Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Utility of War

“WAR, huh, what is it good for?  Absolutely Nothing!”  Edwin Starr, War

Edwin Starr’s lyrics, written during the Vietnam War, have been embraced by popular culture.  Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker sang the song in Rush Hour.  Jack Black used the song in Gulliver’s Travels.  This anthem of the ‘60’s has become the theme song for the contemporary anti-war movement.

Archduke Ferdinand just before assassination
War is, of course, a tremendously wasteful aspect of human existence.  Consider the example of the First World War.  The Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  This was an act of state sponsored terrorism by the Serbs that precipitated all of Europe into a cataclysmic World War that resulted in 37 million total casualties with 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded.  The flower of European youth was cut down.  The lights went out all over Europe.
WG Grace

Mass Mobilization and industrialisation made the Great War particularly costly.  The First World War was notable for the dawning horror of military air power.  For the first time great cities were bombed from the air.  The great hirsute cricketer,  WG Grace, was killed by a bomb delivered by a German Zeppelin.  Unrestricted U-boat warfare doomed the lives of thousands of civilian merchant mariners in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

The costs of war are manifold…

1)    The deaths of combatants and civilians

Cemetery above Omaha Beach
2)    The grotesquely wounded bodies

3)    Indirect Damage the psychological trauma left by the ravages of war

4)    Other Collateral damage—how many WWII vets picked up the cigarette habit? (“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em”).  Certainly very few of those soldiers in the amphibious boast at Normandy were worried about dying of lung cancer.

5)    The pernicious way in which each succeeding war seems to lay the seeds for a follow on conflict (The War of 1812 was essentially a “rematch” of the American war of Independence.  The territorially successful US/Mexican war set the table for the American Civil War by asking the question—“Will these new states be slave or free?”  The perceived vindictiveness of Treaty of Versailles ending WWI gave credibility to Hitler’s National Socialist movement in the 1930’s).

6)    The economic cost of war.  Tomahawk missiles are dispatched on their one way
       trip to Libya at $1m apiece.  The US spends more on its military than any nation on earth.  Mere preparation for the possibility of war diverts scarce resources from peaceful pursuits (Guns or butter).

WWI was costly in terms not just of quantity but also in terms of quality.  Great and heroic individuals lives were horribly abbreviated.  The incomparable H.H. Munro (Toys of Peace), Saki, for example perished in the trenches a victim of a sniper’s bullet.  Other notable victims of the conflict include Mata Hari, Edith Clavell and Manfred Von Richtoffen. WWII would go on to claim the lives of Antoine de St. Exupery, Glenn Miller, Carole Lombard, Yamamoto, Ann Frank, Dietrich Boehnhoffer and many more. Who know what works of genius were lost to humanity as a consequence of the World Wars?

There was a great cultural cost as well as humanitarian cost to be paid in the First World War.  The gorgeous cathedral at Rheims where so many of France’s kings had received their coronation lay in ruins by Armistice Day 1918.

And what of the end result ad long term consequences of the war?  The Spanish Flu immediately succeeded the War and led to the deaths of a staggering 50 and 100 million people worldwide.  The First World War hastened the spread of the virus (deployments and demobilizations) and increased the lethality of the disease.  A prime casualty of the war was the Russian empire.  The scourge of communist totalitarianism was to envelope and disfigure Russia for over 70 years.  The flawed peace following the First World War lasted 21 years and sowed the deeds of the even more terrible Second World War.   Was the sacrifice of all those young lives merely in vain?  In looking back onto the Great War one cannot help but echo the sentiment---“War, huh, what is it good for?  Absolutely Nothing!”

The USA has recently been engaged in three armed conflicts—Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.  These continue to be tremendously expensive in terms of human life, human suffering and of course treasure.  The US has launched over 100 Tomahawk missiles at Libya at a cost of over $1m apiece—and they are not not recyclable!

Today’s “push button” wars lack all conception of honor and glory.  The pageantry of war disappeared in the mud and trenches of WWI.  Now the spectre of nuclear Armageddon haunts the minds of any who give serious thought to the prospect of a global war in the 21st century.

Is there then no reason for us to burn any incense at the temple of Mars?

Are today’s remaining warmongers merely archaic dinosaurs consumed by perversity?

