It has become uncommon for war makers to advertise their wars as desirable, and standard policy to claim that every war is entered into as a last resort. This is progress to be very pleased with and to build on. It is possible to show that the launching of any particular war was not, in fact, the last resort, that superior alternatives existed. So, if war is defensible only as a last resort, war is indefensible.
For any war that occurs, and even many that do not, there can be found people who believe at the time, and after, that each particular war is or was necessary. Some people are unconvinced by claims of necessity for many wars, but insist that one or two wars in the distant past were indeed necessary. And many maintain that some war in the future could conceivably be necessary — at least for one side of the war, thus requiring the permanent maintenance of a military ready to fight.
This is a different war myth than the myth that war is beneficial, that war brings about significant good for the nation that wages it or the nation on which it is waged. Those myths can be found on their own page here.
War Is Not “Defense”
The U.S. War Department was renamed the Defense Department in 1947, and it is common in many countries to speak of the war departments of one’s own and all other nations as “defense.” But if the term has any meaning, it cannot be stretched to cover offensive war making or aggressive militarism. If “defense” is to mean something other than “offense,” then attacking another nation “so that they can’t attack us first” or “to send a message” or to “punish” a crime is not defensive and not necessary.
In 2001, the Taliban government in Afghanistan was willing to turn Osama bin Laden over to a third nation to be tried for crimes the United States was alleging he’d committed. Instead of pursuing legal prosecutions for crimes, the United States and NATO chose an illegal war that did far more damage than the crimes, continued after bin Laden was said to have left the nation, continued after bin Laden’s death was announced, and did serious lasting damage to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to the United States and NATO nations, and to the rule of law.
According to a transcript of a meeting in February 2003 between U.S. President George W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Spain, Bush said that President Saddam Hussein had offered to leave Iraq, and to go into exile, if he could keep $1 billion. A dictator being allowed to flee with $1 billion is not an ideal outcome. But the offer was not revealed to the U.S. public. Instead, Bush’s government claimed a war was needed to defend the United States against weapons that did not exist. Rather than losing a billion dollars, the people of Iraq saw the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, millions made refugees, their nation’s infrastructure and education and health systems destroyed, civil liberties lost, vast environmental destruction, and epidemics of disease and birth defects — all of which cost the United States $800 billion, not counting trillions of dollars in increased fuel costs, future interest payments, veterans’ care, and lost opportunities — not to mention the dead and injured, increased governmental secrecy, eroded civil liberties, damage to the earth and its atmosphere, and the moral damage of public acceptance of kidnapping, torture, and murder.
Read also: Myth: China Is a Military Threat
Among those who believe that only select wars are necessary, the most recent widely popular example in a number of nations, including the United States, is World War II. This fact is stunning. People go back three-quarters of a century to find a defensible example of one of our largest endeavors as a species, an activity to which the world devotes roughly $2 trillion each year and the United States half of that. It is hard to find a current defense of 1940s approaches to race, sex, religion, medicine, diet, tobacco, or just about anything else. In the field of international relations, several decades of valuable experience shows us that there aresuperior alternatives to war making for achieving security. Imperialism of the variety practiced in the 1940s is dead and gone, yet fear of it has tied countless tyrants to the name “Hitler” in war propaganda over the decades. In reality, a new Hitler is not threatening the world’s wealthy nations. Instead, they are threatening poorer nations with a very different type of imperialism.
Taking the claim that World War II was “a good war” on its own terms, here are some often overlooked facts, none of which — needless to say — excuse in the slightest the hideous crimes of any party to that war:
- It is widely accepted that World War I was unnecessary, yet without World War I its sequel is unimaginable.
- Ending World War I with punishment of an entire nation rather than of the war makers was understood by wise observers at the time to make World War II very likely.
- The arms race between the two world wars was widely and correctly understood to be making the second war more likely.
- U.S. and other Western corporations profited by enriching and arming dangerous governments in Germany and Japan, which also had the support of Western governments between the wars.
- The United States had tutored Japan in imperialism and then provoked it through territorial expansion, economic sanctions, and assistance to the Chinese military.
- Winston Churchill called World War II “The Unnecessary War” claiming that “there was never a war more easy to stop.”
- Churchill obtained a secret commitment from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to bring the United States into the war.
- The U.S. government expected the Japanese attack, took numerous actions it knew were likely to provoke it, and prior to the attack: ordered its Navy to war with Japan, instituted a draft, collected the names of Japanese Americans, and ignored peace activists marching in the streets for years against the long build-up to a war with Japan.
- Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye proposed talks with the United States in July 1941, which Roosevelt rejected.
- President Roosevelt lied to the U.S. public about Nazi attacks and plans in an effort to win support for entering the war.
- President Roosevelt and the U.S. government blocked efforts to allow Jewish refugees into the United States or elsewhere.
