“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.” — Bertrand Russell
In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.
Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.
Part 1: Democratic Wars
Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.
What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote
Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.
Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.
The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.
My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.
The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.
Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.
People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.
People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.
The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.
Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.
(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)
The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,
in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.
And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.
More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.
The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.
Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!
The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.
The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.
Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?
We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)
Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power. Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.
Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.