Paper #22. War: What is it Good for?

  • Dr Brett L. Mers and Dr Corinna A. Robinson
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War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse…

…A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.

John Stuart Mill (1862)

Organized physical violence between nation-states is the foundation upon which rests the entire edifice of organized international politics. This paper explains some of the essence and application of that force. As citizens of a free country, the responsibility to understand is ours. We ignore that responsibility at our own peril. The observations made herein are not thought or intended to be final words on the activity but rather to motivate consideration and introspection on the part of the reader to deepen and continue the conversation and our common understanding of the phenomenon of war.

Most, if not all, governments rose to power and continue to exist through the application of physical force and the future threat of force. In the U.S., citizens are responsible for their government. This essay implies that they should possess a basic understanding of the foundation upon which that structure rests. The application of coercion or intimidation to deter or influence national policy often with the threat and/or execution of physical force against entities outside of a particular nation-state that threatens its interests is termed “war.”

War is an activity beyond the pale of human civilization and filled with horror, pain, blood, and death. If extra-terrestrial intelligences observe our planet, they could quite easily conclude that war is a favorite human past-time because we tend to expend such great amounts of time, energy, and resources in its pursuit. For all of the lives, energy, intellectual capital invested, and technology gained from the activity, however, in the end one must question the value on the margin.

In the authors’ estimation, war’s potential and ultimate goodness is found only in maintaining the survival and stability of the nation-state (as seen from a utilitarian framework). While the authors are both retired military officers, all United States citizens have a civic duty to understand the gravity of what it means to “go to war” and to decide for themselves its ultimate value and utility.

Defining ”War”

In a nod to Voltaire and for offering some clarity to the concept of “war,” let us attempt to define the term. In this treatise, war is broadly defined as a state of human conflict in which two or more parties cannot agree to a common protocol regarding a particular issue or set of issues. Instead, they resort to confrontational, often physically violent, means to settle their differences. The content of the disagreement, the parties involved, and the procedures used or not used are peripheral to the essence of the definition. Two individuals could argue over possession of a wallet. Two countries could argue over a resource base or social policy implementation. The essence of the issue remains constant: one party imposing that party’s will on the other.

Recognized experts and theorists describe war differently. To Sun Tzu, war is based on deception (Seiha, 2011). To von Clausewitz (1832), it is a different way to create policy. To Jomini, it is the use of the most troops at the best time in the best place to turn conflict to one’s final advantage (Dominic, 2015). All of these descriptions have long histories and are valuable vantage points from which to consider the matter. Each allows for an understanding of a facet of war that contributes coherently and productively to our common political discourse.

Three Levels

For analytical and planning purposes, war among nation-states is usually divided into three primary levels of war: strategic, operational, and tactical (Defense Technical Information Center, 2008).

Strategic. “The level of war at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational…strategic security objectives and guidance” (Defense Technical Information Center, 2008, p. 523). Subsequently, a strategy develops and uses national resources to achieve those objectives.

Operational. “The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas” (Defense Technical Information Center, 2008, p. 399).

Tactical. “The level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces” (Defense Technical Information Center, 2008, p. 538)—the actions taken. Otherwise, this is “where the rubber meets the road” or “the bullet meets the target,” as the case may be.

More than Battle

When people think of war, they often think only in terms of employing tactics or battle, e.g., where bombs explode, weapons fire, holes are dug, and bodies pile up. This is the most visible and experiential level of war as participants experience fatigue, fear, dread, horror, pain, and death. Observers hear and see reports from this level that most definitively imprint themselves into the human psyche. The other levels of war, operational and strategic, provide little more “civilized” behavior; however, they are less emotionally shocking.

Admittedly though, the recent back-to-back deployments have severely affected more than just combat troops engaged in tactical operations. Such effects are often asymmetrical, and contribute to suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and serious injury which cause early and unexpected separation from service. Additionally, families and friends at home can often also suffer psychological stress.

