Probably the most common defense of wars is that they are necessary evils. That myth is debunked on its own page here.
But wars are also defended as being in some way beneficial. The reality is that wars do not benefit the people where they are waged, and do not benefit nations that send their militaries abroad to wage wars. Nor do wars help to uphold the rule of law — quite the reverse. Good outcomes caused by wars are dramatically outweighed by the bad and could have been accomplished without war.
Polls in the United States through the 2003-2011 war on Iraq found that a majority in the U.S. believed Iraqis were better off as the result of a war that severely damaged — even destroyed — Iraq. A majority of Iraqis, in contrast, believed they were worse off. A majority in the United States believed Iraqis were grateful. This is a disagreement over facts, not ideology. But people often choose which facts to become aware of or to accept. Tenacious believers in tales of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” tended to believe more, not less, firmly when shown the facts. The facts about Iraq are not pleasant, but they are important.
War Does Not Benefit Its Victims
To believe that the people who live where your nation’s government has waged a war are better off for it, despite those people’s contention that they are worse off, suggests an extreme sort of arrogance — an arrogance that in many cases has explicitly relied on bigotry of one variety or another: racism, religion, language, culture, nationalism, or general xenophobia. A poll of people in the United States or any nation involved in occupying Iraq would almost certainly have found opposition to the idea of their own nation being occupied by foreign powers, no matter how benevolent the intentions. This being the case, the idea of humanitarian war is a violation of the most fundamental rule of ethics, the golden rule that requires giving others the same respect you desire. And this is true whether the humanitarian justification of a war is an afterthought once other justifications have collapsed or humanitarianism was the original and primary justification.
There is also a fundamental intellectual error in supposing that a new war is likely to bring benefits to a nation where it is waged, given the dismal record of every war that has occurred heretofore. Scholars at both the anti-war Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the pro-war RAND Corporation have found that wars aimed at nation-building have an extremely low to nonexistent success rate in creating stable democracies. And yet the temptation rises zombie-like to believe that Iraq or Libya or Syria or Iran will finally be the place where war creates its opposite.
Advocates for humanitarian war would be more honest if they totalled the supposed good accomplished by a war and weighed it against the damage done. Instead, the often-quite-dubious good is taken as justifying absolutely any tradeoff. The U.S. didn’t count the Iraqi dead. The U.N. Security Council required that the U.N.’s human rights officer report on Libyans killed by NATO only in closed session.
Believers in humanitarian war often distinguish genocide from war. Pre-war demonization of dictators (often dictators who have been generously funded by their would-be assailants for decades prior) frequently repeats the phrase “killed his own people” (but do not ask who sold him the weapons or provided the satellite views). The implication is that killing “his own people” is significantly worse than killing someone else’s people. But if the problem we want to address is mass-killing, then war and genocide are siblings and there is nothing worse than war that war can be used to prevent — even were it the case that war tended to prevent, rather than to fuel, genocide.
Wars fought by wealthy nations against poor ones tend to be one-sided slaughters; quite the opposite of beneficial, humanitarian, or philanthropic exercises. In a common mythical view, wars are fought on “a battlefield” — a notion that suggests a sportsmanlike contest between two armies apart from civilian life. On the contrary, wars are fought in people’s towns and homes. These wars are one of the most immoral actions imaginable, which helps explain why governments that wage them lie about them to their own people.
The wars leave lasting damage in the form of brewing hatred and violence, and in the form of a poisoned natural environment. Belief in the humanitarian possibilities for war can be shaken by looking closely at the short- and long-term results of any war. War tends to leave behind danger, not security — in contrast to the more successful record of nonviolent movements for fundamental change. War and preparations for war removed the entire population of Diego Garcia; of Thule, Greenland; of much of Vieques, Puerto Rico; and of various Pacific Islands with Pagan Island next on the endangered list. Also threatened is the village on Jeju Island, South Korea, where the U.S. Navy wants a new base built. Those who have lived down-wind or down-stream from weapons testing have often been little better off than those who have been targeted by weapons use.
Violations of human rights can always be found in nations that other nations wish to bomb, just as they can be found in nations whose dictators are being funded and propped up by the very same humanitarian crusaders, and just as they can be found within those warrior nations themselves. But there are two major problems with bombing a nation to expand its respect for human rights. First, it tends not to work. Second, the right not to be killed or injured or traumatized by war ought to be considered a human right worthy of respect as well. Again, a hypocrisy check is useful: How many people would want their own town bombed in the name of expanding human rights?
