Wishing War Away?

It’s not as uncommon as we pretend

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Unfortunately, wars are not as rare as lasting periods of peace. More people have perished in conflict since the Second World War than the 60 million who died during that horrific bloodletting. Americans should remember that even in the last two decades of “peace” we have still fought small wars in Grenada, Libya, Panama, the Gulf, Serbia, and Afghanistan. The democratic Athenians in the fifth century — the greatest hundred years of their culture — fought three out of every four years against Persians, Aegean Islanders, Cypriots, Egyptians, Spartans, Syracusans, and a host of other smaller city-states. Plato, who saw firsthand the last two decades of it all, summed up the depressing truth best when he said peace was but “a parenthesis” — as every state was always in an undeclared state of war with another.

About the only prolonged period of real peace in civilization’s history occurred during the second century A.D., when for nearly a hundred years, under the so-called “Five Good Emperors,” Rome’s government defeated most of its enemies, ran the Mediterranean world, and pretty much treated its own people humanely. Unfortunately, we can be assured that war will never be eliminated or outlawed — only that it can be delayed or, in some cases and for long periods, prevented. In the context of the Middle East, we are on the verge of War No. 5 of the last 55 years (1947, 1956, 1967, 1973, 2002). Afghanistan has not really been at peace for a quarter-century. Iraq in a single decade has invaded Iran and Kuwait, sent missiles into Israel, and killed thousands of Kurds and Shiites.

A number of great philosophers, political scientists, and historians have written vast treatises on the subject. While there is no general agreement, few believe that they arise simply out of real material “grievances” — the inequity and oppression that leave thousands of innocents poor, sick, and hungry. Make everyone literate and well fed, and war might become less common — but it would not go away. Hannibal as a child swore eternal enmity toward Rome not because of an impoverished Carthage, but to restore the pride of his clan and country after the humiliation of the First Punic War.

North Korea and North Vietnam invaded the southern halves of their peninsulas neither because their respective peoples were under attack by non-Communists, nor because their own resources and land were being stolen. Rather, they knew that only with absolute conquest of a nearby antithetical — and more attractive — alternative to their own rule could their hold on power be preserved. Kim Il Sung and Ho Chi Minh had no illusions that Marxism or totalitarianism would make the Koreans or Vietnamese freer, wealthier, or happier. In fact, they had good reason to think just the opposite. But both did trust that they could invade and win, or at least achieve stalemate — and so both attacked, were proved right, and thus held onto or expanded their power.

Saddam Hussein wanted land from Iran, oil from Kuwait, and obeisance from the Kurds, and sought allies by attacking Israel. Yet his own people had plenty of territory and resources well before he went to war. He was stopped not by U.N. envoys or the Arab League, but only by the guns of the United States. And he is a threat today not as a result of our determination to rid the world of him, but because of a misguided forbearance that spared him. Sadly, the careers of the real war-makers — Alexander, Caesar, Cortés, Hitler, or Tojo-confirm that the Greeks had it right after all: States often fight for irrational reasons like “honor, fear, and self-interest,” and ambitious men regard restraint as weakness, not mercy.

Yet an aggressive state’s desire to go war does not necessarily mean that wars need follow. The causes and origins of conflict are not the same as the immediate circumstances that lead to the actual fighting and killing.

Unfortunately, conflict-resolution arbitration, international accords, or world policing bodies — while helpful in diffusing some minor crises and valuable in enforcing accords — rarely prevent wars. Otherwise the Italians would have never entered Ethiopia, or the Japanese Nanking or the Russians Afghanistan. Deterrence alone can stop bullies. The astute Theban general Pagondas once reminded his unsure troops that the only way they could live safely next to Athens was by projecting an air of strength, since peoples such as the Athenians attacked, rather than admired, neighbors who were docile. His hoplites then defeated the Athenians and the latter never again invaded Boeotia.

So states that seek to start wars can be dissuaded from attacking when they realize there is a very good chance that the ensuing calamity will be worse for them than for their enemies — or, if irrational, they can be summarily defeated only through superior military force.

We cannot fathom exactly the state of mind of autocratic leaders in Iran, North Korea, or China. We know only two things about them: Given the state of America’s current defenses these countries will not attack us; and should they be so foolish, they would lose quickly. Should we reduce our arms and begin relying on our NATO allies, the U.N., or the goodwill of authoritarian states to leave us alone, it is more — rather than less — likely that we would find ourselves at war with all of them.

The actual misery of killing ends in a variety of ways, but the longest periods of peace usually follow from decisive victories which prove aggression to be suicidal. The German army in 1918 surrendered in France, not Germany — and was back on French soil in 22 years. The German army in 1945 was ruined at home — and has been nowhere else in 57 years.

