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Tamanaha is taking is a view of war that is both idealistic and naive. That said, I think you're also wrong in saying that war has not worked for Europe.

T is wrong because war is not generally all that distructive: more people died in transportation accidents than in wars during the 20th century--even including the holocaust and WWI. Moreover, war is but one of the possibly violent tools states use to get their ways. Considering their effects on human lives, the use of military force is no less violent, and sometimes less so, than other compellant acts, like sanctions. If we buy the most generous estimates of deaths in both periods (which use similar methodologies, relying on population simulations), the decade of sanctions on Iraq killed more than the Iraq war has so far. But because war is active and overt, it seems worse than these relatively passive forms of coercion. Sometimes, war may be the humane way.

Nate, you're a smart guy but you're wrong in saying that war has not worked for the Europeans, historically, as well as it has for Americans, and as evidence for this, you cite the fact that the balance of power system re-curred. Yet, from at least the 15th century, this balance of power system was exactly what many statesmen fought to maintain--so it's hard to say that it did not meet their strategic objectives. From the perspective of, say, England, war was a remarkably successful prospect from at least 1688 until 1945 (when they were spent under the table). A number of other European states have enjoyed success and do not hesitate to use force--for instance, France, which, despite American biases, often uses force productively in Africa, particularly. Even some small European states have found war to be very useful--Finland saved its independence from the USSR through war when no one else would support them, in 1939-40. Finland still retains conscription, and it is very popular there.

Some wars are just through reference to moral principles, some are just through reference to utilitarian principles, and some wars are just better options than the available alternatives. If we value human life and key ideals, we are foolish to renounce war--even though these are, in themselves, goals that are in some sense ideological.


First line should have read 'blindly idealistic'


Interesting post, Nate -- and cool new blog.

I have a hard time buying the resoning behind this American view of war at you propose -- that is, I agree that we have such a view, but I'm not sure it's caused by our being sucessful in all our past endeavours.

Take, for example, the War of 1812. Other than the death of a bunch of British soldiers and getting Washington burned, it hardly accomplished anything -- the resulting peace was built on terms that equalled those that existed before the war began.

Given the number of wars we've engaged in (I'm counting ten or so past major conflicts), these four "notable exceptions" make up almost half of our experience.

This leads me to think that our attitude toward war comes less from our record of successes and more from the scale of them -- when we do win, we win big; when we don't, we tie.

Like the batter who's given the sign to swing away, we're more willing to take the risk and swing at the fences on the hopes that well hit a home run -- not because we've always hit them, but because we've hit a few, and we've never struck out in a clutch situation.

Nate Oman

Arwyn: Perhaps you are right. The War of 1812 did ultimately result in what the American's wanted, namely freedom of the seas and an end to British impressment. On the other hand, this probably had more to do with the end of the Napoleonic wars than with the success of American arms.

Hellmut Lotz

When was the last time the United States suffered civilian casualties in war? That is the category that explains different popular attitudes about war in Europe and the United States.

Nate Oman

Hellmut: That strikes me as a very good point, but if I had to date the rise of European military malaise, I would point toward World War I. I think that what led to the malaise there was less civilian deaths than:

1. Horrendous military causalties that resulted in
2. no fundamental change in the strategic conditions that gave rise to the war.

Hellmut Lotz

That's true. And it did. The winners, including the United States drew the lesson that there should never be another war.

That lesson was not lost on many Germans either. Kurt Tucholsky and Ernst Toller, for example, were voices that discredited war.

However, others argued that Germany only had to try harder, sacrifice more and defeat would become victory.

When the latter took over Germany, they armed themselves against opponents who were unwilling to fight. In part, that explains Hitler's early successes. During the Great Depression neither France, Britain nor the United States had been willing to maintain and modernize their armed forces at sufficient levels. Most decision makers believed that nobody wanted war, not even Hitler.

Unlike World War I, Germany suffered tremendous civilian casualties in World War II and has thus responded with a fairly pacifist culture. Only after World War II did Germany and France share a consensus in public opinion about the undesirability of war.

Nate Oman

I agree with you except that you are leaving out one other important factor: American hegmony in post-war Western Europe solved the basic strategic problem that have bedeviled Western Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, namely Franco-German competition. In other words, Germans and French could afford to become pacifists because the American guaranteed both that they wouldn't fight with one another and that the Soviets would be kept out.

Seth R.

War can be a useful tool for change, but only when there is the requisite strength to use the tool.

You can debate about the rightness or wrongness of war if you wish. But as a threshold matter, I would at least like to see the US use it competently.

Americans have a vastly over-inflated view of their relative share of power in the world. The truth is that we don't have the capacity for unlimited unilateral action. The truth is that the US's share of relative world power has been in steady decline ever since the end of World War II (when we were top-dog by sole virtue of being the "last man standing").

The US has significant security commitments all over the globe, and our neighbors are not as weak (economically, politically, or militarily) as they used to be.

One of the most alarming pieces of news I received after the 2nd invasion of Iraq was that Japan was not only re-arming (which they'd been doing for the past 20 years), but also taking a much more aggressive tone with it's own military political doctrine.

The Japanese are seeing the writing on the wall, even if Americans aren't. The US is too weak to keep the peace in the Pacific Rim and it falls to Japan to look to it's own interests on its own.

War can be useful, but you must have a realistic view of what you are capable of and know when it's time to grit your teeth and let things slide simply because you can't do anything about it without seriously damaging yourself.


Helmut Lotz
"Unlike World War I, Germany suffered tremendous civilian casualties in World War II and has thus responded with a fairly pacifist culture."

Interesting point. But doesn't that mean wars essentially get supported whenever nationals from a country are doing the killing? If we're winning, we can't see the problem. Hence the fundamental immorality of war. If, as stated, war can be used to achieve strategic (i.e. economic) objectives, does that then mean that populations are willing to sanction state banditry when it benefits them and oppose it when they're on the receiving end? Could this be just a dark glimpse into a basically predatorial human nature?

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