Wars of Folly
So the pushback against my war posts is interesting and has me thinking. I suppose that if you peel back the ‘defense’ and ‘plunder’ binary you can see some other variations of war. Let’s see, there’s revolutionary war, civil war, wars of vengeance, wars of obligation, wars of expansion, holy wars, and wars of liberation. Let’s take each in turn, however.
Wars of expansion I will deal with below. Suffice to say they are always wars of plunder, but they are often disguised as wars of defense.
Wars of vengeance or of restoring honor are rare and are usually tied to some other factor (like taking back land that was stolen, for instance – think of Germany in the 1930’s) and can be largely viewed as wars of obligation which are often tied to alliances. World War I and the many secret alliances that led to its escalation could be viewed as a war of obligation. But the players were all either seeking to defend interests or expand interests, so even though the war itself was an act of human absurdity the likes of which the world have never before seen, it was still largely rooted in these two impulses – to defend or to plunder (more on this below).
I think we could adequately place revolutionary war in either the defense or plunder camp depending on the sort of revolution. Ditto that for civil war. Either a legitimate group is splintering off from an illegitimate state and thereby defending their right to sovereignty, or an illegitimate group is breaking off from a legitimate state thereby plundering land and resources from their own country. Take our own Revolutionary and Civil Wars for instance. The Revolutionary War, I would argue, was a legitimate defensive war against the British. Meanwhile, the Civil War was a legitimate defensive war against the South when the South threatened to secede from the Union. Such a secession would have been an act of plunder as it would have stolen, effectively, a vast amount of land and resources from the United States as a whole.
The War of 1812 was quite obviously a defensive war on the part of Americans who were bristling at the abuses of British naval power. [see update – I will allow that my knowledge of the War of 1812 is significantly less than the rest of these conflicts]
Holy wars are obviously a bit more complicated. Will writes, “Defensive wars or wars of plunder? Come on – do you really subscribe to such a simplistic notion? The Crusades were partly inspired by genuine religious fervor – contemporary accounts unanimously agree on this point. Unless you consider promises of eternal salvation "plunder," your own example doesn’t hold up.” I would question who is simplifying here. (Will’s follow-up post also drastically simplifies the Crusades, World War I, and the exact meaning of “genuine belief that the Middle East could be transformed through democracy promotion” – transformed how? More importantly – why?)
The first Crusade began when Pope Urban II called for a Holy War to rescue the Middle Eastern Christians from the Muslims. This could be described as a defensive war for two reasons. First, they were attempting to defend Christendom both in the Middle East and because Europeans saw the looming threat of a powerful Islamic force amassing on their own eastern borders. A number of ancient Christian cities and regions had fallen to the Turks and other Islamic factions. Obviously the notion of a nation-state was not quite developed at the time, and Christians thought in terms of Christendom writ large. Defending any part of that, even if it was quite a ways away, made perfect sense at the time in ways that foreign exploits in the Middle East no longer do in today’s geopolitical climate.
Furthermore, Urban II was attempting to defend Christendom from itself in an act of solidarity and unity against the Islamic Other during a time when European factions were busy killing one another. The first two Crusades can quite easily be described as rescue missions, noble efforts to halt the enemy and rescue Christian brethren and Christendom itself from perceived peril. However…
There followed seven more official crusades over the next 195 years. These subsequent ventures, initially sent to shore up existing forces, lacked the nobility of a rescue mission that had adorned those first expeditions. While earlier missions had admittedly not been free of criminal acts, the brutality of later Crusades was great. The next six Crusades would be done far less for heavenly praise and much more for earthly plunder.
Indeed, after the first rescue Crusades European Christians began to target even Eastern Christians. This culminated with the sack of Constantinople:
In 1198, the Fourth Crusade began with difficulties. By then, the main beneficiary was the Republic of Venice which charged a lot of money for the transportation of the troops to the East. The “Serenissima” took advantage of the circumstances too to demand the crusaders to attack the Cross of Zara, a city in the coasts of Dalmatia they wanted to recover from the King of Hungary. For the first time, the crusaders fought against other Christians. Young Alexis Ange, aspirant to the throne of Constantinople, recruited the crusaders to fight his own war by promising them he would join the Eastern Church and the Latin Church and that soldiers “would be paid with the booty.” Once it was taken in 1203, Constantinople rebelled against and expelled the Latin knights in three months. The dux Dandolo and the most important western barons decided to share out the Byzantine Empire and besieged the city which fell on April 13, 1204. For three days, massacres and plundering were so shocking that even the barons themselves were moved. The Count of Flanders, Baldwin, was named emperor of a plundered city which never recovered from the massacre and would be finally taken by the Turkish in 1453.
