David R. Henderson  

A Memorial Day Appreciation

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Over at "Facts and Other Stubborn Things," Daniel Kuehn, a frequent commenter on this site, asks that we share thoughts of appreciation for veterans. Here is mine. It's for Richard Timberlake, a well-known monetary economist and student of Milton Friedman. Dick was a bomber pilot during World War II.

Dick wrote an excellent memoir about the time, titled They Never Saw Me Then. The whole book, but especially the Preface, is powerful. Here's some of what I wrote about it for Veterans' Day, 2008, with ample quotes from the Preface.

One thing that is clear throughout the book is that Dick Timberlake had one main goal during the war: to preserve the life of Dick Timberlake. And, he points out, this was the norm. He quotes from Arthur Hoppe, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle: "I suppose there were a few in World War II who were fighting for freedom or democracy, but in my three years in the Navy I never met one of them. ... [W]e were fighting to stay alive. And that is the true horror of war."

Arthur Hoppe, writes Timberlake, "had it right."

But if this is how everyone thought, what makes Timberlake's book special? Not mainly that he's a good writer, but that he is willing to speak out about the horror of war. It helps, also, that Timberlake is a free-market economist who understands the harmony that markets lead to and the chaos and destruction that war causes.

We often hear about soldiers in World War II trying to go after Hitler. But Timberlake recognizes the reality. He writes:

All of my fellow airmen and I knew that Hitler and his henchmen were atrocious and loathsome examples of the human race. Yet, any U.S. soldier or airman who thought even briefly about his job of trying to kill and destroy 'the enemy,' knew that he was not within range of damaging Hitler and other Nazi leaders. We could not reach their personal environments or influence their decisions; our activities were many magnitudes removed from hurting them. We could only chip away at the peripheries of their domain and hope that they would realize the futility and fallacy of their ways. To do so, we had to try and kill our enemy counterparts with whom we had no personal quarrel at all. We aimed our bombs at their strategic war-making industries and infrastructure, but in the process we knew that we could not avoid hitting churches, schools, and innocent people. Many of us thought that a better way must exist. Fifty-six years later, I still think so.

Reading the line about killing counterparts with whom he had no personal quarrel, I thought of a vignette I read years ago:

General: "Men, we're surrounded, but the enemy has the same number of soldiers we do. So some man out there is going to try to kill you, and your job is to kill him first."
Private: "General, could you point to the man you want me to kill? I believe that he and I can make another arrangement."

Timberlake gives a pithy statement of the essence of war: "War is the mutual destruction of capital, both human and non-human."

Timberlake also recognizes the cause of war. He writes:

Finally, in their external affairs governments must resist any temptation to intervene in the affairs of other peoples. It takes a government to wage a war. So governments must take the same oath of nonintervention - live-and-let-live - with other governments as each individual observes with other individuals. The model for this point-of-view is the political system the Founding Fathers put together when they wrote the Constitution of the United States.

So what do we owe our veterans on this Veterans Day and, indeed, on all days? Timberlake has an answer:

Surely, if societies owe anything to the veterans of former wars and the innocent soldiers and people destroyed in these catastrophes, it is a responsibility to avoid further warfare by every practicable means. So far as I can see from my vantage point, societies and governments are not following my simple prescription - or any other effective strategy - for preventing wars of all varieties. In not doing so, they are betraying the trust that my wartime colleagues, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and I reposed in them.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
steve writes:

"Surely, if societies owe anything to the veterans of former wars and the innocent soldiers and people destroyed in these catastrophes, it is a responsibility to avoid further warfare by every practicable means."

Yes. I have tried to pass this on to my son. I often think I have failed as he speaks pretty freely about killing our enemies and still seems to think my service should make me more wiling to want to kill. Much the opposite.

Steve

ivvenails writes:

Armies have always been composed primarily of men with his attitude. At best. It doesn't matter.

"[T]hey don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any MAN at the head of it is beneath pitifulness."

