War: Ends and Means, Part I

Let us imagine that one day an alien spacecraft crash lands on earth, and there is a single survivor. This alien happens to be of a super-evolved species that has established a civilization where there is no war or hate or fear, and all live together in perfect harmony and happiness. This visitor would naturally be shocked, appalled, and frightened upon witnessing the human phenomenon of war (no doubt I am describing a sci-fi cliche) and would have much to learn to understand this bloody spectacle. There is one book that I would give this alien to get him started. It would not be Thucydides, or On War, or anything by Ken Waltz. It would be an obscure book that was first published in 1989: War: Ends and Means by Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla. I cannot recommend this book enough.

ends and meansPaul Seabury was a political scientist at Berkeley. He died in 1990. Angelo Codevilla has served as a navy officer, a foreign service officer, and a staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is currently a professor at Boston University, and has become one my favorite writers on international relations and national security issues.

I first discovered this book when I dug it out of the trash bin at my grad school’s library, but despite its relative obscurity and the grungy nature of my own introduction to the work, the book was fairly successful and a revised edition was released a few years ago. I have found no other book that so effectively condenses and introduces such an immense subject. Many authors have written primers on war, but Codevilla and Seabury have succeeded in not only introducing the topic but also inculcating the reader with a meaningful understanding of war’s many facets – from the philosophical nature of war and peace down to the tactical intricacies of waging modern warfare on land, sea, and air – in very readable prose. The authors write in their introduction:

This book means to reintroduce a generation of Americans that has come to think of peace as its birthright to thoughts about war: why nation fight, what happens to them when they do, how they fight, and how they make peace.

This book is not written for strategic theorists, military professionals, or historians who devote themselves to the nature of organized violence and its relations to politics. It is written for a generation of Americans whom the absence of the military draft has trained to live as if military matters were a spectator sport, whose popular culture gives the impression that violence belongs exclusively to the past or to lower forms of life, and whose university curricula make it well-nigh impossible to put one’s self in the shoes of history’s protagonists — or of those caught in the middle.

The book is structured into 3 parts: how wars start, how wars are fought, and how wars end. Starting with the introduction, the authors waste no time in demolishing the myths, lies, and illusions about war that have been allowed to flourish in the “magic kingdom of modern upper-middle-class American life.” The slaughter of so many sacred cows explains why the book is not more well known than it is: with simple logic it sweeps away nearly all of the assumptions that have guided the study of war in academia for the past 60 years. Most important among these is why war exists. It is not due to some unique alignment of impersonal circumstances that can be predicted and avoided by assigning variables and punching them into a computer. Quite simply, war is hell, but it is not the only hell, nor is it necessarily the worst hell:

An ineluctable fact is that human intercourse all too naturally produces circumstances in which reasonable people regard kill or be killed as the best option available…

The very evils we associate with war have fallen upon mankind more fully in times and places well removed from battlefields and in conditions conventionally called peace…

Perhaps 35 million people, of whom 25 million were civilians, have died as a direct consequence of military operations since 1900… The soldiers who died this way suffered before their demise as well as during the final minutes. Nonetheless, they not only had a fighting chance, but their governments were also making at least some efforts to keep them comfortable. Even civilian victims were afforded some measure of protection…

During the same period, however, at least 100 million human beings have been killed by police forces or their equivalent… These 100 million usually suffered for months or years before the end and perhaps suffered most of all by their helplessness in the face of monstrous acts committed against them and their families. Those who killed these 100 million men, women, and children did not have to overcome resistance, much less armed resistance. Because their victims could not (while others would not) make war on their own behalf, the killers did their killing in peace…

One of the primordial causes of war is fear of this kind of peace. One does not have to stand on the threshold of a gas chamber or watch one’s family starve on a train to Siberia to prefer combat to the absence thereof.