Bounded by Opposites

The progress of human knowledge and modern physics have brought us to the point of understanding the physical universe so that we now realize what appears as solid matter is, in reality, is nothing more than a succession of magnetic, gravitational, electro-magnetic, and nuclear force fields (George, 2018). Even rationality itself, it seems, rests on a flux of chaos (Abarim Publications, 2002). The foundations of our epistemology, knowledge, and civilizations are bounded by quantum uncertainty. According to quantum mechanics, the more precisely the position (momentum) of a particle is given, the less precisely can one say what is its momentum (position) (Hilgevoord & Uffink, 2016). It seems that the nature of what we know, what comforts us, and what brings us knowledge is bounded by its opposite. That which we call “civilization” is bounded by its opposite as well. An uncivilized state of affairs is called “war.”


War is a dirty, horrid, filthy, bloody, and disgusting business. To think otherwise is either to be ignorant or disingenuous. There is no shame in being ignorant of war. It is a state foreign to nearly all indices of a peaceful and decent life. The business of civilization is production and peace, but the business of war is destruction and fear. The business of civilization is morality, magnanimity, and life, but the business of war can be immorality, poverty, and death. In peaceful civilizations, people are treated fairly and the lives and property of others are respected; however, in war, killing people helps to achieve the nation-state’s objective. The processes and behaviors that one strives to avoid in civilization become critical skill-sets for survival and success in war. Without warriors, however, civilization can cease to exist or endure. This should be understood and accepted by those who benefit from that which war produces, protects, and benefits for us all—civilization.

Not a Game

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

Sun Tzu

Consider football as an example. What is the purpose of the game? It may seem as if the goal is to move an “air-filled, pig-skin covered bag” across a line on a field. If this is so, then why try to do it when the other team knows the playbook and is completely ready to thwart the attempt? Why not sneak onto the field at 2:00 a.m. when the other team is otherwise occupied…perhaps sleeping or partying? Why not? Because the real objective in football has little to do with an “air-filled, pig-skin covered bag” or its position on a rectangular and white- lined “cow pasture.” The real objective in a game of football, like any other game, is to show your mastery over the opponent when he is attempting to show his over you. This is qualitatively different from war that which deprives humans not only of food and shelter, but of time on earth itself. War is not a game.

The objective of war really has nothing to do with the opposing military forces. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist, declares that fighting the enemy is not the purpose of war. The goal is to obtain your objective at the least possible cost. This concept sometimes seems to get lost in emotionally-filled rhetoric as adversaries posture and threaten. War is not a game—not in practice, not in theory. Dr. Harold Rood of the Defense and Strategic Studies Department at Missouri State University stated (personal conversation, 1991), “One should never spill the blood and treasure of the nation lightly.” If there is such a thing as serious business in this world, it is that which deprives humans not only of food and shelter, but of time on earth itself. War is not a game.


It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.

Robert E. Lee

In peaceful civilization, violence is often discouraged. It is monopolized by groups of specialized professionals charged with enforcement of the laws of society and empowered to threaten and to use physical force as a last resort. The use of violence in this fashion is sanctioned and called “legal.” Any use of violence by individuals other than those members of government charged with enforcement of law is met with overwhelming violence by the agents and officers of the government. In civilized peace, violence is the exception not the rule; in war, violence is the coin of the realm.

Military forces are trained, organized, and equipped to apply physical force in a violent and destructive manner. This violence is conducted with precise training and great enthusiasm by those charged with fighting the war. Dependent upon the strategic objectives of a particular conflict, Too often the more violent the objectives, the more effective they are. This is a critical point to understand when evaluating war and warriors. Military organizations are not optimized for nation-building, but for destroying property and killing people as ordered in the most effective and efficient manner to achieve national policy objectives. These acts of violence are not always clean, surgical, or precise.

The terms “clean, surgical, and precise” are batted about in popular discussion without any supporting context and often they become quite misleading. “Clean, surgical, and precise” mean nothing without a contextually qualifying statement. Without context, people make comparisons in their own minds and jump to conclusions; little common understanding is achieved. When applied to combat operations, “clean, surgical, and precise” often is compared to World War I or II operations. Compared to World War II operational capabilities, today’s weapons are clean, surgical, and precise, but make no mistake: the aftermath of a modern air or artillery strike, or an unmanned, aerial assault is nothing like the environment of a church, a hospital, or an operating room. The environment is often dirty, horrid, filthy, bloody, and disgusting. Additionally, the violence and destruction may cause unanticipated and unintended collateral damage.