If you believe, as I do, that human life is sacred then how can war’s wastefulness ever be justified?  What then is the case for the use of armed conflict today?  What could possibly justify unleashing the dogs of war today?

Rationale justifying the use of war dates back at least to Cicero in ancient Rome.  The Roman statesman Cato the elder used to end every speech in the senate on any given topic with the phrase "Carthago delenda est — Carthage must be destroyed".  Just War theory (Bellum Iustum) begins with the right of nations to defend themselves from outside attackers--the right of self-defence.  It lies behind the USA's declaration of War after Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.  The South Koreans had a right, acknowledged by the United Nations, to defend themselves from their Northern invaders in 1950. Kuwait had a right to defend itself against invasion by Saddam’s Iraq in 1990. 

Da Vinci's Tank
Armed conflict has been a stimulus to technological innovation almost since the dawn of warfare.  Those clever Greeks came up with new uses for wooden horses at Troy.  Metallurgy and blacksmithing developed in order to provide soldiers/knights with weapons and armor.  FM radio was developed by the Nazis for tank to tank communication during WWII (not a topic often broached by today’s NPR!).  Jet travel that is a commonplace today owes a macabre debt to Hitler’s Luftwaffe who developed the first jet fighters and bombers (co-invented by a Brit, Sir Frank Whittle for the RAF and Hans Von Ohain for the Luftwaffe in the 1930’s).  Modern communications technology including satellite and mobile phones were developed first for use by the military .  The Internet was invented as a means of making an Armageddon-proof communications system.  The collaboration between the military and industrial complex at the heart of the Western economies is deep and long-standing.

Brilliant scientific innovators that have contributed to military science include Leonardo daVinci (the tank, the helicopter and siegecraft), Robert Fulton (the submarine) and Albert Einstein (the Atomic bomb).

As wars have become progressively more lethal over time so too have man’s abilities to save and restore human life grown.  Hippocrates wrote that, “War is the only proper school for surgeons.”  Romans were skilled in the use of tourniquets to stop bleeding and amputation to prevent gangrene.  Morphine was used as a pain killer in the American civil war.  Antiseptic was developed during the Boer war.  The First World War saw the introduction of tetanus and developments in plastic surgery.  Penicillin was developed for use of the WWII battlefield.  Trauma theory was developed during the Korean and Vietnam War and is in use in civilian hospitals to this day.  The plastic IV bags which are now in use in hospitals throughout the world were originally developed for use by medics in Vietnam.  The use of prosthetic devices has grown dramatically as casualties return for encounters with IED’s in the Middle East.  The medical advancements have been immediately re-purposed for use in peacetime with non-combatants.

Napoleon said that “An army marches on its stomach.”  A means of preserving food in glass jar’s was developed by Nicholas Appet in 1809 for the Napoleonic armies.  What do the culinary arts owe to military science?  Surely one cannot get too excited over forced rationing and Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s)?  Consider the contributions of Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo and Beef Wellington.  Pumpernickel bread (“Cest bon pour Nichol!”—were Napoleon’s famous words on tasting.  Nichol was his horse’s name at the time.) was created for Napoleon The First World War lead to innovations in canning and preserving foods for use near the battlefield.  There are tins of bully beef made for the British Tommies of the Great War that are still edible.  The canned foods unloaded on the beaches of Normandy are still there rusting away on the French coast. Margerine was invented as a substitute for butter in order to help feed Napoleon III’s troops.

When Peter Ustinov was once asked by a French journalist what he thought about Napoleon he replied, “which do you mean—the brandy or the pastry?”

Let’s be clear about this.  The United States of America was forged in the smithy of armed conflict with its' motherland, Great Britain.  The extent of the brutality of the American Revolution is somewhat lost to us in the haze of historical memory.  The total casualty figure for the American Revolution which ran for seven years from 1776 to 1783 Were 50,000.  The percentage of the population killed was about 1.798% of the total US population at the time (2,780,400 in 1780).  The equivalent percentage against today’s population would result in a loss of 5,551,244 deaths or nearly 10x America’s most costly war—the American Civil war..
Washington crossing the Delaware

It was not the “essay” or “op-ed” heard round the world.  No, my friends, it was the “shot heard round the world”.  It is no mere coincidence that gun rights as embodied in the second amendment were so critically important to the framers of the constitution.

