War Is Necessary For Peace Essay Scholarship

Those who are quick to support unnecessary wars typically pay lip service to war’s horrors, but then support fighting anyway. Their excuses often follow predictable patterns based on historical errors, ill-founded speculations, and appeals to patriotic emotion and knee-jerk loyalty, rather than on fact-based argumentation.


Anyone who has done even a little reading about the theory and practice of war— whether in political theory, international relations, theology, history, or common journalistic commentary—has encountered a sentence of the form “War is horrible, but . . . .” In this construction, the phrase that follows the conjunction explains why a certain war was (or now is or someday will be) an action that ought to have been (or still ought to be) undertaken, notwithstanding its admitted horrors. The frequent, virtually formulaic use of this expression attests that nobody cares to argue, say, that war is a beautiful, humane, uplifting, or altogether splendid course of action and therefore the more often people fight, the better.

Some time ago—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for example— one might have encountered a writer such as Theodore Roosevelt who forthrightly affirmed that war is manly and invigorating for the nation and the soldiers who engage in it: war keeps a nation from “getting soft” (Morris 1979). Although this opinion is no longer expressed openly with great frequency, something akin to it may yet survive, as Chris Hedges has argued in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). Nowadays, however, even those who find meaning for their lives by involvement in war, perhaps even only marginal or symbolic involvement, do not often extol war as such.

They are likely instead to justify a nation’s engagement in war by calling attention to alternative and even more horrible outcomes that, retrospectively, would have occurred if the nation had not gone to war or, prospectively, will occur if it does not go to war. This seemingly reasonable “balancing” form of argument often sounds stronger than it really is, especially when it is made more or less in passing. People may easily be swayed by a weak argument, however, if they fail to appreciate the defects of the typically expressed “horrible, but” apology for war.

Rather than plow through various sources on my bookshelves to compile examples, I have availed myself of modern technology. A Google search for the exact phrase “war is horrible but” on May 21, 2012, identified 58,100 instances of it. Rest assured that this number is smaller than the entire universe of such usage—some instances most likely have yet to be captured electronically. Among the examples I drew from the World Wide Web are the following fourteen statements. I identify the person who made the statement only when he is well known.

1. “War is horrible. But no one wants to see a world in which a regime with no regard whatsoever for international law—for the welfare of its own people—or for the will of the United Nations—has weapons of mass destruction.” (U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage [2003])

This statement was part of a speech Richard Armitage gave on January 21, 2003, shortly before the U.S. government unleashed its armed forces to inflict “shock and awe” on the nearly defenseless people of Iraq. The speech repeated the Bush administration’s standard prewar litany of accusations, including several claims later revealed to be false, so it cannot be viewed as anything but bellicose propaganda. Yet it does not differ much from what many others were saying at the time.

On its own terms, the statement scarcely serves to justify a war. The conditions outlined—a regime’s disregard of international law, its own people’s well-being, and the will of the United Nations, combined with possession of weapons of mass destruction—apply to several nations. They no more justified a military attack on Iraq than they justified an attack on Pakistan, France, India, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Israel, or the United States itself.

2. “War is terrible, war is horrible, but war is also at times necessary and the only means of stopping evil.”

The only means of stopping evil? How can such singularity exist? Has evil conduct never been stopped except by war? For example, has shunning—exclusion from commerce, financial systems, communications, transportation systems, and other means of international cooperation—never served to discipline an evil nationstate? Might it do so if seriously tried? (If these questions give the impression that I am suggesting the possibility of resort to embargo or blockade, that perception is not exactly correct. Although I support various forms of voluntary, peaceful withdrawal of cooperation with evil-doing states, I do not endorse state-enforced—that is, violent or potentially violent—embargoes and blockades.) Why must we leap to the conclusion that only war will serve, when other measures have scarcely even been considered, much less seriously attempted? If war is really as horrible as everyone says, it would seem that we have a moral obligation to try very hard to achieve the desired suppression of evil doing by means other than resort to warfare, which is itself always a manifest evil, even when it is seemingly the lesser one.

3. “No news shows [during World War II] were showing German civilians getting fried and saying how sad it was. It was war against butchers and war is horrible, but it’s war, and to defend human decency, sometimes war is necessary.” (Ben Stein [2006])

Ben Stein is a knowledgeable man. He surely knows that the U.S. government imposed draconian censorship of war news during World War II. Perhaps the censors had their reasons for keeping scenes of incinerated German civilians away from the U.S. public. After all, even if Americans in general had extraordinarily cruel and callous attitudes toward German civilians during the war, many of them had relatives and friends in Germany.

Stein appears to lump all Germans into the class of “butchers” against whom he claims the war was being waged. He certainly must understand, however, that many persons in Germany—children, for example—were not butchers and bore absolutely no responsibility for the actions of the government officials who were. Yet these innocents, too, suffered the dire effects of, among other things, the terror bombing that the U.S. and British air forces inflicted on many German cities (“Strategic Bombing” n.d.).

To say, as Stein and many others have said, that “war is war” gets us nowhere; in a moral sense, this tautology warrants nothing. Many people, however, evidently consider all moral questions about the conduct of war to have been settled simply by their having labeled or by their having accepted someone else’s labeling of certain actions as “war.” Having chanted this exculpatory incantation over the state’s organized violence, they believe that all transgressions associated with that violence are automatically absolved—as the saying goes, “all’s fair in love and war.” It does not help matters that regimes treat some of the most egregious transgressors as heroes.