Wars and militarism and other disastrous policies can generate crises that could benefit from outside assistance, be it in the form of nonviolent peaceworkers and human shields or in the form of police. But twisting the argument that Rwanda needed police into the argument that Rwanda should have been bombed, or that some other nation should be bombed, is a gross distortion.
Contrary to some mythical views, suffering has not been minimized in recent wars. War cannot be civilized or cleaned up. There’s no proper conduct of war that avoids inflicting serious and unnecessary pain. There is no guarantee that any war can be controlled or ended once begun. The damage usually lasts much longer than the war. Wars do not end with victory, which cannot even be defined.
War Does Not Bring Stability
War can be imagined as a tool for enforcing the rule of law, including laws against war, only by ignoring the hypocrisy and the historical record of failure. War actually violates the most basic principles of law and encourages their further violation. The sovereignty of states and the requirement that diplomacy be conducted without violence fall before the hammer of war. The Kellogg-Briand Pact, the U.N. Charter, and domestic laws on murder and on the decision to go to war are violated when wars are launched and escalated and continued. Violating those laws in order to “enforce” (without actually prosecuting) a law banning a particular type of weapon, for example, does not make nations or groups more likely to be law abiding. This is part of why war is such a failure at the task of providing security.
War Does Not Benefit the War Makers
War and war preparations drain and weaken an economy. The myth that war enriches a nation that wages it, as opposed to enriching a small number of influential profiteers, is not supported by evidence.
A further myth holds that, even if war impoverishes the war making nation, it can nonetheless be enriching it more substantially by facilitating the exploitation of other nations. The leading war-making nation in the world, the United States, has 5% of the world’s population but consumes a quarter to a third of various natural resources. According to this myth, only war can allow that supposedly important and desirable imbalance to continue.
There is a reason why this argument is rarely articulated by those in power and plays only a minor role in war propaganda. It is shameful, and most people are ashamed of it. If war serves not as philanthropy but as extortion, admitting as much hardly justifies the crime. Other points help weaken this argument:
- Greater consumption and destruction does not always equal a superior standard of living.
- The benefits of peace and international cooperation would be felt even by those learning to consume less.
- The benefits of local production and sustainable living are immeasurable.
- Reduced consumption is required by the earth’s environment regardless of who does the consuming.
- One of the largest ways in which wealthy nations consume the most destructive resources, such as oil, is through the very waging of the wars.
- Green energy and infrastructure would surpass their advocates’ wildest fantasies if the funds now invested in war were transferred there.
War provides fewer jobs than alternative spending or tax cuts, but war can supposedly provide noble and admirable jobs that teach young people valuable lessons, build character, and train good citizens. In fact, everything good found in war training and participation can be created without war. And war training brings with it much that is far from desirable. War preparation teaches and conditions people for behavior that is normally considered the worst affront to society possible. It also teaches dangerous extremes of obedience. While war can involve courage and sacrifice, paring these with blind support for ignoble goals sets a bad example indeed. If thoughtless courage and sacrifice is a virtue, ant warriors are demonstrably more virtuous than human ones.
Advertisements have credited recent wars with helping to develop brain surgery techniques that have saved lives outside of wars. The internet on which this website exists was developed largely by the U.S. military. But such silver linings could be shining stars if created apart from war. Research and development would be more efficient and accountable and more directed into useful areas if separated from the military.
Similarly, humanitarian aid missions could be run better without the military. An aircraft carrier is an overpriced and inefficient means of bringing disaster relief. The use of the wrong tools is compounded by justifiable skepticism from people aware that militaries have frequently used disaster relief as cover for escalating wars or stationing forces permanently in an area.
War Creators’ Motives Are Not Noble
Wars are marketed as humanitarian, because many people, including many government and military employees, have good intentions. But those at the top deciding to wage war almost certainly do not. In case after case, less than generous motives have been documented.
“Every ambitious would-be empire, clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, security and freedom, and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes. That is a lie, and it is an ancient lie, yet generations still rise and believe it.” —Henry David Thoreau
1. The last such poll may have been Gallup in August 2010.
2. Zogby, Dec. 20, 2011.
3. The last such poll may have been CBS News in August 2010.
War is inevitable.