This was a terriffic book. I found myself, time after time, having to refrain from hilighting passages because I quite literally could have marked up entire pages. It was that good.
What’s the book about? It’s about how war created what we know as the nation state. The modern state with it’s massive bureaucracy and albatrossian tax apparatus was born in war. These aspects were direct results of the need to better orchestrate the numerous wars of post-medieval Europe. And the same goes for social welfare programs. Manifest originally to take care of war veterans, state-run welfare programs always enjoyed their biggest boon during and shortly after war-time.
The structure of the book is simply a chronology of European wars from around 1400 to World War II. The focus then shifts to the United States, starting with the Revolution and going through World War II. There is some mention of more modern wars like Vietnam, but the American state was well established at that point.
Is this an anti-war book? No. But, neither is it pro-war. It is, in my opinion, a very unbiased look at just what role warfare has played in bringing about the kind of government we take for granted today. Government didn’t always look this way. And it was war that created it. He soundly proves that thesis.
Some choice quotes:
A final paradox of war, one that is peculiar to democracies and especially to the American case, is what might be called the Liberal-Conservative Conundrum: liberal and reform-minded political leaders abhor war, but recognize the opportunity it presents for social reform; conservatives revere military institutions and traditions, but are often wary of actual conflict, sensing its potential for revolutionary change. In twentieth-century America, Democratic presidents have gone to war more readily and more often than their Republican counterparts. American political dialogue also reveals the irony of promilitary conservatives railing against Big Government, while forgetting that coercive taxation and bureaucratic organization are the sine qua non of funding and equipping armed forces in the industrial age. Conversely, anti-military liberals embrace the power of the state to accomplish social ends, but are not always mindful of the military origins of that power.
–Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State
…the military power required to defend against foreign aggression can easily be turned to internal repression. A government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights, a triumph of raw power abetted by conditions of large-scale violence.
James Madison stated it succinctly in 1795: Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the fewÉ. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Victory in civil wars was thus a crucial factor in the formation of centralized states, for only by establishing the unassailable fact of their authority could states assert the internal sovereignty that is characteristic of modern polities.
he observed that in wartime “you can build in two weeks a bureaucracy which would take years to accumulate in peacetime, so you can actually watch the plants grow and proliferate.”
The German lands fell into a nether world of utter depravity where brutality, torture, rape, and even cannibalism became common-place place. Historians once estimated that the Germanic states had lost as much as 33 percent of their urban and 40 percent of their rural populations. Recent studies suggest that the losses were closer to 15 to 20 percent. This still amounts to a loss of nearly 4 million lives, more than in any other European war prior to the twentieth century.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the European imperial powers embarked on a feeding frenzy, annexing over 10 million square miles of territory, including most of Africa, and bringing 84 percent of the world’s terrain under European dominion.
The descent of the imperialist powers in Africa into an abyss of limitless violence was made easier by the incapacity of white Europeans to regard black Africans as equal human beings. The lamentable reality is that forty years prior to the Jewish holocaust of World War II, smaller and lesser-known African holocausts inured a generation of European soldiers and mercenaries to genocide, and shaped a European mindset that not only accepted but approved the extermination of Untermenschen (sub humans); the first to be so labeled were black Africans and white Boers.
In modern political systems, the main counterweight to centralized power accumulating indefinitely is civil society: the vast complex of traditional and private institutions such as universities, churches, professional associations, cultural organizations, trade unions, private clubs, and business firms, all of which wield sufficient social influence to resist encroaching state power.