I recently spent a week studying a war that was tragic in every way – it destroyed thousands of young, idealistic Americans, it murdered hundreds of thousands of America’s enemies, and it destroyed, damaged, and uprooted many of the enemy’s institutions. Yet in spite of so many years of effort and sacrifice, so many bombings and body counts, and so many deployments of young American men, the war did not reach its declared goal of bringing more freedom to the peoples of the world. In fact, America lost the war. Nor did the victory of our enemies result in the social, economic, geographic, and ideological catastrophes that many thought such a victory would produce. U.S. military leaders got it wrong. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that in spite of the gallantry, bravery, self-sacrifice that U.S. troops manifested throughout the conflict, the world after the war was basically the same. The whole conflict was a fiasco and misjudgment.
As I sat and took notes and took notes, it seemed to me that the loss of the war could just possibly provide an occasion for self-questioning as well as thinking about military leaders and the nature of war itself.
What sort of war has a just claim on human loyalty? On American loyalty? That has to be the basic and inescapable question.
Usually a just war is undertaken by a nation that believes that waging just one more war, we can help cure the world of its wickedness. The motive of the war is to right a wrong. The aim of the war is to help stop the plundering, the persecution, the devastation, and the mass murders being committed by our enemies. Such a war means that that the good is will have to be pitted against evil, and the result is that we, in the service of the good, have to resort to Brute Force. Wars always demand unbridled force, the abandoning of all restraint in order to defeat and banish evil which, if it were not corrected, would overrun and enslave the Earth. Since ours is a just war, we know that Brute Force is on the side of the Righteousness, on our side, and our being righteous in the service of the good is the key reason why we fight.
In a just war, we ask God to give victory to the deserving – to us, in other words. America played a big part in defeating the Nazis, and because of that we automatically think our part in that conflict entitles us to think of ourselves as virtuous. The Nazi defeat was seen by most Americans a sign of God’s favor. But since Triumph in victory is given by God, at some point, we shall have to ask at some point have to ask just how good is God at his job? Did the Soviet Russians in World War II find favor with God? Were Stalin’s troops an instrument of God’s will? The spread of communism into Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, a huge conquest that enslaved many free people and covered 500,000 square miles, was done by Russians who did even admit to God’s existence and who persecuted or killed those people who did.
Leadership in War
Since so much rests on an accurate understanding of the issues of war and peace, we must depend on leaders who have the mental equipment to make a correct assessment of the relevant factors. We have to have leaders which are equipped to do this because a misjudgment can bring such dreadful consequences on us and on the world of which we are a part.
But we have to ask, are the wisest, the most perceptive, the most strong and fair-minded among us, are they really the ones who rise to command in a war? Few would say so. The fact is that the most gifted, the wisest and most perceptive among us often make judgments that are beyond the reach of the ordinary mind. Since their numbers of the perceptive are so small and so scattered, it is easy to ignore or suppress them. There is a reason that this occurs. It is an unfortunately fact that many adults live on what they learned very early in their lives. The peculiar manifestations of a given individual depend almost entirely on the habits he or she has formed during the early period of their existence. Teachers at that time try to strike when interest is vivid, to seize a pupil’s attention and passionate interest before the interest weakens. Apparently, a brain has to be kept sharp if it is to be used effectively -- its wits have to be constantly whetted.
But the early interest fades, and we are left with the realization that much of life is conducted, not by the wisest men, but the most ordinary, the most coarse, the most common -- the most numerous minds. After college, many cannot absorb anything new nor do they make any effort to grasp anything novel or have any urge to expand their mental reach. They despise culture. Their views are thus molded by earlier and often outdated knowledge. As time passes, they view the “new” as alarming and hostile, and it makes them feel uncertain, they become afraid to embrace or new array of facts, and so the bulk of them reject it. People who never hear the truth can be profoundly offended when they finally hear it said, and most often the reaction is to discard it. Think of the French public in the Revolution or the fact that it was public opinion in Germany in World War I that pushed hard for a war, when Germany’s diplomats wanted no such thing. Public opinion may be widespread, but it is blind, not wise.
Unfortunately, a widespread error is a source of great power. Ignorance is an incredible force multiplier. It begets mental contagion. Most ordinary adults are satisfied with their level of understanding because their minds are given to imitating what they have heard their neighbors tell them. It is a dismaying fact that, after the initial eagerness of the young, the desire to improve knowledge dies out in most people. Ordinary human beings are captive of imitation. Imitation shows itself in large masse of people; it produces parties, massacres, orgies, frenzies of violence, which only the very intellectually and morally gifted can withstand.
The instinct of imitation is common to most animals, and in humans it becomes a blind impulse. Ordinary people reject anything that smacks of superiority. Human beings love laughing, looking on, running, dancing, and those who have ceased to learn, imitate whatever passes for knowledge. An ordinary mind, when it sees something false, will usually not feel alarmed, but instead is likely to feel a sense of sense-fulfillment, a new sense of solidarity, an increase of personal power because the ordinary person cannot detect the falsehood in a statement or train of reasoning. The common place minds don’t have the critical skills to make a sound analysis of the topic under their noses. The commonplace person believes that what most people are saying about a subject probably means that it is true. Dissenters soon become an irritant. A river flows one way; if it flows in another direction, it becomes something sinister and perverse.
When a crisis narrows into war, the kinds of mind that predominate in war are pugnacious minds, minds that are geared up for action, given to abrupt, overwhelming force and maneuver. They are men who make pitilessness a principle. The minds capable of waging a vicious war are not thoughtful minds. That is not their talent. A military mind goes to things in a straight line. He doesn’t bend, and he doesn’t trade. Military men, in most cases, are blunt, four-square, pugnacious men who find joy in fighting. They are energetic minds, not capable of any entertaining caveats or fine points of an argument. They despise delicacies of feeling or complication of thought. It is a fact that the minds who conduct wars are mostly like to be men or women who see things in black and white. To them, wars are a melodrama in which the good and evil struggle to the death. It is always people who lack imagination or a fund of sympathy or lack scruples who push and wage wars. It is always thick skinned who are most convinced that they are right in a conflict. Wiser minds are more given to self -questioning and self-restraint and are able to endure the uncertainty of a black and white answer, and are more apt to reject the easiest answer. Unfortunately, when war begins, they are swept aside.
This is tragic because victory in a war unfortunately demands that its leaders encompass all the factors, all the local knowledge, all the mastery of historical and cultural fact necessary for a proper judgment. Yet no combination of ordinary minds can encompass all the complexities, or command the immense range of specifics to wage a war successfully A wise leader is able to balance one claim against another, weigh its worth, and yet is still able to find the right course action. This rarely happens. A military leader plans, approves and decides. But you edge towards disaster if a leader hasn’t understood the entire range of contingencies that may occur, and the consequences to the world order if the guess he makes is wrong. He has to hit the bull’s eyes on the first try because if he’s wrong, horrible disasters ensue. Failure will make country and the world much worse. Once a war is underway, it is too late to be able to calculate the damage to the world order if you throw everything on one throw of the dice and you get snakes’ eyes. Many wars are basically lotteries.
Military minds are like everybody else’s – self centered, self absorbed, entangled in their own defects and shortcomings, seeing the world from a special peephole of their own. No human purpose is pure. It is contaminated with our own willful shortsightedness or desire to make other people bend their knees. At the back of the conflict it the idea that by waging war will render enemies a little more like ourselves, and in the study of this tragic war, it is hard not to believe that if certain people in positions of power had read a handful of key books about the culture in which the conflict was taking place, they would have waged a more intelligent war, a war waged in a less wasteful, mistaken less destructive way.
This is worth brooding on.