THE UTILITY OF WAR

Victor Davis Hanson

Military History Quarterly, Winter, 2003

 In the thirty years since the Ameri­can defeat in Vietnam, an array of anti-war catch phrases has per­meated our popular culture: “Vio­lence only breeds violence”; “Make love, not war”: “War never solved any­thing”: and “Give peace a chance.” But behind the popular rhetoric that armed conflict is inherently wrong is the more problematic record of past centuries that suggests such pacifism is not only naive, but even quite dangerous. “theoretical. often utopian, arguments persist against the use of force to solve national and international disputes, as echoed by en­trenched peace studies and conflict­ resolution programs that now abound in our universities.

Military history is rarely taught these days. Even when wars are discussed in culture and history classes. they are not usually considered as being universal oc­currences across time and space or as reflecting truth about the human expe­rience in every age. Instead, conflict is presented as senseless, amoral, retro­grade, and counterproductive in our own times, which are characterized as excep­tional due to the novel threats of rogue nuclear states, international terrorism. and weapons of mass destruction.

The end of the draft in the early 1970s, the creation of professional armies, and the collapse of a bellicose and nuclear Soviet Union have removed the immedi­ate threat of war from the public consciousness. Yet an increasingly affluent and suburban citizenry is more abstractly sensitive to war’s potential dangers and costs than ever before. Perhaps because of a dramatic rise in the standard of liv­ing in most Western countries, it is diffi­cult to contemplate forgoing the good life in order to endure the misery and material sacrifices of battle. Instanta­neously televised images from the bat­tlefield also ensure that killing appears in our living rooms in brief sound bites-often broadcast apart from tacti­cal, strategic, or moral contexts, and with instant editorializing by inexperi­enced journalists. Split-second scenes of shooting flash by, often accompanied by narration characterizing such acts as senseless and evil-without explaining who is shooting at whom, and why. There is also a great inconsistency in thinking about the utility of war. Anti-war activists and internationalists some­times urge the United States to unilater­ally employ its overwhelming military force against corrupt, authoritarian, and mostly weak states that spread mayhem among innocent civilians. Intervention of U.S. troops or warplanes to thwart the dictators in Haiti, Somalia, or Bosnia­ clear-cut moral causes to save thou­sands-seemed to entail few American casualties, confirming a real need for war. Yet riskier operations against more formidable powers like Iraq are often de­rided as “bellicose,” even though Sad­dam Hussein has killed as many inno­cents as other dreadful despots. Modern Westerners perhaps increasingly define war as just and even necessary when vic­tory is assured and cheap, but some­times amoral and avoidable when real carnage and sacrifice are possible.

A common tenet of the new paci­fism is the notion that war is altogether rare or, in fact, unnat­ural to the human species. A United Na­tions body of experts has recently declared war antithetical to man’s nature, as an array of behavioralists adds that we have no innate bellicosity in our genes. Such rosy findings give “scientific” weight in turn to our sociologists and political sci­entists who favor international confer­ences and peacekeepers in lieu of U.S. aircraft carriers and Special Forces. Such faith accordingly argues that military in­vestment is unessential, and so defense spending is reluctantly agreed to only when there are immediate adversaries on the horizon. Peace, in contrast, is as­sumed to be the natural order of events.

Yet history more often proves other­wise. Note the use of the plural to de­scribe chronic conflict-the Persian Wars (490 B.C.; 480-79 B.C.) or the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.), Sometimes the noun “years” is necessary nomencla­ture-Seven Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War, or Hundred Years’ War-to de­scribe chronic fighting. Battles as well are often identified by numerical adjec­tives-Second Mantinea, First Bull Run, or Third Ypres-suggesting that the same places are the repeated sites of major campaigns. The Germans scat­tered the French in the Ardennes in spring 1940, before themselves retreat­ing through the same forest in a failed second try in December 1944-a land­scape pockmarked by the artillery of World War I. Epaminondas called the great plain of Boeotia the “dancing floor of war”-since the battles of Plataea, Coronea (first and second), Oinophyta, Delium, Haliartus, Tegyra, Leuctra, and Chaeronea were all fought within a few miles of each other.