If you believe, as I do, that the USA, in spite of its flaws is a beacon of light in the darkness of our world then you must celebrate the patriots who fought in the American War of Independence.

Long periods of peace atrophy the fighting abilities of the military.  Military conflict, on the other hand, hones the fighting abilities of warriors.

Tolerance may be an admirable virtue, but it becomes a vice if it exends to the tolerance for the enslavement of one’s fellow man.

Spartacus’s rebellion in the Third Servile war (73 -71BC) must rank near the top of the list of just wars.  This was an incredible phenomenon in the ancient world.  The Thracian Spartacus must have been a tactical military genius.  Two entire Roman legions were wiped out by a slave army that boasted over 120,000 members. The sole world superpower with the greatest military in the world at the time was challenged by a rag tag army of slaves.  For three years they managed to hold the Roman army at bay and disrupted the Roman Empire.  Rome itself was threatened.  Death by crucifixion was meted out to the slave rebels at the war’s disastrous conclusion. 

Historian’s are quick to credit Wilberforce with leading the charge on the abolition of the slave trade and justifiably so.  They are not as quick to point out the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807 could not have been enforced without the triumph of Nelson’s navy at Trafalgar in October 1805.  The dominance of the Royal Navy was the sine qua non of the abolition of the slave trade.  Noble intentions and fine legislation is meaningless without the means of enforcing it.

The massive effusion of blood that was the American civil war—the bloodiest by far in US history was needed to eliminate slavery in the US.  Lincoln declared the emancipation proclamation as military expedient, a means of winning and shortening the tragic war.

War has ended the career of many a dictator.  Napoleon met his Waterloo.  Mussolini was butchered by his own people.  Hitler took his own life.  Saddam Hussein was caught hiding in a hole and later executed.  Most recently Qadaffi was killed by a fellow Libyan who was wearing a NY Yankees baseball cap!  None of these dictators who lived by the sword would have given up power with anything short of the use of force.

The appalling horrors of the Holocaust and the Japanese internment camps would not have ended of their own accord.  The use of  Military force was the sine qua non for the liberation of these death camps.  Milosovich in Serbia would not be brought to heel without an air war.

Today many in the West and the Middle East are celebrating the peaceful transfer of power in the recent Egyptian revolution.  A dictator, Mubarak, was deposed without mass violence.  Very well.  But is it not inarguable that not the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq by coalition forces in 2003 and Iraq’s halting steps on the path to democracy help to light the fires of the movement sweeping North Africa today?  Likewise for the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan.

The greatest conflict in human history claimed the lives of over 50,000,000 people.  This war also helped set the table for a general peace in Europe that has lasted since 1945.  The evils of fascism and Japanese militarism were extinguished from the world.  Fascist Germany and Samurai Japan were transformed into peace loving nations of successful automobile manufacturers. The Holocaust camps were ultimately liberated and their grisly work bright to an end.  The POW death camps throughout Asia were liberated.

Vast Social forces were unleashed a consequence.  Racism, by virtue of its association with Nazism, acquired a stigma that persists to this today.  Allied victory in World War II was the driving behind the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  The American military was the first section of American society to be integrated after World War II.

Allied victory also enabled the launch of the feminist movement.  How could Rosie the Riveter whose producing power helped win the war be denied her rights back home at the war’s conclusion?  Women replaced men on the factory floor.

No one despises war more than the warrior.  It is a curious fact of American history that those Presidents who had the greatest direct experience of the realities of warfare (Washington, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower) all presided over extended periods of peace.  On the other hand, those who lacked military experience frequently found themselves embroiled in America’s costliest wars (Lincoln was a lawyer who opposed the very popular Mexican war, Wilson a college President, FDR a governor, LBJ a career politician, G.W. Bush a baseball entrepreneur and reservist who avoided the Vietnam war, and, the current author of our recent "Kinetic military action" in Libya, Obama, was a community organizer).

As I write these words I hear the murder and mayhem of the best selling X-box game “Black Ops” raging in the room next to me where my son is playing!  War has inspired war gaming for many years.  Blenheim has an incredible collection of Churchill’s tin soldiers.  War games such as Risk, Stratego and many others have provided generations of boys a means of sublimating their warlike urges for many years.  The ultimate and original war-game is, of course, chess.

