…what causes wars to end?asks Victor Davis Hanson.
We hear a lot about the peace process — the quartet, the U.N. peacekeepers, and so on. I can’t think of one war that the U.N. has stopped or ended to bring lasting peace. I really can’t. I wish I could, because I don’t like necessarily to accept the bitter wisdom of the Greeks that is so often depressing given its pessimistic appraisal of human nature. In short, wars end when one side wins and one side loses — and thus the condition for which they went to war no longer exists. Let’s see if that makes sense. What made the Falkland war end? Did the U.N. send down peacekeepers? Is there a green line there today? No, the U.N. didn’t do anything. Britain didn’t even go to the U.N. on that issue. That conflict ended when the British forces physically removed Argentine forces from the Falklands and the government that sent them there fell in humiliation. Now there’s apparently not a problem and surely not a UK East Falklands and an Argentine West Falklands with sniping in between.
Why is there an axis of evil that includes Iran, Iraq and North Korea? Whatever you think about the nomenclature or the rhetoric of that provocative phrase, it is interesting that we have these problems with Iran, that started with the Iranian hostage crisis, that were never resolved. Our sovereign territory inside an embassy was attacked and hostages taken. We didn’t really respond to it successfully, and as a result have been in a de facto state of hostility with the mullacracy ever since.
Again, wars usually end when one side wins and one side loses. Look at World War I and World War II. At first glance their outcomes would seem to refute that thesis. Didn’t we defeat Germany in 1918? Yet if you look at the Versailles peace treaty, it combined the worst aspects of diplomacy, a harsh peace on an enemy that does not feel defeated, but rather cheated. It doesn’t matter what the winner thinks; it has to be the defeated who accepts defeat. If you look what people were writing in Germany in 1918 and 1919, it was exactly opposite of what Woodrow Wilson said they felt.
The German army was a magnificent, frightening machine; and although we thought it was beaten badly, and I think it was beaten, it didn’t always think it was so defeated. When Pershing suggested that he should march a million men — French, English and American — into Berlin and physically take that government and expel the Prussian autocrats, Wilson said that would be too costly. Well the problem is that when we didn’t do that, the German army surrendered in Belgium and France, not in Germany. It claimed that it still was on the move. It was stabbed in the back by Jews; it was stabbed in the back by Marxists; it was stabbed in the back by traitors. And so the legend grew that the German army was invincible, and the enemy could only stymie but not defeat it — and, worse still, perhaps even didn’t have the guts or the power to defeat it. World War II came along and the Allies did not make that mistake twice.
So when you look at the axis of evil, look what’s not there: Germany and I might add Japan for obvious reasons as well. I would add that Vietnam is not there either, because I think that although we could argue, if we had time, that the United States military really did win the war, it lost the peace: the country was unified under a communist government, and the issues for which we went to war were settled. We were defeated, we left, the communists got their wish (beware what you wish for). So Vietnam is not any longer in the Axis of Evil because that issue is resolved — one way or the other. Whether we like it or not, defeat or victory seem to be the arbiters that close wars.
Why, in conclusion, do we find all of this sort of bone-chilling? Why, when we mention the name William Tecumseh Sherman, do we all sort of shudder? I think I don’t need to tell you that people from this state of Ohio went down with Sherman in his thirty-seven day romp through Georgia and his two month swing through the Carolinas. Yet they killed only 600 Confederates in Georgia while that prior summer ten thousand were being killed in northern Virginia. They freed 40 thousand slaves; they lost about one hundred men. Yet to paraphrase what Machiavelli said, "A man can forgive you if you kill his father, but not if you damage his patrimony." And in Mr. Sherman’s way of thinking, the people who started the war were precisely the plantation class who were sending eighteen year olds who did not own slaves to their deaths; and he wanted to reverse that moral calculus by bringing humiliation to those reckless instigators who put such a high premium on honor.
In other words, the use massive force in a moral cause is in fact humane, and saves lives in the long run as it disabuses the enemy of its many false conceptions. What’s inhumane are long drawn out wars — often over entire decades — where people decide for political or ideological or religious reasons that they don’t want to seek victory and instead turn to processes that only prolong the killing. Then the corpses start to pile up.
Again, why do we find this so disturbing? I’ll just leave you with some propensities common in Western civilization that people have remarked upon from Plato to Hobbes to the German nihilists like Nietzsche and Hegel and Spengler.
The combination of values in Western culture that makes us fight so well also are responsible for enormous affluence and security, what the Romans called luxus —almost a sort of license. In this way of thinking, for a post-heroic, post-enlightened society, war can be passé, or war is fought among ignorant people in need of education or money, or war is an innate part of our distant and embarrassing Neanderthal past. Then usually affluent and very educated people in the West in their smugness — we see that in Europe to an astonishing degree today — believe that they are beyond the reach of war or, worse still, that the entire human community is at the end of history and thus has evolved to a higher state of peace. Then innocent people — whether they be in Bosnia or Rwanda or in Iraq or in Manhattan — will get killed. And this tragedy un-folds precisely because of the intellectual or moral or even religious arrogance of an elite few in positions of leadership and influence who don’t understand, whether we like it or not, that evil is always with us, and it is our duty on our watch and according to our station to combat it wherever we see that it poses a threat to civilization itself.