Finally, Stein’s claim that “to defend human decency, sometimes war is necessary” is at best paradoxical because it says in effect that human indecency, which war itself surely exemplifies, is sometimes necessary to defend human decency. Perhaps he had in mind the backfires that firefighters sometimes set to help them extinguish fires. This metaphor, however, seems farfetched in connection with war. It is difficult to think of anything that consists of as many different forms of indecency as war does. Not only is war’s essence the large-scale wreaking of death and destruction, but its side effects and its consequences in the aftermath run a wide range of evils as well. Whatever else war may be, it surely qualifies as the most indecent type of action people can take: it reduces them to the level of the most ferocious beasts and often accomplishes little more than setting the stage for the next, reactive round of such savagery. In any event, considered strictly as a way of sustaining human decency, it gets a failing grade every time because it invariably magnifies the malignity that it purports to resist.

4. “War is horrible, but slavery is worse.” (Winston Churchill as quoted in Dear and Foote 1995, xv)

Maybe slavery is worse, but maybe it’s not; it depends on the conditions of the war and the conditions of the slavery. Moreover, if one seeks to justify a war on the strength of this statement, one had best be completely certain that but for war, slavery will be the outcome. In many wars, however, slavery was never a possibility because neither side sought to enslave its enemy. Many wars have been fought for limited objectives, if only because more ambitious objectives appeared unattainable or not worth their cost. No war in U.S. history may be accurately described as having been waged to prevent the enslavement of the American people. Some people talk that way about World War II or the Cold War, if it be counted as a war, but such talk has no firm foundation in facts.

Some may object that the War Between the States was fought to prevent the ongoing slavery of the blacks then held in thrall. But however deeply this view may be embedded in American mythology, it is contrary to fact. As Abraham Lincoln made crystal clear in his letter of August 22, 1862, to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, he had not mobilized the armed forces to free the slaves, but only to prevent the seceding states from leaving the union: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”[1] When Lincoln brought forth the Emancipation Proclamation— a document carefully drawn so that at the time of its promulgation it freed not a single slave—he issued it only because at that time it seemed to be a useful means for the attainment of his “paramount object,” preserving the union. The slaves, including those in states that had not seceded, were ultimately freed for good by ratification (at gunpoint in the former Confederate states) of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, which is to say as a ramification of the war, which itself had not been undertaken in 1861 in pursuit of this then-unforeseen outcome.

5. “You may think that the Iraq War is horrible, but there may be some times when you can justify [going to war].”

Perhaps war can be justified at “some times,” but this statement itself in no way shows that the IraqWar can be justified, and it seems all too obvious that it cannot be. If it could have been justified, the government that launched it would not have had to resort to a succession of weak excuses for waging it, each such excuse being manifestly inadequate or simply false. The obvious insufficiency of any of the reasons put forward explains why so many of us put so much time and effort into trying to divine exactly what did impel the Bush administration’s rush to war.

6. “War is horrible, but sometimes we need to fight.”

Need to fight for what? The objective dictates whether war is a necessary means for its attainment. If the objective was to preserve Americans’ freedoms and “way of life,” the U.S. government certainly did not need to fight most of the enemies against whom it waged war historically. Oddly enough, the only time the enemy actually posed such a threat, during the Cold War, the United States did not go to war against that enemy directly, although it did fight (unnecessarily) the enemy’s less-menacing allies—North Korea, China, and North Vietnam. In the other wars the United States has fought, it might well have remained at peace had U.S. leaders been sincerely interested in peace rather than committed to warfare.

7. “Of course war is horrible, but it will always exist, and I’m sick of these pacifist [expletive deleted] ruining any shred of political decency that they can manage.”

Many people have observed that wars have recurred for thousands of years and therefore will probably continue to occur from time to time. The unstated insinuation seems to be that in view of war’s long-running recurrence, nothing can be done about it, so we should all grow up and admit that war is as natural and hence as unalterable as the sun’s rising in the east each morning. Warfare is an inescapable aspect of “how the world works.”

This outlook contains at least two difficulties. First, many other conditions also have had long-running histories: for example, reliance on astrologers as experts in foretelling the future; affliction with cancers; submission to rulers who claim to dominate their subjects by virtue of divine descent or appointment; and many others. People eventually overcame or continue to work to overcome each of these longestablished conditions. Science revealed that astrology is nothing more than an elaborate body of superstition; scientists and doctors have discovered how to control or cure certain forms of cancer and are attempting to do the same for other forms; and citizens learned to laugh at the pretensions of rulers who claim divine descent or appointment (at least, they had learned to do so until George W. Bush successfully revived this doctrine among the benighted rubes who form the Republican base). Because wars spring in large part from people’s stupidity, ignorance, and gullibility, it is conceivable that alleviation of these conditions might have the effect of diminishing the frequency of warfare, if not of eliminating it altogether.

Second, even if nothing can be done to stop the periodic outbreak of war, it does not follow that we ought to shut up and accept every war without complaint. No serious person expects, say, that evil can be eliminated from the human condition, yet we condemn it and struggle against its realization in human affairs.We strive to divert potential evildoers from their malevolent course of action. Scientists and doctors continue to seek cures for cancers that have afflicted humanity for millennia. Even conditions that cannot be wholly eliminated can sometimes be mitigated, but only if someone tries to mitigate them. War should belong to this class of events.

Finally, whatever else might be said about the pacifists, one may surely assert that if everyone were a pacifist, no wars would occur. Pacifism may be criticized on various grounds, as it always has been and still is, but to say that pacifists “lack any shred of political decency” seems itself to be an indecent description. Remember: war is horrible, as everybody now concedes but many immediately put out of mind.

