Quote of the Day

Shall we ever be thoughtful enough to face the stark fact that every headstone for a fallen soldier is also a monument to man’s stupidity?

–Grove Patterson

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

29 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. Another related reality: So long as mankind is subdivided into tribes/nations/other competing self-interest groups, saddle points in their strategic calculations will force decisions that are bad for their combined interests.

    1. I’m generally against war, too. But for means everything must be considered on its merits; and that includes war, too. For example, what if the next war was against the Khmer Rouge? If you had been in Cambodia circa 1975 and been able to raise an army, would you have fought against the Khmer Rouge? If you were a Cambodian, would you have considered it more noble to watch your family and friends die in the killing fields or to take up arms?

      1. But then if there hadn’t been a US invasion next door there probably wouldn’t have been trouble in Cambodia. Maybe but…
        I protested and refused to go to Vietnam. They said that war was necessary. If we didn’t fight it and win the world would come to an end.
        I protested the first Iraq invassion.
        I got fooled with Afganistan into thinking it was a police action to capture criminals. Fool me once shame…
        I protested the second Iraq invassion.
        The only thing in this list I regret was getting fooled into believing the Afganistan mess was necessary and would be handled wisely.
        So yeah I guess there are unavoidable wars but I’ve never seen one and I’m old as dirt.

  2. Rarely said better than the 1960’s folk/rock version: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYEsFQ_gt7c But now, for glimmer of hope: “For a student of military history, the most astonishing fact about the current international scene is that there isn’t a single conflict in which two uniformed militaries are pitted against each other. The last one was a brief clash in 2008 between Russia and Georgia.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323596204578243702404190338.html

    1. I’m not sure that this represents an improvement inasmuch as there are still a very large number of (mainly) civil wars in which the uniformed soldiers murder, rape, pillage and generally terrorize the civilian populations.

      1. No one said “Permanent world peace has broke out.” But considering how mush slaughter HAS been in conflicts between state-sponsored uniformed armies, I stand by “glimmer of hope.”

        1. My point is that I don’t understand the focus on uniformed armies opposing one another on the field of battle as the significant metric. It seems to me that we were better off when armies fought wars and the Western world was inching forwards towards a system in which civilian populations and cities were increasingly off limits. Now, it’s the reverse—from WW II onwards, the civilian populations seem to be the primary targets for armed aggression and the conflicts are ever more barbarous.

          I don’t see why this regressive course of events represents even “glimmer of hope.” It doesn’t seem self-evident to me and I think an explanation of why you believe this would be helpful.

          1. The civilian population has always been affected pretty directly by most wars. “Looting and pillaging” is not a term that only arose after WW II. Wellington’s armies left plenty of burned villages, raped women, and dead civilians in their wake, for example. War between uniformed armies does not limit the death toll to the military. Besides, given that soldiers are often drafted in such conflicts, this may be a distinction without a difference: the soldiers that were fed into the meat blender at Verdun in WW I had families, too, that mourned them. The civilian population being off-limits is at best a tenuously observed part of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) and prior to that probably a naive fiction.

            So, why does it matter that we have fewer uniformed armies facing each other? Because it means that war as “a mere continuation of politics by other means” *(Clausewitz) may have been falling out of favor.

            As Ken put it, this does not mean that “world peace broke out” (after all, the Second Congo War ended less than 10 years ago). But it may (may!) indicate that mindsets have been changing.

          2. “Now, it’s the reverse—from WW II onwards, the civilian populations seem to be the primary targets for armed aggression and the conflicts are ever more barbarous.”

            I don’t think so.

            The Taiping Rebellion was a massive civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, against the ruling Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. … At least 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.

            Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

          3. Sorry; Anonyous (this time) was me.

            Didn’t this BBS used to use cookies that held your ID?

  3. Are there any current heads of state in the world who, judging from afar, seem like they might actually be thrilled and proud to go to war? What’s the list?

    1. Setting aside the Middle East, which is too volatile to allow any sort of prediction and the perpetual India-Pakistan war, I think that the most like candidate is Cistina Fernández de Kirchner who seems very hot to “liberate” the Falklands and its oil from the cruel grip of Perfidious Albion.

    2. Well, there’s the current president of the United States who argued during his election campaign in 2008 for the need to go to war in Afghanistan (rather than Iraq).

      American presidents are generally very much inclined to conduct a war abroad if the opportunity presents itself. On balance, it tends to win them votes (assuming they don’t screw up) because it demonstrates that they are “tough” on national security issues. Routine demonstrations of America’s ability to project military power by killing a few foreigners seems to make many Americans feel safer.

      1. Exactly right. Obama was very articulate on this point. He was not against war, only “dumb wars” (Iraq) Afghanistan is Obama’s war. Not very smart to me.

  4. What an impressive combination of moral certitude and smugness; all packed into one short, beautifully turned phrase

        1. Why?

          Possibly because the meaning you wished to relay in your use of the terms, “moral certitude,” and “smugness,” are not quite self evident.

          But, speaking of “self-evident,” in your above response to Ken D. regarding his “glimmer of hope,”

          ” It doesn’t seem self-evident to me and I think an explanation of why you believe this would be helpful.”

          Exactly what doesn’t seem self-evident to you? Several possibilities come to mind, but I don’t want to speculate.

          And, also,

          exactly what is the, “this,” in “…..why you believe ‘this’ would be helpful?”

          And, finally,

          That last sentence, “……….I think an explanation of why you believe this would be helpful.”…………..did you forget to complete this thought?