There are, there really are, men who, while I wouldn't say they have total disregard for their lives, revel in warfare. This is a very powerful trait, and it only takes a smattering of these men to innervate an army of Timberlakes. A lot of anti-war literature emphasizes the disconnect between the man on the ground and the insulated higher headquarters. But there's always someone on ground level egging the footsoldiers on, usually by example. Bombing people didn't change Curtis LeMay's attitude towards the enemy one bit, nor did being shot in the First World War lessen Patton's enthusiasm. I'm not even touching the motivation of sheer ambition, but I doubt that Attila or Alexander felt the same way that Timberlake did either.

St. Thomas writes:

Once we agree with Richard Timberlake that

"All of my fellow airmen and I knew that Hitler and his henchmen were atrocious and loathsome examples of the human race."

we should be discussing the alternatives to get rid of them. Better ways must exist, but please tell me which ones.

Q: does pacifism amount to pray that henchmen be satiated with the blood of the ones we don't know or care about?

David R. Henderson writes:

@St. Thomas,
BTW, just so you know, your critiques and queries about pacifism should be directed to my co-blogger, Bryan Caplan. I am NOT a pacifist.
You raise a good question about alternative means. I’m in favor of tyrannicide. If I remember my William Shirer correctly, I think he said that one of the Brits in Berlin in the 1930s communicated to Whitehall that he could take a shot at Hitler and kill him. IIRC, the answer back, “That wouldn’t be sporting."

DoctorT writes:
It takes a government to wage a war.

That is a tautology: war is defined as armed conflict between countries, and all countries have governments. However, armed conflict requires only two people who disagree. Such conflicts occur thousands of times every day. The next step is gang, family, or clan armed conflicts, which also are common. Families and clans form tribes that have armed conflicts with nearby tribes. Once tribes form into nations, the armed conflicts among them are defined as wars.

National governments make wars easier and probably make them more likely, but they aren't the primary cause of wars. The primary cause of most wars is greed. People want their neighbor's wealth, land, resources, or people (as slaves, chattel, or just to kick around). The greed often is sugarcoated with claims of justice-seeking, morality enforcement, or religious needs, but it still is the commonest underlying cause.

Fear also is a primary cause of war: fear that another nation will absorb yours through war, economics, or cultural assimilation. Such fears are heightened if the people of the other nation differ from yours in race, ethnicity, religion, or politics.

The only way to eliminate war is to change human nature. Good luck with that.

Bill Woolsey writes:

The book isn't available on Amazon.

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "in their external affairs governments must resist any temptation to intervene in the affairs of other peoples"

What is a "people?" What if I don't want to be regarded as part of a "people" who are mistreating me, if that means that I don't get the benefits of help from another, more humane "people," or government? This analysis is garbage. Or to put it more politely, it fails the methodological individualism test.

FR writes:

The model for this point-of-view [of 'live and let live'] is the political system the Founding Fathers put together when they wrote the Constitution of the United States.

The U.S. that would go on to fight four more wars in the 50 years after founding? Really??

The problem isn't that war is evil- we all know that. The problem is that it is at times the lesser evil.

Costard writes:

"The problem isn't that war is evil- we all know that. The problem is that it is at times the lesser evil."

Germany considered war to be the lesser evil in 1939. Hungary thought it the best solution in 1914. Yes you're right; clearly we all understand that war is evil, and can be expected to send other people to their deaths in the most responsible manner possible.

The only way to eliminate war is to change human nature.

Or move to Switzerland.

does pacifism amount to pray that henchmen be satiated with the blood of the ones we don't know or care about?

If the U.S. had remained neutral in WW1 there would have been no treaty of Versailles; no humiliation of Germany, no reparations and no immolation of the Frank; no Weimar republic or 3rd Reich; no holocaust. Hitler's fall was Stalin's rise, an exchange of one brutality for another that would lead us into Korea and Vietnam. How many dead? We couldn't stop the holocaust so we created Israel and in the process, radicalized Islam. 3 wars later and the question is a fair one: is the world any better? Perhaps pacifism is the realization that killing one man means killing a second, and then a third -- and 100 years later we're still killing.

Harrison Searles writes:

"If the U.S. had remained neutral in WW1 there would have been no treaty of Versailles; no humiliation of Germany, no reparations and no immolation of the Frank; no Weimar republic or 3rd Reich; no holocaust. Hitler's fall was Stalin's rise, an exchange of one brutality for another that would lead us into Korea and Vietnam. How many dead? We couldn't stop the holocaust so we created Israel and in the process, radicalized Islam. 3 wars later and the question is a fair one: is the world any better? Perhaps pacifism is the realization that killing one man means killing a second, and then a third -- and 100 years later we're still killing."


