The Costs of War

Summer 1998 Modern Age

John V. Denson, ed., The COSTS OF WAR (Transaction Publishers, 1998)-paperback available

It is not quite enough to say with Randolph Bourne that war is the health
of the state, for it was war as much as anything else that helped to
create the modern state. As Bruce Porter puts it in War and the Rise of
the State (1994), war made the state and the state made war.

As the state’s powers grew and became more centralized, its war-making
abilities became correspondingly more powerful (and vice versa). Human
casualties and physical destruction, particularly in the barbaric wars of
the present century, have been only the most obvious results. Less
spectacular but only too evident have been war’s revolutionary social
consequences (discussed in Allan Carlson’s essay), as well as the
inevitable strengthening of the central state and especially of the office
of the presidency that American wars have, without exception, helped to
accelerate.

“The Costs of War” was the subject of a Ludwig von Mises Institute
conference several years ago which was devoted to examining the
consequences-moral, cultural, political and economic-of America’s foreign
and domestic conflicts. Most of the papers presented have finally been
collected and published as the eighteen essays of The Costs of War:
America’s Pyrrhic Victories. An original and scholarly appraisal of
America’s wars and their consequences, The Costs of War is easily one of
the most important books to emerge from American conservatives in a
generation.

Clyde Wilson, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina
and editor of the Papers of John C. Calhoun, examines the ideology that
motivated the North during the Civil War, as well as the conflict’s
ultimate consequences. Not least among these was the elevation of the
federal union, once thought of as merely a utilitarian political
arrangement, into a sacrosanct thing. The Union, explains Wilson, “was
transformed, in the Gettysburg Address and in the actions which it
celebrated, from the rational device of self-government and social comity
established by the founders into a mystical, self-justifying goal. The
use of Biblical language, as M.E. Bradford showed so skillfully, transfers
us from political tradition and reason to pseudo-religious
faith-refounding the American polity by sacred mythology.”

Apart from practically confirming the indivisibility of the United
States-an idea that would have baffled generations of Americans who had
considered the right of secession an essential attribute of state
sovereignty-the war set precedents for presidential power and economic
interventionism, and left us with the Fourteenth Amendment, which has been
put to such mischievous use by the federal courts. Moreover, it gave us
the first case of the use of massive ideological propaganda that the
modern state has since perfected.

Yes, the slaves were freed. But “of what did freeing the slaves consist?”
asks Wilson. The utterly thoughtless and fanatical way in which
emancipation was achieved could only lead to disaster. Indeed, to the
question of how millions of unskilled, despised and propertyless blacks
would make a living upon emancipation, Lincoln had answered with the words
of a popular minstrel song: “Root, hog, or die.” Social statistics for
the year 1900 show blacks worse off in a whole host of areas than they had
been under slavery.

The war did not in itself utterly destroy the American republic. “But all
the precedents were set-the precedents that the Progressives were able to
adopt in the following decades, culminating in our entry into World War I
in Europe, a purely Lincolnian exercise.”

World War I was indeed an obvious watershed in American foreign affairs.
An especially welcome addition to this collection is the late Murray N.
Rothbard’s 1989 article from the Journal of Libertarian Studies, “World
War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals.” What Rothbard finds
especially insufferable about progressive intellectuals is their
appropriation of the religious language and millennial expectations of
their Puritan forbears in the service of a humanistic political program,
in which the United States at last performs its historically appointed
role as the nation that would redeem the world. Each progressive
obsession fit into this worldview. Lawrence W. Levine explains that
William Jennings Bryan and many of his fellow prohibitionists, for
example, “thought of themselves as progressives engaged in a reform which
would last for all time and eventually engulf the entire world.”

More than any one policy, though, the progressives sought a centralized
regime in which enlightened intellectuals, technocrats, and various
species of “experts”-culled especially from the ranks of the newly
developing social sciences-would have broad authority to manage the
American state, insulated to some degree from the mercurial passions of
the masses. (They held, with Hamilton, that the people were a “great
beast.”) They despised American localism and individualism and sought to
promote a new idea of citizenship, one which would lift people out of
their parochialism and into a fuller awareness of the national and even
global communities of which they were a part. In Drift and Mastery,
Walter Lippmann pondered the possibilities of the new American state, and
concluded that while in the past the American republic had been content
merely to “drift,” now social planners concerned with the public good were
prepared to use the state machinery to move the country in a conscious
direction, towards national greatness.

World War I provided them with the opportunity for which they had been
longing. “Why should not the war serve as a pretext to be used to foist
innovations upon the country?” asked the collectivists of the New Republic
(to which Rothbard devotes a section of his essay). The spirit of war at
loose in America was a tremendous boon, they insisted, for it meant “the
substitution of national and social and organic forces for the more or
less mechanical private forces operative in peace.” War and social reform
may not have the same purposes, but “they are both purposes, and luckily
for mankind a social organization which is efficient is as useful for the
one as for the other.” For his part, John Dewey exulted at the prospect
of “world organization and the beginnings of a public control which
crosses nationalistic boundaries and interests” which he saw the war
promoting.

In the event, of course, the aftermath of the conflict disillusioned all
but those realists who all along had disbelieved the saccharine promises
attached to the war. Yet progressives could point to more than their
share of victories: a precedent for the government-business alliance, or
“associationalism,” that Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover would pursue in
the 1920s (and which would become compulsory during the New Deal);
increasing efforts among the American establishment to provide economic
and cultural resources “to define and sustain global order” (as Akira
Iriye shows in The Globalizing of America, 1913-1945); and a model for
government action during a crisis that would prove especially influential
when Franklin D. Roosevelt set out to implement his program to combat the
Great Depression.

