Is War Alcohol?

People drinking at a party

By David Swanson, October 1, 2018

War is a self-perpetuating habit that harms its users and can provide a certain momentary high. At a peace conference in Canada recently I heard a number of people refer to themselves as “recovering Americans.” The degree to which many people imagine wars are launched and continued for rational reasons is a major misunderstanding; war cannot be explained without irrationality.

But any metaphor can be taken in a misleading direction, and I think that has been done with war and alcohol.

What? Is there an epidemic of people falsely thinking of war as being too much like alcohol? Yes, I think there is.

Among human beings who have heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the almost universal announcement that they will make — virtually word for word — upon hearing the Pact mentioned is: “I thought that was dropped because it didn’t work.”

I took me a long while to realize that this remark has its roots in alcohol. For years, this remark bewildered me. For one thing, law aren’t “dropped.” They have to be repealed. They can’t just be ignored — I mean, that’s not a legal standard. And if we ignored all laws that are ever violated, we would have to ignore almost every law, certainly every law that serves any useful purpose. Imagine ignoring or repealing laws against murder because murder exists. Imagine mocking Moses as a leftist freak for banning murder rather than establishing regulations for proper humanitarian murder. Imagine dropping the ban on driving drunk the first time it was violated, and instead plastering police cars with beer advertisements as an indication of liberal enlightenment.

Why is the Peace Pact the only law held to the bizarre standard of not really existing if it’s ever violated?

I’m setting aside a couple of related discussions here. One is the notion that the UN Charter replaced the Peace Pact by legalizing certain types of wars. No one ever makes that claim; it’s just a claim I always imagine that someone could attempt.

Another discussion is that of the supposed need for “defensive” war as long as war exists. Again, nobody makes this claim, but I could imagine it going something like this: If you ban shoplifting, you may reduce it but fail to eliminate it; however, its continued existence does not require that everyone shoplift in order to protect themselves from other shoplifters; but war is required by the Good People in order to protect themselves from any remaining violators of a ban on war. I think someone could say this because many people used to think this way, and many still do. But the knowledge actually exists now that tells us that making war endangers the war makers, and that nonviolent responses to war are more likely to succeed than violent ones.

So why does everyone obediently repeat the “it didn’t work” mantra when the Kellogg-Briand Pact is mentioned? I don’t think it has anything to do with the UN Charter or with a need for complete success that is inherent to a war ban and not to bans on other behavior. Instead, I think, though — again — nobody has actually said this, and few if any may be aware of it, that the idea of a law being rejected because it “didn’t work” is an idea rooted in the prohibition and subsequent legalization of alcohol. Drinking was banned, and it “didn’t work,” and the ban was repealed. And that repeal came right around the time of the Pact of Paris being prominently violated.

Now, some will tell you that the reason the Kellogg-Briand Pact “didn’t work” is that it needed “teeth,” it needed “enforcement.” I take the notion of using war to eliminate war to be hopelessly misguided and blinkered, and a predictable failure demonstrated by the United Nations. I take the notion that the Pact “didn’t work” to be absurd given the incredible progress it has brought in almost ending conquest, in reshaping international law, in stigmatizing war, in creating prosecutions of war. I take our task to be continuing the work of replacing war with nonviolent dispute resolution and reining in the major war makers and weapons dealers of the world. But this notion that the Pact lacked enforcement, and that’s why it “didn’t work” is a minority view. And even this view fits with the conception of war as a popular sin along the lines of alcoholism, one that needs to be stamped out by the proper authorities if possible, or tolerated and regulated if necessary.

But war isn’t alcohol, of course, and in fact it is different from alcohol in a number of critical ways.

First, there are good uses for alcohol. I like to have a beer or a glass of wine. I don’t have 10 of them. I don’t drive drunk. I don’t cause any harm. War is thought of by some in the very same way, but this thought is blatantly untrue. Sending a missile from a drone into somebody’s house is not a good use of war. It is murder, and it breeds more murder.

Second, the outlawrists who sought to ban war included people for and against banning alcohol. Banning one thing doesn’t fit neatly together with banning something else.

Third, drinking is an individual action. You can do it with friends, but each person drinks or doesn’t drink. Banning the tango or dueling would be closer to banning war. In fact, the outlawrists explicitly thought in terms of the model of banning dueling, and noted that no jurisdiction had banned only offensive dueling and maintained defensive or humanitarian dueling. It takes two to tango or to make war. Since the Kellogg-Briand Pact’s first prosecutions, at Nuremberg and Tokyo, the big armed nations have not fought each other directly, but they have fought small nations that have fought back.

Fourth, drinking is popular. War is by most measures unpopular. The drinking addicts are everywhere. The war addicts are concentrated among the powerful rulers of the war-making nations. War is not a problem of the masses, but a problem of the absence of control by the masses. War propaganda can win people over, and that winning over can resemble an intoxication. But the propaganda is created by a small number of people. Banning alcohol made alcohol cool. Banning war has made war propaganda more difficult, and its first task is the pretense that war hasn’t been banned.

Fifth, prohibition of alcohol created an underground, secretive, criminal business on a scale as large as the people’s thirst. Prohibiting war has perhaps fueled small-scale coups and assassinations, but war cannot operate on a large scale and be kept secret. You can’t hide a massive war in a basement and require a password to see it. The war problem is a problem of the largest most-open actions in the world committed by the biggest most prominent entities in the world. Effectively criminalizing war reduces war.

Sixth, prohibition made alcohol more fun, while it makes and must continue to make war more shameful.

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