Had the United States remained neutral in the First World War, the world would have been dramatically different. Statements like the above about how much better that alternative universe would have been are meaningless unless we can actually know what that alternative world would have looked like.

However, that knowledge is impossible and since the entire post-WW1 world would have been fragile, the possibility of a second horrific war would have been there. The conditions that lead up to the Second World War itself were extremely low probability. The NSDAP gaining control of the Weimar-era government certainly qualifies. The narrative that a far-right, militaristic government was destined to gain control of Germany doesn't stand against recent scholarship and had the NSDAP not achieved a breakthrough 1932 election, they would have collapsed under a load of debt. Plus, the Battle of France was an event that could have easily backfired against the Germany Wehrmact leading to the Second War being anything but the full scale war it really turned out. Plus, even if the United States remained neutral in the First World War, the Pacific War may have very well happened anyways since any expansion by Japan into the Pacific would have caused an American reaction. Wars, especially the most destructive, are simply very hard to predict.

Ergo, we have no sound ground by which we can state that one possible universe would have been had more war. Had America not intervened in WWI, too many factors would have changed to allow us to state anything substantial about that alternative universe beyond the most vacuous or fallible statements.

Tracy W writes:

The problem with this approach is that I get the distinct impression that the British and French politicians were determinedly trying to avoid another war in the lead-up to WWII.

There may well have been a more effective way of doing so, Churchill for example was deeply critical of a number of their decisions. But there's a big difference between trying and failing, and not even trying in the first place.

stuhlmann writes:

"It takes a government to wage a war."

This is only mostly true. The British East India Company was a joint-stock company, and it was the East India Company that conquered India with its own private army. Initially the Company called all the shots in India, though the British government gradually took control.

Essen writes:

There are many euphemisms for war. One of them is LIC or Low Intensity Conflict. Ordinarily LIC is not waged by a government. (At least that is the stated position). But LIC kills: not equally, perhaps disproportionately.
Try preventing all LICs of the world currently being perpetrated today. It is an honorable effort and you have my support for that effort. Try it and come back to this forum after a 100 years.
Cynical? LIC is about killing cynically.

Ken B writes:

I also recommend, for a different perspective, Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. This is his memoir of fighting in WWI, and it is the response of a man -- an intelligent, accomplished, educated man -- intoxicated with war. It's important to understand this mindset.

Junger was later part of the Freikorps groups from which Nazism grew. (Eventually Junger saw the error of his ways.)

As for my memorial? My maternal grandfather fought in WWI too. He was captured, and escaped and recaptured a couple times. His response was quite the oppositie of Junger's. The war moved him to become a doctor. He never told me much about the war. One time when I was a child we watched a TV documentary on it. I asked him a few questions, and then he went up to his room. My grandmother asked not to quiz him on the war again, as it upset him too much. This was 50 years later. In 1939 he volunteered into the medical corps as a field doctor.

yet another david writes:

@Harrison Searles:

" Ergo, we have no sound ground by which we can state that one possible universe would have been had more war. Had America not intervened in WWI, too many factors would have changed to allow us to state anything substantial about that alternative universe beyond the most vacuous or fallible statements."

That one, if correct, works both ways - i.e., it isn't possible to argue that the world was better off with WWI/WWII/America's entry into either.

I am inclined to think that the way the 20th century turned out was as close to a worst case scenario, in terms of death, misery, the rise of inhuman states and the rise of the state generally, as one can imagine. Possibly others could conjure up a worse, but still plausible, counter-factual but that would really take some imagination.

