"In war, brutality is good because it makes the war end quickly." I disagree; help me think about why.
August 18, 2007 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Someone quoted to me a quote last night that was along the lines of, "War is a brutal and horrible thing, and the more brutal and horrible it is, the faster it's over." He used this both in defense of using nuclear bombs in WWII and in support of a similar approach for Iraq. I don't agree.

This points to a larger issue for me. I knew I didn't agree, but aside from some token phrases I couldn't really come up with a strong argument against what he said. That annoys me.

I don't care about this one argument all that much, so I don't need reasons why its wrong, per se. What I'm actually asking is what types of things (maybe even specifics, if you have suggestions) I can read that will shore up my base positions, both for myself and for explaining them to other people. Most of the philosophy I've read has tended to be very abstract, or interaction/interface to nature-focused, neither of which helps in situations like that.
posted by devilsbrigade to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I realize that you said you don't care about reasons why this specific argument is wrong, and that, rather, you're interested in shoring up your base positions, but you never said what your base positions are.


1. In regards to this specific argument, check out what happened to the Mongol Empire -- the world's greatest nation of its time -- as a direct result of the brutality of their sack of Baghdad.

2. What are your base positions?
posted by Flunkie at 3:17 PM on August 18, 2007

The philosophy of Germany's air attacks on London, in World Wars I and II, was that attacking the English capital would compel the British to fold quickly. The effect was the opposite: it rallied the citizenry to stand fast against the Hun.

Similarly, the rationale for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was that America would back down once the Empire demonstrated that it meant business. Again, "shock and awe" only crystallized American resolve.

From my reading of history, brutality obtains short term successes and breeds long term failures. It destroys bodies, not heart and will.
posted by SPrintF at 3:24 PM on August 18, 2007

I think you've uncovered a basic principle - philosophical positions that can be summed up in bumper-sticker-like slogans have always been seductive, because more complex feelings and positions are harder to describe. I wouldn't feel too bad that you didn't have a responding slogan to offer back to your friend.

Nothing is ever as simple as such reductions make it sound. For instance, the slogan that you titled your post with probably wouldn't be stated by anyone who actually lived on the pointy end of a war, long or short. It's only in places far removed from combat that we have the time and need to create 'soundbite' justifications for what we are doing elsewhere. People actually experiencing the war as something other than nightly news tend to come up with more succinct phrases, like 'war is hell'.
posted by foobario at 3:26 PM on August 18, 2007

Maybe William T. Sherman:
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.
I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.

But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.
Robert McNamara quotes "war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it" in The Fog of War. Sherman also wrote this:
I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting--its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers...it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated...that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:26 PM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sherman also said, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."
posted by kirkaracha at 3:29 PM on August 18, 2007

Sherman also said, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

And moreover, this quote of Sherman's is the original source for the commonly heard phrase: "War is hell."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:34 PM on August 18, 2007

Kirkaracha, that "its glory is all moonshine" quote is more powerful without its second ellipsis. You have:
it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
What Sherman actually wrote was:
it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated (friend or foe) that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
The only purpose of redacting there is to gloss over the fact that Sherman spoke of his enemies as humans.

For the sake of completeness, the entire quote (getting rid of both ellipses in yours) is:
I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting - its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers.... And, so far as I know, all the fighting men of our army want peace; and it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated (friend or foe), that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
I could be misremembering, but I believe that the remaining ellipsis there ("sons, husbands, and fathers...") is one that Sherman actually wrote, not a redaction of his words.
posted by Flunkie at 3:34 PM on August 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sherman also said, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."
This was, by the way, said in a commencement speech for the graduating class of a military academy.
posted by Flunkie at 3:40 PM on August 18, 2007

Flunkie: I'll check it out. In response to (2), they tend to be anti-war, pro-isolationism, somewhat libertarian, somewhat back to basics, somewhat 'bear shit on trail' without quite as much of an emphasis on wholeness, somewhat anti-globalism. I don't have firm stances, which is what I want to change.

SPrintF: Definitely get your point, but his argument was along the liens of, "dropping the bombs on Japan made them fall back into line and buddy up to us." And it was kind of that that I didn't know how to respond to.

foobario: Definitely. I want to have enough of it thought out that I don't have to resort to some silly slogans. As for the second part, he's ex-Army infantry.

