This question addresses the most tragic and recurring human event throughout history and, to this day, defies an answer. At bottom, the recurrence of war is nearly an illogical and irrational behavior.
Consider a fictitious occasion where boys 16 and older are dressed in uniforms and sent to a neighboring village to kill other boys dressed in different colors. The immediate adult reaction would be outrage and an immediate stop. Yet, when the age limit is moved up to 18, the same phenomenon is accompanied with garlands of flowers, downtown parades, and cheering adults in full jubilation. “Home By Christmas,” “V for Victory,” “The War To End War.”
Why is two years so critical?
Such, plus or minus the theatrics, has been occurring for the 6,000 years of recorded history, with no substantial pause. What is the classic “definition” of “insanity? If the word “war” was substituted with another acronym, we might just reconsider our acceptance. Something like “mass slaughter,” “organized killing,” “murder incorporated,” etc.
There is no human comparison to war, not random violence, murder, betrayal, deceit, belligerence, rape, dishonesty, hate, fear, plus all other expressions known to the human condition. Not the Mafia, Hells Angels, MS-13, or a bar fight.
Animals kill, but all for the same reason. Each war throughout history has been announced by separate causes, yet there must be a repeating cause that produces the identical phenomenon, minus local and individual circumstance. The Confederacy bombed Fort Sumter in 1861, and Japan did the same thing at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Were these different events or the same?
To be sure, wars have been universally defined as “necessary,” and, indeed, have shaped the maps of all civilizations. But is that a justification or an excuse? Nor does it even try to identify “why,” thus producing a mass and subconscious acceptance. They can all be defended as coherent, but the net effect is somewhat irrelevant. As in childhood, “he started it.” In the longer run, so what?
Throughout the same expanse of humanity, there have been multiple efforts to end the cycle or at least explain it rationally. There have been pacifists and protesters throughout. Willian Penn founded both the pacifist Quakers and an American state. Jeanette Rankin was the first woman in Congress (R-Montana) and voted against U.S. involvement in both world wars (the only dissent in 1941). Today, there is a statue of her in the Capitol Dome. Both were great individuals, but neither made a tiny dent in organized warfare.
After World War II, the greatest war in human history, the U.S. quickly allied with defeated Germany and Japan in the Cold War. We are still allied with both of them. In 1968, anti-Vietnam protesters closed over 250 universities (including my own) to stop the war. It ended in 1975, and, today, the U.S. has normal relations with Communist Vietnam.
The Question, “Why” is there War?
The best book to find general causes of war is (in my view) Man, the State, and War (1959) by the late Kenneth Waltz. He identifies three broad categories (“images”) to allocate lasting causation. First is human nature, mankind itself. This is undoubtedly true but also irrelevant. Human nature, like “air,” can be responsible for everything, including life and death, peace and war. In explaining everything, we explain nothing.
Feminists sometimes narrow this search to only half of human nature, men. Since all (most) wars are started and waged by men, they must be removed and replaced by “nurturing” people, women. Since this remains an empty hypothesis, we must suspend judgment. But journalist Kathleen Parker was once adamant on this: “Because territoriality is primarily a male trait, it seems that war will always be with us. Or, as it seems just as obvious, women could rule the world” (Washington Post, January 8, 2020).
Interesting thesis but poor timing, about 6,000 years too late.
Golda Meir (Israel) and Margaret Thatcher (Britain) might have trouble explaining this point to the Arabs and Argentina. This is the same problem as above: since men invented automobiles, it is not helpful to blame them for all accidents.
Waltz’s second category is the “state,” i.e. the political system that declares war. Here is the “democratic” theory of war, that democracies are passive and have not waged war upon themselves. This is self-satisfying but denied in history.
Britain and America were the only true democracies in the world, both in 1776 and 1812. Nor was the Confederate political system radically less democratic than the Union’s, given circumstances in 1860 or before (Jefferson Davis was President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War). To put an end to this theory, one need only trace the actions of President James K. Polk prior to the invasion of Mexico (1847). Also consult the government of Colombia, when U.S. warships took the province of Panama away (1903). The list goes on.
Finally, Waltz identifies the political “anarchy” that defines the nature of world politics. True enough, there has never been a world government, but that fact has not prevented almost every sovereignty, including the USA, from waging official war upon one another. That does not explain war at all; it just separates “internal” from “external.”
No End in Sight
So, what are we left with? Medicine holds out a possible cure for cancer and the common cold. At least they are working on it.
How is war doing? Take a look at tomorrow’s newspaper or examine what five straight U.S. political administrations have done in several places overseas. Examine how a varied mix of countries, regimes, sects, movements, religions, tribes, races, ideological “isms,” and political ambitions have created the divisions that dominated history and, now, the present.
Even today, twenty-one centuries after Christ, there is still a vast and widespread acceptance of war, violence, and terror as the first and only solution to humanity’s burdens of living together.
There is a renewed need for “statecraft” at the highest levels. This requires an appreciation of the “otherness” of other cultures, the need for patience and creativity in diplomacy, a search for lasting solutions, and a balance between military and pacific solutions to differences.
This has been the mission of The Institute of World Politics for thirty years.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.