What War Is Good For

Posted in: Book Reviews

The 2016 presidential campaign now in full swing has been notable for many things, including some Republican candidates’ irresponsible statements about the use of military force. Ted Cruz proposes “carpetbombing” ISIS—a war crime insofar as bombing ISIS means bombing civilian population centers. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina each suggested that they would shoot down Russian planes over Syria. And on Iran, most of the Republican contenders make Donald Trump look almost reasonable; unlike his rivals, Trump would not “rip up” the deal giving Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear program.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, in a repeat of the 2008 primary campaign, Hillary Clinton once again finds herself under fire with the party base for her 2002 vote as a senator to authorize the Iraq War. Although Bernie Sanders is no pacifist—he voted for war in the Balkans on humanitarian grounds and voted for the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan—he does seem to want to lay claim to President Obama’s opposition to “dumb wars.”

But even if the next president insists on fighting only smart—that is, necessary—wars, he or she will be a “wartime” president, because U.S. forces will still be engaged in military conflicts, even if in a formally advisory or supporting role. Voters choosing our next president would accordingly be wise to pay attention to the kind of Commander in Chief they are selecting.

That choice will undoubtedly matter, but perhaps not exactly in the way that everyone expects. As political scientist Sidney Tarrow argues in a powerful and engaging new book, wars can have sweeping consequences for the countries that wage them, often in ways that the people and their leaders neither expect nor desire.

A Complex Equation

In War, States, & Contention, Tarrow uses a number of rich historical case studies to explore the relation between war, state building, and rights. He acknowledges two leading schools of thought.

In one view, war creates what Harold Lasswell called the “garrison state.” The familiar idea is that states suppress civil liberties in wartime to consolidate national energy for war making.

In a competing view associated with Charles Tilly, war makes states and, in turn, rights. Most modern states—especially liberal ones—do not simply coerce entire populations for the war effort; they depend on popular support. As Tarrow writes in characterizing Tilly’s view, such states mobilize consensus for war “using symbols of patriotism, liberalism, and the defense of freedom . . . .” War can thus expand rights because rights are the price the state pays the public for blood and treasure.

It would be tempting to synthesize the Lasswell and Tilly views by saying that war in the modern era tends to constrict individual liberty while expanding equality, and there may be a kernel of truth to that synthesis. Yet it is too simple. Although liberty and equality can and do sometimes conflict, they can also increase or decrease in tandem.

As Tarrow notes, the American and French revolutions gave rise to the citizen army and to the liberal state itself—with its commitment to both liberté et égalité. (We will put fraternité to one side, as it never quite made the westward crossing of the Atlantic.) Likewise, the American Civil War both liberated enslaved African Americans and began the long, still-unfinished journey towards racial equality. Conversely, the garrison state mentality during World War II led to the unequal constriction of the liberty of Japanese Americans excluded from the west coast of the United States and held in internment camps.

Contentious Politics

How do we know whether war will expand or constrict particular rights? Tarrow argues that prior scholars have paid insufficient attention to a key ingredient in the relation: contentious politics. Tarrow uses that term to refer to social movements (like the civil rights movement or various anti-war movements), but also to encompass “striking workers and their employers, insurgent armed forces and their governments, the contestants in civil wars, and revolutionary coalitions and the states they strive to overthrow.”

Tarrow is no doubt correct that state building (including the expansion or contraction of rights) through war necessarily interacts with the messy politics of the home front. Contentious politics affects whether states go to war and, if they do, the course of war in turn affects contentious politics.

Can anything more systematic be said? Tarrow hesitates to draw any firm conclusion. “Once we insert contention into Tilly’s causal chain from war-making to state-building to rights,” he observes, “the relationship between war-making and citizenship becomes indeterminate.”

That inconclusive conclusion is surely right, but perhaps too optimistic in suggesting that war is as likely to expand rights as to narrow them. As Tarrow shows, even in the era of great citizen-armies, war did not invariably expand rights. He recalls “that the French revolutionary wars led to the reversal of the Declaration of the Rights of Man; that Italy’s intervention in World War One” led to backlash and fascism; and that the Cold War produced McCarthyism (just as the U.S. involvement in World War One and the conflict following the Russian Revolution led to the first Red Scare).

The decline of the large citizen-army in recent years makes the Tilly dynamic still less likely. Even in the increasingly rare instances of state-versus-state military conflict, sophisticated weaponry makes the sheer number of combatants less important than it once was. Certainly military campaigns against irregular forces need not apply hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground. Indeed, very large deployments may be counter-productive, as each additional soldier in country becomes an additional target and also lends support to the enemy’s view that troops are part of a neo-colonial project of occupation. Modern warfare waged by developed countries thus no longer relies on the citizen-army as understood even as recently as World War II.

The picture is also grim in the developing world. When we turn our attention away from long-established democracies and turn to emerging ones, it is hard to see what war is good for—even when one adds in the variable of contentious politics.

Consider the Arab Spring, which has come a cropper virtually everywhere. In Egypt, a liberal revolution created a short-lived democracy, which paved the way for a theocratic government, which led to a counter-revolution in the name of the revolution, as the fears the military stoked of Islamist terrorists became a self-fulfilling prophesy. In Syria, the brutal repression of a liberal revolt led to a widening sectarian civil war and provided a home for an emerging death cult with tentacles stretching across the globe, including other countries in the region, like Libya, where war and revolution had once seemed like a possible source of expanded human rights. Only in little Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, does the game appear to have been worth the candle.

Meanwhile, the most successful examples of transitions to democracy in recent memory occurred without mass violence—in South Africa and the former Soviet satellites of eastern and central Europe. It is thus telling that Tarrow both begins and ends War, States, & Contention by discussing a recent episode of contentious politics and war in eastern Europe that did not go so well for human rights—the Russian military intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. A popular uprising led to the ouster of a corrupt president, but once military conflict ensued, the hopes for a positive outcome were dashed.

Perhaps Tilly’s thesis will occasionally still hold true, and war can still sometimes lead to expansion of rights. But that’s hardly the way to bet. All things considered, war is hell.