8. “Every war is horrible, but freedom and justice cannot be allowed to be defeated by tyranny and injustice. As hideous as war is, it is not as hideous as the things it can stop and prevent.”

This statement assumes that war amounts to a contest between freedom and justice on one side and tyranny and injustice on the other. One scarcely commits the dreaded sin of moral equivalence, however, by observing that few wars present such a stark contrast, in which only the children of God fight on one side and only the children of Satan fight on the other. One reason why war is so horrible is that it invariably drags into its charnel house many—again, the children are the most undeniable examples—who must be held blameless for any actions or threats that might have incited the war.

Even if we set aside such clear-cut innocents and consider only persons in the upper echelons of the conflicting sides, it is rare to find only angels on one side and only demons on the other. In World War II, for example, the Allied states were led by such angels as Winston Churchill, who relished the horrific terror bombing of German cities; Josef Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time; Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whose moral uprightness the less said the better; and Harry S Truman, who took pleasure in annihilating hundreds of thousands of defenseless Japanese noncombatants first with incendiary bombs and last with nuclear weapons. Yes, the other side had Adolf Hitler, whose fiendishness I have no desire to deny or minimize, but the point is that the overall character of the leadership on both sides sufficiently attests that there was enough evil to go around. As for the ordinary soldiers, of course, everyone who knows anything about actual combat appreciates that the men on both sides quickly become brutalized and routinely commit atrocities of every imaginable size and shape.

So it is far from clear that war is always or even typically “not as hideous as the things it can stop and prevent.” On many occasions, refusal to resort to war, even in the face of undeniable evils, may still be the better course. When World War II ended, leaving more than 62 million dead, most of them civilians, and hundreds of millions displaced, homeless, wounded, sick, or impoverished, the survivors might well have doubted whether conditions would have been even more terrible if the war had not taken place. (The dead were unavailable for comment.) To make matters worse, owing to the war the monster Stalin gained control of an enormous area stretching from Czechoslovakia to Korea; and because of the defeat of the Japanese Empire, the monster Mao Zedong would soon take complete control of China and impose a murderous reign of terror on the world’s most populous country that cost the lives of perhaps another 60 million persons (as many as 73 million, according to one plausible estimate).[2]

It is difficult to believe that the situation in China would have been so awful even if the Japanese had succeeded in incorporating China into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

9. “I grant you the war is horrible, but it is a war, after all. You have to compare apples to apples, and when I do that, I see this war is going well.”

This statement about the U.S. war in Iraq exemplifies what some call the “not as bad as Hamburg-Dresden-Tokyo-Hiroshima-Nagasaki” defense of brutal warfare. If we make such pinnacles of savagery our standard, then, sure enough, everything else pales by comparison. But why should anyone adopt such a grotesque standard? To do so is to concede that anything less horrible than the very worst cases is “not so bad.” In truth, warfare’s effects are sufficiently hideous at every level. What the Israelis did in Lebanon a few years ago bears no comparison with the February 1945 Allied attack on Dresden, of course, but the sight of even one little Lebanese child dead, her bloody body gruesomely mangled by an explosion, ought to be enough to give pause to any proponent of resort to war. Try putting yourself in the place of that child’s mother.

10. “[Certain writers] all agreed that war is horrible but said the Bible gives government the authority to wage war to save innocent lives.”

For almost two thousand years, biblical scholars have been disputing what Christians may and may not do in regard to war. The dispute continues today, so the matter is certainly not resolved among devout Christians. Even if Christians may go to war to save innocent lives, however, a big question remains: Is the government going to war for this purpose or for one of the countless other purposes that lead governments to make war? Saving the innocent makes an appealing excuse, but it is often, if not always, only a pretext. “Just war” writers from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Grotius to the latest contributors have agonized over the ready availability of such pretexts and warned against the wickedness of advancing them when the real motives are less justifiable or even plainly immoral.[3]

For centuries, European combatants on all sides invoked God’s blessing for their wars against one another. As recently as World War II, the Germans claimed to have “Gott mit Uns,” a declaration that adorned the belt buckles of Wehrmacht soldiers in both world wars. Strange to say, in 1917 and 1918 Christian ministers of the gospel in pulpits across the United States were assuring their congregations that their nation-state was engaged in a “war for righteousness” (the title of Richard M. Gamble’s [2003] splendid book about this repellent episode). So the invocation of biblical authority really doesn’t get us very far: the enemy may be invoking the same authority.

Nowadays, of course, one side invokes the Jewish and Christian God, whereas the other calls on the blessing of Allah. Whether this bifurcated manner of gaining divine sanction for the commission of mass murder and mayhem among the sons of Abraham represents progress or not, I leave to the learned theologians.

11. “War is horrible, but thank God we have men and women who are willing and able to protect our people and our freedom.”

These men and women may be willing and able to supply such protection, but do they? Our leaders constantly proclaim that their wars are aimed at protecting us and our freedoms—“We go forward,” declared George W. Bush, “to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world” (Bush 2001)—but one has to wonder about the truth of that proclamation, considering that in the entire history of warfare, each major U.S. war (with the possible exception of the War for Independence) left the general run of the American people with fewer freedoms after the war than they had enjoyed before the war.

In my book Crisis and Leviathan (1987, 123–58, 196–236), I document this ratchet effect in detail for the two world wars. After World War I, the government not only kept taxes far above their prewar levels but also retained newly court-sanctioned powers to conscript men for foreign wars, to interfere with virtually any private transaction in international trade and finance (Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917), and to suppress free speech in a draconian manner (Sedition Act of 1918). After World War II, the government again kept taxes much higher they had been before the war, retained for the first time a large peacetime military apparatus, created the CIA as a sort of personal presidential intelligence and quasi-military group, continued to draft men for military service even during peacetime, and engaged much more pervasively in central management and manipulation of the private economy. The people, for their part, gained the privilege of living with the very real threat of nuclear holocaust hovering over them for four decades while the U.S. government kept the Cold War pot boiling.

The so-called war on terror has struck deeply into Americans’ rights to privacy by vastly enhancing the government’s surveillance activities and virtually gutting the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless searches and seizures. It has also led the government to create an agency now empowered to commit acts in U.S. airports that if committed by others would be prosecuted as sexual assault and battery and as criminal molestation of children. This “war” has also served to justify one of the greatest military-spending run-ups in U.S. history, leaving U.S. military-related spending—if correctly measured—greater than the comparable spending of all other nations combined. Nevertheless, Americans are no safer because of these sweeping infringements of their liberties, many of which have been de facto pork barrel projects and others of which have been nothing more than security theater. War, whether real or make-believe, serves to justify huge increases in government spending, taxing, borrowing, and exertion of power over private affairs, and such government surges attract opportunists galore while doing little or nothing to improve people’s real security or to protect their freedom. Indeed, in the war on terror, the government has added fuel to the fire of Muslim rage against Americans in the Middle East but achieved nothing positive to compensate for this heightened threat.[4]

Every time the rulers set out to protect the village, they decide that the best way to do so is to destroy it in the process. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help wondering whether protection of the people and their freedoms was really the state’s objective, and after fifty years of thinking about the matter, I have come up with some pretty attractive alternative hypotheses. One of them is that, as Marine General Smedley Butler famously expressed it, “war is a racket,” but I have other alternative hypotheses, too.

12. “War is horrible but some economic good came out of World War II. It brought the United States out of one of the greatest slumps in history, the Great Depression.”

This venerable broken-window fallacy refuses to die, no matter how many times a stake is driven through its heart. Most Americans believe it. Worse, because less excusable, nearly all historians and even a large majority of economists do so as well. I have been whacking at this nonsense for several decades, but, so far as I can tell, I have scarcely made a dent in it. Should anyone care to see a complete counterargument, I recommend the first five chapters of my 2006 book Depression, War, and Cold War.

In brief, the government did not—indeed, could not—create wealth simply by spending vast amounts of money (much of it newly created as a result of cooperative Federal Reserve policies) on soldiers and weapons. The government did wipe out unemployment during the war, but only by putting millions of men in the armed forces. During World War II, these forces absorbed, primarily by conscription, 16 million persons at one time or another (about three times the number of persons officially counted as unemployed in 1941), while causing a similar number of people to be employed in military-supply industries. The economy looked prosperous because everybody was working and (except those in the armed forces) earning seemingly good wages and salaries. Yet the supply of civilian goods and services actually shrank, and many ordinary goods were not available at all (for example, new cars) or were available only in limited, rationed amounts (for example, meats, sugar, canned foods, gasoline, and tires). Private investment also dropped sharply as the government took over the allocation of capital, directing it into arms-related projects. So the apparent “wartime prosperity” was spurious. Only when the war ended and the military machine was largely dismantled did genuine prosperity return, for the first time since 1929.

13. “War is horrible, but whining about it is worse. Either put up or shut up.”

Some people always reject the denunciation of any familiar social institution or conduct unless the denouncer offers a “constructive criticism”—that is, unless he puts forward a promising plan to eliminate the evil he denounces. I admit at once that I have not discovered a cure for the human tendency to resort to war when much more intelligent and humane alternatives are available. I am trying to convince people that on nearly all such occasions they are allowing their rulers to bamboozle them and turn them into cannon fodder for purposes that serve the rulers’ interests, not the people’s. I am getting nowhere in this effort, but I am going to keep trying.

14. “Of course, war is horrible, but at present it’s still the only guarantee to maintain peace.”

This statement as it stands is self-contradictory because it affirms that the only way to make sure that we will have peace is by going to war. Perhaps, if we are feeling generous, we may interpret the statement as the time-honored exhortation that to maintain the peace, we should prepare for war, hoping that by dissuading aggressors from moving against us, our preparation will preserve the peace. Although this reworded policy is not self-contradictory, it is dangerous because the preparation we make for war may itself move us toward actually going to war. For example, preparation for war may entail increasing the number of military officers and allowing the top brass to exert greater influence in making foreign policy. Those officers may believe that without war their careers will go nowhere, and so they may tilt their advice to civilian authorities toward risking or actually making war even when peace might easily be preserved. Likewise, military suppliers may use their political influence to foster international suspicions and fears that otherwise might be allayed. Wars are not good for business in general, but they are good for the munitions contractors. Certain legislators may develop an interest in militarism; perhaps it helps them to attract campaign contributions from arms contractors, veterans’ groups, and members of the national guard and military reserve organizations. Pretty soon we may find ourselves dealing, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower did, with a military-industrialcongressional complex, and we may find that it packs a great deal of political punch and acts in a way that, all things considered, diminishes the chance of keeping the country at peace.[5]

From the foregoing commentary, a recurrent theme may be extracted: those who argue that “war is horrible, but . . .” nearly always use this rhetorical construction not to frame a genuinely serious and honest balancing of reasons for and against war, but only to acknowledge what cannot be hidden—that war is horrible—and then to pass on immediately to an affirmation that notwithstanding the horrors, whose actual forms and dimensions they neither specify nor examine in detail, a certain war ought to be fought.

