The Disgrace of War


Here’s a simple question. Give me the first answer that pops into your mind: What’s the purpose of the state?

Most people would probably answer, to keep us safe. I can argue that this isn’t the state’s true purpose (and I will, below), but it’s clearly its primary selling point.

And so, every war – and there are generally at least 20 of them under way at any point in time – is a screaming condemnation of the state. War is people dying; it is property being destroyed; it is market processes being torn apart. It’s the precise opposite of keeping people safe.

Yes, war is sold as “fighting bad guys elsewhere to keep us safe here,” but it’s boys and girls from here who must do the killing and dying… and there’s a whole lot of damage contained in just that.

Every war is a massive failure of the “keep people safe” system. For modern Americans, it means “your children will have their feet blown off” more than it does “your children will die,” but is that okay? Is that, somehow, “not a failure”?

A Small War Is Worth 30,000 Crimes

War is “unsafeness” on a huge, gigantic scale. Just a small war – perhaps like the invasion of Panama by the US in 1989 – is far worse than garden-variety crime. And Panama, we should note, is a very long way from an enemy of the US… and certainly no threat to Americans.

That little Panamanian war lasted only about a month, including the occupation, and resulted in “only” about a thousand deaths((Other figures run as high as 3,500 deaths. I’m not sure which are more accurate.)) and an unknown (but almost certainly much larger) number of wounded. And as you can see from the photo below, a large amount of property damage.


Since the argument goes that the state protects us from harm… and since harm includes crime… how many crimes was this war worth? The properly damage in the photo above has to be worth at least a dozen crimes, and that was just a single incident – there were hundreds of the type. So, perhaps we have a few thousand crimes worth of damage there.

And the deaths and injuries, how shall we count them? They are the equivalent of how many thousands of crimes?

Safe from What?

Still, this war was supposed to “keep us safe.” So, what did it keep us safe from? Reportedly, it protected US citizens and “combatted drug trafficking.” But since none of those citizens had been harmed, and since drug trafficking has continued unabated, I think we have to say that there was no safety gained from the exercise.

The real reason of course was to get rid of Noriega, the Panamanian boss who had worked closely with the CIA for years but was getting uppity. So, the US military “saved” the American people from someone who didn’t threaten them, but who rather irritated the US establishment.

So, we have a tremendous amount of damage, hundreds of thousands of Panamanians becoming much less safe, and Americans becoming no safer. (Indeed, the rest of the world has come to despise the US for such reasons.)

Even the “good war,” World War II, has a rather dubious standing as having kept us safe. Yes, it got rid of Hitler, and that was a very good thing. But at the same time, it protected, empowered, and glorified Stalin, who went on to kill far more people than Hitler ever did. So, how well did it really keep the world safe?

The Bottom Line…

The bottom line here is that nearly every war is a condemnation of the state. Pick a war, run the numbers, compare safety versus cost.

Still, people don’t want to do this. They want to believe that their state works righteousness. Part of this is simply that they don’t want to go through the effort of changing their mental furniture, but the bigger reason is that most people have made what I call “The Great Trade.” Here’s how I explained it in Production Versus Plunder:

[M]ost men and women feel conflicted, insecure and confused, and lack the time, skill or desire to fix the problem. So, they find ways to work around it, most notably to seek belonging in a group…

[And so,] the state and/or church present themselves to men as a superior entity… To be joined to them provides sanction from a higher source than that of their internal conflicts.

In our times we often hear this expressed as: People need to belong to something larger than themselves. They need to sublimate their confusion and conflicts into a higher entity.

So then, “keeping us safe” is not really the purpose of the state. The state, rather, is a psychological crutch that serves the purposes of its operators.

And the truth is that many of us have outgrown this crutch. It’s time to let it go. If we end up with a small increase in crime, would that really be worse than dozens of wars every year?

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Paul Rosenberg

7 thoughts on “The Disgrace of War”

  1. These are great points and so commonly eschewed. People reflexively cringe in fear when they hear the term anarchy and not so reflectively embrace the state, but let us be serious. Who has a better track record at killing? 20th century state actors or Jesse James. I will take my chances with James any day of the week. It seems to be a simple matter of mathematics.

    1. Plus, you were permitted to resist Jesse James if he turned up and stuck a gun in your ribs: you could mitigate the possibility of loss.
      You can’t do that with a State – you have the right to resist, but they refuse to recognise it… and they have an overwhelming firepower advantage (and no shortage of high-school underperformers who are prepared to use that firepower to do their paymasters’ bidding).
      In the absence of a State, bands or armed thugs might try to roam the land. They would probably be made up of the same riff-raff who currently become cops, soldiers, and other varieties of standover-man – the economic dregs of the labour market.
      But they (the thugs) would face people who were prepared to respond defensively, and they (the thugs) would not have the protective apparatus of the State giving their behaviour an underserved patina of respectability (and ‘legal’ backing). The imprimatur of State authority is the primary reason that more people aren’t actively hostile to ‘law’ enforcement.

  2. The purpose of the state is to give legitimacy to the oppression of the people delivered on behalf of those who control the reins of power. Government, democracy, republics, etc. are all just propaganda tools to con the gullible into believing that SOME in society are deserving of “special” rights over and above the rights all the rest of the folks have. And they are deserving of these special rights because of mythical garbage like “divine rights of kings,” and so-called “free and fair” elections. Ultimately it is all just force, violence, and oppression given a “legal” stamp of approval.

