GIVE WAR A CHANCE? The Utility of War

Monday, November 24, 2003

The Prussian military historian Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that "war is merely a continuation of politics by other means." These "other" (violent) means have been used on countless occasions throughout human history to settle conflicts over land, resources, and political rule. But what is the utility of war in the modern world? In a world with weapons of mass destruction, have the means of war delegitimized its use? In a world of expanding democracy, and cultural and economic interdependence, has the use of force become outdated?

Recorded on Monday, November 24, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: War, what is it good for?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the utility or futility of war. The Prussian military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz famously wrote, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." Those other means, violent means, have of course been used on countless occasions across the centuries to settle disputes over land, resources and political rule. But what is the utility of war in the modern world? In a world with weapons of mass destruction, have the means of warfare delegitimized the ends of warfare? In a world with growing democracy and increasing economic and cultural interdependence, has the use of force become outdated?

Joining us today, two guests. Jonathan Schell is a journalist and scholar. His most recent book is entitled The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People. Victor Davis Hanson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is entitled Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think.

Title: Give War a Chance?

Peter Robinson: The fourth century Roman Vegetius, "Qui desiderat pacem praeparet bellum." Did I do all right with that pronunciation?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, you did.

Peter Robinson: Let him who desires peace prepare for war. Seventeen centuries later, is that still good advice? Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: I think it is until the nature of man changes or we reach the end of history. We're not quite there yet.

Peter Robinson: Jonathan?

Jonathan Schell: I don't think it's very good advice. I think another aphorism is if you want war, prepare for war. It's not paradoxical and neat but it's more deeply true.

Peter Robinson: All right. Victor, let me quote you to yourself. "We should appreciate the frequent utility of war. The great ills of the last three centuries were largely ameliorated by war not mediation." Explain yourself.

Victor Davis Hanson: I don't know how you would have convinced the slave owners of the south to give up chattel slavery. We tried for over fifty years. And as horrible as that war was, it did end chattel slavery and all the great isms that have plagued the world, fascism, Japanese militarism, Marxism, Soviet totalitarianism. They were either ended by war or the threat of war. So it's until I--again, the nature of man changes. Sometimes we should remember that there's great evil in the world.

Peter Robinson: Now we'll come to your argument about the way things have changed in the second half of the twentieth century in a moment. But do you agree with that as a historical assessment? Do you agree with Victor?

Jonathan Schell: Absolutely. Absolutely. Obviously what I want to say further is that I think the nature of war has deeply changed let's say in the last half century. Maybe you have to go back a little farther. And so I think that the sphere in which war as a decision maker has been drastically reduced let's say since 1945. It's hard to put a date on it really so that once--what once worked is no longer working.

Peter Robinson: Hold that. I want to come to your notion--expand on your notion a little bit that war is rooted in human nature. Is that the way you put it? Let me quote you again. "A common tenant of current pacifism is that war is altogether rare or in fact unnatural to the human species, yet history more often proves otherwise."

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, a great society like Athens fought three out of every four years. So did sixteenth century Venice--fifteenth century Venice as well. Whether we like it or not, as Heraclites said, "War is the father of us all." And it's very important to keep that in mind because every time someone convinces us that it's otherwise, some innocent person in the Balkans or Rwanda is going to be--or Cambodia is going to be killed because war is not just simply a misunderstanding between two equally culpable parties. Usually there's an onus of right and wrong on one side. And it behooves us to take the moral courage and judgment to find out where that onus lies and then try to create deterrence to avoid wars. But if we don't, innocent people are going to get killed.

Peter Robinson: Let's examine Jonathan Schell's argument for the futility of modern war.

Title: Lethal Weapons

Peter Robinson: In the twentieth century, your argument runs, a couple of things changed the utility of war fundamentally. The development of what you called people's warfare and the development of nuclear weapons. Let's just take them one after the other and explain whey they've changed the utility of war. Nuclear weapons?

