War & Peace
Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibilty and Desirability of Peace.
by Leonard C. Lewin.
Dial. 109 pp. $5.00.
It must be public anxiety over the war in Vietnam. What else could account for the appearance of three books in two years, each a widely discussed best seller, which argue from scientific evidence that man is by nature warlike, and that war is here to stay?
In 1966, Robert Ardrey’s Territorial Imperative and Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression reviewed studies of animal behavior to demonstrate the existence of instincts which force all animals, including man, to fight. Last year, 1967, brought Report from Iron Mountain, a book which uses social science data to suggest that human societies are held together by a “war system” without which other institutions could not exist. As the Report puts it: “War itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire.”
Despite the plethora of scientific data which all three books adduce, however, none of them has delivered sufficient proof of its theories. Ardrey and Lorenz extrapolated freely and often loosely from animal studies to man; the Report from Iron Mountain rests on even shakier evidence. Supposedly, this book is the product of a top-secret, three-year-long, government-sponsored study, conducted by illustrious and unnamed social scientists in the underground caverns of Iron Mountain, New York, and leaked by a guilt-ridden participant to Leonard C. Lewin. According to the literary and social-science grapevine, however, no such study ever took place; the Report was authored entirely by Lewin as a satirical attack on the Pentagon-funded war researchers who study the unstudyable.
The information from the grapevine has been confirmed, for me at least, by the internal evidence of the Report itself. Notwithstanding its generous use of technical jargon, the book is a poor imitation of social-science reasoning and style. The writing is much too terse; important terms are not defined sufficiently; sweeping conclusions are formulated without the qualifications that social scientists always make when they generalize, and empirical findings are presented without supporting evidence. The Report does not once cite figures either from the 604 statistical tables allegedly placed in an unpublished appendix or from the masses of other data which it claims were run through a computer. Still, even if the Report is a fabrication, its “findings” make an extremely significant point: war and the war system have come to have so many beneficial consequences for American society that if we do not plan beforehand for adequate substitutes, the advent of peace could shatter the economy and lead to pervasive social and political problems.
The Report begins by noting that a war economy stimulates domestic affluence, but puts greater stress on the fact that war expenditures allow governments to exert control over economic ups and downs. Because such expenditures can be allocated “entirely outside the framework of supply and demand,” they are less subject to the corporate and electoral pressures which often force governments to subvert other regulatory economic schemes for political reasons.
The Report directs most of its attention, however, to the social, psychological, and political consequences of the war system. War, according to the Report, not only generates patriotic allegiance, which in turn increases social cohesion and undercuts domestic strife, but it justifies the very existence of nations. “The permanent possibility of war,” the Report points out, “is the foundation for stable government; it supplies the basis for general acceptance of political authority.” As a result, nations will often invent “external menaces” which can be fought in order to maintain domestic political peace.
In addition, wars provide outlets for society-wide feelings of aggression, create respectable roles for sadistic elements in the population, and put juvenile delinquents and youthful rebels in uniform so that they cannot disrupt domestic tranquility. War, the Report continues, is the most effective method of population control yet invented; it stimulates scientific inventions, and it encourages social change, for in a war climate, anachronistic social standards, such as Victorian sexual mores, can be overhauled quickly and quietly.
Peace will come, the Report argues, only if society can find “surrogates” for the functions of war that would be of equal effectiveness in guaranteeing its survival. Nevertheless, although the Report itself proposes a number of potential surrogates, and is very careful never to admit that peace is completely out of the question, its final conclusion is that “lasting peace, while not theoretically impossible, is probably unattainable; even if it could be achieved, it would almost certainly not be in the best interest of a stable society to achieve it.” For example, anti-poverty and other social welfare programs can neither spend as much tax money as the war makers, nor be kept free of political considerations in a way that would make them useful for controlling cyclical fluctuations in the economy. Artificial external menaces, to take another example, would probably not deceive the populace. “Development of an acceptable threat from ‘outer space’ . . . appears unpromising in terms of credibility,” and artificially induced air pollution “raises questions of political acceptability.” A quasi-military Peace Corps could not absorb all the delinquents and rebels, although “slavery, in a technologically modern and conceptually euphemized form, may prove a more efficient and flexible institution in this area.” And finally, “purposeful blood games and rituals” to satisfy the popular need for aggressive outlets “can far more readily be devised than implemented.”