  3. One easy way to get a low-ball estimate is just “do the math”.
    Large-scale State-sanctioned conflict resulted in roughly 200 million deaths in the 20th century. Using average wages for the relevant countries, very conservative assumptions about unemployment rates, working lifespans, and assuming no alteration to reproduction rates or technological change, you wind up at a staggeringly large number – more than 2 years’ worth of global GDP.
    Now that’s only the ‘total value of labour hours lost’; add in the utility losses from rationing (which existed in most countries for almost a decade after each of the 2 ‘big’ wars), and the loss of capital growth and agricultural output from having land and buildings lain waste: it’s easy to get another 2-3 years’ worth of global GDP.
    If you relax the demography assumption (and assume that the dead would have had children), the number goes up significantly.
    If you relax the tech change assumption (and instead assume that more people means more chance that someone has an innovative idea that augments productivity), the number goes up significantly.
    There is previously-highly-productive arable land in France that still cannot be used due to damage caused in the First World War, as well as land where agriculture is risky because of unexploded ordnance; there are still deaths in Laos, Cambodia and VietNam as a result of cluster munitions dropped by the US Death Machine during one of its exercises in national humiliation in the 1970s; there are hundreds of millions of pounds (in both dollar value and weight) of toxic munitions that were dumped off the coasts of Australia and Europe after both World Wars.
    All of those things reduce productivity (either actual due to foregone production, or potential due to higher risk of adverse consequences).
    Large scale industrial meat-grinder wars are not possible without a State: primarily because the private sector can never find it profitable to build a warship or an army.
    One things is true of every war: a clique of politically-connected parasites gets staggeringly rich relative to the rest of society. That has been true since the first charlatan realised that the system was producing a surplus, and set their eyes on grifting that surplus for themselves.
    inb4 “What about the East India company”. They had a private army (and navy), sure… but they also had a government-sanctioned monopoly (a series of them, in fact), and the power to tax. They could not have had either without the State.

  4. Bill Burr does a great ‘bit’ about how Stalin can’t get into the villain’s Hall of Fame.
    Stalin’s career numbers are Babe Ruth/Ty Cobb/Hank Aaron/Barry Bonds/Mark Magwyer numbers: Hitler’s aren’t quite Jeter-level by comparison.
    Stalin’s record is “Thriller”-level (20m+). Hitler’s numbers don’t even get to the highest-selling album by Hootie and the Blowfish (it sold 10 million copies). Hitler’s down there with Nickelback’s “All The Right Reasons” (7.9m copies). “The Next Michael Jackson” is probably a bigger draw than “The Next Nickelback” or “The Next Hootie”.
    Stalin is the Michael Jordan of civilian killing; Hitler’s not even Pippen or Shaq.
    The big difference is in one word.
    Stalin’s victims were mostly gentile peasants.
    Hitler’s victims were mostly peasants.
    Turns out that one-word difference is super-important.
    The one-word difference also explains why the order to summarily-execute Commissars is supposedly ‘notorious’, when Allied orders with respect to captured Gestapo were exactly the same. Commissars were (ahem) ethno-culturally distinct from the Soviet military.
    Since Churchill and FDR gave Stalin 300m peasants to play with at Yalta, we have to whitewash his numbers: otherwise the two ‘greatest statesmen” look like they made a decision that cost ~20m people their lives.
    Without the Soviets, Germany may well have won WWII: the US was definitely not the sine qua non of victory as schlocky US propaganda would have you believe. The USSR won that war.
    Two staggering stats:
    (1) 10x as many German soldiers died on the Eastern front, than in all other theatres combined; and
    (2) more German military personnel died in Soviet POW camps than the total number who died on the Western Front.
    The US helped reactivate the Western front in a meaningful way, but by then Germany had been bled white repeating Napoleon’s mistake. The strategic stupidity of attacking Russia, following on the heels of the failure to press at Dunkirk in 1940 (which would have resulted in British capitulation), were the reason.
    I hold no brief for the German political machinery of the time (they were all politicians, after all).
    Fans of democracy need to have it pushed into their faces that by their metric, the German government of the time was brought to power by a free and open election with a very broad franchise. In fact it is still the most representative elected government in the history of democracy thus far: the March 1933 election gave Hitler a shade under 39% of the eligible vote – NSDAP got 43.9% of the vote, and there was 88% turnout.
    That’s more than any US President in the full-franchise era (the average for the 20th century is 31% of the eligible electorate); the last US President to beat it was McKinley (but blacks, women and Indians weren’t eligible to vote, so it’s not a ‘good number’).
    In fact, no democratically-elected Western government in any of the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany, France or any other of the Allies, has ever gotten close to that degree of “representativeness”. Bizarre, but true – and one of the main reasons I don’t believe that democratic processes are any guarantee of freedoms.
    Also, although I’m a bit of a war nerd I absolutely despise war – because it comes from the political class, and everything from the political class is tainted (if not outright poisonous). Part of “Know your enemy” means trying to develop a broad knowledge of the history of their major set-pieces.

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