry lieutenant, a one-time rifle platoon leader who fought in World War II in Europe, and commanded 40 terrified young Americans, many of whom were killed or cruelly wounded. Thus, if the word “culture” presents some problems, the word “war” will present even more.

The truth is that very few people know anything about war. In an infantry division, for example, fewer than half of the troops actually fight, that is, fight with rifles, mortars, machine guns, grenades, and trench knives. The others, thousands upon thousands of them, are occupied with truck driving, photocopying, cooking and baking, ammunition and ration supplying, and similar housekeeping tasks. Now those things are no doubt necessary, but they are hardly bellicose; they don’t provide the sort of experience required to define what the word “war” might mean. This is the reason why most combat veterans tend to smile cynically and sardonically at veterans reunions when those reunions are attended by very large numbers. Very few of those attending, the real veterans know, deserve to be there. For most soldiers participating in World War II, the war meant inconvenience rising sometimes to hardship, enforced travel and residence abroad, unappetizing food, and the absence of table cloths or bed sheets. For those unlucky enough to be in the forward combat units, the war meant death or maiming, usually in extraordinarily dirty and undignified circumstances. At the very least, for most it meant a rapid and shocking metamorphosis from boyhood innocence to adult cynicism and bitterness. It is an experience remembered so vividly even at this distance that it has inducted me into my understanding of the culture of war. It is a culture hard for civilians to understand, because civilians occupy a world, thank God, which is in large part rational and predictable, a world which makes sense in an old-fashioned way.

Now let me illustrate what I mean. A while ago I was telephoned by a lawyer in New York City. He indicated that he was conducting a course for cadets at West Point, a course in the relation between language and violence. This course focused on the deformations of language required for the registration of non-rational violent behavior. He asked me to take part in a class on this topic and I agreed cheerfully. He then specified the subject further. He was going to focus, he said, on the after-action reports from combat units, and he wanted me to indicate what problems I had experienced in writing my after-action reports. What problems had I had adapting normal language to this special use? For example, what euphemisms, if any, were employed in these after-action reports? What were the temptations that I felt to provide rational motives for violent or inexplicable events?[amazon asin=0199971951&template=*lrc ad (right)]

As this phone call went on, I confess that I suffered an outburst of extreme anger, the sort of thing that is common among infantrymen reinstalled in an optimistic and unimaginative civilian culture. With some passion, I asked this lawyer, have you ever been in combat? He answered no. I then explained, with elaborate sarcasm, that I never heard of such things as after-action reports from small assault units. Perhaps they had some existence at battalion or regimental level, but not down where the fighting was. How, after all, could one pull oneself together to compose an after action report with pencil and paper when you had the following after-action features to attend to: first, the question of what to do with the six German prisoners the assault has just yielded. How can one keep a very angry private who had seen his buddy’s eye shot out from doing what he really much wanted to do, to kill all the prisoners? Second, after-action you had to clean up the mess. This meant taking care of the wounded, some of whom are suffering intense, unrelievable pain because the morphine is already exhausted. Third, after-action you had to reposition your soldiers to repel a German counter-attack, and you had to jolly them up to make them work to continue fighting the war in the prescribed manner. Fighting the war after-action is going to be very difficult because your sergeant is over there crying. Fourth, how could a junior officer, like me, write an after-action report when his hand was covered with the blood of one of his men whose wound in the back I had ineffectively tried to bandage while the bullets and shell fragments were flying around? Fifth, given all this, how could such a person have waited a day or so to file his after-action report in a calmer mood, when a third of the men whose testimony would be required were gone, killed, or wounded? Besides, where would he find the quiet to write it? By that time he would be engaged in further violence himself. The point is that producing after-action reports is the privilege of leaders who are non-combatants, and are useful only in works of fiction.