No wonder we often hear not of “war” but of plural “wars” — the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Punic Wars, the Roman and English Civil Wars — in which armed conflicts are punctuated by shaky armistices until the ultimate victory of one of the two combatants. What ends particular wars for good is the defeat and exhaustion — and humiliation — of one side, often followed by a change of government or attitude among the defeated. After Plataea (479) no Persian king ever again thought his troops could defeat Greeks in pitched battle — or tried. There was a Roman Carthage in North Africa, but after 146 B.C. not a Punic one — and so lasting peace on both sides of the Mediterranean. Once a series of elected governments in the United States decided it was not worth the loss of lives and treasure in Vietnam, we ceased to fight and win, and so the war tragically was lost and will probably not be renewed.

The Middle East will have peace when the Arabs either destroy the state of Israel, or learn that the costs of their failed attempts are so dreadful that no Arab leader will again dare try. Again, we should remember that the latest round of fighting followed not from Israeli aggression, but from the rushed and failed Israeli peace initiatives prompted by President Clinton — coupled with the earlier unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon — all of which suggested to Mr. Arafat a new weakening in, rather than the old preponderance of, Israeli strength. In that regard, our prior demand that Israel not reply to dozens of Iraqi Scuds probably did far more damage than good: in establishing the precedent that either Israel could not answer the bombing of its cities, or the United States would not let them.

Pundits shout on television that there is no hope in sight in the Middle East. In fact, we have come a long way from the last war of 1973. No Arab government will ever again invade Israel with conventional weapons — unless there is such a change in the Israel defenses that they believe they can defeat the Jewish state. Instead, there is a growing realization in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt that attacking Israel means the death and destruction of far more Arabs than Jews — especially when there is no longer a patron Soviet Union around for them to threaten and barter for what they cannot themselves obtain on the battlefield.

Even during this most disheartening current crisis, few Palestinian leaders believe they can any longer rally the Arab world en masse to invade Israel. And as they begin to realize that the continuance of suicide bombing results not in returned land, but in the systematic destruction of the homes and offices of the Palestinian elite, they seem more, not less, anxious to seek the intervention of the United States. The bellicose rhetoric of the Palestinian autocracy grew much more muted — and their calls for peace, conciliation, international peacekeepers, and outside intervention more frequent — once Israelis stopped talking of reprisals against murderers and simply took them.

Military force has a great power of clarity. With the Israeli reply, the world has seen at last that terrorists with explosives strapped to their bodies prefer to blow up small children rather than roll under tanks. There are plenty of militarily significant targets now for the Palestinians “soldiers,” but apparently none that offer the specter of terror, publicity, fame — and money — to be found in blowing up civilians at Passover dinners.

Instead of seeing soldiers, we witness bombers who dismember women and children on holy days; outlaws who shoot and then run for sanctuary into sacred Christian shrines; poor suspects who are summarily executed without trial on suspicion of helping the Israelis. So far, Palestinians have executed more of their own bound and unarmed civilians than they have killed Israeli soldiers in combat. “General” Arafat now nearly has the “war” he threatened and the chance for “martyrdom” he promised. The bombers have the enemy targets they desire right in their backyards. The Arab world is “united” in its furor and can easily join in to attack Israel.

War, in other words, destroys pretense.

As we have seen in the current crisis, those who are the most educated, the most removed from the often humiliating rat race of daily life (what Hobbes called the bellum omnium contra omnes), and the most inexperienced with thugs and bullies, are the likeliest to advocate utopian solutions and to ridicule those who would remind them of the tragic nature of mankind and the timeless nature of war. Ironically, they are also the most likely to get others less fortunate than themselves killed — as we saw in World War II, and most recently during the last decade in Iraq, Serbia, and in our ongoing experience with the Middle Eastern terrorists. McClellans — not Shermans; Chamberlains — not Churchills; and Clintons — not Reagans, usually pose as the more sensible, compassionate, and circumspect leaders; but in fact, even as they smile and pump the flesh, they prove far, far more dangerous to all involved.

The pacifists and utopians who believe war never solved anything should recall the words of the firebrand, slave-owning, and utterly lethal Nathan Bedford Forrest upon learning that many of his fellow Confederates were promising years of guerrilla warfare after 1865. “Men, you may all do as you please, but I’m a-going home. Any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum, and ought to be sent there immediately.”

Mr. Forrest was a brave man and formidable fighter — indeed, he had personally killed 29 Union soldiers in battle and had 30 horses shot from under him. But what made him give up the fight was neither Abolitionist rhetoric nor a sudden change of heart, but the likes of William Tecumseh Sherman — who tore through Georgia and the Carolinas — and the thousands of Union cavalrymen that overran Forrest’s beloved Tennessee.

And, remember, Mr. Arafat is no Nathan Bedford Forrest

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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