I think one can say a few things. With America's entry in WWI, it ceased to be what its founders intended - a beacon of non-interventionist peace and prosperity serving as an example in a world gone mad. US entry into that war laid the groundwork for all the progressivist, New-Deal-type central planning since and for the rise of what has been termed the messianic state - the notion that it is America's sacred destiny not to rest until democracy and the American way has been spread throughout the world and that any sacrifice of blood and treasure in this crusade is simply a glorious marker of America's extra-special purity and unselfish virtue (see Raico, Higgs, etc.). In other words, it is a mess of collectivist romanticism, moral vanity, arrogance, utter absence of humility and under-appreciation of Hayek's knowledge problem (as applied to foreign adventures). It is the messianic mentality that leads almost necessarily it seems from the recognition that "Leader X is a bad man" to the conclusion that "it is our moral duty to feed men and the property of Americans into an effort to remove him", independent of whether he represents any real and substantial threat of an attack on America.

So, while it is difficult to draw conclusions as to how badly the rest of the world would have fared without America's participation in WWI as Europe attempted to "govern" itself and lurched insanely from one form of predatory collectivism to another, one could perhaps say that WWI was the end of America.

yet another david writes:

@ Ken B.

I also recommend, for a different perspective, Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger.

Thanks for that - I have that but have been waivering as to whether I would read it. One has to ration one's exposure to reality sometimes.

Ralph Raico's "Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal" is also a useful antidote, as is Rothbards' "Betrayal of the American Right" which spends a lot of time on war as "the health of the state".

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Hitler was evil, but every German who actively or passively supported his government was more evil.

Leaders only exist because people follow them.

Tyranicide is often a good idea to destabilize a tyrannical regime, but if the supporters of the tyrant are not willing to change their philosophical viewpoint, another tyrant will come along soon. For example, look at Russia as a broken record of different kinda of tyrants over the years.

Ken B writes:

@YAD: Such a beautifully written book. Deeply disturbing. I like to recommend it because I once came across an incredulous reaction to the effect that "no-one could be a nazi idealist! That makes no sense!" In fact just about the only way to be a nazi is to be an idealist. You need the right ideals is all. Junger was never actually a nazi but you can see elements of those ideals in the book, without the hatred.

Junger changed a lot of his long life, and much of his stuff is worth reading.

Harrison Searles writes:

@ yetantherdavid


"I am inclined to think that the way the 20th century turned out was as close to a worst case scenario, in terms of death, misery, the rise of inhuman states and the rise of the state generally, as one can imagine. Possibly others could conjure up a worse, but still plausible, counter-factual but that would really take some imagination."
There is clearly a worse scenario: the strategic use of nuclear weapons en masse.


"With America's entry in WWI, it ceased to be what its founders intended - a beacon of non-interventionist peace and prosperity serving as an example in a world gone mad."
So the adventures in Cuba and the Phillipines as well as President Roosevelt's sabre-rattling were beacons of "non-interventionist peace and prosperity?"

Isn't the United States' reversion back to non-interventionism after WW1, including Congress' refusal to join the League of Nations, also a problem for your narrative?

In addition, if the United States did all of a sudden become a fully interventionist state, then why did it take the attack on Pearl Harbor to force America into the war?


"US entry into that war laid the groundwork for all the progressivist, New-Deal-type central planning since and for the rise of what has been termed the messianic state - the notion that it is America's sacred destiny not to rest until democracy and the American way has been spread throughout the world and that any sacrifice of blood and treasure in this crusade is simply a glorious marker of America's extra-special purity and unselfish virtue (see Raico, Higgs, etc.)"
This was mostly true for Great Britain, but most of the United States' war-planning was easily undone by the Republicans in Congress and President Harding. President Harding won an election by a promise for a return to "Normalcy" not by spreading war-time planning into peace time.

The foundation for later progressive policies were set before the war by President Roosevelt and others in policies like the Square Deal and the income tax. Any trend towards socialism created by the war was quickly undone.

Your description of Americans' view of America in the world simply does not fit with attitude of the American public after WWI. Again, if America thought itself to be on a crusade to spread democracy then why did it not join the League of Nations of joined forces with the UK before Pearl Harbor?

yet another david writes:

@ Harrison

There is clearly a worse scenario: the strategic use of nuclear weapons en masse.

Both WWI & WWII contributed to the rise and consolidation of power of the Soviet Union, i.e., the guys with whom we had the nuclear standoff.

For an alternative to your views (and what used to be mine), check out Ralph Raico's "Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal" and Rothbards' "Betrayal of the American Right" as I noted above. They are very readable and free in electronic form over at mises.org.

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