Good Guys And Bad Guys

     “The first casualty when war comes is truth and whenever an individual nation seeks to coerce by force of arms another, it always acts, and insists that it acts in self-defense” – Locomotive Engineers Journal, February 1929

     In high school, I had an American History teacher who opened his class on the subject by saying – quite memorably – that recent trends in the recording of American history strained to make the historical panorama look like one long contest: “good guys versus bad guys.” I, being a fourteen-year-old not yet sensitized to those trends, didn’t grasp his point at the time. It’s become rather clear since – especially since all of journalism (so called) now sculpts its narratives the same way.

     Now, I prefer to see persons and institutions as black or white. Thus a “good guys versus bad guys” structure appeals to me. But my preferences do not determine reality. There are shades of gray to be noted, especially in relations among nations. When the subject is war, the shades of gray become the most important matters on the table.

     There’s rather a lot of war at the moment, and more looming. We have the Russia / Ukraine contest, the Israel / HAMAS contest, the Iran / Israel contest – don’t kid yourself, Gentle Reader; this one’s already hot and about to go incandescent – Red China’s threat to annex Taiwan by force, and of course America’s several domestic wars, of which I’ll say no more for the moment. War, being a governmental affair, is therefore between institutions I despise. That can make it hard to pick a side to prefer from such a contest.

     Good guys? Bad guys? You can find copious representatives in any camp of any war. It’s not necessarily clear who predominates, even when who struck whom first is beyond dispute.

     When George Washington condemned “entangling alliances,” he was thinking first and foremost about the interests of the United States. Still, he may have had some of the above in mind.

     When a third party decides to get involved in a war, it does so for either moral or practical reasons. Woodrow Wilson, a moralist who had absolute faith in his concepts of right and wrong, got the U.S. into World War I for (his own) moral reasons. Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whom I find it hard to believe that he had any concept of good and evil, embroiled the U.S. in World War II for practical reasons, supreme among them the amelioration of the symptoms of the depression Herbert Hoover had engineered and FDR had foolishly deepened and prolonged.

     If you can’t discern the “whiter” and “blacker” sides in a conflict, wouldn’t it be advisable to remain on the sidelines? A moralist would say so. A pragmatist would ask, “Can I get anything worth the expenditure by allying with the Bruxists, or with the Wazznians?” If the answers are no and no, he too would be advised to watch from a distance.

     Governments are not moral entities. No matter how constituted, they have no binding to right or wrong. When a State elects to donate blood and treasure to a conflict between two other States, it’s always for practical reasons. Moreover, the masters of the State won’t be the ones shedding blood or treasure; that job is reserved to the hoi polloi and their sons. That makes the practicality of the venture rather unbalanced.


     Many years ago, I wrote:

     “Combat occurs within an envelope of conditions. A general doesn’t control all those conditions. If he did, he’d never have to fight. Sometimes, those conditions are so stiff that he’s compelled to fight whether he thinks it wise, or not.”
     “What conditions can do that to you?”
     His mouth quirked. “Yes, what conditions indeed?”
     Oops. Here we go again. “Weather could do it.”
     “By cutting off your lines of retreat in the face of an invasion.”
     “Good. Another.”
     “Economics. Once the economy of your country’s been militarized, it runs at a net loss, so you might be forced to fight from an inferior position because you’re running out of resources.”
     “Excellent. One more.”
     She thought hard. “Superior generalship on the other side?”
     He clucked in disapproval. “Does the opponent ever want you to fight?”
     “No, sorry. Let me think.”
     He waited.
     Conditions. Conditions you can’t control. Conditions that…control you.
     “Politics. The political leadership won’t accept retreat or surrender until you’ve been so badly mangled that it’s obvious even to an idiot.”
     The man Louis Redmond had named the greatest warrior in history began to shudder. It took him some time to quell.
     “It’s the general’s worst nightmare,” he whispered. “Kings used to lead their own armies. They used to lead the cavalry’s charge. For a king to send an army to war and remain behind to warm his throne was simply not done. Those that tried it lost their thrones, and some lost their heads–to their own people. It was a useful check on political and military rashness.
     “It hasn’t been that way for a long time. Today armies go into the field exclusively at the orders of politicians who remain at home. And politicians are bred to believe that reality is entirely plastic to their wills.”

     Today, there is no direct check on “political and military rashness.” Heads of state pay no costs for entangling their nations in war. Verily, in this era of electoral ambiguity, not even “democratically elected” heads of state. The Nuremberg trials and the execution of Saddam Hussein were notable exceptions – and it can be argued that in both those cases, more culpable criminals got away scot-free.

     What warrant, then, exists by which a head of State could legitimately send his nation into a war between two other States?


     In his early novel The Probability Broach, L. Neil Smith proposed that war itself could be abolished by the elimination of coercive taxation and conscription. I’m not sure; the wars of the pre-Westphalian era often involved volunteer armies and the wealth of the warring nobles, no more. (Believe it or not, many of those nobles viewed war as an entertainment.) Of course, those wars tended to be a lot smaller than our contemporary conflicts, so with regard to this era, Smith is probably more right than wrong. One thing is clear: if heads of State had to go to war themselves, and fund their wars personally, they would face a more significant deterrent to such ventures than they do today.

     When someone else is doing the bleeding and dying, detachment becomes possible – and routine. Indeed, military analysts must cultivate detachment; without it they could never practice the calculus of warfare. They must be able to say, given some notional conflict, who would be more likely to prevail and at what cost – and they must be able to say it with confidence. That the record of such analysts is, shall we say, less than inspiring only adds force to their need for detachment.

     He who is detached from the suffering of others is capable of monstrosities unbounded.


     I could go on for many thousands of words, but I think the point has been made. The masters of “our” government will send our children to war when it pleases them, with little or no regard for anything but the probable effect on the next elections. The amorality and detachment displayed by those…persons have only increased as the years have passed. The moral, for those of us who still believe in the “necessity” of the State, couldn’t be more obvious.

     Take no sides. Trying to count up the “good guys” and the “bad guys” on either side of other nations’ wars is a fool’s game. Be assured that our political elite does no such counting.