War Is Still a Racket

They say war is a fight between forces seeking victory. But sometimes the conflict is more complicated than that.

Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important than Winning Them, by David Keen. Yale University Press, 2012, 304 pp. $38.

"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."

So begins U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler's 1935 pamphlet War is a Racket. Butler, who had participated in many military interventions, came to realize that war allowed elites to gain while less powerful citizens and foreigners bore the conflict's financial, physical, and emotional costs. Citizens, policymakers, pundits, and scholars have yet to internalize Butler's warning. Hence the importance of David Keen's Useful Enemies.

Keen, a professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics, investigates why wars last as long as they do despite the significant costs associated with fighting and despite western governments' supposed efforts to minimize the violence. To address this issue, Keen argues, we need to go beyond the basic "contest model" of conflict, which holds that war is a fight between two sides who seek victory and, with it, an end to violence. War, he argues, serves economic, political, and psychological functions that, taken together, can lead to long, persistent conflicts. To demonstrate this, he explores a wide range of cases: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, Vietnam, and more.

The economic functions of war include control of natural resources, steady employment for soldiers and rebels, and continued flows of international aid from outside governments, who tend to throw significant amounts of money at conflict situations. The aid has several perverse effects: propping up regimes that violate basic human rights, distorting the local economy, contributing to corruption, and funding the purchases of weapons and other resources that perpetuate conflict. Keen points out how supposed enemies often avoid direct conflict and work together to secure and divide resources while harming innocent civilians. In Sierra Leone, for example, government forces colluded with rebels to minimize conflict and share in the spoils of diamond mining. Part of this arrangement involved soldiers providing weapons to rebels who, in some instances, used them against citizens. The basic contest model overlooks these dynamics because it assumes that two clearly defined "sides" are fighting each other with the goal of victory.

The political functions of war include consolidating power while weakening the opposition, gaining advantages in elections, rallying support from citizens in the fight against the enemy, and destabilizing rival regimes. Although many view conflict as a problem plaguing poor counties, Keen points out that these political functions apply to both developed and underdeveloped nations. Indeed, as the economic historian Robert Higgs has demonstrated in his research on the political economy of crisis and fear, governments invest significant resources creating a culture of apprehension among its citizens in order to create a demand for its various interventions at home and abroad. The ongoing War on Terror is but one example of this logic at work, and Keen dedicates a powerful chapter to demonstrating how the state of "permanent emergency" in the U.S. is driven by a variety of vested interests who benefit from the perpetuation of fear of a faceless enemy. The military benefits directly because a permanent state of emergency serves as an ongoing justification for high levels of spending. Industry benefits too, be it the firms with lucrative contracts to supply bases abroad or the information technology companies that receive federal funds to develop surveillance equipment. One oversight in this chapter is the neglect of James Mueller's important work on the terrorism industry and the political economy of homeland security.

Finally, conflict can serve a psychological function for those involved. For example, war is one means of remedying feelings of injustice and powerlessness. Further, initial violence can lead to retaliatory violence by victims who seek to restore some sense of control. Those who wish to orchestrate conflict often manipulate feelings of shame in order to attract soldiers and to give violence some sense of legitimacy.

Keen concludes that many of the standard policy tools for solving conflicts—foreign aid, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism—actually extend a war's duration. He also makes it clear that violence is often easier to begin than to end. Though Keen does not say so, this implies that we should have a default foreign policy of non-intervention, in terms of both direct military engagement and indirect interference such as foreign aid. If we take seriously the idea that most wars are characterized by actors who benefit from the continuation of conflict, than we should strive to avoid intervention in the first place.

Granted, that's easier said than done. While Keen’s analysis highlights the various functions of war, it also makes clear why policies based on those insights are unlikely to be adopted. The massive existing edifice that benefits from a permanent state of conflict will also work against non-interventionist policies. This edifice includes the array of bureaucracies, contractors, consultants, and international organizations whose very existence is predicated on the continuation of conflict.

