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Return to Iron Mountain

David Limond takes a critical look at arguments in support of war.

In 1996 various US publications reported that armed, self-styled militia members had been found in possession of copies of a book entitled Report From Iron Mountain. Though they seemed not to know it, this work (hereafter, the Report) isn’t the leaked government document it purports to be but is in fact a satire on US foreign and defence policy of the 1960s couched as a leaked document. Based on close observation of works associated with the cold-hearted style of policy making known as ‘systems analysis’, the Report is authentic only insofar as it seems to represent the logical conclusion of such thinking. It imagines what a group of academics and others sequestered at Iron Mountain (a popular but secluded winter resort in Michigan) might have written given the task of “consider[ing] the problems involved in the contingency of a transition to a general condition of peace, and … [of] recommend[ing] procedures for dealing with this contingency.” (p.35) The fictitious group responsible for the Report was charged, we are told, with producing “a different kind of thinking” [original emphasis]. There was to be “no agonizing over cultural and religious values.” (p.20) Where “Previous studies have taken the desirability of peace, the importance of human life, the superiority of democratic institutions, the greatest ‘good’ for the greatest number, the ‘dignity’ of the individual, the desirability of maximum health and longevity, and other wishful premises as axiomatic values” (p.45) this study did not. Instead it was duty bound to concentrate solely on “the survival of human society in general, [and] of American society in particular.” (p.46) This is argued to be something which can be achieved not despite but because of the continued existence of armed forces and their use by states. This then becomes the basis of an elaborate philosophical attempt to lay out the role, nature and value of war in the modern world. The Report ascribes positive attributes to war and concludes that it is almost certainly indispensable.

Various economic, political, sociological and ecological arguments are produced in defence of these claims. To start with the economic ones, “A national economy can absorb almost any number of…reorganizations…providing there is no basic change in its structure. General disarmament…would require such basic changes [as to be economically impossible].” (p.51) Previous economic changes may have involved the demise of whole industries, the impoverishment of regional populations, the abandonment of swathes of country but they have been nothing compared with the sort of dislocation represented by total disarmament. To remove military-related spending, industry and employment from the modern industrial economy would be akin to removing the knight from feudal society. Feudal society did not long survive the military irrelevance of the knight. Modern society would not long survive general disarmament. War is not simply valuable to those who own or are employed in the arms industries, it is also the principal means by which modern industrial economies vent the excess steam of overproduction. But war serves functions other than the economic. Its political value is this – “the existence of a society as a political ‘nation’ requires … its defence … [against] other ‘nations’.” (p.70) “But a nation’s foreign policy can have no substance if it lacks the means of enforcing [this].” (p.71) War is thus necessary because without the willingness and ability to make war (which can only be demonstrated by at least occasionally doing just that) nations cannot coexist. Further, without the capacity to make war “no government has ever been able to obtain [domestic] acquiescence in its ‘legitimacy’…to rule.” (p.71) The sociological usefulness of war is the ability of “military institutions [to] provide anti-social elements with an acceptable role” (p.73) and the fact that the existence of war provides a precedent “for the collective willingness of members of a society to pay a blood price for institutions far less central…than war.” (p.77) All other loss or sacrifice is trivial by comparison to war. What might otherwise be deemed unbearable (the Report suggests the example of deaths in car accidents) can be made to seem more easily tolerable because worse things happen, if not at sea, then certainly in war. The ecological function is simply put. So as “to forestall the inevitable historical cycles of inadequate food supply, post- Neolithic man [sic] destroys surplus members of his own species by organized warfare.” (p.79) Finally, cultural and scientific functions are imputed to war. Culture, it is argued, is intimately bound-up with war so that “the war dance is the [original and] most important art form.” (p.83) “Art that cannot be classified as war-oriented is usually described as ‘sterile’, ‘decadent’ and so on.” It is suggested that art which is not somehow related to war can never be wholly satisfactory and must be viewed with suspicion. The Report also claims that “War is the principal motivational force for the development of science.” (p.84) Other arguments are noted in passing but not considered in detail, such as that “War…[is] a general social release”; “War…[is] a generational stabilizer…[allowing] the physically deteriorating older generation to maintain control” and that “War is an ideological clarifier.” (p.86) I note these points but shall consider them no further.