At the very beginning of Western war­fare during the Athenian fifth century, Athens fought wars in two out of every three years. Its power during the twenty­seven-year-long Peloponnesian War was finally ended not through the brief armistice of 421 B.c., but only when the Spartans destroyed its last fleet at Aegospotami and forthwith sailed into the Piraeus. Similarly, it would be hard to find a year in the twentieth century in which American troops were not fighting some type of small-scale war in South America, the Pacific, Asia, or Africa. In our own time, we have even resorted to Roman numerals for theater wars on a global scale (World War I and World War II).

Americans often assume that we have not really been at war since Vietnam, ­forgetting in the last two decades alone the occasional bloody fighting in Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Afghanistan. And the enemies in those conflicts have not been uniform or their agendas predictable, as we have tried to enforce armistices, overthrow right­wing dictators, kick out left-wing strongmen, reclaim entire countries, es­cort oil tankers, stop the genocide of Muslims, feed the starving, and shut down a country-size Islamic terrorist haven. Almost every region of the globe in just the last decade or two has been in turmoil. India has fought three wars against Pakistan for Kashmir. Nearby China has engaged in border skirmishes with Russia and invaded Vietnam-after annexing and occupying Tibet. And the former Soviet Union, whether Russian against Chechen or Azerbaijani against Armenian, has been in as much commo­tion as during the Cold War when the Communist empire invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan.

The ancient Greeks were empirical rather than theoretical thinkers and therefore based their conclusions on what they saw rather than imagined. They accepted the tragedy of war’s ubiq­uity-an unfortunately common time, Herodotus said, “when fathers bury sons, rather than sons fathers.” The philoso­pher Heraclitus remarked that war was the “father of all things,” while Plato re­marked that peace, not war, was the true parenthesis of human experience.

The Greeks found tragic the entire idea that innocent young men who nei­ther knew each other nor shared any personal grudges would nevertheless seek to kill each other on the field of bat­tle, without fear of criminal penalty and indeed encouraged to do so by the state. This wastage of manhood was deemed lamentable and often tragic. but not necessarily rare or always unnecessary, given man’s innate craving for the things not his own and his propensity on a collective level to use force to satisfy those illegitimate appetites. So whether we like it or not, war seems to be omni­present. We should keep in mind that more people have been killed in fighting in the fifty years of “peace” since, rather than during, the great tragedy of World War II, which saw fifty million destroyed.

If we can accept that war is unfortu­nately all too common, why does fighting actually break out? Recently, we are told, the causes are twofold: igno­rance and misunderstanding. Revision­ists have argued that had the Europeans just talked and networked more, then the disaster unleashed by the guns of August 1914 could have been prevented. This is as if to say that England and France were relatively ignorant of Prussian mili­tarism and misinterpreted Germany’s natural concerns for its own safety as proof of imperial aspirations that would threaten the general peace. To continue in this vein, a German victory in 1918 would not have made much difference from an Allied triumph for postwar Europe. The classical exegesis is that wars arise because of perceived, rather than real, grievances, or the idea that al­though Germany frequently cited French and British transgressions, it in fact wanted political and military power and status in Europe and abroad commensu­rate with its growing economic and cul­tural influence. And the Kaiser and his advisers decided after the lesson of the easy victory of the Franco-Prussian War that they possessed the infantry to get what Germany wanted at relatively light costs. Given those realities, an ancient Greek would wonder not that war finally broke out in 1914, but rather why it took so long.