The reasons given to justify a war’s being fought, however, generally amount to claims that cannot support a strong case. They often are not even bona fide reasons, but mere propaganda, especially when they emanate from official sources. They sometimes rest on historical errors, such as the claim that the armed forces in past wars have somehow kept foreigners from depriving us of our liberties. And the case for war usually rests on ill-founded speculation about what will happen if we do not go to war.

People need to recognize, however, that government officials and their running dogs in the media, among others, are not soothsayers. None of us knows the future, but these interested parties lack a disinterested motive for making a careful, wellinformed forecast. They have, as the saying goes, an agenda of their own. “The best and the brightest” of our leaders and their kept experts generally amount to little more than what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realists,” and on occasion, specifically since September 11, 2001, they do not meet even that standard (see Leebaert 2011). Hence, these geniuses, equipped with all of that secret information they constantly emphasize their critics do not possess, have recently put forward forecasts of a “cake walk” through Iraq, a “slam dunk” on finding lots of weapons of mass destruction there, and liberal-democratic dominoes falling across the Middle East— forecasts that fit more comfortably in a lunatic asylum than in a discussion among rational, well-informed people.

The government generally relies on marshalling patriotic emotion and reflexive loyalty rather than on making a sensible case for going to war. Much of the discussion that does take place is a sham because the government officials who pretend to listen to other opinions, as U.S. leaders did most recently during 2002 and early 2003, have already decided what they are going to do, no matter what other people may say. The rulers know that once the war starts, nearly everybody will fall into line and “support the troops.”

If someone demands that the skeptic about war offer constructive criticism, here is my proposal: always insist that the burden of proof rests heavily on the warmonger. This protocol, which is now anything but standard operating procedure, is eminently judicious precisely because, as we all recognize, war is horrible. Given its horrors, which in reality are much greater than most people appreciate, it only makes sense that those who propose to enter into those horrors make a very, very strong case for doing so. If they cannot—and I submit that they almost never can—then people will serve their interests best by declining an invitation to war. As a rule, the most rational, humane, and auspicious course of action is indeed to give peace a chance.


1.Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862.

2.The new estimates of the casualties of Mao’s reign compiled by R. J. Rummel.

3. For an excellent assessment of the most recent scholarship in the “just war” tradition, see Calhoun 2011.

4. On the war on terror, see my books published in 2005 and 2007 and, for more recent years, my continuing posts at the Independent Institute’s group blog The Beacon.

5. On the military-industrial complex, see Higgs 1990 and Ledbetter 2011.


Armitage, Richard. 2003. Speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. January 21. Available at: http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0301/doc12.htm.

Bush, George W. 2001. 9/11 Address to the Nation. Available at: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/9/11_Address_to_the_Nation.

Calhoun, Laurie. 2011. Political Philosophers on War: Arguments inside the “Just War” Box. The Independent Review 15, no. 3 (Winter): 447–61.

Dear, I. C. B., and M. R. D. Foot, eds. 1995. Oxford Companion to World War II. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gamble, Richard M. 2003. The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books.

Hedges, Chris. 2002. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Random House.

Higgs, Robert. 1987. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. New York: Oxford University Press.

————, ed. 1990. Arms, Politics, and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Holmes and Meier.

————. 2005. Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis since 9/11. Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute.

————. 2006. Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

————. 2007. Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute.

Ledbetter, James. 2011. Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Leebaert, Derek. 2011. Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Morris, Edmund. 1979. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Ballantine.

Stein, Ben. 2006. Out of Disproportion. American Spectator, July 21. Available at: http://spectator.org/archives/2006/07/21/out-of-disproportion.

Strategic Bombing during World War II. n.d. Wikipedia.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. His many books include most recently Taking a Stand: Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy, as well as such volumes as Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity, and Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.

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US soldiers at the site of a bomb attack that targeted armored NATO vehicles in Kabul, Afghanistan, on October 11, 2015. (AP Photo / Massoud Hossaini)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is adapted from “Measuring Violence,” the first chapter of John Dower’s new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.

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On February 17, 1941, almost 10 months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Life magazine carried a lengthy essay by its publisher, Henry Luce, entitled “The American Century.” The son of Presbyterian missionaries, born in China in 1898 and raised there until the age of 15, Luce essentially transposed the certainty of religious dogma into the certainty of a nationalistic mission couched in the name of internationalism.2

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Luce acknowledged that the United States could not police the whole world or attempt to impose democratic institutions on all of mankind. Nonetheless, “the world of the 20th Century,” he wrote, “if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century.” The essay called on all Americans “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such measures as we see fit.”3

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States wholeheartedly onto the international stage Luce believed it was destined to dominate, and the ringing title of his cri de coeur became a staple of patriotic Cold War and post-Cold War rhetoric. Central to this appeal was the affirmation of a virtuous calling. Luce’s essay singled out almost every professed ideal that would become a staple of wartime and Cold War propaganda: freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, self-reliance and independence, cooperation, justice, charity — all coupled with a vision of economic abundance inspired by “our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills.” In present-day patriotic incantations, this is referred to as “American exceptionalism.”4

