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War is War is Heinlein?

(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

“Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that, ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.”
   - Colonel DuBois, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

And from his perch on high, the blogger looked down and said, “It is time.”

In high school, I read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and thought, "This book is amazing." Then, in college, I was like, “Well, some of the political theory is a bit...extreme for my tastes.” Now that I have actual experience with real warfare, and a few more years of study, I can say this, "Colonel DuBois’ quote is vile." (See our post “Quotes Behaving Badly” for why we don’t attribute this to Robert Heinlein.)

Here are the two major problems with the above quote, no matter who says it:

Problem 1: Equating Violence and Naked Force. Towards the end of the quote, Colonel DuBois compares “violence” and “naked force” as if they were synonyms. They aren’t. Violence is a specific set of acts designed to inflict injurious pain on someone unjustly. Force is pressure, and it comes in a variety for forms. Violence doesn’t have to be “naked” or “raw”.

Now, it doesn’t quite say this above, but to be clear, violence is not power either. Read Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, and she persuasively argues that where violence reigns, power does not. The threat of violence is a form of force, and a way to manifest power, but power and violence are not synonymous.

Take the insurgents roaming Iraq. They are very violent, but none of them have true national power. They are weak. If they had power, they wouldn’t need to use Violence. If the government in Iraq had power, they wouldn’t have so many exploding cars.

Problem 2: Violence causes more issues than it settles. Now we move onto the more controversial and accepted proposition: “Violence... has settled more issues than has any other factor.” As a logical philosophical proposition, DuBois is not creating an absolute statement (violence is the only force that settles conflicts) but merely states that violence settles more conflicts than say diplomacy, love or good will. That seems like a ridiculously hard statement to prove either way, but that’s the assertion.

My issue isn’t that overwhelming violence--typified by the use of nuclear weapons in World War II--sometimes solves conflicts. The problem is that violence causes conflicts. And prolongs conflicts. Violence does those two things way more than it solves the world’s problems. You could say, “I would advise you to conjure the ghosts of the Hatfields and McCoys and they can debate it. The judge will be Osama bin Laden and the jury might well be the Israelis and Palestinians.” Would any of them agree that violence has settled their disputes?

The first Godfather film provides a telling example. The Godfather rejects an offer from another mafioso to fund drug distribution in New York. Solozzo the Turk wants a loan and protection; the Godfather refuses. To get his way, the Turk commits an act of violence: he attempts to assassinate Don Corleone. Michael Corleone, in turn, kills Solozzo and a corrupt police chief. Another mafia family then kills his brother Sonny. The war only ends when the heads of the five families sat down and broker a peace.

Violence caused, promoted and then didn’t settle the conflict in The Godfather. Even the brutal murder of Don Corleone’s son didn’t settle the conflict. The peace talk did.

A telling scene later in the movie: Michael Corleone, hiding from U.S. police in Sicily, walks through a village with his two bodyguards. Michael asks, "Where are all the men?" The bodyguard replies, "They're all dead from vendettas." The violence settled nothing, unless the goal was killing all the young men.

What about the real world? Well, the most violent act of Iraq was the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. And far from settling anything, it caused the sectarian war to explode. Violence erupted throughout the country. That violence didn’t bring either side any closer to “winning” anything.

So the fundamental principle of “war is war”--that we need more fighting, killing, death and destruction to win--is wrong on its face. Wars are more often settled through politics, not bloodletting--Heinlein quotes be damned.

fifteen comments

Cyclical violence, we’ll be diving into this more in the future.


Also interesting that using violence, something that almost always is unjust, he says that not advocating violence is immoral. Like the inverse, just interesting.


I nominate Ender to be a part of the jury (while we are using sci fi examples). Despite being supremely violent – he would likely say that it is not enough to survive.


Violence itself does not “settle” the matter, but when the other side has been reduced – perhaps by violence – to the point where it can no longer commit acts, the issue is settled. Firebombing Dresden – by itself – did not settle WWII but a series of bombings reduced Germany to the point where it could no longer successfully use violence to overwhelm – or even match – what the Allies were dishing out. The result? Go belly up.

Dropped two nukes on Japan did not itself end the war but the Japanese quickly realized that they could never hope to act with the same level of violence the Allies did so they knew the jig was up and surrendered.