In our current crisis, some have urged us to abstain from the use of force and first look inward at an array of provoca­tions of American policy in the Middle East, such as our troops being stationed in the autocratic Gulf states, our aid to Israel, or perhaps our own crass cul­ture’s intrusion into traditional Islamic society, in order to fathom the reasons for September 11. Yet this kind of effort in sorting through the causes of the fun­damentalists’ ire would be as vain an at­tempt as viewing September 1, 1939, through Adolf Hitler’s eyes. The Fuhrer created the myth of a crowded Germany, without ample living room, subject to humiliating conditions from World War I, sapped by Jewish financiers, without any choices but war to feed and house a sur­rounded and aggrieved German people. All that proved to be a more alluring myth than the more cynical reality that Nazism promised wealth, status, and power to Germans without the price of sacrifice. It appeared to be as much an apparent bargain in 1939 as it was a con­firmed nightmare to them by 1945. The Greek historian Thucydides thought wars broke out not necessarily because of legitimate grievances over borders, poverty, oppression, or the need for ma­terial goods or strategic real estate, but rather just as often out of “fear, honor, and self-interest.” The perceived needs of states, like people, can be vain, insecure, irrational, and unpredictable.

Hunger, even when juxtaposed to af­fluence, need not cause wars. Witness the fact that Peruvians are not marching against Chileans. Nor are Mexicans suicide-bombing San Diego shopping centers. Poverty is not necessarily a reason in and of itself to attack one’s neighbors. The West Bank has been the recipient of billions of dollars in aid from the European Union and the United States during the last decade. Yet its hatred of Israel more likely arises out of a Thucy­didean sense of honor and humiliation in losing land and prestige to a nearby proud and antithetical power than endemic poverty. Indeed, the September 11 sui­cide-murders were not the dividends of the slums of Cairo, but rather carried out by the upscale and educated-and bank­rolled by a multimillionaire psychopath.

The frequently cited cause of “illegal” occupation of territory can, but need not, incite conflict. Otherwise Tibetans would be terrorizing Chinese while Greek Cypriots might be blowing up Turkish pizzerias. As yet we do not hear that present-day Germany wishes to at­tack Poland and France for the sizable chunks of the fatherland that were lost to both after 1945. Nor is Japan intent on attacking Russia for its continual oc­cupation of the SakhalinIslands. Thus to fathom why some border disputes in­vite war and others do not is to accept that reasons other than real grievances are often at the core of fighting. These considerations include relative power, alliances, the anger or pride of a people, the nature of government, the existence or absence of deterrence, and the past history of the contested area.

Just because nations are aggressive, reckless, or evil and so seek advantages at the expense of their neighbors or ri­vals does not mean war will always break out. Accidents, of course, and miscom­munications, in theory, can trigger wars. But in fact miscalculations often simply hasten the outbreak of a war that is al­ready unavoidable. Despite common be­lief, rarely does fighting occur because of a failed radio signal or a poor translation of a leader’s communique-unless it is a question of telegraphing a willingness not to retaliate in the face of aggression. Such was the case of the American am­bassador to Iraq in summer 1990, who apparently gave the impression to Sad­dam Hussein that her government would not consider his invasion of Kuwait of interest to the United States.

Instead, once again the Greeks and Romans remind us that the real danger is a lack of deterrence. In the words of Vegetius’ famous dictum, “He who wishes peace, let him prepare for war.” The Cuban missile crisis did not erupt into a nuclear conflagration simply because our hot line with the Soviets was error-free and so ensured reliable communications between Kennedy and Khrushev. More likely, overwhelming American nuclear superiority convinced the Soviets to re­consider removing their weapons from Castro’s island. So far what has prevented Pakistan from bowing to its extremists and attacking India directly is its clear perception that it would lose both a con­ventional and a nuclear war. Such a bal­ance of power can operate in reverse as well in the nuclear age. Pakistan’s nu­clear missiles are plentiful enough to suggest to a stronger India that its likely victory with tanks and troops could be lost through a nightmarish nuclear ex­change that would kill millions of its own-victory in essence costing nearly as much as defeat.