Interesting bit about Sherman. Maybe what I'm getting out of this is that I just flat out need to read more history.
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:43 PM on August 18, 2007

I second The Fog of War. It is both excellent and disturbing.
posted by Flunkie at 3:51 PM on August 18, 2007

There is danger in firm stances. Bush's stances are very firm.
posted by oddman at 4:04 PM on August 18, 2007

"hearts and minds" seems to be an opposite slogan from "war is hell". both slogans are tired cliches though.

perhaps what you need to read is more about human rights and development issues. if war is not the answer, then you should investigate the systems and ideas which you believe do contain the answer. one book i might recommend is "the end of poverty" by j. sachs. this book is not about iraq, but it is about how mutual respect and cooperation among nations can (and does) provide the best path to a safer, better tomorrow.
posted by Flood at 4:17 PM on August 18, 2007

i don't think this is something you can ever be settled on, and if you are then it just means there are probably issues you ar not considering. something related to this that i found interesting to study is the structure and motive of the UN and the geneva conventions. but i think you would need to study all significant conflicts of the 20th century to understadn the nature of modern war. dropping th bomb is just a very basic issue that people can relate to simply, but in all conflicts there are many sides to the story. so i would look for any texts regarding the history of war in the 20th century and get reading.
posted by edtut at 4:22 PM on August 18, 2007

A few suggestions on what to read for a good broad approach to what you are getting at, War: The Lethal Custom by Gwynne Dyer, The Power of Scale by John Bodley, even Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel would fit in.
I am finishing my masters thesis (tonight!!!), which explores the role of war as it has changed along with the scale of society, suffice to say there has been many examples of nasty, brutal conflicts that have been anything but short. I've a feeling your acquaintance is corrolating the isolated examples of the atomic attacks on Japan into a broad assertion. There are many flaws in this type of reasoning some of which have been covered above so I won't really say any more about it other than it's not a very tenable position to hold. The books I linked to above where some of the the more accessible and easy to read examples that may help you come to a personal position. The don't always agree with one another, but that is good, as it forces you to weight the evidence for yourself, and all three are pretty well written.
posted by edgeways at 4:31 PM on August 18, 2007

his argument was along the liens of, "dropping the bombs on Japan made them fall back into line and buddy up to us." And it was kind of that that I didn't know how to respond to.

OK, I get the picture now. Whether he/they realize it or not, they're parroting phrases that originated with Gen. Curtis LeMay, the architect of firebombing campaigns in Europe and Japan in World War II.

The New York Times reported at the time, "Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the B-29s of the entire Marianas area, declared that if the war is shortened by a single day, the attack will have served its purpose."

You might want to point out that:

The Japanese nicknamed him "Demon LeMay". In violation of the rules of war shot-down B-29 aircrews were frequently tortured and executed when captured by both Japanese civilians and military. Also, the remaining Allied prisoners of war in Japan who had survived imprisonment to that time were frequently subjected to additional reprisals and torture after an air raid.

Moreover, LeMay is the originator of this common phrase:

LeMay is perhaps most famous for suggesting in a 1965 book that the United States should escalate its bombing of North Vietnam: "My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."

And we all know how well that turned out...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:34 PM on August 18, 2007

Your friend is advocating a version of the view that "the ends justify the means". In this case, he's saying that the goal (end) of finishing a war makes it okay to use methods (means) that are brutal and would be unacceptable just on their own. The goal is morally good, so we're allowed to do morally bad things to achieve it.

Two quick thoughts about how you might figure out where your disagreement is with your friend...

You might ask your friend if he believes this kind of rule applies in other situations -- for example, what if we could find a cure for cancer by doing horribly cruel experiments on children? What if you could help one friend by breaking an important promise to another friend? Or does the rule only apply to war -- if so, why?

In the case of war, is there anything your friend thinks would be going too far? If we killed everyone in Iraq, for example, that would bring an end to the war, but presumably your friend thinks that wouldn't be a great idea. So ask him to explain where they think the line is between acceptable brutality and brutality that would not be acceptable even to bring about the end of a war. Does he think there are rules for ok conduct in a war, or does he think anything goes? (If he thinks anything goes, does he think that terrorists who attack civilians are morally worse than an army that does so? If so, why?)

As to what you think about the end justifying the means:

You might disagree with the rule altogether -- you might think that there are some things it is always morally bad to do, no matter what goal we're pursuing by doing them. (Immanuel Kant is one famous philosopher who thought this.)

You might think the rule applies in some circumstances and not others, and that attacking civilians in wartime isn't one of them -- for example, you might think it is never morally ok to deliberately attack civilians. (Something to look at in this connection is philosophical studies of "just war theory" -- in particular, the topic of jus in bello, that is, what methods are morally justifiable when conducting a war.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:36 PM on August 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

From my reading of history, brutality obtains short term successes and breeds long term failures.

It depends on circumstances, and on just how brutal you get.

