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War Makes Us Poorer

Over two thousand years after Sun Tzu lived, the nature of war has not changed. War still impoverishes most people today.

When I began my senior year at West Point in August 2001, I took a class on national security that greatly influenced me. It was the first time I had seriously questioned the size of the U.S. military budget. My professor was a West Point graduate, Rhodes scholar, and major in the army. One day he walked in the classroom and wrote the names of eighteen countries on the board. He then looked at us and said, “The United States spends more on its military than the next eighteen countries in the world combined. Why do we need that much military spending? Isn’t that insane?”

My professor then explained that immense war spending impoverishes the American people. None of the students in the class said anything. I was shocked by what he told us and did not know how to respond. Disturbed by our silence, he said, “I’m surprised you all aren’t more outraged by this. Why do we need that much military spending?”

This week, I read an article written by Stanford professor Ian Morris, which was featured on the Washington Post website. The article was titled, “In the long run, wars make us safer and richer.” His article suggests that war is good for humanity because it makes us richer (I will also address his argument that war makes us safer later in this piece). Is this true? Was my professor incorrect? Studying the reality of military history—in addition to my experiences as an active duty soldier—has given me abundant evidence that war makes most people poorer, not richer.

Over two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu recognized that war impoverishes most people in a society. In The Art of War, he said, “When a country is impoverished by military operations, it is because of transporting supplies to a distant place. Transport supplies to a distant place, and the populace will be impoverished. Those who are near the army sell at high prices. Because of high prices, the wealth of the common people is exhausted. When resources are exhausted, then levies are made under pressure. When power and resources are exhausted, then the homeland is drained. The common people are deprived of seventy percent of their budget, while the government’s expenses for equipment amount to sixty percent of its budget.” (1)

Over two thousand years after Sun Tzu lived, the nature of war has not changed. War still impoverishes most people today. Writing in the twentieth century, war veteran George Orwell said, “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.” (2)

Also realizing that war harms humanity in many ways, General Dwight Eisenhower compared war spending to crucifixion: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children . . . Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” (3)

Gandhi said people can have a piece of the truth, and Professor Morris certainly has a piece of the truth. He is partially correct, because war does make some people richer. Major General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in U.S. history, witnessed the harmful aspects of war that are hidden from the public. He said, “War is a racket . . . A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.” (4)

If we want evidence to support General Butler’s claim that war “is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many,” we can look at all of military history.

Professor Morris is correct that humanity has made progress, but he mistakenly attributes this progressexclusively to war. He says, “By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people . . . Over the [20th] century . . . just 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population died violently. Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age. And since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent . . . Ten thousand years ago, when the planet’s population was 6 million or so, people lived about 30 years on average . . . Now, more than 7 billion people are on Earth, living more than twice as long (an average of 67 years) . . . This happened because about 10,000 years ago, the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies.” (5)

Even if we believe the assumption that “10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people” (this assumption is based on speculation because people back then did not keep records of homicide rates and there are not enough skeletal remains to make such a judgment), there are many reasons why violent deaths have decreased, which Professor Morris does not mention in his article. A major reason why fewer people today die from violence is because medical technology has improved significantly.

Professor Morris’s argument is suspect, because he makes the mistake of using murder rates to claim that violence is decreasing. Because medical technology has improved so dramatically, however, we must instead look at aggravated assault rates. In his DVD The Bulletproof Mind, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman explains:

From this point on, anytime anybody talks to you about violent crime in terms of the murder rate, completely ignore the data. The murder rate completely misrepresents the problem across any period of time. Why? Because medical technology is saving ever more lives every year . . . If we had 1930s level technology in America today, the murder rate would easily be ten times what it is. 1930s level evacuation technology, no ambulance services, no cars for most people. 1930s notification technology, no 911 systems, no phones for most people. 1930s level medical technology, no penicillin [penicillin was first discovered in 1928 but was not used widely until the late 1930s and early 1940s], no antibiotics . . . What if every gunshot wound, every knife wound, every trauma wound, there were no phones, there were no cars, and when you finally got the guy to the hospital, there were no antibiotics or penicillin? How many more would die? Easily ten times as many.

We believe that another figure that carefully parallels and tracks to give us an indicator of what it might be like is the child mortality rate. And the child mortality rate in the year 1900 was 30 times what it is today . . . So what you’ve got to look at is not the murder rate, but you’ve got to look at the rate at which people are trying to kill one another off. And that is best represented by the aggravated assault rate. And aggravated assault in 1957 was 65 per 100,000. By the early 1990s, it has gone up to almost 450 per 100,000, a seven-fold increase. Seven times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than we were in the 1950s. Now, it went down a little bit throughout the 1990s . . . but even with that little downtown in the 1990s, we’re still five times greater than we were in the 1950s.(6)

Professor Morris also suggests that war has created societies with a higher standard of living that are more peaceful, organized, and inclusive, but again he mistakenly attributes this progress to war. Did war accomplish all of this progress, or did nonviolent struggle play a crucial role? For example, America’s Founding Fathers rebelled against the British Empire because they felt unfairly treated. They believed it was unjust to be controlled or taxed without the opportunity to participate in the political process. They also believed that those who govern must gain the consent of the governed. The motto “No taxation without representation” echoed their grievances and became a call to arms, leading to the American Revolution.