By such classical reckoning, al Qaeda attacked our iconic buildings and slaugh­tered our citizens not because we were particularly anti-Islamic. Who, after all, had saved Afghanistan from godless com­munism, Kuwait from a rapacious Iraq, Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars from murderous Christian Serbs, and Islamic Somalians from each other? Once more, alleged rather than true gripes-fear of Western popular culture and anger at American presence in the Middle East, ­plus a desire for the return of a thirteenth ­Century pan-Islamic caliphate are as likely to have created the pretext. During

the prior decade the lack of a strong American response after attacks on our forces in Lebanon, the Sudan, Saudi Ara­bia, Yemen, and during the first World Trade Center bombing emboldened Osama bin Laden and suggested to him that Americans either could not or would not respond in a forceful way to threaten his operations. Perception and rhetoric can often convince states and terrorists alike that aggression may bring benefits at little risk.

Sherman was told that if he went into Georgia he would end up like the French in Russia-massacred by Confederate Cossacks. Even Lincoln and Grant urged another course. But once his ferocious army of sixty-two thousand cut a swath from Atlanta to the sea, proud Georgians urged him to go up to the Carolinas and instead punish those Confederates “who started the war.” Union force and their own suffering, not remorse over slavery or secession, changed the minds of Georgians. If we could ask the dour and pessimistic “Uncle Billy” what was at the heart of the current crisis in the Middle East, he might not request to see a map of Israeli settlements or review purported infractions of the Oslo Accords. Instead, he would emphasize the failure of Israel to retaliate against the dozens of Scud missiles that Saddam Hussein rained on Tel Aviv to the cheers of nearby Pales­tinians, the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon without conditions, and the willingness to hand over 96 percent of the West Bank. He might then conclude that Israel’s enemies perceived a new and growing unwillingness on the part of the Jewish state to reply to challenges.

If wars are common, derive from irra­tional reasons, and break out over the perception of weakness, are there general guidelines to determine how they are fought and who wins? Numbers are not always decisive. Otherwise Alexander the Great’s fifty thousand at Gaugamela would have been wiped out by the two hundred thousand of Darius III. Skilled generals like Hannibal or Crazy Horse cannot always ensure success.

Instead, supply, technology, and disci­pline-or at least the peculiarly Western notion of marching in time, firing in unison, advancing and retreating on command and in order-seem far more important. Lord Chelmsford’s few thou­sand British colonial troops devastated the Zulu nation in a matter of months, a society in which far more numerous warriors, most physically impressive, quite spirited and equipped with fire­arms, simply did not have as effective a central command, fire training and con­trol, and logistical capability as the European aggressors. Technology and advanced weaponry, of course, are criti­cal force multipliers. Despite revisionist attempts to argue otherwise, Hernando Cortes was able to rally Native Americans between 1519-21 to overthrow the Aztec Empire in a way impossible earlier for restive indigenous subject states largely because his men brought to Mexico horses, crossbows, arquebusses, plate armor, Spanish steel swords and lances, and engineers who could build ships and siege engines. A greater propensity in the West to divorce research from both government and religion, and promi­nent emphasis on individual freedom and expression, usually ensured that Europeans could either invent or steal superior weapons designs and then fabricate arms in greater numbers and at less cost than could their adversaries. In general, throughout the last twenty­five hundred years Western armies, such as those of the Greeks, Romans, Byzan­tines, Franks, Spanish, British, French, and Americans, butchered one another without mercy when they turned their similarly equipped and organized mili­taries against each other, but did far bet­ter when fighting militaries that were products of nonwestern traditions. The Persian Wars saw relatively few Greeks killed, but the Peloponnesian War be­tween Athens and Sparta was a bloodbath. Crusaders and colonialists projected power in Asia, Africa, and the Americas far beyond the ability the small population or territory of Europe might otherwise suggest. Yet Westerners found Armaged­don at places like Gettysburg, Antietam, the Somme, and Verdun, where similar discipline, firepower, training, and logis­tics were unleashed against each other. Consequently, war’s utility is sometimes predicated on the nature of one’s adver­saries. It is one thing to save innocents from Afghan fundamentalists or the Iraqi Republican Guard, quite another to take on the cause of justice in the face of the nuclear arsenal of a Soviet Union, or three million Chinese equipped with Western arms.

