by G. Jack Urso
Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus
(aka Vegetius), the late fourth century AD Roman, in his book Epitoma Rei Militaris gave posterity his
immortal maxim: "Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum" — “If
you want peace, prepare for war."
However, what if the premise is a
nation that actually wants to engage in war just because they are bad guys,
like Hitler or Stalin? What is the solution for nations who want to go to war?
Prepare for war, obviously.
So, “If you want peace, prepare
for war" is true, but also “If you want war, prepare for war" is
Given that peace and war are two
entirely different diametrically opposed states of being, how can the solution
for achieving both be the same, “prepare for war,” and be valid?
When the solution for a desired outcome to two opposing situations is the same solution it suggests a predisposition towards the proposed solution, in this case war, rather than a line of honest intellectual inquiry. For example, consider these two statements: “If you want summer, prepare for winter” and “If you want winter, prepare for winter.” It seems like someone is just really into winter more than they care about preparing us for the seasons. Before buying, one should
look at who is selling you the goods, and invariably those saying “If you want
peace, prepare for war" are seldom anti-war peace advocates.
Technically, these sorts of if/then statements are a logical fallacy called "Affirming the Consequent," where the opposite of a true conditional statement is also asserted to be true. For example, if we can agree that that "If you want war, [then] prepare for war" is a true conditional statement, and the opposite of the qualifier war is peace, then the resulting statement, "If you want peace, [then] prepare for war," is a logical fallacy and consequently an invalid statement.
An additional step to test the logic is to invert the statement. For example, consider the statement, "If you want to eat, you have to sit down at the table." If we invert it to, "You have to sit down at the table if you want to eat," the statement still makes sense.
However, that same test fails when applied to "If you want peace, prepare for war." When inverted, the statement "If you want war, prepare for peace," makes no sense. Either way we look at it, the original statement is a non sequitur.
Vegetius' statement is further complicated by, as previously noted, his comparison of two entirely different states of being, war and peace. For a comparison to be valid, the items being compared must be in the same set. One can compare apples to oranges, but not apples to post-Spinozan non-Hegelian eschatology. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. For a comparison to be valid, they must be in the same set. So, war can be compared to police actions, and peace can be compared to friendly relations, but comparing war and peace in the same statement becomes logically problematic because they are not in the same set.
Civilization has long held Vegetius' statement as a truth, and indeed it does seem true. To defend ourselves, we must be able
to fight, i.e. to wage war. On a personal level, this means learning self-defense. On a
national scale, that means having the capacity to field modern armies. So, the conclusion
is that if we want to be able to deter others from making war on us, and remain
at peace, we must be able to go to war. It seems like an entirely logical
conclusion based on what we know of human nature.
Except that five thousand years of
recorded human history establishes that it apparently does not seem to work very well. History is replete with wars between well-armed, militarily strong
nations. Even during the vaunted “Pax Romana” Rome was constantly at war
expanding its borders. “Pax Romana” only meant that there were none of the
civil wars that plagued the Romans in the past. War was simply exported to the
borders and against people they considered less civilized. Much as it
continues to do so today between the East and West. Smaller proxy nations at
the bleeding border regions between political spheres of influence are usually where
the wars take place. Poorer nations suffer while the richer
nations sit comfortably in the safety of their hubris, marveling at how
effective is the truth, “If you want peace, prepare for war."
It should be noted that there are
many such maxims, “truisms” if you will, throughout history about war and peace, some that support Vegetius
and some that do not, but taken together, they reveal our moral ambiguity not as much about our capacity for war, but rather the lack of our capacity for peace. Some of the more well-known ones include:
“The sword itself incites to
violence.” — Homer
“A bad peace is even worse than
war.” — Tacitus
"There was never a good war,
or a bad peace." — Benjamin Franklin
“Wars are not paid for in
wartime. The bill comes later.” — Benjamin Franklin
“It is well that war is so
terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” — Robert E. Lee
“I know not with what weapons
World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and
stones.” — Albert Einstein
Vegetius’ maxim is all well and
good when we fought with bows, spears, and swords, but we now have nearly eight billion people, weapons that can shoot thousands of rounds a minute, and bombs
that can incinerate the entire planet.
Suddenly, Vegetius’ advice seems more suicidal than a well-intentioned,
peacenik, feel-good vibe.
For twenty-five years as a defense information consultant, I have tracked
weapon sales and transfers and one thing I have learned is that wherever
weapons go, war inevitably follows, not peace. The paradox of our existence is
that while we want peace, war is inherent to our nature. We need not surrender to it, but we aren't moving beyond it by associating the ability to make war it as a precondition for peace.
It should be noted, that Vegetius
had no military experience, was not a politician, and his work has been
criticized for its inconsistences. He also wrote the lesser known Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, which is about
I hope it was more successful.
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