December 15, 2003
by S. T. Karnick
An individual citizen might not perfectly approve of the reigning state sovereign, but going to war was a matter not just of honor but indeed of survival for citizens and their families. The Enlightenment, however, changed that situation radically, partly by moving political sovereignty from the king or prince to the people. Whereas a king could force his subjects to fight, under penalty of imprisonment and probably death, and the alternatives to fighting for one’s homeland were too awful to contemplate anyway, a citizen of a republic could plausibly look around and judge that the alternative regime pressing forward outside the gates was not noticeably worse than the government that was about to force them to go to war.
Moreover, given that all political power ostensibly resided in the people, any decision about whether to go to war was ultimately theirs to make. Hence, it became essential for rulers to persuade their populations to engage in hostilities when the former judged it necessary. They quickly became very adept at such activities, whipping up ethnic and religious hatreds and jealousy over economic disparities, demonizing their rivals in other countries and political enemies at home, censoring the press and using it for propaganda purposes, and deceiving the citizenry whenever and to whatever extent they thought it necessary to further the state’s interests. And also sometimes by telling the truth.
That, of course, is the position in which we remain today. As to the actual prosecution of wars, this too was a relatively simple affair before the Enlightenment. One group invaded another’s territory and tried to take it over, and the other faction fought back and tried to repel them. Perpetually seeking military advantage, either for offensive or defensive reasons or both, the rulers and their military authorities sought to procure the best weapons available and worked hard to improve them and develop more lethal and destructive ones. Great fortifications arose to protect vital treasures (especially the king and his nobles and their families). Powerful technologies developed to breach these defenses. Strategies developed and evolved as weaponry and defenses changed. The ability to move supplies and weaponry became an increasingly important consideration. But the central task was always the same: to have one’s way in a particular geographical territory.
Certainly morale was an important factor affecting a nation’s success in war, but it was really weapons and people and the ability to get them to the theater of war that made the critical difference between success and failure. Any nation that refused to fight was definitely asking to be overrun, and, as noted earlier, there was no assurance of fair treatment for the losers. In addition, one could see great, obvious sense in attacking a frightening neighbor—scary because of those perpetual ethnic, religious, and wealth differences—before they attacked you, which was often easily imaginable even without skillful propaganda manipulation by the government. Human history, after all, is in large part a chronicle of wars. Better, then, to be safe than sorry. Thus, morale was not usually a major problem.
That, too, however, changed with the Enlightenment. With sovereignty vested in the people, the ability to keep the citizenry on a war footing was essential to any ruler’s designs. In times of war, the government’s political enemies, either sincerely or simply in hope of scoring points with the public, might well criticize the means being used to fight the war or even oppose the enterprise altogether. In times of peace, the loyal opposition could often be counted on to whip up popular hatreds and fears of other nations, to make the government in power appear timid, careless, or reckless.
The vesting of sovereignty in the general citizenry also brought on the move toward total war. Given that the people whom you were fighting were, as voting citizens, responsible for the war you were engaged in, then it is inevitable that you should look at them all, not just the actual soldiers, as your enemy. Even under conditions of limited suffrage, women and children and the elderly, insofar as they were dear to those who were doing the voting and were helping to keep the society going during wartime, could be seen as just as responsible for the hostilities as the soldiers who were doing the actual killing.
From there, of course, it was just a short jump to seeing one’s domestic opponents as no different from war enemies, regardless of whether there was an official war on or not. And from that point it was a very short step to the imposition of loyalty oaths, political witch-hunts, pogroms, and genocide. Most of those things also took place before the Enlightenment, of course, but seldom against the population of one’s own territory and very rarely against more than a few highly dangerous political opponents. The common people, after all, were a ruler’s main economic and military resource. Killing them would have been utterly stupid, given that it was in the people’s best interest to repel the invaders anyway, as noted earlier. No need to worry about loyalty or ethnic solidarity, then.
Technological changes brought on by the Enlightenment further facilitated the move toward total war. As the lethal force of weaponry increased, the importance of developing, building, and maintaining such weapons rose rapidly, and sheer population numbers became less important. Despite their vast populations, neither Russia nor China amounted to much of a world power during the nineteenth century, yet tiny Britain was able to hold India with just a few thousand soldiers and administrators.
It was only when Britain’s will faded that India was able to expel the colonizers, and it was only when Russia and China obtained modern weapons in large numbers that they became important on the world scene. Control of the best technologies of the time was and has long been a key factor in establishing political power in the international arena. What technology brought was leverage—a small population, properly equipped, could rather easily control large amounts of territory. (Hence, those technologies also helped make totalitarianism possible.)
Modern computer and telecommunications technology—cyberspace, for short—serve the same function today. The United States is able to project its power so efficiently and effectively because it is able to send people, weapons, and communications where they must go, more quickly and accurately than anyone else—by far. What we use to do this, of course, is the most extensive and sophisticated computer and telecom technology in the world.
Put these two factors together and you see the face of wars to come. They will increasingly be fought in a more ethereal realm, one of morale, technological change, economic advancement, and national will. This means that the next wars will be fought in cyberspace. As the great Prussian general and military strategist Carl von Clausewitz noted, the best route to success in war is to hit the enemy in his “center of gravity.” For America today, that is cyberspace, as Laurent Murawiec notes in this issue of American Outlook: “the center of gravity of a society is the industry that generates enough innovation and profit to create a cluster of other associated industries that benefit from and reinforce the innovative and profit-making trend.”
Because of America’s great advantages in high technology, cyberspace has increased the leverage of the United States in world affairs, and will continue to do so, at least on a practical level. But as noted earlier, wars in this modern era are also fought in the realm of morale, and it is here that America would seem to be most vulnerable. The nation was ready and in fact eager to go to war in the wake of the September 11 attacks, understandably aghast and outraged as we were at the atrocities visited upon American soil. But the stream of images, public figures, and arguments in the Omniculture is perpetual and ever-changing, and the public’s attention span shortens as a result. Morale and resolve flag more quickly than ever.
Moreover, as Deroy Murdock notes in this issue, within such a blur of communications it is imperative for those who would make a case for something as drastic as war—in this instance, the war in Iraq—to connect their proposed effect directly and powerfully with some serious causes. That is to say, they must prove that our losses in fighting the war would be less damaging for us than the likely consequences of inaction, taking all relevant and predictable factors into consideration.
I, for one, welcome honest discussions of the pros and cons of any particular war. To me, a position of either reflexive bellicosity or principled pacifism is simply indefensible, given the premise noted in the previous paragraph. Such communication, in fact, has increasingly constituted a great part of modern warfare itself, as the attempt to swing the will and power of potent nations has proven increasingly decisive in determining the outcome. Just consider the difference between the conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Consider also the present uncertainty over what will ultimately happen in Iraq. In a world of just one great power, the real, decisive wars are fought within that great land. The hostilities elsewhere only confirm the outcome of the war within.
Like it or not, because the people are at least ostensibly sovereign in this nation, each citizen of the United States is responsible for every death undertaken in the name of our national interests. Each of us is also responsible for any injuries inflicted upon us by any enemies which we could conceivably have forestalled. That is the way of things when the people presume to rule.
S.T. Karnick is senior editor of Heartland Institute.
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