Jonathan Schell: Well very clearly, at the level of the superpower or of the great powers as they used to call them, war can no longer be a decision maker because what you've got in that case is mutual assured destruction which doesn't decide anything. It just eliminates everybody. And so--and that really has been the prime level at which war was a decision maker in the twentieth century, in the First and Second World War. Those are out now. And that paralyzing influence of the nuclear dilemma, I think, has spread downward into the nation state system so that actually war between fully fledged nation states--a very common thing in the past--has actually become something of a rarity so that wars now tend to be confined to the internal affairs of country ethnic and so forth. Those are horrible but they're something to…

Peter Robinson: Spread downward--I mean the nuclear argument is clear. The United States in the old days couldn't attack the Soviet Union--actually even now because the Russians retain thousands of nuclear warheads.

Jonathan Schell: Precisely.

Peter Robinson: Because you'll both be destroyed.

Jonathan Schell: That's right.

Peter Robinson: But in what way has this spread downward? What's the mechanism by which it's spread downward? Part of it is proliferation of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan, for example, both have them. You're suggesting more.

Jonathan Schell: Yes, well in other words, if, you know, if there are eight or perhaps nine now countries in the world that possess nuclear weapons and they are incapable of fighting a war. They could blow themselves up but it won't be a war. Then the countries that are allied with those and so forth, are much more cautious about going down that path because they're afraid it will drag the world back into nuclear confrontation to put it very simply.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, we've had more people die in war since World War II than before. That is after the advent of the atomic bomb because obviously when two superpowers agree they can't use them, then they channel their disputes to other theaters. So we have wars in the Middle East. We have wars in the Falklands. We're always going to have war. Just simply are we going to have a theater nuclear exchange between two rational states? Probably not at least in our lifetime. But I also think that war is sort of like water because it's like human nature and the pump, the delivery system, will change but the essence will not change until the nature of man changes. So we won't have a theater nuclear exchange between two nuclear powers but Pakistan and India can fight with each other without using nuclear weapons. That's very obvious. And China can fight with anybody they want as long as they don't want to use nuclear weapons. That's why they have conventional arms.

Jonathan Schell: Well, I'm very nervous about arguments that invoke human nature because if human nature were responsible, we wouldn't have had let's say a nineteenth century in which warfare in Europe, or for most of it, was greatly reduced. In other words, it would have to be--you'd have to posit that it's a kind of constant which is I think what you're saying when you liken it to water--that it's like an impulse that's a sort of a given of human nature that has to go somewhere. I disagree with that. I think that it's a historical phenomenon. I think that war is an institution much like the state and that it's capable of tremendous transformation and even one day of transforming itself out of existence. Now you're perfectly right that in the nuclear age there have been many wars fought but it's not a negligible fact that the wars that plagued the world between fully fledged nation states, as I say, have tended to be very much reduced in that period, although there are some examples of it and that violence has been pushed to the internal sphere. That's a very notable…

Peter Robinson: Pushed to what?

Jonathan Schell: Into to the internal sphere of nations. In other words, you have a Balkan type situation or you have situations where, you know…

Victor Davis Hanson: Nineteenth century, I mean, more people were killed in the twentieth century outside of war than in war during the twentieth century and far more than the nineteenth. If you count up the tally of Stalin off the battlefield, Hitler off the battlefield, Mao, fifty million people off the battlefield. Stalin, Pol Pot, Milosevic, most of the people in our twentieth century who were killed were not killed in fighting. They were killed because people either could not or would not use force to stop whatever that insanity was in the beginning. We could have stopped Milosevic. We could have stopped the Rwanda. We could have stopped Mao. We could have done all of those things in the beginning. But there's a hundred million people dead in the twentieth century.

Peter Robinson: So you're--in a curious way, this can't be quite what you're arguing Jonathan, but it sounds as though you view the advent of nuclear weapons as progress.

Jonathan Schell: In terms of preventing great power war, unquestionably. That's true. Then we get to the further question, was the bargain worth it? Now the price of that, of course, is that you suspend our entire species over the abyss of its extinction. That's a roulette game that I don't think was worth the deal. But as just a cold fact of history, I think nuclear weapons have had that influence. So for me, the program has to be--now that war has been reduced, to get rid of the nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: On to the other key aspect of Jonathan Schell's argument against war.

Title: Guerillas in Our Midst

Peter Robinson: Explain your notion--this development of people's war, the notion that somehow politics has supplanted warfare is a critical point in your argument.