My point is not that we did not write such reports; rather, my point is that the lawyer, a very representative human being, suffered from an extreme naiveté about the facts of war. One would expect a lawyer, in New York City especially, to be quite sophisticated about the facts of life, but here is one who imagined that the conduct of combat was rational. He was a victim of what I call “inappropriate rationalism” mixed with a bit of inappropriate optimism as well. Those who find it hard to understand how often soldiers kill their own comrades during friendly fire episodes are victims of the same intellectual and emotional error. The culture of war, in short, is not like the culture of ordinary peace-time life. It is a culture dominated by fear, blood, and sadism, by irrational actions and preposterous (and often ironic) results. It has more relation to science fiction or to absurdist theater than to actual life, and that makes it hard to describe. If you like you can regard what I have said about his bizarre and ignorant concern with after-action reports as just another bureaucratic intrusion into a place where such intrusion is entirely inappropriate and, even worse, stupid. It is especially unfortunate because it simply underlines the unpleasant fact of the military class system. On the one hand, there are the remote and privileged staffs and administrators; on the other hand, there are the troops, mostly sad conscripts, that must do the dangerous work.

The distance between serious survivors of war and optimistic onlookers can be measured by a current controversy in Britain between veterans of World War II and the government. The veterans want D-day commemorated with solemnity and sorrow. After all it marked the beginning of a battle in which 37,000 people, most of them pathetically young, were killed. The government, desirous of tourist dollars, takes a different approach. It proposes not a commemoration but a celebration, involving street parties, dances, huge reenactments, band concerts, Glenn Miller impersonators and the like. Well, the quarrel is between those who know the culture of war, and those who think they know it, or who are prepared to profit from a misrepresentation of it. Between these two groups a reconciliation is hardly possible. A spokesman for the veterans has said that the event is being trivialized. Those who actually took part feel it was just a battle, albeit a successful one. Many of their comrades lost their lives in the process and many ladies were widowed. That the allies won World War Ii does not oblige us to be cheerful about it. Wars are won by distinction in the techniques of mass murder, and that is hardly something for people pretending to civilization to be proud of. Tolstoy’s words are worth recalling: war he said, “is not a polite recreation, but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war.” It will be many years—perhaps decades—before it becomes clear whether the Cold War we really necessary, or was a gratifying and profitable playing at war whose beneficiaries were not the people of the Earth, but the makers of armaments designed to become rapidly obsolete and quickly replaceable. If focusing the economy on armaments bankrupted the Soviet Union, think what it did to the United States.[amazon asin=0385419287&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Thus, if the culture of war solidifies those who fight, it alienates them from those who do not. It has other regrettable aspects, one of which is censorship. War kills people; the culture of war does not, but the culture of war kills something precious and indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of curiosity, freedom of knowledge. Recently, an official of the Pentagon explained why the military had censored some TV footage depicting Iraqi soldiers cut in half by automatic fire from U.S. helicopters. He explained, “If we let people see that kind of thing there would never again be any war.”[2] Now I got that quotation from a comical gift book titled The Seven Hundred and Seventy-six Stupidest Things Ever Said. But that remark is far from stupid; it is very true and its implications spread very far. It is obvious that censorship of that type is a necessity in any modern war. It is usually rationalized by the need to keep the enemy in the dark about our plans; it is also valuable to conceal military blunders and war crimes from a public that, in the absence of censorship, might learn to be critical of the military’s actions.

Now my point is simple: if you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment. During wartime, and during the Cold War, we all had to pretend that the military is a force for some kind of social good. I wonder if the habit of unthinking obedience is a good one to instill in young Americans. For one thing, what is clear about the culture of war is that it is necessarily an obedience culture. In armies, as one critic has noticed, where there must be unquestioning obedience, there must necessarily be passive injustice. And not just that—the obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.

The culture of war is the only culture where the concept of morale is crucial, and that is a significant point. Morale is crucial in the culture of war because at all times the troops are engaging in activities sure to undermine cheerfulness and hope. They are either being bored picking up cigarette butts, or they are being dehumanized by killing their fellow creatures who, like them, are for the most part helpless conscripts who have done nothing for which they deserve to be blown to bits. In a war-time culture, censorship has the assistance of general euphemism and programmatically inaccurate language. Before long we are calling war “peace-keeping.” What used to be designated aerial bombing has been euphemized into air strikes and even surgical strikes, dishonestly implying a degree of accuracy which would make combat veterans laugh out loud. Originally, artillery or mortar shells fired by mistake at our own troops were called terrible mistakes, or tragic errors. Then the euphemism of “incontinent ordnance” was devised, and finally some Pentagon genius hit upon the warmer and cozier term “friendly fire.”

