Why War?

In 1989, I was on the fourth floor of the Bobst library at NYU. Having read most of the books on Nazism, Hitler and the Holocaust, I drifted across the aisle and started browsing through the volumes on the First World War—and was astonished at what I discovered.

I was astonished—not only by the persistence and magnitude of the slaughter—but by the blasé way historians described what had occurred. It seemed as if mass murder was taken for granted: nothing special. At least the Holocaust evoked shock and bewilderment. But the extermination of 9 million human beings (most of them young men) evoked little amazement.

I began studying the topic more deeply, assuming historians would reveal the causes. What was so significant that could generate such massive slaughter? Of course, historians were able to trace how one event led to another. But why did the slaughter take place? Why was it necessary? Gradually, I realized historians were unable to answer these questions.

Orion and I were reading back issues of the New York Review of Books earlier this week—as a model for Library of Social Science Book Reviews—and came across a terrific article by Jason Epstein. In his review essay, Epstein poses several questions I have been thinking about during the past 25 years.

Reviewing John Keegan’s The First World War, Epstein conveys this great historian’s conclusion: that the nations of Europe (and the world) “had no compelling reason to fight.” Keegan asked: “Why did the states of Europe proceed as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization?” It is this question—and others like it—that we pose in this Newsletter, and through our Websites.

The most profound flaw in the thinking of historians and political scientists is their assumption of rationality. They proceed as if it is possible to identify “real reasons” for mass murder—and for the tendency of nation-states to proceed as if self-extermination was their objective.

Epstein cites a sermon presented by the Bishop of London in 1915, who urged Englishmen to kill Germans…to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well the old,…to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed. As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity…for the principles of Christianity. I look upon everyone who dies in it as a martyr.

The words in this brief passage (that easily could have come out of Hitler’s mouth) reveal several themes that have emerged from my research on collective forms of violence.
Warfare revolves around the idea that it is necessary to kill or destroy the enemy. There is blind passion in the Bishop’s words—he insists it is necessary to “kill Germans,” the “good as well as the bad,” the “young men as well as the old”. Why this belief that it necessary to kill—or kill off—each and every member of another nation or societal group?

Nations and enemies go together. It seems that one requires the other, almost as if nations need enemies in order to energize themselves—to stay alive. The nation’s identity seems to be dependent on its capacity to identify an enemy to hate, revile—and possibly kill.

The Bishop asserts that it is necessary to kill Germans “lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed.” I have found that the idea of “rescuing civilization” is central in generating warfare. War is not about “primitive aggression.” Rather, nations initiate acts of war when they imagine that the future of civilization is at stake.

Somehow, the other civilization (or group) is imagined to threaten the existence of one’s own civilization. This principle applies to contemporary political struggles—as well as the First World War. Warfare arises as a form of morality, or moral righteousness. The enemy Other is imagined to be acting to destroy one’s own society. Violent acts are therefore necessary—required.

Hitler explained, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” If you think about any case of political violence that you have studied or are familiar with, you will probably conclude that Hitler’s statement is applicable. Collective forms of violence are undertaken in the name of a rescue fantasy. “Yes, we are performing acts of inhumane violence. However, if our nation or society is to survive, we have no other choice but to undertake them.”

The Bishop’s war cry, Epstein observes, could have “landed him in an asylum” had he delivered it a year earlier. Warfare, it would appear, renders normal what in other circumstances would be judged insane. Outside the context of war, asking men to get out of trenches and to run into machine gun fire and artillery shells for four years—would be considered a form of insanity.

I worked with a psychiatrist in 1998 developing an all-day seminar on warfare. She was not a historian and was unfamiliar with the First World War. We were sitting on a couch watching Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). When we came to the scene in which soldiers were compelled to get out of their trench and move into no man’s land—in the face of massive shelling (click the link to view the video), she jumped up from the couch and screamed, “It’s crazy. It’s insane.”

This, perhaps, is the normal or natural reaction of a human being who has not been socialized into the historical discourse on the First World War. And yes, what occurred between 1914 and 1918 was insane. However, we don’t like to say this. We shy away from acknowledging that insane forms of behavior are contained within the fabric of civilization.

