HS-107 Readings

THE ROLE OF WAR IN OUR CULTURE                                                 Prof. West

Throughout human history organized groups of people have fought wars with each other. They have usually been fought for limited objectives and with limited means with the result that destruction was also limited. In our western culture, wars have been fought, in most cases, only when it appeared that peaceful, political methods had failed. The 19th century European political philosopher, Clausewitz, explained war in those terms; that is, that war was an extension of diplomacy, and when the diplomats failed to resolve disagreements, war decided the issue.

War was, therefore, considered to be a legitimate activity, and, indeed, in some circumstances, inevitable. Nations prepared for war by creating and maintaining armies and navies, and high (patriotic) values were associated with military service to the nation.

To be a soldier or sailor involved making sacrifices; surrendering certain individual freedoms, accepting rigorous training and exacting discipline, and living for long periods separated from family and loved ones. In time of war, it involved the willingness to sacrifice life itself. These demands upon the individual could not be adequately compensated for by monetary means alone. Soldiers and sailors had to be given a high status. A certain glory was attached to military service, particularly if actual combat was involved. And the ultimate glory was to die in battle for one's country. Even this was not enough to motivate most people. In the 18th century, before wars had become mass enterprises, peasants were recruited because the military life offered an escape from the desperate poverty of the peasantry. Once recruited, they had to be retained in service by threats of brutal punishment, even death for desertion. Meanwhile, the officers of 18th century armies were motivated by class solidarity, patriotism, a quest for glory and adventure, and special privileges. In the 19th century, as class solidarity gradually became replaced by citizen patriotism, the rank and file also had to be held by concepts of glory and honor. But, especially in time of war, they could only be held in sufficient numbers by the dire threat of dishonor in the eyes of their countrymen, and the ultimate threat of execution.

So long as war remained limited in its destructiveness, its legitimacy or acceptability as a means of resolving international disputes could be retained. Even very high levels of death and destruction, as in the wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, did not destroy the legitimacy of war because succeeding generations forgot the waste and destruction, and were reminded of the glory by patriotic celebrations and propaganda. For example, our celebration of Memorial Day and Veterans Day continue to remind us of the glory of dying for our country. Walk through the grounds of the veteran's cemetery in Calverton, Long Island, and notice that every gravestone remembers just one aspect of each individual's life; that is, the war that was being fought when that individual was in military service. When all else about these individuals will be forgotten, there, immortalized in stone, will be the reminder of their participation in war. This fact is testimony to the important role of war in our culture.

The psychological effect of this upon the individual is that people are conditioned to believe that there is no greater sacrifice one can make than to gives one's life for the nation, even though that sacrifice often involves the killing of other people of a different nation or group. The commission of murder, which is considered to be highly unethical under ordinary circumstances, becomes justified, and even encouraged as desirable behavior.

It is not an easy process to convert a person's thinking into a complete reversal. Murder is a crime. But murder committed on behalf of the nation is a courageous, heroic act. The convcrsion is accomplished through two different means. Propaganda, intentional or unintentional, through the culture and the media, teaches people that the group or nation of which they are a part, is superior to the other group or nation. Then as differences arise between nations, each considers their cause to be justified while the other's cause is unjustified. If disagreements persist and negotiations fail, the other group will be blamed for the failure. As conflict occurs, the other side becomes depicted as less than human. Racial, religious, and ideological arguments will be developed to convince each of their own just cause and the other's inhumanity. Once the "other" is considered to be subhuman, it is easier to kill them. As the war continues, the killing of each by the other, convinces both of the brutality of the other in a self-fulfilling process.

The second mechanism which assures the continuation of war is the indoctrination of the soldiers on each side. Military training gives people the organization, the weapons, the skills and the attitudes necessary to kill effectively. When soldiers are brought into the battle, they go in as part of a group of comrades-in-arms, whose performance as individuals is vital to the survival of each other as well as the group. This interdependence creates strong loyalties and assures that, when all else fails, the soldier will fight the "enemy" with fierce determination.

Humanity has always functioned and succeeded by functioning in groups. So long as the identification with the group supercedes the recognition of the shared humanity of everyone, there appears to be no escape from war between groups and between nations.




However, a technological change was gradually occurring during the past 200 years, which was making war, which has always been irrational, a less rational activity than ever.

In the 18th century, soldiers fought with smooth-bore muskets which fired a lead ball, were notoriously inaccurate, and required 17 steps to re-load after a single firing. Cannon balls were hunks of metal without explosives, designed to break down fortifications by constant pounding over long periods of time. The issue in battle usually had to be decided by one side charging against the other and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with fixed bayonets and other hand weapons. Armies were small, and actual mass combat was rare and sporadic because a great deal of time was necessary to bring them, on foot, into battle with each other. Many more casualties were caused by disease, shortage of essential supplies, weather, and the rigors of travel, than by actual combat. Probably, the most destructive effect of 18th century armies resulted from the necessity to live off the land through which they traveled. Non-combatants, regardless of whom they supported, were unfortunate, innocent victims if they happened to be in their path. Generally, however, most civilians were not involved in 18th century wars.

