Chris Blattman

Cowards, every single one of us?

Early in the 20th century, the West’s intellectual elites rushed to fight the Spanish civil war. The same could be said of World War II. It’s hard to imagine the same today. What happened?

Russ Roberts asks this question of Christopher Hitchens in a recent podcast. Hitchens is discussing his book Why Orwell Matters. (Orwell himself famously fought, and wrote about, the Spanish Civil War. I have Homage to Catalonia on my Kindle right now.)

Hitchens, distracted by his own words, didn’t really answer Roberts’ question. (He’s not a terrific listener.) It got me thinking, though: why doesn’t  this generation’s intellectuals fight this generation’s wars?

Cowards, every single one of us?

Possibly, but I see a few other explanations.

The economist in me says it could be comparative advantage at work. Technology has played an increasingly important role in war. A sensible government would direct its best educated patriots to engineering and intelligence.

The armed forces also face more competition for idealistic talent. We’ve seen 10,000% growth in the number of international NGOs in the last 60 years. Those who want to fight injustice have many more options.

There is also the perception, probably real, that the army is no longer a friendly place for intellectuals. A consequence of competition and comparative advantage?

Three generations have also witnessed the examples of Gandhi and Dr. King, and the gospel of non-violent action. As we were driving and listening to the podcast, Jeannie sees her favorite bumper sticker: peace also takes courage.

But the answer that appeals most to me: today’s battles are not drawn along intellectual lines, but religious ones. The Spanish Civil War was the left’s stand against fascism and the subjugation of the European working class, and the way the West would be run. There is a battle for hearts and minds, but not within our own society.

Thoughts from readers?

28 Responses

  1. Bill Harshaw says “That was the age of ideology; this isn’t. Communism versus fascism–people felt they had to choose sides.”

    Adding on to this and to G D Miner’s statement, the place to find ‘ideologues’ fighting (in US forces, at least) would be right-wing Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. And their increased presence and dominance in the US military would tend to drive out intellectuals.

  2. I was in the Army in the 70s and even then it was not a place friendly to intellectuals. I imagine it’s even worse now, what with the Officer Corp some 95% Republican and probably Christian, too.

    I’m not saying a Christian Republican can’t be friendly to intellectuals, but when you consider that most scientists are not Republicans (not to mention Humanities folks) and most aren’t people of devout faith (ditto again for, say, History majors) then, well, the military isn’t a place that’ll give a thinking person an easy sense of belonging.

  3. “The economist in me says it could be comparative advantage at work.”

    I appreciate the warning that something truly imbecilic is just around the corner:

    “Technology has played an increasingly important role in war. A sensible government would direct its best educated patriots to engineering and intelligence.”

    Uh, yeah, sure. That’s it — rational resource allocation.

    It couldn’t have anything at all to do with buying off the troublesome middle class, and leaving the grunt work to the proles, who are generally too disorganized and desperate to object to the lousy deal they always get.

    “But the answer that appeals most to me: today’s battles are not drawn along intellectual lines, but religious ones. The Spanish Civil War was the left’s stand against fascism and the subjugation of the European working class, and the way the West would be run..”

    Well, Doc, there IS the small matter of the unparalleled wreckage and trauma of the Second World War. On these shores, it’s **might** be worth noting that there’s not a single American military adventure since Korea that had the slightest whiff of righteousness, or even middling self-interested strategic sense. But don’t let a little thing like history get in your way.

    “There is a battle for hearts and minds, but not within our own society”

    Exactly that battle is brewing. Ever larger segments of the American population are either kicked to the curb outright, or fleeced by the upper 1% who effectively control the society’s wealth. It’s more obvious that the extremely wealthy own the government, dictate the laws — yet are essentially unaccountable to them. And our current economic woes strongly suggest that their one plausible argument for rule — merit, superior management ability — is a bad joke. Does this sound like anything close to sustainable to you?

    You don’t see any struggle for “hearts and minds” because you’re cloistered, and — you admitted that you’re an economist — you lack imagination.

  4. I have a PhD in Economics and recently retired after 21 years of service in the Army. Most of the adjunct faculty at West Point are career Army officers who are ABD in PhD programs at prestigious universities. I taught ROTC at UC Berkeley where some of the best and brightest undergrads in the country were training to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan – not just Sociology majors but those majoring in Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, and Computer Science.

    Universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia have essentially “banned” ROTC. Professors like Brad DeLong were uncooperative in advancing leadership and military science as bona fide academic subjects while fully embracing the leftist politics of Peace and Conflict Studies which was, essentially, academic credit for anti-war protests. Other faculty members deliberately assigned their students to photograph or sketch our offices to provoke a security response which they they could claim was racial or ethic profiling. We had our offices and vehicles vandalized. Other ROTC departments faced frequent protests and VIOLENT counter-recruiting activities.

    The problem is that leftist academics view as “intellectual” only those who are created in their image. This is the same sort of arrogant elitism and ideological favoritism which has packed academic departments with like-minded people and indoctrinate students. There is nothing “intellectual” about suppressing contrary opinions and stacking the deck to let one’s own ideas go unchallenged.

    Why should any “intellectuals” in academia fight in these wars. In Vietnam they were openly and proudly sympathetic to our enemies. Many remain so to this day, providing aid and comfort to terrorists and leftist movements and governments throughout the world.

    1. I think you make a number of good points, including the banning of recruitment at many private universities. I hope my post doesn’t suggest that intelligent, educated people don’t fight for the military all the time. They do, as you point out (more politely than some others). And I’m fairly confident that many senior military leaders in the US have an intellect far above my own, not least General Petraeus.

      Also, as someone who graduated from a small public school in Canada that most of you will never have heard of, I’d hate to think that only Harvard and Yale grads make up the world’s crop of intellectuals (whatever that means).

      At the same time, my sense is that it’s relatively unusual for the educated and elite to join the military. Also, there are few prominent public intellectuals of Orwell’s stature who have joined today’s fights. I think that’s the puzzle I was trying to understand.

  5. Only an thoroughly indoctrinated intellectual of the left could pose such a silly question. It might be surprising to discover there are intellectuals outside of Ivy League universities that are not part of your homogeneous mass reacting to events like starlings on the wing. As with any group some are cowards, some are not. If you have to ask the question . . .

  6. Strauss and Howe, in Generations, posit that alignment of generational types determines how our crises are handled. With the Depression and WWII, the correct alignment resulted in a nationwide crusade. The same alignment is forming in the current cycle in the next few years. When this happens, America is going to break things in a major way and then feverishly fix it, throwing money, mind and bodies at it.

    This alignment was already past its prime when the Korean War erupted a few years after WWII, and was almost reversed during the Viet Nam War.

    Strauss and Howe predicted in that book that, based on the timing of previous cycles, the next major secular crisis should hit around 2010, give or take a couple of years. Not bad, for a prediction made almost 20 years ago!

    Every cycle renews and advances civilization by breaking, and thereby ending, the previous cycle. I suspect this cycle has existed in one form or another ever since our ancestors achieved sentience, and version of it exist in every polity.

    We are in the middle of breaking things right now.

    I’ve argued for years that the coming storm* won’t be a bad thing, as long as everyone is fed, clothed, housed and kept reasonably healthy. Every depression event in every cycle is always an improvement over the previous such event, a testament to our willingness and ability, despite our innate short-term lizard-mindedness, to actually give a damn about our fellow human being. If there is one aspect of American culture whose imperialistic spread I wholeheartedly support, it is this.

    * yes, I’m one of the tin-foilers who was screaming about private debt levels and serial bubbles back in 2003-2004

  7. Why must Americans “take a job to pay off their tuition?” That’s the question asked from Europe, where tertiary level education is practically tuition-free. (There is only a modest inscription fee).

    But, of course, that’s “socialist nonsense”, isn’t it? Right, giving everyone a free education that makes them suitable for durable, gainful employment, that’s socialism. Yep, stupid socialism …

  8. There are some people in the Arab world fighting for freedom. A comparatively small number who try to defend Iraqis from the US, but some do it. How many Americans would have the decency to stand for the Iraqis, even if they had the means and some credibility with the resistance ? And please, no mindless ” The US is fighting for freedom” statements. Only a fool raised on the US mainstream media would say that.

  9. I’d be interested in seeing some sort of rigorous economic analysis. That being said, I’m convinced the zeitgeist ideologies and class discrepancies would be weighted heavily.

  10. That was the age of ideology; this isn’t. Communism versus fascism–people felt they had to choose sides. (Remember, the End of History?) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote The Vital Center, arguing there was indeed a middle way. But his hero, JFK, still vowed to “bear any burden, pay any price…”

    Now instead of two over-arching ideologies, you have all sorts of causes: ecology, animal rights, pro-life, etc., etc. so a few people sit in the redwoods, others join Greenpeace or Peta, others protest at abortion clinics, etc.

