Two new books, War: How Conflict Shaped Us and Gambling with Armageddon, reveal how we end up marching into war
Michael T. Klare / The Nation &David Swanson / David Swanson.org & World BEYOND War
(July 19, 2021) — Ever since the publication, in 1984, of Barbara W. Tuchman’s The March of Folly, I have associated the decision to go to war with the word and concept of “folly.”
In her book, Tuchman examined several cases, beginning with the Trojans’ famous decision to move the Greeks’ warrior-filled wooden horse into their city and ending with the US decision to intervene in Vietnam, to show how those who make military decisions often do so in ways that run contrary to their own and their country’s fundamental interests.
For anyone who came of age during the Vietnam War era, as I did, this folly has proved to be an inescapable lesson of history, one that continues to be taught to this day: From the Gulf War of 1990–91 to the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, wars inevitably result from errors of judgment.
Two new books offer us close studies of this march of folly. The first, Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us, covers the entire span of human history; the second, Martin Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon, takes a microscopic slice of that time-span, the famous “thirteen days” of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, and reveals how close we came to nuclear annihilation. Both, however, wrestle with the same questions raised earlier by Tuchman: Why do humans choose, again and again, to initiate activities that will almost assuredly result in widespread death and misery, including of their own compatriots?
The Origins of War
MacMillan is an emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University and the author of a highly regarded book on the outbreak of World War I, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. While the origins of war are central to her inquiry, she is also interested in far more than just its causes. In crisp prose, she examines the impact of war-making on human societies from the distant past to the present — and the corresponding impact of societies on the conduct of war.
Drawing on sources from a multitude of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, economics, history, psychology, and sociology, she shows that warfare, or organized violence, has been part of the human story from prehistoric times to the present. Over this span of time, she argues, these two spheres — war and society — have constantly interacted with each other, driving momentous changes in both. The military’s unending search for improved weaponry, for example, has driven the advance of numerous technologies, from metallurgy to radar; advances in civilian industries, such as steam power and the internal combustion engine, have altered the nature of warfare.
For MacMillan, the most significant cross-fertilization between warfare and society occurred in the areas of state formation and mass mobilization. Prior to the French Revolution, she writes, European monarchs relied on mercenaries and dragooned armies of dubious reliability to fight their wars; following that momentous event, mass popular armies were organized to defend the revolution and then, under Napoleon, to extend (or halt) its reach.
This resulted, on the one hand, in the emergence of vast citizen armies supported by large-scale logistical and arms-making organizations, and, on the other, of modern state systems with elaborate bureaucracies (much of them devoted to revenue collection intended to pay for past or future wars), state-provided universal education, and ever-increasing popular participation in the political process.
“War forces change and adaptation, and conversely changes in society affect war,” she notes. “The strong nation-states of today with their centralized governments and organized bureaucracies are the products of centuries of war.”
The Rise of Nation-states
Since their modern formation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strong nation-states have proved to be very much prepared to mobilize large, well-equipped armies in the event of war, as demonstrated by the behavior of the major powers during the two world wars. But, as MacMillan demonstrates, the mobilization of entire societies for war has many pernicious effects that often outlast the total wars they thereby unleashed. By instilling martial values in the young — especially young men — they also help propagate chauvinistic and often racist or ethnocentric attitudes, planting the seeds for future wars.
Even more significant, the distinction between combatants and civilians in such societies often disappears — especially during wartime, when everyone, young and old, male and female, is expected to contribute to the war effort in one way or another. This conflation of combatants and civilians, in turn, has come to legitimize attacks on urban populations during major conflicts, as the inhabitants of large settlements were assumed to be engaged in arms production or other war-sustaining activities.
Urban attacks of this sort became official policy during World War II, when both Germany and Britain engaged in the systematic bombardment of their adversary’s cities and industrial centers; after the United States joined the war, it too engaged in such practices, notably by bombing Japanese cities (constructed largely of wood) with incendiary weapons. Although it has never been demonstrated that urban attacks of this sort diminished an adversary’s fighting spirit or shortened the war’s duration, this mode of thinking led to a search for ever more destructive weapons — and ultimately to the atomic bomb.
Although, as MacMillan writes, the tools and methods of warfare have changed over time, she detects remarkably little alteration in the motives that drive nations and warriors to engage in armed conflict. In fact, she identifies only three such impulses: greed, self-defense, and ideas or emotions.
Greed, in most instances, has involved the seizure of others’ land and its inhabitants — for food production, resource plunder, human enslavement, taxation, and other forms of exploitation. Most wars throughout time, and all imperial conquests, have had this as their primary objective.
