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Monday, July 5, 2021

Democracy and Warfare

When a democratic nation goes to war, criticism overpowers conquest. The nation’s media and intellectuals criticize the war, they turn public opinion against the war, and force the politicians, diplomats, and military commanders to surrender the conquests that the soldiers have made in the battlefield.

Despite its superiority in military technology, America has lost every war that it fought in the twentieth century. There is not a single instance in which America has achieved the goals for which it went to war, and it usually fails to protect the people in the war zone who support the American forces. In Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East, and other places, the section of the population which supported the American side was annihilated after the American forces withdrew without achieving the goals for which they had arrived to fight the war. 

The moment America goes to war, powerful figures in its media, academia, and politics come out of the woodwork and start criticizing the war. Their criticism forces the politicians, diplomats, and military commanders to disengage from the war without achieving their geopolitical goals and without caring about the fate of their supporters in the war zone.

The failure to achieve war goals due to intense internal criticism is not just an American problem—this problem bedevils all democracies. The oldest democracy, Classical Athens, lost the war against Sparta when its war effort got derailed by internal criticism. 

The doctrine that Sparta was a bigger threat to Athens than Persia and hence it must be destroyed was first proposed by the great Athenian politician and general Themistocles in 479 BC, a year after the Battle of Salamis, in which the Athenian navy decisively defeated the Persian navy. But Themistocles could not convince the argumentative Athenians to go to war against Sparta, and in 472 BC, he was ostracized and banished from Athens. Cimon, the Athenian politician and general who came after Themistocles, wiped out the remaining Persian encampments in the Greek lands but he had no desire to wage war against Sparta. He tried to develop a friendly relationship with the Spartans.

The democratic revolutionary Ephialtes became the leader of Athens after Cimon was ostracized and banished from Athens for ten years beginning in 461 BC. The reforms of Ephialtes led to the power passing into the hands of the citizens—the Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly, and the popular law courts. But within a year of his reforms, Ephialtes was assassinated by the Athenian aristocrats. The second democratic revolutionary of this age, Pericles, took power after the democratic reforms of Ephialtes had failed. Pericles used his oratory and loud voice to dominate the Athenian assembly and make a case for war against Sparta. The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) began when Pericles was at the helm, but he died in 429 BC. The major battles of the Peloponnesian War were fought under Cleon. 

During the twenty-seven years of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was a divided society. There were noisy debates in the Athenian assembly on different aspects of the war. Several politicians and generals were ostracized and exiled. There were a number of democratic revolutions and aristocratic counterrevolutions. There were betrayals and assassinations. 

Being a democracy, Athens could not control the criticism of its war against Sparta. The Athenian politicians and generals could not develop a firm strategy for the war. They could not define a set of goals for which they were fighting. They often worked at cross-purposes, and tried to use the war for improving their own hold on Athenian politics. Alcibiades, the Athenian statesman, orator, and general, changed his political allegiance several times—sometimes he was with Sparta and sometimes with Athens. One reason for which Athens lost the war against Sparta in 404 BC is that its argumentative democratic system did not support its soldiers in the battlefield.

Democracies should not go to war unless they are ready to fight a war on two fronts—the external war against the enemy nation and an internal war against the intellectuals and politicians who would derail the war by criticizing it. If internal criticism is allowed to overpower the conquests that the soldiers make in the battlefield, then it is futile to go to war. In modern democratic societies, wars cannot be won without the support of the journalists, academics, intellectuals, and the politicians who control the public opinion and often enjoy the power to define the war goals.

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