The way out of this situation is by no means simple or clear. But it will surely help for citizens to become more skeptical of governments' intentions when it comes to war. This would require the realization that international interventions, more often than not, do more to undermine citizen safety than to enhance it. Shifting public opinion requires the reiteration of Smedley Butler's message, and Useful Enemies does that nicely.

Christopher J. Coyne is F.A. Harper Professor of Economics at George Mason University. His website is ccoyne.com.

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  • LTC(ret) John||

    "Those who wish to orchestrate conflict often manipulate feelings of shame in order to attract soldiers and to give violence some sense of legitimacy."

    Eh? Seen any DoD recruiting ads lately? Not exactly young women running up and pinning the white feather on you if you ain't in.

    Our RoE aren't exactly all about giving excuse for violence either.

    (But I do see how these points apply to some really unfortunate situations in sub-Saharan Africa).

    I think current US war fighting is done quite right - its what we do afterward that is the great muddle. Had we strolled away, dusting our hands off, after smashing the Talib and said "OK, get yer sht together fellas" with a small dose of temporary aid... it would have been hard to argue against the effectiveness of such. Same, but slightly more in Iraq.

    The adjustment has to be in end state, post use of force.

  • DJF||

    A big part of the problem is the myth about the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after WW2. That is that the US and other countries had a big role in the rebuilding when in fact 99% of that rebuilding was done by the Germans and the Japanese.

    The biggest help the US gave to these countries was allowing access to outside markets and providing free defense which allowed these countries not only to put most of their efforts into the economy but also gave them a customers for their goods in supplying the US military. But the rest of the rebuilding was just that, rebuilding of what both countries had already shown that they could do, build a modern economy.

    In Afghanistan for example they are not rebuilding, they are trying to create and since the Afghanis don’t know how to do it then outside help by bureaucrats is not going to do it either. Especially since these bureaucrats don’t know how to do it, are only in country for a short time and have no personnel responsibility in relation to the outcome. The bureaucrats are judged based on whether they successfully followed the bureaucratic rules not on whether what they had done actually worked

  • hk||

    Not to mention the US kind of created two Communist hell holes after the war....

  • hk||

    Fuck any aid, you need my damn permission first.

    The whole point is that there should never be forced charity, and private markets do everything better than the government.

    Non-intervention is a great start though, and a pragmatic peaceful solution.

  • Jackand Ace||

    "Finally, conflict can serve a psychological function for those involved. For example, war is one means of remedying feelings of injustice and powerlessness."

    All analyzed very thoroughly in the book "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," by Chris Hedges.
    Sad that the number one supplier of arms that prolong all these wars around the globe is the United States (40% to 50%).

  • LTC(ret) John||

    So if combatants bought French or Russian or Chinese weapons, the conflicts would go away?

  • JoshSN||

    You know why I think Ronald Wilson Reagan was perhaps the most amoral man every to have been President, the most evil?

    Because during the Iran-Iraq War, as we all know, he was supplying one side with chemical weapons precursors isn't it. That's part of it.

    That he was also, at the same time supplying missiles to the Iranians, as part of the Iran-Contra Affair.

    It's like he walked into a bar, saw a fight, and gave both sides a broken bottle.

    In what has to be one of the odder coincidences in all of political history, one of the middle men in Iran-Contra was a Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. Theresa LePore, designed of the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, used to have been a flight attendant on his private airplanes.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    You did not answer the question - if the US never sold as much as a bullet again, would this end conflicts?

  • tarran||

    No, but it would probably reduce their intensity.

    And the American people would be vastly wealthier and better off.

  • hk||

    Indeed, that's the gist of it.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    if the US never sold as much as a bullet again, would this end conflicts?

    No, but it would probably reduce their intensity."

    US America should apply some of that same logic to the free-flowing handguns on your own streets.

  • Jackand Ace||

    To EWNC-
    You are right. As sadly evidenced this week.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    The butterfly ballot? Really, SN?

  • Jackand Ace||

    To LTC John-
    That has nothing to do with it. Your ethics are your ethics. Just because there is a market in mass murder, devastation, and wasted money does not mean that you have to take part in it.
    Its kind of like selling drugs around the world. One could say whats the difference, they just will get it from Afghanistan anyway.