The Report from Iron Mountain can be—and to my mind ought to be—interpreted as a serious, if overly Machiavellian, attempt to understand and abolish war, but even then, some of its conclusions may be questioned. War, first of all, does not necessarily reduce domestic political conflict; the protest stirred by Vietnam is a happy example of just the opposite case. Also, governments spend freely for war not because such expenditures occur outside the economy of supply and demand, but because they are, like the space race, politically acceptable. Large-scale domestic expenditures, on the other hand, which benefit one region or class at the expense of another, are often voted down or emasculated by political opposition. Nevertheless, even war and space ventures can be financed only so long as they have public support; when the consensus disappears, as it did in France toward the end of the Algerian and Indo-chinese conflicts, war spending suffers the same political fate as progressive social welfare programs.
The surrogates for war described in the Report, secondly, seem to have been picked at least partly for their shock value, in order to demonstrate the amorality—or “military-style objectivity,” as the Report calls it—of war researchers. It should be pointed out, however, that civilized surrogates for war are quite conceivable: aggression could be displaced onto national sport matches as well as onto blood games; public welfare schemes that cost 50 billion dollars a year could be formulated, and tax policies could be devised to deal with the business cycle. Federal job creation programs could eliminate juvenile delinquency more effectively than shipping youngsters off to war. And the Pill, not to mention the practice of voluntary birth control that comes with affluence, is as proficient as war in reducing excess population.
The implementation of such “liberal” surrogates would, however, violate one of the basic objectives of the Report, which is to guarantee not just the survival but also the stability of society. Although it nowhere defines “stability,” this term is used throughout the Report to justify the suppression of domestic conflict, and to give yet more power to the present governmental and corporate establishment. The stable society obviously displays quasi-Fascist tendencies.
Undoubtedly there are Pentagon types who would favor such a society, and there are social researchers who, under the guise of a supposedly objective, tough-minded scientism, somehow always manage to produce conservative and reactionary policy proposals. In fact, this posture is not monopolized by students of war; it has been used by right-wing political scientists seeking to prove the unworkability of democracy, and by economists like Milton Friedman who skillfully demonstrate the “irrational” qualities of social welfare legislation in order to justify the imagined virtues of untrammeled private enterprise.
Hence, since the Report’s, aim is a satirical attack on such researchers, it can appear to be planning for peace at the expense of democracy without batting a moral eyelash. Still, the unacceptability of this solution does not detract from the soundness of the Report’s basic thesis. War, after all, does have some deeply embedded social functions for which substitutes must be found, and peace cannot be achieved by plans for economic conversion which ignore the problems of societal reorganization. Even the Report’s hardboiled realism has some merit, for if peace is a worthwhile end, the means to achieve it must be determined by detached scientific methods, so that all the obstacles to peace can be identified and dealt with effectively.
But the prime value of Report from Iron Mountain, I think, lies in its contribution to our understanding of the war in Vietnam. For if one argues that America’s national security is not at stake in Vietnam, that the cold war with Russia is about over, and that China’s imperialistic aims are less ambitious than its imperialistic rhetoric—if, indeed, America is in some measure inventing an external menace—than the proposition is worth considering that the Vietnamese war persists in part because it performs a variety of domestic functions.
It is obvious, for instance, that the war acts as a crutch to the domestic economy for many of the reasons suggested by the Report. In addition, it functions as a source of internal cohesion, as an outlet for America’s aggressive impulses, and as a dumping ground for many white and nonwhite poor who would otherwise be unemployed. But principally, I suspect, the war serves a function not really considered by the Report: it enables its advocates to defend an American way of life which is threatened less by foreign enemies than by tendencies in American society, and it permits them to believe that they can stave off the inevitable domestic social change that these tendencies will ultimately require.
