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The Costs of War



John V. Denson
The Free Market
Vol. 15, No. 8 (August 1997)

Amid media fanfare, the Pentagon has released its report on U.S. military and foreign policy into the next century. The report says that the U.S. should retain the military capability to fight two foreign wars at once. The Cold War may be over, the Pentagon admits, but it warns against any attempt to pare back the warfare state or cut the cash flow to arms dealers.

It is no surprise that a bureaucracy would study itself and conclude that neither its budget nor its policies should change. Neither is it a shock that the Pentagon has bypassed the question of why we need to involve ourselves in any foreign wars. After all, the U.S. long ago abandoned the Constitutional ideal of a strictly defensive military posture.

What is truly disturbing is that the report treats the subjects of war and military empire so casually. War is the most destructive government program. But to read the Pentagon's case, you'd think there are no costs associated with war and no downside to permanent empire. Have we learned nothing from a century of wartime bloodshed?

The conventional view is that all U.S. wars have been fought to protect freedom. In fact, war has been the main source for the expansion of the power of the federal government. War has eroded our economic liberties, debased our money, increased the national debt, and radically transformed the political structure of the original American republic. The result of these wars has been the loss of freedom for Americans, not its protection.

This would have been no surprise to the framers. "Of all the enemies to public liberty," warned James Madison, "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."

What's more, wars are not usually fought for any of the stated idealistic reasons. Once you get past the government disinformation that bombards us during wars, you find that wars are most often fought to protect the economic status of special-interest groups.

For example, the Civil War is said to have been about abolishing slavery. But most people at the time recognized that as mere cover. The real purpose of the war was to preserve the federal government's revenue base and the economic privileges enjoyed by Northern industrial interests at the expense of the agricultural South. Lincoln favored the tariff while Davis condemned it, but neither disputed that it was central to the war.

After the South was conquered, the swollen Union Army was not dismantled but rather put to other purposes. Under the principle of use it or lose it, the Army was sent to massacre the Indians so the West could be made safe for more government-backed industrialists. It was exactly as English historian Lord Acton predicted: a Northern victory led to empire.

The next war was just as pointless. It was over the Spanish possessions in the New World, a war Secretary of State John Hay labeled as "splendid." Mark Twain originally supported it because he thought its purpose was to free Cuba from Spanish tyranny. Then he discovered that the war was actually fought so that the U.S. could have coaling stations in the Philippine Islands for trade with (and control over) China. Twain then turned against the war, and issued his famous phrase: "We cannot maintain an empire in the Orient and maintain a republic in America."

President McKinley provoked the Spanish-American War by sending the battleship Maine to the harbor in Havana (recent evidence confirms that the hull was blown outward, not inward, so the Spanish were not responsible). At the same time, he sent the Navy to the Philippines. He helped the Philippines throw off their Spanish rulers, and once they had gained their freedom, McKinley turned the guns on citizens themselves, murdering more than 3,000 in cold blood. McKinley then sent 5,000 Marines to China to help suppress the Boxer Rebellion, which was led by Chinese patriots who wanted foreign invaders and opium dealers off their soil.

Neither was America's entry into World War I necessary. And had we not intervened, the war would have been negotiated to a close in the traditional manner. Our entry cost American citizens dearly in lives, taxes, inflation, and lost freedoms. The government was vastly expanded, and wartime agencies later became the core planning apparatus for the New Deal.

The greatest costs of this war stemmed from the Treaty of Versailles, made possible by America's entry. Its Carthaginian terms bred intense resentments, and virtually guaranteed another European-wide conflict in the future. Yet the allies continued to insist upon the terms of the Treaty until the next war.

World War I brought Communism to Russia (the draft and bloodshed were the Bolsheviks' main issues), Nazism to Germany (Hitler preyed on real grievances), state capitalism to America (the central bank funded the war and nationalized industry supplied the munitions), and Fascism to Italy (the war had destroyed the old order). In its cataclysmic effects, it compares only to the Peloponnesian War that ended the civilization of ancient Greece.

Another cost of war is the change that has taken place in public morals and in our attitudes toward violence. During World War II, 50 million people--70 percent of them civilians--were slain for purposes of geopolitics. The war crimes ranged from the mass slaughters across Europe and Russia, to the allied terror bombing of Dresden, to the atomic bombing of Japan.

President Eisenhower, in his farewell address of January 17, 1961, issued a warning about the dangers of special interests behind the war machine. Few presidents ever spoke with the military authority of President Eisenhower. He was speaking about people and interest groups he knew all too well.

"We must never let the weight" of the military-industrial complex "endanger our liberties or democratic processes," he said, measuring his words carefully. "We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

When he said that we were already in the thick of the Cold War, but defense spending ran only $52 billion per year, compared with the $300 billion we spend today, seven years after the Cold War has ended. Even if we adjust these figures for inflation, Congress will allocate 15 percent more this year than the budget Eisenhower thought represented a grave threat to liberty.

When Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed in an airplane crash last year, we got a clear view of the military-industrial complex in action. Dead along with Brown were a dozen leading industrialists who had flown in a military plane over Bosnia. They all had a strong financial interest in intervening in that war and reaping profits from the "rebuilding" effort.

The military-industrial complex is at work in the attempt to expand NATO to the borders of Russia. NATO was supposedly formed to unite Europe against the Communist threat of Soviet Russia. With the fall of that regime, NATO now serves no useful purpose. Why, then, is it still in existence, let alone expanding? Because the new nations coming into the alliance will have to buy weaponry manufactured by U.S. businesses, who will in turn guarantee their investments with American tax dollars.

Beginning with President Truman, Democrat and Republican presidents alike have contended that it is no longer necessary for Congress to declare war. Presidents may send armed forces anywhere in the world without congressional authority. We could have a perpetual war in order to maintain perpetual peace and become the world's policeman without any authorization from Congress. George Orwell's book 1984 was a warning against this very thing.

Why did the American Constitution give Congress the exclusive power to declare war and authorize military action? The framers were familiar with English history and England's separation of powers in its unwritten constitution, which placed the power of the sword in the executive branch and the power of the purse in the legislative branch.

When Charles I violated this separation of powers and raised war money without the consent or approval of parliament, it sparked a civil war, and the king's head was chopped off. The framers looked to this example of why the mere separation of powers cannot prevent war. They removed all power to declare war from the executive branch, and placed it exclusively with Congress.

In Shakespeare's Henry IV, the dying king made a confession to his son who would inherit the throne. His foreign war in the Holy Land had been completely unnecessary, but was carried out for a particular political purpose. He used the oldest trick of the trade: create a foreign war to increase and concentrate power and silence your critics. His advice to his son was that he too should "busy giddy minds with foreign wars."

As Madison said, "war is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them." "The strongest passions and the most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast," he wrote "are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

Presidents Washington and Jefferson also warned against wars in Europe. "I have deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take an active part in the quarrels of Europe," wrote Jefferson. "Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours. Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government are foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war."

The great accomplishment of Western civilization was the discovery of freedom by the effective limitation on state power. War, even victorious war, is the greatest threat to freedom. It removes those restraints on governmental power and causes immense power to be concentrated into the central government. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1833, "All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it."

The Pentagon says we need a warfare state that can conduct two foreign wars at one time--which is not to say it won't be shy about asking for billions more once those wars are begun. But if our concern is the preservation of a free society, we could do no better than to echo James Madison: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."


John V. Denson is editor of The Costs of War and author of A Century of War.

Related Audio

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