War, part 4: why do we still go to war?
“Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom.” – William Pitt
Because some people have a strong interest in war, because people are so easily manipulated by flags and photos, wars continue. We are given all manner of reasons why we should go to war, from the self-preservation motive and the argument from fear, to the humanitarian ideal that speaks to our highest morals. We even think that we have to go to war because humans are a warlike species. Let us look at some of these arguments in greater depth.
First, defense of the realm. Who is trying to attack you and your country? Most enemies are manufactured, like the “radical Muslim” spectre champing at the bit to kill as many Americans as it can. The CIA consistently overestimated the threat from the Soviet Union. They used the threat to con the public into approving of taxes and debt to pay for huge military and intelligence budgets, and until the late 1960s had people scared to dissent. By then, they had already killed thousands of Vietnamese (who also posed no threat to anyone outside Vietnam), and were in too deep to get out without killing a million more. Hundreds of thousands of young men were drafted—a euphemism for military enslavement—to fight this war, and tens of thousands of them died or went crazy. If anyone is trying to use force against you, it is your own government.
But perhaps a foreign government wants to attack you and steal your oil supplies. The existence of government in the past has not prevented imperialism, as any kingdom that is stronger than the next one might attack it and take its resources. (No less significant is that national governments take those resources just like foreign ones.) Governments can be subdued if more powerful ones want to do so. Imperialism is an option for enrichment in the absence of free trade. When there is free trade, however, the costs of maintaining a war machine are likely to be greater than the costs of simply buying the resource in question. Wars like Iraqi Freedom are good to ensure that a select few corporations with connections in the government of the invading power do not have to pay premiums for access to resources that were previously in the hands of a despotic government, and thus the costs are passed on to the taxpayers instead, but after their cowardly army ran away, Iraqis still put up a fight. And in a place like the US, where every second house has a couple of guns in it, the people could put up that much bigger a fight. There is no reason to believe people would not willingly come to each other’s rescue if they were being victimised; unless of course some powerful government with a persuasive tone had taken away their means to defend each other. If they owned an oil field, they could hire private security to protect it. Again, a big military could break through, but it would impose big costs on the aggressors when they could just buy it at market prices.
Moreover, as Stefan Molyneux points out in Everyday Anarchy, one reason to invade another country is to control its state functions. If there is a state apparatus there to take over, an invader can just move in, like a new president moving into the White House. Everything is already set up to take from people and control them through police and intelligence services. But in the absence of a state, how could they tax and control people? Go door to door? They would have to start from scratch to recreate something that took years to develop and this time the population would be hostile. An anarchist society would also probably be far richer, because there would be no parasite class to appropriate and destroy wealth. They would not need the enormous military forces large states have, because most of those forces have offensive capabilities an anarchist society, which would be purely defensive, would not need (think stealth bombers and missile-launching submarines).
Control of territory and resources for the sake of power to rulers or profit for well-connected corporations is one reason we are familiar with. That includes imposing neoliberal policies, or forcing open markets on behalf of large corporations. The military-industrial complex has always benefited from war, since before Smedley Butler. I wonder why people get so upset when the military outsources its functions to corporations. People complain that corporations only do things for profit, ignoring the human side of things. Right. Like governments at war are so concerned about people. Would it somehow be better if governments took the reins? How about we just don’t go to war at all?
Elites have non-monetary reasons to start wars as well. Since people who are interested solely in attaining power (usually psychopaths) can be found in abundance at the top of governments, we should not be surprised how often wars are caused by lust for power. Many wars have something to do with maintaining the balance of power. Do you care about the balance of power? Does it matter to you if another government has more power than your own? Does it affect your life if Iraq is more powerful than Israel? But to those who view the world as a playground, relative power is everything. No one can control the sandbox but me.
Arms races lead to war as well. When one state builds its military, whether surreptitiously or overtly, other states feel threatened they will be invaded. They might fight preemptive wars, going to war when they believe an attack is imminent; or preventive wars, initiating force when they believe the other party will be more powerful in the future. Military build ups are again the prerogative of the elite and the ignorant nationalist. Strong militaries do not make nations strong. They invite suspicion, fear and preventive war.
Massive military buildup did not prevent the world wars; in fact, they enabled deadlier killing than the world has ever known. Whenever you read history about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the Cold War, just remember that none of those things would have been possible without the state. Then you have Costa Rica, Panama and Iceland with virtually no armies, and no one is attacking them. So why do we need bigger, stronger militaries? To project the government’s power beyond its borders.
These days, saving others is a popular reason to invade. Humanitarian intervention has a mixed record, from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan and Libya. In its modern form, it is quite new and admittedly has some promise. Unfortunately, given the promise it does hold and the successes its followers claim for it, humanitarian intervention can easily be abused. It is the fool who forgets that military intervention of any kind will leave innocent casualties in its wake. It will cost money that taxpayers should be allowed to control as they see fit, no matter what the outcomes of the war. And any successful humanitarian operation might be followed by ten that use the first as a pretext for more violence. With government, the temptation for abuse is too great. People who want to engage in humanitarianism of any kind should take such matters into their own hands, without forcing others to pay and die for their utopian dreams.
