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The Changing Nature of War

Is a philosophy of doubt the better counsel in deciding to go to war?

January 11, 2004

Is a philosophy of doubt the better counsel in deciding to go to war?

Throughout history, wars have basically been of two types. The first might be called the war of plunder. This is war as organized theft. Wars of imperial expansion were typically wars of this type.

Under this model, imperial powers acquired colonies that would augment their wealth and thereby increase their strength, allowing them to acquire still more colonies and wealth — in some cases becoming the dominant powers of their era.

The second type of war is the war of ideology — or of values. Wars of religion are a common example of this type.

To be sure, the two kinds of war frequently overlapped. Imperial powers, for example, often proclaimed a civilizing mission.

However, over time — and especially over the course of the past century — the focus of war has shifted from plunder to values.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that plunder has been shown to be an ineffective way of augmenting wealth.

As Adam Smith pointed out, the wealth of a nation lies in the percentage of its people doing useful work and the skill (or added value) they bring to that work.

In other words, it does not lie in natural resources or multitudes of slave or cheap labor.

Following along these lines, Norman Angell — in his famous book "The Great Illusion" — demonstrated at the beginning of the past century that trade magnified wealth.

He concluded that war for plunder made no sense economically. The second reason why war for plunder has declined is that people want to govern themselves.

In his history of Florence, Machiavelli warned that before setting out on a war for imperial expansion, the government should examine whether even a successful outcome would augment wealth.

The history of the 20th century, in which one people after another overthrew foreign rule, is a testament to his foresight.

With the decline of plunder as a motivation for war, conflicts over values have become more important. World War II was viewed as such a conflict, and so was the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, which it undoubtedly was. And U.S. President George W. Bush has denounced terrorism as evil, which it undoubtedly is.

Yet, while recognizing that we are in a conflict over values, the nature of that conflict has been overlooked. Increasingly, the conflict has been defined as one of moral clarity vs. moral relativism.

Evil, it has been argued, is the consequence of a belief that all values are relative. In such a situation, people have no moral basis that would lead them to oppose atrocity.

It is only by having a firm conviction in the superiority of our moral values that we can hope to defeat those who oppose us.

Such an approach misrepresents the real issue, however, which can be more accurately defined as a clash between philosophies of certainty and philosophies of doubt.

It is philosophies of certainty that lead to atrocity. Convinced they are right, people kill others who disagree with them — justifying their actions as necessary to keep the rest of humanity along the correct path.

For example, in March 1936, Adolf Hitler famously said, “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleep-walker.”

“When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave,” the scientist Jacob Bronowski observed at Auschwitz, “This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

In contrast to that point of view, modern science rests on the conviction that our knowledge is incomplete, tentative — and uncertain. Scientific method is nothing more than the rules by which we challenge our existing explanations of how the world behaves.

Learning must involve a willingness to change — and that willingness is absent if we are certain of our correctness.

It is this philosophy of doubt that explains the scientific and economic advancement of the West.

The culture of questioning authority — the idea of the loyal opposition, the political equivalent of scientific method — creates the environment in which our knowledge can expand and benefit us.

The war in which we are now engaged is, like World War II and the Cold War, an ideological struggle between two value systems.

Osama bin Laden — like the Nazis and the Communists — is not someone beset by doubts. On the contrary, he has no inhibitions about sending people to their deaths and committing mass murder — because he is certain he is right.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, in Bali and elsewhere, “were carried out by pious Muslims defending their religion and heeding God’s orders.” This quote is from a statement attributed to Osama bin Laden in November 2003.

Ultimately, modern war was summarized by George Orwell in "Animal Farm": “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Modern war has been surprisingly tribal — defined by loyalty to nation, class or religion. The underlying logic is simple enough: Since my group is good, your different group must be bad.

That kind of attitude is simple and clear, but it sees different people as a threat — rather than an opportunity to learn. It reflects a belief that we are perfect, and people who are different can only corrupt us.

If we are going to prevail in our current conflict, as we prevailed in previous ones, we must be clear about what we stand for.

“From the force of circumstances, as well as from long and deep reflection, our Founding Fathers brought forth this nation in the wholesome atmosphere of the courage to doubt,” historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin has written.

We should be clear that we recognize our own fallibility and imperfection. “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” the prophet Micah asked.

The history of the past century is a testament to what human beings can do when they abandon their humility.