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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1998

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Recalling here a research paper of twenty years ago, Ambassador Underhill departs from his usual wryly amused approach to matters diplomatic to address very seriously a central issue still facing mankind. The reader will note how he presaged some of the arguments of physiologist Jared Diamond in his influential 1997 study Guns, Germs, and Steel. (See also, of course, Robert A. Hinde, "The Psychological Bases of War," in this issue of American Diplomacy.) - Ed.

The psychic benefits of war have faded . . . .

is war obsolescent?

by Francis Underhill


In a recent column in this journal (January - March 1998), I described my last assignment in the Foreign Service. I was a senior research fellow at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington. There I produced a paper that argued that war between modernized industrial states had lost its utility. Modern states, I said, were threatened, not by enemy forces crossing international boundaries, but by violence generated internally.

My paper inspired a program of six evening seminars on the future of conflict, with my essay the lead-off paper. The National Defense University assembled for the seminars a distinguished group from the military-academic fraternity, including senior Pentagon civilians, admirals and generals, and strategic thinkers from the think tanks around the Washington Beltway. My paper was politely torn to shreds — "an infantile, bourgeois effort of a mere practitioner in foreign affairs."

Weighed in the light of twenty years of hindsight, I don't think it comes off too badly.

I argued that with the tremendous expansion and application of knowledge that has taken place in the past 150 years, humanity is crossing a watershed as basic as the beginning of agriculture and the settlement in cities 8,000 years ago. What has this crossing of the watershed done to the ancient institution of warfare?

Making war is one of our most ancient of social activities. Written history has been for 8,000 years primarily the story of war. For the victor it was profitable. It paid off not only in plunder but also in control of mines and agricultural lands—the main producers of wealth—and in human beings and animals—the sources of energy.

This animate energy source was expensive, inefficient, and limited, but except for wind and water in restricted applications, there was no other means. The world's dirty, dangerous drudgery was done by humans and beasts. Slavery and the oppressive exploitation of large numbers of subject people was an economic necessity.

For the modernized state, war is no longer useful. The material benefits have disappeared. Wealth in a modern society is less in territory and things than in a nation's capacity to organize itself for production. Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, all poor in natural resources, are examples. Inanimate energy sources are cheap and plentiful. Control over extensive territory and diverse peoples brings responsibilities and costs that far outweigh benefits. Imperialism doesn't pay. Hegemony has too high an overhead.

The gains from forcing another nation to surrender its goods are dwarfed by the returns from the exchange of goods and services. Modernization obscures and transcends political boundaries and creates a seamless web of international commerce. It is impossible for one nation to harm another without eventually harming itself.

Pre-modern war was prosecuted by professionals and usually confined to the battlefield. There were 48,000 killed, wounded, and missing at Gettysburg. A woman standing in her kitchen door a mile away, struck by a stray bullet, was the sole civilian casualty. Today nuclear weapons and guidance systems have made every square yard of the earth's surface a potential battlefield.

This technology, even limited to "conventional" weapons, has obliterated the distinction between victors and vanquished. The psychic benefits of war have faded, and the gallantry and adventure have disappeared. A nuclear war would destroy everything that both sides would seek to defend.

There has been a growing general recognition of the futility and uselessness of war, and the people of industrialized states now have the power to give their views political effect. In urbanized modern societies, industrialization and scientific advance require a population with a high level of general education. The speed and volume of information dissemination have ended the near monopoly of current knowledge government once enjoyed, and greatly restrict its ability to act secretly.

With education and access to information have come political sophistication, social leveling, and mass participation in political and economic life. Decisions on war and peace have been taken out of the hands of a few and made part of a larger, less easily manipulated consensus.

War in Europe is simply unthinkable. Could anyone see France and Germany taking up arms over Alsace? A young German would not give up a weekend, much less his life, to regain East Prussia or Pomerania. The Pentagon is planning to fight two wars at the same time. But would anyone come? Would the American people accept another Vietnam War today, or tolerate substantial casualty lists to defend Taiwan? Why should North Korea continue to be our problem?:

Edward Luttwack, the Georgetown professor who shredded my paper twenty years ago, bemoaned in Foreign Affairs the current unwillingness to accept casualties in the pursuit of "strategic objectives." He complained that we have made service in the armed forces a no-risk occupation. A mere eighteen dead forced us to withdraw from Somalia.

Strategic thinkers are pushing China forward as the emerging threat to the United States. They are too late. We played the China Card, and $10 billion in annual trade creates an impenetrable buffer between us. There were a number of worried questions about China after a talk I gave at Rotary last year. As the meeting broke up I was given a handsome purple coffee mug inscribed in gold with the Rotary Wheel, and the words. "Thanks to Our Speaker." Putting the mug in the dishwasher that night I saw on the bottom "Made in China."

But what about the twenty-odd wars raging in the Third World countries? Almost all the violence—racial, ethnic, political—is occurring inside states, not across boundaries. The extent of the slaughter would be less grim were it not for the modern weapons provided by industrialized countries. There are still in pre-modernized countries large numbers of poor, bucolic, uneducated, xenophobic young men ready to be cannon-fodder. Whatever the outcome of these wars, the victors must face the popular demand for jobs, food, housing, health care, and social services. The inexorable process of modernization will force these societies to become "liberal as to expression and democratic as to government."


The second part of my thesis—that modern societies are threatened by violence generated internally—I'll leave to another day.


Francis Underhill Ambassador Underhill frequently contributes to American Diplomacy. An earlier version of this column appeared in the Henderson (NC) Times-News of October 26, 1997.

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