Can War Lead to Peace? We Know Anarchy Can’t.

“War leads to peace.” How quaint. You are still alive I suspect and still with your limbs and faculties. No person in your family I suspect has ever been in a forward area. None have been contaminated by war for life. None have commited suicide to relieve their personal guilt and shame for having killed innocent strangers for nothing. I do have a clue who you are nor do I care but I can say this with a degree of certainty, you have a very sick mind.

—Comment on In the long run, wars make us safer and richer

Shocked by the title


When I first saw it, I didn’t really know what to expect. Turns out the article itself (apparently excerpted from a book authored by the Stanford classics professor who penned the article) validated a lot of what I’d said when I was engaging in discussions with various anarchists/minarchists years ago. But the title still bothers me. Ian Morris, Washington Post: In the long run, wars make us safer and richer

So yes, war is hell — but have you considered the alternatives? When looking upon the long run of history, it becomes clear that through 10,000 years of conflict, humanity has created larger, more organized societies that have greatly reduced the risk that their members will die violently. These better organized societies also have created the conditions for higher living standards and economic growth. War has not only made us safer, but richer, too.

To say this will prove to be a controversial view is pretty obvious. But he makes a convincing case:

Take the long view. The world of the Stone Age, for instance, was a rough place; 10,000 years ago, if someone used force to settle an argument, he or she faced few constraints. Killing was normally on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids, but because populations were tiny, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll. By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people.

This puts the past 100 years in perspective. Since 1914, we have endured world wars, genocides and government-sponsored famines, not to mention civil strife, riots and murders. Altogether, we have killed a staggering 100 million to 200 million of our own kind. But over the century, about 10 billion lives were lived — which means that just 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population died violently. Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age. And since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent.

Many of us will find this compelling enough to at least look for somebody else to refute it.

The next part, though, will do nothing to convince the Bundys of this world—or my minarchist/anarchist friends:

War may well be the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, but the depressing fact is that it is pretty much the only way . If only the Roman Empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls and Greeks, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans, if these and countless conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force. But this did not happen. People almost never give up their freedoms — including, at times, the right to kill and impoverish one another — unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.

Here’s how one of my long-ago anarchist friends, Keith, put it:

Defense of person and property is a right held by individuals. Individuals have the right to act in such defense. Individuals can delegate their rights to others either through minimalist government (which we anarchists fear can never be held in check, reference the discussion about the Constitution which started this) or through hired help through private security.

Kieth does give to a minimalist government the right to an army—but a very limited one:

Armies are a legitimate function of government, when used solely for defensive purposes. The concern of the founders of this country, the reason they only allowed for the army to be funded for two years at a time, is that standing armies are commonly used for offensive purposes and military adventurism.

Obviously the next quote would send Keith screaming to the comments section in righteous high dudgeon:

American attitudes toward government are therefore not just some Beltway debate; they matter to everyone on Earth. “Government,” Ronald Reagan assured Americans in his first inaugural address, “is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Reagan’s great fear — that bloated government would stifle individual freedom — shows just how far the continuing debates over the merits of big and small government have taken us from the horrors that worried Hobbes. “The 10 most dangerous words in the English language,” Reagan said on another occasion, “are ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ” As Hobbes could have told him, in reality the 10 scariest words are, “There is no government and I’m here to kill you.”

To people in virtually any age before our own, the only argument that mattered was between extremely small government and no government at all. Extremely small government meant there was at least some law and order; no government meant that there was not.

As for a purely defensive military? More from Professor Morris:

Like its predecessor, the United States oversaw a huge expansion of trade, intimidated other countries into not making wars that would disturb the world order, and drove rates of violent death even lower. But again like Britain, America made its money by helping trading partners become richer, above all China, which, since 2000, has looked increasingly like a potential rival. The cycle that Britain experienced may be in store for the United States as well, unless Washington embraces its role as the only possible globocop in an increasingly unstable world — a world with far deadlier weapons than Britain could have imagined a century ago.

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, Morris’s thesis of nationalist wars ultimately protecting and making possible prosperity. What about safety? Here’s what I asked my anarchist friends then:

Anarchists (at least the ones I know), paleocons, libertarians and Paulites all agree that the military should be for defensive purposes only. They are against both preemption and intervention. But they have no answer to known threats, like Iran, or potential threats, like nuclear-capable non-state actors. How do you defend yourself against hugely dangerous weapons in the hands of people who hate you and everything you stand for? Do you wait for the bomb to go off in one of your cities and then act? There is cold comfort in the idea that the Bush administration claimed there were WMD in Iraq and they were wrong (my belief) or lied (others’ belief). The fact that there was no active nuclear program in Iraq doesn’t negate the possibility of another bad actor having one and threatening other countries with them. How do you defend against that with a purely defensive military? Even in World War II, even pleasing Pat Buchanan by leaving out the European Theatre, what any reasonable person would label a purely defensive military would not have been sufficient to win the day. When you’re in a war, you have to go on offense. And where do you want all the death and destruction to take place? San Diego? or as far away as you can make it happen? our turf? or their turf? Purely defensive military units are not going to be able to carry the fight to where the other guy lives. Period.

This is the question I’d like Clive Bundy, his defenders, and his apologists to answer. Photo: Noah Berger for The Chronicle Review


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