10) WAR AND LITERATURE—Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war!

Consider the following list. 
1)    Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
2)    Vergil’s Anead
3)    Shakespeare’s Henry V  (Also Richard II, Henry IV, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and many more)
4)    Tolstoy’s War and Peace
5)    George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara
6)    Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (not the story of a double amputee!) and The Sun Also Rises
7)    CS Forester’s Hornblower series
8)    Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series (“Master and Commander”)
9)    George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series
10) Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.  Tolkein was deeply influenced by his experience in the trenches in WWI and wrote his epic while WWII was raging.

Consider this from Julius Caesar…

Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

11)               WAR AND ALTERED STATES
“Would I were in an alehouse in London!  I would give
All my fame for a pot of ale and safety” Henry V 3.2.13

What makes the Whirling Dervish Whirl?

The connection between warrior and the use of alcohol and other drugs has long been recognized.  The harsh discipline of the Napoleonic wars was ameliorated somewhat by the generous use of alcohol in the armies and navies of the time.  The cantonniere with her brandy flask was never far from the front lines.  A daily ration of Rum was consumed in the Royal Navy up until 1970!  The 19th century Opium war was fought by the British Empire to impose the use of drugs (Indian made opium) onto the Chinese.  The German drug of choice during World War II was methamphetamines.  35 million tablets of methamphetamine were shipped to the German army and Luftwaffe between just April 1940 and July 1940.

Drugs and alcohol were, and indeed are, a means of enduring the unendurable during wartime.

12)               WAR AND PEACE
“If you want peace, prepare for war” (Si Vis pacem, para bellum) wrote Flavius Vegetius around 375 AD.

My corollary to that would be “If you want a lasting peace, win, or alternatively lose (“The Mouse that Roared”), a devastating and decisive strategic victory”.  The long Pax Britannica of the 19th century lasted from June 18th 1815 (Waterloo) until August of 1914 and witnessed a general peace through Europe.  There were, of course, many colonial dust-ups and “little wars” at this time.  It was the twin decisive Allied triumphs on sea and land at first, Trafalgar, and then at Waterloo that made this possible.  Britannia ruled the waves, ended the slave trade and traded throughout its expanding empire.  Waterloo sent Napoleon into his second and final exile on St Helena.  The spectre of the French Revolution and its evil progeny, dictatorship had been put back into the bottle—at least for the time being.

The Second World War is an even more dramatic example of how devastating and decisive victory can lead to a lasting peace.  There have been many scholarly debates about the efficacy of the Allied Air bombing in WWII.  The Fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and, of course the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (note that the Japanese leader of the air attacks on Pearl Harbor claimed that the atomic bombs dropped on Japan actually saved Japanese as well as countless Allied lives by rendering an invasion unnecessary.) eviscerated the Axis powers and punished the civilian populations.  The enduring psychic memory of those horrors has, however, surely contributed to the lasting peace in Europe and the Pacific since 1945.

Enola Gay
Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave of Japanese planes in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, met Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.  He said, “You did the right thing.  You know the Japanese attitude of that time, how fanatic they were.  They’d die for the Emperor.  Every man woman and child would resist the invasion with sticks and stones if necessary.”

Nightmares about allied bombing were the psychic fertilizer, if you will, that allowed Japan to hammer Samurai swords into Toyotas, Kamikazes into Kawasaki motorcycles. Meanwhile, de-nazification in Germany helped encourage the Germans to beat Panzers into VW beetles.

Mars, the God of War
War is an incredibly wasteful and soul-destroying human activity.  Most wars are not “just wars” at all.  Hitler’s invasion of Poland is particularly indefensible.  Nevertheless, it is seems that war has been an integral part of the human experience, has contributed positive aspects to humanity and is occasionally justifiable.

What is war good for?  Quite a lot really!  It improved medical care for all, is a catalyst for technological change, it launched the USA, it is morally justifiable in certain circumstances and it can, when used properly, be a force for freedom in a complex world.  As Monty Python’s ancient Palestinians exclaimed, “but aside from that what have the Romans done for us…?"

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