How do wars often end? It would be comforting to suggest that if diplomacy cannot always prevent wars, it at least can usually bring them to a rapid close without much blood­shed. Such was the case in the Middle East, where the first five conflicts-1947, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982-ended ,through the pressures of Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But note that the conflict continues there two decades after the war in Lebanon, perhaps because neither side has yet been allowed either to win or lose deci­sively on the battlefield. Vietnam differs from Korea because the American people gave up the struggle and lost the South, leading to Communist victory and unifi­cation. In contrast, the armistice of 1953 means that we still worry about nuclear-­tipped missiles in North Korea despite a “peace” of a half-century. Saddam Hus­sein was bloodied in 1991. But his sur­vival means that a decade later the same old concerns about poison gas, nuclear weapons, and invasion continue to haunt us. Interrupted wars rarely bring immediate peace, but rather simply raise the hopes on both sides that their ene­mies will slowly be worn down or de­moralized in an extended cold war, and thus at some future date either give up or be unable to reinitiate hostilities.

In contrast, clear victory can settle long-existing problems immediately in a way negotiated armistices cannot, as wounds are closed rather than allowed to fester for decades. Had George McClellan won the 1864 presidential election, a ne­gotiated peace might have temporarily prevented another Antietam. But such a bellum interruptum certainly would have meant another generation of slav­ery and soon another round of fighting with weapons far more deadly than what finally appeared in 1865. In this regard, we should recall that the exhausted Ger­man army of 1918, perhaps qualitatively the most deadly infantry force the world had yet seen, surrendered in France, not Germany, later claiming it had never been defeated in the field but rather was “stabbed in the back” by “Jews, Commu­nists, and traitors” in Germany. General John Pershing’s idea of a victory march into and occupation of Germany was overruled by President Wilson. Such utopianism was not repeated by the Allies in World War II, when the Third Reich and Japan were not merely defeated, but humiliated, their homelands occupied, and their machinery of government radically transformed.

Criticism is often voiced of stern de­mands for “unconditional surrender,” firmness that purportedly causes needless casualties like at Hiroshima and prolongs the misery of war, as defeated powers dig in rather than have their homelands oc­cupied or destroyed. Yet in the long run an insistence on abject surrender saves lives when truly evil regimes capitulate rather than bargain their way out of hu­miliation. Japanese citizens vote today because of the beating their grand­fathers took on Okinawa and on the homeland from the U.S. Army Air Forces. Yet, had we brokered a deal after Iwo Jima, the wounded imperial govern­ment might well have recovered and been as provocative today as is North Korea-a regime that in fact never sur­rendered to the United States.

In this regard, one unforeseen conse­quence that arose out of the otherwise brilliant European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was the spread of the canard that evil per se does not exist, but rather is a logical symptom of ignorance, poverty, or other environmental pathol­ogy, and thus can be remedied by the requisite amount of education, money, compassion, or material aid. Conse­quently, liberal states that are locked in disputes with evil autocracies sometimes take the dangerous step of looking in­ward at first in stunned disbelief and then often engage in self-censure at the deteriorating state of affairs.

Both recently and in the past, Western intellectuals have pondered whether the French and English unfairly cornered an embattled Hitler, deaf to his real griev­ances from World War I. Did we provoke Japan by cutting off oil exports? And did

the American failure to embrace a young Ho or Mao guarantee that their later regimes would in exasperation turn hos­tile toward us? How else could we ac­count for their inexplicable hatred, if not for some culpability or lapse of reason on our part? How reductionist it was to simply conclude that Fascists and Com­munists always strive for the mainte­nance and expansion of their own power and so must fear elected democracies. Perhaps it would be far wiser to return to the classical, though admittedly pes­simistic, notion that evil is inexplicable, eternal, and so is resisted only through moral right coupled with superior mili­tary power.

