The Worth of War

The Worth of War

by Benjamin Ginsberg

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Although war is terrible and brutal, history shows that it has been a great driver of human progress. So argues political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg in this incisive, well-researched study of the benefits to civilization derived from armed conflict. Ginsberg makes a convincing case that war selects for and promotes certain features of societies that are generally held to represent progress. These include rationality, technological and economic development, and liberal forms of government.

Contrary to common perceptions that war is the height of irrationality, Ginsberg persuasively demonstrates that in fact it is the ultimate test of rationality. He points out that those societies best able to assess threats from enemies rationally and objectively are usually the survivors of warfare. History also clearly reveals the technological benefits that result from war—ranging from the sundial to nuclear power. And in regard to economics, preparation for war often spurs on economic development; by the same token, nations with economic clout in peacetime usually have a huge advantage in times of war. Finally, war and the threat of war have encouraged governments to become more congenial to the needs and wants of their citizens because of the increasing reliance of governments on their citizens’ full cooperation in times of war.

However deplorable the realities of war are, the many fascinating examples and astute analysis in this thought-provoking book will make readers reconsider the unmistakable connection between war and progress.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616149512
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 836 KB

About the Author

Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.  He is the author of more than twenty books, including The Value of Violence; How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism; The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters; Do the Jews Have a Future in America?; and Political Science as Public Philosophy, co-edited with Gwendolyn Mink.

Read an Excerpt

The Worth of War


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Benjamin Ginsberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-951-2



Organized warfare is among the most common and persistent of human activities. Yet, war is usually said to be irrational, even a manifestation of collective insanity. In his eloquent 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church in New York, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, "Somehow this madness [of war] must cease." War is brutal but it would, nevertheless, be incorrect to say that war generally exemplifies or fosters irrational thinking. Quite the contrary. As terrible as it is, war and the possibility of war exert considerable pressure upon societies to think and plan logically in order to protect their security interests and, sometimes, their very existence. War, as Thucydides remarked, is a harsh teacher. Those societies unable or unwilling to engage in logical thinking and planning are not likely to survive what might be called the audit of war. Over time, moreover, war not only promotes rational thought in the security sphere but produces a spillover effect into other realms, as well. The fields of planning and engineering, for example, as well as bureaucratic forms of organization, all have military roots. Indeed, far from representing or promoting irrational thinking, war tests the validity of assumptions, penalizes errors in judgment and, above all, severely punishes those who engage in actions based upon fanciful or magical thinking.

Consider the example of the Lakota "Ghost Shirt." During the 1880s, some members of the Lakota Sioux came to practice a version of the "Ghost Dance" ritual they believed would restore the power and prominence of Native Americans and halt the spread of white settlements. Associated with this ritual was the wearing of Ghost Shirts, apparently inspired by Mormon Temple garments, that were supposed to possess magical properties, including the ability to stop bullets. A battle between a band of Lakota and a contingent of heavily armed US cavalry troopers culminated in the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the last battle of America's so-called Indian Wars. Whatever else they may have demonstrated, the carbines of the cavalry rather conclusively proved that religious rituals and Ghost Shirts offered no protection from bullets. In this example, war definitively refuted a form of magical thinking that had been gaining adherents among Native American tribes for a number of years. Absent the harsh audit of war, the magic of the Ghost Dance apparently had been attractive and plausible to tens of thousands of individuals. After the Wounded Knee battle, Ghost Dancing and magical Ghost Shirts fell from favor, having failed a rather significant reality test.

Delusory thinking may, as in the foregoing example, derive from religious sources, but it is certainly not limited to religious roots. Political leaders and policy makers, to say nothing of ordinary citizens, have also been known to engage in what might be seen as mundane forms of magical thinking. These are characterized by a rigid adherence to beliefs and preconceptions without evidence or even despite strong evidence to the contrary, a propensity to evaluate information through the lens of belief rather than the converse, a tendency to act upon the basis of accepted dogmas rather than objective facts, and an effort to achieve impossible goals. These secular or mundane forms of magical thought are often expressed as blind faith in leaders, stubborn adherence to ideologies, and fervid loyalty to institutions and institutional norms. Such beliefs are effectively ensorcelled and can be extremely resistant to rational examination. A minor but well-known example of this sort of magical thinking is the case of partisanship in the United States. Even America's rather shopworn Democratic and Republican parties seem to have many zealous adherents. Quite a few of these partisan loyalists are more likely to evaluate information through the lens or perceptual screen of their own party identification than to reevaluate their party affiliation on the basis of events and facts. Reflexive partisan loyalty is said to lead some Americans to vote against their own objective economic or other interests.


Humans are quite capable of many forms of foolish and fantastic thinking. Superstitions, for example, are widespread among Americans. Some take seriously the idea of demons and witches. Many claim to perceive causal forces in accidental events, impute supernatural or charismatic agency to mundane phenomena, and are convinced they apprehend mystical patterns in random occurrences. Some psychologists have argued that this tendency is hardwired into the human brain. Many, if not most, superstitions are harmless. A few moments of prayer can provide comfort and catharsis. A lucky charm or amulet can offer comfort to a frightened person.

