In War, Winners Can Be Losers

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Thus far, most of the supporters and opponents of escalating the U.S. war in Afghanistan have focused on whether or not it is possible to secure a military victory in that conflict. But they neglect to consider that, in war, even a winner can be a loser.

Cost of War Can Be Ruinous

The most obvious way in which military success can turn into defeat is by imposing vast human and material costs on the victor. Britain, for example, was victorious in World War I. But the price was high — a generation of young men went to their death or came home horribly wounded and psychologically battered. An estimated 450,000 Britons perished during the Second World War and, in the years after the conflict, Britain could survive economically only by maintaining rationing, drawing upon billions of dollars in aid from the United States, and divesting itself of its far-flung empire.

The impact of World War II upon another victor, the Soviet Union, was even more devastating. At the war’s conclusion, some 24 million Soviet citizens lay dead, many more were wounded or crippled, and a large portion of the nation had been burnt to the ground. Indeed, the death toll among the winners of the Second World War was far higher than among the losers.

What is one to say about nuclear war? What will be the condition of a nation after it has “won” such a conflict? It seems likely to be a smoldering, radioactive ruin, with millions of rotting corpses everywhere.

Victory Brings Insecurity

Furthermore, as the loser of a war often seeks revenge for its defeat, the military victor frequently finds that its troubles are only beginning. Just ask the French what their World War I victory over Germany accomplished for them. Similarly, Israel has won all its wars since its declaration of independence, and yet it would be hard to think of a more embattled, insecure nation today, ever-fighting wars and ever-threatened by them.

In addition, war — whether victorious or not — frequently undermines democracy and civil liberties. America’s “Founding Fathers” feared Caesarism, and for good reason. Roman military victories occurred for centuries, but at the price of destroying the Roman Republic and fostering an imperial tyranny. Since that time and around the world, numerous military leaders, proclaiming themselves the saviors of their nations, have used their prestige and control of the armed forces to seize political power and snuff out democratic institutions. Even under civilian leadership, governments at war tend to violate civil liberties. In the United States, habeas corpus was suspended during the Civil War, freedom of speech, press, and association were dramatically curtailed during World War I, Americans of Japanese ancestry were placed in internment camps during World War II, McCarthyism played havoc with free expression during the Cold War, and torture became part of U.S. government policy during the War on Terror.

Crippling Hubris

Moreover, military victory can easily lead to arrogance and aggression — a kind of imperialist hubris. For many years, Americans prided themselves on their nation never having lost a war and this fed into the assumption that it never could lose one. During the Vietnam War, J. William Fulbright, chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned repeatedly of “the arrogance of power.” But, unfortunately, many Americans — wrapped up in a dream of ongoing U.S. military glory — failed to heed his words before it became clear that, in Vietnam, victory was a very costly fantasy.

Even worse, people can easily transform a victory secured by larger, better-equipped armies into a victory for moral superiority. In this fashion, citizens of a militarily victorious country all too often lose their sense of reality. How many times, for example, have we heard — among Americans — that the United States is “the greatest nation in the world”? During the 2008 presidential election campaign, in fact, one of the candidates for the Republican nomination, Fred Thompson, declared that the United States was the “greatest country in the history of the world.” More striking yet is the fact that this kind of inflamed nationalist rhetoric was such a commonplace in U.S. political life that no one seemed to find anything strange about it.

Of course, a case can be made that it is better for a nation to win a war than to lose it. But perhaps it is time to learn from the world’s tragic, blood-stained history that there is a third alternative: using our intelligence and creativity to resolve conflicts without war. Φ

Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

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