“Cortés and Pizarro toppled the Aztec and Inca empires in the early sixteenth century in their search for gold,” she writes. “The rulers of Prussia, Austria, and Russia divided up Poland at the end of the eighteenth century because they wanted to add to their possessions. Hitler took his war into the East because he believed that the German race needed more land and resources to survive. Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990 because he wanted its oil.”
Self-defense is relatively easy to explain, as it usually involves efforts by the targets of such assaults to resist foreign domination. More ambiguous, however, is the impact of ideas and emotions on the impulse to fight — especially as appeals to national pride, religious or revolutionary fervor, historical ethnic grievances, and other traditional calls to war are often used by leaders to disguise more pecuniary objectives, such as the acquisition of personal wealth.
The Crusaders, for example, claimed to be driven by religious zeal yet regularly engaged in wholesale plunder; more recently, rebel leaders like Jonas Savimbi of Angola have boasted of their revolutionary credentials while accumulating private wealth from the illicit sale of diamonds.
Nevertheless, ideas and emotions have stoked conflicts throughout history, and MacMillan is fully justified in highlighting their importance.
As she points out, the role of ideology, nationalism, and ethnocentrism has also become key in arousing the martial instinct as states became increasingly reliant on large citizen armies to conduct their wars. This process began in the wake of the French Revolution, when ordinary citizens were enjoined by republican leaders to take up arms in its defense. Napoleon also employed revolutionary tropes to recruit soldiers into the armies he needed to conduct attacks on other European powers, and, of course, similar appeals were used to enlist citizen soldiers in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
More recently, political ideologies have played a dominant role in stirring conflict, especially in the 20th and early 21st centuries with the emergence of communism, fascism, Maoism, and wars of national liberation — along with the counterrevolutionary, anti-fascist, anti-communist, and other oppositional formations that have arisen in response to these acute challenges. As MacMillan notes, moreover, “Wars of ideology, whether religious or political, are often the cruelest of all because the kingdom of heaven or some form of earthly paradise justifies all that is done in its name, including removing human obstacles.”
A Global Contest of Ideologies
The clash of ideologies on a global scale is what provided the historical backdrop for the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 and animated its principal figures. Occurring at a time when hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union was at a fever pitch and the leaders of both countries were driven by a powerful sense of ideological mission, the crisis nearly erupted into a full-scale nuclear exchange. By examining these dynamics as they played out in Moscow and Washington, Martin Sherwin provides fresh insights both on that momentous event and on the larger themes of war and society raised by MacMillan.
Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon is actually two books in one. At heart, it is a revisionist retelling of the deliberations within the executive committee (ExComm) of the National Security Council, the select body established by President John F. Kennedy on October 16, 1962, to devise a muscular response to the Soviet deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba.
In the classical account of these momentous events — most famously in Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days — the “wise heads” of ExComm successfully maneuvered the Soviets (then led by Nikita Khrushchev) into backing down and removing the missiles, thus saving the world from nuclear annihilation. As Sherwin persuasively demonstrates, however, those supposedly sagacious men were largely in the dark as to what was happening in Cuba and repeatedly lurched toward a catastrophe-inviting invasion.
In addition to this revelatory narrative, Sherwin provides a second valuable book on the evolution of elite US thinking on the use of nuclear weapons from 1945 to the outbreak of the missile crisis. Although largely intended as a prelude to the events of 1962, this richly annotated section helps us comprehend the ideas and emotions that enabled the members of ExComm to seriously contemplate the use of hideously destructive weapons — thus bringing us back to MacMillan’s musings and, indeed, to Tuchman’s The March of Folly.
When being informed, on October 16, that the Soviets had installed SS-4 medium-range and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles on Cuban soil and were preparing them for operational use, President Kennedy asked his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, to convene a number of high-level figures to advise him on possible courses of action. In addition to Bundy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, this group grew to include Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Director of Central Intelligence John McCone, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and former secretary of state Dean Acheson.
The group met several times a day until the crisis abated, debating various options for addressing the Soviet challenge. Unbeknownst to them, Kennedy made recordings of these sessions — which, when made public many years later (and extensively cited by Sherwin), provided an extraordinary insight into the thinking of these powerful figures when faced with decisions of potentially catastrophic consequence.
In the highly burnished account of these deliberations, the members of ExComm had reasonably good intelligence on what was happening in Cuba, possessed a keen understanding of Khrushchev’s intentions, and, under enormous strain and pressure, successfully devised the military and diplomatic chess moves that compelled Moscow’s capitulation.
