Tag Archives: Just War

Why Wars Start

While I was in Sri Lanka, I was working on a new manuscript on pacifism and just war theories.  One pacifist claim I was thinking about is the notion that violence begets violence.  Undoubtedly, this insight is true and useful for understanding cyclical violence, but I started finding wars where violence did not beget violence, or where at least one has to make conceptual somersaults or view history through a strong ideological lens to make it true.

So I set about exploring the roots of 172 wars and conflicts, including the 100 biggest wars in known history (by estimated death toll), all of America’s wars (I am American-ish and it is the biggest superpower), and nearly all important wars in the last 75 years (warfare is changing in nature). I am coding conflicts’ origins and how the war was waged with an evolving schema of 37 reasons for why wars start (triggers and underlying causes).  So far I have completed the 43 largest wars in history.  It has taken me approximately 250 hours of work (just under 5 hours per war).

Why am I doing all this?  Four reasons.

First, second, and third, I can experience spiritual clarity for myself as I attempt to comprehend atrocity, indulge my love of history, and simultaneously satisfy my vain desire to win arguments.  At the end of the process, I can say with some level of certainty that I know why wars start.  I can also disabuse idiotic notions.  For instance, many people, notably pacifists, believe that wars start because of a lack of moral fiber.  However, of the 115 warring parties I have examined, I have found exactly four warring parties whose dominant actors likely considered their involvement in the war to be immoral.

Of these four, only one played an important role in starting the conflict itself: the Yan Dynasty in the An Shi Rebellion.  Therefore, I can say with some certainty that cruel intentions do not start wars. Also, from my research so far, I think that violence does beget wars, but it is not one of the top reasons why most wars start. By the way, again from this preliminary work, religion does not appear to be a major cause either.

My fourth and final reason for looking at why wars start is to end wars.  Once we have figured out why wars start, we might figure out patterns, leverage points, and ways to end them, and be able to guide masses of people in modern democracies towards that end.  Of course, I will fail at this if I am doing all this research myself.  Even people who know me and trust my intelligence and goodwill will wonder about my biases and where I am getting my information.

So here is the big idea:  Enlist a host of intellectuals in identifying the historical causes of warfare and run the numbers. Someone somewhere (not me, I hope, because I have other big ideas that interest me more) needs to get a foundation on board to figure out and coordinate a global effort. From what I understand, some of these activities are being done to various extents. I do not know who, if anyone, is doing them all.

  1. Identify a core team of historians and political scientists to create a rubric for judging the reasons for wars (like my schema).   
  2. Identify ethnically and politically diverse teams of historians who can summarize the historical account of the causal chain that produced a war, how it was waged, and the mindset of the major participants.
  3. Pilot the schema and 172 war descriptions with 10 intellectuals who will grade the reasons for why the war started.
  4. Adjust schema and summaries as needed.
  5. Recruit the top 150 intellectuals in the world with diverse political, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to grade each war.
  6. Run the numbers.

The goal: at the end of the day, we can know objectively, or as close we can get to objectivity, why wars start. Of course, the process might be different. For example, we might rely solely on historians to identify the causes according to my rubric, but the goal is still the same.

Some possible findings:

  • We might find out that wars start for very innocuous reasons that are preventable or at least predictable.  For example, the biggest cause of wars that I have seen so far is the emergence of power vacuums.  This, of course, is not the cause of all wars, but it has been a primary cause of 29 out of the 43 I have studied so far.  An obvious example of an exception would include the Jewish wars against the Roman occupation.  
  • We might find that violence does in fact beget violence.
  • We might find that wars are caused by inequality.
  • Moreover, we might discover the causes of different types of wars.  Civil wars, from my research, often have very different causes than wars between nations, as do ongoing unresolved conflicts that span generations (e.g., Isreal/Palestine).  Perhaps, conflicts with such different structures should not be compared.

Being able to have some objectivity when making the claims about the historical causes of warfare, especially the wars waged in the last 50 years, might help focus our discussions on the biggest causes and have numerous other benefits.

So now I am left wondering. Who is already doing this?  I talked to Alicia about this and she mentioned how some people are doing similar things at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the International Peace Research Institute. I need to learn about this more, but for now, I thought I would share the idea and see if I could get any thoughts.

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