Reflections on War and Its Consequences

News Abroad

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

The shift of the Iraq War from what its early proponents claimed would be a cakewalk to what most current observers—including the small group of neocons who originally championed it—consider a disaster suggests that war's consequences are not always predictable.

Some wars, admittedly, work out fairly well—at least for the victors.  In the third of the Punic Wars (149-146 B.C.), Rome's victory against Carthage was complete, and it obliterated that rival empire from the face of the earth.  For the Carthaginians, of course, the outcome was less satisfying.  Rome's victorious legions razed the city of Carthage and sowed salt in its fields, thereby ensuring that what had been a thriving metropolis would become a wasteland.

But even the victors are not immune to some unexpected and very unpleasant consequences.  World War I led to 30 million people killed or wounded and disastrous epidemics of disease, plus a multibillion dollar debt that was never repaid to U.S. creditors and, ultimately, fed into the collapse of the international financial system in 1929.  The war also facilitated the rise of Communism and Fascism, two fanatical movements that added immensely to the brutality and destructiveness of the twentieth century.  Certainly, World War I didn't live up to Woodrow Wilson's promises of a "war to end war" and a "war to make the world safe for democracy."

Even World War II—the "good war"—was not all it is frequently cracked up to be.  Yes, it led to some very satisfying developments, most notably the destruction of the fascist governments of Germany, Italy, and Japan.  But people too often forget that it had some very negative consequences.  These include the killing of 50 million people, as well as the crippling, blinding, and maiming of millions more.  Then, of course, there was also the genocide carried out under cover of the war, the systematic destruction of cities and civilian populations, the ruin of once-vibrant economies, the massive violations of civil liberties (e.g. the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps), the establishment of totalitarian control in Eastern Europe, the development and use of nuclear weapons, and the onset of the nuclear arms race.  This grim toll leaves out the substantial number of rapes, mental breakdowns, and postwar murders unleashed by the war.

The point here is not that World War II was "bad," but that wars are not as clean or morally pure as they are portrayed.

Curiously, pacifists have long been stereotyped as sentimental and naive.  But haven't the real romantics of the past century been the misty-eyed flag-wavers, convinced that the next war will build a brave new world?  Particularly in a world harboring some 30,000 nuclear weapons, those who speak about war as if it consisted of two noble knights, jousting before cheering crowds, have lost all sense of reality.

This lack of realism about the consequences of modern war is all too pervasive.  During the Cuban missile crisis, it led Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to warn top U.S. national security officials against their glib proposal to bomb the Soviet missile sites.  That's not the end, he insisted.  That's just the beginning!  After the crisis, President Kennedy was delighted that war with the Soviet Union had been averted—a war that he estimated would have killed 300 million people.

How do we account for the romantic view of war that seems to overcome portions of society on a periodic basis?  Certainly hawkish government officials, economic elites, and their backers in the mass media have contributed to popular feeble-mindedness when it comes to war's consequences.  And rulers of empires tend to become foolish when presented with supreme power.  But it is also true that some people revel in what they assume is the romance of war as a welcome escape from their humdrum daily existence.  Nor should this surprise us, for they find similar escape in romantic songs and novels, movies, spectator sports, and, sometimes, in identification with a "strong" leader.

Of course, war might just be a bad habit—one that is difficult to break after persisting for thousands of years.  Even so, people will give it up only when they confront its disastrous consequences.  And this clear thinking about war might prove difficult for many of them, at least as long as they prefer romance to reality.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/9/2006

It is obvious from your undersmart
insinuations that the Leftist theory
scare you and does not let you sleep well at night, as it doesn't let any
imperialist. That's why your folks continiuosly reinvent the enemies and their image, always saying that the last one is the most devilish and monstrous. In fact your greatest enemy is one - real social, economic, and political democracy, i.e.
the power of majority for majority.
As for your Third World fantasies, we don't need to ask the Left or the Right here, but the majority in the Third World... but we already heard the answer one million times, didn't we?

Jason Blake Keuter - 12/9/2006

It shouldn't surprise you as it is consistent with their Leninist view that Imperialism is the "final" stage of capitalism. Instead of capitalist exploiting workers, the developed western world is thought to exploit the Third World - i.e. the non-white world of the Southern Hemisphere.

It is imperative, then, to limit your examination of history to only those incidents that confirm that the problem of the 20th century, as Marxist W.E.B DuBois put it, the "color line". Herein lies the reason the left so foolishly and willfully sees in reactionary nihilists from Iran and pathetic posers from Mexico and any other tinhorn revolutionary or dictator an agent of progress. Sure, they'll admit that the person in question may not be perfect, but they are keeping alive the conflict between the exploited non-whites (the workers) and the west (the capitalist) and eventually this dialectic will play itself out in the destruction of capitalism.

Therein lie the origins of mulitculturalist blather. Most, of course, have long deviated in to an aimless loathing of an imaginary west. In general, thanks to European "resistance" to Iraq, the loathing is now focused on the US almost exclusively (which pales besides Europe in terms of modern incidents of mass brutality).

Jason Blake Keuter - 12/8/2006

The horrors of World War II do not point to naivete of "pro-war" romantics but to the foolishness of not going to war at the right time. World War II could have been infinitely less destructive, or non-existent, had the response to Nazi aggression been quick and decisive. It was, in fact, the pacifists (out of fear and convenience - not principle) who won the day in France and Germany, which enabled Hitler to gobble up Czechloslovakia, annex Austria and, most immportnanntyl, occupy the Rhineland in a move a nervous Germany was sure would bring war. Had that war come, Hitler most likely would have been overthrown. Instead, France and England did nothing and Hitler was emboldened and his potential critics within Germany discreditted. Further, the pacifists sent a pretty clear signal to Stalin that Hitler's march east wouldn't be met with Enlgish or French resistance, which encoouraged the non-aggression pact, which split Poland in two and led to decidedly unpacifistic results for the Poles - a tragedy that endured long after the war was over.

There were people who said Hitler should be stopped, but they were ignored and dismissed as war-mongerers anxious to relive the horrors of World War I.

Thus, pacifists are not only misty-eyed, they're willfully ignorant of all horrors except the ones they imagine resulting from democracies going to war. They are thus pawns in other people's militarism. The desire to avoid war is nearly universal and those who urge immediate military action against developing threats do so to avoid exactly the kind of horrors mentioned in this article. Pacifists and appeasers magnify the horrors, then disavow the decisive role pacifism and appeasement played in bringing those horrors about, and thus set the stage for their repetition.

Michael J Pearce - 12/5/2006

Interesting thoughts, but a question: how does human nature play into this? Namely, pride, competition, and the desire to rule.

Until these are addressed by all men and women worldwide, the billions of them, war will be necessary.

This is not an endorsement of war, just a mention of its sad reality.

Arthur D Jacobs - 12/5/2006

It never ceases to amaze that professors of history when commenting on the internment of Japanese Americans omit any mention of the internment of German Americans and Italian Americans.

It is as if the Euro Americans had no rights thus they were not violated.

For more on the internment of German Americans please visit

James Spence - 12/4/2006

War (and religion): why is it easier for many to find things to die for than to live for?