As Sherwin amply demonstrates, however, virtually none of these assertions are true. To begin with, US leaders were never aware of the fact that the nuclear warheads for those missiles had already been shipped to Cuba — in contrast to White House assumptions that they had yet to be delivered — or that the Soviets had deployed 42,000 troops to the island, three times the number identified in US intelligence reports. Nor did ExComm members fully comprehend Khrushchev’s reasons for stationing those troops and missiles or know of other Soviet moves, such as the deployment in US coastal waters of submarines equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes.
Instead, the members of ExComm and their military colleagues were mostly confused, divided, and bloodthirsty, repeatedly making decisions that would, if carried out, have led to a disastrous escalation. When Kennedy decided to impose a naval blockade on Cuba as an alternative to direct military action, many of his top aides steadfastly resisted, saying that only a full-scale invasion and the physical destruction of the missiles would suffice to resolve the matter. Hence, when members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with Kennedy and the rest of the ExComm ensemble on October 19 to discuss the blockade plan, their response was universally hostile. Dismissing the president’s assertion that an assault on Cuba could provoke a Soviet move on Berlin and thereby trigger a full-scale, or “general,” nuclear war, the chiefs proclaimed their view that only an invasion would end the crisis.
“We don’t have any choice except direct military action,” insisted Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff. The Soviets wouldn’t dare move against US forces in West Berlin, he argued, and the United States must demonstrate that “if they make a move, we’re going to fight.” (LeMay, it should be noted, was an early advocate of bombing enemy cities as a major war tactic and oversaw the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths.)
What emerges from all these conversations is the inescapable conclusion that, far from behaving in a rational manner and pulling us back from the brink of annihilation, the men around Kennedy nearly pushed us over the edge. Only through the persistent urgings of UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, an occasional participant in the ExComm meetings, was Kennedy persuaded to attempt negotiations with Moscow and so resolve the crisis peacefully.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Russian Response
As Sherwin shows, Khrushchev also behaved in a reckless manner. In basing the missiles in Cuba in the first place, he failed to anticipate the explosive reaction that this move would produce in Washington. Having already learned to accept the presence of US nuclear-armed missiles in Turkey, he assumed that Washington would likewise accept the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, thereby creating a “balance of fear” and somehow reducing the risk of nuclear adventurism. What he failed to comprehend, of course, was the American leadership’s fanatical hatred of the Castro regime and complete preparedness to risk global incineration in its elimination.
It is in this respect that the earlier portion of Sherwin’s book, on the evolution of elite US thinking on nuclear weapons use, comes into play. As he demonstrates, US leaders and their counterparts in Moscow never viewed nuclear weapons as military tools alone; they were also seen as political and psychological tools that could be employed to intimidate one’s adversaries and enhance one’s own self-confidence and swagger.
As US and Soviet nuclear capabilities expanded and the consequences of an eventual nuclear conflagration became ever more catastrophic, senior American officers, like their Soviet counterparts, were expected to possess nerves of steel and the willingness to contemplate, without hesitation, the launching of multiple warheads capable of killing tens or hundreds of millions of people. For the key participants in the 1962 events, these attitudes had become totally ingrained.
In defending their behavior during this crisis, the principals involved uniformly described their actions as having been guided by a noble purpose, whether the defense of their country, the eradication of an antithetical political system, or the preservation of their nation’s highest ideals. Looking at this from the vantage point of hindsight, however, it is hard not to detect the more ignoble impulses that have led humans to engage in warfare throughout history: personal ambition, the pursuit of honor and glory, and the preservation of one’s status and perquisites.
Every member of ExComm sought Kennedy’s ear and approval, while Kennedy himself was fearful that any sign of hesitation on his part would be used by his political enemies to clobber Democratic candidates in the forthcoming midterm elections and to defeat his own reelection campaign two years later.
Khrushchev, for his part, was desperate to demonstrate his capacity to stand up to Washington in the increasingly high-stakes game of nuclear brinkmanship and to stave off challenges to his leadership of the communist world from Mao Zedong and other more radical voices.
That all of this did not finally result in a military clash of some sort and a catastrophic nuclear spiral should be largely attributed, in Sherwin’s view, to pure dumb luck. On several occasions, he writes, the world was but a hair’s breadth away from the use of nuclear weapons, only to be rescued by the prudent thinking of a few individuals. One of these was Stevenson, whose fortuitous presence at the White House on several key occasions, Sherwin argues, prevented Kennedy from succumbing to the bellicose appeals of his top generals; without Stevenson, things could easily have gone the other way. And this, of course, leads us back to Tuchman and the role of folly in human affairs. Read Sherwin’s account from beginning to end, and you cannot help but conclude that the Cuban missile crisis — and with it, humanity’s near-annihilation — was largely a product of human folly.