We should appreciate the frequent utility of war, or at least the use of mili­tary force to stop aggression, dismantle malevolent states, and kill leadership in­tent on harming tens of thousands of in­nocents. The great ills of the last three centuries were largely ameliorated by war, not mediation. Our own freedom from monarchy and tyranny was achieved at Yorktown, not through shut­tle diplomacy with London. Without war, the United States, for good or ill, would today probably more resemble Canada, which nearly a century after 1776 was gradually and peacefully evolv­ing toward independence, rather than our own unique and more vibrant cul­ture of radical egalitarianism, individu­alism, and economic dynamism that was born from musket fire.

A series of compromises for most of the first half of the nineteenth century did not end chattel slavery in America, but rather only prolonged and perhaps in some sense exacerbated the divide be­tween South and North. Instead, Lin­coln, with his brilliant military captains, Grant and Sherman, at a cost of some six hundred thousand American dead and billions of dollars in property and capital losses, nevertheless subdued in less than four years the rebellious South-a region as large as Western Europe-and en­sured an end to slavery and a united na­tion for good.

The four great plagues of the twenti­eth century-German nazism, Italian fascism, Japanese imperialism, and Soviet communism-were all ended either through outright fighting or the threat of war, the butcher’s bill made worse by the delays in using force to thwart such murderous regimes in their infancies. The ancient Greeks kept their freedom only through heroics at Salamis and Plataea. A century and a half after hun­dreds of thousands of Persians had been defeated and routed, another-and very different-generation of Greeks could not keep a few thousand Macedonians from doing what Xerxes could not. There were thousands of resolute fight­ers like Themistocles in 480 B.C. but not so many by 350 B.C. who still believed in preventing a foreign invasion from the north, despite the similarly prescient warnings of Demosthenes.

Appeasement of the 1930s, not Nor­mandyBeach on June 6, 1944, is what ultimately cost thousands of American lives-and far more European dead. We should remember that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed more civilians outside the battlefield-perhaps altogether a hundred million in the Holocaust, col­lectivizations, gulags, purges, and vari­ous cultural revolutions-than all the soldiers and innocents lost to the fight­ing of World War I and II combined. The Hutus of Rwanda and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge butchered millions in executions, not through armed conflict. Yet both slaughters could have been stopped early through determined armed intervention by superior military force.

Sometimes the early use of over­whelming military power can settle is­sues quickly, humiliate aggressive but weak leaders, and thus result in a change of government that benefits all parties to the conflict, especially in the case of illegitimate regimes that rule without a true consensus of the people. The British decision to invade the Falk­lands not only led to the expulsion of the Argentinian aggressors, but also dis­credited military rule in Argentina and gave democracy a chance to displace the generals-neither of which would have been possible through negotiations alone. Does anyone believe that Slobo­dan Milosevic would have either stopped killing Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo two hundred thousand dead by some reports-or given up dictatorial power in Serbia without American bombs, in a war in which no Americans were killed and perhaps less than three thousand civilians lost their lives?

By the same token, President George W. Bush’s decision to strike early against Afghanistan (less than four weeks after September 11) and use overwhelming power to rout the Taliban cost less than a dozen American lives, and perhaps three thousand to four thousand Afghan civilians. The result was to free a popu­lace from a medieval and murderous government that had butchered tens of thousands and turned the entire country into an international haven for terror­ists. Despite civilian losses in Panama and a few dozen American dead. recent years without General Manuel Noriega have proved far better for both Panama­nians and the United States.

