War Is a Government ProgramBy Sheldon Richman
Jun. 01, 2007
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June 1 is the 227th anniversary of the birth of Carl von Clausewitz, the influential Prussian military theorist and historian. Clausewitz is best known for writing in his book, On War, “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.”
These words come to mind whenever I hear conservative enthusiasts for the Iraq occupation complain about political interference with military operations. They don’t understand the most basic fact of war: it is a government program. So why aren’t people who claim to be suspicious of other government programs suspicious of war? I can see only two reasons, neither of them flattering: power lust or nationalistic zeal.
Many of us grow up believing that government reflects the will of the people. But skeptics know better. Government has assumed more and more control over private life not because the people demanded it, but because power-seekers and privilege-seekers sought outlets for their ambitions. They then propagandized the public until a sufficient number of people came to believe government control was good for them. (“Public” education has been remarkably effective in this regard.)
The story is similar with war. Politicians start wars for political reasons. They may seek to control resources or a foreign population. Or they may want to secure existing interests that could be at risk without war. The military is a means to political ends.
War always has a domestic side. Ruling classes hold power so that they may live off the toil of the domestic population. And because the ruled 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 well: “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 is more dangerous than other government programs and not just for of the obvious reason — mass murder. Foreign affairs and war planning seem to justify secrecy, shutting the supposedly sovereign people out of the government’s scheming. Politicians would have a hard time justifying secrecy in domestic affairs. But it is routine in war-related matters. So much for government’s adventures mirroring the people’s wishes.
Most unappreciated of all is that war is the midwife of intrusive bureaucracy. James Madison understood this. “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.”
On their own, people do not go to war, and without compulsion they would never pay for it — they have better things to do with their money. Herman Goering, Hitler’s second in command, understood this: “Of course the people don’t want war.... But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it’s a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
Mencken knew this too: “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.”
War is politics. And that’s no compliment.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine. Visit his blog “Free Association” at www.sheldonrichman.com. Send him email.