Unfortunately, in addition to harmless personal superstitions, millions of individuals are also willing to accept the various fantasies often devised by political elites to justify their own efforts to secure or retain power. Political life is filled with both secular and religious dogmas that seem dubious, even nonsensical, when viewed from the outside but make perfect sense when understood as creeds espoused by some ruling group to justify its grip on power. Such belief systems could be said to possess political but not objective validity.

Political leaders know that many ordinary individuals can easily become enthralled by high-minded if vacuous ideals, religious ideas, communal or national loyalties, or, for that matter, racial and ethnic hatreds. Elites, often cynically, see in such ideas powerful tools for mobilizing and maintaining popular followings. Thus, even elites whose own piety or patriotic commitments, for example, are weak may find reason to publicly preach religion and nationalism. In the United States, in recent years, many Republicans have publicly courted the support of religious conservatives while privately calling them "goofy" or "the nuts." So often in politics, principles serve as vehicles for interests.

Take, for example the Incan practice of ancestor worship. The Incas believed that their apparently dead rulers were actually immortal. The carefully preserved mummies of these rulers, moreover, retained property rights. Because of this belief a substantial fraction of the empire's lands and labor were devoted to the production of goods for the benefit of long-deceased and mummified rulers who were displayed on ceremonial occasions. Viewed from the outside, this belief seems rather foolish, if not macabre. The royal mummies, despite their occasional public outings, were quite dead. For one group in the empire, however, a strong and widespread belief in the continuing life, and especially the property rights, of the royal mummies was quite rational. Ancestor worship was assiduously promoted by portions of the higher Incan aristocracy, the panaqa, who served as the caretakers of the royal mummies and the guardians of their earthly interests. This position meant that members of the panaqa were the actual beneficiaries of the property rights nominally belonging to the royal mummies. Members of the panaqa also helped to articulate the advice and counsel of the mummies when important imperial decisions were to be made and the royal mummies seemed to have difficulty speaking for themselves. In short, for the panaqa, ancestor worship was as much a political and economic interest as a religious principle. Some members of the Incan aristocracy apparently did not actually believe in the immortality of the royal mummies. For most, nevertheless, defending this belief system was both a political and moral imperative.

Despite their lack of objective validity, ideas that serve the interests of important elites and are promoted by them can acquire social momentum, diffuse through a society and become ensorcelled to the point that their instrumental origins are nearly forgotten. Thus, in eleventh-century Europe, the idea of a crusade to free the Holy Land arguably originated from political struggles within the Church and between the Church and secular rulers who had begun to challenge its authority. Over the next two centuries, though, the idea of crusading captured the imaginations of members of the nobility as well as commoners, becoming a religious responsibility as well as a political stratagem. In a similar vein, the Spanish Inquisition was initially as much a political as a religious enterprise launched by Ferdinand and Isabella to enhance royal power and to cement the fragile unity of the newly established Spanish state. Over the next century, however, the Inquisition took on a life of its own, engulfing Spanish society in several waves of denunciations and investigations in what appeared to be a never-ending effort to define, identify, and root out religious heresy.


In folklore, magical beings could not tolerate the touch of iron swords. Similarly, societies that have become prone to magical thinking are likely to be caught short in the audit of war. Unless vigorously challenged, widespread magical thinking and more mundane forms of fantasy can persist for decades—if not centuries. But war, sometimes even preparation for war, subjects unexamined beliefs and dogmas to a severe stress test. Will the incantations of the priests ensure a nation's success? On the battlefield, as Napoleon observed, God usually tends to support the side possessing the best artillery. Is a hallowed bureaucratic routine such as the "Navy Way" really the best way? The events of December 7, 1941, suggested that faith in the Navy Way of that era, at least, might have been misplaced. Will a socialist economy produce material and weapons likely to "bury" capitalism, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once declared? The disappearance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the world map during its arms race with the United States suggests that this belief was not well founded.

Even the harsh audit of war is not a perfect device for separating fact from fable, but it comes close. Perhaps more than any other social force, war has the power to test and refute ensorcelled beliefs. In war, the punishment for irrational thinking and action can be extremely harsh—defeat and death. In war, those societies that tend to base their actions upon one or another form of fantasy, whether religious or secular in origin, are apt to find themselves in what Trotsky liked to call the "dustbin of history." Rationality does not guarantee victory, particularly against equally astute foes, but lunacy is usually a sure pathway to defeat.

It is important to note that there is a difference between magical thinking and erroneous thinking. States may certainly go to war on the basis of errors and miscalculations and will almost certainly make mistakes during wars. Ordinary errors and miscalculations, though, are subject to corrections based upon observed facts. Sometimes, albeit not always, these corrections come in time to save the day. The Soviet leadership, for example, was fairly certain that the Germans would not attack in 1941 and quite confident that an attack, if it came, would be repulsed at the border by the Soviet Army. When both these ideas proved disastrously false, Stalin and his lieutenants revised their thinking and planning, evacuated Soviet military industry to the Urals, and began to assemble new armies to replace the ones that had been shattered by the Wehrmacht. Magical thinking, on the other hand, is often not amenable to reconsideration based on new facts and information. Instead, facts are likely to be interpreted through the lens of belief. As we shall see below, while the Russians revised their strategy, throughout the war German leaders continued to view the world through the lens of Nazi ideology, a form of magical thinking that proved to be ruinous.

