The shift of the Iraq War from what its early proponents claimed would be a cakewalk to what most current observers—including the small group of neocons who originally championed it—consider a disaster suggests that war’s consequences are not always predictable.

Some wars, admittedly, work out fairly well—at least for the victors. In the third of the Punic Wars (149-146 B.C.), Rome’s victory against Carthage was complete, and it obliterated that rival empire from the face of the earth. For the Carthaginians, of course, the outcome was less satisfying. Rome’s victorious legions razed the city of Carthage and sowed salt in its fields, thereby ensuring that what had been a thriving metropolis would become a wasteland.

But even the victors are not immune to some unexpected and very unpleasant consequences. World War I led to 30 million people killed or wounded and disastrous epidemics of disease, plus a multibillion dollar debt that was never repaid to U.S. creditors and, ultimately, fed into the collapse of the international financial system in 1929. The war also facilitated the rise of Communism and Fascism, two fanatical movements that added immensely to the brutality and destructiveness of the twentieth century. Certainly, World War I didn’t live up to Woodrow Wilson’s promises of a “war to end war” and a “war to make the world safe for democracy.”

Even World War II—the “good war”—was not all it is frequently cracked up to be. Yes, it led to some very satisfying developments, most notably the destruction of the fascist governments of Germany, Italy, and Japan. But people too often forget that it had some very negative consequences. These include the killing of 50 million people, as well as the crippling, blinding, and maiming of millions more. Then, of course, there was also the genocide carried out under cover of the war, the systematic destruction of cities and civilian populations, the ruin of once-vibrant economies, the massive violations of civil liberties (e.g. the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps), the establishment of totalitarian control in Eastern Europe, the development and use of nuclear weapons, and the onset of the nuclear arms race. This grim toll leaves out the substantial number of rapes, mental breakdowns, and postwar murders unleashed by the war.

The point here is not that World War II was “bad,” but that wars are not as clean or morally pure as they are portrayed.

Curiously, pacifists have long been stereotyped as sentimental and naive. But haven’t the real romantics of the past century been the misty-eyed flag-wavers, convinced that the next war will build a brave new world? Particularly in a world harboring some 30,000 nuclear weapons, those who speak about war as if it consisted of two noble knights, jousting before cheering crowds, have lost all sense of reality.

This lack of realism about the consequences of modern war is all too pervasive. During the Cuban missile crisis, it led Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to warn top U.S. national security officials against their glib proposal to bomb the Soviet missile sites. That’s not the end, he insisted. That’s just the beginning! After the crisis, President Kennedy was delighted that war with the Soviet Union had been averted—a war that he estimated would have killed 300 million people.

How do we account for the romantic view of war that seems to overcome portions of society on a periodic basis? Certainly hawkish government officials, economic elites, and their backers in the mass media have contributed to popular feeble-mindedness when it comes to war’s consequences. And rulers of empires tend to become foolish when presented with supreme power. But it is also true that some people revel in what they assume is the romance of war as a welcome escape from their humdrum daily existence. Nor should this surprise us, for they find similar escape in romantic songs and novels, movies, spectator sports, and, sometimes, in identification with a “strong” leader.

Of course, war might just be a bad habit—one that is difficult to break after persisting for thousands of years. Even so, people will give it up only when they confront its disastrous consequences. And this clear thinking about war might prove difficult for many of them, at least as long as they prefer romance to reality.

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).


First published on the History News Network.