Even the supposedly noble first crusades were fought for less than entirely noble reasons and very nearly ended up as badly as the later efforts:
The first Crusade which began in 1096 was formed, writes Gibbon, mostly of thieves and criminals. This was the consequence of the Council of Clermont in 1095 in which the Pope proclaimed that anyone who joined the Crusade would be given full dispensation of all his sins and would be relieved of any criminal penance he might owe.
The practice of granting dispensations had been instituted in the fifth century by the Catholic Church. In return for a sum of money the Pope would grant a licence either to excuse or to permit an action which was otherwise canonically illegal….
As a result of the decree of the Council of Clermont, anyone who had committed some wrong action, from theft to murder, flocked under the banner of the cross. The rabble of 60,000 men and women pillaged their way across Europe. On reaching Hungary they came face to face with Paulicians whose forefathers had originally been driven north from Thrace by the persecution of the Empress Theodora and her successors. There was a major battle, and two-thirds of the Crusaders were killed. The survivors took refuge in the mountains of Thrace. The Emperor of Constantinople came to their rescue and safely conducted them to the city. When they reached Constantinople, its treasures proved a great temptation for them. They would have plundered the city had the Emperor not swiftly conducted them over the Bosphorus.
Reinforcements of better-trained soldiers were sent to join the remnants of the first Crusaders. When, led by Godfrey, they arrived at Constantinople, they proceeded to fight the Emperor and laid siege to the city. The Emperor, however, managed to bribe and persuade them to hold to their original plan which was to fight the Muslims and to take Jerusalem, and they too were conducted across the Bosphorus. Godfrey eventually reached and conquered Jerusalem in 1099.
When Will writes:
One of Erik’s own examples – the Crusades – was in many respects more of a religious revival than a military campaign. Pope Urban himself was caught off guard by the overwhelming popular response to his call to action, and contemporary accounts of the French nobility spontaneously taking the cross and selling off their worldly possessions belie the notion that this was some crude colonial venture. Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Frankish King of Jerusalem, actually gave up his estates to equip retainers for the journey East.
…he ignores that many of these noblemen were making an investment in future glory, power, and wealth. Oh there were some true believers, but many of these men expected to be raised up higher for their exploits, to become kings in new lands. Yes, Godfrey gave up his estate – but he became the first Frankish King of Jerusalem. It’s not as if he lived his life as a beggar for Christ.
In many respects the Crusades were preemptive defensive wars that naturally turned into wars of plunder. I would guess this is common of preemptive war, simply because rather than devoting resources to actually protecting one’s borders, you are sending troops outside of these borders into other lands where plunder of one form or another is simply too tempting. Obviously the nature of plunder has changed greatly from those days to modern times. America’s own expansionary efforts were much more blatant during the earlier part of the 20th century and the later years of the 19th century, when we basically laid claim to the entire Western hemisphere. The Spanish-American war, the Great White Fleet, and earlier in the 19th century, the Monroe Doctrine – these were all efforts by the United States to expand and better defend its interests.
In that sense, wars of expansion and plunder can also be defensive wars, and this is where things get murky and where we have to start analyzing our own interests quite closely. The concept of an expansionary foreign policy is no longer feasible, so it was replaced by the concept of spreading democracy.
If we could no longer expand our borders nor colonize we had to look to other philosophies to justify intervention elsewhere. Colonizing Iraq may have been the goal of the British Empire, but the Americans would simply topple a dictator and set up a democracy instead. We would spread our philosophy of governance and thus insert our interests in historically inhospitable soil. Like earlier expansionary efforts to better defend America, this is really a concept of plunder in disguise. We may not be stealing Iraqi treasure or setting up American colonies on Iraqi soil, but the same premise holds. We are attempting to write a Monroe Doctrine for the Middle East.
Even if Afghanistan was a legitimate war of defense initially, I would say that it has become either a war of plunder now – in the sense I talk about in the previous paragraph – or if not plunder, then a war of folly. And perhaps here is where my dualism falls apart. Because apart from defensive wars and wars of plunder I suppose there must be a third – wars of folly. Perhaps these are wars we have simply forgotten why we started in the first place. World War I turned into a war of folly, as did Vietnam. Continuing the fight in Afghanistan really doesn’t gain us much in terms of plunder or defense at this point. Perhaps we fight merely so we can exit gracefully. And so it may best be categorized as a war of folly. Then again, perhaps all wars are wars of folly. Unless you are fighting to literally protect hearth and home from invading forces, we are more than likely engaged in a war of folly. The invading forces – they may come for God or glory, plunder or revenge, expansion or obligation – but they are all fools in the end.