A variety of alternatives to war are considered but found wanting. The simple absence of war – the pacifist dream – is rejected out of hand because the functions currently performed by war would then go unfulfilled and social organisation would collapse. However, some or all of those functions might be fulfilled by some combination of the following. Massive expenditure on space exploration might consume surplus resources to the same extent as warfare and the preparation for war. The promotion of belief in alternative – perhaps extraterrestrial – sources of danger might serve the political functions of holding nations together and persuading populations to accept the legitimacy of governments. The reintroduction of slavery might play the part war currently does in giving employment to the otherwise unemployable and thus reducing the risk they pose to a society to which they do not, and cannot, truly belong. War’s other sociological function, reconciling people to loss, could be substituted for by blood games or “ritual[s] … in the manner of the Spanish Inquisition and … witch trials” (p.103) – though these will of course have to be updated in form and content. These will exercise the terrible fascination over the human imagination currently reserved for war. Being subject (involuntarily) to one or other of these will be the worst that can happen in a life (where the experience of war is currently the worst) so that much other loss will still seem trivial by comparison. We are told that without war no particular alternatives are necessary where art and science are concerned. There might still be some form of art – though it may be less satisfying having lost its original drum beat of violence and conflict. Science too would endure and develop – though certainly not as far or as quickly as it might otherwise have done. However, keeping in mind that fundamental social stability is the end desired above all, it seems worth recording that “over countless thousands of years, in which no intrinsic social value was assigned to science, stable societies did survive” (p.110) so that this may be no great loss in the long run. Most simply of all, the ecological function of war can be satisfied, we are told, by “direct eugenic management.” (p.105)

To summarize these arguments:

(1) War is economically necessary because modern industrial economies produce more than they can consume. If their industries, employment levels and wealth are to be maintained then they must continue to overproduce, and so they must continue to make war to absorb the surplus capacity;

(2) Societies exist and endure only because they are defined over against each other. Therefore they must have (and sometimes use, so as to show that they have) war making capacity. Those which do not will necessarily be absorbed (or destroyed) by those which do;

(3) No government can be rightly so called unless it has coercive power over its citizens; this power must extend to and include the capacity to make war because death alone (or the threat of death at least) will be sufficient to compel those who are most recalcitrant;

(4) Maintaining military forces is a way to ensure that there is always a role for those who would not otherwise be socially accepted – that is to say, those who are too violent to be allowed to live alongside ‘decent’ people. In the words of the Chinese proverb “Do not use good wood to make a door or good men as soldiers” (a reference to the fact that Chinese soldiers – who were always socially lower than the low in the imperial and nationalist periods – were traditionally famed for their habit of stealing doors from which to make temporary beds);

(5) The existence of war makes all other suffering seem tolerable by comparison;

(6) War is necessary for the purposes of population control;

(7) Art has its roots in war;

(8) Science is driven by the imperative of war.

How much of this can we take seriously? We are confronted by eight arguments which seem almost wilfully perverse. War is so cruelly destructive of innocent lives that to promote its continuation and even cultivation seems insane. However, such arguments must be seriously considered by people of good will if only because simply dismissing them offers no defence against the behaviour of those who may be persuaded by them and equally so that none may have the excuse of being able to argue (as the US militia men apparently have) that such arguments cannot be confounded by reason but by force alone. I propose to tackle each of the eight arguments in turn. As much else here seems to be perverse or backwards, it may be as well to deal with the arguments on this list from the bottom up.

Argument (8) is of course a commonplace. Empirical evidence which can be offered to support it ranges from the story of the harnessing of nuclear power to supposed links between evolutionary selection and the capacity for organised violence. This was most famously (if quite speculatively) depicted in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the first tool-using hominid is also the first aggressor. In an aphorism one might say that out of brutality comes utility. Common as this argument is, it is also commonplace to denounce the civilian ‘achievements’ imputed to military science. Nuclear power, it is said, gave us waste and leaks, added state security (in the interests of keeping nuclear material out of the wrong hands) and surplus energy which we expend only on consumption. The demands of naval warfare, it is claimed, gave the sea-going European powers small, fast vessels which allowed them to explore the rest of the world which gave the rest of the world imperialism, slavery, new diseases, exploitation, debt and cultural disruption. What achievement is that? However while such historical arguments may be correct they aren’t counters to the proposition that science is driven by war. Indeed there is implicit acceptance here that this is so. It may be lamented but it is not denied. A true counterargument might take the following lines. Much may indeed have been achieved scientifically as a result of war, but as it is impossible to know what else might have been achieved given peacetime instead, it remains a possibility that war has actually retarded scientific knowledge. This is not to say that it has, only that it may have. This is no idle speculation because the disruption and slaughter of war has certainly led to the loss of many potentially great minds – and remember Archimedes, who so displeased a Roman soldier with his refusal to set aside his geometric problem that the soldier killed him in a fit of pique. War has also wasted a great deal of time – might not Kepler have done more had he not lived in a continent at war with itself in the terrible sixteenth century? Also, it is not at all clear that being channelled into meeting immediate military ends has not often distorted and sidetracked fundamental research. So there are legitimate grounds for saying that much else might have been known had things been otherwise. However this is a hollow victory, as the Report itself concedes that the scientific argument is not central to its conclusions.

Equally, it concedes that the artistic argument is not essential, though we must visit this in turn for the sake of completeness. There the claim is that the origins of the artistic impulse lie in militaristic imperatives. This has a superficial plausibility. War and art do seem closely bound together. Ancient bards, skalds and praise singers make music and poetry from the memory of war and is there not a line of descent from these to overtures named for historic victories (1812 for example) in high art and endless war films in low? Is there not something anaemic about art which sets itself against bloodletting? Isn’t there always more than a hint of over compensation when the refined artist denounces the ‘beastly’ soldier? Isn’t there always a taste of cant and a touch of jealousy (a condition never more truly diagnosed than in the muscular prose and poetry of Kipling) when the artist contends that the pen is not only mightier but nobler than the sword? Shouldn’t art accept its roots as the follower and supporter of war and renounce any pretension to superiority?

All of this may seem convincing but it is at least as likely, as has often been contended, that the origins of art lie in some form of religious impulse. Art can serve the purposes of war but it can just as easily serve those of God. There is nothing lacking in art which does not concern itself with war, or indeed art which sets itself against war and leads us to do likewise (as, say, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem or Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’). It is in fact the art which associates itself with war which is debased, which has been hijacked and misappropriated. This argument falls as did the last because it depends on an assumed link which may not be as strong as is imagined.

I turn next to argument (6), that war is necessary for the purpose of population control. In the version employed in the Report it is couched in terms which, yet again, refer to the actual or imagined ancestral past. This is the rhetorical trick of our being told that it is ‘post Neolithic man’ who uses war to this end. We are led to imagine that we must still experience the same needs (and accept the same solutions) as those who existed in that immediate post-Neolithic period. Even could it be shown that they happened upon war because ‘natural’ population control failed them, it need not follow that we are bound by the same methods. These days we have contraception.

