War, Progress, and a Challenge for America

worth of warWikipedia identifies Benjamin Ginsberg as a libertarian political scientist, professor at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of twenty books. I read his new book, The Worth of War, because I hate the thesis: “Although war is terrible and brutal, history shows that it has been a great driver of human progress.”

No, I thought. War is a terrible destroyer. But there’s more.

“War selects for and promotes certain features of societies that are generally held to represent progress. These include rationality, technological and economic development, and liberal forms of government.”

“Preparation for war often spurs on economic development.”

This is a short book – 175 pages in the body of my Epub version, mostly focused on Europe and America since the 17th century.

Ginsberg uses some terms idiosyncratically. He is fond of “ensorcelled”, which I think is a neat word. But his odd use of “Lamarckian” to mean lessons learned and taught to the next generation may befuddle biologists.

There is much discussion of military techniques and organization – does it really matter if brigades are divided into regiments commanded by colonels, further subdivided into…

But I did learn some interesting tidbits. Between WWI and WWII the US had color coded war plans – ranging from War Plan Black for Germany to War Plan Crimson for Canada; that Rome preferred its legionaries to be at least 5′ 10″ tall; and that modern training techniques have resulted in 90% of soldiers firing their guns in battle versus 15% in WWII.

Via the “curriculum of war” winners learn rationality and develop skills in planning, organizing, and engineering that “spillover” beyond the military. Errors in judgment can be corrected, but countries committed to magical thinking disregard facts and become losers.

Ginsberg presents examples from ancient Greece and Rome [1],China, the European Crusades, Aztecs, and the Soviet Union, but Nazis receive considerable analysis.

The bizarre Nazis ideology of racism led them to believe “mongrel” Americans could pose no military threat, that Slavic peoples were “subhumans,” and that Jews should be exterminated. They diverted war materiel to exterminating the Jews and turned Slavs who initially welcomed them as liberators from Stalin into enemies. The Nazi rejection of “Jewish science” and Jewish professionals created an “enormous transfer of intellectual capital” to their enemies. Thus their adherence to ideology led to their defeat.

Over time “military necessity has frequently impelled rulers to turn to their subjects for support.” The size of armies increased from tens of thousands to millions, and standing armies and reserves required “vast expenditures” during peacetime. The sheer scale led governments to cultivate patriotic citizens rather than oppressed subjects. To create willing recruits, governments expanded suffrage (English women in WWI and landless white men in post-revolutionary America), even created social welfare systems, initially for troops and their families and later expanded.

Copious examples are presented of increasing armies and accelerating military budgets, and of tapping the general population for funds through bonds and “instruments of indebtedness,” which I’d call paper currency. But there is no discussion of the opposite – did no government become less brutish in the absence of major war? Or did those that stayed brutish lose their wars? I wonder if today’s Syrian war will ultimately support Ginsberg’s thesis.

To Ginsberg, domestic propaganda is a sign of less government oppression. “Domestic use of propaganda suggests that a government is… courting popular support and approval.” Examples of Hollywood propaganda include one of my favorite movies, Casablanca.

The Soviet Union offers mixed support for Ginsberg’s thesis. The pre-WWII “Soviet regime was among the most repressive and murderous governments on the face of the earth.” During WWII the government relaxed a little and allowed Russian Orthodox churches to reopen. “Stalin [became] increasingly paranoid and violent” after the war, but subsequent regimes “reduced [the] level of internal repression.” Does this demonstrate Soviets learned from war, or that Stalin was simply more heinous than the average dictator?

Ginsberg warns of “America’s burgeoning regime of domestic secrecy and surveillance.” Wartime agencies were renamed or “disbanded” but actually absorbed into other agencies and turned on “the government’s domestic foes.”

Citizens can only control a government when it is transparent and the citizens have privacy. The US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure was envisioned by the Founders as political protection for a government’s opponents. “Effective political action… [needs] privacy to plan, organize, and mobilize, lest their plans be anticipated and disrupted,” and “privacy for political activities is… an important element of political freedom.”

Ginsberg offers many examples of war powers turned inward in America. Nazi sympathizers were prosecuted during WWII, but after the war the government turned its attention to prosecuting Communists, anti-Vietnam war groups, and the Ku Klux Klan. He discusses J. Edgar Hoover and his power to blackmail officials including President Kennedy. Presidents F. D. Roosevelt and Nixon used the government against their political rivals. Truman expanded the concept of “national defense” to “national security” to justify keeping actions secret. Eisenhower coined of the phrase “executive privilege” to refuse Congressional requests for information. After the 9/11 attack, warrantless wiretaps were used and even the secret judicial rubber-stamp reviews were bypassed. He presents examples through time to today’s Obama administration.

Edward Snowden (who recently leaked documents revealing the government’s secret surveillance program) “has shown the extent to which America has turned its wars inward, eroding political freedom. It is difficult to miss the irony of Snowden’s subsequent flight to freedom – to Russia.”

This is a sobering section of the book, but it doesn’t seem to support his thesis that success in war leads to more progressive governments. Rather, “the United States had reversed this democratic formula of governance in favor of secrecy for itself and transparency for its citizens.”

Ginsberg’s conclusion also focuses on America. Citizens who prefer minimalist government are kept in line by a government “protection racket.”

Ginsberg finds citizen acceptance of electronic surveillance, “crowd-scanning software, traffic monitoring, airport searches, and so forth” disquieting – many Americans “believe that they are the beneficiaries rather than the potential victims” of the government.

Government defines citizens as victims of street crime, drugs, corporate crime, and internal subversives and terrorists – victims who need to be protected. Among several examples of government power is Martha Stewart, who was never convicted of the original charge against her but was, essentially, convicted of defending herself.

To cheer yourself up, consider Steven Pinker’s book which amasses evidence of a more hopeful history – that sympathy for others has expanded from kin to tribe and beyond, with a broad trend towards commerce rather than war. But, despite his book’s thesis, Ginsberg will leave any American with an unsettled feeling that freedom is slipping away.

Footnote [1]: The chief weapons of one bygone era are listed as the sword, bow, javelin, and sling. This gives me a chance to mention something else I read recently: modern readers fail to understand the biblical story of David and Goliath. At the time the story was written, a slinger was a potent adversary for a foot-soldier. We’d follow the story better if we thought of David as a sniper and Goliath as a heavy-weight wrestler. I may never have another chance to work that into a review.

2 thoughts on “War, Progress, and a Challenge for America

  1. Interesting stuff. An equally important, but much more blood curdling, “benefit” stemming from large scale warfare is population control. Through recorded history, one of the most common causes of armed conflict has been a scarcity of resources. War casualties don’t eat or drink. Enlightened societies may blanch at the thought, but as worldwide population numbers head for the ten billion mark and more and more countries strive to join the First World, the possibility that the struggle for those resources will degenerate into open warfare becomes more likely. Not the best news for the World Peace crowd.

    Two worthwhile books relating to this subject are, Constant Battles, by Stephen Le Blanc and Thieves of State, by Sarah Chayes.

    • That is a chilling thought. Steven Pinker said (see our review at http://bit.ly/Hx9vBt) the worst war ever was the Tang Dynasty rebellion: in eight years the rebellion resulted in the death of two thirds of China’s population – a sixth of the total world population at the time. In addition to battlefield deaths, consider the famine and disease that usually accompanies a major war and contributes to the death count. Some people think drought already contributed to the Syrian civil war and water shortages may aggravate any number of tense locations. Scary stuff.

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