Napoleon's grand army of 600,000 men, which invaded Russia in 1812, was the largest army that had ever been created up to that time, and it had been recruited from all over Europe. It was never defeated in battle; it simply disintegrated when its ever-lengthening supply line could not be sustained and the Russian winter set in.

The introduction of rifles, which were gradually refined, as machine tools such as lathes were developed, would begin to change the nature of combat. Accurately-machined bores minimized jamming, the rifling of bores gave a stabilizing spin to a ballistically shaped bullet, and breech-loading facilitated the re-loading procedure. By the mid-19th century, foot soldiers were being equipped with deadly, accurate weapons. Artillery was also being improved with the introduction of explosive shells, rifled bores, and breech-loading.

Meanwhile, that most important 19th century invention, the railroad, was revolutionizing transportation in Europe and in the United States. Armies could, with increasing efficiency, be moved great distances in short periods of time, and be readily supplied with their needs, and with reinforcements as required. Productive facilities needed to satisfy the voracious appetite of large armies could now be linked to the battlefield by the railroad.  Wars came to involve more than just the two armies facing each other, but also the civilian industry which sustained the armies.

The quick Prussian victories over Austria and France in 1866 and 1871, were, in part, the result of the use of this new technology. The victory of the North over the South in the American Civil War (1861-1865) was also caused, in part, by the technological and industrial advantage of the North. But, the American Civil War also indicated another important way in which warfare was changing. The weapons were becoming so destructive and so effective that the valor of individual soldiers meant nothing. When a rifle bullet or an artillery shell could kill impersonally and indiscriminately at ranges of several hundred yards, the soldiers who exposed themselves in a courageous charge were just being foolhardy. Yet, victory could not be finally obtained until infantrymen occupied territory held by the enemy. That dilemma was to make modern war catastrophic.

These lessons were not learned; they were forgotten. Technology advanced. Semi-automatic rifles were developed. Longer-range, more destructive, more accurate artillery was produced. The machine gun was invented. Bullets could be spit out at high speed, in rapid succession, making it possible to kill hundreds of soldiers in minutes. Could war, fought with these weapons, possibly resolve any problem, produce any solution, which was worth the price? That question was not asked.

During a forty year period between 1871 and the outbreak of World War I, the major powers of Europe were engaged in an armaments race which created unprecedented large accumulations of weapons and military forces. At the same time, concern for national security and a conviction that successful diplomacy had to depend upon power and the threat of military force, led to a system of alliances which divided Europe into two armed camps.

When the will to continue to settle problems through negotiation failed in 1914, the European world descended into the greatest, most destructive war that had yet been fought. It was a war which no one of the leaderships of the great powers had wanted, but which they were pulled into by their mutual fears of being left alone without allies if they did not honor their commitments. In 1917, the United States was also drawn in by the insistence of the U.S. government that its citizens had the right to travel to and trade with belligerent nations. A new weapon, the submarine, had cost the lives of a few hundred Americans, and hundreds of millions of dollars of American property. There were also those who feared the future consequences upon the United States of a German victory.

  The new weapons, favoring a defensive war, led to the creation of a line of trenches extending from the English Channel to the Swiss border. During four years of war, though several million soldiers died in the effort to break through, the trench lines held. Only despair over the hopeless odds facing the Germans in 1918, forced an end to the bloodshed. On the Russian front even more millions of lives were lost.




The loss of a significant portion of a whole generation's young men could not help but have a great impact upon the future. Equally profound was the effect of sweeping away four great empires without having stable governments to replace them. The German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires were gone, and people living in those areas had not had the time to build acceptable alternative national systems. Furthermore, the economic disruption caused by the war; inflation, unemployment, homelessness, family break-up, and dislocation were new, more severe problems created by the war.

The inability of governments to cope with these problems resulted in political instability. This was followed in some countries by the development of irrational fascist and totalitarian governments whose very philosophy was dedicated to using war as a means of obtaining national goals. By 1933, 15 years after the end of the Great War; Germany, Russia, Italy, and all of the East European states except Czechoslovakia were dominated by fascist, totalitarian, or military governments. Meanwhile, the United States, England, and France had turned inward, preoccupied with the most devastating economic depression which had yet occurred in the industrial world. The Great War had created many more problems than it had solved.

Surely, the lesson now was very clear, that war was no longer an acceptable or sensible way of resolving international problems. But, a new generation of irrational leaders who came to power in the midst of the disarray caused by World War I, were, in the 1930's, more committed to war than ever. Those leaders who recognized the senselessness of further warfare were faced with an impossible situation. Prime Minister Chamberlain of England made concession after concession in his negotiations with the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, until he belatedly recognized that he was dealing with an utterly ruthless man who took advantage of every concession, did not honor his own commitments, and was prepared to go to war as soon as he met the least resistance to his goals. The First World War, therefore, was followed by the Second World War.

