All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1999

War’s Other Casualty

War Is the Ultimate Act of Statehood

“War is the health of the State.” Those famous words are contained in Randolph Bourne’s essay “The State,” written in response to America’s participation in World War I, but left unfinished because of his death from influenza in 1918.

In the introduction to War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays 1915–1919—an anthology of Bourne’s writings—editor Carl Resek explains the phrase: “In its proper place it meant that mindless power thrived on war because war corrupted a nation’s moral fabric and especially corrupted its intellectuals.” Those seven words contain a complexity of meaning that is often overlooked by those who use them. To grasp this complexity, it is necessary to explore the theoretical context within which Bourne, a left-wing writer with individualist sensibilities, wrote.

Bourne argued that in times of peace, the majority of people do not give much thought to the State, but deal instead with the Government, which may be viewed as the practical day-to-day “offices and functions” of a State. He defined “Government” as “a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men.” The people whose jobs make Government function, such as postal workers and grade-school teachers, have no sense of sanctity about them. They are what Bourne describes as “common and unsanctified men.” Even those elected to political office do not generally inspire admiration, but are usually “indistinguishable from the mass.” This egalitarian attitude is part of the American republican heritage. Thus in times of peace, “the sense of the State almost fades out of the consciousness of men.” People may rise to honor the flag at ball games but they have few practical reasons to contemplate the State.

The American State is more of a concept than a physical reality. It is the political structure established by the American Revolution, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Governments come and go, but the State remains essentially the same. It is the State, not Government, that inspires emotions such as awe or patriotism within its citizenry because the State is considered to be sanctified by history and by the popular will. It is to the concept of the American State—not to any particular Government, Republican or Democratic—that people pledge allegiance with hands placed over their hearts.

Another key to understanding America is the concept of “Society,” which Bourne referred to as “nation” or “country.” Society is the collection of nonpolitical factors that constitute life in America, including: characteristic attitudes, common lore and literature, a shared history, a unique ethnic mix, the prevailing cultural norms. These nonpolitical factors are what make the American society different from Chinese or French society. They constitute “the American way.” In times of peace, most people identify more with Society than they do with Government. For example, most define themselves more in relation to a community, religion, or ethnic heritage than in relation to a political party.

For Bourne, Society, unlike Government, is not an expression of the State, nor can it peacefully co-exist with the State because the two concepts are antagonistic. Bourne observed that “Country [society] is a concept of peace, tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition; it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects. And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State, and as we grow up we learn to mingle the two feelings into a hopeless confusion.”

The Impact of War

Bourne defined war as the ultimate act of statehood. “War is a function . . . of States,” he wrote, “and could not occur except in such a system.”

He argued that war so blurs the lines separating the State from Government and from Society that the lines virtually disappear in the minds of most people. Filled with emotion, the patriot loses “all sense of the distinction between State, nation and government.” As Bourne described the process, “Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear towards the society of which he is a part.” Thus, “Every individual citizen who in peacetimes had no function to perform by which he could imagine himself an expression or living fragment of the State becomes an active amateur agent of the Government in reporting spies and disloyalists, in raising Government funds, or in propagating such measures as are considered necessary by officialdom.”

In times of war, the State and Government become virtually identical so that to oppose the Government is considered to be an act of disloyalty to the State. For example, although criticizing the president is a right regularly exercised by almost every American, such criticism becomes an act of treason when the president has just declared war. Bourne explained that “objections to the war, luke-warm opinions concerning the necessity or the beauty of conscription, are made subject to ferocious penalties, far exceeding in severity those affixed to actual pragmatic crimes.”

The impact of war on Society is even more dramatic. Bourne wrote that “in general, the nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.” Instead of its peacetime principle—live and let live—Society adopts the State’s principle of a group acting “in its aggressive aspects.”

This is the theoretical meaning of “war is the health of the State.” In peace, people are largely defined by their Society and they interact with Government, giving little thought to the State. In times of war, the hierarchy and the power of these concepts are inverted. The Government virtually becomes the State, and Society is subordinated to both.

The Individual in Wartime

What happens to the individual when Society and Government are dominated by the State? In times of peace an individual acts according to his own conscience to secure what he believes to be in his self-interest, which usually includes pursuing prosperity and security for the family, engaging in leisure, and the like. Individuals interact peacefully in Society without any imposed coordination because the interactions are sparked by a common desire (such as attending a football game or exchanging goods for money) without any loss of individual choice.

In times of war, individuals become what Bourne refers to as “the herd.” “The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized.” Members of the herd may have a wide range of emotional and intellectual reactions to wartime events and to the war itself. Nevertheless, “by an ingenious mixture of cajolery, agitation, intimidation, the herd is licked into shape, into an effective mechanical unity, if not into a spiritual whole.”

Just as the line between the State and Society blurs, so, too, does the line between the State and the individual. The State attempts to draw upon the powerful force of individual choice by appealing to the patriotism of people and asking them to make the “choice” to enlist and otherwise support the war effort. Usually, the individual obliges because in “a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened in that identification.” But if the individual makes the wrong choice—the choice to not volunteer, to not cooperate with wartime measures—the State reveals that choice was never the real issue. “Men are told simultaneously that they will enter the military establishment of their own volition, as their splendid sacrifice for their country’s welfare, and that if they do not enter they will be hunted down and punished with the most horrid penalties. . . .”

Usually, the individual does not rebel against war’s massive violation of rights because he feels what Bourne called “a large element of pure filial mysticism” toward the State, especially the wartime State. Bourne likened this mysticism to the response often offered to religion. “As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of men, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation.” The same feeling of patriotism that brings tears to the eyes of those saluting the flag at ball games is magnified by—some would say distorted and exploited by—the wartime State to make individuals conform. Feeling strengthened by “identifying with the whole,” people cease to be individuals and become, instead, citizens of the State. The man who dissents and remains an individual feels “forlorn and helpless,” while those who think and feel as the others in the herd have “the warm feeling of obedience, the soothing irresponsibility of protection.”

Thus, a “people at war become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naïve faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them.” “[T]his great herd-machine” functions under “a most indescribable confusion of democratic pride and personal fear” that makes the individuals “submit to the destruction of their livelihood if not their lives, in a way that would formerly have seemed to them so obnoxious as to be incredible.” The individual became a “child on the back of a mad elephant” that he could neither control nor abandon, but was compelled to ride until the elephant decided to halt.

This, too, is the meaning of “war is the health of the State”: war is the death of individualism.

Bourne’s essays, written while he was on the editorial staff of the New Republic, are not typical of antiwar literature. He did not dwell on the “butcher’s bill” of dead soldiers and civilians. He did not rail against the profits reaped by the military-industrial complex, which was collectively called “the munitions makers” in his day. The thrust of Bourne’s essays is how war leads to the moral collapse of society by kicking out the props of peaceful interaction.

In essence, Bourne addressed the moral consequences of war on a postwar society that had abandoned individualism in favor of “the herd-machinery.” He eloquently argued that postwar America would be morally, intellectually, and psychologically impoverished. By this observation, Bourne did not mean that peacetime America would struggle under the increased bureaucracy that never seems to roll back to prewar levels. Many historians have made this point. Bourne addressed the less tangible, though arguably more significant, costs of war. Post-1918 America, he predicted, would be burdened by intellectuals who had “forgotten that the real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany.” In converting World War I into a holy war, the intellectual and psychological groundwork was being laid for future instances of what he termed “the sport of the upper class”—global conflict.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.