War is Evil


War is very likely the greatest evil that human beings do to one another. It makes monsters of men and women as well as victims of everyone. It is wanton destruction writ large. We can limit its horrors to some degree, but never eliminate them, for horror is in the very nature of war.

War can be forced upon you. When another threatens your existence, you will defend yourself or perish. And indeed, if war is forced upon you, then to fight and hope to win against an aggressor is better than to perish and allow them free reign upon others. So it is not evil to be at war, it is war itself that is the evil.

To be in war you must engage in evil, which is not to say you can’t also engage in good. Your good acts could well outweigh the evil of war. Yet there is no denying that to not have had the war at all, would be a greater good than nearly anything achieved in war.

Any time we consider war, I think we must remember it is evil, and that from it springs many more evils. We should weigh each and every evil that war will inevitably bring against the good we hope to achieve. Our default position should be: War is evil and always to be avoided whenever possible.

Reasons for a war

There are two justifications for war that I hear Americans speak of most often: Preemptive defense and humanitarianism. And there is a third I see even if no one claims it: spite.

Preemptive Defense

I have no sympathy for this position. The idea is that when faced with a possible threat, you preemptively attack to neutralize that threat. Korea is often floated as an example. Iran is another. They have nuclear weapons (or intend to), they don’t like us, we should take them out first.

The ethics here are entirely selfish and motivated by base fear and cowardice at best, bigotry and bloodlust at worst. To avoid the mere possibility of a war, you engage in war. That is irrational in the extreme. Because another nation sees you as a threat, you decide to give their fears a reality and be a threat. That simply means that you really are the monsters they said you were and their antipathy was fully justified.

You have every opportunity for peace, and you throw it away to guarantee war, just so you could get an advantage in a war that otherwise might never happen. To prepare to respond to hostility is wise and natural, to create hostility because you fear hostility is madness, purely psychotic behavior.


Here, I have some sympathy, but I want to encourage the greatest amount of caution. The urge to defend others is a noble one. But even the best intentions can lead to terrible consequences. You have to mix good intentions with a great deal of pragmatism. If you don’t have a realistic plan for securing peace, then going to war for humanitarian reasons is very likely to cause more suffering than you are preventing. And instead of others doing the killing, it will be blood on your hands.

If you engage in war, you need to be assured of winning. And that means a willingness to engage in brutality, carnage, and destruction when needed to secure a victory. And once you win, you need to maintain peace. That means a government that can financially maintain itself, and with broad enough political and popular support to maintain security and political cohesion. You also need to understand that to some, you will become the villain and a source of rage and hostility.

We don’t have many instances where our interventions meet these criteria. Often, when we have acted, we only have created power vacumes we are unwilling to fill due to our convictions and others are unable to fill due to their lack of capability or motivations. Sometimes we have made the situations worse, in others, we accomplished very little but to make ourselves party to the violence and responsible for the ongoing suffering.

Looking at Syria, ask yourself, what would our involvement accomplish? How would we stop the fighting? How would we ensure peace when the fighting is done? If you can’t answer those questions with some level of confidence, why do you think that is worth killing for? The destruction is heart wrenching and terrible, but the US, at this point, could only contribute more of the same were we to become involved without a clear, pragmatic, and effective plan for the future of that country, and we simply don’t have that.

The Hidden Reason: Spite

The third motivation I observe, but which is nearly always sublimated into the two above, is spite. Any nation that thumbs its nows at America or dares be on “the other team” or otherwise defies us or shows a lack of respect insights hostility among Americans. I’ve often observed a strong desire to smash down anyone important enough to challenge us and our views. The currents of bigotry, nationalism, and machismo provide fuel to this fire. With Sadam Hussain, this seemed to be an especially strong motivation, and our current president seems all too prone to spite as a motivation for lashing out.

A person or a nation that is truly strong can show restraint. They can afford to be cautious. Knowing their strength they do not need to boast, brag, or prove themselves to others. And when insulted, they know the hollowness of the insult and need not dignify it with a rebuttal.

Last thoughts

Don’t let yourself get caught up in war fever or passion. The US stands unassailable as a nation. Any risk we face is one we have chosen for ourselves. Too often we have chosen poorly and caused misery for ourselves and others. When we have taken military action and done great good, it’s either been of dire necessity or very sober deliberation and a very limited mission. Every time we attack with no plan for what comes after, chaos comes after.

We have the power and the strength to choose peace whenever we want to. Let it be as often as possible.


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