Rome won the third (and last) Punic war in 146 BC, and killed all the Carthaginians and utterly destroyed the city. There were no further Punic wars because there were no Carthaginians to fight them. Rome history after final victory in the Punic wars can't really be characterized as "long term failure", given that within 150 years Rome totally dominated the Mediterranean basin, and the legendary Fall of Rome was 600 years after Carthage was sacked.

It destroys bodies, not heart and will.

Without any bodies, there's nothing to have "heart and will".

Whatever else you may have to say about genocide (and it will probably be intensely negative) the one thing we can all fully agree on is that genocide is conclusive and irrevocable. (Which is not to be read as an endorsement by me of genocide.)

Responding to the OP, my study of the history of warfare suggests essentially no correlation between the length of a war and its brutality. There have been long brutal wars (WWI) and short non-brutal wars. There is also no correlation between the length of a war and/or its brutality and the significance and/or permanence of the result.

The reason was enunciated by Clausewitz: the political and cultural context of a particular war cannot be ignored. The reason there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to win a war is because the politics and cultures of those who fight vary so much.

No single tactic works universally. For instance, if in the late 1940's it had been the USSR who had owned India rather than the United Kingdom, Gandhi's campaign would have been a dismal failure. Stalin would have had him and all his people rounded up and shot. Gandhi's campaign was beautifully conceived and tuned to gain independence from the UK as an occupying power. It took advantage of the specific characteristics of the people and politics of the UK.

There have been wars which could only be won through immense carnage. (Whether those wars were worth fighting is a matter for another day.) There have also been wars which could not be won through carnage and had to be won other ways. It's all about context.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:38 PM on August 18, 2007

For most people, history will be more convincing than philosophy. So, probably reading history is your best bet. I just wanted to point you toward some of the relevant philosophy (which, yeah, is pretty abstract).
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:42 PM on August 18, 2007

Den Beste is addressing whether the factual claim is true. (the more brutal, the shorter)

I was addressing whether the ethical/moral claim is true. (the goal of shortening a war justifies mass killings of civilians)

These questions are worth thinking about separately.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:46 PM on August 18, 2007

And, because I can't shut up, check out this impressive page on just war theory, with nice explanations and taxonomy and tons of resources. Here's a quote (on the actual webpage, the terms for different positions have informative links):
Just war theory is not a settled doctrine. It is a field of critical ethical reflection. That’s why there are as many just war theories as there are just war theorists. So, rather than allow traditionally accepted (yet highly contested) theoretical principles dictate what is required to justify the use of armed forces, let your first lesson in just war theory be one which you teach yourself in a simple introductory exercise of reflection: Start by thinking of a paradigm case or prime example from history which strikes you intuitively as being an instance of an ethically acceptable, or perhaps even laudable use of armed forces. And ask yourself what makes it so. If you can neither think of a single example in history, nor imagine any possible future instances of the justifiable use of arms, then you may be an absolute pacifist. If you cannot think of a single ethically condemnable act of warfare, and you “love the smell of napalm in the morning,” then you may belong to the realpolitik camp. If you can think of some limited class of ethically condemnable instances or forms of warfare, and your head is swimming with great examples of ethically acceptable and even laudable warfare, then you may be a relatively hawkish just war theorist. If your head is swimming with historical examples of condemnable warfare, and you can think only of a relatively limited class of ethically acceptable instances, and few or no laudable ones, then you may be a relatively dovish just war theorist (like me). The theoretical task of the just war theorist is to figure out what sets the ethically acceptable and laudable examples apart from the rest.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:53 PM on August 18, 2007

Your question was about resources to shore up your opinions. You may find the podcasts from And introduction to non-violence interesting. Although he obviously goes into more detail than this, he offers this pithy observation about the use of violence (in both military and other forms):
When you take a situation, and you introduce negative energy, you're going to have a negative outcome.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:00 PM on August 18, 2007

Funny how this keeps coming around to Sherman - total war worked for him in his March to the Sea, and he's well-known for his use of it, however much he may have hated war.
posted by dilettante at 5:37 PM on August 18, 2007

His argument only works in retrospect, where we know what enough horror turned out to be. At any given moment, we don't know what the tipping point of future horror is.

I think I'd counter that it's not necessarily escalation of the acts that cause horror that resolves conflicts. Once could also lower our tolerance threshold down to below current horror levels, and that's far les horrible to try.
posted by cmiller at 5:59 PM on August 18, 2007

I think the Russian perspective on this is worth looking at: they accept high casualties up front, thinking this will shorten the fight. Your infantry friend seeks to cause high casualties up front, thinking it will have the same result.