  • JoshSN||

    Anything other than being able to freely sell heroin to 1st graders is tyranny!

    GO FREEDOM! FUCK SLAVERS!

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Sad that the number one supplier of arms that prolong all these wars around the globe is the United States (40% to 50%).

    The guns make them do it!

  • Jackand Ace||

    The guns ALLOW them to do it on a horrific scale.

  • Monty Crisco||

    You're sadly short-sighted. Blame the tools, but not the players. Rwanda showed that even if nobody has a gun, determined mass-murderers WILL find a way to kill the people they want to kill. Maybe we should ban knives and machetes? That will work! Because banning things ALWAYS works! Right? Prohibition worked! The war on drugs has succeeded GLORIOUSLY! And Mexico - with NO private legal ownership of firearms - has almost NO violent gun crime, right? This is the practiced IDIOCY of the left - assuming criminals will obey the law.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I have to say that I think the biggest factor in the prolongation of conflicts is the model of diplomacy which has us neither clobbering the enemy and then leaving nor actually conquering them either. So we kind of hang around, backing one side or another without actually being firm enough to produce a definite result, and things go from bad to worse.

    The 20th century saw the end of several colonial 'empires', but what followed does not fill me with warm and fuzzies. Frankly, it doesn't take all that many decades of intertribal genocide, famine as a tool of statecraft, religious murder, and revival of the slave trade to make Colonial Paternalism look awfully goddamned good.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    I have to say that the biggest factors are:

    1) The modern iteration of the white man's burden wherein our "elites" feel a need to police the world.

    2) The ways that borders have become sacrosanct. The truth is that most third world counties didn't exist even one hundred years ago. They were created to facilitate European domination often by dividing and conquering local populations.

    And yet somehow the boundaries of these artificial countries must be respected at all costs.

  • hk||

    Agreed, the defense of borders leads to Xenophobia in my opinion.

  • JoshSN||

    Either the author, or Keen, are over-emphasizing any collaboration between rebels and governments during the Mano River Wars (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote D'ivoire, and Guinea). I'm not saying individual field commanders didn't truck and trade with the enemy, but it certainly wasn't government policy.

    Higgs described the use of fear, he didn't "demonstrate" anything, in the linked paper. For example, just yesterday Judge Napolitano was describing, with some accuracy, how the United States was united by certain ideas, enshrined in certain 18th century documents. Those aren't documents of fear. Higgs overstates his case, which is convenient ammunition for anti-statists.

    I am pretty sure being against a standing army in peacetime is consistent with Keen's idea. What is a soldier who never goes to war? It's clear that most soldiers want at least one war in their lifetime. The way to split the difference, of course, is to have a trainer army, a military force that can, quite rapidly, train volunteers (or conscripts). Every soldier an instructor, in a small, peacetime, military.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "It's clear that most soldiers want at least one war in their lifetime."

    Wut?

    I sure didn't. I have known several hundred soldiers and can honestly say I know of exactly three that fit that description.

    Maybe you know different ones?

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    When I visited my brother at Fort Campbell after the first Gulf War, I will say that - to a man - his colleagues expressed regret at not having seen action like my brother did, and great enthusiasm to do so at some point in the future.

    Whether this was bravado, real, delusional - don't know. But they did indeed - to a man - express their wish to "be there" and fighting, and regret at getting there "too late".

    Frankly, I was impressed as hell. As I told my friends, "With these guys on the front lines, I have no concerns for the safety of the US in wartime."

    At least not from the soldiers...the politicians, on the other hand...:)

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "Whether this was bravado, real, delusional - don't know. But they did indeed - to a man - express their wish to "be there" and fighting, and regret at getting there "too late"."

    I think you can safely say that was a bit of post war bravado - a nice, quick, low casualty fight and home to a parade and chicks and free beer. I haven't run into anyone who wishes they could have been in a Verdun or Stalingrad type fight.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I imagine your brother was a bit more circumspect about it , or perhaps givng a bit of ribbing to them?

  • mad libertarian guy||

    I know a guy who joined at the height of the latest Iraq war specifically so he could "experience battle first-hand." Like it's some experience that one shouldn't go through life without having, or something.