Technology had advanced since World War I. Motorized vehicles and aircraft had reached stages of development which enabled them to be used effectively as weapons of war. Tanks and other motorized vehicles could move quickly around and through fixed defensive positions. Aircraft could more effectively destroy defensive armament. World War II was much more a war of movement than World War I. Blitzkrieg or lightning war became one of its characteristics. In the naval war in the Pacific region, because of the long reach of aircraft, the aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the the most essential ship of a naval task force. Meanwhile, the improved technology of the submarine elevated its importance in attacking commercial lines of supply. Another major new characteristic was the use of aerial bombers to attack cities and rain destruction down upon the civilian, industrial base which supported modern war.

This brief outline of the role of war in the 19th and early 20th centuries should be understood as necessary background information. Throughout much of that same period, research was being done by scientists, which would result in the discovery of nuclear energy. When that energy was deployed in an atomic bomb, the world entered into a new era in which a nuclear war was not only irrational but suicidal.


Although nuclear weapons have been used, so far, on only one occasion in war, the availability of nuclear weapons raises the possibility, however terrible it may be, that they may be used again. The fact that a single bomb can destroy a city and millions of people killed in a second of time, creates an absolutely intolerable and totally unacceptable situation. The United States and the Soviet Union, during the forty-five years of the Cold War, from 1945 to 1989, avoided the apocalypse. They did, instead, build up great arsenals against each other which assured their mutual destruction, if nuclear war had occurred. The nuclear weapon had, at least initially, shown itself to be too terrible to be used. Nevertheless, as the number of nations with nuclear capabilites increased, the chances that it might be used have increased. It is this stark circumstance, which inspires urgency in the effort to restrain nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, the nuclear weapon is a means of such mass destruction, that it has become largely unuseable and irrelevant to the many conflicts that have developed among nations and peoples since world War II. For a variety of reasons, wars have broken out between and within many states. These wars have been particularly prevalent in the less developed industrial areas of the world. The process of industrialization occurring in these areas, creating new interest groups, an aspiring middle class and a struggling working class, has caused great instability. Traditional ruling elements, often supported from outside the borders of their own state, have fought desperately and cruelly to preserve their privileged status. This struggle was complicated and exacerbated by the ideological conflict in the Cold War between the two super-powers.

These wars have been fought with conventional weapons, often supplied to opposite sides by the two super-powers. A global arms industry has produced an arms race in small arms and small explosive devices on a scale far exceeding that of any previous era. Civil wars involved prolonged guerilla campaigns. which met with savage reprisals by military governments supported by death squads. There is a long list of states in the less developed world in Latin America, and Asia, and Africa where national economies have been destroyed and millions of people have been killed or their lives disrupted.

The latest turn in the changing nature of warfare falls under the rubric of the term "terrorism". The circumstance of a world divided between a rich few and an increasingly numerous poor, and of a world divided between the powerful industrialized nations of Europe and North America and the weaker or failed states of the developing world, creates desperation and instability. The desperation that spawns terrorism occurs not among the very poorest of states, but among states and among people that have extensive interaction with the developed, industrial world. The rapid spread of culture and trade and other contacts has created friction and raised aspirations simultaneously. The unfulfilled aspirations, complicated by long-term historical grievances, and ideological and religious differences, are the roots of terrorism. The phenomenon described above, of the in-group and the out-group, separates people from one another. A desperate minority, convinced of their superior moral position relative to the powerful governments that dominate their lives, commit suicide, and escape the frustrations of this world in anticipation of a glorious reward in another life. They attack the most vulnerable fringes of the globalizing, industrializing world which, for ideological and religious reasons, is so threatening to them. Through dramatic episodes of bloodshed, they dramatize their grievances. The powerful nation-states retaliate through acts of war against those governments which, willingly or unwillingly, harbor the terrorists. War, however, is like an indiscriminate bludgeon killing more innocents than it does terrorists. The invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States, and the invasion of Lebanon by Israel are the more obvious examples that come to mind. Is this a rational response to terrorism, or does it provide further support and create fertile ground for more terrorism?

A further question may be raised as to whether the campaign to prevent terrorism should properly be defined as a war effort or should it be considered a police action. War fails to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty, while terrorists are often not a part of an organized group which can be identified and targeted. War magnifies hatreds, breeds resentment, and motivates an urge to retaliate. It may very well inspire disgruntled individuals to become terrorists and feed the very movements that sponsor and encourage terrorists. War legitimizes terrorism. If terrorism is defined as a crime, rather than an act of war, the response of police, using the tools of criminal justice, may, on the other hand, isolate the criminals and minimize the killing of innocents.

HS-22 Readings