An Aroused Citizenry

How democracies go to war.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

We associate democracies with peace, and thus think that it is hard to convince thousands of free citizens to support a war. But we need not despair about getting democratic approval for the action against Iraq. Herodotus wrote that it was easier to convince thousands of free Athenians than a few skeptical Spartan oligarchs to go to war. In fact, consensual governments have never been averse to fighting — read Thucydides’ account of how the frenzied Athenian assembly insisted that their generals invade Sicily. Indeed, once democracies get their blood up, free citizens — not their professional generals — prove to be the truly bellicose. Nicias the Athenian, George McClellan, and perhaps our current reluctant Pentagon hierarchy have all learned the peril of standing in the way of an aroused citizenry.

Democracies are actually war-prone owing to their very moral conceit — their confidence in the superiority of their culture and system of government — and the ease by which a simple majority vote of their legislatures can instantaneously mobilize an entire society for war. Ancient Athens fought three out of every four years in the 5th century b.c. because its triremes sailed soon after a majority of citizens wanted them to. And it was defeated only when Sparta, most of the Greek world, and satraps of the Persian Empire ganged up against it. In the last 20 years, during a time of “peace,” the U.S. has fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Grenada, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Sudan, and Somalia against a motley array of theocrats, dictators, Communists, thugs, thieves, and gangs.

Republican Rome battled almost constantly in the 3rd and 2nd centuries b.c., the Senate precipitating the Third Punic War on the brutal premise that Carthage at last must fall before it sired a second Hannibal. And as Thucydides noted of democratic Syracuse’s successful resistance against Athens, and Athens’s own amazing recovery after the loss of its armada, democracies actually fight exceedingly well when aroused and on the rebound — once citizens realize that their collective fate rests in their own hands.

It is often alleged that electorates tend to lose their vigilance during long and luxuriant periods of peace, lacking the discipline to tax themselves for defense or to risk preemptive strikes against bellicose tyrannies. Here we think of the Venetian republic that was content to help in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, but had no wish for the more arduous sacrifices necessary for a drawn-out struggle to end the Turkish menace for good. By 1936 America and Britain had a pretty good idea what Hitler and Tojo were about; but it was nearly impossible to rouse a peacetime populace, still wounded by World War I and in an economic depression, to mobilize against an enemy whose evil was for a time more theoretical and distant than proximate and concrete. The Wall Street boom of the 1990s made affluent and complacent Americans wary about responding with real force to the first World Trade Center bombing, the terrorist attacks on our embassies and barracks overseas, and the near sinking of the USS Cole.

Moreover, anticipatory moves to destroy embryonic evil are sometimes felt to be antithetical to the pretensions of lawful and legitimate societies. Republican Rome always sought a casus belli that would make it appear as victim rather than aggressor — all to convince its free citizens that the commonwealth was reluctantly warding off attack rather than seeking out enemies. Being attacked first is desirable for modern democracies as well, which seem to be hesitant in initiating even justifiable hostilities — a complacency that can lead to near disaster.

Imperial Germany, Hitler’s Nazis, the Japanese, and the North Koreans all precipitated hostilities, prompting democratic retaliation that was late, costly, and only successful after years of struggle. Would not millions have been saved had the democracies moved earlier and in force? In contrast, more recently, the U.S. has attacked odious regimes in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Kosovo, Serbia, and Afghanistan — even though none of those governments initiated formal aggression against it. Critics of all such interventions have objected to the absence of a declaration of war, the curtailment of diplomacy, and the risking of young lives. But the burden of history rests upon them to study carefully the costs incurred in such fighting vis-a-vis those far more numerous innocents saved by the removal or defeat of such murderous leaders.

Are today’s Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Serbia, and Afghanistan better or worse places? Did the U.S. intervention leave them with greater or less hope for the future? The answer is obvious. Indeed, the failure to march to Baghdad in 1991 might well prove the most costly mistake of the post-Cold War era. The inability to end Saddam Hussein’s regime resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Kurds and Shiites, and a decade of dangerous vigilance against a tyrant in hot pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

But it bears repeating: Once democracies are attacked, they rally almost immediately and fight furiously. It is hard to cite examples — other than the precipitous collapse of France in 1940, and that of a few eastern European republics shortly before — in which comparably sized autocracies defeated their democratic adversaries. Germany, Italy, and Japan all fell to free armies. Even the huge and once victorious Soviet Union finally collapsed. More recently, we have seen the British defeat a dictatorial Argentina far from home — and a surrounded Israel ward off the vast forces of dictators for nearly a half-century.

What is it about democracy that creates such military power? It is the majority of the voting populace itself that is responsible for victory or defeat. In a democracy, no one can blame a mad Hitler or Tojo for leading the country unwillingly and precipitously to war; the war therefore has a legitimacy that translates to an elan of the battlefield.

Democracies, composed as they are of free men, also tend to encourage innovation, individuality, and spontaneity — which result in technological advance, imaginative leadership, and industrial flexibility. By the same token, free expression — even in its most unfettered and almost reckless manifestations — is not really antithetical to the war effort. Nearly 2,500 years ago Pericles pointed out that the secrets that are lost through the indulgences of an open society are more than counterbalanced by the collective knowledge gained through candid and unfettered advice.

Consensual governments also are more likely to entertain open markets. True, autocracies and Communist regimes can marshal labor and capital through coercion, but ultimately they fail to produce the same quality and quantity of weaponry that free societies create. It is not an accident that the autocratic Ottomans copied their cannon from the republican Venetians — or that the unfree Islamic world today imports jets, tanks, and artillery from a democratic West.

A number of scholars have taken solace in the truism that democracies do not often fight one another. In the ancient world that was not so true, as Athens invaded democratic Syracuse, and later fought a democratic Thebes. The Boers and Confederates had congresses of sorts in their wars against parliamentary England and our own federal government, which earlier had fought each other. But in the 20th century the platitude about a harmony among democratic states appeared increasingly valid: Consensual governments not only seldom lose, but they also rarely fight one another.

Realists warn us against engaging in naive nation-building efforts; they point out that Jeffersonian democracy does not spring from societies that have no prior record of lawfulness, a viable middle class, or widespread literacy. Yet recent events in the post-Cold War era suggest that democracy is, in fact, a very pragmatic principle upon which to build foreign policy — since its creation abroad tends to lessen the chance of war with liberal states such as our own. Few doubt that the current government in Afghanistan is less dangerous than the Taliban. Indeed, elections in a postbellum Iraq would not only be a vast improvement over the ghoulishness of Saddam Hussein, but might prove the basis for a far more stable, humane, and friendly state than the so-called moderate dictatorships and cabals nearby in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

There are more democracies in the world today than ever before. The specter of sabotage of frail republics by a global and murderous Soviet Communism is long past. And contact with a liberal West through global communications and easy residence in Europe and America has created a new class of reformers eager to see the same sort of freedoms replace the repressive regimes in their home countries. The old starry-eyed support for democracy has, in this new age, become a matter of cold realism — a wise and calculated policy of encouraging elections that can make more and more nations both stable and friendly to the United States.


©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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