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. gradys kitchen says:

    Now let’s see 12 responses from non West Point infantry, the soldiers recruited outside of shopping malls in the heartland, to understand what war really means.

    “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

    John Adams to Abigail Adams,

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  2. Christopher Davis says:

    And let’s not forget…

    “War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — Edwin Starr

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  3. Marc says:

    “…they are thoughtful, realistic and clear-eyed people.”

    At least they are until they become leiutenants and captains, and lose faith that the generals and presidents are competent, or care about anything aside of assigning/avoiding blame.

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  4. David G. Ward says:

    The remarks of the cadets simply and sadly indicate their naivete and the fact that they have never been to war! (Nam 68′)

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  5. George Shen says:

    War is a disease of mankind.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    don’t forget that war has evolved- war used to be ritualized and sacred in order to moderate conflict between tribes- the real blood lust kill-em-all paradigm was introduced by the Europeans, and began a run of killing technology which peaked with the hydrogen bomb- war has since become more attenuated via war crimes/human rights advocacy- so I think the war descriptions can run the gamut of warfare development- war can be a conceptually benign concept of physical compromise, or it can risk the end of civilization- good luck to the cadets to quelling their own dissonance about war

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  7. andrew says:

    US owes its independence to its conventional armies and the French navy far more than militia using hit and run tactics.

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  8. Brant Serxner says:

    I keep my own running file of interesting quotations. Per War:
    Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed. Mao Tse-tung
    War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. John Stuart Mill
    War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography. Ambrose Bierce
    It’s what Alexander did after he conquered a country that interested me. If war is part of our nature, the question is, what do we do after it?
    Mark Landler

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