Is War Ever Worth It?

Hilzoy outlines an argument against military intervention that reads remarkably like an argument against war, period.* I commend the essay to you in its entirety; my excerpting of it below will necessarily remove much of its nuance.

Noting that war is, in fact, hell, and that when it seems easy, that’s generally due to some combination of very hard work, massive military superiority, and sheer blind luck, is an easy lesson to draw . . . is as good an example as any I can think of of why I think there’s something badly wrong with the writers of editorials and columns in the mainstream media.


Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.

And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?

Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse. [Emphases in original]

Indeed, with rare exceptions, it is almost always worse in the near term. Surely, life in the American colonies was worse during the War for Independence than under the very modest tyranny of George III; just as surely, the generations that followed are far better off for having won our independence. The French Revolution changed the course not only French but European history; it likely took three generations, though, before the French people were better off than under Louis XVI. The American Civil War sped the end of slavery but at the cost of more than half a million dead; was it worth it? World War II freed the world from fascism but at an incredible price.

Are the Iraqi people better off now than under Saddam? Doubtless, many of them are. At the same time, though, the streets of Baghdad are now undeniably more violent and less safe than ever before with no end in sight. Many would surely vote to turn the clock back if it could end the bloodshed, let alone bring back loved ones who have been murdered by terrorists. The hope is that a free, stable, democratic society will emerge from this mess and that the improved lives of generations to come will compensate for the short-term tragedy.

That such trade-offs are worthwhile apparently has less support than it once did. A new poll of Britons indicates that most would reject Ben Franklin’s maxim that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Three out of four Brits would happily hand over their civil liberties in exchange for better security against terrorist attacks, according figures from pollsters ICM.

It is interesting to note that this is the same general public that rails against any attempts to make them drive more slowly, or with more care. This is in spite of the fact that in 2004, 671 pedestrians were killed

The ICM/Guardian-backed survey found that 73 per cent of Brits overall support a trade-off between liberty and security. Tory voters are even keener than average to do so, with 79 per cent of respond ants backing the idea. Labour voters and Lib Dems came in at 72 per cent and 70 per cent in favour, respectively.

Now, certainly, the nature of the “trade-off” matters. Still, it’s rather shocking that the descendants of those who withstood the Blitz with a stiff upper lip are now so ready to give up the fight.

*UPDATE: Hilzoy responds in the comments section, expanding on her views when war is and is not worth the costs.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Matt T says:

    I think that your comparison of the Iraqi situation to the American and French Revolutions is a bit misguided. While you make a valid point that ultimately successful struggles may suffer times of intermediate violence or discontent, I think you miss a fundamental difference between these historic events and the Iraqi conflict–namely, that the American and French revolutions came about as a result of INTERNAL desire for regime change.

    The removal of Saddam was not accomplished as a direct result of Iraqi will for change (though the Kurds did try to garner American support for a coup, which was obviously unsuccessful), but through a proxy power IMPOSING revolution. It is hard to forecast whether or not a revolution initiated by a third party will be ultimately as permanent in the long run as more “conventional” revolutions that are initiated by those that are subjugated.

  2. Edgardo says:

    You say “World War II freed the world from fascism but at an incredible price”. You’re right about the price, but regardless of how much other people may manipulate it, the benefit was much higher. Some people may not like the ex post distribution of benefits and costs, but that’s their problem–I like it very much, as much as I like the distribution of the benefits and costs of terminating with the Soviet Union.

  3. James Joyner says:

    You say “World War II freed the world from fascism but at an incredible price”. You’re right about the price, but regardless of how much other people may manipulate it, the benefit was much higher.

    I would agree, even though the subjugation of Eastern Europe for four decades was part of that price.

    whether or not a revolution initiated by a third party will be ultimately as permanent

    There’s not much data on that score. Still, Saddam’s regime is gone and ain’t coming back. So the revolution is permanent in that sense. What remains is an internal struggle for who shall govern.

  4. Anderson says:

    Perhaps the Brits resisted the Blitz because they were being attacked by an evil regime, and disfavor the Iraq war because they were attacking an evil regime that hadn’t attacked them first.

  5. James Joyner says:

    disfavor the Iraq war

    I haven’t seen the poll; just the linked report. But it doesn’t seem that the poll was about the war in Iraq but about sacrificing liberties at home.

    (I stipulate that they also disfavor the Iraq War and, indeed, did so from before it commenced.)

  6. laura says:

    I think hilzoy was saying, much more eloquently, what Obama said,”I’m not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars.”

    The Iraq war, or the misnamed War on Terror, are on no way comparable to WW Two and the people who make that comparison aren’t serious. If they were, they would be advocating a tax increase and a draft.

  7. James Joyner says:

    If they were, they would be advocating a tax increase and a draft.

    I’m not sure we would have either if WWII were being replayed now. Then again, I’m generally opposed to a draft for reasons I’ve outlined ad nauseum before.

  8. The Brits who withstood the blitz did so by also by giving up a lot to provide the tools to stop the blitz. Rationing in the US was mild compared to the UK as an example. Whether it is a wise trade off or not, perhaps what they are expressing is the desire to arm those going after the terrorists with the tools to put an effective end to the threat. If Churchill’s only offer was that London would go on being bombed indefinitely, Londoners wouldn’t have been as willing to withstand the blitz or make the sacrifices necessary to end it.

  9. Anderson says:

    Then again, I’m generally opposed to a draft for reasons I’ve outlined ad nauseum before.

    I can see the point, but how could we have fought WW2 without a draft? The mind boggles.

  10. James Joyner says:

    how could we have fought WW2 without a draft?

    We probably couldn’t have, although I don’t know off the top of my head what percentage of those serving were conscripts vice volunteers. While I’m philosophically opposed to a draft from a rights standpoint, my main criticism of the “bring back the draft” calls is in the context of the modern professional force.

  11. hilzoy says:

    For what it’s worth: I am not opposed to all wars. I support wars in self-defense, and in defense of allies. I also support wars to end ongoing humanitarian catastrophes. In the latter case (e.g. Rwanda), one thing you don’t have to worry about is: am I prepared to loose war and its horrors on the Rwandans? Since, of course, it’s already there.

    I accept what I hope is the banal and uncontroversial idea that war is really, really bad. I also think, and tried to say in the post you linked to, that it is not just one way to achieve something; it alters what you are likely to achieve. None of that implies that it isn’t the right thing to do sometimes. I think it is. It’s just that Beinart’s piece seemed to me not to register at all the costs that it imposes, and the ways in which it changes everything.

    (Likewise, I think that having both your legs cut off is sometimes the best thing to do. It’s just that it’s not something to be undertaken lightly, or as one among a number of ways of getting rid of your varicose veins, or something.)

  12. One thing to point out about Franklin’s much quoted maxim. It’s not, as most people read it, a causal statement that giving liberty will necessarily lead to a loss of security.

    It’s a moral judgement: the type of people who give up freedom out of fear don’t deserve to be secure.