A couple of quick follow up notes.
Mike Drew writes:
I’m trying to get my head around Erik’s quantum leap in his position on Afghanistan as well. As far as I can recall, in discussions here just last year he expressed support for the idea that we couldn’t disengage precipitously and that the effort was in some sense legitimate, while also cautioning about what we ought to think we are capable of achieving there. Obviously, the strength of this observation relies entirely on that recollection being accurate, but if it is, I’m not sure we’re left with much alternative but to conclude that E.D. Kain in certain circumstances supports the undertaking of wars of plunder, as long as they meet some test of limited military ends (as opposed to strategic ends, which would of course be plunder), and that he reserves the right to revisit with revisionist flourish his position on the same such wars a year later. I’ll accept for the sake of argument that the war in Afghanistan has morphed from one of defense to one of plunder sometime since 2001, and I’m perfectly willing to engage a debate about whether it was begun (and it did indeed have a discreet beginning — and only one, at least for the U.S.; it was in 2001; and it was not at any time ended and restarted since, though its nature certainly can have changed.) a war of plunder or defense. I will not, however, consider an argument that the same transmogrification of nature/rationale has occurred since this time last year. So I’m left with not much alternative that I can see (again, if my memory serves about the positions he’s taken) but to conclude as I describe above regarding E.D.’s attitude toward wars of plunder undertaken by his country. Perhaps E.D. would like to say where I’m confused.
My position on both Afghanistan and Iraq has long been of the ‘you break it you buy it’ variety. I was against both wars, actually, but came to truly fear our exiting too soon from either, leaving those countries in shambles and washing our hands of the whole affair. More and more – at least in Afghanistan – I think this will probably be the eventual outcome one way or another. I find arguments for maintaining a real troop presence there – as opposed to using drone attacks and air raids – compelling. But I worry that we are being given a false choice – between ground troops on the one hand and drones on the other. At some point we will simply need to pull the curtain on both these options and simply leave. I will admit the Afghanistan, so far as I can tell, was once sold as a defensive war and may indeed have been a justified defensive war (though I imagine we could have achieved similar goals without quite so much firepower and without such a long occupation) and has morphed into something else. And I would say in this instance (as I note above) that plunder is not the best word for it: folly is much more accurate.
Sam M writes:
"… the ‘system’ has no intent – no grand conspiracy of the rich and powerful…"
"These were wars of plunder… the direct plundering of American tax dollars to feed the ever-hungry military-industrial complex. Who has profited from these wars? Corporations like Halliburton; countless defense contractors; and so on and so forth."
Seems to me that "directplundering" requires some kind of intent.
Which is it?
Right, but we’re talking about two separate things here. I was speaking of our economic system not having any ‘intent’. The ‘market’ does not have an ‘intent’. It has no telos as some folks have pointed out recently. It is an elaborate chaotic game played by innumerable players. War is not the same. War is a decision – a specific decision – made by distinct players. It needn’t be a secretive cabal as Will suggests, but it’s a decision made by powerful men to use American blood and treasure to further specific interests. Iraq was decided upon, based on the thinnest of evidence, by our political elite. This is not the same as the multitudinous factors that have contributed to the crash of our economy.
I will say that many of the harmful side-effects of the war on terror are not actually intentionally come by, as greginak points out. The power grabs, the use of secret prisons, torture, domestic surveillance, TSA abuses, etc. etc. etc. are the result of a large security bureaucracy, fueled by legitimate fear (while also fueling that fear). There is no one despotic figure coming up with lots of ways to rob us of our civil liberties. But that is none the less the effect. This is more akin to the example of the market with the exception that there really have been obvious players in the war on terror. Dick Cheney and his ilk, for instance, made direct purposeful efforts to expand the power of the Executive. You can lay some of this at very specific feet.
P.S. Alright I left out a large part of the War of 1812. The whole “capture Canada” bit. My bad.
P.P.S. Just to clarify – Eagle Driver asks in the comments:
Since you brought up the categorizing of war, where do you put England (and much later America) in 1939 taking on Hitler’s Nazi war machine? Chamberlain’s "Peace at any Price" deal with Hitler just didn’t work out as planned. Would you say there is a special category of "Defense – A Justified War" (opposed to your category of disguised expansion?
I’m pretty sure I’ve explicitly stated on numerous occasions that there are wars of defense and that these are justified. I’m frankly not sure how Eagle Driver missed this, but in case I was not clear enough I think there are just wars and that these are wars of defense, and yes I would argue that defending Europe from the Nazis was one such war.