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. fendertweed says:

    No. 11 is truly scary, if not downright foolish.

    Has war in Iraq strengthened our country? I think not.

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  2. Lee says:

    To #7: The quote is “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”, written by Isaac Asimov.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    Dubner states that “The 12 answers reflect the thoughtful, varied, and independent mindset that I have always encountered when dealing with folks at West Point.”

    Interestingly, I reached the opposite conclusion. The comments from our cadets are largely homogenous in that they all view war as “necessary” or yielding a “net positive” in some cases. But none state unequivocally that war is morally reprehensible, nor reflect Randolph Bourne’s view that “war is the health of the state.”

    To me, these views do not represent diversity of opinion, but rather the effects of years of borderline brainwashing. I mean to take nothing away from our cadets, who assuredly are very bright, but it is virtually impossible for a cadet to think “independently” on this question. How can one be starting in the armed services and morally reject using warfare as a means to an end?

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  4. David Neuschulz says:

    Their comments do not reveal, one way or the other, that they are remarkable or unremarkable. Their comments *do*, however, show that they are not very clear-eyed.

    War is necessary? Really? For what? For the human race to survive? Or just for some people to survive?

    War furthers our development differently than peace, this is for sure, but not exclusively from peace.

    War is the quickest way to get *anything* done? Honest? Vietnam, left to become communist ten years earlier than it did would *not* have allowed it become a capitalist-leaning country (at least) ten years earlier than it did?

    These cadet answers are largely tainted with numerous unspoken assumptions and show only a slight range of opinions within what seems to be a general conformity. Which is exactly what you would expect from young people embarking on a military career. I condemn the assertions of the journalist more than the answers of the cadets themselves.

    Here’s mine: War is a failure of the imagination to conceive of any other solution to a problem than war.

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  5. William Keller says:

    “..when opposing troops meet in battle,
    victory belongs to the grieving side.”

    “…a mighty army tends to fall by its own weight.”

    “..best way of conquering an enemy is to win him over by not antaginizing him.”
    Lao Tzu

    Permitting your competitor to be slavishly indebted or dependent upon for your loans or resources may eliminate the observation of #1.

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  6. Arthur says:

    War is the inferior alternative to strategic nonviolent struggle. Most nations that have undergone a democratic transition liberated themselves by nonviolent resistance rather than war.

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  7. confused says:

    I thought William Sherman said “War is Hell,” not Napoleon.

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  8. Marc Adin says:

    mr. dubner,

    only people who have never been in a war would describe it the way these “thoughtful, varied, and independent mindset[s]” have done. i was an infantryman in a war. i know my ’12 replies’ to what war is, is at least based upon my five senses:

    1.] defecating in my pants because i couldn’t sit, stand or crouch, without being killed, for 14 hours; 2.] then when i could move, dragging a dying, fellow soldier and his intestines strung out 5 feet or so behind him 50 meters to a medic who told me he was dead; 3.] not sleeping more than 3 hours at a time for 3 months; 4.] not taking a shower or bath for 40 days; 5.] giving a 4 or 5 year old child an opened can of fruit cocktail, and watch her walk 30 meters and step on a small mine; 6.] then trying to stop the the spurting blood pulsing from wherever her leg and groin used to be while i screamed for help while she turned a gray-blue and died; 7.] not being in any kind of shelter, outside during the monsoons for 10 days, in 45 degree weather and gusting winds, watching as my skin shriveled like a white prune, as scratches became sores and sores became a greenish oozing mass; 8.] being so bored that i would put gunpowder from a .50 caliber bullet on a beetle as big as plate, light it and bet with my fellow soldiers how far it would run before it turned over and popped; 9.]throwing a peanut m&m at at an officer after he berated me because i failed to stand up and salute him when he passed by, and then being threatened with a court martial for ‘assaulting an officer'; 10.] being wounded in the mouth by a fragment of the vertebrae of the soldier 5 feet in front of me as his back blew open; 11.] crying myself to sleep at night until i believed i was immortal and could not die; 12.] seeing a young kid beheaded a few yards away from me, suddenly, and watching the head bounce into a small filthy ditch.

    you and your bright, articulate cadets don’t have the slightest idea of what you are talking about. another memorial day is upon us. instead of inane nostrums that are disconnected from the pure obscenity that war is, write down my 12 answers and read them every day, so you memorize them. then the next time the question arises, you, your bright cadets and people who know nothing of war, will at least have some picture of what war truly is, rather than what you “wish the rest of the world knew” about what a fine institution west point may be. it goes like this: west point trains young men and women to fight war, and war is… what, again?

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