You and he may to be thinking of different things when he says brutality. You may be thinking of the deaths of innocent women and children. He may be thinking of command centers, supply lines, staging areas, enemy morale.

I would counter his argument by pointing out not all fights are best handled by brutality; for instance, the fight we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. His professional reading should have shown him this.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:30 PM on August 18, 2007

In terms of resources, I think you should just start reading books about wars - any war. I just finished an interesting one called Charlie Wilson's War which was about the Afghan's war against the Russian occupation. In a war like this (which is not dissimilar to a war like that currently being waged against the US in Iraq or the war that was waged against the US in Vietnam) the strategy of the winning side is to slowly bleed the other side into defeat.

So, yes, it is brutal and horrible, but nothing like an atom bomb which represents a single decisive brutal and horrible event, and it is not a strategy for quick victory either, just a strategy for victory.
posted by extrabox at 8:51 PM on August 18, 2007

"War is a brutal and horrible thing, and the more brutal and horrible it is, the faster it's over." He used this both in defense of using nuclear bombs in WWII and in support of a similar approach for Iraq. I don't agree.

Your friend seems to be arguing for a constant stance of "Total War". ie, every time we face an enemy in battle, they must be completely and utterly annihilated or otherwise reduced to a point where they never again could threaten your interests.

The problem with "Total War Against All Our Enemies" as a political-military concept is that it has the same rough effect as having the death penalty for relatively minor crimes like robbery. If robbery is punishable by death, then the robber really doesn't have much incentive to let you live and testify.

Likewise, if we declare that our geopolitical stance is "Total War Against All Our Enemies" without recourse to negotiation, armistice or cease-fire, then our enemies are much less likely to negotiate an armistice or cease-fire with us. Some of the more militant Palestinian groups suffer from this very same problem: they can't get Israel to the table because they've said they want to wipe Israel off the map.

Keeping the door open to negotiation, cease-fire and even (gasp!) a tactical surrender will probably ensure the long-term survival of your nation much more than declaring that every war you fight will either end in your total victory or your total destruction.

Of course, you can't put all that on a bumper sticker, which is why it hasn't entered the national consciousness yet.
posted by Avenger at 9:17 PM on August 18, 2007

Thanks for the expanded Sherman quotes, Flunkie. (Stupid Wikipedia.)
posted by kirkaracha at 8:12 AM on August 19, 2007

Why not fix Wikipedia?
posted by anthill at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2007

I mentioned WWI as being an example of a long and brutal war.

All war is brutal, of course; we're talking about matters of degree. But as such things go, a good opposite example (short, conclusive, and not very brutal) is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which ironically was mostly fought on about the same ground. Among other results, the German states united under Hohenzollern rule (in Berlin), Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians and deposed, the Second French Empire ended, and the Third Republic was established.

I can't find any definitive reference but it looks like the butcher's bill was about 250,000 killed on both sides. By the standards of major wars in Europe that was quite small. Compare, for instance, to about 100,000 killed in just four days at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

It was also amazingly brief. Operations began in July of 1870 and an armistice was agreed to in January of 1871 after the French military was decisively defeated. The war officially ended in May of 1871 with the Treaty of Frankfurt.

The American Revolution is an example of a long war that was not particularly brutal. Battles were rare and small and casualties were not usually very heavy. The last major military operation in the war was the Siege of Yorktown.

That involved about 10,000 British troops and about 17,000 Americans, and there probably weren't more than a couple thousand deaths on both sides. The main result was that some 7,000 British surrendered. When word of that reached London, the government fell and the new government gave up trying to pacify the American colonies, thus ending six years of rebellion. (It took another couple of years before a formal treaty was signed.)

Few wars have had such a profound effect on the course of world history.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:13 AM on August 20, 2007

A really long and extremely brutal war was the Thirty Years War.
The major impact of the Thirty Years' War, which primarily used mercenary armies who had little concern for anyone's rights or property, was to lay waste to entire regions scavenged bare by the foraging armies, causing a much higher than normal death rate among the civilian population, as episodes of widespread famine and disease (a starving body has little resistance to illnesses) devastated the population of the Germanies and, to a lesser extent, the Low Countries, while bankrupting many of the powers involved. The war may have lasted for 30 years, but the conflicts that triggered it continued unresolved for a much longer time. The war ended with the Treaty of Münster, a part of the wider Peace of Westphalia.

During the war, Germany's population was reduced by 30%; in the territory of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas to an estimated two thirds of the population. Germany’s male population was reduced by almost half. Population of the Czech lands declined by a third. The Swedish armies alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns in Germany, the number represented one-third of all German towns.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:23 AM on August 20, 2007

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