Two reasons to retain some helicopters and planes are first perhaps for self defense, depending how people perceive threats from outside, and second probably for search and rescue missions. But in both cases, the free market could find a solution. If there are people who want to rescue hikers trapped on mountains, no question a noble profession, and hikers who might get trapped who are willing to pay for their services, we have a market. It could be required to buy insurance to enter the privately- or communally-owned mountain. And why would they refuse service to people who somehow had no insurance? Doctors take a hippocratic oath; let the search and rescue teams discuss if they want do something similar.
It is not out of the question to maintain a military of some form. I am a strong believer in the effectively unlimited potential of humans. It is possible we could reach a stage where we could maintain constructive militaries who work solely to protect the innocent. Indeed, such militaries may already exist, in a few small countries no one will ever invade without becoming a global pariah. But where governments with coercive power exist, the potential for abuse exists.
Now, this problem might still exist in the stateless society, as communities might arm themselves threateningly in the manner of small, native villages, and the cycle of violence may rage. However, there are a few reasons to believe that would not happen in a modern, stateless society. First, communities would not live in isolation. Residents would continue to live and work next to each other, with little distinction between them. Not only would they be friends and family, they have economic interests in maintaining friendly relations. Second, our world has made great strides in communication. If one group feels threatened by another, its members could visit the other and discussing things. Third, if communities make the choice to become stateless, it will be because they realise aggression is wrong and counter productive. They would have made choices based on moral principles to never attack innocents for personal gain.
Many make the claim that war is deeply embedded in human nature and is an unavoidable constant. The evidence is not as clear as they believe, though. Ashley Montagu says war can be traced to social factors and childhood socialisation. Judith Hand says hyper alpha males are the instigators of most wars, and that war only emerges when cultural conditions enable it. If we could elminate the conditions of war, we could eliminate war. If we are not at war all the time, then human nature is probably just as useful for explaining peace as war. The widespread (not universal) occurrence of warfare does not mean engaging in warfare is adaptive or provides reproductive benefits. Moreover, it seems to have occurred only very recently in human history, and was not present hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The media distort our perceptions of the amount of violence in society because so much of what we watch features violence. And yet, most adults spend almost every day without purposefully inflicting injury on others, being the victim of aggression or even witnessing someone else’s victimisation. Not only is this true of us in our culture, but the same holds even for the most statistically violent cultures in the world. The cross-cultural data show that violence is the exception among the countless peaceful solutions we find to our conflicts such as negotiating, agreeing to provide compensation for damages, reaching compromises, forgiving and reconciling with friends and strangers alike. Douglas Fry reminds us that “[h]umans have a solid capacity for getting along with each other peacefully, preventing physical aggression, limiting the scope and spread of violence, and restoring peace following aggression.” These findings should not only change our understanding of war but our ideas about the necessity of standing armies, the purpose of military intervention and the possibility for non-violent conflict resolution.
Studies show that nonwarring societies do exist. The very fact that they exist seems to disprove, or at least call into question, the idea that man is naturally warlike. All human societies have believers in the supernatural, music and property, as well as rape, revenge and murder. Not all societies have warfare. In fact, at least 70 cultural groups do not engage in war at all. Apart from many smaller groups such as the Semai of Malaysia or the Amish, one could cite Sweden and Switzerland, having gone many years without war, Iceland, 800 years without war, and Costa Rica.
One of many examples of cultural groups who have not developed war is Australian Aborigines. Aborigines, under very different conditions from our own, developed relatively peaceful cultures. Bands that could have fought traded instead. They tended to respect each other’s territory. Band membership was open and fluid, and people had relatives and contacts in other groups (which is one reason I doubt the US and China will go to war). They also had advanced dispute-resolution mechanisms, such as duels, contests, meetings and reconciliation ceremonies.
Since male aggressivity is flexible, and can manifest itself in sports, business, and so on, it is the environmental conditions under which violence and war occur that need to be taken into account when considering human nature and violence. Saying that we are inherently warlike means there is no point trying to reduce or eliminate war. Why attempt the impossible? But these are simply cultural beliefs that we are socialised to hold.
Fry suggests war can be replaced by “more effective, less brutal ways of seeking security, defending rights and providing justice for the people of this planet.” All humans seek justice, though their methods vary. Some favour violence and some don’t. Much of the violence humans inflict on each other, which may have been called “senseless” or “evil”, is a consequence of the desire to right wrongs.
Not only is war unnecessary and lethal, it is possible to change our behaviour. Humans are so flexible that they can do various jobs in all kinds of societies and cultures. As long as we know it is possible to end war and make peace, we are capable of it.
The fact is, governments may at one time or another have a reason to go to war, and when they find that reason, they have a powerful, modern military to use in it. They will spend millions in taxpayer dollars to sell the war, using so many lies that are uncovered too late that there is little reason to consider what governments say about their wars much more than propaganda.
But if you really believe so strongly in military intervention, if you actually believe politicians’ and generals’ reasons for killing thousands of people, wounding and displacing thousands more, destroying houses and the natural environment, go do it yourself. I don’t, so I won’t be joining you, and I won’t be financing your war either. War is built on lies, theft and muder. I urge everyone to join me in rejecting and resisting all wars.
(See more on libertarian theory of war here.)