What’s more, human beings to not seem to be ashamed of their proclivity toward mass murder and self-destruction. Leaders who are responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings often live to a ripe old age. Perhaps we are even proud of our willingness to kill and die for abstract ideas—our sacred ideals. It’s what distinguishes us from other animals.

Can we begin to “bracket” the ideology of warfare—to conceive of this institution as something other than who we are? Post-modernists have deconstructed nearly everything. However, the idea of warfare (and of the nation-state, which generates war) reigns supreme.

It is easy to be “against” war. However, we have yet to pose and answer fundamental questions: Precisely what is warfare? Why do we need it? Why have human beings become so attached to the idea or ideology of warfare? These are questions we seek to answer through our Library of Social Science Newsletter, our Ideologies of War website, and through Library of Social Science Book Reviews.

We may not be ready to conceive of warfare as an institutionalized form of insanity. So let’s say that warfare is like a dream that many people are having at once: a collective fantasy that has been embraced and called “reality.”

We hope you will join us in our project of working to awaken from the nightmare of history.

3 thoughts on “Why War?

  1. Harland Nelson

    Excellent essay. I add below my own thoughts on the subject, which I composed in 2008; I’ve edited it only to remove the references to Memorial Day 2008, since I still think what it says.



    I do my Memorial Day duty: stand at parade rest listening to the American Legion quasi-religious ritual accompanying the tossing of floral tributes to the dead vets into the river, and then walk to the court house to hear the usual speeches, see the wreaths placed on the crosses representing all the wars in our history (what a lot of them), and finally walk up to stand with my cohort when the Air Force vets are summoned.

    I think it’s appropriate to remember the dead veterans. But much of what goes on is folderol. The American Legion ritual is really heretical: it speaks of the heroic dead gathered in eternity, as if God has them in a special section of heaven (where they are because they died to defend the US, you see). I didn’t this time hear the phrase that especially grates on my ear–that they gave their lives. They lost their lives. Nobody goes to war planning to give his life, but hoping not to. If we are to speak truly of “sacrificing” their lives, we’d have to say somebody else did the sacrificing of their lives.

    Memorial Day observances really trivialize what the dead went through; it’s all so tidy, neat rows of crosses, peaceful–the horror and suffering of war isn’t part of the day. We only do the easy half of what Memorial Day is about; we praise the dead for “giving” their lives to defend our freedoms, which is a roundabout way of praising ourselves for the wonderful nation-state that we are. The other half, the confession we ought to be making, isn’t there–the confession of our guilt and responsibility as a people for not having found another way of settling our international disputes, or for having ignoble national aims that we send young men (and now young women) to die for.

    There was a Congressional resolution in 1950 or thereabouts that spoke of dedicating ourselves on Memorial Day to making peace. Not much about that in Memorial Day observances.


    1. Orion Anderson

      Excellent. Very well-written. Thank you.

      One can think of the entire complex as one gigantic fantasy: “giving” one’s life to the omnipotent nation-state: our own fantasy of eternity. But what a powerful dream–that can structure reality.

      But what are the “international disputes” that generate warfare. Perhaps the disputes resolve around–not “real” issues–but precisely competition between omnipotent fantasies: my country is greater than your country; my god is greater than your god.

      The nation “sucks us in:” requires that we become bound to it. Finally, it’s a word: Why so powerful?

  2. Gregory Campbell

    I suggest that the answer to the excellent question of WHY WAR can be found in examining the evolution of Consciousness. Just as our bodies require some 20 years, Consciousness also requires a maturation process.

    Although we learn to speak quite naturally the maturation of Consciousness requires the support of adults who have already reached a truly mature level of Consciousness.

    Among native people this was quite clearly intuitively understood. And it appears all native peoples had, in many cases, developed quite remarkable events to spark Initiation into Adulthood.

    In our society Rites of Passage are either basically absent and/or seen as not necessary for civilized people.

    It is true enough that some native peoples such as the Aztecs were quite war like and I am not claiming that the native peoples had solved the problem of warfare. However, there is a small sub group of people thru out the world who have reached a mature level of consciousness such that they are incapable of war. These are the Mystics…

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