- Facts about Nazi crimes in concentration camps were available but played no part in war propaganda until after the war was over.
- Wise voices predicted accurately that continuing the war would mean the escalation of those crimes.
- After gaining air superiority, the Allies declined to raid the camps or bomb the railway lines to them.
- No crimes apart from the war, by any nation, remotely matched in scale the death and destruction of the war itself.
- The U.S. military and government knew that Japan would surrender without the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japanese cities, but dropped them anyway.
- The U.S. military put numerous Japanese and German war criminals on its staff following the war.
- U.S. doctors, engaged in human experimentation during and after World War II, widely viewed the Nuremberg Code as applicable only to Germans.
- Nonviolent resistance to Nazism in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and even in Berlin — poorly planned and developed though it was in that day and age — showed remarkable potential.
- World War II gave the world: wars in which civilians are the primary victims, as well as a permanent massive U.S. military aggressively present around the globe.
War Preparation Is Also Not “Defense”
The same logic that would claim that attacking another nation is “defensive” can be used to try to justify the permanent stationing of troops in another nation. The result, in both cases, is counterproductive, producing threats rather than eliminating them. Of some 196 nations on earth, the United States has troops in at least 177. A handful of other nations also have a much smaller number of troops stationed abroad. This is not a defensive or necessary activity or expense.
A defensive military would consist of a coast guard, a border patrol, anti-aircraft weapons, and other forces able to defend against an attack. The vast majority of military spending, especially by wealthy nations, is offensive. Weapons abroad, on the seas, and in outerspace are not defensive. Bombs and missiles targeting other nations are not defensive. Most wealthy nations, including those with numerous weapons that serve no defensive purpose, spend well under $100 billion each year on their militaries. The extra $900 billion that brings U.S. military spending up to roughly $1 trillion annually includes nothing defensive.
Defense Need Not Involve Violence
In defining recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as non-defensive, have we left out the viewpoint of Afghans and Iraqis? Is it defensive to fight back when attacked? Indeed, it is. That is the definition of defensive. But, let’s remember that it is promoters of war who have claimed that defensiveness makes a war justified. Evidence shows that the most effective means of defense is, far more often than not, nonviolent resistance. The mythology of warrior cultures suggests that nonviolent action is weak, passive, and ineffective at solving large-scale social problems. The facts show just the opposite. So it is possible that the wisest decision for Iraq or Afghanistan would have been nonviolent resistance, non-cooperation, and appeal to international justice.
Such a decision is all the more persuasive if we imagine a nation like the United States, with great control over international bodies like the United Nations, responding to an invasion from abroad. The people of the United States could refuse to recognize the foreign authority. Peace teams from abroad could join the nonviolent resistance. Targeted sanctions and prosecutions could be combined with international diplomatic pressure. There are alternatives to mass violence.
The important question, however, is not how the nation attacked should respond, but how to prevent the aggressive nation from attacking. One way to help do that would be to spread awareness that war making endangers people rather than protecting them.
Denying that war is necessary is not the same as failing to recognize that there is evil in the world. In fact, war needs to be ranked as one of the most evil things in the world. There is nothing more evil that war can be used to prevent. And using war to prevent or punish the making of war has proven a dreadful failure.
War mythology would have us believe that war kills evil people who need to be killed to protect us and our freedoms. In reality, recent wars involving wealthy nations have been one-sided slaughters of children, the elderly, and ordinary residents of the poorer nations attacked. And while “freedom” has served as a justification for the wars, the wars have served as a justification for curtailing actual freedoms.
The idea that you could gain rights by empowering your government to operate in secret and to kill large numbers of people only sounds reasonable if war is our only tool. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Thus wars are the answer to all foreign conflicts, and disastrous wars that drag on too long can be ended by enlarging them.
Preventable diseases, accidents, suicides, falls, drowning, and hot weather kill many more people in the United States and most other nations than does terrorism. If terrorism makes it necessary to invest $1 trillion a year in war preparations, what does hot weather make it necessary to do?
The myth of a great terrorist threat is wildly inflated by agencies like the FBI that regularly encourage, fund, and entrap people who could never have managed to become terrorist threats on their own.
A study of real motivations for wars makes clear that necessity hardly figures into the decision making process, other than as propaganda for the public.
“Population Control” by Mass-Murder Is Not a Solution
Among those who recognize how damaging war is, there exists another mythical justification for this peculiar institution: war is needed for population control. But the planet’s capacity to limit human population is beginning to show signs of functioning without war. The results will be horrible. A solution might be to invest some of the vast treasure now dumped into war into the development of sustainable lifestyles instead. The idea of using war to eliminate billions of men, women, and children almost renders the species that could think that thought unworthy of preserving (or at least unworthy of criticizing Nazis); fortunately most people cannot think anything so monstrous.