War Is …

According to the Yale Book of Quotations (whose future editions are being improved by Freakonomics readers), war is: “hell” (Napoleon Bonaparte), “too serious a matter to entrust to to military men” (Georges Clemenceau), and “a condition of progress” (Ernest Renan).

What follows below are 12 replies to the question “What do you think about war in general?” The replies all come from members of the same group. After you read the replies but before you read beyond the list, try to guess the group.

1. Unfortunately war is necessary and has been for thousands of years.
2. War is a tragic and hopefully unnecessary part of life. I pray that militaries may become deterrent forces only.
3. War is a necessary evil.
4. While war may appear to be the least beneficial thing to mankind and society in general, there are numerous aspects of it which further our development. Whether it be the liberation of oppressed people or simply the cooperation of two very different peoples, which results in new friendships between cultures, many positives are found amongst the tragedies.
5. War is the most effective way to get things done.
6. War is about protecting the innocent and fighting so others don’t have to.
7. Fear leads to hatred and hatred leads to war.
8. It is a horrible and necessary thing. We may as well be the best at it.
9. I believe war is a necessary evil if there is a good enough reason (e.g., World War II).
10. War is that in which humans grow most.
11. I think war is a way to strengthen our country. It shows other countries that our country will not be stepped on and we will defend our country.
12. War is a failure of diplomacy.

Care to guess what group these 12 respondents belong to?

They are all West Point cadets — more specifically, members of the West Point Canterbury Club, whose answers to questions about war were recently featured in an edition of The Episcopal New Yorker. (It’s amazing what shows up in your mailbox sometimes; I guess not all junk mail is worthless.)

The only answer I abbreviated above was No. 12, in order not to give it away. The rest of No. 12’s reply: “As soldiers and officers we will manage and control the application of violence in order to protect the United States.”

The 12 answers reflect the thoughtful, varied, and independent mindset that I have always encountered when dealing with folks at West Point, properly known as the United States Military Academy. It is a truly remarkable institution, and I wish the rest of the world knew more about it.

I learned a bit once when writing a chapter about its historic cemetery for this book.


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  1. Ben says:

    One of my favorite professors said something very similar to number 12, he said that “War is the failure of reason”

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  2. Miguel V. says:

    The best definition of war that I’ve read is:

    “War is the continuation of politics by other means”

    fairly accurate

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  3. Jon Ericson says:

    Being the son and brother of Air Force officers, it wasn’t hard to guess these were quotes from active-duty military men and women. Thank you for reminding us that they are thoughtful, realistic and clear-eyed people.


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  4. Troy Camplin, Ph.D. says:

    “War is the father of all things” — Heraclitus.

    Of course, all we have of Heraclitus is fragments. However, we do know that he was keen on paradox, so an educated guess is that the second half of that phrase is,

    “And peace is the mother.”

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  5. Josh says:

    “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it. ” Robert E. Lee, USMA Class of 1829, 2nd out of a class of 46.

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  6. Amy says:

    Reader Jon Ericson thanked Steven J. Dubner for reminding us that active duty military are “thoughtful, realistic and clear-eyed people”. As a generality, I’m confident that there is truth in this assertion. However, let’s remember to leave room for the ever-present exceptions. Take a look at the fifth definition: “War is the most effective way to get things done”. I fail to see anything “clear-eyed” about that very youthful and untested premise.

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  7. Mark says:

    My favorite war quote is, “War is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

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  8. Jim Carlin says:

    The birth of the United States is owed to a militia who used non-conventional tactics against a technologically superior British army. The US has fallen prey to the same pitfall; our military is pre-occupied with conventional tactics and a legalistic, bureacratic culture that suppresses the essential elements required for quick victories. To win wars, the US must abandon the theatrical props of “advanced technology” and adopt a strategy based on the individual soldier’s actions.

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