Innocent People May (Likely Will) Die

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

Sir Winston Churchill

Collateral damage, though unintended, is unavoidable. The reality is that non-combatants simply trying to keep their heads down and connected to their bodies, often suffer the deprivations, disease, and death brought about by war. Indeed, fear created by such indiscriminate violence can be a useful tool of combat. It can debilitate the human mind and render it incapable of the rational thought and planning required to mount an effective defense. For a recent example, note the beheadings of non-combatants is used by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (McCoy, 2014).

Based purely on questions of efficiency, groups wishing to conduct war would benefit by agreeing on certain times, places, and target-sets to focus their respective activities better; however, this ideal defies foundational logic. If such groups could agree on such rules, they would avoid war in the first place. A fight with rules is a contest; whether it’s called boxing, UFC, or arm wrestling. If there are rules that can invalidate and override the objective for which each side is fighting and a third-party can exercise authority over the action, it’s a contest, not a fight. In a fight, whether individual against individual or nation against nation, the objective for which one is fighting is the ultimate guide and the overriding factor is to win.

Ultimate Judge of Political Differences

Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.

Mao Tse-Tung

The purpose of the use of military force is not simply to break things and kill people; rather it settles political differences.

In 1999, Dr. Edward Luttwak, of MIT, in a paper entitled “Give War a Chance” masterfully outlined the reasons war stills exists. A simple answer is that it settles political differences when critical international-organizational collaboration, otherwise known as diplomacy, fails.

Barring semi-suicidal psychotics, no-one hungers for war. Nations typically desire other means to settle their differences. If they believe that their course of action to settle a particular issue is better than their opponent’s and they cannot negotiate agreement, then resorting to physical violence is a logical outcome. When one or both sides start threatening violence, people tend to think less critically and more reactively as a normal part of their survival instinct. The brain’s limbic system houses the “fight or flight” response to ensure we have the best chance of survival when rational processes fail to keep us from potential danger. As this fight or flight response warms up, a host of chemicals dump into the neural and muscular systems for an immediate, not-consciously-considered response. As rhetoric becomes more intense, options are dismissed, and visions of doom and destruction grow. Our neural network can trigger defensive reactions, negotiation is dismissed, the drums roll, and the “dogs of war” often slip.

In a universe filled with physical force, entropy, and independent moral agents (people), it is easy to understand why we end up in war as often as we do. War may or may not be a good thing. Given the historic assumptions and the error inherent in all human actions, however, it is a logical thing. When each independent agent values his or her perspective more than the perspective of any other, irreconcilable differences occur. If there are no agreed protocols, norms, or customs for settling those differences, or a force imposing a settlement on the parties such as courts, police, or military, physical force is the logical recourse. Physical force is loosed to see who wins the right to establish the new binding set of protocols.

In 1861, the Confederate States said that they had enough of the Union club and were taking their toys and going home. Lincoln stated that they could not do that. Also, the question was not directly addressed in the U.S. Constitution. Subsequently, a war was fought to determine who got to regulate the protocol for the secession of individual states compared with the larger Union. Once determined, the proximate question of the political differences was addressed. If the Confederacy had won the right to secede, slavery may well have remained a legal form of commerce in Confederate States. No one in either the North or the South directly wanted war; however, as they could not agree to a policy compromise, the logic drove the Union and the Confederacy to the bar of the ultimate court of political difference—war.

War is Neither Legal nor Illegal – It is Supra-legal
Inter arma enim silent leges (In war, the law is silent)

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Policy circles and the media frequently bandy the legality of war. Is this or that action “legal?” Is a particular weapon, process, or procedure “legal?” Such questions are relevant and germane only vis-à-vis the nation-state and the citizen of that nation-state asking them. Such questions are a valuable method for maintaining focus, coherence, and order within a nation- state. In the broader questions of the war, such legal reasoning is not always accepted as relevant.

