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Abandon All Unwinnable Wars

  • VietnamHelicopters.jpg

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyInterventionism

05/29/2007Gary Galles

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid triggered a flurry of partisan attacks and counterattacks with his statement that "this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything." Perhaps most striking about his assertion that we ought to abandon rather than escalate a war that cannot be won is how inconsistently it is applied. There are a host of government sponsored domestic "wars" to which that same argument applies, yet they get escalated rather than ended.

This is illustrated by some politicians' intense opposition to the Iraq war, because of its negative consequences, while at the same time, those same people call every new domestic policy initiative of theirs a war, in order to galvanize support for it. In fact, war imagery may be the most commonly abused analogy in politics.

We have heard that "war is hell," "all's fair in love and war," and "war is politics by other means" (any combination of which illustrates the risks of compounding imperfect analogies). We heard that the 1970s oil crisis was the moral equivalent of war (although government price controls did far more damage than OPEC, making one wonder who declared war on American citizens). And government wars have been declared on every problem, from drugs and crime to poverty and illiteracy.

Unfortunately, the imagery of urgency, resolve and "giving all we've got" for the good of the country doesn't match the policies actually implemented or their effects on taxpayers' pockets and citizens' liberties. Rather, declarations of such "wars" are often just dramatic rhetoric used to promote politicians' pet programs, which do more harm than good, such as the vast invasions of property and privacy, as well as increases in violence and corruption, triggered by the unwinnable but frequently escalated War on Drugs.

War imagery is invoked to show determination to win. But as Senator Reid and others assert with regard to Iraq, shooting wars have no winners; just those who lose more and those who lose less as casualties mount. However, the casualties caused are the last thing social "war on X" supporters ever discuss, although any honest evaluation would find many casualties, as with large public housing projects which became "instant slums" or the litany of failed training programs promoted as part of the War on Poverty.

Wars also end with a formal surrender. But government wars on poverty, drugs, etc., can never be won in a similar way. If a belief that the war in Iraq cannot be won is a reason to end it, it is equally a reason to end those domestic wars.

Because of its powerful emotional impact, war imagery and language is also abused in other ways that would make George Orwell proud.

We hear of "trade wars" in language implying that they are contests between domestic and foreign producers, so that protectionism for "our" firms against "their" firms sounds sensible. However, both buyers and sellers expect to gain by trading, or they would not voluntarily participate, so that trade creates wealth (which is why every defensible study of protectionism finds that it destroys wealth). Protectionism, in fact, is an alliance between domestic producers and the government declaring war on domestic consumers to force them to pay higher prices.

Those in Washington who constantly reiterate their opposition to a war they say can't be won are the same people who propose wars to "solve" every other crisis (often caused by their "solution" to some earlier alleged crisis). But those policy wars are never won either. Rather than being given up as unwinnable, they get escalated, expanding government encroachment on our shrinking freedoms, with increasingly adverse effects. Adding more government intervention in virtually every aspect of our lives because politicians who oppose war call everything else a war, cannot stand up to careful examination.

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