Jonathan Schell: It's really what's central to this recent book that I've written, The Unconquerable World, because it suggests that really the entire imperial enterprise which was quite a strong possibility throughout most of history, has really been lost because local peoples have discovered the will and the means to resist imperial powers, much the way they are now in Iraq as a matter of fact. And so if you look at the history of empire, what's notable to me or most notable is that all of the empires that were standing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Dutch, British, French, etc, etc…

Peter Robinson: All gone.

Jonathan Schell: …went under the waves of history and that goes, by the way, for the imperial empires of the mid century too, the fascist empires of Germany and Japan. You know, Leonard Wolf called this the world revolt and what it really meant was that each small country kind of became a super power within its own borders. And this, I think, is the specific reason that these empires have fallen.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well United States is--the latest empire is quite different. If you look at the people the United States has so-called been extending empire to or imperia, Noriega, there's a consensual government. Milosevic was of seeds of consensual government. Grenada, seeds of consensual government. Afghanistan, Iraq, fifty million people were on the two most barbarous regimes. Now it's hard to classify the empire or the United States as an imperial power when it doesn't take treasure, it doesn't take minerals, it doesn't charge rent for its bases and it's not setting up as was true of the Cold War calculus, a authoritarian thug who promised to pump oil and keep out communists. There's something happening in the world with the use of force that we haven't seen before I think as far as an imperial power. There's nothing in the United--in Afghanistan for the United States to get out in the material, imperial sense except a consensual government that might not let Al Qaeda back in. And that's hard for people to resist. I mean, there is a message besides gunboats and that is consumer capitalism, popular culture, freedom, democracy. That seems to be very powerful weapon.

Peter Robinson: You grant all that?

Jonathan Schell: Democracy did make considerable advances in the late twentieth century, in the last decade. The lesson of that to me though was that it was almost always done by peaceful means throughout Eastern Europe, Philippines, Southern Europe, Spain, Greece and so forth.

Peter Robinson: Okay, hold on. There I have to stop you. As I read the piece that you wrote in Harper's, I have to admit my jaw dropped. You write about the Velvet Revolution of 1989 as toppling the Soviet Union. Vaclav Havel and so forth, I kept waiting for a paragraph in which you would grant at least that the United States applied during the 1980's increased--engaged in a military buildup, challenged the Soviets in placement of intermediate range nuclear forces in Eastern Europe by deploying our Pershing missiles in Western Europe and increased economic pressures on the Soviets. In other words, there is an entire, a kind of realpolitique placement of increasing pressure on the Soviets which creates a space for Havel and Walensa. But you write about that as though it was just Havel and Walensa and a kind of people's outpouring. They take to the streets in Prague and the Soviet Union collapses.

Jonathan Schell: Yeah, I do think that the collapse of the Soviet Union was overwhelmingly due to internal events and I think we have to review the history of that period, you know, the rebellion in East Germany in '53, Hungary in '56, Czechoslovakia in '68--these all look like noble defeats, sort of hopeless enterprises at the time. But actually they turned out to be the precursors to the collapse of the whole thing. Now I will say, I do think that the American--especially its technical military superiority was a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union because it was a symptom of a much deeper problem there which was their whole economic backwardness. They couldn't keep up either in the civilian economy or in the militaries there. And I think it did give them pause and I think it did frighten them but I think it was a secondary factor.

Peter Robinson: How do you sum up then the collapse of the Soviet…

Victor Davis Hanson: The problem with all this is the course--the logical end of totalitarianism doesn't work and it will collapse. But before you get to A to Z, there's going to be millions of people killed. If you look at places like Korea, the reason that South Korea has a democracy is because of A, United States military operations and B, United States military deterrents. If you look at the Falklands, most people--that whole situation was caused by aggressive behavior by a dictatorship which was humiliated, defeated and fell and you have democracy come in and there the same thing in Central America. Same thing in Taiwan.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Victor Davis Hanson: Taiwan is a democratic state and the mainland is not. It's only because of U.S. deterrence.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, how do our guests apply their views on the utility of war to the war on terror?

