The War Drive

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“Drew Faust, the distinguished American historian, recently alluded to the paradox that it is the very unintelligibility of war that fuels historians’ interminable attempts to explore it. But is war so unintelligible? Stupid it may be, but perhaps not inexplicable.” Sanford Rose

Dolors & Sense

By Sanford Rose

Solider asleep in the trenches, WW I.

Solider asleep in the trenches, WW I.

Sanford RoseKISSIMMEE Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—5/27/2013—Drew Faust, the distinguished American historian, recently alluded to the paradox that it is the very unintelligibility of war that fuels historians’ interminable attempts to explore it.

But is war so unintelligible? Stupid it may be, but perhaps not inexplicable.

Certainly the line separating the human from the inhuman is relatively fuzzy, and many cynical theorists argue that what we view as the essence of humaneness—social interaction—is merely a fig leaf to disguise the need to create alliances with which to attack other social groupings.

Man, in this view, is no better than the chimpanzee, though perhaps a bit more manipulative.

Man may be inherently bellicose, but I am partial to the notion that what triggers this bellicosity are threats to exaggerated feelings of self-esteem.

These feelings can be either individual or collective.

That is, individuals tend to become violent when their cherished and inflated opinion of their virtues and capacities is arraigned; countries tend to become violent when significant groups of their citizenry feel that the national image with which they identify is being besmirched.

Sometimes, the individual merges with the collective. Thus, George Bush was motivated to go to war in Iraq to prove to his father and the country that he was not an ineffectual lightweight. His ability to take the country into that war, however, depended to no small extent on the view of many Americans that the Muslim world contemptuously scorned America’s undoubted values and achievements.

This interplay of individual and national bruised egos is strikingly evident in the run-up to World War I, the conflict that I have been studying intensively for the last three months.

Count Berchtold, the hugely wealthy and influential Austrian foreign minister, had been accused ever since the First Balkan War of 1912 of indecision and want of manliness. He therefore resolved to use the occasion of the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne in 1914 by a Serb to silence his critics. In the cultural conflict between Germandom and Slavdom, Berchtold was determined to champion his “volk,” even if that meant plunging the world into war.

On the Slav side was Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister. He too was taxed with ineffectualness and lack of firmness in defending the interest of Russia’s southern Slavic brethren, the Serbs. Though Sazonov had no affection for the Serbs, he used their plight to resurrect his image with his sovereign, the tsar, and the status-hungry Russian people.

To be sure, in both the Iraq War and in World War I, there were so-called objective causes. America had indeed been attacked on 9/11, though not of course by Iraqis. Serbia was a threat to Austro-Hungarian survival, though not as much a threat as the monarchy’s own discrimination against all but two of its eleven constituent nationalities. Russia’s grain exports could have been cut off by an Austrian ally, Turkey, which was poised to receive several British-made dreadnoughts, but this danger was substantially overblown.

Those who argue that man creates alliances to give effect to his bellicosity may have it wrong.

Bellicosity may be the consequence of these alliances rather than their cause.

Alliances, social or political, may create unreasonably stringent standards of behavior. When individuals and states find that they cannot meet these standards, they often respond with violence.

About Sanford Rose

Sanford Rose, of New Jersey and Florida, served as Associate Editor of Fortune Magazine from 1968 till 1972; Vice President of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1972; Senior Editor of Fortune between 1972 and 1979; and Associate Editor, Financial Editor and Senior Columnist of American Banker newspaper between 1979 and 1991. From 1991 till 2001, Rose worked as a consultant in the banking industry and a professional ghost writer in the field of finance. He has also taught as an adjunct professor of banking at Columbia University and an adjunct instructor of economics at New York University. He states that he left gainful employment in 2001 to concentrate on gain-less investing. (A lifelong photo-phobe, Rose also claims that the head shot accompanying his Weekly Hubris columns is not his own, but belongs, instead, to a skilled woodworker residing in South Carolina.)
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2 Responses to The War Drive

  1. Ralph Papaleo says:

    As always, Sanford, your writing is insightful, intelligent, and informative. It is woefully unfortunate that mankind, rather than learn from mistakes of the past, willfully chooses to repeat them. We continue to hold colossal blunders such as the charge of The Light Brigade and Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg as glorious displays of gallantry rather than asinine forays of stupidity. Rich old men continue to send poor young men to die.

  2. S. Rose says:

    Many thanks for your kind comments. Have just read Rick Atkinson’s magisterial work on WWII, “The Guns at Last Light.” The conduct of the Anglo-American campaign on the western front from June, 1944 to May, 1945 provides fresh evidence of the incompetence of those whose decisions led to the often quite pointless sacrifice of thousands of lives. WWII, unlike WWI, was, of course, the “Good War.” But it sure had its share of bad moments.

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