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Why wars are so common
Brands's 6th law: Part 2
Defensive wars are always waged with reluctance, professed or real. The fact that defensive explanations are seized upon whenever possible suggests that most leaders think, or think their constituents or subjects think, that war is not something that should be entered into lightly. Implicit in this belief, or posture, is that peace is the normal state of affairs, at least for our side; we go to war only when provoked beyond endurance. Since nearly everyone claims defensive status, it is fair to say that most of the world believes, or wants to appear to believe, that peace is or should be the default setting of humanity, and war the anomaly. War is when things go wrong.
There is much historical evidence in favor of this view. Europe was tense in early 1914, but a century had passed since the most recent general war, and theorists and practitioners had developed persuasive explanations as to why war, if ever it had been useful, had become anachronistic. The major countries of Europe were one another’s best customers; war would kill the commercial goose that was laying golden eggs for all parties to the trade. The industrial revolution had created a working class whose interests transcended national borders; should the bourgeoisie of France declare war on the bourgeoisie of Germany, the proletariats of the two countries would refuse to fight. Modern weapons were too destructive to allow any country to win a war, when costs were measured against benefits; this adverse calculus would prevent wars from starting.
But war did come, and when it did, the obvious explanation was that the diplomats of Europe had bungled mightily. They let a minor event in a backwater region engage the fears and ambitions of the great powers until Europe was aflame and civilization itself imperiled. With hindsight, several points on the descent could be identified where if someone had shouted, “Stop!” the catastrophe might have been averted.
The blundering took a different form thirty years later, when the world suffered an even greater catastrophe. Actual malice was ascribed to Adolf Hitler as the principal cause of the war; he didn’t blunder but intended war all along. Yet everyone else blundered by not seeing him for what he was. Had the British and the French, with American complicity, not attempted to appease Hitler—had they called his bluff instead, for example at Munich in 1938—the second great war needn’t have happened.
Another thirty years brought a new set of blunders, leading the United States into the morass of Vietnam. Here the problem was the overlearning of the lessons of World War II. In their thrall to the Munich analogy, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made mistakes of their own, confusing Ho Chi Minh with Hitler and a nationalist revolt in Vietnam with the Soviet challenge to the United States. But once again, the problem was the wrongheadedness of those in charge.
If war is when things go wrong, one might think that sooner or later leaders would run out of mistakes, and wars would become less frequent. And so they have, in certain eras. Europe was at relative peace during the century before 1914. There has been no general war since 1945. Maybe this time we really have got it right. Maybe wars are coming to an end, and peace will reign forevermore.
But there is plenty of support for the other possibility: that war isn’t when things go wrong, but when they go right. Humanity doesn’t stumble into wars; it goes willingly, even eagerly.
From the perspective of governments, this has certainly been true at times. Polk got the war he wanted in 1846; Hitler the war he wanted in 1939. Napoleon didn’t invade Russia by accident in 1812, nor Japan China in 1937.
The more interesting question is whether war is when things go right for those who do the fighting. The Civil War took the lives of several hundred thousand soldiers; did the war go right for them?
Perhaps not for them, but quite possibly for the much larger number of combatants who escaped the bullets, bayonets and bacteria. The war was a life-changing experience for many of those for whom it wasn’t a life-ending experience. It made men out of the boys who entered the armies of North and South, teaching lessons on matters of life and death they would have required decades to learn during peacetime.
And it gave the country regiments and battalions of heroes. Ulysses Grant, the foremost of the heroes, would have lived and died in obscurity if not for the war. At the beginning of 1861 he was employed as a clerk in his family’s leather business, having failed at peacetime soldiering, farming and business. The highlight of his existence was the hours he spent playing with his children on the floor of a rented house in Galena, Illinois. He had neither prospects nor much ambition. Three years later he was the commanding general of the Union army; in another year he was the victor of the greatest war in American history. He was twice elected president. When he circled the globe on a post-presidential tour, he was feted in the leading cities of Europe and Asia, quite possibly the most famous man on earth.
Even then he sometimes scratched his head at how all this had come about. The answer, of course, was the war. The war had revealed talents in Grant that set him above his fellows. He was physically fearless, had an instinct for strategy and tactics, and possessed the nerve to give orders that would send thousands of men to their deaths. It was this last trait that most set Grant apart from the Union generals who had gone before him. “He fights,” said Lincoln simply, and gratefully.
The war worked comparable wonders for William Sherman. Sharper than Grant but also edgier, Sherman had made a similar mess of civilian life. Happening upon each other in St. Louis in the late 1850s, the two shared their sad stories. “West Point and the regular army aren’t good schools for farmers, bankers, merchants and mechanics,” Sherman observed. In early 1861 Sherman was working as a schoolmaster, in charge of a military academy in Louisiana. The war revived his fortunes by sweeping away the complications that made peacetime life a challenge for him. In war success is determined by rigid metrics: you win or lose, you live or die. Sherman never learned to curb his temper or his tongue; his pointed comments on superiors and especially politicians got him into no end of trouble. But once the fighting began, much was forgiven of one willing to carry to stern logic of war to its brutal conclusions. To Confederates, especially those who encountered him on his march from Atlanta to the sea, Sherman was the devil incarnate. To Unionists, Sherman was a hero second only to Grant. Sherman could have had the presidency for the asking, but he knew himself well enough to realize he could never suffer the fools politics would throw in his way.
The war made a hero of Robert E. Lee too. The transformation wasn’t so great in Lee’s case; life in the peacetime army had suited him well. But he would have retired a colonel without the war, and he never would have become the most hallowed figure in Southern memory. Lee’s prospects improved the moment he resigned from the U.S. Army, for he immediately became the best officer available to the Confederacy. His task as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was enviable; fighting on familiar ground, with internal lines of communication, he merely had to keep invading Northern forces at bay. But he did better than that. Displaying gifts of command equal to Grant’s, he dealt blow after blow to his Union counterparts. One of the heaviest blows came in the 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, where the Confederates beat back a much larger Union force, inflicting three times the casualties they suffered themselves. Observing the slaughter of the enemy, Lee felt the primal thrill shared by many of those who go to war. Turning to James Longstreet he said, “It is well that this is so terrible. We would grow too fond of it.”