If there is one aspect of Sherwin’s and MacMillan’s rich and evocative analyses that is open to criticism, it is their failure to delve deeply into the relationship between gender and conflict. Reading their books and others in this field, it is hard not to come away with the impression that lurking under the more conventional explanations for acts of war — nationalism, territorial expansion, monarchical rivalry, and so on — lie the purportedly masculine traits of combativeness and self-aggrandizement that these men (and nearly everyone making these decisions were men) felt they had to embody.
Unique New US Genre Emerges:
The War-Is-Good-for-You Book
David Swanson / David Swanson.org & World BEYOND War
(October 7, 2020) — The New York Times loves the latest war-is-good-for-you book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan. The book fits into the growing and exclusively US genre that includes Ian Morris’s War: What Is It Good For? Conflict and Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots(Morris came to the US from the U.K. decades ago) and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.
According to Morris, the only way to make peace is to make large societies, and the only way to make large societies is through war. And when a society is large enough, it can figure out how to ignore all the wars it is waging and achieve bliss.
“Interstate wars” Morris claims, with no evidence and no footnotes, have “almost disappeared.” See there? Ignored effectively! Also vanishing from the globe, according to Morris: wealth inequality! Also there is no climate crisis worth worrying over. Plus nuclear weapons can’t kill us all anymore — but Iran endangers us all by building them — however, missile “defense” works!
All this terrific news is dampened a little by Morris’ guarantee that World War III is just around the corner — unless you gain the understanding that that is a good thing — which perhaps you will when, as Morris forecasts, computer programmers meld all of our minds into one.
According to celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, because 17th century Europe invested in science by investing in warfare, therefore only through militarism can any culture advance, and therefore — conveniently enough — astrophysicists are 100% justified in working for the Pentagon and taking credit for dreaming up a military weaponry “Space Force.”
Among those who knew better in a less war-mad era was Carl Sagan. But nutty and self-justifying as this new genre might be, you’d never question it at all if you only heard about it second-hand through fawning US corporate media and academia and the institutions that give out book awards.
In Teddy Roosevelt’s day, war was good for us because it built up the race and speeded the eradication of the inferior races. Those reasons why war is good for us are no longer deemed acceptable, but new ones are being substituted that are exactly as ludicrous — and they are given exactly as much respect as the old ones used to be, at least in the United States.
Margaret MacMillan’s book is not quite as goofy as Ian Morris’s, but that’s because most of the book is filler. A fraction of the book makes the war-is-good-for-us case. The rest just piles super-brief anecdotes into themed sections superficially presenting every war-related topic under the sun, mostly with no connection to making any argument, and with any controversial topics presented in an extravaganza of bothsidesism run amok.
Is Rousseau or Hobbes right about “human nature”? Yes! Is Steven Pinker right or wrong that war is vanishing even though the facts say just the opposite? Yes!
Not a single one of these books touches on the powers of nonviolent action. In this genre, as in US “news” “coverage,” to engage in mass-slaughter is to “do something.” The alternative is to “do nothing.”
Not a single one of these books examines the deadly economic trade-offs, the billions of lives that could be benefitted by reducing war spending, the climate damage of the war industry, the justification of government secrecy, the erosion of rights, the spread of hatred, or even — in any serious way — the deaths and injuries created by war.
MacMillan purports to tell a society absolutely saturated in war culture (and a readership she can predictably count on to lap up page after page of war fascination with no particular point to it) that . . . wait for it . . . war is important. Soaring over this inch-high hurdle, MacMillan still manages to go astray by mistaking Western or even US society for “humanity.” When China invests in major projects despite not waging any wars, we are apparently supposed to think that Chinese people are not human, because according to MacMillan only war concentrates people’s attention enough for them to accomplish anything major.
MacMillan is here to save us from the danger of war being left out of the study of history — an odd threat in a land where history texts are generally dominated by war after war, and war monuments dot the landscape. Not only is war important, MacMillan reveals to us, but it is the path to education and unemployment insurance as well as to the “stories” that nations supposedly require if they are to be “cohesive.”
MacMillan mixes ancient myth with fiction with historical account — all of which, I guess, count as stories. But she puts everything into the present tense and claims to be establishing permanent laws. “[B]orders have been set by war.” “[W]ar has also brought progress and change . . . greater law and order, . . . more democracy, social benefits, improved education, changes in the position of women or labor, advances in medicine, science, and technology.” MacMillan approvingly quotes another writer claiming that war is not just a crime, “it is also the punishment of a crime.” Larger nations, MacMillan tells us, like Morris, “are often the result of war.” Following tales of various ancient empires, MacMillan tells us that “great powers” “provide a minimum of security and stability.” After accounts of wars, all from over a century ago, MacMillan tells us that the world “reverts surprisingly easily to Hobbes’s state of anarchy.”
