On the Verge of War, Look Before You Leap

People understandably clamor for some response to the events of September 11, 2001. Devastating acts of war sear the souls of witnesses and the suffering alike. Yet history teaches that resorting to war often has consequences unimagined by policymakers.

For the world’s greatest power, the terrorist attack seems too much to bear. Professional commentators, and current and former government officials agree with citizens in the street: Military force must be employed, and overwhelmingly.

Possession of great military power has proved a curse to many civilizations. To the Romans, for example, a reputation as an outstanding military power drew an appeal to intervene in a war in remote Sicily in 264 B.C. The Romans said yes. When the other side asked Carthage for help, the Romans found themselves embarked on a century-long struggle for survival with the other most powerful city on the western Mediterranean.

Carthage’s great general, Hannibal Barca, became a symbol of the fearsome foe, the bogeyman of Roman memory. Even Rome’s eventual victory over Carthage came at an enduring price: the end of the Roman Republic. When Americans are told that they must sacrifice some of their liberty in order to ward off the terrorist threat, they might recall that the Romans found that victory on distant battlefields made conquering generals too wealthy and influential for the Senate to control.

In 1914, a terrorist murdered the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then fled to nearby Serbia. When tiny Serbia refused to extradite him, mighty Austria felt itself compelled by great-power politics (not to mention by the emperor’s anger) to invade Serbia. The result was World War I, the largest war in history to that time. Among that war’s fruits were the defeat and dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the abolition of the 600-year-old House of Hapsburg.

It is not only foreign countries that have encountered negative results unimagined by the statesmen who launched wars to which there seemed to be no alternative. American statesmen as well have felt the full effects of great-power politics. On assuming the presidency in 1801, one of Thomas Jefferson’s first acts was to send a naval squadron of four vessels to confront the Barbary states of north Africa. Jefferson calculated that this approach would be cheaper than paying ransom to those dens of pirates.

The policy’s results satisfied Jefferson. However, Jefferson feared the influence of the military on civilian government more than any other president in American history. What he could not have known was that his use of the Navy had set a precedent that later presidents would exploit in deploying the military with only the occasional wink and nod to the principle of congressional authority.

Four decades later, reporting the opening of the Mexican War, Mexican General Mariano Arista wrote to his government, “I had the pleasure of being the first to start the war.” His unit had killed and wounded several American soldiers and taken others prisoner. President James K. Polk, who had designs on the Mexican province of California, responded by requesting a congressional declaration of war. Within two years, American forces had captured the Mexican capital.

Polk unleashed consequences he had never contemplated. In the aftermath of the Mexican War, the northern half of Mexico was transferred to the United States. In the northern United States, a majority congealed around federal legislation excluding slavery from the new territories, while southerners overwhelmingly favored leaving the matter to the states. In the end, this argument brought on the Civil War. That war transformed the American constitution, led directly to the abolition of slavery and claimed the lives of more Americans than all other wars combined.

Terrorism is an instrument that is perfectly calculated to undermine republican government. By frightening the populace of the United States, terrorists can hope both to cause Americans to change the nature of the American regime and to respond with violence.

If Americans choose the military option, they should be prepared for further acts of terrorism. Terrorists recruit most successfully among populations who believe they have suffered injustice. Since military countermeasures likely will injure innocent bystanders, the “collateral damage” can be expected to include the friends and families of people who will consequently become terrorists in the future.

The use of military force often has consequences beyond the immediate battlefield results. Policymakers and citizens must bear that fact in mind as they formulate a response to the attack of September 11, 2001.

K. R. Constantine Gutzman teaches history at John Jay College, City University of New York, and is a writer for the History News Service.