Often the curtailment of war before its natural denouement can result in conse­quences more murderous than what transpires during the fighting itself. George S_ Patton’s Third Army was with­in days of occupying Prague Czechoslovakvakia, in May 1945. The Supreme Allied Command’s orders to cease his advance ensured that thousands of Czech insur­rectionists would be killed by Nazis in the last days of the war-and that the entire country would suffer a tyrannical Communist slavery for a subsequent half-century. The suspension of the final successful bombing of Hanoi with first generation “smart bombs,” often targeted at the Communist elite, ensured North Vietnamese aggression and violation of the January 1973 peace accords-and ul­timately the murder, internment, or exile of between 1.5 and 2 million Viet­namese. We do not know how many Kurds and Shiites were butchered by Saddam Hussein after the armistice of 1991, but hundreds of women and chil­dren were murdered in sight of allied troops who were under orders not to intervene. War is a terrible thing, but sometimes there are events even worse-whose remedies sadly are found only in fighting.

How, then, do statesmen and lead­ers decide when and with whom to go to war? As a general rule, de­spite the evidence from the internecine warring of the consensual Greek city states, democracies usually are less likely to war with other democracies. That gen­eral, though not infallible, rule suggests that coalitions of constitutional states can form alliances against illegitimate regimes whose citizens do not vote. The European Union and the United States can agree in general terms that Milose­vic’s Serbia or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq two rogue states that attacked seven of their neighbors in the last two decades are enemies of freedom and must be ei­ther defeated or constrained. In that sense, the greater the number of demo­cratic states that arise, the less the chance that tyrants and despots will instigate aggression abroad to silence domestic opposition or satisfy their own megalomaniac agenda that is without either de­mocratic audit or judicial restraint. Be­fore 1990, Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union threatened world peace and were havens for international terrorists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spread of democracy, they evolved into more humane societies ac­tively engaged with the West in rooting out terrorists and eager to aid, if not join, NATO.

By the same token, ample defense spending is critical in times of peace. Then prosperity and occasional license convince free citizens that Plato’s idea of peace as a “parenthesis” is mistaken, and that we have instead reached a new level of perpetual understanding and en­lightenment, far removed from the shoving and elbowing of a Hobbesian unending “war of everyone against everyone.” American military power augmented and enhanced years before Mullah Omar was even known-ensured that we could destroy the Taliban and bring good government to Afghanistan. In contrast, the prior impression that we were afraid to use our military to good effect may well have encouraged the sui­cide murderers of September 11. And had the terrorists hit the EiffelTower, it is not at all clear that either France or the European Union possessed the ships, planes, or logistical capability to invade Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban. De­terrence keeps the peace, but is only achievable through military power and a clear indication to act when aggression proves immune to diplomacy.

Perhaps ancient Greek philosophers were right, after all: War per se is not evil, but rather its morality hinges on the reasons for, and the manner under which, individual wars are fought. Ap­peasing Hitler in the 1930s ensured the Holocaust; standing up to him in 1936 might have saved millions of soldiers and civilians alike. Simply invading North Vietnam and destroying the Communist dictators in Hanoi would have been a more moral act than either carpet-bombing South Vietnam or allowing a Communist victory and the subsequent murder and exile of millions.

Until the nature of man changes, such a pessimistic acknowledgment of endemic evil and the need to confront it with force seems the safer course for national security than entrusting our safety to collective deliberative bodies such as the United Nations or the World Court, none of which has the power to protect Ameri­cans from armed aggression. And we should also remember that our military is not always defensive and solely the in­surer of our own survival. In the last decades it quite literally has proved to be the only force in the world that could save captive Kuwaitis, starving Somalis, doomed Kosovars, or unfree Afghans.

In the final analysis, Americans have hoped that reasoned negotiations could have given us our independence, elimi­nated slavery, shut down the death camps, or ended Balkan genocide. Yet we accept in our imperfect world that such good and necessary things were in­stead brought about only by bullet, can­non, and bomb.

VICTOR Davis HANSON is an MHQ con­tributing editor. His many books include An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism (Anchor Books, 2002).
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