In the years following World War I, American entry into that conflict was
subjected to comprehensive-and devastating-revision by scholars and
politicians alike. Fantastic and gruesome stories of German atrocities in
Belgium, solemnly assented to by government officials on both sides of the
Atlantic and even by so respected a figure as James Bryce, stood revealed
as the crudest of wartime propaganda. In addition, the motives of those
who pushed for American entry into the war were, at the very least, called
into question.

This normal and salutary process never occurred for World War II, a
conflict that has become so mired in propaganda and myth that merely to
subject it to the same scrutiny as any other historical episode is to
commit a kind of sacrilege.

Contributors to The Costs of War suffer from no such scruples. In this
regard, it is Ralph Raico’s essay on Winston Churchill-originally written
in response to an exchange on the British wartime leader that took place
between Harry Jaffa and Henry Regnery in the pages of Modern Age-that will
likely prove the most controversial contribution to this collection.

Raico portrays Churchill as a man whose obsession with war has been
matched by few in history. He told Herbert Asquith’s daughter in 1915
that “I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands
every moment-and yet-I cannot help it-I love every second I live.” The
excitement of war, of national mobilization, of empire-all this blinded
him to the political consequences of his military strategies, a disability
Joseph Stalin never suffered from.

His philosophy, as Raico describes it, was not recognizably conservative.
“He lost whatever religious faith he may have had-through reading Gibbon,
he said-and took a particular dislike, for some reason, to the Catholic
Church, as well as Christian missions. He became, in his own words, ‘a
materialist-to the tips of my fingers’ and fervently upheld the worldview
that human life is a struggle for existence, with the outcome the survival
of the fittest.”

In the book’s most meticulously referenced essay, Raico subjects every
major myth about the British statesman to the harsh light of the
historical record. And the record is not kind to Churchill, including as
it does such enormities as his support for fire-bombings of civilians,
acts of terror in which “a thousand-year-old urban culture was
annihilated, as great cities, famed in the annals of science and art, were
reduced to heaps of smoldering ruins.” Then there are his casual
suggestion after World War II that Poland be “moved west” (which led to an
expulsion program that killed one-and-a-half to two million Germans); his
adulation of Stalin; and his support for the Beveridge Plan for the
socialization of Britain (he said in a radio address that “you must rank
me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance
for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave”). One
hundred sixty-nine footnotes later, Raico pronounces his verdict: “Winston
Churchill was a man of blood and a politico without principle, whose
apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in
politics and history.”

The most original contribution to this volume is that of Hans-Hermann
Hoppe, professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas:
“Time Preference, Government, and the Process of De-Civilization: From
Monarchy to Democracy.” The key to understanding the political economy of
monarchy, Hoppe explains, is to think of it as a system in which the
government is privately owned; there exists a clear distinction between
rulers and ruled. In a democracy, on the other hand, the government is
publicly owned: there exists (in theory, at least) free entry into
political office, and the state apparatus is controlled by caretakers who
govern for only a short time.

We should expect the two regimes to approach governance differently, since
each possesses its own system of incentives. A monarch, since he can pass
his realm on to his heir, has an obvious interest in preserving both the
present value of his estate and his current income, and will not seek to
increase the latter unduly at the expense of the former. A democratic
leader, since he is a mere caretaker, has no special interest in
preserving the country’s capital stock and suffers no penalty from
presiding over its depletion. To the contrary, he will want to exploit the
country’s resources in such a way as to enrich himself at least
politically (e.g., by buying votes with the tax receipts of the
productive) and perhaps financially as well. In an essay published in the
Summer 1995 issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Hoppe employs
this model to explain the two regimes’ very different performances in the
areas of inflation, debt, regulation, government employment, welfare, and
even family stability and crime.

The implications of these differences for the two regimes’ conduct of war
is what Hoppe proceeds to explore in this essay. What trends can one
detect in the conduct of war during the past century (and especially
during the past eighty years) of increasing democratization? “Compulsory
military service has become almost universal, foreign and civil wars have
increased in frequency and in brutality, and the process of political
centralization has advanced further than ever before.” Why such a
development was to be expected Hoppe proceeds to explain:

[begin block quotation] Kings have to fund their wars largely out of
private funds because of a clear and developed class consciousness among
the ruled, and their wars thus tend to be limited. The public views
monarchical wars generally as private conflicts between different ruling
families, and kings are thus compelled to recognize a distinction between
combatants and non-combatants and to target their war efforts specifically
against each other and their respective private properties. In contrast,
democratic wars tend to be total wars. In blurring the distinction
between the rulers and the ruled, a democratic republic strengthens the
identification of the public with a particular state…. Resistance
against higher taxes to fund a war is increasingly considered to be
treachery or treason. Conscription becomes the rule, rather than the
exception. And with mass armies of cheap and hence easily disposable
conscripts fighting for national supremacy (or against national
suppression) backed by the economic resources of the entire nation, all
distinctions between combatants and non-combatants will fall by the
wayside, and wars will become increasingly brutal. [end block quotation]

Hoppe does not advocate a return to the ancien regime, an option he
considers impossible. What he does suggest is that the fundamentally
totalitarian nature of social democracy and universal suffrage be
recognized.

It is never easy to review such a large collection of essays, each of
which makes an important contribution to the whole. Especially valuable
are Richard Gamble’s “Rethinking Lincoln,” Paul Gottfried’s “Is Modern
Democracy Warlike?” and Bill Kauffman’s “His Country’s Own Heart’s-Blood:
American Writers Confront War.”

The Costs of War could not be timelier. For with the balance sheet before
us and with the imperial ambitions even of conservatives still showing no
signs of abating, perhaps we might at last learn the lessons that so many
millions taught with their blood.–Thomas Woods, Columbia University