Woefully Ignorant

By lex, on September 3rd, 2009

Glenn Greewald (et al.) may or may not be an exceptional constitutional lawyer – I’m ill equipped to judge – but he really ought to steer clear of military history. The leading sentence to his most recent jeremiad * really says it all:

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the U.S. pretended that it viewed war only as a “last resort,” something to be used only when absolutely necessary to defend the country against imminent threats.

I’m trying to imagine what era Greenwald is thinking of: Our revolution was a war of choice, with one-third of the country in arms against tyranny, one-third supporting the ancien regime, and the remainder more or less on the sidelines as interested observers.

The War of 1812 was fought for “free trade and sailor’s rights,” but was probably not necessary. We could have muddled through a few more years until Napoleon got sent packing.

The continental expansion and subsequent Indian wars were fought less of necessity than, well: Expansionism.

One might argue that the Civil War was fought as a war of necessity, but that’s only if one must insist that the Union must have remained an intact whole. Abraham Lincoln certainly thought so, but a quarter million southerners disagreed so vigorously that they gave their lives in the contest.

The Spanish-American War, the Banana Republic wars and the Boxer Rebellion? Don’t get me started.

World War I? Not our fight, but we went anyway.

World War II? Certainly the attack on Pearl Harbor was a tremendous provocation, but even though 200,000 US servicemen died in the ETO, hyperventilated sock puppets of the day would have wailed that, “the Germans never attacked us!!” And they’d have been right.

Korea and Vietnam? Please.

Desert Storm? Saddam would have sold Kuwait and Saudi oil as readily as his own. Perhaps more readily.

Powerful nations go to war because they believe that doing so advances their policy goals more effectively than any alternative and that the status quo is intolerable. Those goals may be nationalistic, ethical, economic or humanitarian, but they are rarely “necessary” for the survival of a state.

Wars may have objectively noble or ignoble purposes, and – somewhat less objectively – good or bad outcomes based on the human cost and the (usually unknowable) potential cost of inaction. But necessity has very little to do with it for a powerful state, for if it did the state in question could not truly be called powerful. (And if this sounds a little too brutally frank, only try to imagine what kind of Hobbesian nightmare most of the world would now be living in had not the US found it expedient to pursue policy by other means.)

Read the rest if you like – Greenwald’s essay is characteristically book-length – but the quality of his argument’s conclusion can be inferred from its claim.

*Ed. Original link was gone; updated link from salon.com

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, History

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