Critical to the book’s argument is the observation that “peace” is a uniquely Western concept that derives from a synthesis of ancient Greek philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition. The ethno-tribal civilizations outside of the West do not understand peace in the same manner that we do. In tribal societies, war is eternal; foreign tribes are often regarded as non-human and war upon them carries practical benefits (aside from their extermination) in terms of land, slaves, and loot. In this state of nature, “peace” as we understand it is incomprehensible. Western civilization changed that:

Only when what came to be known as Western or Judeo-Christian civilization gradually accepted that, as one formulation put it, all men are created equal did this civilization come to deem armed hostility a departure from the normal state of peace, a departure that only good reasons could render legitimate. For St. Augustine and for the entire Christian tradition that has followed, the primary purpose of government is the maintenance of peace…

The Christian tradition values peace so highly because peace is conducive to spiritual life. Spiritual life, in turn, is of overriding importance because of the Christian imperative of saving one’s immortal soul. Because that imperative bears on every individual, temporal quarrels between groups become inherently less important, and peace becomes the primordial goal of statecraft.

Paradoxically, however, the West is in danger of losing this foundational distinction, because today’s intellectuals are determined to separate modernity from Christianity. When the theological underpinnings for the concept of peace are removed, regressing to the tribal mindset of all against all becomes a danger:

…much of the modern intellectual tradition intends to liberate man from the “Christian fairy tale” that all men are God’s children, that human compatibility is the natural law, and that peace is the mandate of God. Thus, the primary challenge to the Western understanding of peace comes from within the Western tradition itself. Many modern Westerners have shed all spiritual concerns and have adopted mentalities – if not yet lifestyles – according to which absolutely all human intercourse is, by rigid definition, a form of war.

Marxism, which still has tremendous influence through it’s innumerable guises, is the most obvious strain of thought that does this. But any of the more exclusatory social movements reflect the same tendency. They may not spill blood (yet), but by carving out positions that boil down to “us versus them” they are resurrecting a tribalism that blurs the distinction between war and peace, inevitably resulting in war without end.

Some of the other points that the authors emphasize in their introduction:

  • The ultimate military potential of a nation – in terms of wealth, population, natural resources, etc. – is of limited significance in determining the outcome of a war: “Wars are won or lost, nations live or die, primarily by the people’s willingness to fight, their ability to impose discipline on themselves, and their readiness to subordinate themselves to chiefs who know what they are doing, thereby turning potential into actual force at the right place at the right time.”
  • There is no single formula for military victory, despite the endless search for it: “The only rule is that there is no rule – only the pressing need to size up a constantly changing situation, while making the most imaginative use of the forces at one’s command.”
  • Military operations must serve the political purpose of the war, but both the the political objectives and the military objectives are legitimate; neither must dominate over the other, and reconciling a balance between the two is the eternal challenge of strategy: “On one hand, the art of politics in wartime consists of guiding military operations without in any way fouling up military logic. It is difficult to find historical examples of military failures leading to political successes. On the other hand, part of the general’s art consists of keeping his military choices in the perspective of the war’s purposes and of the national good.”
  • A war’s ending rarely leaves all sides satisfied: “When a war does not pronounce final judgement on its causes, the result is bellus interruptes rather than peace. Furthermore, when the  winner thinks that he can secure his wishes only by killing or imprisoning the loses, as in the case of the Soviet Union and communist movements such as Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the result is the peace of the penitentiary, or the peace of the dead…This is not what people usually mean by peace… Rather, peace is a kind of satisfaction or tranquility in the order of things. What the losers will and won’t be satisfied with depends in part on the winners’ readiness to resume the war. But as long-term winners have always known, peace also means an order under which a given people can live in a way that more or less satisfies their essential needs. Yet not peace is permanent, and nothing so surely guarantees war as dissatisfaction with contingency and the attempt to establish perpetual peace.”
  • We refuse to “think about the unthinkable” to our own mortal peril: “Those who imagine that the coming nuclear war would end all life – if not in the twinkling of an eye then in a few weeks – let themselves off too easily. In fact, perhaps the most frightening feature of ‘the day after’ the onset of a nuclear war would be that nearly all of us would read about it in the newspaper, watch accounts on TV, and then have to face a host of thoughts that most of us had never entertained before. We would survive to suffer the consequences of our own thoughtlessness.
  • “It stands to reason that a people who – rightly – wants very much to live in peace reduces the chances of maintaining the peace or of quickly reestablishing it exactly in relation to its failure to understand the real difference between war and peace, how wars start, how they are conducted, how they affect society, and how they end.”

As I mentioned, these are some of the themes in the  introduction, which permeate the work as a whole. I hope to write some more about rest of the book in the near future, but in the meantime, read this wonderful book.

4 thoughts on “War: Ends and Means, Part I

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