War is innate to the human species. It’s part of our hierarchical social structure and goes back to our heritage as primates in the monkey troupe. Anytime a group of human beings gets large enough—whether tribe, city-state, country, or nation—to have common interests—whether political, social, economic, or cultural—among its members not related by blood, you will find an instinct to defend those interests. We will defend them against competing socioeconomic or national groups, whether human or not. It’s in our nature.
The apparent exception to this would seem to be the U.S. involvement in the two world wars of the last century. In each case, there was a strong isolationist, America First sentiment that kept us out of the first war for three years and out of the second war for two. Both of those wars were European and, in the case of the second, European and East Asian affairs.1 America had economic ties to both sides and good reason to stay neutral—at least until the war finished up in each area and had the potential to cross one or the other ocean to reach us. But we had strong cultural affinity with the Anglo-French side of the first war (“Lafayette, we are here!”), and we were attacked in Hawaii—our territory, not yet a state—in the second. That attack was a blunder on the part of the Japanese, but it gave us an excuse to follow up on our cultural affinity with the British and Australians in both theaters. And, given the expansionist nature of German and Japanese foreign policies, we suspected they both would sooner or later be coming after us.
So yes, even when the U.S. is fighting on foreign soil without a direct and immediate threat to our irreducible national interests, we still feel the need to go to war.
War has become a terrible thing. It is no longer a matter of trained soldiers killing each other with swords and spears, slings and arrows, and occasionally torching the villages, raping the women, and slaughtering the children of the vanquished side. War has become a mechanized business that, with the invention of saturation bombing and nuclear weapons, threatens to obliterate whole civilian populations and render present military capability obsolete.
And yet, terrible as the nature of war has become, no human society is prepared to give it up. We become inured to terror; we try to put rules on the nature of conflict; we hope that some spark of human decency—or at least self-interest—will help us refrain from global annihilation. But we are not prepared to give up the idea of war altogether.
And there is a reason for that. War—taking up arms, banding together, and preparing to go down fighting—is the last resort of any group. It is what you do when there is no alternative.
After those two world wars, enlightened minds in the West conceived of a grand, globally supported council that would keep this atrocity from ever happening again. The League of Nations after World War I and the United Nations after World War II were both supposed to be places for reconciling national differences short of war. The League died quickly, and the United Nations limps along as a debating society, public “conscience,” occasional source of toothless “peacekeepers,” and promoter of international good works through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to less developed countries. But no one actually goes to the Security Council for redress of grievances, and no nation would wait to adopt resolutions and legislation from the General Assembly in place of its own laws.2
Under the pressure of the Cold War and potential nuclear annihilation, many science-fiction memes arose about alternatives to war. In one Star Trek episode, for example, the opposing governments on a planet suffering an interminable global war agreed not to fight but instead feed their battle strategies into a common computer. The computer would dispassionately consider all the factors, declare a winner, and then assign civilian casualties on each side. And each nation pledged to send that many docile people into internationally monitored cremation chambers, rather than risk a further outbreak of their devastating global war.
In other scenarios, authors have suggested that instead of fighting and dying, nations resolve their differences through games. Pitting our best chess or go player against their best and pledging to stand down and honor the result was seen as a way to avoid war’s devastation. Of course, that system would be open to cheating: one side might, for instance, hire a mercenary chess master to represent it. And any other game with less than perfect knowledge—for example, poker with its capacity for bluffing, or Risk®with its reliance on dice rolling—would have the potential for outright deception and cheating. Not to mention bad sportsmanship.
In ancient times, two armies facing one another might put forward a champion, their best fighter, to take on and beat the other army’s best. But how many times did the side whose champion fell in single combat quietly put down their spears and relinquish the ground? Maybe, sometimes, if it was a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, or if both armies were out to claim a disputed valley that neither side really wanted but they didn’t care to let the opposing side have. But if national integrity, right of survival, hearth and home were at stake, the side with the fallen champion would gird their loins and prepare for all-out battle. Because the stakes were important.
Alternatives to war like chess games, poker games, and other personal battles are too easy to lose—but also too easy to declare and try to win. And the stakes are not always clear. Sure, in the case of nuclear war, the stakes are your life and your family’s, plus the ground you stand on, all reduced to a sheet of radioactive glass thirty miles across. But if war is easy and painless, based on achieving a checkmate or turning over the right cards, then where does it end? Does Belgium declare war on Germany for the right to rule Europe—on the basis of a game? And if they lose, are the Belgian people prepared to become German vassals? Or march passively into cremation chambers?
Not bloody likely.
The same would go for the rulings any supposed international court of justice or the decisions of some international executive or legislative body. Would Belgium give up territory, or its national sovereignty, just because Germany brought suit in the Hague? Or because of a ruling in the U.N. Security Council? How has that worked out in Palestine?
Not all wars have to happen. Not many wars should happen. Not if human beings were rational, sober, honest, sympathetic, charitable creatures. Not if human beings took the long-term, Olympian view of gods or angels. But we aren’t and we don’t. If we all were as rational as Vulcans and dispassionate as Buddhist monks, we would no longer be human but something else.
Maybe that “something else” wouldn’t need war. Maybe that something else could look at enemies pouring across the border with weapons of mass destruction or intolerable social, cultural, or economic demands, and resign themselves to giving up gracefully and peacefully. Maybe they would bend and bare their necks, rather than stoop to pick up a sword or a sharp rock and fight back.3 But they wouldn’t be human.
War is the last resort. War is the resolution when policy, diplomacy, and negotiated advantage fail, when political, social, economic, and cultural survival are at stake, when the alternative is worse than dying in a fight. And that is our human heritage.
1. In the case of Europe, World War I (“the Great War”) was a total disaster. The political, economic, and social differences between the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire) were mostly minor and potentially reconcilable. A lot of the buildup to war had to do with feelings of national honor between the sovereigns—even though the English King, the German Kaiser, and the Russian Tsarina were all family related—plus some cultural and economic differences. It was a war that didn’t need to happen, except that Europe hadn’t had a good rousing war—other than the Crimean, and that didn’t count— since the days of Napoleon a century before and … it was time.
2. Can you imagine the U.S. allowing a General Assembly that is dominated by a coalition of Muslim states to tell us what to do with our Jewish population?
3. And maybe that would be a good thing: human beings as docile and careless as cattle walking up the chute to the knacker man. They would be a lot less trouble as a group and a lot easier to control. But they wouldn’t be human.