The Germans were surrounded at Stalingrad and they realized they could not project the same amount of force the Russians could so they raised the white flag. This example is most enlightening because there was a split between the political wishes and the military. Hitler ordered Gen. Paulus not to surrender but he realized he was done and did so anyway.

So when you overwhelm the enemy with enough violence that they cannot match you they are done.

Insurgency, of course, is different – that is more political in nature – but historically speaking, I’d have to agree with the quote when the military is left to decide what they do versus following the political will. And historically speaking, in ancient Rome and Greece, this was generally how it went.


I’ve found that most people, when refuting the pacifist position, cite World War II, the ultimate example of violence and war protecting society.

But the better example is World War I. What problem did violence solve there?


WWI solved Europe’s emerging overpopulation problem for a generation or so.


What about WWII and the dropping of atomic weapons? It ended Japanese involvement but began an era of arms building, espionage, and proxy wars. Not to mention the devastating effects of radiation on the region.


M.A.D. kept the peace and still does in terms of major powers no fighting it out. That saved a lot of lives. Arms building, espionage, and proxy wars have always happened. 37 million killed in WWI, 60 million in WWII.

True, WWIII will probably kill triple that amount if it ever happened, but we’ll worry about that later!


I think your are being unfair to the quote. The Col’s point is refuting those who would argue that violence ‘never settles anything.’. He doesn’t appear to be saying that violence is the best answer, either. He is stating that sometimes it is a possible answer.


You are also ignoring the fact that war/violence is merely an extension of politics. Every single war has left a change in the political situation not just for the nations involved but those around it. If war was not useful for humans than it would not be used. In saying this, I am neither promoting nor condemning war. Violence is a tool with which you can create a change in situation. It doesn’t always work for those initiate it, just like the use of soft power doesn’t always work, but in the end it still creates a change in either sides situation.


Having read the book multiple times, having served in the us army for 12 years, having fought in Baghdad for a year, I will say this. My commander lead us into many battles with this, “Force of violence is the only thing that the enemy understands.” This is quite true. They would only stop after we killed them. I say this, “sometimes bad people need killing.” Seriously, force and violence settle anything permanently. Playing politics is what gets soldiers into wars in the first place. It is a sad argument for saying that is what gets you out of them. If every General was allowed to fight their war to win, most would undoubtedly be short and swift.


@Rick- I can maybe not condemn war, but easily say that war is horrible, destructive and almost never the right answer. My main assertion is that violence more often than not prolongs political conflict than solves it.

Part of this comes from the dropping of the nuclear bombs in Japan. Since then, in part with Hollywood shaping the myth, the Western conception of violence was a dramatic showdown that solves everything. So the Rebels destroy the death star, Troy is overrun by the horse, a final battle destroys Voldemort, a final battle tosses the ring in the fire. The point is real life is hardly ever a one battle wins it all scenario, and the conception that violence settles things irresolutely is a misnomer.

@Paul- When exactly did violence settle something in your sector of Baghdad? I mean, there are still explosions going off. Was it in 2003 during the invasion? We fired more missiles, bombs, artillery shells and rounds during the invasion, and that destabilized the country. No offense, but you quote aphorisms without insight. Do bad people need killing? How do you define bad? Should this apply in America to all bad people? Or only to Iraqis?

Finally, the idea that “Force of violence is the only thing that the enemy understands.” Is really just demeaning to the Iraqis as people. Do you mean “all enemies” or just your “Iraqi enemies”. If you just mean your Iraqi enemies, do you speak Arabic? If you don’t, how do you expect to communicate anyways? And the entire Sunni Awakening is an example of tons of bad people who didn’t need to die, and understood that violence wasn’t the answer.