The other, harder side of America’s manifest destiny was, of course, muscularity. Power. Possessing absolute and never-ending superiority in developing and deploying the world’s most advanced and destructive arsenal of war. Luce did not dwell on this dimension of “internationalism” in his famous essay, but once the world war had been entered and won, he became its fervent apostle — an outspoken advocate of “liberating” China from its new communist rulers, taking over from the beleaguered French colonial military in Vietnam, turning both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts from “limited wars” into opportunities for a wider virtuous war against and in China, and pursuing the rollback of the Iron Curtain with “tactical atomic weapons.” As Luce’s incisive biographer Alan Brinkley documents, at one point Luce even mulled the possibility of “plastering Russia with 500 (or 1,000) A bombs” — a terrifying scenario, but one that the keepers of the US nuclear arsenal actually mapped out in expansive and appalling detail in the 1950s and 1960s, before Luce’s death in 1967.5

The “American Century” catchphrase is hyperbole, the slogan never more than a myth, a fantasy, a delusion. Military victory in any traditional sense was largely a chimera after World War II. The so-called Pax Americana itself was riddled with conflict and oppression and egregious betrayals of the professed catechism of American values. At the same time, postwar US hegemony obviously never extended to more than a portion of the globe. Much that took place in the world, including disorder and mayhem, was beyond America’s control.6

Yet, not unreasonably, Luce’s catchphrase persists. The 21st-century world may be chaotic, with violence erupting from innumerable sources and causes, but the United States does remain the planet’s “sole superpower.” The myth of exceptionalism still holds most Americans in its thrall. US hegemony, however frayed at the edges, continues to be taken for granted in ruling circles, and not only in Washington. And Pentagon planners still emphatically define their mission as “full-spectrum dominance” globally.7

Washington’s commitment to modernizing its nuclear arsenal rather than focusing on achieving the thoroughgoing abolition of nuclear weapons has proven unshakable. So has the country’s almost religious devotion to leading the way in developing and deploying ever more “smart” and sophisticated conventional weapons of mass destruction.8

Welcome to Henry Luce’s — and America’s — violent century, even if thus far it’s lasted only 75 years.  The question is just what to make of it these days.9

Counting the Dead

We live in times of bewildering violence. In 2013, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” Statisticians, however, tell a different story: that war and lethal conflict have declined steadily, significantly, even precipitously since World War II.10

Much mainstream scholarship now endorses the declinists. In his influential 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker adopted the labels “the Long Peace” for the four-plus decades of the Cold War (1945-1991), and “the New Peace” for the post-Cold War years to the present. In that book, as well as in post-publication articles, postings, and interviews, he has taken the doomsayers to task. The statistics suggest, he declares, that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’s existence.”11

Clearly, the number and deadliness of global conflicts have indeed declined since World War II. This so-called postwar peace was, and still is, however, saturated in blood and wracked with suffering.12

It is reasonable to argue that total war-related fatalities during the Cold War decades were lower than in the six years of World War II (1939–1945) and certainly far less than the toll for the twentieth century’s two world wars combined. It is also undeniable that overall death tolls have declined further since then. The five most devastating intrastate or interstate conflicts of the postwar decades — in China, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and between Iran and Iraq — took place during the Cold War. So did a majority of the most deadly politicides, or political mass killings, and genocides: in the Soviet Union, China (again), Yugoslavia, North Korea, North Vietnam, Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan/Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and Cambodia, among other countries. The end of the Cold War certainly did not signal the end of such atrocities (as witness Rwanda, the Congo, and the implosion of Syria). As with major wars, however, the trajectory has been downward.13

Unsurprisingly, the declinist argument celebrates the Cold War as less violent than the global conflicts that preceded it, and the decades that followed as statistically less violent than the Cold War. But what motivates the sanitizing of these years, now amounting to three-quarters of a century, with the label “peace”? The answer lies largely in a fixation on major powers. The great Cold War antagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union, bristling with their nuclear arsenals, never came to blows. Indeed, wars between major powers or developed states have become (in Pinker’s words) “all but obsolete.” There has been no World War III, nor is there likely to be.14

Such upbeat quantification invites complacent forms of self-congratulation. (How comparatively virtuous we mortals have become!) In the United States, where we-won-the-Cold-War sentiment still runs strong, the relative decline in global violence after 1945 is commonly attributed to the wisdom, virtue, and firepower of US “peacekeeping.” In hawkish circles, nuclear deterrence — the Cold War’s MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine that was described early on as a “delicate balance of terror” — is still canonized as an enlightened policy that prevented catastrophic global conflict.15

What Doesn’t Get Counted

Branding the long postwar era as an epoch of relative peace is disingenuous, and not just because it deflects attention from the significant death and agony that actually did occur and still does. It also obscures the degree to which the United States bears responsibility for contributing to, rather than impeding, militarization and mayhem after 1945. Ceaseless US-led transformations of the instruments of mass destruction — and the provocative global impact of this technological obsession — are by and large ignored.16

Continuities in American-style “warfighting” (a popular Pentagon word) such as heavy reliance on airpower and other forms of brute force are downplayed. So is US support for repressive foreign regimes, as well as the destabilizing impact of many of the nation’s overt and covert overseas interventions. The more subtle and insidious dimension of postwar US militarization — namely, the violence done to civil society by funneling resources into a gargantuan, intrusive, and ever-expanding national security state — goes largely unaddressed in arguments fixated on numerical declines in violence since World War II.17

Beyond this, trying to quantify war, conflict, and devastation poses daunting methodological challenges. Data advanced in support of the decline-of-violence argument is dense and often compelling, and derives from a range of respectable sources. Still, it must be kept in mind that the precise quantification of death and violence is almost always impossible. When a source offers fairly exact estimates of something like “war-related excess deaths,” you usually are dealing with investigators deficient in humility and imagination.18

