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Authors: Benjamin Ginsberg

The Worth of War

BOOK: The Worth of War


The Value of Violence

Published 2014 by Prometheus Books

The Worth of War
. Copyright © 2014 by Benjamin Ginsberg. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Cover design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke

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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Ginsberg, Benjamin.

The worth of war / Benjamin Ginsberg.

         pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-61614-950-5 (hardback) — ISBN 978-1-61614-951-2 (ebook)

1. War—Economic aspects. 2. War and society. 3. Economic development. I. Title.

HC79.D4G534 2014


Printed in the United States of America

Peace and progress are often seen as being fundamentally related to one another. The conventional view of this relationship is that human progress is dependent upon domestic and international peace. From this perspective, eras of tranquility are, unfortunately, interrupted by retrogressive periods of conflict and warfare from which civilization must recover in order to resume its onward march. In his famous nineteenth-century work,
Progress and Poverty
, the political economist Henry George summarized this idea, saying, “If we compare society to a boat, we see its progress is not based on the total exertion of the crew. Rather, it depends only on exertion devoted to propelling it. The total is reduced by any force expended on bailing, or fighting among themselves, or pulling in different directions.”
Similarly, in his well-known essay,
War and Progress
, historian John U. Neff sought to show that war was an impediment to and interruption of mankind's economic and moral development. Neff asserts, for example, that Europe's “general prosperity” at the close of the Middle Ages came to a rapid end because of “fighting” that “grew fiercer and more contentious” in the sixteenth century.

This perspective, unfortunately, seems to ignore the fact that many of the world's great centers of science, technology, culture, and civilization were also great military and imperial powers, and were frequently engaged in armed conflicts with their neighbors. We might consider such examples as the Egyptian, Chinese, and Roman empires, ancient Athens, the British empire, and the contemporary United States. Each of these hegemonic powers developed a high culture, a dynamic economy, became a center of scientific learning, and engaged in many wars.

With the current exception of the United States, of course, none of these regimes exists today. One might ask, however, for how long these regimes would have existed if not for their military prowess—or if they would have been created at all. The United States would certainly never have come into being. It was the product of an exceedingly bloody revolution and a successful French attack on British forces in North America. Moreover, according to historian Geoffrey Perret, the continuing existence of the United States has been marked by more wars than have been fought by any other state on the face of the earth.

The unpleasant fact is that although war is terrible and brutal, we should not assume that all its consequences are abhorrent. For better or worse, the world that we know, including its national borders, modes of thought, technologies, and forms of governance were shaped by war. In all likelihood, this world will eventually be unmade by war. A Roman maxim held that,
purgamenta hujus mundi sunt tria
et frateria
. The world is purified by three means: by plague, by war, and by monastic seclusion. I confess to being somewhat dubious about the value of monastic seclusion, but war and plague can certainly be important.

War is a powerful instrument of social and political change. War can destroy established states and societies and pave the way for new ones. To be sure, not all change is progress, but all progress requires change. Indeed, rather than serve as retrogressive interruptions, war and preparation for war have been great drivers of human progress. As we shall see, war is a powerful antidote to primitive or irrational thinking, war promotes technological progress, war promotes economic development, and, perhaps surprisingly, war tends to mitigate the cruelty inherent in the process of government.

While watching his troops repulse a Union attack during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee is said to have remarked to his subordinate, General James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” War is terrible and we should not grow fond of it. Yet, our terror of war also should not prevent us from giving some consideration to its role and place in human societies.

As we shall see below, war selects for and promotes certain features of societies that are generally held to represent progressive modes of thought and action. These include rationalism, technological and economic development, and less harsh modes of government. One might imagine other ways of defining progress. Perhaps we should refrain from valorizing a Western model of progress. But it is the same model that seems to be preferred by most of those with more pacifist inclinations. They simply aver that peace is the critical ingredient for progress along more or less these same dimensions.

