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Sex makes babies; war makes heroes
Which is why humans are so attached to both (Brands’s 6th law)
A time traveler—or a historian, who amounts to the same thing—examining human societies across the last several millennia would observe that societies come in a variety of types. There have been agrarian societies and urban societies, patriarchal societies and matriarchal societies, societies with hundreds of members and societies with hundreds of millions of members, nomadic societies and sedentary societies, societies that tied political power to religion and societies that separated the two, societies that revered the past and societies that favored the future, societies that made children into adults at an early age and societies that extended childhood years past puberty.
Among the variations, two human practices have been central to nearly every society. One is sex, the other war. The attraction of sex is obvious: most people like to do it, and it reproduces the species. Indeed the appeal of sex is so strong that most societies have felt obliged to limit it in one fashion or another. Incest taboos keep siblings and sometimes close cousins from mating; marriage helps identify whose children are whose. The recent—by historical standards—ability of humans to separate sex from procreation has compelled societies to rethink norms and practices, but it hasn’t diminished the obsession with sex. If anything, it might have enhanced it.
The attraction of war is harder to explain. War kills and cripples people. War creates widows and orphans. War destroys what humans have spent years or decades to create. War spreads disease and destitution. War is hell, as numerous participants and victims have said in one fashion or another since time out of mind.
And yet war has loomed large in nearly every society throughout history. The historian has to ask why? What is it about war that makes it so ubiquitous?
One approach to the question is to examine the process by which societies decide to go to war. Historians and especially political scientists have studied the causes of war and produced an extensive literature on the subject, most of which focuses on the role of governments. War, as opposed to violence by individuals, requires decisions by governments to employ force in an organized manner toward some government-determined end. Wars have been fought for territory: to take or defend it. Wars have been fought for other natural resources: game, gold, oil, water. Wars have been fought for sex: to acquire women. Wars have been fought to acquire slaves. Wars have been fought to free slaves. Wars have been fought to extend or protect commerce. Wars have been fought to preserve or promote democracy, communism and other modes of political organization. Wars have been fought over religion.
In every such case, decision-makers in a society, whoever they are and by whatever means they make decisions, conclude that war is necessary, or at least preferable to the alternatives. Collectively they say: Let’s go to war.
But they rarely mean: Let’s us go to war. In ancient times kings personally led armies into battle, but those days are long past. The norm during the last several centuries has been for society’s leaders to delegate the actual waging of war to others, typically young men. In effect, the graybeards point to the young men and say: Let’s you go to war.
And off they go—again and again, generation after generation. Not every one of them goes, and not each with entire enthusiasm. They are, after all, being asked to risk their lives. But very rarely have governments declared war and the young men who were expected to fight declared a boycott. Nor has the recent inclusion of young women in some armed forces changed things.
Why do they do it? Why do the young people accept the burden of fighting and dying for their societies?
Some believe the arguments made by their elders as part of the political decision process. Many of the young Americans who enlisted in 1812 agreed with Henry Clay and James Madison that American honor required chastising Britain for repeated insults and injuries. More than a few of the American doughboys who set sail for France in 1917 and 1918 were honestly moved by Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy.
Overlapping the group of enlistees persuaded by political argument is the cadre impelled by love of country. Leaders almost always cast war as being necessary for national safety and welfare. The assertion rings truest when the country has actually been attacked. This is why Pearl Harbor was so powerful in discrediting America’s interwar isolationists. Presidents have not been above provoking attack on American soil, or on soil asserted to be American. James Polk in the 1840s determined on war against Mexico after that country, which had just been divested of Texas, refused to sell California. Polk sent U.S. troops to a disputed strip on the left bank of the Rio Grande, hoping to goad the Mexicans into attacking. For weeks the Mexicans refused, until Polk decided to go to war anyway. He drafted a request to Congress for a war declaration, haranguing Mexico for bad faith and intolerable misdeeds, and was about to deliver it, when news arrived that the clash he sought had finally occurred. Relieved, Polk rewrote his message to Congress. “American blood has been shed on the American soil,” he said. Congress gave him the declaration he wanted, and young men rallied to the cause. Fifteen years later Abraham Lincoln struggled mightily to get the South to fire the first shot in the Civil War. When it did, at Fort Sumter, he issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to “to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union.” His call was quickly oversubscribed.
Strikingly—but predictably, given the history of war—what the North construed as a defensive war was similarly construed by the South. South Carolinians took the mere presence of federal forces on South Carolina soil as an offense against the integrity of the state; when Lincoln, rather than removing those forces attempted to reprovision them, the South Carolinians opened fire. Virginia awaited Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Virginians felt a particular responsibility for the Union, having furnished the author of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson), the commander of the Continental Army (Washington), the architect of the Constitution (Madison), and eight presidents (the three mentioned plus Monroe, Harrison, Tyler and Taylor). But Lincoln’s call for an army to suppress South Carolina’s rebellion caused many Virginians to conclude that their territory was about to be invaded by Northern soldiers. Robert E. Lee, the most promising officer in the United States army, resigned his commission to go to “the defense of my native state.” Many thousands of young Virginians swiftly followed his lead.
That Lee considered his homeland to be Virginia while Lincoln thought in terms of the Union was an artifact of American history and of America’s system of federalism. But the definitional gamesmanship that made both sides in America’s Civil War think they were defending themselves had its parallels throughout history. When France declared war on Prussia in 1793 it claimed to be defending the French Revolution. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 he said he was protecting Germany’s eastern border. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 George W. Bush argued that the invasion was necessary to prevent a terrorist attack on the United States like that of September 11, 2001, but this time with nuclear weapons.
(End of part 1. Parts 2 and 3 to follow.)