War tends to unmask and refute magical thinking. States that are not rational actors, to use the vocabulary of contemporary strategic theory, are likely to engage in war without carefully weighing their chances of success or the potential costs and benefits of their actions. Such conduct is often a product of the political rather than objective validity of their ideas. Engaging in warfare may make sense in terms of some set of internal considerations even though it is objectively foolish. The result of such conduct is often quite disastrous. Whatever their reasons for launching wars, irrational actors are also apt to engage in wartime practices that reduce their chance of victory.

Consider the example of the aforementioned Incas. The fact that deceased former rulers retained the rights to a large portion of their royal estates meant that the agricultural land and income available to the living current ruler of the Inca empire were reduced. Efforts, moreover, to limit the property rights of the royal mummies were fiercely resisted by the panaqa. The solution to this problem, from the imperial perspective, was the continual annexation of new lands that would produce income for the current emperor rather than the royal mummies. Of course, with the eventual death of the emperor a portion of these new lands, too, would belong to a mummy, leaving the next emperor with the same problem and the same solution—the conquest of new territories. During the fifteenth century, the Inca empire expanded substantially as successive rulers launched wars of annexation against surrounding polities.

Though initially successful, after several decades this imperial policy of conquest and annexation undermined the Inca state. By the end of the fifteenth century, the empire had come to occupy most of the arable land in the region, including the Central Andean coast and highlands. Further expansion meant penetrating the Amazonian rain forests east of the Andes Mountains. These forests were inhabited by fierce, primitive tribes who, along with the tropical heat and diseases, took an enormous toll on Incan armies sent to secure the region. Such land as could be occupied, moreover, proved difficult to cultivate and impossible to administer from the Inca capital of Cuzco. The cost of subduing and garrisoning these lands was far greater than the revenue they produced for the royal treasury, leading to a fiscal crisis for the crown. The military demands of garrisoning the new territories, moreover, depleted Incan strength in other portions of the realm, opening the way for many revolts among subject peoples. In these ways, the program of military expansion, launched because of a peculiar religious belief, proved ruinous.

In the early sixteenth century, the newly installed emperor Huáscar attempted to solve the problem of the royal mummies once and for all by stripping deceased rulers of their property rights. Huáscar declared that the mummies should be buried and their lands taken over by the state. This decree was, of course, deeply resented by the panaqa, which had much to lose from the elimination of the property rights of the dead rulers. Accusing Huáscar of blasphemy and heresy, some members of the panaqa launched a revolt and sought to replace the emperor with his half-brother, Atahuallpa, who controlled the Incan army in Ecuador. The resulting civil war lasted three years and was won by Atahuallpa, but, before he could be crowned, Francisco Pizarro and his band of 168 adventurers arrived. Pizarro was able to exploit the continuing political and ethnic divisions in the already-shattered empire to bring it under Spanish control. Over the next decade, the Spaniards hunted and destroyed the royal mummies, which they saw as symbols of Incan resistance to Spanish rule.

Thus, decades of warfare prompted by a species of magical thinking undermined the empire of the Incas and left it vulnerable to conquest by a handful of conquistadors. The empire's endless wars may have made sense on the basis of purely internal political and religious considerations, but it was objectively foolish.

During roughly the same period of time, the Aztec empire located far to the north of the Inca domain was also engaged in endless warfare prompted by magical thinking. In the fifteenth century, the Aztecs expanded from the island of Tenochtitlan in Lake Texcoco to the control of a large empire centered in what is now the southern portion of Mexico. Like that of the Incas, Aztec imperial expansion was driven by magical thinking. The Aztecs believed that they were the chosen people of the sun, and that it was their duty to keep the sun alive by providing him with human blood—in particular, the blood of captured warriors, "the precious liquid," that would strengthen the sun and save the universe from destruction. The source of this liquid, needed by the priests in large quantities, was the sacrifice of living victims, generally prisoners captured in war. Since major ceremonies required the sacrifice of thousands, even tens of thousands of persons, Aztec armies were compelled to engage in constant warfare and expansion of the borders of the empire to capture the requisite numbers of enemy warriors.


Excerpted from The Worth of War by BENJAMIN GINSBERG. Copyright © 2014 Benjamin Ginsberg. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: War, Peace, and Progress, 9,
1. War as an Agent of Rationality, 15,
2. War and Technological Progress, 59,
3. Why War Mitigates Governmental Brutality, 93,
4. War and Economic Progress: Has the United States Lost Its Immunity to Imperial Overreach?, 129,
5. Beating Swords into Malign Plowshares: Surveillance, Secrecy, and Popular Government, 169,
Conclusion: The Truths of War, 211,
Notes, 221,
Index, 239,

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