          1. To consider your points in order, as best I can:

            1. I will try to clarify. My main objection to the Patterson quote is that it is too simplistic, too easy. Patterson seems not to distinguish between sacrifice in defense of something of value, such as defense of one’s homeland or while resisting evil and the peace gain by submission. It is true that absolute rule and absolute submission produce a sort of peace but is it a peace worth exalting?

            Rousseau was rightly critical of peace gained at the price of submission to power. He called it the “peace of Ulysses and his comrades, imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops and waiting their turn to be devoured.”

            2. To continue my discussion from above, and also to reply to Katja, it isn’t obvious to me that the shift of violence to emphasize the slaughter of civilians by uniformed national armies or the armies of various warlords is “a glimmer of hope”. I wasn’t holding out the example of past wars as a lost “golden age” but making the point that there was at least an emerging understanding that there should be rules about warfare and that civilians should be protected. That notion is no longer held in high regard, especially here.

            This country, which was once the moving force and guiding light, for international law and, in particular, for the laws of war has spent the more than a decade gleefully bombing the hell out of wedding parties and assorted social gatherings in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Yemen. We launched a war of aggression against Iraq and America’s ruling party and Fox News, America’s semiofficial press organ, was filled with people talking about which countries Bush would take next. We didn’t “take” any other countries and ultimately gave Iraq back to the Iraqis not out of moral conviction but because the Bushies were the most amazingly inept conquers in world history.

            To refer to a previous example, Argentina and England are not at war only because Argentina isn’t sure of which side America will back and isn’t sure it could take the Falklands without American backing.

            I would agree the present lack of war between nations might be a “glimmer of hope” if I felt that the absence of inter-state armed conflict was the result of an emerging consensus against the use of armed force to resolve conflicts rather than a temporary halt because the objectives were attained or perceived as presently unobtainable.

          2. Mitch, the quote doesn’t say that the headstone was a monument to the dead soldier’s stupidity (or that of the nation or alliance he or she was fighting for).

            Even in WW II, arguably the justest of just wars, given Hitler’s supremacist and genocidal policies, the tombstone of every soldier who fell on D-Day is indeed a monument to Hitler’s (and plenty of Germans’) stupidity. Every “just war”, however you define it, must by definition have a side that is wrong, wrong enough so that it’s more important to sacrifice lives to end their stupidity than to tolerate it.

            Mind you, it’s difficult to say more without having the complete context of the quote, but without any further context, I don’t see anything inherently simplistic about the quote (it may arguably be tautological, but that’s not necessarily an indictment for a statement about ethics).

            That aside, I don’t disagree with you about the sad belligerence of recent(?) American foreign policy (as I think I noted above, in my 11:52am comment, and many times before). However, it is also worth noting that other countries do not necessarily approve, even our allies; the United States can get away with it because they are a superpower, not because it’s accepted behavior. In matters of international law, unfortunately, there is no real enforcement mechanism other than perhaps reciprocity and consensus.

  5. Katja,

    Now that you mention it, I confess that I am reading something into it, although, logically, the context can’t be far off of what I’ve imputed to it. Only if one divorces the quote from a subtext that all war is somebody’s folly, does your possible interpretation make sense and that’s especially true if that analysis extends beyond just war to, essentially, profitable war.

    For example, setting to one side the morality of the many wars of aggression against the Native American tribes, “manifest destiny” gave us the America we have today. This wasn’t inevitable—there were a number of points along the way that would have left either Europeans or Native Americans in control of big chunks of what is now the continental United States. So, from one perspective, I think you could argue that taking or stealing or however you want to characterize it all of the land of the Native Americans was a very smart move.

    If so, countless Native Americans died not because of the “stupidity” of either their or the American’s leaders because they were sitting on valuable real estate and were not strong enough to keep it; most of the American dead would be considered the price of fire. Only Custer’s men died because they had a stupid leader.

    So I don’t read the quote as saying that some soldiers died because their leaders made poor decisions but rather as saying that all war is stupid—a point with which I obviously disagree.

    I think we are largely in agreement about the desirably of a regime of international law and about the importance of the laws of war. America really was the leader in creating something truly remarkable and Bush and Obama just tossed it all in the trash.

    1. “So, from one perspective, I think you could argue that taking or stealing or however you want to characterize it all of the land of the Native Americans was a very smart move.”

      You’re right. Some headstones are a monument to man’s stupidity, others to man’s cupidity.

  6. Geez, thanks for the thoughtful, rapid response, Mitch.

    Rather than address each points individually I’d just say that I generally agree with what I interpret your positions to be. And, I would put another ditto to Katja’s clarification also.

    I took the Patterson quote to have a broader, more generalized meaning. How would you explain to a space traveler, or even a child, that the mankind which eradicated the Plague and polio, and has brought to fruition most of science fiction’s fantasies, still reaches down for the most base, vile, and destructive means to solve differences. If we can’t use the word, “stupid,” to describe it, then we can’t use the word, “civilized,” to describe us.

    P.S. Re: “Glimmer of Hope:” I accepted that phrase in a narrower sense than you, apparently, did. Irrespective of the sad fact that people have developed an asymmetric, deviant mutation for killing each other one can still have “a glimmer of hope” for the fact that, at least, traditional, uniformed, armed conflict between nations is on the wane. You know, the old “glass half full……” thing.

    Anyway, the result is pretty much what I expected. I doubted very much that, given the restraints this, as any, blog imposes, that there were any serious differences regarding our appreciation of, ultimately, life and death.

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