The Truth About War

This talk was delivered at the Peace and Prosperity 2016 Conference of the Ron Paul Institute.

Not long ago I was thinking about the legacy of Murray N. Rothbard, the brilliant scholar and the creator of the libertarian movement, as well as a dear friend to both Ron and me. Would that movement have come into existence without Murray? I don’t think so. And whatever might have developed in its place would undoubtedly have been less pro-peace, and more willing to reach an accord with the warfare state, than Murray ever was.

“I am getting more and more convinced,” he wrote privately in 1956, “that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business.”

Murray refused to stop talking about war and peace even when, by the late 1960s, his antiwar views had alienated him completely from the Against the State: An ... Rockwell Jr., Llewelly... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 UTC - Details) mainstream right wing and had left him with a vastly smaller audience. It reminds me of how Ron himself, despite all the conservatives who pleaded with him to leave foreign policy out of his speeches in order to win more support and influence, refused to do so. The issue was too important – morally, economically, and in every other way – and these men were too principled.

Of course, Murray was right: the influence and consequences of war are so pervasive and far-reaching that we cannot think of it as just another issue, next to sugar quotas. War and militarism warp and deform whatever they touch. For today I’ve chosen six ways, out of what is surely a much larger number of potential examples.

First and foremost, war deforms us morally. It does so because the state itself first warps our moral sense. We’ve imbibed the idea that the state may legitimately do things that would be considered unspeakable enormities if carried out by private individuals. If I have a grievance, even a legitimate one, against someone else, no one would make excuses for me if I launched an attack on that person’s entire neighborhood, and I would be thought deranged if I dismissed any deaths I caused as mere “collateral damage.”

Or suppose Apple computer, or the Staples office supply chain, or the Elks club, launched a series of missile attacks that killed a thousand people. The outrage would be ceaseless. The attacks would be portrayed as evidence of the incorrigible wickedness of the private sector.

But when the United States government launches an indefensible war against Iraq, spreading death, destruction, and dislocation to an extraordinary number of people, there is some anger, to be sure, among opponents of the policy. Yet even most opponents of the war stop short of drawing sweeping conclusions from this about the nature of the state. They remain in thrall to what they learned in high school civics, where the state is described as a great and progressive institution. Not even the horrors of war cause them to revisit this crippling assumption. And the next time they’re on an airplane, they’ll applaud the soldiers who fought in that very war. (Would they, by the way, applaud soldiers who had fought a war launched by Walmart?)

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On the other hand, if we think of the state as a parasitic and self-interested institution that survives by siphoning resources from the productive citizenry, and which bamboozles the public with a now-familiar battery of arguments as to why it is indispensable to our well-being, we can look at war realistically, without all the superstitions and the patriotic songs.

Unfortunately, naive civics-class platitudes have greater purchase on the American mind than does Rothbard’s brutally realistic portrayal of the state, its nature, and its motivations. So the racket continues. The presidents who launch these wars still adorn American classrooms, thereby conveying the message that whatever their so-called mistakes, these are decent men, occupying a decent institution, whom the kids have a duty to respect.

War and the preparation for war deform the economy. Now this one will come as a surprise to some people since virtually everyone has heard at one time or another that war can stimulate economies. It’s true that war can stimulate parts of economies; as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, it stimulates, as does a plague, the funeral industry.

But war cannot stimulate the economy in general. Remember what the economy is for, after all: meeting the needs of consumers. During the war, the needs of the people take a back seat to the demands of the military. National income statistics may give the false impression of prosperity, but any fool understands that seizing money and spending it on, say, cruise missiles, can’t make the public wealthy. It merely diverts resources away from civilian use.

There need not be a hot war raging for militarism to deform an economy. As Tom Woods reminds us, when half or more of your research and development talent is diverted into military purposes, that means so much less devoted to civilian needs. When the Pentagon becomes your major customer, you lose the competitive edge to which market discipline gives rise. Since cost is not the Pentagon’s major concern, The Anatomy of the Sta... Rothbard, Murray N. Buy New $2.99 (as of 05:25 UTC - Details) the cost-minimizing firm tends to become the cost- and subsidy-maximizing firm.

To get a sense of the sheer scope of the opportunity costs involved, consider the following examples.

  • A single F-16 training jet consumes in under an hour the same amount of fuel it takes the average American motorist two years to consume.
  • To train a single combat pilot costs between $5 million and $7 million.
  • One year of energy use by the Pentagon could power all American mass transit systems for nearly 14 years.
  • The Defense Department consumed so many resources between 1947 and 1987 that had they been kept in private hands they could have replaced – or doubled – the country’s entire capital stock.

And meanwhile, despite all the fairy tales about a decimated military, US military expenditures today roughly equate to those of all other countries on earth put together.

War and war propaganda deform our views of other peoples. World War I may have been the classic example of this: the Germans were the Huns, uniquely prone to carry out the most heinous atrocities. That portrayal made it all the easier to persuade citizens of the Allied countries to support, or at least acquiesce in, four years of war against them. And then a long starvation campaign against already impoverished and sick civilians to force the government to sign an unjust treaty.

