Friday, October 06, 2006

War: Is it good for?

This provocative article by Christopher Clamer via Open Democracy raises many fascinating issues. His general thesis, that intellectuals and journalists need to be more honest and historically accurate about war and its non-military-related consequences is a good one. In the sense that an unconditional, ahistorical dismissal of war as "irrational" or "counterproductive" should be avoided as much as possible, he is absolutely right. If we are to look at wars from any kind of historical perspective (in addition to a moral one) we must look at the domestic consequences of war beyond simply death and destruction.

"Wars have given a boost to the efficiency of financial markets as well as to pressures for greater democracy and greater participation of women in political and economic life," Clamer writes. He, no doubt, is correct. The civil war gave us, in addition to the abolition of slavery, "standard sizing for mass production of clothes, the wider national use of legal tender paper bills (greenbacks), and Salmon P Chase's innovations in marketing bonds." In the years following the end of World War I -- and partly in response to the war itself -- women's suffrage was granted. World War II gave us the G.I. Bill, and the end of the depression.

However, now that we have acknowledged these historical events, like good students of Christopher Clamer that we are, what do we do now? For one, he says, we should no longer buy into the Enlightenment "liberal peace thesis" or "liberal view of violence." Fair enough. So, for all of you out there who believe, along with 18th century thinkers like Thomas Paine, that international commerce and free trade will forever end wars (I know that's a lot of you), you may now free yourself of this belief. For all of you who believe that it was entirely Roosevelt's New Deal, and not his war, that ended the single greatest economic depression in the history of the United States, you too may be disabused from your life of falsehood.

Ok, now that we've washed our hands of our erroneous ways, what now? Here, I'm just a little unclear as to what Mr. Clamer wants from us. The fact of the matter is that wars sometimes have good effects on social, economic, and political domestic affairs; but more often than not, their costs outweigh a set of benefits that were in the works to begin with. A bit of patience in these matters can go a long way. I don't think it's a stretch, for example, to say that we could have avoided the 126,000 U.S. military deaths (not to mention 600,000 deaths from the Spanish flu, a number that wouldn't be so inflated in the U.S. without war mobilization), and the social and political repercussions of the First Red Scare, while still granting women's suffrage, albeit perhaps a bit later. After all, the idea and practice of women's suffrage did not, of course, arise from the circumstances of the war. A bit of honest "History" demonstrates these reforms were right around the corner. In other words, the notion of the pristine "innovation of war" did not exist as this imagined 1918 conversation would have it:

General: Say, these women sure have been working hard at the factories while us men are doing the killing.
Politician: My God General, you're absolutely right ... Wait a second, I've got an idea! We ought to find some way to repay our appreciation to these fine gals, don't you think? Something to show that we because of this war, we think they're not so inferior after all.
General: What exactly do you have in mind, Politician? I haven't the slightest idea of what you're talking about.
Politician: That's just it, General. No one does. For all I know, this has never been thought of or done before -- not in New Jersey following the American revolution, and not even in Wyoming in 1869. No! This idea is entirely new. I'm talking about suffrage, man. Women's suffrage!

In World War II, the same idea holds. The idea of boosting government spending and providing a social safety net -- as demonstrated in the GDP increases at the start of the war, and the G.I. Bill at its conclusion -- were clear, simple extensions of the same ideas and practices already put in place in the pre-war stages of the New Deal.

If we are going to be honest about history, then let's do it. Clamer is right to remind us that war and violence on a large scale are complicated historical phenomena that cannot simply be dismissed with a bit of liberal utopianism. However, the fact remains that these strange "liberals" are hopeful because they have at least in part a right to be. Social and economic progress, history shows, can happen without war, and if there's any way to act in the future, it's in such a way as to stress these non-violent, historically validated, means to progress. (Hence my recent faith in the promise of the United Nations; my growing disgust with every new piece of evidence about the build-up to the Iraq War; and my horror at the recent actions and policies of the Israeli government).

Clamer himself says it better: "
Rather than merely criminalising these processes [of economic accumulation], the intellectual and policy challenge is to design ways of encouraging their conversion into less violent, more progressive, and more sustained processes of wealth-accumulation and job-creation..." We can at once abstain from turning a blind eye to the progress of war, while at the same time focusing more intensely at the progress of peace.

3 Comments:

Blogger Scantron said...

I confess to being a bit confused by this article. I think the confusion stems from Cramer's use of the word "liberal." On the one hand, he sometimes seems to use "liberal" to mean those who are opposed to war on human-rights grounds--this "amnesia" forces them to disregard the positive outcomes of wars. On the other hand, by the end of the article he seems to be using the word "liberal" to describe so-called neoliberal economic policies, such as those of Brazil. I think in the first instance his argument is confused, or at least it tends not to tell us anything constructive in how we should assess wars, especially casus belli. For certainly, not matter how many good consequences have resulted indirectly from wars, we can't start formulating war policy based around those positives. Wars should always be waged as a matter of defense, full stop. When we start calculating the potential goods that *might* just follow from war, but are of course in no way guaranteed to do so, well, in that case we are guilty of war profiteering and acts of aggression. I'm sure Cramer wouldn't agree to it, but his argument is in some ways of a piece with arguments for nation-building, which are usually just material interests cloaked in fancy liberationist, democracy-spreading rhetoric.

On a side note, I'm not sure Cramer ever presents us with a clear case of the "liberal peace thesis" in action. Is it really so ahistorical and naive to condemn Rwanda? Is not suicide bombing against civilians "senseless violence"? Cramer might be making a category mistake here: it's not that we say that suicide bombers have no sense, that they are irrational. No, their *motives* are completely analyzable; it's there *intentions*, i.e. what they intend to bring about, which we call "senseless" because in the long run no good end can be justified by such horrific means.

On the other hand, I agree with Cramer that historians often have willful amnesia about the "often-brutal foundations of democratic, capitalist modernity." "Every document of civilization is a document of barbarism," as a wise man once said. Perhaps there are some who are absolute pacifists, for whom all violence, including civil war, is categorically wrong. If you believe in the right of a people to self-determination, then under certain egregious circumstances violence is necessary. So, if tomorrow the people of North Korea decided to overthrow Kim and his apparatchiks, I wouldn't be too upset, in fact I might encourage the contribution of material support to the people. (The US, and other countries certainly, has such a checkered past of giving and withholding aid to all the wrong people that I'd be skeptical, though.)

For the other use of the word "liberal," however, I am in complete agreement. Especially in the late 20th century, when the US was contending with the Soviet Union, we saw numerous examples of economic liberalism existing side by side with the worst sorts of human rights abusers and dictators. We saw it in Latin America (with economists trained under Milton Friedman!) and Iran under the Shah, and we see it to this day in our special relationships with the Saudis and Bush's courtship of petty thugs in the 'Stans. This is not to say that planned economies are good and liberal economies bad, far from it, it just means that human rights and political freedoms have to go hand-in-hand with economic decisions.

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