Rose-colored Lens on War

By Bob Litton

A friend of mine up in Medford, Oregon, was practically gushing last week with praise for Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern (2010). My friend is a retired USMC lieutenant colonel and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is preoccupied with military history as well as 1st Amendment issues. He likes to press my nose into the war pee, hoping thereby to render me as addicted as he.

I am about three years younger than my friend and I was in the military, but I went into the air force and served during that ambiguous period of no war, but under the hovering threat of total war, known as “The Cold War”. Although I honor the veterans of our modern hot wars — particularly those who served in World War II — I do not see any conflict as a moment of glory.

But back to Hanson. My friend wrote in his latest email that Hanson “argues that war is the highest, most important expression of human achievement.” I looked Hanson up in Wikipedia. Hanson was born in 1953, but I saw no record of his ever serving in any military branch. (The draft ended in 1973.)  A child of well-educated parents, Hanson himself enjoyed an extended collegiate career and became a professor of classics and military history. He is now teaching at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

I did watch a YouTube video of Hanson speaking to a small audience in a library. His primary message that day seemed to be that, because the general public does not study war enough nowadays, we have ceased to distinguish between “good wars” and “bad wars”. Instead, we have taken to condemning all war as “bad”.

I was not interested in reading any more books on warfare, although I had gained some enlightenment in my undergraduate years from reading Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, particularly the sad tale of the slaughter of the neutralist Melians. I also slogged my way through other Greek and Roman historians as well as the gory epics by Homer and Virgil. In preparing for this essay, I did check out, in Wikipedia, the Danish-German military theorist Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and the German general Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891). Much of the information below comes from that source. A major exception is Moltke’s famous comments on peace and war in his Dec. 11, 1880, letter to international law expert Johann Kaspar Bluntschli.

Clausewitz was the man who famously declared that “war is policy carried out by other means” in a dialectic involving opposing wills; the object, he wrote, was to impose one’s will on a foe. Another basic tenet of his was that the defense usually has the advantage because it not only consists of the regular army but also militias and partisans, in other words, a country’s whole population. His “trinitarian” view of an effective force required (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; (2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and (3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason. Another of Clausewitz’s pronouncements (which the G.W. Bush administration would have done well to take to heart) was his evaluation of military intelligence: “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain…. In short, most intelligence is false.”

Helumth von Moltke the Elder regarded strategy as the practical art of adapting means to ends. Also, he realized the great defensive power of modern firearms, and that the “enveloping attack” was more formidable than the attempt to pierce an enemy’s front. His main thesis was that strategy had to be understood as a system of options, since only the beginning of a military operation was capable of being planned. His most frequently quoted statement on peace and war is in the second paragraph of his letter to Bluntschli:

“First, I find the humanitarian striving to lessen the sufferings that come with war completely worthy. Eternal peace is a dream — and not even a beautiful one. War is part of God’s world-order. Within it unfold the noblest virtues of men, courage and renunciation, loyalty to duty and readiness for sacrifice — at the hazard of one’s life. Without war the world would sink into a swamp of materialism. Further, I wholly agree with the principle stated in the preface that the gradual progress in morality must also be reflected in the waging of war. But I go farther and believe that [waging war] in and of itself — not a codification of the law of war — may attain this goal.”

I see all kinds of logical problems with that paragraph; can you? In the first sentence, what kind of humanitarian improvement is he imagining? Changing warfare into a tag football match? And when did God give Moltke the authority to describe His “world-order”? As for the “virtues” of courage and renunciation, I think of the man who three decades ago went repeatedly into the freezing waters of the Potomac River to rescue survivors of a plane crash there, dying himself as a result of his efforts: where is war a part of that event? Nobody, not even soldiers, is asked to display their courage every day; and any serviceman or woman who has enlisted is already giving up years of his/her life for their country. This reminds me of Gen. George Patton’s assurance to his troops in the movie Patton (I don’t know how authentic it is, but it does reflect Patton’s attitude): “Nobody expects you to die for your country; they want you to make that other poor bastard die for his country!”

I confess,  Moltke’s sentence about the world sinking into “a swamp of materialism” is unfathomable, especially if it means that the slaughter known as war is materialism’s opposite: idealism. How is a field of bloody bodies an ideal situation? Finally, his remark that warfare must include a “morality” element reminds me of Abe Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, wherein Abe said: “Both (sides in the Civil War) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other….The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

And General William Tecumseh Sherman, who thoroughly displayed his ability to wage “total war”, said,  “I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

The Civil War was in fact the costliest war — in terms of lives lost — of all America’s wars and lesser conflicts. During the first 100 years of U.S. history, a total of 683,000 were confirmed dead due to war, 623,026 (91.2%) of them during the Civil War. Over the next 100 years, 626,000 Americans were killed in wartime, of which 405,399 (65%) died in World War II. In that regard, then, the Civil War can be considered the costliest war in U.S. history, with World War II running a close second.

The recent conflicts have not left the U.S. unscathed either. Between 2003 and 2012, a total of 4,804 American servicemen and women were confirmed dead in Iraq. And, as of Nov. 13, 2013, three thousand three hundred and ninety-five U.S. military personnel have died of war-related injuries in Afghanistan since 2001; and, of course, the “operation” still is ongoing there.

As for economic the costs of war, because of the multitude of variables involved only rough estimates can be obtained. Nonetheless, in June 2010, the Congressional Research Service published a report for Congress. Therein, the tally for the Civil War (in 2011 dollars) comes to $79,742 million (11.3% GDP) for the Union and confederacy combined. The total for World War II was $4,104 billion (35.8% GDP).

The economic costs of the Iraq/Afghanistan “operations” are still accruing, but, according to a study made at Brown University, the total from 9/11/2001 through FY 2013 has been $3.1 trillion.

I apologize for not including the losses suffered by other nations, particularly the United Kingdom. To have included those figures would have involved so much of my readers’ attention that they very likely would not finish my essay.

Now back to Prof. Hanson’s distinction between “good” and “bad” wars. I recall he claimed that World War II was a “good” war, presumably because we did not initiate it and our foes were enslaving whole populations and seeking world domination. I do not know what he would classify as a “bad” war — possibly the Spanish American War or even the Vietnam War. Oddly, he did support Bush regarding the Iraq invasion.

I basically take issue with the classifications “good” and “bad”. As far as I am concerned, no war is good: they are all inhumane, extremely costly in lives and resources, and extended in time (i.e., the end of one usually leads to the start of another [e.g., WWI], and the ethnic hatred that is promulgated during any war can extend into the subsequent peace period).

I prefer the terms “necessary” and “unnecessary”— terms which dislodge the moral element. I am not a jingoist, but that does not make me one who will not resort to violence to protect my family and friends. We have to be prepared to defend our nation, but to play policeman for the world is both costly and futile; albeit, I will concede that, shrinking as the world has too much and too fast, it is becoming more and more difficult to avoid playing policeman, preferably in tune with a world organization.

Moreover, in our nuclear age, hardly any government uses the term “war” anymore: the usual word since Korea has been “police action” or, better yet, “operation”. That is due partly to the fact that “war” implies an unconditional surrender is needed to end it, and we often enough would be satisfied with a simple “cessation of hostilities”. Another reason is that most of our recent conflicts have not been between nation states but between tribes or sectarian groups within a nation, with other nations interfering. The main point I am trying to make, however, is that, should any war become necessary for us to be a part of, we should not glorify that war.

War is not glorious; it is hideous.








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