War Is Horrible, but

By Higgs, Robert | Independent Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

War Is Horrible, but


Higgs, Robert, Independent Review


Anyone who has done even a little reading about the theory and practice of war--whether in political theory, international relations, theology, history, or common journalistic commentary--has encountered a sentence of the form "War is horrible, but .... " In this construction, the phrase that follows the conjunction explains why a certain war was (or now is or someday will be) an action that ought to have been (or still ought to be) undertaken, notwithstanding its admitted horrors. The frequent, virtually formulaic use of this expression attests that nobody cares to argue, say, that war is a beautiful, humane, uplifting, or altogether splendid course of action and therefore the more often people fight, the better.

Some time ago--in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for example--one might have encountered a writer such as Theodore Roosevelt who forthrightly affirmed that war is manly and invigorating for the nation and the soldiers who engage in it: war keeps a nation from "getting soft" (Morris 1979). Although this opinion is no longer expressed openly with great frequency, something akin to it may yet survive, as Chris Hedges has argued in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). Nowadays, however, even those who find meaning for their lives by involvement in war, perhaps even only marginal or symbolic involvement, do not often extol war as such.

They are likely instead to justify a nation's engagement in war by calling attention to alternative and even more horrible outcomes that, retrospectively, would have occurred if the nation had not gone to war or, prospectively, will occur if it does not go to war. This seemingly reasonable "balancing" form of argument often sounds stronger than it really is, especially when it is made more or less in passing. People may easily be swayed by a weak argument, however, if they fail to appreciate the defects of the typically expressed "horrible, but" apology for war.

Rather than plow through various sources on my bookshelves to compile examples, I have availed myself of modern technology. A Google search for the exact phrase "war is horrible but" on May 21, 2012, identified 58,100 instances of it. Rest assured that this number is smaller than the entire universe of such usage--some instances most likely have yet to be captured electronically. Among the examples I drew from the World Wide Web are the following fourteen statements. I identify the person who made the statement only when he is well known.

1. "War is horrible. But no one wants to see a world in which a regime with no regard whatsoever for international law--for the welfare of its own people--or for the will of the United Nations--has weapons of mass destruction." (U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage [2003])

This statement was part of a speech Richard Armitage gave on January 21, 2003, shortly before the U.S. government unleashed its armed forces to inflict "shock and awe" on the nearly defenseless people of Iraq. The speech repeated the Bush administration's standard prewar litany of accusations, including several claims later revealed to be false, so it cannot be viewed as anything but bellicose propaganda. Yet it does not differ much from what many others were saying at the time.

On its own terms, the statement scarcely serves to justify a war. The conditions outlined--a regime's disregard of international law, its own people's well-being, and the will of the United Nations, combined with possession of weapons of mass destruction--apply to several nations. They no more justified a military attack on Iraq than they justified an attack on Pakistan, France, India, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Israel, or the United States itself.

2. "War is terrible, war is horrible, but war is also at times necessary and the only means of stopping evil."

The only means of stopping evil? How can such singularity exist? Has evil conduct never been stopped except by war? …

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