Commentary Magazine


War, by Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla

Preserving the Peace

War: Ends and Means.
by Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla.
Basic Books. 306 pp. $19.95.

American political culture lacks a discriminating discourse on the nature of war, its varieties, its causes and purposes, its uses as an instrument of policy. In order to help break this “spell of ignorance,” as they put it, Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla, respectively a professor of political science at Berkeley and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, have written a sort of librum belli for the lay reader.

Unfortunately, the book is not as persuasive as it could be. The authors jump from century to century, dipping into the Punic Wars and the exploits of Cesare Borgia (one of their favorites) to support flying generalizations. Nor do they quite have the fluency in history to carry this off. Leaving aside errors in dates and details, there are some dubious assertions about, to take a number of instances, the nature of British rule in India, about the course of Asian history, and, closer to home, about the American economy.

But the main thesis of the book—namely, that only by thinking hard about the possibility of war, about its ends and its means, can we hope to ensure the possibility of peace—is both energetically argued and compelling. It is also singularly unfashionable, at a time when peace is considered an end in itself, to be secured at any cost. During last year’s presidential election campaign, candidates—Jack Kemp was an exception—outdid one another in offering banal assurances about peace to hearty applause from their audiences. Yet as Seabury and Codevilla argue, since 1900 peace has been a bigger killer than war, mostly as a result of genocide by totalitarian governments. There may still be people in the world—the Israelis come to mind—who understand that in order to avoid such a peace they may have to choose war. But in Western Europe and the United States those with a similar understanding are few indeed.

On their way to documenting their major thesis the authors make many important and cold-eyed points about the likely nature of war in the future. Thus, according to Seabury and Codevilla, nuclear weapons have become so accurate that they can now be used selectively as elements of a war-fighting strategy rather than simply as tokens of mutually suicidal intentions. Such weapons are, in fact, an extremely efficient way of delivering explosive power at whatever level is needed, and at low yields the collateral damage they cause can be less than the effects of American and British bombing raids in World War II. Relatively small howitzers deployed on the Central European front could fire nuclear shells with a yield of one kiloton to disable enemy troops within a radius of 1,000 feet, not much more than a city block. They could also be used to prevent massed tank attack, or, like old-fashioned artillery, to clear a path for an assault by troops in anti-contamination suits.

In short, there is no longer a threshold between conventional and nuclear weapons. The two categories are already fully integrated and can be deployed together in all kinds of mixes. Yet this, as Seabury and Codevilla stress, is not understood in the Western democracies, where the myth persists that a single red button is all that lies between the survival and the extinction of mankind.

Even American military planners have been slow to adapt, with the result that American capability on land has become seriously jeopardized. While, for example, Soviet and Israeli battlefield intelligence centers are either mobile or bunkered, American systems remain sitting ducks to the new generations of accurate missiles. This would not be so critical if the U.S. had proper air defenses, but Washington has twisted itself into knots over the question of antimissile defense while the Soviets, by contrast, are already deploying mobile SA-12s that can intercept a cruise missile in flight.

The vulnerability of ships, air bases, command-and-control centers, etc. puts a premium on preemptive attack. “The ability of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to destroy much of the defender’s infrastructure and thus prejudice the outcome of a war in its opening minutes is an enormous incentive to shoot first.” If the authors are correct about this, we may be headed toward disaster, as social-democratic parties in Western Europe have latched on to the facile concept of a purely “defensive defense,” which would deny NATO the capability of an immediate counterattack, the only chance of saving the day.

The belief underlying this drift, Seabury and Codevilla write, is that wars are caused by misunderstandings rather than by calculated aggression, and can therefore be avoided by efforts to overcome such misunderstandings by assuaging the supposedly aggrieved party. There may be occasions when this is in fact the case, but the 20th century has mostly shown that when democracies make unilateral gestures to militaristic regimes, it either has no effect or incites them to further belligerence. “When we build they build, when we stop they build,” remarked then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown apropos the Soviet response to the military budgets of the Carter administration. Something similar had happened during the Anglo-German naval rivalry before World War I, when the liberal government in Britain halved the production of Dreadnoughts in the mistaken belief that the German naval buildup was a defensive reaction. As for World War II, the catastrophe of appeasing Hitler speaks for itself.

Only deterrence prevents conflict with hostile regimes bent on changing the status quo, and the art of deterrence consists in being believed. In a very good chapter on political warfare, Seabury and Codevilla recount the repeated failure of the United States either to take credible measures or to inspire fear that such measures would be taken. A pitiful example of this occurred when President Carter ordered a squadron of F-15 fighters to the Persian Gulf in order to bolster the Saudis after the Iranian revolution in 1979, but sent them unarmed so as not to give offense. In Vietnam the problem was different: the United States committed more than enough weaponry to crush the North Vietnamese but did not use it with a clear will to win. America has acquired a reputation for not seeing through its commitments, and one defeat invites the next, from Nicaragua to the Middle East.

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What about the conviction that war has become obsolete? The notion that man is becoming too civilized for another major war has been popping up for the last couple of millennia. It became the intellectual credo of the 1920′s and 1930′s after the Great War, the “war to end all wars.” Yet even before this fatal delusion had reached its apogee, the world had already fallen prey to two of the greatest monsters in human history. A generation later we hear the same talk about the impossibility of war, this time on account of commerce, travel, instant communication, the shrinking globe, and other such factors that have supposedly brought us together and are putting an end to the misunderstandings that used to “cause” wars. And if all that is not enough, there is now the myth of the terminal threat posed by nuclear weapons.

But no weapons will ever keep the peace. So long as man remains the natural predator of other men, homo homini lupus, the only hope for avoiding war—as Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla demonstrate—is sound diplomacy and sound defense, just as it always has been.

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