  11. In today’s overcrowded world, wars are incentivised more by economic aggression than ideology. The planet and it’s dominating species are in a technological and Ideological transition. It seems as though we have come the full circle and regressed to aggression as a means to attain the scarce and depleted natural resources necessary to the means of our perceived survival. In such a world, intellectual heroism can only be defined through observation, as ideology is no longer defined by geography.

    Best regards,


  12. Perhaps smart people realize that we shouldn’t kill each other. We realize that if we’re smart enough, we will be able to defend ourselves with minimal violence, and we’ll be able to resolve conflicts at the diplomacy stage. In the old days our psyops capabilities were a far cry from what we can do now. And I mean “we” in the widest possible sense.

  13. Surprised an economist didn’t note this, but wages (opportunity cost) for all, especially skilled workers, has gone way way up. Why go to war when you can relax on a beachouse? Also, nationalism is no longer in vogue, and ‘intellectuals’ are now almost exclusively a left-leaning, cosmopolitan class.

    Interestingly, Israel is going down this same path too. Even though service is in theory compulsory, and intellectuals have long prided their service, more are avoiding service, especially the leftists.

  14. From my experience, the armed forces and the intelligence community are not home to New England intellectuals, with the possible exceptions of NSA, DARPA, and CIA. Why?

    1. The armed forces and intelligence community (call them AFIC) do not recruit from top undergraduate schools, except through a very few scholarship programs.

    2. The AFIC recruit from MA and MIA programs instead, but top undergraduates don’t go into MAs and MIAs. They go into industry and PhDs.

    3. As for the scholarship programs, everyone I know who took a Boren took a job in the private sector to pay off the grants, rather than serve in government for twice the time.

    Why does the AFIC recruit like this?

    4. The AFIC doesn’t know any better. Their recruiters have almost no experience with top schools. Those (other) recruiters work in the private sector.

    What about hostility?

    5. The AFIC got smart and hired some recruiters back. The only problem now is that the dominant culture does not appreciate “intellectual” smarts. It’s not hostile, just oblivious.

    6. Those who can be described as intellectuals tend to warn like-minded hires to seek work elsewhere rather than to stall their careers against the AFIC’s indifference.

    What about competition?

    7. NGOs aren’t the problem. In my graduating class, very few NGO types showed interest in government careers. You don’t find CIA on Idealist!

    8. It’s the private sector. I worked in the AFIC one summer. During fall recruiting season, private sector recruiters took a serious interest in that experience; the AFIC didn’t.

    Why the private sector?

    9. Responsibility. Money. Advancement. Training. Choice of residence. Recruiters call this generation the “Millennials”—selfish, confident, picky. Maybe sacrifice is dead.


    10. Mom and dad. There is social pressure on 1950s/60s liberals to keep kids out of the AFIC. You don’t make mom and dad proud by going into the AFIC. You shame them.

  15. The comparative advantage argument strikes me as strong. However, one outlier (partly in line with your third point) is that of American Jewish intellectuals. I know of many well-educated elites who at least claim that they would go fight on behalf of Israel for reasons of ethnicity and geostrategic interest. Many would be fighting for an ideology, right?

  16. Oh, and on the “bad guy” side, we’ve had the German cell around Mohammed Atta, and the American John Walker Lindh, among others.

  17. I am convinced that at least a few of the people in the US and European armies who signed up, knowing they would be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, did so essentially with ideological motives. I think these motives are still similar – along the lines of “prevent the resurgence of insane dictators in these countries”.
    As it was then for Spain (Comintern!), the proximity of recruitment offices makes signing up for these two wars in particular easy.
    I myself think of signing up for another tour in the Bundeswehr (my military service was seven years ago) after finishing my studies, even though the risk-adjusted pay isn’t great.
    Oh, and in case the shortage of books is puzzling you: the Orwells and Malraux among today’s just-cause-soldiers are likely processing their combat experience in the media of the moment. Watch more TV.

  18. First, which wars would intellectuals fight today? There don’t seem any obvious choices. Left wing liberation movements are discredited; nationalism’s appeal is strictly local.

    Second, maybe the thirties was unique. Many people had experience of combat in WWI. I don’t know how many educated people took part in wars of liberation during the 19th century. (OK, Byron.)

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