Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Causes of War

Francisco José de Goya: The truth of war.

One of the most useful things an intellectual can do is to review the analyses and prognostications of an earlier generation of intellectuals. By so doing, he will realize the almost total futility of intellectual speculation.

The truth of this assertion is well illustrated by the pronouncements about the causes of war by prominent European thinkers in the aftermath of World War 1. Galvanized by the enormous human and material costs of that war, intellectuals sought to discover the roots of war in the hope that this knowledge would provide means to prevent future wars.

Many underlying causes of war were proposed.

Communists, including V.I. Lenin and most left-wing European economists, asserted that war was the product of capitalism and the drive for colonies to which capitalism gave rise, and that war would disappear from the Earth once all mankind embraced socialism.

On the one hand, this contention is a mere truism, for if any political system were to conquer the globe, whether it be communist, capitalist, feminist or vegetarian, there would, in theory, be no contending parties among whom war could occur. On the other hand, the idea that global governance of whatever complexion would eliminate war is an obvious absurdity, since in the absence of external threat, internal conflict leading to civil war is all the more likely.

Biologists studying our closer animal relatives, the chimps and baboons, gorillas and Orangutangs, discovered that fighting was endemic among them, which means, so they concluded, that the impulse to violence must be hard-wired in the deep structure of the human mind. To this conclusion the Darwinists added that war was good for us, pruning the weaker individuals and races from the human thicket, leaving space for the fittest to survive.

But the notion that men fight because of the violent propensity of their evolutionary ancestors flatly contradicts the Darwinian view that behavior is shaped by the present day contingencies of natural selection, not remote evolutionary history. During embryogenesis the human organism reveals its phylogenetic history by the transient formation of gills, but that doesn't mean that people can breath under water.

Moreover, in the context of World War 1, which killed so many of the finest of the European nations, the idea that warfare improves those races or nations that successfully engage in it was an absurdity. Thus, as James Barr, onetime president of the British Medical Association, remarked, "while the virility of the nation was carrying on the war, the derelicts were carrying on the race."

Einstein fulminated against war and patriotism, while advocating, with seeming inconsistency, a Jewish homeland in Palestine. All would be well, he seemed to think, if everyone would join him in despising the man who takes "pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band..." a man having a brain, Einstein wrote, "by mistake, when he needed only a backbone." War, so Einstein asserted "ought to be abolished with all possible speed."

Einstein, it is clear, was not, on the subject of war, a systematic thinker.

Sigmund Freud offered a more coherent theoretical account of the causes of war, which he maintained, arose from a primal drive to hatred arising from repressed childhood urges. This dangerous impulse, he argued, must be sublimated if human civilization is to survive.

During the interwar years, Freud's ideas held broad sway. Unfortunately, there is no more evidence to support them than there is for the contending narratives of Haitian Vodou or the Roman Catholic Church.

Remarkably, European intellectuals of the interwar years seem rarely to have discussed the actual and obvious cause of war: namely, that war offers what often appears the simplest, fastest and most entertaining way for those who rule to get whatever they want, whether it be land, slaves, oil, tribute, honor, glory or global hegemony.

That war can destroy a nation or set all of civilization into decline is, on that interpretation, irrelevant. Operation Iraqi Freedom will cost the United States around three trillion dollars, including the cost of caring for the human wreckage. But of what concern is that to the leaders: as George W. Bush shouted at the launch of "Shock and Awe," a murderous high-tech assault on one of the world's oldest and largest cities: "I feel good."

Which means that until the world is so arranged that it is the leaders who are at greatest risk of being torn to pieces, incinerated, crushed or buried alive in the wars that they instigate, war will continue to offer immense potential profit and enjoyment for the ruling psychopaths.

Oddly, it was the politically incoherent Albert Einstein, whose insight into the nature of physical reality gave rise to precisely such a check on the political leadership, namely nuclear weapons, that has served for more than 50 years to prevent another unlimited global military conflagration.

And still, as they plot murderous campaigns of acquisition or domination, the rulers of the World must consider the risk of being among the first to be vaporized in an act of nuclear retaliation.

But as a long-term preventive, nuclear deterrence is a dubious proposition. Miscalculation or circumvention will surely lead to wars greater than any yet known.

This means, perhaps, that intelligent life is a self-limiting phenomenon and that we are late in the final chapter of the human story. In that case, Einstein's political incoherence signified a fundamental clarity of vision: there is no way forward.

Or if reason for hope remains, perhaps that hope depends on the spread of Einstein's contempt and loathing for those who delight in the violent exercise of power.

These comments draw on the chapter "Why War" in Richard Overy's excellent: "The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars."

See also: Democracy, Realpolitik and war


  1. The Bonobo chimps are peaceful creatures. They hug each other a lot.

    - Aangirfan

  2. Male dominance is not a feature of bonobo society, but that does not result in a lack of violence, as the females make up, in aggression, for what the males lack. Thus, bonobo expert, Vanessa Woods, records observing:

    "five females gang up on a male called Tatanga and beat the crap out of him, almost ripping his testicles off ..."

    And here we read, that the females also hunt and eat monkeys - something that is never seen in common chimpanzees.

    See, that's whre free love and feminism gets you.

  3. What I never heard about bonobos -- included gratis by way of this very thought provoking post. Enjoyed reading.