Take, for example, World War II, about which countless tens of thousands of studies have been written. Estimates of total “war-related” deaths from that global conflict range from roughly 50 million to more than 80 million. One explanation for such variation is the sheer chaos of armed violence. Another is what the counters choose to count and how they count it. Battle deaths of uniformed combatants are easiest to determine, especially on the winning side. Military bureaucrats can be relied upon to keep careful records of their own killed-in-action — but not, of course, of the enemy they kill. War-related civilian fatalities are even more difficult to assess, although — as in World War II — they commonly are far greater than deaths in combat.19

Does the data source go beyond so-called battle-related collateral damage to include deaths caused by war-related famine and disease? Does it take into account deaths that may have occurred long after the conflict itself was over (as from radiation poisoning after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or from the US use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War)? The difficulty of assessing the toll of civil, tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts with any exactitude is obvious.20

Concentrating on fatalities and their averred downward trajectory also draws attention away from broader humanitarian catastrophes. In mid-2015, for instance, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of individuals “forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations” had surpassed 60 million and was the highest level recorded since World War II and its immediate aftermath. Roughly two-thirds of these men, women, and children were displaced inside their own countries. The remainder were refugees, and over half of these refugees were children.21

Here, then, is a trend line intimately connected to global violence that is not heading downward. In 1996, the UN’s estimate was that there were 37.3 million forcibly displaced individuals on the planet. Twenty years later, as 2015 ended, this had risen to 65.3 million — a 75 percent increase over the last two post-Cold War decades that the declinist literature refers to as the “new peace.”22

Other disasters inflicted on civilians are less visible than uprooted populations. Harsh conflict-related economic sanctions, which often cripple hygiene and health-care systems and may precipitate a sharp spike in infant mortality, usually do not find a place in itemizations of military violence. US-led UN sanctions imposed against Iraq for 13 years beginning in 1990 in conjunction with the first Gulf War are a stark example of this. An account published in the New York Times Magazine in July 2003 accepted the fact that “at least several hundred thousand children who could reasonably have been expected to live died before their fifth birthday.” And after all-out wars, who counts the maimed, or the orphans and widows, or those the Japanese in the wake of World War II referred to as the “elderly orphaned” — parents bereft of their children?23

Figures and tables, moreover, can only hint at the psychological and social violence suffered by combatants and noncombatants alike. It has been suggested, for instance, that one in six people in areas afflicted by war may suffer from mental disorder (as opposed to one in ten in normal times). Even where American military personnel are concerned, trauma did not become a serious focus of concern until 1980, seven years after the US retreat from Vietnam, when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was officially recognized as a mental-health issue.24

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In 2008, a massive sampling study of 1.64 million US troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq between October 2001 and October 2007 estimated “that approximately 300,000 individuals currently suffer from PTSD or major depression and that 320,000 individuals experienced a probable TBI [traumatic brain injury] during deployment.” As these wars dragged on, the numbers naturally increased. To extend the ramifications of such data to wider circles of family and community — or, indeed, to populations traumatized by violence worldwide — defies statistical enumeration.25

Terror Counts and Terror Fears

Largely unmeasurable, too, is violence in a different register: the damage that war, conflict, militarization, and plain existential fear inflict upon civil society and democratic practice. This is true everywhere but has been especially conspicuous in the United States since Washington launched its “global war on terror” in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.26

Here, numbers are perversely provocative, for the lives claimed in twenty-first-century terrorist incidents can be interpreted as confirming the decline-in-violence argument. From 2000 through 2014, according to the widely cited Global Terrorism Index, “more than 61,000 incidents of terrorism claiming over 140,000 lives have been recorded.” Including September 11th, countries in the West experienced less than 5 percent of these incidents and 3 percent of the deaths. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, another minutely documented tabulation based on combing global media reports in many languages, puts the number of suicide bombings from 2000 through 2015 at 4,787 attacks in more than 40 countries, resulting in 47,274 deaths.27

These atrocities are incontestably horrendous and alarming. Grim as they are, however, the numbers themselves are comparatively low when set against earlier conflicts. For specialists in World War II, the “140,000 lives” estimate carries an almost eerie resonance, since this is the rough figure usually accepted for the death toll from a single act of terror bombing, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The tally is also low compared to contemporary deaths from other causes. Globally, for example, more than 400,000 people are murdered annually. In the United States, the danger of being killed by falling objects or lightning is at least as great as the threat from Islamist militants.28

This leaves us with a perplexing question: If the overall incidence of violence, including twenty-first-century terrorism, is relatively low compared to earlier global threats and conflicts, why has the United States responded by becoming an increasingly militarized, secretive, unaccountable, and intrusive “national security state”? Is it really possible that a patchwork of non-state adversaries that do not possess massive firepower or follow traditional rules of engagement has, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared in 2013, made the world more threatening than ever?29

For those who do not believe this to be the case, possible explanations for the accelerating militarization of the United States come from many directions. Paranoia may be part of the American DNA — or, indeed, hardwired into the human species. Or perhaps the anticommunist hysteria of the Cold War simply metastasized into a post-9/11 pathological fear of terrorism. Machiavellian fear-mongering certainly enters the picture, led by conservative and neoconservative civilian and military officials of the national security state, along with opportunistic politicians and war profiteers of the usual sort. Cultural critics predictably point an accusing finger as well at the mass media’s addiction to sensationalism and catastrophe, now intensified by the proliferation of digital social media.30