Among the most important such tendencies are technological change, the proliferation of the centralized welfare state, the demands for political and cultural equality by many-types of minorities, and the replacement of religion by new, secular moral codes. Shortly before American servicemen entered Vietnam in large numbers, the writers of the Manifesto of the Triple Revolution and other economists warned that sooner or later automation would begin to replace blue- and white-collar workers, and would lead to large-scale unemployment. The war’s escalation, however, has resulted in a sizable increase in blue-collar jobs, temporarily halting both the debate over the dangers of automation and the widespread fear of unemployment. It is thus probably no coincidence that many blue-collar workers support the war, and are most antagonistic toward antiwar protesters. Other factory workers, as well as many lower-echelon white-collar workers, are disturbed by the disappearance of the petty entrepreneurial opportunities on which they have traditionally relied to achieve middle-class status—just as the characters in Norman Mailer’s latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, are threatened by the erosion of the last frontiers of anarchic laissez-faire that have made Texas what it is today. The more affluent white-collar group is upset by the advent of an increasingly centralized society in which the federal government is taking over powers that once belonged to the local governments controlled by the middle class; businessmen and self-employed professionals fear the burgeoning of welfare-state bureaucracy which is reducing many of their traditional rights and privileges, on the job and elsewhere.
All these groups are also threatened by the demands for equality coming from minorities that have previously acquiesced to inequality—Negroes, adolescents, and college students in particular—and by the continuing decline in religiosity, as well as by the revolution in sexual mores. I suspect that the people who most strongly support the war in Vietnam are also the staunchest opponents of integration, and of the new “youth cultures”; they include many Bible-Belt Protestants and observant Catholics for whom the war represents a religious crusade of the type preached by the late Cardinal Spellman.
Conversely, the main opposition to the war stems from those groups, especially the young, which are now demanding equality, and from the ranks of employed professionals like social workers and college professors who have achieved affluence because of the proliferation of the welfare state.
From the point of view of the hawks, then, there is considerable truth in the popular slogan that the war in Vietnam is being fought to preserve the American way of life. Indeed, the very image which is projected by hawks of the “enemy’s” way of life serves to identify precisely those elements in American society which threaten them most directly. The Communist countries are seen as godless and immoral; their people are forced to work in large, government-controlled farms, factories, and offices, where they lack the freedom to display initiative; they are deprived of free expression and choice in consumer goods; and their way of life is dominated by huge central bureaucracies and by national political leaders who exert arbitrary, unaccountable, and insurmountable control over their everyday existence.
Now, all this is true of Communist societies, although not always to the extent claimed by the hawks, but it is also true, in a limited sense, of American society as well, albeit as a result of corporate no less than of governmental decisions. Moreover, the pattern is as difficult to reverse in America as it is in Communist countries. The point, however, is that even while attempting to reverse it at home, the supporters of the Vietnam war have also displaced an internal menace onto an external one. By locating this menace in a peasant society far from America’s shores, and by decimating that society with a multi-billion dollar barrage of weapons, the supporters of the war have created for themselves the illusion that they are winning the struggle to preserve their way of life at home. Of course, they also support the war for simple nationalistic reasons, but the importance of the illusion accounts, I think, for many of the more peculiar domestic reactions to the war—for example, the view that the war is purely a result of North Vietnamese aggression, the inability to admit that the National Liberation Front is engaged in a civil war, and the willingness of Americans to support a reactionary South Vietnamese government which is also engaged in holding back social change.
Curiously enough, the Report from Iron Mountain mentions the war in Vietnam just once, in passing, even though references to the many domestic functions of that war would only have helped to strengthen its case. What is worse, the Report has created its own external menace; by attacking the social scientists who carry out war research, it diverts attention from the war system that hires them. And by presenting its ideas—significant though they may be—through the vehicle of a fabricated study group, the Report has only served to focus public debate on the question of whether or not it is a hoax, and away from the real issues of war and peace with which it deals.