Worshipping War

It really is scary when people go beyond the argument that a specific war is an unavoidable evil, and start claiming that an occasional war is a noble, uplifting experience. It's even scarier when someone as bright as Michael Novak makes the argument, as he did in his December 30 National Review Online editorial, 'A Spartan Athens'.

After noting America 's well-known debt to Athenian culture, Novak proudly writes:

[A]t times such as the present . . . the Spartan dimension of our civilization becomes visible to all doubters. The biggest thing that most Europeans don't know about America is [its] Spartan side. Our Founders chose the eagle as the symbol for the nation because the eagle is supreme in war, seeing unblinkingly and at great distances. Once fixed on its prey, the eagle is not easily deterred.

A purist might quibble that our intelligence agencies are far from eagle-like in their vision, and he might wonder if foreign policy should be conducted with a view of ourselves as predators and other nations as prey to be gobbled up. But we all see where Novak is going:

No democracy will long survive . . . that does not toughen itself to face adversity, to raise up warriors, and to keep ready a warlike spirit. A democratic army should be small, under civilian control'kept safely away from political power, but committed to keeping those who serve in it fearless and invincible.

In a word, in order to survive and to prosper, democracies need to infuse a Spartan spirit into their Athenian thinking. To maintain the peace, prepare for war.

Again, one could quibble: How can we keep an army small and under civilian control if it is 'fearless and invincible'? And why do all of our Western heritage courses refer back to Athenian thought? Is it possible that the militaristic Spartan culture is not very good at churning out free thinkers?

Novak goes on in his article to mock critics of Bush who think that our motives for invasion were not so noble. Such conspiracy theorists believe that the reason we invaded Iraq and not, say, North Korea is that Iraq has tons of oil. Novak writes:

One wonders if those who make such accusations know how to do a profit-loss statement. Can't they see that U.S. costs in Iraq alone have gone over $200 billion, whereas the entire annual GDP of Iraq is only $22 billion? At that rate, it would take 20 years for such an investment'even to be recouped.

Now here, Novak is just being silly, basing his argument on a collectivist viewpoint (which is not surprising for a person enamored with ancient Sparta ). By the same reasoning, Novak could 'prove' that the Pentagon wouldn't waste $600 on toilet seats, or that kickbacks to purchasing agents by definition don't exist.

Obviously what is happening in Iraq is that billions of dollars in taxpayer money is being wasted on the invasion and occupation, some of which is channeled to the cronies of Bush, Cheney, et al. Halliburton, for example, can still earn billions of dollars from reconstruction contracts; their shareholders certainly aren't paying for the dropped smart bombs. To see Novak's error most clearly, he could just as well have argued: "These war critics are stupid. Hundreds of American soldiers have died in the war. Someone who is dead can't use oil. Therefore the war isn't about oil."

After pooh-poohing the conspiracy theorists who don't understand profit-loss statements, Novak takes on the na've pacifists:

Near my home, two cars bear the simple-minded bumper sticker, WAR IS NEVER THE ANSWER. I have to restrain myself every day from inserting with a thick red crayon a modifier: EXCEPT FOR SLAVERY, FASCISM, COMMUNISM, AND TERRORISM.

And here we clearly see the war hawk's worldview. Just as a liberal Democrat blames everything bad in domestic affairs on capitalism, and credits everything good to government intervention, so too does the war hawk blame everything bad in foreign affairs on isolationism, and credits everything good to military intervention.

Let's go through Novak's examples of things that were allegedly 'answered' by war:

Slavery. Yes, Abe Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation when it was clear there was no other way he could prevent the Confederates from exercising their 'inalienable' right to self-determination. However, can someone remind me of the dates of the bloody wars that were necessary to end slavery in the British Empire ? Oh wait, there weren't any. The British were able to end the slave trade without butchering hundreds of thousands of their own citizens. Rather than send armies to free slaves, the British government financially compensated former slave owners.

Fascism. This one I'll grant to the war hawks. Of course, the war against Nazi Germany and alliance with Stalin created the very evil which allegedly was 'answered' by yet more wars:

Communism. Which was the war in which we defeated communism? As mentioned above, we were allies with one of the biggest murderers in human history, and gave him half of Europe over which he pulled the Iron Curtain. Then we fought a hot war in Korea (a draw) and in Viet Nam (a loss). When the Soviet Union finally did collapse, it wasn't because of a war with the United States . (At best, you could argue that it was Reagan's defense buildup, i.e. readiness for war, but not war itself.) I fail to see how the example of communism shows the effectiveness of war.

Terrorism. I'm sorry? Has our invasion of Iraq 'answered' terrorism? Is that why the terror alerts were raised over the holidays? Before 9/11, was America an isolationist, pacifist country? Or did we rather rampage around the globe, fighting war after war after war (to end slavery, fascism, communism, the drug trade, etc.)? So how does 9/11 show the failure of peace and the triumph of war?

In conclusion, Novak's na've worship of violence is quite distressing. If even theological writers praise killing, how will humans ever achieve peace?

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Bob Murphy's picture
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