    It's sick.

  • Not an Economist||

    I wonder if your brother's colleagues were wishing they got an opportunity to apply their training and not wishing for bloodshed. I could see how training for years for something and not being able to use it could be somewhat distressing to some people.

  • JoshSN||

    You were in the US military, perhaps? There hasn't been a decade without a war, so it is hard to understand.

    Perhaps this quote from Thucydides will help, this speech is from Archidamus, the Spartan King, trying to discourage the Spartans from engaging in war. It begins...


    I have not lived so long, Lacedaemonians, without having had the experience of many wars, and I see those among you of the same age as myself, who will not fall into the common misfortune of longing for war from inexperience or from a belief in it advantage and its safety.

    (emphasis mine).

    It is, as Thucydides tells us Archidamus said, a "common" belief, especially among the young, and who are the great number of troops, the O5s or the E1 through E5s?

    Everything I've read said that, by age group, it was the young who were most pro-war during Vietnam, and the most pro-war during the Iraq War.

    Personally? When I was in we had Desert Fox. but I was a) in MOS school, and b) in an MOS which was far behind the front lines (TOW Tech, or Fire Control if you were Army). I remember everyone standing around the TV when the news first came out and you are right that no one, or maybe one person, expressed a desire for war.

    But a lifetime in a peacetime military (something no one in American history has seen) is like a lifetime as a firefighter in a dirt field.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Those aren't documents of fear. Higgs overstates his case, which is convenient ammunition for anti-statists.

    No you are wrong and Higgs is correct.

    That is unless you are arguing that American attitudes towards government and the extent of government power today are just like they were in 1790.

    America's bureaucratic state grew directly from war. WWI, WWII, the Cold War and the War on Terror have been used to completely transform the size and scope of our government, eroding the freedom of the American people to a progressively greater extent under the guise of keeping us safe.

  • Not an Economist||

    I guess if you ignore welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the EPA, the IRS, and all the other bureacratic entities the yes I guess you could say everything results from war.

    Personally, I don't.

  • SusanM||

    Looking at it through that light you can maybe say that those organizations help promote regimentation and control of the populace...

  • hk||

    War is a big component in our spending, and it is some of the most immoral, I'd say.

    It is better to ween ourselves off war.

  • hk||

    *wean

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Shortly thereafter American entered WWII during which War Socialism was perfected including nuggets such as:
    a) income tax withholding (as a temporary emergency measure of course)
    b) wage and price controls that inadvertently created employer provided healthcare, the source of our current dysfunctional healthcare system.
    c) Wickard v Filburn establishing the ability of the federal government to regulate anything for any reason. I think it's a real question whether SCOTUS would have ruled the way that they did if the ruling had not happened in the early stages of WWII. The war effort would have been seriously set back had they overturned Wickard, and I'm sure that that was a factor in their decision.

    WWII ended in due time and so did War Socialism, or most of it. Notably not ended was income tax withholding from wages and employer provided healthcare was mad permanent via changes in the tax code. Also, the abomination of Wickard and Korematsu stood, meaning that the federal power was essentially unlimited.

    Shortly thereafter the Cold War began, with a few real hot local wars as an early feature. Extending American imperialism in the form of entangling alliance with forward military bases around the world. A permanent military industrial complex and intelligence spying complex were the foundations of the Cold War.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Fucking squirrels.

  • JoshSN||

    If Wickard had gone against the government, very little would have changed. The Court could have constrained the extent of their opinion to activities which take place solely on private property. There wouldn't have been that many farmers so keen to avoid backing the war effort that it would have made much of a difference, or, thinking of it another way, overall production of vital war materielle wouldn't have gone down much.

    As for health care, this is one of the worst Congresses in history. It's no surprise they can't legislate a fix to the health care issue.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    I guess if you ignore welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the EPA, the IRS, and all the other bureacratic entities the yes I guess you could say everything results from war.

    No I'm not ignoring them and neither does Higgs.

    The fact is that all of those things have a direct lineage to various War's of America, in that the structures created to fight 20th century wars were not dismantled after those wars ended, but instead were put to other uses.