@ Michael, I do not know your credentials so I will speak as I do to my 4 year old daughter when I tell her about the war and why I volunteered to go.
I am a soldier, I have spent half of my life serving the USA in this capacity. I was a helicopter crewcheif, I volunteered into the Infantry so that I could go to Iraq and kill bad guys. I consider it an honor and privilege to have done so. The world is full of sheep and there are plenty of wolves who make it their living to kill the sheep. Then their are the sheep dogs, it is their lot in life to try to protect the sheep.
As to when did violence settle things in my sector? Every day when we were required to return fire and chase down and kill the insurgents who would not quit trying to kill us. I am proud that I worked side by side with many Proud Iraqi men who also fought and some gave their life fighting alongside us. You can try to judge the reason we were there but you either understand or you do not. Not every person who has read the book fully understands the message. Most people, even some who fought in the war never understood that most of the bad guys were not even Iraqi, they came from all over the world for the chance to kill American soldiers. Most of the “insurgents” we killed or captured were from Egypt and Jordon.
I went behind the Iron Curtain in Berlin before the fall of the Soviet Union. There I learned that everyone is much more the same than you would want to believe. Our enemy, the Russian Soldiers, were just like us. Patriotic, Loyal, Family men who just wanted to have a good life and leave their children with better than they had. No so unlike us Americans right?
The bottom line is that humanity has a long way to go before we evolve past the point of needing to protect ourselves from those that would do violence to us and the only way to protect yourself from those kind of people is to kill them.
I can tell you more stories if you like, I invite intelligent conversation.


Paul- If you want to know my credentials, go ahead and read the about section at the top of the blog.

Further, if by implying you are going to talk to me like you would your daughter, then you are in the wrong place. This is an adult blog for serious adults about a serious issue. If you can’t follow those guidelines, feel free not to comment.

As to your point, you use the Dave Grossman “Sheeps, Wolves and Sheepdog” analogy from his website. I am familiar with that analogy. I don’t quite buy it because how do you identify the Iraqi sheep from the Iraqi sheepdogs and Iraqi wolves? Again, do you speak Arabic? Again, what year were you in Iraq? 2003? 2006?

Don’t feel you have to respond. You obviously think “I don’t get it” about why violence is necessary. I’m not saying at all times violence is never not necessary. What I am saying is that violence is usually a terrible plague on society. I am saying that violence usually causes more violence. You won’t change your mind and talking to me like a four year old won’t change my mind, especially with the sheep, wolves and sheepdog analogy as your best ammunition.


Micheal, Apologizes if you took my reference to my daughter as an insult.Trust me, if I put you in the same category as her it is a compliment. She will be 5 in June and she is very advanced for her age but she does not and can not understand the magnitude of war and the meaning of violence. None the less, I speak to her like an adult. I am currently checking your credentials to verify them. As for mine, I MOBed in May of 2006 and ets’ed in Sept 2007. I was stationed at FOB Rustimyha in SE Baghdad. Our little infantry company was attached to a MP Bt out of Ft Carson. In 11 mths, E co 1/125 INF was accredited with over 240 combat kills. I personally was in more than 38 firefights and I earned my CIB in combat. My squad logged over 200 combat missions and we spent a month doing patrols in Sadar City. I have lost brothers in battle and some were Iraqi. I have the utmost respect for all those who would take up arms against oppression and unwarranted violence.
For all your high talk of eduction and knowledge it seems you did not even read my whole comment. Only a fool supposes that anyone who disagrees with them is incapable of intelligent conversation. I encourage people to disagree with me that I might learn something. I have been learning all my life that the “truth” I was taught as a young man is all but a complete lie.
I wish to give you a true pearl of knowledge I picked up near the end of my tour. Everybody’s war was an individual war, each person has their own perspective. You could ask any 20 guys in my company and you would get 20 different stories of the same battle. Everybody brought a different perspective to our war and they all viewed every event from that perspective.
My father tried to raise me a pacifist but ultimately life insured that I would learn to fight to survive. Then when I grew up I fell for the romantic notion that war was cool and I could prove my manhood as a soldier. Then I learned the truth, my chosen profession is honorable but the Politicians who send us to war are not. I enlisted in the Army before I graduated in 1984, which I presume is about the time you entered Kinder-garden. I crossed Check-Point Charlie into Communist Germany before you were in middle school. You have to admit our perspectives are most certainly going to be somewhat different.
Two more points, no I do not speak Arabic, try as I might I never got the hang of it. My interrupter was a graduate of Baghdad University, he was an Art major, French impressionist painting. Nice kid, he save our butts more than a couple of times. He was a pacifist too, and he had no problem telling the sheep from the wolves from the sheepdogs also.
If there were any simple answers we would not be talking about it.