In early human societies, and among the less technologically advanced until now, war is/was endemic. Simple societies are warrior societies that live in a constant state of lethal conflict. These are small fights, murder raids & minor skirmishes, but they are never ending. The “noble savage” was kept in top form by the exigencies of war. We cherish a myth about people before civilization – that they lived in harmony with each other and with nature. The fact is that it was more like road warrior, with death, capture and rape a constant reality. The only protection was the ability to defend yourself or hide in vast spaces. It was constant war and disease that kept the population below the carrying capacity of the land. It didn’t take long for our brainy ancestors to control or kill most of our erstwhile predators, but man preys on man. This is not an optimistic view of our species, but it comports well with the facts. Fortunately, people respond to challenges and especially to challenges perceived as threats. What is more challenging or threatening than war? In many ways our civilized institutions are responses to the endemic conflicts of our ancestors. War is the father of us all.
Alex and I went to see Victor Davis Hanson speak at the Smithsonian last week. He was one of the most engaging speakers I have ever seen. He was also very un-PC, as you can infer from the ideas up top that I took from the talk. He is one of the few historians that still characterizes himself as a military historian. Hanson points out that military history is extraordinarily popular. If you go to any bookstore, you see that a very part of the history section consists of accounts of wars and biographies of war leaders. Series like “the Civil War,” “Band of Brothers” or “the Pacific” win big audiences. But being popular with people in general and being accepted in academic history circles are different and often mutually exclusive things. I wrote about that before here, here, here and here.
Today people prefer to study peace, assuming that war is some kind of aberration and that peace is the natural human state. History does not back this up. As I mentioned above, our ancestors lived in a constant state of unrelenting war. Most of us personally live much more peaceful lives, but we live in a world that is still always at war somewhere. The ancient Greeks, Hanson says, recognized the ubiquity of war and didn’t give it much of a second thought. We can avoid some wars if we recognize what the Greeks knew and address the causes of war. So what are the causes of war? Hanson disagrees that they are primarily economic, although economics is a necessary part of most wars, it is not sufficient. Modern states do not have to conquer others to enjoy their resources. Albert Speer warned Hitler about invading the Soviet Union. He pointed out that as an ally Stalin was already supplying the Nazis with all the Soviet raw materials that they could expect to get by conquest and that he was doing it at a significantly lower price than the Germans would have to pay if they did it themselves. Speer was right and the Germans were never able to get as many resources from the Soviet Union after the invasion as they easily got before. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union for ideological or “honor” reasons. Economically, everybody knew it was a loser.
The same goes for our “war for oil” in Iraq. It makes absolutely no sense to view the conflict in these economic terms. Saddam Hussein was willing – even eager – to sell all the oil he could and he did it at a discount. After the war, we do not get more oil from Iraq and we did not take over any oil fields. If it was a war for oil, we forgot to pick up the prize. Some people might wish it was indeed a war for oil, because it is was we would have the oil. But we don’t. War is caused by a combination of many factors, such as fear, greed, honor and ambition. But these things are kept in check by deterrence of the power of others. Hanson says wars break out when there is a decline in the perception of deterrence. Put simply, people don’t go to war unless they think they have a reasonable chance of winning. It doesn’t mean that their perception is accurate or that they define winning in the same sense that we do, but war is not a random act and it is almost never the result of the oppressed just rising up, so we cannot solve the conflict by attacking the “root causes” if we find them in oppression and injustice.
Conflicts also require fuel. Consider the case of the Palestinians and the Israelis. This conflict has been going on since the 1940s (and before). The ostensible cause is that Palestinians were dispossessed of their land and they remain aggrieved. We take it for granted, but it is not the whole truth. In the late 1940s lots of people lost their ancestral lands. Around 15 million Germans were kicked out of places their ancestors had lived for centuries. The same happened to Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians … the list goes on and on. Among the peoples dispossessed in the 1940s, the Palestinians were a fairly small group and not poorly treated in relation to the other examples. In fact, much more recently ancient Jewish & Christian communities were driven out of homes in Arab countries, where their ancestors had lived a thousand years before the coming of the Arabs or Islam. Why is it that after all these years only the Palestinian problem remains an open wound? Why doesn’t the Silesian liberation organization highjack airplanes? Where is the Galician liberation army? The simple answer is that they had nobody to bankroll their misery and encourage them to continue the fight. They were also allowed to resettle. Other Arab countries could have solved the Palestinian problem years ago by simply doing what Poland, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, Finland and many others did with refugees associated with their countries. Why they didn’t can be explained by their perceptions of deterrence and their long-term perception of the chances of achieving their goals through conflict.
Anyway, both Alex and I enjoyed the talk. It gave us something to think about. One of the things l like best about Washington is the many opportunities we have to go to these sorts of things.
BTW – The picture up top is the Smithsonian castle looking NE on June 30 at around 6pm. It is what Alex and I saw as we headed for the lecture.