Decades after the war ended, however, less than 10 percent of Americans could vote in national elections. Women could not vote (or own property or graduate from college). African Americans could not vote. And most white people could not vote unless they owned land. During the early nineteenth century “No taxation without representation” only seemed to apply to a minority of rich landowners.

How did so many Americans increase their liberties during the past two hundred years? Did non-landowners fight a war to achieve the right to vote? Did women fight a war to get the right to vote? Did African Americans fight a war to attain their civil rights? Did American workers fight a war to gain their rights? Was a war fought for child labor laws? These victories for liberty and justice were achieved because people waged peace, but most of us are not taught this important part of our history.

Although the American Civil War kept our country together, it took a peaceful movement—the civil rights movement—before African Americans truly got their human rights. And how many European countries fought a civil war to end slavery? Zero.

A person can make an informed argument that war was needed to stop Hitler in the 1940s or end American slavery in the nineteenth century, but that is not Professor Morris’s point. He claims that war makes humanity richer, even though military history contains countless examples of conquerors turning conquered peoples into slaves or second-class citizens, exploiting the resources of conquered nations, and neglecting the basic needs of their own people in order to fund a rapidly growing war machine.

It is difficult to debunk all the myths in Professor Morris’s article in this short piece, because these myths were not created by him, but are deeply entrenched in societies around the world. Recent research shows that another commonly believed myth in our society is also harming us. Professor Morris echoes this myth by saying, “People almost never give up their freedoms—including, at times, the right to kill and impoverish one another—unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.” (7)

The groundbreaking research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan debunks the myth that war is the only way to overcome oppression by showing that nonviolence has become more effective than violence at combating injustice. Erica Chenoweth explains, “From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. And there’s more. This trend has been increasing over time, so that in the last fifty years, nonviolent campaigns are becoming increasingly successful and common, whereas violent insurgencies are becoming increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in those extremely brutal authoritarian conditions where I expected nonviolent resistance to fail.” (8)

Before learning from my West Point professor in 2001, I would have agreed with Professor Morris’s arguments, but then I learned about the deeper reality of war, and studied how nonviolence has become more effective than war as a way of solving our problems in the twenty-first century.

What are some of the problems we must solve today? The 2009 U.S. Army Sustainability Report lists several threats to national security, which include severe income disparity, poverty, and climate change. The report tells us: “The Army is facing several global challenges to sustainability that create a volatile security environment with an increased potential for conflict . . . Globalization’s increased interdependence and connectivity has led to greater disparities in wealth, which foster conditions that can lead to conflict . . . Population growth and poverty; the poor in fast-growing urban areas are especially vulnerable to antigovernment and radical ideologies . . .Climate change and natural disasters strain already limited resources, increasing the potential for humanitarian crises and population migrations.” (9)

When the U.S. Army states that “greater disparities in wealth . . . poverty . . . and climate change” are dangerous, these are some of the same concerns expressed by the Occupy movement. War cannot protect us from any of these dangers, and if we keep believing the myth that war is the only way, we will not be able to solve the problems that threaten human survival in the twenty-first century. Because we have the ability to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, if we keep believing the myth that war is the only way, we will keep pursuing war despite the clear evidence that it threatens human survival. If we keep believing the myth that war is the only way, we will continue to create conditions that make us less safe.

What could humanity achieve if we end war? According to a study conducted by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, an economy focused on peaceful priorities would employ many more Americans than an economy that wages war. In their study they said: “This study focuses on the employment effects of military spending versus alternative domestic spending priorities, in particular investments in clean energy, health care and education . . . We show that investments in clean energy, health care and education create a much larger number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid-range jobs and high-paying jobs. Channeling funds into clean energy, health care and education in an effective way will therefore create significantly greater opportunities for decent employment throughout the U.S. economy than spending the same amount of funds with the military.” (10)

What else could humanity achieve if we end war? General Douglas MacArthur, who had a deep understanding of war that we can all learn from, said, “The great question is: Can global war now be outlawed from the world? If so, it would mark the greatest advance in civilization since the Sermon on the Mount. It would lift at one stroke the darkest shadow which has engulfed mankind from the beginning. It would not only remove fear and bring security—it would not only create new moral and spiritual values—it would produce an economic wave of prosperity that would raise the world’s standard of living beyond anything ever dreamed of by man. The hundreds of billions of dollars now spent in mutual preparedness [for war] could conceivably abolish poverty from the face of the earth.” (11)


1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala, 1988), 25-27.

2. George Orwell, 1984, (New York: Signet Classics, 1977), 157.

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,” speech delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1953.

4. Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, War Is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier(Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003), 23.

5. Ian Morris, “In the long run, wars make us safer and richer,”…icher/2014/04/25/a4207660-c965-11e3-a75e-463587891b57_story.html.

6. The Bulletproof Mind, DVD, 2008, Dave Grossman and Gavin de Becker.

7. Ian Morris, “In the long run, wars make us safer and richer,”…icher/2014/04/25/a4207660-c965-11e3-a75e-463587891b57_story.html.

8. “The Success of Nonviolent Civil Resistance: Erica Chenoweth at TEDxBoulder,”

9. U.S. Army Sustainability Report 2009, FinALArmySustainabilityreport2010.pdf.

10. The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities: An Updated Analysis by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier,

11. General MacArthur: Speeches and Reports: 1908-1964, Edward T. Imparato, ed. (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 2000), 237.

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