Title: Fight for Your Right to (Political) Party

Peter Robinson: Jonathan, I quote you now to yourself. "The goal of taming the violence endemic in human affairs has always been at the very core of the liberal program. Every peaceful transfer of power is a coup d'tat avoided. Every court case is a possible vendetta or bloodshed averted." Isn't it the case that Afghanistan and Iraq now have a chance for at least some rudimentary form of democracy precisely because the United States went to war in each of those countries?

Jonathan Schell: I doubt that things are going to work out that way. Of course, we're looking into the crystal ball here and it's hard to know what will happen in the future. I have so far seen very little evidence that in either of those places, a delightful Switzerland, you know, on the Tigress, or in Afghanistan is in the cards here. That's my instinct in the matter. And the reason once again, has to do with the very nature of military force and of democracy. If democracy is a system of consent which is essentially a non-violent thing, then it's almost a matter of principle that it cannot be imposed from without. It's something that happens through the force of example, through the local will of the local people. I don't think that we can force it on either of those countries. And the tragedies that we see--have seen so far unfolding there, to me are symptomatic of that fact.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, it was imposed--we wouldn't have had our freedom if the French had not used the French had not used the French fleet at Yorktown. It was imposed on the Japanese. It was imposed on the Germans. It was imposed on the Italians. It was imposed on the Indians when the British left. So there's all sorts of examples throughout history that oppressed peoples can benefit from having democracy offered to them. If you have of woken up on September 12th and said in two years that the cost of four hundred and twenty American lives that you were going to offer a consensual government to fifty million people, in the two most odious fascistic regimes, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein will be gone in twenty-four months, by any standard of military history in war, that would--nobody would have believed you. But that's exactly what's happened. So yes, there's still chaos there but…

Peter Robinson: And that is a good thing that in a certain sense opens the door to his liberal program.

Victor Davis Hanson: I do--I think we will agree where we want the ultimate aim but it just a disagreement of how we get there.

Jonathan Schell: Yes it--in these cases, it was not the wars that were going to impose the cost. It's what's happening now. And, in fact, already there have been more casualties in Iraq since the so-called war ended than happened during the war. So it's the future of the United States in that part of the world that is going to be the cause.

Peter Robinson: You'd rather we had not gone into Iraq?

Jonathan Schell: Yes, indeed.

Peter Robinson: And you'd rather we had not gone into Afghanistan?

Jonathan Schell: As a matter of fact, yes, although that was a much more sensible--that--at least the goal there was a clear one and you didn't have all this flim-flam about weapons of mass destruction and so forth.

Peter Robinson: Is Jonathan really against war or just against the use of force by America?

Title: Might and Wrong

Peter Robinson: In the piece that you wrote in Harper's, you call for--I'll quote you, "a program of international intervention," international intervention, "to ameliorate, contain or end local and regional wars and a concerted effort to enforce a prohibition against crimes against humanity." Intervention enforcement. You're granting the continued utility of war. You simply want it to be conducted by a party other than the United States. So I put it to you that it's not war in and of itself that you're arguing against. It's the United States of America.

Jonathan Schell: You know, I do not take a pacifist position. I do see situations in which I think that the use of force would be justified and useful.

Peter Robinson: So the quest…

Jonathan Schell: The genocide in Rwanda would be a perfect example of that. But I think it should be out at the margins of international affairs and I think it should be done as we said before, multilaterally in concert with our allies or others at the U.N. and all of this. And in that circumstance, you have a very, very important difference which is that you have legitimacy. That goes back to the difference…

Peter Robinson: How will we have…

Jonathan Schell: …between the occupation of Iraq and Japan and Germany because there we had absolute international legitimacy because we had reacted defensively…

Peter Robinson: Hold on.

Jonathan Schell: …against two empires that had attacked us. That's what we were doing in the Second World War. And so we had global legitimacy at that time. Now we entirely lack it because we do not do it in concert with the world.

Peter Robinson: I beg you--I beg you explain to me why the United Nations which has a hundred and ninety some members, many of whom are not only not democratic but heady, tin pot dictatorships and some very big and powerful, muscular dictatorships--why a dictate by that group should carry more moral legitimacy than a decision by the duly elected government of the United States. I simply don't see it. You grant the need for force. You simply want to shift the locus of decision making and authority from us to a group of lunatics.