To all this must be added the peculiar psychological burden of being a “superpower” and, from the 1990s on, the planet’s “sole superpower” — a situation in which “credibility” is measured mainly in terms of massive cutting-edge military might. It might be argued that this mindset helped “contain Communism” during the Cold War and provides a sense of security to US allies. What it has not done is ensure victory in actual war, although not for want of trying. With some exceptions (Grenada, Panama, the brief 1991 Gulf War, and the Balkans), the US military has not tasted victory since World War II — Korea, Vietnam, and recent and current conflicts in the Greater Middle East being boldface examples of this failure. This, however, has had no impact on the hubris attached to superpower status. Brute force remains the ultimate measure of credibility.31

The traditional American way of war has tended to emphasize the “three Ds” (defeat, destroy, devastate). Since 1996, the Pentagon’s proclaimed mission is to maintain “full-spectrum dominance” in every domain (land, sea, air, space, and information) and, in practice, in every accessible part of the world. The Air Force Global Strike Command, activated in 2009 and responsible for managing two-thirds of the US nuclear arsenal, typically publicizes its readiness for “Global Strike… Any Target, Any Time.”32

In 2015, the Department of Defense acknowledged maintaining 4,855 physical “sites” — meaning bases ranging in size from huge contained communities to tiny installations — of which 587 were located overseas in 42 foreign countries. An unofficial investigation that includes small and sometimes impermanent facilities puts the number at around 800 in 80 countries. Over the course of 2015, to cite yet another example of the overwhelming nature of America’s global presence, elite US special operations forces were deployed to around 150 countries, and Washington provided assistance in arming and training security forces in an even larger number of nations.33

America’s overseas bases reflect, in part, an enduring inheritance from World War II and the Korean War. The majority of these sites are located in Germany (181), Japan (122), and South Korea (83) and were retained after their original mission of containing communism disappeared with the end of the Cold War. Deployment of elite special operations forces is also a Cold War legacy (exemplified most famously by the Army’s “Green Berets” in Vietnam) that expanded after the demise of the Soviet Union. Dispatching covert missions to three-quarters of the world’s nations, however, is largely a product of the war on terror.34

Many of these present-day undertakings require maintaining overseas “lily pad” facilities that are small, temporary, and unpublicized. And many, moreover, are integrated with covert CIA “black operations.” Combating terror involves practicing terror — including, since 2002, an expanding campaign of targeted assassinations by unmanned drones. For the moment, this latest mode of killing remains dominated by the CIA and the US military (with the United Kingdom and Israel following some distance behind).35

Counting Nukes

The “delicate balance of terror” that characterized nuclear strategy during the Cold War has not disappeared. Rather, it has been reconfigured. The US and Soviet arsenals that reached a peak of insanity in the 1980s have been reduced by about two-thirds — a praiseworthy accomplishment but one that still leaves the world with around 15,400 nuclear weapons as of January 2016, 93 percent of them in US and Russian hands. Close to two thousand of the latter on each side are still actively deployed on missiles or at bases with operational forces.36

This downsizing, in other words, has not removed the wherewithal to destroy the Earth as we know it many times over. Such destruction could come about indirectly as well as directly, with even a relatively “modest” nuclear exchange between, say, India and Pakistan triggering a cataclysmic climate shift — a “nuclear winter” — that could result in massive global starvation and death. Nor does the fact that seven additional nations now possess nuclear weapons (and more than 40 others are deemed “nuclear weapons capable”) mean that “deterrence” has been enhanced. The future use of nuclear weapons, whether by deliberate decision or by accident, remains an ominous possibility. That threat is intensified by the possibility that nonstate terrorists may somehow obtain and use nuclear devices.37

What is striking at this moment in history is that paranoia couched as strategic realism continues to guide US nuclear policy and, following America’s lead, that of the other nuclear powers. As announced by the Obama administration in 2014, the potential for nuclear violence is to be “modernized.” In concrete terms, this translates as a 30-year project that will cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion (not including the usual future cost overruns for producing such weapons), perfect a new arsenal of “smart” and smaller nuclear weapons, and extensively refurbish the existing delivery “triad” of long-range manned bombers, nuclear-armed submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.38

Nuclear modernization, of course, is but a small portion of the full spectrum of American might — a military machine so massive that it inspired President Obama to speak with unusual emphasis in his State of the Union address in January 2016. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth,” he declared. “Period. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”39

Official budgetary expenditures and projections provide a snapshot of this enormous military machine, but here again numbers can be misleading. Thus, the “base budget” for defense announced in early 2016 for fiscal year 2017 amounts to roughly $600 billion, but this falls far short of what the actual outlay will be. When all other discretionary military- and defense-related costs are taken into account — nuclear maintenance and modernization, the “war budget” that pays for so-called overseas contingency operations like military engagements in the Greater Middle East, “black budgets” that fund intelligence operations by agencies including the CIA and the National Security Agency, appropriations for secret high-tech military activities, “veterans affairs” costs (including disability payments), military aid to other countries, huge interest costs on the military-related part of the national debt, and so on — the actual total annual expenditure is close to $1 trillion.40

Such stratospheric numbers defy easy comprehension, but one does not need training in statistics to bring them closer to home. Simple arithmetic suffices. The projected bill for just the 30-year nuclear modernization agenda comes to over $90 million a day, or almost $4 million an hour. The $1 trillion price tag for maintaining the nation’s status as “the most powerful nation on Earth” for a single year amounts to roughly $2.74 billion a day, over $114 million an hour.41

Creating a capacity for violence greater than the world has ever seen is costly — and remunerative.42

So an era of a “new peace”? Think again. We’re only three quarters of the way through America’s violent century and there’s more to come. 43

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