After the war, there was a minor backlash against the lies and insults that had rendered international understanding all but impossible. In fact, our modern exchange student program arose out of intellectuals’ unhappiness with the propaganda dimension of World War I. They looked with embarrassment at the chauvinistic fervor they had been caught up in right alongside their countrymen and hoped that more interaction among peoples might make that kind of demonization less effective in the future.

The various hate campaigns carried out against US enemies is why it’s so shocking for most Americans to watch videos made by Western travelers and filmmakers about ordinary life in Iran. Thanks to years of systematic demonization of Iran and Iranians, they expect to find bloodthirsty savages riding on camels and plotting massacres. They instead find modern cities bustling with activity. Most surprising of all, they encounter people who like Americans, even if – like us ourselves – they don’t much care for the US government.

Along these lines, war encourages us to think of other peoples as dispensable or simply beneath us. A wedding party is blown to smithereens in Afghanistan, and Americans yawn. But we’d certainly pay attention if the federal government blew away a wedding party in Providence, Rhode Island. We’d be nearly as shocked if in pursuit of an accused terrorist the US government bombed an apartment building in London.

Or: the ruling class of country B attacks a military installation of country A. Country A then bombs country B, eventually killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. When citizens of Country A wonder aloud years later whether that had been a morally acceptable thing to do, their impatient fellows tell them, “That’s war,” thereby begging every important moral question. Those who raised the issue in the first place are dismissed as naive, and probably of dubious loyalty.

War corrupts the culture. As literary critic Paul Fussell has pointed out, “The culture of war kills something precious and indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of curiosity, freedom of knowledge.” He makes an example of the Pentagon official who, in explaining why the military had censored some TV footage showing Iraqi soldiers actually cut in half by US fire, noted casually that “if we let people see that kind of thing there would never again be any war.” Swords Into Plowshares... Paul, Ron Best Price: $4.00 Buy New $15.99 (as of 11:36 UTC - Details)

In the US, certainly, an abiding reverence for the military has become a major part of American culture. As Fussell notes, once a posture of being uncritical of the military takes hold, it bleeds over into other areas of life. “The obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.” Indeed, it’s not much of a leap from being uncritical of the military to being uncritical of government itself and indeed of all established institutions. This is just how the state likes things to be, of course.

War distorts our sense of what service to others truly means. Only to members of the military are we urged to say, “Thank you for your service.” Toward the great entrepreneurs who extend our lives and make them more fulfilling, we are taught to be envious and resentful. They are most certainly not thanked for their service.

The state is able to get away with its aggression thanks in part to its manipulation of language. A soldier who perished in the Iraq war was said to have been “serving his country.” What could that mean? The war was launched on preposterous pretexts against a leader who had not harmed Americans and was incapable of doing so. If the war was in the service of anything, it was the imperial ambitions of a small ruling group. By no means did such a mission, which diverted vast resources away from civilian use, “serve the country.”

War distorts reality itself. Schoolchildren are taught to believe that the American soldier purchased their freedom by his sacrifices. Blasphemous bumperstickers compare the American soldier to Jesus Christ. But in what way was American freedom threatened by Iraq, or Panama, or Somalia? For that matter, how could any 20th-century adversary have managed an invasion of North America, given that even the Germans couldn’t cross the English Channel?

But this carefully cultivated mythology helps keep the racket going. It increases the superstitious reverence people have for past and present members of the military. It puts critics of war on the defensive. Indeed, how can we criticize war and intervention when these things have kept us free?

In short, war is inseparable from propaganda, lies, hatred, impoverishment, cultural degradation, and moral corruption. It is the most horrific outcome of the moral and political legitimacy people are taught to grant the state. Wrapped in the trappings of patriotism, home, songs, and flags, the state deludes people into despising a leader and a country that until that point they had barely even heard of, much less had an informed opinion about, and it teaches its subjects to cheer the maiming and death of fellow human beings who have never done them any harm.

Let’s return for a moment to Murray. When he opposed the Vietnam War, he alienated National Review, the major right-wing magazine and the most important conservative voice in the country, as well as virtually everyone on the right. He had to write for a small number of newsletter subscribers. By the late 1960s, he told Walter Block there were probably only 25 libertarians in the entire world.

Things are much easier for us today, thanks in large part to Murray’s commitment and Ron Paul’s extraordinary example. There are now millions of people who are resolutely antiwar, and who don’t care which political party the president launching any particular war happens to belong to.

On top of that, it’s encouraging to know that younger people are much less convinced of the need for an interventionist foreign policy. The younger the audience, the less the warmongers’ fact-free exhortations fall on receptive ears. That’s why the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity is poised to do so much good for this country and for the world in the years to come. There’s nothing else like it, and yet it articulates the inchoate views of millions of Americans who search politics and the media in vain for a consistent voice for peace.

This in my view is Ron Paul’s greatest legacy. It’s up to all of us to help carry it forward.