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It’s strange how issues of war and peace divide people so violently today. It wasn’t always that way. Throughout history war has usually failed to command the passions it does now. It seemed a force of nature, like the weather and pestilence. That is largely because to war or not to war was a choice made by individual rulers or tiny elites. They might turn to the priests or shamans to bless their military exploits, but the choice— war or peace—was a monopoly of those who exercised state power. War was largely viewed by human societies as morally neutral. It was only good or bad in the context of its costs or results. It was rarely seen as a moral evil in and of itself.

The pragmatic, amoral view of war as a legitimate instrument of state policy began to be questioned seriously only in the 19th century, although Europeans had been trying to bring war under rational control and within agreed rules for more than a century. The decision of most European states to renounce privateering in 1859, the founding of the Red Cross in 1863 and The Hague and Geneva Conventions around the birth of the 20th century all signaled a growing sentiment that war itself was a problem—a bad one. In 1912 the international Socialist movement successfully put serious pressure on governments in Paris, Berlin and Vienna to step back from the brink of war. In 1914 such efforts failed, but Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations in 1919 and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 renouncing war as an instrument of foreign policy symbolized the dissatisfaction of many with war.

The need to stop Adolf Hitler’s military aggression after 1939 partially reversed this trend, although in 1945 enough of the antiwar spirit survived (and enough people had been chastened by the loss of more than 50 million souls in World War II) for the victorious Allies to try again to forestall aggression and war by means of the United Nations Charter and the principle of collective security. It didn’t really work, but it did establish the principle that war was a last resort and only to be employed in self-defense. Of course, since then people (especially in the United States) have been bitterly divided on exactly when they’ve reached that last resort and what self-defense means.

Does war solve problems? Do nations get what they want from it? Is war a valid, useful and efficacious tool, or a blunt instrument that causes as many problems as it resolves? To try to answer that question, it might help to look back over the last century.

Great Britain’s experience of war in the 20th century was largely defined by the limited value of “victory.” The moral and material costs of winning the Boer War, and the limited rewards reaped by that victory, set the tone for the next 100 years. Britain’s contribution to victory in World War I was crucial, yet Versailles brought it liabilities like Palestine and Iraq and few clear gains. World War II shattered British finances and left it an American dependency. The Suez Expedition of 1956 was a national humiliation. The Falklands War was a minor triumph, but participation in the Gulf and Iraq wars only confirmed Britain’s subordinate position vis-à-vis the United States. Obviously being on the winning side in war is not the same thing as advancing national wealth, power and autonomy.

France had no choice but to honor its commitment to Russia in 1914. France slugged it out with the Germans for four years, lost 1.4 million men and could claim a pyrrhic victory in 1918. In 1939 France stood by the Poles but was resoundingly defeated in the spring of 1940. Its two great colonial wars contrasted greatly. Indochina was a long, hard military defeat. Algeria was, on balance, a military victory, but one bought at such a price in internal dissension that Charles de Gaulle, to stanch the financial bleeding and civil strife, called it quits and left.

France’s active participation in the Gulf War of 1991 proved futile, as the only nation it was designed to curry favor with, the United States, has in no way been impressed or grateful, and has been actively hostile to France for not supporting the Iraq War.

Austria-Hungary plunged Europe into World War I in 1914, was shattered militarily in its course, and did not survive its conclusion. Germany too used war in 1914 and again in 1939 to further national aggrandizement and secure right-wing regimes at home, and in both cases the results were disastrous.

For Russia, war in the 20th century— whether victory or a defeat—has meant enormous human suffering. Defeat in 1905 at the hands of the Japanese and 1917 at the hands of the Germans sank the Romanov dynasty. The 1918-1921 civil war was a bloodbath and both coarsened and intensified an already harsh Communist dictatorship. War with Finland in 1939-40 was a success won at a high price in men and international reputation. World War II proved a nightmare of mass destruction, with at least 20 million dead. Yet it was also a clear victory, a triumph of Soviet guts and brains that left the Soviet Union a superpower. But military intervention against Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 delegitimized the Soviet regime, and the war in Afghanistan was its final defeat.

Italy’s decision to participate in World War I to further its “sacred self-interest” led to great loss of life, the embarrassing debacle that was the Battle of Caporetto and frustratingly slim pickings at the table at Versailles. The Italian public’s anger at the relatively small return on such an investment in blood greased the skids for the Fascist takeover.

In the case of smaller powers’ use of war as an instrument of policy, Argentina’s decision to go to war in 1982, North Korea’s in 1950 and Iraq’s in both 1980 and 1990 were all fiascoes. Israel’s “victories” in five separate wars have failed to bring peace or security, and the Palestinian low-intensity war for national autonomy, i.e., the Intifada, has proved a costly flop. The vast majority of nations, most of the time, never contemplate going to war simply because it makes no sense.

Interestingly, war has often been good to the United States. Jumping into World War I late in 1917 helped America erase its international debt (largest in the world in 1914), contributed significantly to Allied victory, yet avoided the sustained carnage of long exposure to the Western Front. World War II was fought on other peoples’ lands, rescued the U.S. economy from the Great Depression and propelled the United States to superpower status. Korea proved a frustrating draw, while Vietnam was a divisive defeat—yet neither of those conflicts struck at the sinews of American wealth or power, and neither destroyed American cities or killed a high percentage of the American people. Grenada and Panama were walkovers, and the Gulf War over Kuwait was a clear victory won at tiny cost and largely paid for by “contributions” from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany and Japan. The results in Afghanistan and Iraq are still unclear. Osama bin Laden has enjoyed years of freedom without facing justice, and President George W. Bush’s stated conditions for victory in Iraq—a peaceful, friendly, free and democratic Iraq—seem unlikely.

So does war get what one wants? Sometimes yes, but not consistently. From a purely statistical standpoint, one faces the serious problem that for every winner there is a loser. Worse, there are wars on which neither side gets what it wants—think of Korea or the Iran/Iraq War of 1980-88. Crudely judged, war is likely to resolve the issue that caused it less than half of the time. True, sometimes alliances can create many victors and few or one vanquished. But the opposite is also potentially true; it was true in Korea and Vietnam, where the anti-Communist alliance failed to get what it wanted, and will be true if the American-led coalition fails in Iraq. Likewise, consider the Axis powers in World War II. Germany, Italy, Hungary, Finland, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Japan and Thailand were all on the losing side. Poland was among the putative winners, but what exactly did Poland win in World War II?

Enormous wealth and power can boost the odds of success, but never remove the chance that something will go wrong. In Vietnam the United States sacrificed 58,000 men and billions of dollars without achieving its goal of solidifying a non-Communist South. War is a crapshoot, a roll of the dice. To put it in Clausewitzian terms, it is the realm of chance and contingency, of fog and friction. It certainly kills and maims people—soldiers, civilians, innocent and guilty. It leads to a great number of deaths and wipes out accumulated capital. The persistent failure to bring Iraqi oil production back to even pre-invasion levels shows how even a short war followed by a guerrilla insurgency can affect important economic activity. In most cases war diverts manpower and money from producing wealth and innovations to producing death and destruction. Unless it is forced upon a nation by overt outside aggression, war is usually a bad bet. Whatever the moral imperatives involved, war as an instrument of state policy is a dangerous and inconsistent tool whose efficacy can be seriously doubted.


Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here