War is comprehensive of most, if not all the mischiefs which do or ever can afflict men: It depopulates nations; lays waste the finest countries; destroys arts, sciences, and learning; butchers innocents; ruins the best men and advances the worst; effaces every trace of virtue, piety, and compassion, and introduces confusion, anarchy, and all kinds of corruption in public affairs; and indeed is pregnant with so many evils, that it ought ever to be avoided, when it can be avoided.

—John Trenchard. Cato’s Letters No. 87, Gold and silver in a country to be considered only as commodities, Saturday, July 28, 1722.

The damage to people done by war

The abhorrent morality

War forces the adoption of the abhorrent morality of the utilitarians–the greatest good for the greatest number. In this way individual rights, property, dignity, lives, and possessions are all subordinated to the need to win the conflict. Innocent people are deliberately killed by the state without so much as a trial—leave alone an appeal; property is seized, liberties infringed, and the comity of nations replaced with the calculated butchery.

The killing

While everyone eventually dies, the deaths that occur during war are particularly grievous because:

  • When a young soldier is shot to pieces on the battlefield, or a mother and baby are burned to death in the basement of their house, they fail to have the children they otherwise would have had. Those unborn children then fail to have children of their own, and so on down through the ages. Thus, the violent and unnecessary death of one person is, in reality, the snuffing out of hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of lives which would otherwise have lived and loved.
  • While each of us only enjoys a brief moment of existence, war unjustly cuts that moment short. It deprives people of the rest of their lives and it denies the relatives and friends of those killed the comfort and joy of their presence.
  • The deaths cause terrible grief for the survivors. When a person expires naturally, after a long and fruitful life, there is relatively little grief. But when people die violent, unnatural, premature deaths, they are mourned with such bitter pain by their parents, grandparents, spouses, lovers and children that the survivor’s enjoyment of their lives is often ruined.
  • The deaths occur in the most horrific fashion. Although many people are killed outright, many more suffer from having limbs blown off, being disembowelled, starvation, disease or freezing. Instead of having the tender love of relatives about them as they expire from natural causes, they die alone—deliberately killed by other human beings.

The maiming

Whenever there is war, there is maiming. Those soldiers, sailors and airmen who do return often have brain damage, their faces burned, their spinal cords severed, their limbs amputated, their bowels truncated, and their fortitude shattered. These brave and dedicated young people then pass into a living nightmare of chronic pain, disfigurement and disability—from which they can never awake. Nothing could be more unjust:

  • As patriots, they deserve to walk more proudly than the rest of us—instead, as cripples they are made less than whole.
  • As heroes, they should be looked up to—instead, their disfigurements are often so hideous people avert their gaze.
  • As the bravest of the brave, they should return to a tranquil and well-earned retirement—instead, they are condemned to lifelong chronic pain.
  • As their people’s finest, they ought to enjoy the blessings of children—instead, they often cannot have children, or are unable to find a partner.

The suffering

This includes not only all the physical hardships, but also, what is far worse, the suffering that comes from knowing loved ones suffered and died. There is also the anguish of not knowing whether loved ones have survived or been killed, and if killed, how much they suffered before they died. There is the fear of bombardment, of invasion, of exposure, of starvation, of battle. There are mothers who are raped in front of their children, and daughters raped in front of their mothers. There are the screams of the triage station and the moaning of the military hospital. There are women and children burned alive, by the hundreds of thousands, in their basements. There are mothers who have to watch as their children starve to death before their eyes. There are long drawn-out deaths by dysentery, tuberculosis, cholera, starvation or radiation poisoning. There is the capricious, arbitrary rule of government officials unaccountable in time of war. Above all else there is helplessness, the inability to save or even protect loved ones. Instead everyone is tossed about in a maelstrom with no hope of influencing the outcome or alleviating the suffering.

The property destruction

It takes forty years of hard work to pay off a house. All that work is confiscated when the house is bombed. Property which is not physically destroyed is confiscated through punitive taxes or outright requisition, savings are decimated by inflation. Survivors returning from the battlefield, with eyes, limbs and relatives gone, are left to the mercy of carpetbaggers. The next generation, whose proper inheritance should have been the capital built up over centuries by their hardworking forebears, instead grow up in a world of rubble, ruin and shortages, and—in the case of post-Word War II Eastern Europe—the living death of life under communism.

The damage to humanity done by war

The worldwide outpourings of sympathy and charitable donations in response to natural disasters, wherever they occur, are proof of humanity’s intrinsic goodwill. This natural human instinct permeates the society of mankind in times of peace, but is destroyed by war. Decent people are forced to do the inhuman, to kill their fellow man, a crime which even innocent countries must perpetrate if they are to safeguard freedom.

As wars continue and each side suffers ever-mounting injury, attitudes harden and feelings of justice and remorse wither. Each successful attack by one side begets a greater feeling of outrage and animosity towards the enemy in the other, until eventually all feelings of comity are lost. At the beginning of World War II, the British bombed the Germans with leaflets urging them not to fight. By the end of the war they were dropping phosphorous incendiaries on their cities in a deliberate effort to cause firestorms that would burn hundreds of thousands of women, children and babies alive in their homes.

The damage to liberty done by war

War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it almost compulsorily concentrates the direction of all men and the management of all things into the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.

—Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, Vol. II, 1840.

Instead of protecting individual rights, wartime governments are forced to implement an overall strategic plan to which individual rights are subordinate. As the war continues, the people become accustomed to these monstrous necessities. If the war is won, people naturally credit the victory to big government. Once they have subconsciously accepted the utility of socialism, they rarely regain their peacetime inclination to resist infringements of their individual rights. This phenomenon turned the British, the people who invented liberty under the law, into socialists after just two world wars. Conversely, it was defeat in World War II which, for a short time, broke the Germans’ faith in big government and paved the way for their post-war ‘economic miracle.’

The damage to progress caused by war

By the end of the nineteenth century, the British had acquired vast amounts of capital, which was invested all over the world. All this treasure was disposed of during World War I, along with hundreds of thousands of young men who should have started enterprises, worked in businesses, invented new devices, and discovered the wonders of nature—but whose corpses instead lay rotting in the fields of France and Flanders. When the United States emerged from World War I economically stronger than Britain, it was mainly because of what Britain had lost rather than because of what the United States had gained.

War causes a horrific misallocation and destruction of capital. It is the market that knows how to get the best return on the collective hard work and resources of a country, not the all-powerful bureaucrats of the military-industrial complex. The fate of the Soviet Union after World War II provides ample proof of that. To argue that war is necessary is sometimes true, but to argue that war is stimulating is a fallacy.

The damage done to decentralization

Hence it is chiefly in war that nations desire and frequently require to increase the powers of the central government. All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war.

—Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, Vol. II, 1840.

The great guarantor of liberty is decentralized power. In a free country the individual has maximum power, and all other power is vested in the most local level possible—where the people concerned have the most control. War, however, tends to centralize power, and after the war it tends to stay centralized. Thus the small decentralized governments in the United States and Britain were destroyed by the extraordinary powers needed to win the two world wars, which, once assumed by central government, were never relinquished.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove