The Nature of War:  An Interview with Burrus M. Carnahan

The Nature of War:  An Interview with Burrus M. Carnahan

Sara Gabbard:  A friend told me that a college professor once told the class that money is the only real cause of war throughout history.  Do you agree? 

Burrus Carnahan: No. For one thing, war is much older than money. In Western civilization, money, in the form of coins with an official, government-certified value, seems to have originated in the kingdom of Lydia, in what is today western Turkey, in the sixth century BC. (Historians believe the Lydian kings developed coinage as a convenient way to pay mercenary soldiers, so they were already fighting wars before they had money.) Wars have been recorded in Mesopotamia and Egypt going back to the early third millennium BC, and there is worldwide archaeological evidence of war in pre-literate societies farther back than that. War was common among high civilizations of Pre-Columbian America, even though they never developed monetary economies.

So, if not for money, then what did people fight over? The Prussian thinker Karl von Clausewitz concluded that war was the continuation of politics by other means. If so, then almost any dispute over political power could be the cause of a war, including property claims, greed for resources, or intangibles like ideology, religion, or even honor.

Take our Civil War as an example. Historians agree that slavery was the ultimate cause of the war, but what does that really tell us? Did the Confederates go to war to protect their property rights in human beings? President Lincoln had given repeated assurances that he had neither the intent nor the power to interfere with slavery where it existed, so any Republican threat to slave property was long-term, hardly a rational cause for immediately taking up arms. It seems more likely that southern whites were simply tired of being told that their core institution was immoral, and were ultimately fighting for honor as they understood it. The North also fought for an idea, the concept of Union, though for many that may have changed to include abolition of slavery after 1863.

SG:  What are the most important changes (weapons, tactics, strategy, fortifications) in the history of warfare? 

BC:  As far as land warfare is concerned, I’d focus on five developments: the taming of the horse, the invention and application of gunpowder, the invention of the machine gun, the internal combustion engine, and finally, of course, the development of nuclear weapons. The development of cavalry, initially in the form of bronze-age chariot warfare, increased the speed of tactical movement and reconnaissance as well as the impact of shock on enemy formations. Infantry tactics responded, of course, and the pendulum swung between infantry and cavalry as the dominant force on the battlefield until horse cavalry was finally rendered obsolete in the 20th century.

Until the gunpowder revolution, fighting was an intensely personal experience; the soldier had to literally look his enemy in the eye to kill him. Archery was useful for causing attrition to enemy forces but, with a few exceptions, was not decisive through most of history. Also, it required years of practice to become an effective archer. On the other hand most soldiers could be quickly trained to handle the musket. Muskets and cannon allowed killing at a distance, expanding the area of the potential battlefield; decisive attacks might be delivered between forces that could barely see each other. Long-range artillery, missiles, and armed drones are the ultimate development of this trend so far. The next step may be the deployment of autonomous weapons systems (“killer robots,” as their opponents term them).

Application of the gunpowder revolution in the form of the machine gun and automatic weapons in general, led to the demise of cavalry and a radical transformation of infantry tactics. Mass, close-order infantry attacks became obsolete in World War I, and thereafter soldiers had to be trained to fight individually.

The internal combustion engine allowed for the development of armored fighting vehicles, such as tanks and the airplane. Both increased the speed of military deployments and the airplane expanded area of conflict to far behind enemy lines by opening war-supporting infrastructure to attack. Sometimes, as with the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, such attacks could lead to victory without deployment of ground troops. The importance attached to such strategic attacks led to the development of nuclear weapons. These raised the prospect that full-scale war between nuclear powers could be so destructive that neither side would be truly victorious.


SG: Please comment on the earliest mention of slavery that you have found.  Were most slaves acquired through war, or were some purchased?  Is there any evidence of slaves being emancipated in the ancient world?

BC:  As we understand the concept today, slavery means treating human beings as property, subject to total control by their owners. It is questionable, however, that this definition is useful in societies with pre-monetary economies. Egyptologists will be quick to tell you, quite properly, that the pyramids were not built by slaves. Nevertheless, the pharaohs, like other Middle Eastern and Far Eastern monarchs, had near total control of the labor of their peasant populations. Yet historians do not regard these low-status farmers as slaves.

Institutions we would recognize as slavery appear in the Middle East with the rise of large-scale warfare between competing empires of the second millennium BC. Records and royal monuments from Egypt, Assyria and elsewhere show captive peoples subjected to massive relocation and forced labor in the conqueror’s homeland. These unfortunates were often sold or given to royal favorites as private property. Among other legal documents from the period, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC) recognized that slaves had a different status from free persons, and could be sold like other property. While most slaves were war captives or their descendants, a free person could be enslaved for debt or as punishment for crime.

Offering freedom to an enemy’s slaves was a common tactic in ancient warfare. A prime example occurred during the Peloponnesian War between the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta. Athens is famous as the first democracy, but Sparta was a highly militarized oligarchy. While male Spartan citizens served as full-time soldiers, their farms were worked by a class of slaves known as helots. In 425 BC the Athenian navy seized an outpost on the Spartan coast at Pylos. This posed a direct threat to the Spartan regime as helots seeking freedom fled to the Athenian base. A botched attempt to recapture Pylos led to the capture of over a hundred Spartans, which in turn led to a negotiated peace favorable to Athens. (Unfortunately for the Athenians, this peace proved temporary.)

In the modern era, the earliest emancipation proclamation I have found was a 1697 Spanish decree offering freedom to any English slaves who could make it from the English colony of South Carolina to St. Augustine, capital of Spanish Florida. Though the countries were not at war, the Spanish claimed that the northern border of Florida extended all the way to Virginia, so in their view the English colonists were invaders. For the next 150 years, British, French and Spanish officials repeatedly offered freedom to enemy slaves during their colonial wars in the Americas.

SG:  Is there such a thing as a “Just War”… or is this concept simply in the eye of the beholder?

BC:  Today there is no universally accepted definition of a “just war.” During the Middle Ages, Christian and Islamic scholars developed sophisticated just war theories based on their respective theological doctrines. These theories addressed the just causes for war, the proper means for waging war, and identified which authorities had the legitimate right to declare war. In the West, however, religious just war doctrine lost much of its authority with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of rationalism under the 18th century Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophy attempted to establish its own just war doctrines based on “natural laws” discovered by pure reason. (The Declaration of Independence was an effort to apply this theory to the American Revolutionary War.)

In 19th century Europe natural law suffered a major setback. It was widely blamed for having led to the excesses of the French Revolution, and lost much of its intellectual prestige. By the late 1800s, Western international law and international relations theory virtually abandoned just war doctrine, focusing instead on limiting the means of warfare by treaties such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

Just war doctrine was revived following the Second World War. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials established the precedent that waging aggressive war was a violation of international law, and a crime for which the responsible individuals could be punished. This doctrine was codified in the Statute of the International Criminal Court (Treaty of Rome, 1998).

However, beyond the straightforward conquest of one state by another, there is little consensus on which wars are aggressive and which are defensive. Some scholars argue that armed “humanitarian interventions” to stop serious human rights violations are not illegal acts of aggression, while others reject this position.  Also, there is no generally accepted standard for the legitimate use of force by non-governmental bodies, such as so-called “national liberation movements.”

SG:  What is the history of the concept of legal punishment for “war criminals”?  Should there have been trials of Confederate leaders or would that have led to even greater trauma?

BC:  According to tradition, if an official of the ancient Roman Republic violated an agreement with the enemy during a war, he was to be turned over to the enemy for punishment. This rule may be little more than myth, however, since historical examples of its application are rare.

We are on firmer ground in the Middle Ages. At that time there was a body of rules known as “law of arms” binding on all members of the European military class, that is, knights and nobles. The law of arms codified the ideals of chivalry, and violations of that law could be punished by any prince or official having custody of the accused, regardless of nationality. While most such violations involved breaking an agreement or other dishonorable actions, there is at least one 15th century case where a knight serving the Grand Duke of Austria was captured and tried by the duke’s enemies for committing atrocities against the people of the city the knight governed. Prior to execution he was stripped of his knighthood for having violated the law of arms.

By the time of the Civil War, the Medieval law of arms had been succeeded by the international “laws and customs of war.” Many of its rules, such as the prohibition on using poison, derived directly from the old law of arms. With some reluctance, the Lincoln administration decided to treat the Confederate armed forces in accordance with the laws and customs of war, despite its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate government. In April of 1863 the Union army issued a general order summarizing the laws and customs of war for the guidance of its officers (Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, General Orders No. 100, 24 April 1863).  Article 59 of the order provided that a “prisoner of war remains answerable for his crimes committed against the captor’s army or people, committed before he was captured, and for which he has not been punished by his own authorities.”

During the war many Confederate guerrillas were tried, and some executed, for violations of the laws of war by fighting or committing sabotage while holding themselves out as inoffensive civilians rather than members of the enemy armed forces. It was on this basis that John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators were tried and condemned by a military commission rather than a civilian court. The Confederacy similarly executed Union soldiers caught engaging in hostilities in civilian garb.

In 1865 a U.S. Army court condemned Confederate Captain Heinrich Wirz to death for mistreatment of Union prisoners of war at the Andersonville, Georgia, prison camp. In the same year, Champ Ferguson, a Confederate guerrilla in Tennessee, was tried and executed for 53 murders, including the killing of several wounded members of the U.S. Colored Troops. In March 1866 James Duncan, one of Wirz’s subordinates at Andersonville, was convicted by a military court of abusing Union prisoners of war. While he was charged with one count of murder, he was only convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter, and sentenced to 15 years confinement. He escaped after serving a little over a year, and by then no one seems to have shown any interest in recapturing him.

As Duncan’s case suggests, with the passage of time the government and the Northern public lost interest in punishing individual former Confederates. Similarly, the treason indictment against Jefferson Davis never went to trial and was quietly dismissed a few years after the end of the war. As commanding general of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant emphatically approved of such leniency as a necessary step in restoring peace. He personally intervened in cases involving former members of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, taking the position that the surrender terms he granted to that army prevented the United States government from prosecuting any of Lee’s men for past offenses. While this position was unsound as a legal matter, Grant’s prestige was such that his policies were respected at the time.

Today it is difficult to conclude that Grant was wrong. Punishing more individual Southerners would merely have increased the white bitterness that fueled the Lost Cause myth and the rise of the Jim Crow era.

Burrus M. Carnahan is Adjunct Professor of Law at George Washington University. 

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