But wars are not creating many borders and haven’t in almost a century. Wars are not creating anything of value that couldn’t have been produced better without wars. That Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks that only by making a project about war can he get it funded by the US government is not a comment on humanity, but on the US government and on Neil deGrasse Tyson.
War has not been defensible as punishment of a crime for nearly a century. The European Union was not formed by war but to avoid it. No “powers,” whether “great” or otherwise, fail to provide a minimum of security, but ancient imperial butchers haven’t provided anyone with anything since ancient times.
I don’t think MacMillan would tell you that Chinese people are not human. But listen to this all-too-familiar-if-grotesquely-genocidal assertion from her book: “The American Civil War probably had more casualties than all other American wars combined.” If Native Americans and Filipinos and Koreans and Germans and Vietnamese and Iraqis and Afghans and so on and so forth are human, why can they never be counted as casualties?
Why does MacMillan claim that the United States only started attacking outside its borders at the end of the nineteenth century if Native Americans were/are human beings? Why does she claim that a war “almost accidentally” “gave” the United States the Philippines, if the huge numbers of people the United States had to murder in order to take the Philippines were people? Why is the US-led destruction of Iraq presented as a strategically flawed operation? Is that how MacMillan would present the Iraqi destruction of the United States? Why does she claim that the world now has religious wars without naming one or explaining the claim?
Wars, like the war on Iraq, MacMillan claims, take on their own momentum. Yet 535 members of the US Congress could choose to end any war at any moment and consistently choose not to. Human agency is missing from yet another book written by a human.
War, the entire institution, MacMillan wants us to suppose, takes on a life of its own. How so? Well, MacMillan tells us that “the evidence seems to be on the side” of those who claim that humans have made war “as far back as we can tell.” How far back can we tell? Who knows! The book cites exactly no evidence and contains — count them! — zero footnotes. Of course, the idea that war has always been around and always will be is common US opinion, which is presumably why it can be presented with no evidence even when it’s presented as a radical breakthrough.
MacMillan admits that humans have been around for 350,000 years while claiming that war “became more systematic” 10,000 years ago, and claiming that unspecified evidence shows that humans made weapons as early as “the later Stone Age” — which we might quantify as 5,000 years ago or so (she gives us no number). All of this adds up to a claim that some humans have sometimes done something somewhat resembling the warfare of some centuries ago for some 3% of their time on earth and possibly much longer sort of.
We know from the writings of people like Douglas Fry that a case can be made, citing specific examples, that there have been societies in recent times that knew no war and that most of humanity’s existence through pre-history was without war. It’s hard to weigh that case against an argument that cites no evidence. We know from looking around that over 90% of humanity is governed right now by states that invest radically less in war than does the United States. We know that there is very little overlap between the places with the wars — and generally blamed for the wars — and the places creating and exporting the weapons — an industry oddly absent from these books. We know that greed and self-defense and childish emotions can’t explain wars, as MacMillan tells us, unless she can explain why the United States has so much more of those things than other countries, and unless she can explain away the evidence that building bases and stationing ships and preparing for wars is a primary cause of wars (see David Vine’s forthcoming book, The United States of War).
If the United States reduced its militarism to the average of other nations, in either absolute or per-capita terms, we would be well on our way to war abolition, and yet these US books on the inevitability and benefits of war (and why must it be inevitable it we’re really going to believe in the benefits?) always seem to come back to that meaningless term of excuse, “human nature.” How can 4% of humanity define what is and must always be human?
The only nature of humans, as Jean-Paul Sartre tried to explain quite some time back now, is to be able to choose — which includes being able to make bad choices and invent excuses for doing so. Let’s suppose that everything the war lovers tell us is so. Let’s suppose that war has been around a lot more and a lot longer than anyone has ever imagined. Let’s suppose that violent chimps are our step brothers and sisters while amorous bonobos are all secretly evil. Let’s suppose that nonviolence has never worked. Let’s suppose that nobody has ever bothered to do anything or invent anything or think anything except as part of a war.
I’m sorry, but why would I care if all of those things were true? How would you get me to care? If I can choose not to eat or make love or breathe, how are you going to convince me that I cannot choose to work for the abolition of war? And if I can work for the abolition of war, why can’t everyone?
There is no reason, of course, that everyone can’t. There is just suggestion, just muddled mythology, just propaganda.
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