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Theory on usefulness of war gets shot down

Brassed Off

by Francis T. Underhill

 On the day I was sworn in as ambassador to Malaysia, I also signed a letter that read: “Dear Mr. President, I hereby submit my resignation as Ambassador to Malaysia.” Every ambassador does this. The letters are undated and go into a White House file. It is a simple matter to pull the letter, date it, and inform the ambassador that the president has accepted his or her resignation.I received such a telegram in the late Spring of 1977, in the early months of the Carter administration. Kuala Lumpur was a pleasant post, but we had been there almost four years. With previous assignments in Korea and the Philippines, we had lived abroad for nine years. We were happy to be coming home. My new assignment was as Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University.

Our lives changed completely. From a highly public life as official representatives of the United States, we disappeared into the anonymity of Washington life. We rented a small townhouse on G Street in southwest Washington. I rode a bike to my job. Best Friend [Helen S. Underhill, the author’s wife – Ed. ] became a docent at the National Gallery and the National History Museum, and took courses at the Kingsbury School. We walked to the supermarket. Days would go by without using the car.

The National Defense University is part of a military educational complex that includes the National War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. These three institutions are located at historic Fort McNair on a peninsula at the junction of the Anacostia River and the Washington Channel of the Potomac. George McClelland trained his Civil War troops there. The conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination were hung there.

My job at NDU was to produce a research monograph. I was furnished a desk, a phone, and the services of a typing pool. My time was my own. I could attend lectures at either college, or spend the day in the library. It was an ideal job.

Marion Levy, a professor of sociology at Princeton, lectured in the first weeks of the War College course. Levy described the tremendous changes that have occurred in the past century and a half as a result of the expansion and application of knowledge, called for want of a better term, modernization. He argued that the human race was crossing a major watershed separating us from the way people have lived since we settled in cities about 80 centuries ago.

He pointed out that within the life span of two generations, world population has increased six times; gross world product had increased 80 times; the distance a person could travel in a day had gone up 100 to 1,000 times; our capacity to destroy life and property had increased a million times; and our capacity to store information has increased tens of millions of time.

Levy noted that the Egyptian farmer in 1360 BC, the Roman farmer in 60 AD, and the Appalachian farmer in 1860, lived lives that were basically the same. They would have more in common with each other than with an Iowa farmer of today.

The people of the United States, Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan, said Levy, are farther over this watershed than the nations of the Third World, but the process is taking place everywhere, and is irreversible. The basic element in this change has been the replacement of human and animal energy by energy from inanimate sources. Once people learn an easier, laborsaving method to perform a task, they will not return to the old ways.

Levy’s stimulating ideas sent me to the library for his book on modernization. I took as my departure point Levy’s description of the structure of societies on either side of the watershed. I asked how the changes brought about by modernization had affected war making. In the course of the academic year I produced a monograph entitled Modernized Societies and the Uses of War.

I advanced two propositions:


  1. Armed conflict between modernized states has lost its utility as an instrument of state policy. War is no longer capable of achieving the goals and rewards which successful conflict produced in the past. 
  2. Modernized societies are threatened, not by enemy forces crossing international frontiers, but by internal violence.



 There was no panic at the National Defense University when my thesis topic became known. No one saw me as a Samson about to topple the Pentagon. My military colleagues found it amusing and quixotic that I should be suggesting that their profession was obsolete. Several officers took an interest in my research and brought me references and readings. A former professor of military theory at West Point gave me a mini-tutorial on Clausewitz.

The director of research found my finished paper provocative and decided it might serve as a theme for a series of six dinner seminars sponsored jointly by the University and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. They were held through the winter and spring of 1978-79, and the title of the seminar series was The Future of Conflict.

NDU assembled a distinguished group of seminar participants from the military-academic complex including Brent Scowcroft, Robert Bowie, William Colby, and Adam Yarmolinsky as well as a number of generals and admirals. Also represented were the Pentagon’s intellectual camp-.followers from academia who work in think tanks around Washington and are known as strategic thinkers or Beltway Bandits.

My paper turned out to be a sacrificial lamb. I was not so naïve as to think that a seminar series sponsored by the Department of Defense on the future of conflict would agree that it had no future. Nonetheless, I was surprised by the ferocity with which my paper was dismembered. War between modernized states, they said, was still useful. It was ridiculous to suppose there had been any changes so fundamental as to affect the necessity of war. There was no linkage whatever between war and modernization.

I recall particularly the remarks of Dr. Edward Luttwack from Georgetown University. From Henry Kissinger’s day, pronouncements on foreign policy carried special weight if delivered with a Central European accent. Luttwack’s was strong when he said that I, as a mere practitioner in the field of foreign affairs, should leave conceptualizing to those with the training and intellectual discipline to do it properly. My thesis was infantile and bourgeois, he said, and merited no serious consideration. Biking to work the next day I passed Ft. McNair’s garbage contractor loading a dumpster. The firm’s name on the truck read, “Ambassador Disposal Service.”




 The events of the past twenty years have not, I believe, invalidated my thesis. In the next issue of American Diplomacy, I’ll present its main arguments and leave it to my readers to decide if they are infantile and bourgeois.


Francis Underhill

Francis Underhill, a retired U.S. ambassador with extensive experience in East Asia, regularly contributes commentary to American Diplomacy. His most recent article, entitled “My Time Isn’t Always Your Time,” appeared in
Vol. II, No. 2.

The present article was published originally in slightly amended form in the Henderson, NC, Times-News, September 28, 1997, under the title “Trashed by the Brass.” Reprinted by permission of the author.


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