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War Is a Government Program


It is always amusing to hear conservatives complain — as they are complaining now and used to complain during the Vietnam War — that if it weren’t for the politicians, the generals could win America’s wars. Those with this mindset believe the politicians are always getting in the way by subordinating military considerations to — ugh! — political considerations. Politicians, leave those generals alone!

This is amusing for a couple of reasons. First, these same conservatives claim to worship the U.S. Constitution, which, the last time I read it, subordinated the military to civilian authority.

Second, those who make this complaint seem willfully blind to the nature of war. At its most fundamental level, war is no more a military phenomenon than it is a scientific phenomenon. True, militaries fight wars, and military tactics is a meaningful discipline. But war also requires weapons that make use of the principles of physics. Does that mean wars are fundamentally the province of scientists? No, and neither are they fundamentally the province of generals.

Wars are political phenomena. You’d think the armchair generals and word-processor pilots would know that. It’s been 175 years since the publication of Karl von Clausewitz’s posthumous book, On War, which stated,

[War] is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.

War is politics.

Unless they are also heads of state, generals don’t start wars. Politicians start wars. In fact, generals have been known to oppose wars, having a more realistic sense than politicians of what wars really entail.

Politicians start wars for political reasons. (This is not to imply that economic reasons aren’t involved.) They may seek to control resources or a foreign population. Or they may seek to secure existing interests that could be at risk without the war. The mark of a global empire is that nothing can happen anywhere in the world without its potentially involving the interests of the imperial power and requiring, under the appropriate circumstances, war to protect those interests. This well describes the United States for the last half-century at least. The military is the means to a political end. The politicians cannot be concerned with military matters exclusively because that might cause them to ignore important political considerations, both domestic and foreign.
An instrument of tyranny

War always has a domestic side. Ruling classes hold power so that they may live off the toil of the domestic population. And because those ruled always far outnumber the rulers, ideology and propaganda are necessary to maintain the allegiance of the subject population. War is useful in keeping the population in a state of fear and therefore trustful of their rulers. H.L. Mencken said it best:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

War and putative external threats are used to justify conscription, higher taxes, regimentation, suspension of civil liberties, lucrative contracts for cronies, and the like.

War, then, is always a government program, sharing certain features characteristic of all government programs. Politicians are not like entrepreneurs in a marketplace, dealing exclusively through consent to earn profits by pleasing consumers. Rather, politicians operate an apparatus of force, deception, and exploitation — the state — in pursuit of their own objectives. All the perversities we have come to expect from government’s domestic programs are present in war: hubris, corruption, self-interestedness disguised as public service, insulation from accountability, the inability to calculate true costs. But war is more to be feared than other government programs, and not just for the obvious reason—mass murder. It is only in matters of war and foreign affairs that the politicians can demand secrecy. If they refused to discuss Social Security because the information was classified, they would be ridiculed. Yet they routinely get away with denying the public information in military matters. This provides all the more scope for the horrors that war entails.

Thus anyone with even a scintilla of suspicion of state power ought to be wary of the state’s power to make war, for this power is the root of so many other evils. As James Madison said,

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

It is maintained by conservatives and others that these concerns may be relevant to other countries but not to the United States. Here American exceptionalism comes into play with full force. What this says is that the U.S. government is not subject to the same laws of politics that other governments are subject to. Why not? Because the Declaration of Independence proclaimed noble principles? But this is a non sequitur. One can grant the nobility of the Declaration’s philosophy and still demand proof that this noble character carries over to the government. Well, what about the Constitution? Again, this argument does not work, for even if we overlook the flaws in the Constitution, U.S. governments from 1789 on have evaded its limitations whenever possible.
The power to declare war

The war power is illustrative. Article I, Section 8, reserves to Congress the power to declare war. Yet presidents have invaded and occupied countries without congressional declarations for many years. Even when Congress has “authorized” a president to commence military operations in another country, as in Iraq in 2002, it has done so in ways that do not resemble the declarations approved before U.S. entry in World War I and World War II. In those cases, Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt asked Congress to exercise its constitutional power to declare war on grounds that a “state of war” had already existed with Germany in 1917 and Japan in 1941. In contrast, the authorization for military force in Iraq did not demonstrate that a state of war existed between that country and the United States or declare a state of war. Rather, it authorized the president to use the armed forces to

(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq. (Emphasis added.)

Iraq had not attacked or overtly threatened the United States or any American citizen. Leaving aside the questions about the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, the “threat” alluded to in the authorization was not based on any acts taken by the Iraqi government against this country. Thus Congress could not have found that a state of war existed between the two countries. Instead, Congress improperly delegated to the president the power to decide when and if to create a state of war. The resolution required only that he “certify” that diplomatic efforts had failed before he used force. Indeed, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt confirmed that Congress was not declaring war when he said, “[We] should deal with it [the Iraqi problem] diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must. And I think this resolution does that.” The document amounted to a blank check with which the president could go to war or not as he saw fit.

This is not to say the Constitution’s war-power provision is an adequate safeguard against presidential adventurism. American history teaches that presidents are fully able to get declarations out of Congress if they want them badly enough. There was no good reason for the United States to intervene in World War I, since the German attacks on American ships came as a result of provocations by Woodrow Wilson. Yet Wilson was able to use those responses to his provocations to obtain a declaration. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt conducted years of (undeclared) economic warfare against Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He attempted to bait Germany into attacking U.S. ships but failed. Had he succeeded, Congress would have declared war on Germany. The point is that a president can get a declaration of war if he wants one.

Thus, even strictly construed, the Constitution cannot preclude foreign intervention. This was seen clearly by Randolph Bourne, who broke with his “progressive” erstwhile colleagues and opposed U.S. intervention into World War I. In his essay “The State,” which he left uncompleted at his death in 1918, Bourne wrote,

The Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war. For the benefit of proud and haughty citizens, it is fortified with a list of the intolerable insults which have been hurled toward us by the other nations; for the benefit of the liberal and beneficent, it has a convincing set of moral purposes which our going to war will achieve; for the ambitious and aggressive classes, it can gently whisper of a bigger role in the destiny of the world. The result is that, even in those countries where the business of declaring war is theoretically in the hands of representatives of the people, no legislature has ever been known to decline the request of an Executive, which has conducted all foreign affairs in utter privacy and irresponsibility, that it order the nation into battle. [Emphasis added.]

Hermann Goering during the Nuremberg trials put it succinctly:

[Of] course the people don’t want war…. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament, or a Communist dictatorship.

[Voice] or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger.

I’d rather quote Mencken:

Wars are seldom caused by spontaneous hatreds between people, for peoples in general are too ignorant of one another to have grievances and too indifferent to what goes on beyond their borders to plan conquests. They must be urged to the slaughter by politicians who know how to alarm them.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.