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.


Frankenduf (#14) said: "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"

Woops! "Massacre warfare" did not, in fact, originate in Europe, nor was it begun by them somewhere else. Massacres happened sporadically in the ancient Near East (the Assyrians have a possibly-undeserved reputation for doing this frequently). Even so, massacres were uncommon and rarely done; typically a warring nation needed to do it only once in order to convince others not to resist.

The Mongols under Genghis Khan (13th century), and the Tatars under Timur the Lame (late 14th century & first years of the 15th), were most famous for their "massacre style of warfare," and they both honed it to an artform. Estimates of the numbers of people they massacred run well into 6 figures each. Yet neither of them was European.

There is also evidence that massacres occurred in other parts of the world as well, in the Americas and Africa, prior to European contact; but as in the ancient Near East it doesn't appear to have been common.

As for war being ritualized, it was ... and to an extent still is. But escalation of casualties in war has accompanied the retention of warfare's ritual aspects; they're not mutually exclusive.

So no ... massacre is NOT a "European" invention. Far from it. And ritualized warfare is NOT free of the possibility of massacre.


Patrick K

I just "voted with my feet" and left the Army's officer corps a few months ago. I'd have to say I agreed with less than half of the quotes from the West Point cadets, but I would have five years ago before I signed up. Many of them, like me, will lose their idealism when they see the waste -- both in life and treasure -- of our current military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some wars are necessary. My war is watching my buddy, once full of pride and machismo and bloodlust, cry in his beer over our dead friends.

Joe Shelby

#14 said "the real blood lust kill-em-all paradigm was introduced by the Europeans, and began a run of killing technology"

Was Ghangis Khan European?


Thank you Marc Adin for your well written post. We can never hear enough true stories of war.
It is always eye-opening to hear stories like yours. My reasons for defecating in my pants pale in comparison.


I thought the answers were going to be from the Pentagon, or a bunch of military PR people - pretentions of understanding the true seriousness of war, and total rubbish. West point students makes more sense.

Thank you #24 - best post here.

Geoff, Ohio

I'm surprised that this thread has attracted relatively few comments. Perhaps #24 (Marc Adin) and #41 (Scott), as well as several others, really did give people pause. Awesome post, btw, Mr. Adin, thoroughly on the money. You have my complete gratitude for serving, my utter respect for your honesty, and my heartfelt thanks for surviving and letting us know what you went through. I'm not a religious man, but may God bless you anyway.


frankenduf, the "the real blood lust kill-em-all paradigm was introduced by the Europeans" thing is a convenient fiction, and false. There's plenty of that sort of thing in "primitive" tribal conflicts that have nothing to do with Europeans or European influence (as observed as recently as the last half-century in the Amazon).

So really, war used to be more or less total war (except maybe leaving the women alive, depending), then slowly became ritualized to reduce the carnage. In the last 200 years or so we've been moving away from the ritual, but in the last 30 there is certainly some renewed attempt made to avoid carnage (though still without ritual). Certainly a military that thinks it has the option of avoiding it avoids total war on the World War 2 model.

It'll be interesting to see where this multi-dimensional pendulum ends up next. Ritualized total war doesn't sound pleasant to me.



What a liberal discussion.

Joe E.

Check the stats of recent years on retention of West Pointers beyond their 4-5 year active duty commitments after graduation. It is less than a third who stay in for a career. By then they are Captains and should be preparing for careers as senior officers. Instead they vote with their feet and leave the Army in droves. These best and brightest often become frustrated if not disillusioned with senior leadership. They feel betrayed. Usually not the horrific betrayal of the grunt who bears the real burden of war with often life-scarring consequences but a betrayal of trust and ideals nonetheless that is easily resolved for them by just leaving and pursuing another career.

The extraordinarily low retention stats of junior officers in the Iraq and Vietnam eras who are supposed to be the future enlightened leaders of our military reflect a quiet rejection by those who have seen enough after 4 years of training at West Point and 5 years of war.

One should also note that many cadets leave West Point before graduation. Most do not wash out, they chose to leave because they simply make a reasoned choice to step away from what they see as an unacceptable path.

If you want another "...thoughtful, varied, and independent mindset..." ask your question of the third of cadets who reject the program and the two thirds of young Captains who say no thank you after five years of active duty.

Joe E.



War is what happens when two powerful men can't find a measuring tape to settle the issue of who has a bigger dick.


It's disturbing to see many of our best and brightest consider evil to be necessary.


We do fall for the bull of a Cheney and a Rumsfeld, and other deluded boys with big toys, over and over. If now perhaps half of Americans have some real reservations about the use of our armed forces, remember that Bush had a 90% approval rating after the March, 2003 incursion in Iraq.

I have no illusions that war is sometimes necessary and that we need to always be prepared to fight the most ruthless of enemies. Unfortunately, although in a very few cases armed force has been postponed for too long, it is most often used too soon to solve problems that are really matters of pride, ego, or financial rivalry.

Diplomacy, trade, and people-to-people exchanges, etc., are ties that bind us all and that will prevent conflicts from escalating to war. They are the slow, long-term answer to the question "Is war inevitable?" Wouldn't it be great to have leaders who work for these things as hard as they do at building up our military?

I hope these cadets read these responses and take them to heart. Perhaps a few will resist the mindless drumbeat of war that is sure to be heard again, and remember that war is a very last resort, only.

Thank you, Marc #24.



"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.

G Morris

I just returned from the cemetery at West Point. It has been forty years since the Tet Offensive and I went to put flowers on the graves of the class of '67, my college sweetheart and his classmates. Their graves are now green with mold and aged but my heart still feels the pain of their loss. We should have walked through time together but I have not been allowed to share their company and they have been missed. Now their graves look out onto to the graves of the newly fallen from the Mideast.

Quote from Feb, 1968....Lt Ron Fraser, Class of 67 West Point
died in Mekong Delta, May 24, 1968.

"We are being sacrficied for a political war that has no real meaning. The great conflict of our time will be fought in the desert over our need for oil."


These answers hardly seem "thoughtful, varied, and independent"

"I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all same.

Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.

If today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war ... is today a day for a thrilling show? The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind."
-Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut


Just want to thank Marc Adin, for post #24. These cadets are conveniently ignorant and undereducated, much like the Hitler youth. They are mere tools in aggressive oppression that benefits those kind of people that these cadets will never know and never become. There is no honor in choosing ignorance.

Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

"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."


Thank you, Marc #24, for inserting reality into this highly intellectualized discussion of a bloody and tragic topic.


War is a myth out of which legends grow.


@ marc adin. Sobering and well said, especially as we approach yet another Memorial Day celebrated with too many hot dogs and not enough memorializing.