Before I am accused of committing the sin of Social Darwinism (recently rediscovered by President Obama), let me freely confess to having some such tendencies.
Indeed, at the risk of being excommunicated from the faculty club and consigned to a cell in Purgatory alongside the late Herbert Spencer, I will confess to being guilty of both Social Darwinism and Lamarckism. That is, consistent with the neo-Lamarckian view articulated by the evolutionary economist Richard R. Nelson, I take the position that innovations often come about from conscious, and intelligent, efforts to find better ways of doing something.
Second, with apologies to President Obama, I take the neo-Darwinist position that competition among groups will over time reveal whether new practices or old ways of doing things are more efficient and effective. Third, again following the neo-Lamarckian model, I believe that more efficient and effective innovations and practices can be taught to or imitated by others in the broader society.

Where I perhaps take matters a step further than most Darwinians and Lamarckians are willing to admit, at least in polite academic company, is on the subject of war. For Social Darwinians and, to some extent, neo-Lamarckians, competition is the necessary catalyst that drives social innovation. Better ways of doing things become evident only when compared to or entered into competition with worse ways of doing things. The problem is that societies, more often than not, seek to restrain potentially useful competition by adopting various sorts of protectionist policies. Some work to protect the power of a privileged leadership clique or social class against potential competitors;
some use legislation to protect established merchants and manufacturers from foreign and domestic rivals; some offer job security for workers who might be threatened by more efficient labor; some assert that various principles of social justice and equality should trump unrestrained social or market competition. “Established” religions are, in some nations, protected from the efforts of rival faiths to recruit adherents. While many of these claims may have merit, policies based upon such principles restrain competition and block innovation. As a result, inefficient firms, inept governments, and corrupt religious establishments have little reason to change their ways.

It is at this point in the discussion that war makes its admittedly ugly appearance. Despite humanity's claims that it is diligently seeking ways to prevent war, armed conflict seems quite ubiquitous. Even periods when the incidence of war appears to diminish are reliably followed by periods of intense conflict. Armed conflict, unlike more peaceful economic or social competition, cannot simply be legislated out of existence. War, moreover, is the most severe form of competition. It can, indeed, pose an existential threat to a society, placing it under extreme pressure to disregard the protectionist claims of established groups and interests. As we shall see below, many states have felt compelled to adopt new technologies as well as political and economic practices because not to have done so would have left them at a military disadvantage and might, in fact, have threatened their continued existence. Even cherished traditions and beliefs can be subject to re-examination and revision in wartime. States that limited voting rights to men and viewed women as intellectually unfit to take part in politics, for example, rethought their priorities when the pressures of war compelled them to seek the support of women. Whatever philosophical positions had justified the original state of affairs were discarded in the face of brutal armed struggle.

Of course, even in the teeth of war, some societies are resistant to change and remain unable or unwilling to identify or copy better ways of doing things. This may be one reason that most of the states, societies, and peoples that emerged at one time or another over the past several millennia no longer exist.

As we shall see, one important realm in which war is unlikely to produce progress is that of political freedom. War is, of course, sometimes necessary to break the chains of an oppressed or enslaved people. Americans should be the last to overlook this fact. In a broader sense, however, war has corrosive effects upon political freedom within those states prone to engage in frequent hostilities. War, as the late Charles Tilly often reminded us, tends to enhance state power. War makes states, building administrative capabilities and turning republics into empires. What even Tilly did not fully explore is that, once enlarged, state power can be turned inward in what amounts to a perverse process of beating swords into very malign plowshares. Americans are, unfortunately, currently witnessing this phenomenon first hand.

In writing this book I benefitted from discussions with Matthew Crenson, Stephen David, Robert Kargon, and David Satter. I was happy to have another opportunity to work with an excellent editor, Stephen Mitchell and, as always, my wonderful agent, Claire Gerus. And, for their efforts on the book's behalf, I thank Ian Birnbaum, Jade Zora Scibilia, Laura Shelley, Melissa Raé Shofner, and Catherine Roberts-Abel.

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