In order for anything to be “legal,” there must be an authority, a rule or law, and a means to enforce that law. This is the crux of the difference between war and crime, though there is a great family resemblance between the two. Violating the law of a state is an act of crime. Questioning the right of the state to make the law can be considered an act of war.

The foundational reason for going to war is to determine who gets to make the law. To speak of war as illegal to all of the relevant parties is to engage in sophistry, philosophical irrationality, and verbal noise. The absence of law which governs all participants in a war fuels the reason for war. The difference between a fight or a contest is the existence of applied rules, but in war there are generally no definitive rules accepted by all parties. The objective is to determine who gets to make the rules.

There have been constant attempts by humanity to apply rules to war. Often it has been done by the winners of the previous war. While sincere efforts have limited the destructive impact of war, those efforts have often been weighted toward protecting the tactics, techniques, procedures, and advantages that allowed the authors of those rules to win the war in the first place. Even after the fact, it seems war is not about being fair. It is about winning.

Domination is its Purpose

The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.

General George S. Patton

Our enemies are violent extremists who would deny us, and all mankind, the freedom
to choose our own destiny…We must find and defeat them in an environment where information, perception, and how and what we communicate are every bit as critical as the application of traditional kinetic effects.

General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The purpose of war is to force the opponent to succumb to your will. War is not about
nation-building, cultural rehabilitation, or the meaning of life. It is about protecting national interests against a credible threat. It is about ensuring that your policy objectives are met, at the violent expense of those who would oppose it if necessary. Every resource expended must be gauged against its efficiency and effectiveness in reaching the goal of dominating the opponent to force surrender to the policy in question. Whether it is weapon, equipment, or human life, all expended during war must either be focused toward that end or destructive of it.

As that quintessential American military hero General Douglas MacArthur noted, “There is no substitute for victory” (MacArthur, 1951).

War is Neither Moral nor Immoral—It is Meta-Moral
Don’t talk to me about atrocities in war; all war is an atrocity.

Lord Herbert Kitchener

Jus ad Bellum is the justice of war or the justification of the reason that motivates one to war. Jus in Bello is the application of justice in war or the justification for the operations and tactics employed while engaged in war (Allison, 2018). They are related, but definitely separate concepts. The comments herein reflecting on jus in bello are to be understood in the context of active, violent combat. If and when a combatant either surrenders, ceases resistance, or is taken prisoner, the moral responsibility to provide humane treatment becomes inherent for the captor based on a number of legal, social, and ethical principles.

Justification for Jus in Bello

Once a combatant (uniformed or non-uniformed, male or female, child or adult) ceases physical resistance, the moral requirement for dealing with the combatant in this context does not change; however, the strategic calculus does. Logic, instinct, and history show that actions perceived as being unrelated to strategic necessity and motivated solely or primarily by culturally or personally induced reactive cruelty are inherently and strategically counter-productive. It is for this reason, if nothing else, that humane treatment of prisoners is a recommended approach in what is otherwise an uncivilized and barbaric activity.

Golden Rule?

Nearly every religious and faith tradition in human history has a version of the Golden Rule. Simply put, it is to treat others the way you want to be treated. This is also the foundational basis for many non-theistic moral systems because there is an inherent logic to the position. The motivations for war can be described accurately in terms that both support and contradict the Golden Rule. Absent a suicidal purpose on the part of every individual involved, there really is not any way one can engage in war without violating this directive.

A case can be made that those who engage in war are observing the Golden Rule by willingly accepting danger and possible death for others. Perhaps a more compelling case can be made that those who engage in war are violating the Golden Rule by killing fellow human beings and destroying property and livelihoods—actions which most rational people would not want done to themselves in return. Since both positions can be occupied, such may be reduced to nil.


Moral theorists also speak of proportionality (Lazar, 2016) where the calculation by which the costs of the war are weighed against the likely outcome. Only if the perceived benefits outweighed the expected costs could the war be considered moral; however, no particular calculation for any conflict has ever gained agreement from all parties. So, in making calculations, whose perspective should be used? How shall stakeholders decide? Historically, such questions were answered on the field of battle. Post facto, one side usually sees the war as morally justified and the other as naked aggression or aggrandizement.

