March 18, 2009
Blood and Treasure: Genealogy and Contexts
About three years ago, Robin noticed a strange phrase making the rounds in political talk about the costs of the Iraq war: “blood and treasure.” I’d noticed it too, and when he posted about it, I started to do some digging into its origins. I thought that it would be a nice tidy little search, make for a fun thread and discussion, and we’d figure out that it came from Washington, maybe, or Lincoln, or Clausewitz.
As it turned out, I spent the better part of a year trying to find out where “blood and treasure” came from. I exhausted databases. I learned languages. I asked everyone I knew about it. I gave lectures on it. I contemplated scrapping my planned dissertation to write about it instead, and when that seemed like a bad idea, I contemplated leaving graduate school to write a book about it instead.
“Blood and treasure” is in its own way the key to all mythologies. Tracing the phrase traces the history of human thought about violence, whether in politics, history, religion, philosophy, or literature. I wanted to share here a fraction of what I have found so far.
In the five years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a strange phrase has re-emerged: “blood and treasure.” In April, it appeared in the opening line of a report by Joseph Collins, a former adviser to Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon: “Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle.” In March, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain used the same phrase, but with a slightly different spin: “Important political gains have also been made, but far more must be done in coming months to cement the gains made in huge cost in American blood and treasure.” “Blood and treasure” was used so often during the 2007 congressional hearings on Iraq, by both supporters and detractors, that Newsweek writer Weston Kosova coined what he called “Blackbeard’s Law”: “As a discussion of the Iraq War grows longer (and more heated), it becomes more and more likely that someone will invoke the phrase ‘blood and treasure.’ ”
Literally, “blood and treasure” refers to the costs of war, both in lives lost and money spent. But it’s a strange formulation in two ways. First, it can be used on either side of the argument: in opposition to the war, by arguing that the war’s costs outweigh any potential gains; or in support, countering that losses already incurred become worthless if the fight isn’t continued. The common assumption, though, is that—at least in some circumstances—both lives and money can be exchanged or sacrificed for something less tangible, usually freedom, security, or national honor.
Then there’s the archaic use of “treasure.” Occasionally, but relatively rarely, someone will use the substitute “blood and money,” but it usually strikes the wrong note. “Treasure” offers both mythical grandeur and a touch of euphemism. It’s also well-worn by its repeated use just in this context of war and security, making “blood and treasure” together mean something different from the two words considered separately.
But the real mystery isn’t “blood and treasure” ’s appeal, but its origins. Where does “blood and treasure” come from? How did we come to talk about the costs of war in precisely this way? And is there anything we can learn from its origins that might inform our own position today?
A quick look at American history shows that it’s long held a special place in our political speech. You find it in the speeches and writings of Woodrow Wilson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln, all reflecting on the costs of American wars. What’s called the Monroe Doctrine was established in President James Monroe’s seventh annual message to Congress, where Monroe argues that America is obligated by “the loss of so much blood and treasure” in defense of its independence that it must defend the entire continent against European influence.
In the Revolutionary period, “blood and treasure” is everywhere: The Federalist Papers, multiple essays by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” It appears in Thomas Jefferson’s draft manuscript of the Declaration of Independence and in John Adams’s often-quoted letter to his wife Abigail on the same. Adams writes: “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”
But while revolutionaries in America were using blood and treasure to argue for armed conflict, many of their counterparts in England were using the same phrase to argue precisely the opposite. Antiwar members of parliament denounced the war, arguing (in part) that not only the war, but Britain’s continued defense and maintenance of the colonies cost the English people too much, particularly when England could benefit nearly as much from the colonies through trade alone. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith captured this mood, arguing that “employing the blood and treasure” of English citizens to “found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers . . . [was] a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers.”
Smith in turn continued a British tradition of wartime pessimism best articulated by one of his mentors, the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume. In his popular essay “Of the First Principles of Government,” Hume had written that mankind was “always found to be prodigal both of blood and treasure in the maintenance of public justice.” But Hume also had a feel for the Whig spirit that would later animate the American Revolution. What had distinguished the English nation from every other, he wrote, was its belief that “Liberty is a blessing so inestimable, that, wherever there appears any probability of recovering it, a nation may willingly run many hazards, and ought not even to repine at the greatest effusion of blood or dissipation of treasure.” This was the spirit of the Puritan Revolution of the previous century, which both attacked King Charles I for his tyrannical “waste” of the blood and treasure of his subjects and celebrated the “sacrifice” of blood and treasure bringing Oliver Cromwell to power.
It’s surprising, given the prominent role of “blood and treasure” in these political debates, that “blood and treasure” was most likely introduced into English through poetry. Among the earliest appearances of “blood and treasure” in English, dating from the sixteenth century, are in translations of the great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca’s “Trionfi della Morta,” or the “Triumph of Death.” Petrarch’s Triumphs were hugely popular during the Renaissance, much more so than his sonnets, for which he is chiefly known today. In the passage in question, Petrarch denounces tyrants, who in their vanity purchase treasures and territories (“terre e tesoro”) with their subjects’ blood. This echoes a similar passage in Dante Aligheri’s Inferno, where Dante and his guides discover a group of tyrants plunged up to the neck in a pool of blood, and is told by the centaur Chiron that “E’ son tiranni che dier nel sangue e ne l’aver di piglio”—roughly, “these are the tyrants who dealt in blood and pillage.” You find various similar constructions in Italian letters throughout this period, but it is Petrarch who appears to introduce the word “tesoro,” which turns out to decisively affect the appearance of “blood and treasure” in English.
The trail does not end in Italy. We find nearly identical formulations scattered across antiquity, from references in the Koran and Hadith (which may have influenced Dante) to Pope Urban II’s promise to the knights of the First Crusade that they will either make spoil of the enemies’ treasures or in spilling their own blood, gain a martyr’s entrance to Heaven. The Roman historian Tacitus writes repeatedly of tyrants who “revel in plunder and bloodshed (praedae ac sanguinis, spoliis et sanguine).”
Even the Greek historian Thucydides writes that the decision of city-states to go to war “cannot but involve with it many lives, much treasure, many cities, and much honor (sômatôn kai chrêmatôn kai poleôn kai doxês bouleusômen).” The Greeks didn’t think about blood in the same way that the Romans did, so they invariably use sôma—literally, bodies—instead. Likewise, chrêma can mean money, wealth, or even household goods, depending on the context. In contrast with the poetic symbolism of the Romans and Italians, the Greeks were stunningly literal.
From “bodies and goods” to “blood and treasure,” and from oppressive tyrants to democratic publics, the loss of life and wealth in war inevitably commands our attention and preoccupies our speech. What began as a direct reference became an archaism, a formula — one that too often gives the illusion of serious thinking. But like any similarly overdetermined element of language, it carries with it all of its history, regardless of whether or not we intend its full weight — we only have to look for it in order to find it.