Please note that this piece is in reference to the argument, advanced in The Wisdom of History by Rufus Fears, that democracies have longer and more terrible wars than ever did monarchies.
A democracy is, to eyes educated in the modern Western tradition, the pinnacle of all governments. It bequeaths to its citizens long life, liberty, happiness, and an ability to dictate the course of a nation, all of them in an abundance greater than that afforded by any other system of rule. Yet when a democracy goes to war, justly or unjustly, those wars are without doubt more violent, longer, and more widespread than wars which involve other systems of government.
The most powerful example of such a situation is that of the Great War, the war to end all wars. Involving almost entirely countries that either had democracies or governments with strong public participation, it was entered into gleefully by hundreds of thousands of free citizens, with young men queueing for the right to join the armed forces. And yet by 1918, when the war drew down to a close, those same young men who had entered the armies with patriotic fervour were dead or crippled, mentally and physically, by the brutality and squalor of trench warfare.
Why had that happened? Why had the democracies not done as long ago powers had, and signed a treaty that ended the war, rather than waste manpower and resources in a desperate and uncalled for conflict? Rome and the Persians fought, made peace, fought, and repeated the cycle for over a thousand years, from before the age of Christ until the gates of Constantinople finally fell in 1453. Not once did they press on to the bitter end, seeking to sack the opposing capital and remove it from existence.
No doubt both parties would have liked to take such actions, but a balance of power prevented such occurrences from happening, and so instead treaties resulted, involving the trading of land, wealth, tribute first one way and then the other, enough to satisfy honour and conclude the present conflict. Compare that to the balance of power that existed in 1914, which served to drag an entire continent into bloody and meaningless conflict. Here, the balance served to make a war that lasted and lasted, with neither side being willing to take a treaty and bow out.
A few reasons lie at the heart of this, and they are tied into the very root of what makes democracy work. The first is this: for a democracy to engage in war, two conditions must be satisfied. One, that the population is convinced it is a just war, and two, that the war is a winnable war or a war for national survival.
The first of these can be seen repeatedly in play, in the actions that launched World War I and II, in the British response to Napoleon, in the American Civil War, and indeed all the way back to the Peloponnesian war. Whenever a democracy enters a war of its own free will, it does so because it believes it has a right to do so. It is that right that makes a democracy so unwilling to cease military operations, for to be the first to submit means that the national conscience was wrong to enter the war in the first place, and that levels such a blow against the national character as to make almost any other option more acceptable.
The other aspect of a just war that is so terrible is that all the costs that came before, the sacrifices of men and material, these are piled up as a cost already paid, one that cannot be ignored when deciding whether to end a war before it has reached a final conclusion. To economists, this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, and is to be avoided for the effects it has upon decision-making. But to citizens, those sunk costs are friends, family, lost opportunities and more, and they must have something to show for what they have paid. Thus a democracy being unable to leave a war until the bitter end.
The second reason for democracies being involved in such long and difficult wars is that they enter only those wars that are either perceived to be winnable, or necessary to national survival. Of the former, the western actions in Vietnam stand as a modern symbol, and as for the latter, the Punic Wars of Carthage and Rome will stand duty. To vote to begin a war that can be won is, in a democracy, to vote for a war that must be won. Otherwise, the democracy will lose face (and political power) with all those with whom it has relations. Think of the international reaction to America’s slinking away from the Vietnam War, and the opprobrium that was heaped upon its military and politicians by citizens who had once supported a war and were now disillusioned by it.
Whereas the Romans, at the conclusion of the Third Punic War, released a pent up flood of anger and frustration and worry caused by the threat to their survival that resulted in the destruction of Carthage as a city, people, and civilization, to the point that the fields where once they grew grain are still infertile two thousand years later.
The third, and perhaps most important reason of all, is that a democracy is fundamentally unlike a kingdom, or empire, or any other form of civil society. In those other forms of rulership, a resident within the borders can have loyalties that range from to his town, as Medieval Europe had so constantly, to the local ruler, to the king or emperor, to religion, or to any number of other aspects. What resulted was a patchwork quilt of loyalties, often at odds with one another, and certainly never pulling all in the same direction at the same time.
Except in a democracy, where loyalty from one and all is demanded to the nation and its ideals, to the sovereign whole that is America, or Britain, or France. And when such a unity of loyalty exists, each and every member of the society feels that it is their duty to defend their nation, be it through arms or economic means. Thus poor whites, some who had never owned slaves nor ever would, grabbed rifles and marched north to defend the Confederate States of America against the Union. They gained nothing by the actions they took, but loyalty to their state and their national ideals propelled them beyond personal gain. And the result was the bloodiest war in the history of the Americas.
In France, the ultimate expression of such loyalty was the Grand Army of Napoleon, the first ever million man fighting force. Drawn together by a love of country and the fervour of the Revolution, it conquered a continent. Where once war had been the province of the elites, democracy has made war the province of the everyman, and when he takes to it, he takes to it with a fervour that would make the empires of old blush.
Taken together, these aspects of democratic wars result in a situation perhaps never anticipated by the founders of our Western way of government. We democracies may start less wars than did once the empires and kingdoms of our long ago fathers, but our wars outstrip theirs in size, duration, and stubborn will to win, mobilizing whole populations against one another in ways that past rulers could never do. Democracy may be the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried, but a democratic war may be the worst form of war, including all the others that have been tried.