Self Defense

The sincere belief that one’s vital interests, e.g., life and freedom, are threatened can theoretically justify the use of physical violence. Once the Rubicon of violence is crossed, however, the only practical and effective justification for a particular set of tactics is that which has already been mentioned; thus, what will allow one to reach the objective in the most effective and efficient means possible, stop the destruction and killing and return to the norms, customs, and laws of civilization? As long as the moral price paid does not exceed the value of the objective for which the war is waged, one could theoretically characterize the situation as morally valid. The authors, however, suspect that such reasoning is often inherently tainted with shades of self-righteousness and, consequently, in moral question.


Perhaps utilitarianism can begin to make moral sense of war. Utilitarianism recommends taking actions that produce the greatest good for the greatest number (Driver, 2014). Specifically, the death and destruction inherent in war can potentially be justified by emphasizing that future conditions will be better for a greater number of people after enduring the horrors of combat. It is obvious how this perspective can be taken and used by the victors of war.

Regardless, in war as in life, our choices are not between absolute good on one hand and absolute evil on the other. Real life choices are a combination of both. Perhaps the best we can hope for is not the “right thing” but the “best thing.”

Moral War?

The dimensions in which we live are filled with entropy and error. Multiple factors set the context and inhabit the variables of every equation, relationship, and process. The authors question whether there is such a thing as moral war. The theoretical requirements are too rigorous ever to be met in a multi-dimensional reality. Citizens do what they must to survive in the world and leave the balancing of the moral accountability to God, the Great Spirit, or their individual cosmic consciousness.

Nobility of War

There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet the enemy.

General George Washington

How can an activity that lies outside the pale of civilization, one that is comprised of the threats and execution of violence, death, and destruction, have anything of the sublime concept of nobility? How is it that such a thing as war can be described as noble? The answer lies within the end, jus ad bellum, not within the means, jus in bello. If nobility is to be found in war, it is to be found in the reason for engaging in the conflict in the first place.

Based on the assumption that individuals have the inherent right of self-defense and that a nation-state is the vehicle for that right of self-defense and defense of the innocent, the response to threats against the nation-state serves the purpose of protecting the life and liberty of its citizens. As noted, war is comprised of violence and property destruction to the point of coercing the opponent into, or away from, a particular course of action. The means are inherently dirty, horrid, filthy, bloody, and disgusting. The ends for such actions being engaged can be noble, but the means most definitely are not. This is a sad function of the world in which we live.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”

Holy Bible, King James version

This is the nobility of war—the sacrificial human spirit that causes one to forfeit his or her own time, energy, resources, and potentially life for others. The annals of war from all periods, conflicts, and cultures are replete with examples of such personal self- sacrifice.


Rational people do not hunger for war, but they comprehend it and its utility. War occupies an area of social discourse beyond the pale of civilization that is filled with death, destruction, fear, horror, and pain. The inexorable logic of politics, force, and human nature has dragged humans there since their existence. Wishing that war would go away is a burst of noble neural output on par with wishing that death, disease, and poverty would disappear. As long as the basic laws of physics remain the same and human nature does not evolve into a more enlightened and informed perspective, war will continue as a means to settle disputes among nations.

Due to its cost and degradation in both resource and moral terms, war should be implemented only as a last resort and physical violence used only when all other avenues have proved ineffective. It is the surgery of the body politic, however, once violence is exercised, the focus should be on defeating the enemy with all conceivable means at the earliest opportunity. Any actions or tactics engaged that do not focus on defeating the enemy will only prolong the conflict and result in more casualties and possible defeat.

As United States citizens, we are responsible for the functionality and survival of our nation. Understanding the use and application of force and understanding the basic facts of war in order to contribute coherently and productively to our common political discourse are critical to that survival. Let us clearly understand what war is, and what it is not, what it can accomplish and what it cannot. It is the very foundation of our body politic; to remain ignorant of the concept is to imperil the very way of life that we hold so dear.


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Author: Dr Brett L. Mers and Dr Corinna A. Robinson
Retired U.S. military officer Dr. Brett L. Mers is a veteran of Operation Northern Watch, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Retired U.S. military officer Dr. Corinna A. Robinson is a veteran of Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn.

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