Jonathan Schell: Well, I don't think that we can call the assembled representatives of the peoples of the earth a bunch of lunatics.

Peter Robinson: At least a third of them…

Jonathan Schell: Because the U.N. is not a country like France or something…

Victor Davis Hanson: Since 1967, almost fifty percent of all the U.N. resolutions have been condemning Israel. When there's fifty million people have been killed all around the globe in Africa and Asia, up in former Soviet Union, they never said a word. And why was that? Because the U.N. has been basically ideological--far more ideological than we are and they have a preexisting deductive idea that Westernism as it's symbolized by the United States and Israel are the causes of most of the great sins of the world. So they concentrate on these two powers, United States and Israel and they will not apply the same standard of behavior to the Russians or--we talk about occupied land, they'll pass hundreds of resolutions about Palestine and not one about Cyprus, about Tibet, about the Sakhalin Islands. So when we in America look at this, we see that it's ideologically driven and a lot of people die where they adjudicate in New York.

Jonathan Schell: Well, there's a lot of substance to what you say. And I look at it very much historically. Obviously during the Cold War, the U.N. was completely disabled by the Cold War because of the veto in the Security Council and so forth. It could never work its function in that period. When the Cold War ended though, I think a moment of real opportunity opened up because not withstanding--well they weren't doing it yet in Russia and Chechnya. That hadn't really begun. But there was a moment of where they could have really been substantial agreement on some very positive--a very positive agenda it seems to me in the 1990's. That moment may have waned now. I have to confess.

Victor Davis Hanson: The Balkans, that was the first task in the post-Cold War and they did not do anything in the Balkans.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, the utility of war and its impact on America's role in the world.

Title: War and Peace

Peter Robinson: A decade from now, will the United States have become more republican or more imperial? Jonathan?

Jonathan Schell: I think that this imperial enterprise as I think it's rightly called is not going to work. I think it's going to blow up in our faces. But whether that means that we'll be more republican at home, I'm not sure because I'm afraid that in the process of that--of the collapse of this plan, of this effort, that we may see these serious inroads into the constitutional rule and civil liberties that I was talking about before in the form of other terrorist attacks. The other day General Tommy Franks who ran the Iraq effort, of course, said that he thought that if the weapon of mass destruction were used against the United States, that we would lose the Constitution here at home. Now that was a very disturbing thing to be hearing from a General who had just fought a war. And I do worry about those things. Hasn't happened, but I worry about it.

Peter Robinson: Isn't that an argument for granting whatever minor concessions may be necessary--surrendering in some minor way civil liberties now to make sure that the FBI, all these people are charged with defending the country, have all the powers that they need to make sure no such other event ever takes place? If some second event is the real threat to civil liberties, we need to give them what they ask for.

Jonathan Schell: Well I--not what they ask for...

Peter Robinson: What they need.

Jonathan Schell: ...What we think they need and what is consistent with the survival of American liberty. And it's not these things that they are doing now in Guantanamo with the enemy combatants and so forth. So…

Peter Robinson: Victor, more imperial or more republican a decade from now?

Victor Davis Hanson: Just look at what's going on in the world right now. Ten thousand troops out of Saudi Arabia.

Peter Robinson: Ten thousand of ours?

Victor Davis Hanson: Out a hundred thousand troops downsized in Germany, troops reduced in South Korea, redeployed down to Pusan, Turkish troops down. If you look at what the Pentagon says they're trying to do, it's--I would call it a muscular independence. They are bringing troops in Eastern Europe but the total size of the number committed abroad doesn't need to be any bigger and it's probably going to be smaller. If Iraq has taught Americans anything is we don't really want to go to defend people who either will not…

Peter Robinson: We the military?

Victor Davis Hanson: We the military, we the United States. The biggest problem the United States is going to have is not imperial intervention as I see it. It's going to be a resurgence of strong, nationalistic isolationism that was pretty much the history of the United States until the European wars that started in 1939. When I go across the United States, people say to me all the time, why do we have any troops in Germany? Why do--they think we have troops in France. Why do we have troops in France? But the message is it's time to look after the interest of the United States and let Europe and the E.U., the rest go their way.

Peter Robinson: Victor Davis Hanson, Jonathan Schell, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.