During the Gulf War, friendly fire caused a large share of the American casualties. Twenty-three percent of the American dead died from friendly fire. Fifteen percent of the American wounded were wounded by friendly fire. Of course, blunders are the very essence of war, which is why the culture of war is so far removed from the culture of predictability and rationality. Soldiers know that mistakes are the essence of war, because they know what is likely to happen when you arm a lot of frightened boys with deadly weapons. But the public must not be told, lest their simple faith in military authority and rationality be shaken.[amazon asin=0195065778&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Transforming the ugly and shocking into the noble and bright is the business of the most popularly illustrated history of World War II. I am referring to the Time—Life volumes with titles like the Italian War or Across the Rhine. In those volumes, clear and noble cause and purpose are assigned systematically to events which are really accidental or which are embarrassingly demeaning. Readers of those books are insulted by being presumed to be incapable of confronting the truth. Everything must be transformed into fairy tales of heroism, success, and nobility. The entire series of books attempts to portray catastrophic occurrences in an orderly, wholesome, and optimistic fashion. For example, the shooting down of hundreds of American paratroopers during the invasion of Sicily by frightened and undisciplined American sailors, who were convinced that the large airplanes flying overhead held enemy troops, is presented in a fashion that does not show the complete bungling that occurred. The presentation of war by such dishonest means is a fine way, actually, to encourage a moralistic, nationalistic, and bellicose international politics.

It is customary to maintain that American wars are all fought on behalf of freedom, but few notice that for the sake of freedom millions of young men are enslaved for years, Shanghaied by conscription into a life whose every dimension is at odds with the idea of freedom. Flags, uniforms, bugle calls, band music, and all the trappings of military glory hardly suffice to persuade the hapless conscript that he is involved in the defense of freedom, especially when his weekend pass has just been canceled at the last minute in retribution for a heartfelt satiric remark which his sergeant has just overheard. To invoke a rude term which I hope will offend no one here, the culture of war is hardly separable from the culture of chicken shit.

During World War II, an Australian poet, John Manifold, wrote a poem entitled “Ration Party.” It dramatizes the irony of slaves in uniform defending freedom. It adds to the irony by being a sonnet, a kind of poetry normally associated with delicate or beautiful sentiments. Here is his poem “Ration Party”:

Across the mud the line drags on and on;
Tread slithers, foothold fails, all ardors vanish,
Rain falls; the barking N.C.O.’s admonish
The universe more than the lagging man.


Something like an infinity of men
Plods up the slope; the file will never finish,
For all their toil serves only to replenish
Stores for tomorrow’s labors to begin.


By sick fatigue-men brimming with complaint
And misery, who bear till all is ended
Every imaginable pattern of constraint.[3]


Now, the final thing I want to point out about the culture of war is that it is necessarily adversarial and dualistic. We are here, the enemy is over there, and a no-man’s land, either literal (geography) or figurative (ideology),[amazon asin=0990463109&template=*lrc ad (right)] divides us. The divisiveness at home occasioned by the Vietnam War is an example. That divisiveness almost ruined the United States. You remember how it went—if you opposed the war you were dishonoring the flag and were practically a traitor. If you favored the war you were a true American. You had to be either a dove or a hawk—take your choice.

There was no room for compromise, conciliation, or even very subtle discussion. If you were not for the war you must be for communism. It was that attitude that finally brought down the Nixon White House.

Earlier in our history, invasion or physical pressure against American territory were provocations leading to war. During the Nixon era, the U.S. became “Kissingerized.” No longer requiring threats to American territory, threats to American “national interest” became a sufficient reason for sending the troops into bloody action. National interest is an interesting term because it is legally meaningless and constitutionally undefinable, hence popular. The term “national interest” is the best gift ever awarded to those Americans who are neurotically bellicose, but who, like Henry Kissinger, always seem to avoid being on the frontline, preferring to serve their country by getting others to drop bombs on people. Of course, the people they drop bombs on, and this is notable, are always more primitive and unfortunate than themselves. They are always smaller in stature. They usually have darker skins. That is what the current culture of war seems to amount to. Clearly, we should abhor it.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949).

[2]The Seven Hundred and Seventy-six Stupidest Things Ever Said, Ed Ross and Kathryn Petra, eds. (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 213.

[3]John Manifold, “Ration Party,” Selected Verse (New York: John Day, 1946), p. 72.