Coyning US into War

How to Run Wars: A Confidential Playbook for the National Security Elite
by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall
Independent Institute, 2024; xvii + 198 pp.

This is an excellent book, but I should like to begin, characteristically, with a complaint. Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall, who are both economists favorable to the free market, present an excellent criticism of America’s pursuit of global hegemony, ably showing the immense costs of this policy. They do so satirically, as if they were writing a guide to American policymakers, urging on them the imperative need to act ruthlessly to suppress dissent, spend vast sums of money, and destroy lives and liberty, all in the name of promoting freedom. They say they were inspired to write in this fashion by Bruce Winton Knight’s book How to Run a War (1936).

They do not mention, though, another book that attracted much more attention than Knight’s, a book that does exactly what they do in their book. The book in question is Leonard Lewin’s Report from Iron Mountain, which created quite a stir when it came out in 1967. It purports to be an account by a government panel that argues that government spending for war is essential to maintaining the American economy. It offers guidance on stirring up war scares. Coyne and Hall’s book follows the same line of argument.

Let us now turn from criticism to exposition and praise. Advocates of American global hegemony argue that America must act aggressively to meet challenges to the existing world order by China and Russia; if necessary, risking war to do so. “According to the U.S. State Department,” for instance, “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ‘poses the central threat of our times, undermining the stability of the world to serve its own hegemonic ambitions,’” but the “hegemonic ambitions” in question seem largely confined to acting as an independent great power, seeking its own sphere of dominance rather than accepting subservience to America.

Russia is a “revisionist power,” and Iran and North Korea are also seen as threats to “global order,” but why ought America endeavor to preserve this order? If the American people were fully and fairly presented with the costs of doing so, it seems highly likely that they would favor a much less interventionist course of action. However, these costs are concealed, and the state has ample means of doing so. Many of these costs will be well-known to readers of, but in what follows, I will mention some points the authors bring out that are especially insightful.

One of the gravest of these costs is that during a war, the government seizes substantial control of the economy. In this connection, Coyne and Hall note that in his famous speech warning against the “military-industrial complex,” President Dwight Eisenhower nevertheless said that such entanglement was necessary. In his talk, Eisenhower said, “We can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast importance. We recognize the imperative need for this development.” In going to war in the absence of a direct attack on the United States, the supporters of war must do everything possible to overcome people’s natural reluctance to sacrifice American lives in foreign conflicts. One way this can be done, the authors ingeniously note, is to get people to associate soldiers with sports events, in which fans display intense loyalty to their team despite the lack of a justifying reason to do so:

Nearly every sporting event in the United States—from high school to professional leagues—has some patriotic element. . . . In fact, the Department of Defense has actively paid major sports franchises—from professional hockey, football, and baseball teams to the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR)—millions of dollars to participate in patriotic displays with the goal of fostering support for the U.S. military and, by extension, the interventions in which the military is involved. . . . This partnership is a remarkable one. Communication scholars have noted how the entanglements of sports and foreign policy can lead to the “equating [of] good citizenship and good fanship.”

The Italian fascist regime of Benito Mussolini pioneered the use of sports events to arouse patriotic fervor.

Despite the government’s efforts to inundate people with its version of events, some dissenters usually are able to pierce “the iron curtain of discreet silence” and bring to public attention facts that show the falsity of the government’s account. These people are ruthlessly repressed. The authors aptly cite Woodrow Wilson, who warned those skeptical of his crusade to “make the world safe for democracy”: “If there should be any disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of stern repression.” The police arrested twelve thousand demonstrators in the protests against Richard Nixon’s bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, and the administration of President Joe Biden advised Facebook and other social media in censoring posts it deemed subversive of its policies: “When it comes to X [Twitter], the company has long maintained that it works to deter and shut down covert, government backed accounts. In reality, however, X appears to have been a willing participant in helping officials spread their foreign policy messages.”

In its campaign to spread the blessings of American democracy to all and sundry, the American government has tortured and murdered. The authors mordantly observe:

Over the years, it has become progressively important to employ the use of “clean” torture techniques in the vast majority of cases. These techniques induce the desired agony but when done correctly leave no lasting marks. This is important because even though violating international laws regarding torture in necessary for spreading liberalism, torture is incredibly unpopular. . . . As part of the battles in Fallujah, during the Iraq war, U.S. forces used chemical weapons containing white phosphorus. Other assaults necessitated the use of napalm. These chemical agents, which can cause serious injury or death, were necessary to secure victory in the U.S. government’s attempt to export democracy by establishing a sustainable liberal regime in Iraq. (emphasis in original)

Are the costs of war ever worth paying? That is a question Coyne and Hall leave unanswered, but they have shown that these costs are very high indeed.

Originally Posted at

By Mises