Argument (5) is that the existence of war makes it easier for us to accept other sources of pain because few events (indeed, for this argument to run it is perhaps necessary to say no events) are more painful than those associated with war. War causes more people to die in more diverse, protracted and unpleasant ways than anything else known. War causes pain even to those who do not die because they are subject to the pain of fearing that they will die, or that loved ones will die. What else compares? But suppose it is psychologically the case, as the Report suggests, that a terrible car accident seems less painful because we think “well, at least it isn’t as bad as being at war,” and suppose that the accident would have seemed even more traumatic if we didn’t have war with which to compare it. Surely even if that were so, it would still involve less pain in total to have just the car accident rather than the war and the car accident. If war ceased to be – and even ceased to be possible – then it would not be necessary to fill the space left by its departure with the faintly ridiculous ‘blood games’ imagined by the Report. There would still be pain enough to fear were there no war; what there would not be is the damage caused by war.

There now remain only arguments (1) to (4) which I propose to consider still in reverse order. It does indeed seem reasonable to say that military service is excellently placed to keep violent or disruptive elements from the social mainstream. We might paraphrase Dr Johnson and say that armies have often been the last refuges of scoundrels. Of course it is historically the case that many perfectly decent individuals have been swept into armies, either by coercion or by persuasion. Equally it seems certain that armies have often been home to thoroughly disreputable people for whom no other social role is easily imaginable. But if this is so, then it follows that we must assign to our very best and most capable the role of being guardians over these anti-social elements. That is to say: our armies must be officered by people whom we can trust implicitly to keep in check those whom we explicitly do not trust to live amongst us. This depiction of officers as always virtuous and common soldiers as only vile seems less than convincing – how often do we hear of the ‘officer class’ launching some coup and how often do we hear of this being done by the ‘soldier class’? But laying that aside, how can it be wise to take those who have already shown signs of being socially maladjusted and consign them to a peripheral role in which they have no opportunity to learn the social skills which they apparently lack? If men exist who are such paragons as to be fit to lead and watch over those who are fundamentally anti-social, might it not be more sensible to recruit them to work with the anti-social elements in contexts which do not encourage further social alienation? To band together those disposed to be anti-social, allow them only the company of others who are likewise, dress them and otherwise deal with them so that they know they stand apart from society as a whole (military training often works so as to instill contempt for civilians) then finally arm them with assault rifles and grenades seems counterproductive to say the least. This can only create more problems than it solves.

Argument (3) concerns the domestic political needs of states. It tries to show that no state could endure domestic opposition were it not willing in the last resort to use military force against its own people. This is no doubt true and it is certainly difficult – if not impossible – to find an example of a state with no means of internal repression. Even Costa Rica, which famously has no army, has a significant police force which is well armed and which is in truth an army in all but name. The intimate links between states and coercion are well known and documented – when the seventeenth century Diggers argued that ‘property came in by the sword’ they might as well (and as rightly) have said that the state came in by the sword. But this gets us no further than the realisation that if we are to have any hope of being without wars then we may well have to be prepared to be without states. As states command armies and as armies engage in wars, so it may well seem that we would be better off without states. (Though I have here given no very full account of what makes for a war, we can surely recognize one when we see it and we know that some conflicts which we often style ‘wars’ – such as ‘gang wars’ – are but shadows of those waged by fully fledged armies). To repeat, there can be no wars without armies and there can be no states without armies so two birds may be killed with one stone (though it is to be hoped that the killing will then cease) if we dispense with armies and states altogether and both at once. But here it must be allowed that this would not impress the fictional ‘authors’ of the Report because their brief was to imagine what might be necessary to keep alive the institution of the United States of America. Obviously no argument which calls for the abolition of the state is consistent with the ambition to see that state endure – however there is an ambiguity here. The words ‘state’, ‘nation’, ‘country’ and ‘society’ aren’t synonymous, even if we sometimes use them as if they are. The point then is simply this: if the brief is to keep alive the USA and if the USA is understood to be synonymous with the state then our counter-argument will not run. On the other hand if the USA is understood to be synonymous with a society, which is an accumulation of people with distinct ways of acting, speaking and thinking and if the state’s continued existence poses danger for that society then the demand to preserve the USA may issue forth in the desire to eliminate the state (and its army with it). Otherwise, we may end up destroying the trees (the society) to save the forest (the state). Here we encounter new problems because it is of course precisely this line of argument which appeals to the militia members of whom we spoke earlier. It is entirely possible for many groups in any country to agree to oppose the current state while disagreeing sharply about the essential nature of the society which they wish to see defended against its depredations. However it seems still to be the case that it is possible to denounce both state and army as one though impossible to defend either alone so that the original argument runs only if one remains wedded to the continued existence of the state and this is by no means necessary.