    Specifically,

    Wilson created War Socialism to mobilize for and prosecute WWI in which bureaus of the federal government directed industry and suppressed dissent. And of course those features were left in place after the armistice.

    Fortunately Harding ended all of that nonsense quickly after his election in the fall of 1920. However, the top men of the time, including Herbert Hoover and FDR thought that national direction of the economy was a nifty idea and jumped at the chance to reimplement it during the depression of the 1930s. Which ironically enough was deepened and lengthed by that vary intervention. It was in that environment that social security was initiated.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Shortly thereafter American entered WWII during which War Socialism was perfected including nuggets such as:
    a) income tax withholding (as a temporary emergency measure of course)
    b) wage and price controls that inadvertently created employer provided healthcare, the source of our current dysfunctional healthcare system.
    c) Wickard v Filburn establishing the ability of the federal government to regulate anything for any reason. I think it's a real question whether SCOTUS would have ruled the way that they did if the ruling had not happened in the early stages of WWII. The war effort would have been seriously set back had they overturned Wickard, and I'm sure that that was a factor in their decision.

    WWII ended in due time and so did War Socialism, or most of it. Notably not ended was income tax withholding from wages and employer provided healthcare was mad permanent via changes in the tax code. Also, the abomination of Wickard and Korematsu stood, meaning that the federal power was essentially unlimited.

    Shortly thereafter the Cold War began, with a few real hot local wars as an early feature. Extending American imperialism in the form of entangling alliance with forward military bases around the world. A permanent military industrial complex and intelligence spying complex were the foundations of the Cold War.

  • hk||

    I don't really give a shit what 18th century documents the founders believed in.

    The point is modern Libertarians are superior, and the Constitution is an outdated document with amorphous prose.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    You say "ammunition for anti-statists" like it's a bad thing.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    For example, war is one means of remedying feelings of injustice and powerlessness.

    Without disputing the analyses in the article, is there no room in the conclusions for why we fight that maybe sometimes it's not just remedy feelings of injustice?

  • Not an Economist||

    The article sort of implies that the old models of war are wrong and so we can ignore their points. I think it would be more accurate to say war is never simple and their are positive and negative consequences to any action we take or for that matter don't take. And the sort term consequences can be different than long term consequences.

    I think the writer of the article (and maybe the book) may be making the same mistakes he claims other people are making.

  • Not an Economist||

    Whoops --short term not sort term

    Hit submit instead of preview.

  • hk||

    I think the writer is mostly spot on, there are few positive benefits to war unless you were attacked first.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Humanity occasionally must protect itself from the proven potential of demise. The issue I have with this is a LOT of people are perfectly willing to be slaughtered, maimed, or mentally destroyed over a threat of potential demise that cannot be PROVEN.

    I don't see how shouldering a powerful machine gun and firing it into remote villages at designated enemies rubbing shoulders with innocents is a useful application of collective human intelligence and self-preservation.

    Way fucking more should be required of people who authorize and wage war. I'm not anti-war. I'm intensely critical of the military mindset which is quintessentially paranoid and antagonistic.

  • hk||

    Clearly the military is over0subsidized, because the central planners manage everything poorly.

    To have the most efficient military, you would have to acquire military funding in a volitional manner, imo. But the central planners will not allow that.

    If we want Peace we need to stop forcing people to pay for our wars.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    To have the most efficient military, you would have to acquire military funding in a volitional manner, imo. But the central planners will not allow that.

    If we want Peace we need to stop forcing people to pay for our wars.

    Hence, the creation of a central bank to fund wars after New England refused to financially support the War of 1812.

  • hk||

    over-subsidized I meant.

  • Ron Perlman||

    Because war... War never changes.

  • Tor Hershman||

    War? Red Coral, White Coral, Black Ants, Brown Ants, methinks I've got War Peace pretty well summed in me wee video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LubuSAgB5s

    SOGS,
    Tor

  • daltonallan||

    just as Bryan said I'm shocked that any one can earn $5316 in four weeks on the computer. have you read this site makecash16com

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