(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.