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Facts Behaving Badly: Soldiers Hate War

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

Here’s an odd question, from the first line of the The Social Network, “Did you know there are more people with genius I.Q.s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?”

I did not know that.

And though I loved the film, this line always stuck me as wrong. Why? Basic arithmetic. Definitionally, to “have a genius IQ”, you have to be in the top 2% of intellectual prowess and cognitive ability. Since China has approximately a billion people, 2% of their population is about 20 million people.

I think there are more than 20 million people living in America. (Unless one-third of the Chinese people are geniuses...which doesn’t sound realistic does it?)

Writing up posts on the media, Iraq and the military at the start of the year, I remembered another “Fact Behaving Badly” I hadn’t written about yet. Many of the guests on political talk shows during the lead up to war are from the military and most--if not all--support future military interventions.

But this odd fact--that soldiers and generals support war--contradicts the wisdom passed down to Michael and me by my father when we were kids. Our dad has taught us an old adage about the military: soldiers hate war. But don’t take his word for it. Here is a legitimate, not-behaving-badly quote from a soldier on war:

I hate war as only a soldier can.”

- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address before the Canadian Club, Ottawa, Canada, January 10th, 1946

This isn’t a hard fact, like the debunked Social Network quote from above, but it’s still a “Fact Behaving Badly”, or at least an “Adage Behaving Badly”. On a purely factual basis, do some soldiers hate war? Probably. I can’t debunk that. Do all soldiers hate war? Absolutely not. So we should probably stop repeating this adage, unless we change it to the less impactful addendum “Some soldiers hate war”.

As has been widely discussed since the release of The Hurt Locker, some soldiers and veterans fall in love with the thrill of battle. Sebastian Junger described the phenomenon here, of which he is a self-described victim. (Junger after having seen the devastation of war first hand, still wanted military intervention in Syria.) Many inexperienced soldiers love going to war to see what it’s like, as we wrote about here and here. Officers love war because, frankly, nothing advances a career like successfully leading a battalion, brigade or division in war. And retired generals have a financial self-interest to support future wars; when they leave military service, many generals join the boards of defense contractors and think tanks.

So, adage debunked. But there’s a more concerning rhetorical flourish to this adage, as our next two quotes will prove, emphasis mine, that we need to debunk:

Nearly all soldiers—and this applies even to professional soldiers in peacetime—have a sane attitude towards war. They realise that it is disgusting, and that it may often be necessary.

- George Orwell, August 1944

This does not mean that you are warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: 'Only the dead have seen the end of war.'"

- General George MacArthur, West Point, May 12th, 1962

First off, yes, MacArthur misquoted Plato. More importantly, both Orwell and MacArthur take the sentiment “soldiers hate war” and add the qualifier “but we should still go to war.” It takes the first sentiment, “War is awful. I’m a soldier. I’ve seen it.” and adds “...so when I tell you we need to go to war, you can trust me.” Coming from Orwell, writing in the middle of World War II, the sentiment is understandable. Coming from MacArthur, who was relieved of command because he was trying to escalate a war, well, you see the danger in this line of reasoning.

The MacArthur/Orwell point of view is both more popular and more dangerous. And a very sneaky rhetorical device. Basically, they’re arguing that because soldiers and veterans hate war so much, if they think we should go to war, well, you know they must be right. They’d only argue for it in the most dire circumstances; it’s not in their self-interest as soldiers, allegedly, though, as I showed above, it actually is.

Which brings us to our last example, from John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war...I hate war, and I know how terrible its costs are.

- From a 2008 TV ad.

I detest war. It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description....Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.”

- From a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

Wow. That’s a powerful anti-war statement. But McCain follows the “I hate war, so when I tell you we need to fight another one, you know you can trust me” rhetorical playbook perfectly. In his speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, he continues:

But we must also have an aggressive strategy of confronting and rooting out the terrorists wherever they seek to operate...I hold my position because I hate war...we must sometimes pay those wages to avoid paying even higher ones later.

For someone who “hates” and “detests” war, John McCain sure wants us to fight a lot of them. In Iraq. In Iraq again. In Syria. In Iran. In Ukraine. In Libya.

And that is the danger with adages like this one.

One comment

A pretty good pointer is that the Canadian military reportedly had no difficulty recruiting for the infantry during its involvement in Afghanistan, even though it had with other military occupations.
Furthermore, it had below-average retention rates exactly with this group and figured it’s because some young men volunteer to have ‘their’ war once, and only once.

So at least until they saw reality, those were soldiers who apparently were attracted by war, not hating it.

Sadly, I lost the source, but someone interested and determined certainly could find sources about it – at least the recruitment and retention figures.