We may move then to the penultimate argument, which is that states only exist ‘over against each other’ as the theological phrase has it, so that they cannot endure if they are not armed and ready for self-defence. This may be easily disposed of by the reply given to the previous argument: if there were to be no states in the first place then there would (in this argument’s own terms) be no need for military forces. Thus military forces exist to preserve states and not necessarily to preserve societies. Indeed they threaten societies because their continued existence leaves open the possibility that they will bring down the wrath of other states and their armies. This is not to say that safety lies in the simple overnight abolition of military forces but it does serve to remind us that it always has been and always will be sensible to seek to move beyond the existence of militarised states.

Finally let us consider the Report’s economic argument. It claims that the loss of military capacity would so damage the contemporary world’s industrial economy as to make its continued operation impossible. What are we to make of this? First it must always be borne in mind that this is an argument concerned not quantitatively with the amount of damage done (the number of jobs lost, the number of factories closed, the value lost in stocks and shares and so forth) but qualitatively with the change wrought by the end of military expenditure and consumption. A subtle and clever trick is necessary to make this argument run. It is able to operate by conjuring a spectre of its own devising then offering to exorcise this. We are shown what seems to be an argument to the effect that we cannot retain that which we desire without accepting that which we dislike. We cannot have modern industrial means of production and their associated ways of life unless we are prepared to endure a little war now and then, here and there (though ideally ‘there’ rather than ‘here’ so that it is others who endure it on our behalf). This must be so because war represents the best and hottest furnace into which excess goods can be thrown so that we are not overwhelmed by our own unsaleable merchandise and confronted with economic meltdown. A major glut of goods drives prices down to such an extent that many commodities become uneconomic to make. Companies go broke and millions are thrown out of work in a classic ‘crisis of overproduction’. When the surpluses have been used up, production fails to recover as the unemployed millions have no wages to spend. The crash becomes a long-term depression leading to mass poverty and perhaps violent instability too. Surely it is better never to allow such a state of affairs to occur in the first place by directing the capacity for overproduction into the maw of war?

Two objections can be raised. Firstly, war seems a very imprecise instrument for the elimination of surplus capacity. One conspicuous feature of war is its ability to continue at more or less indefinite length. It can easily be imagined that any protracted war might consume far more than was required of it, thus having the effect of destroying the very economic system it was invoked to save and protect. But secondly, if the Report did convince us that the survival of our economic system depended on war, we might prefer to jettison the economic system rather than conclude that war was inevitable. (Of course as in the two previous cases of our being able to argue thus it is hardly surprising that we should do so as the Report is a critique rather than a defence of war and these are the very conclusions which we are being led to reach.) In conclusion it can be said that the Report’s arguments are by no means ridiculous and probably represent some of the best which might be mustered by those who truly wanted to advocate the intrinsic value of war. They deserve to be taken seriously if only so that they can be shown to be wrong and so that we can be [re-] assured that the hope and prospect of perpetual peace ought still to command our attention and its realisation our energies.

© David Limond 2002

David Limond has a PhD from Glasgow University and has taught at various colleges/universities in the UK.

Note: See War and Peace in the Global Village by Marshall McLuhan et al (1968/1997) for evidence of the Report being taken at face value when it was initally released.

Addendum: This essay was written before 11 September 2001 and subsequent events; each reader will draw his/her own conclusion(s) on the Report’s contemporary relevance.

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