Tag Archives: pacifism

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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Money is Power—Since Last Week Maybe

So in addition to strategic planning with Habitat, and relaxing, this summer I have been drafting a manuscript on just-war theory and pacifism.  As part of that project, I am conducting a survey of about 150 major wars and conflicts throughout recorded history.  I want to get some sense of what actually causes wars and when they might be justified.  I have finished 40 so far and it is, in a word, fascinating.

I discovered the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763 in China, where potentially 15% of the worldwide population was wiped out.   I also discovered that Afghanistan was a very peaceful and stable monarchy from 1933-1973 that was progressively modernizing.  Trouble started when a progressive king pushed democratic reforms, which led to communists finding their way into the government, which led to a backlash, which led to a communist coup, which led to a soviet invasion, and the rest is history.

I will post more random observations that may or may not find their way into the manuscript, but I wanted to share one right now that likely will not: it is interesting how in earlier epochs of history military power was surprisingly unconnected to money and economic power.  In an earlier time, though still unlikely, the little guy could really take on the big guy and win.  Today, economic might is tied directly to military might, and the rich country is, almost automatically, the more powerful. Obviously, the country that can produce more tanks, guns, aircraft, ammunition, food, etc., should generally win.  However, before the industrial revolution, a bigger economy did not guarantee your safety and better military technology was not automatically had through vibrant industry.  Consider these examples:

  1. Ancient greece before Pericles or the Aetolian League was, compared to it’s neighbors Egypt and Persia for example, a cultural backwater of poor sots, of city-states trying to scratch out a living on relatively infertile lands and a comparatively fish-less sea.  Egypt was already a well-established and wealthy civilization.  When the Athenians and Spartans fought the Persians, it was roughly equivalent to America fighting Honduras, and Honduras winning.  The greeks might not have had much money, or commerce, or industry, but they had the phalanx, and that was enough to defend themselves against the mighty Persian empire.
  2. Even within the Greeks, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece, and beat the Athenians at the height of Athenian power.  But they were famously poor.  Please enjoy the following quote from Thucydides that I love dearly (I neglected to include this when I first published this post).  It comes at the beginning of his brilliant account of the Peloponnesian War. It seems to me incredibly far-sighted. The man had a proper sense of history, and makes a clear point: wealth does not equal power.”Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly skeptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.”  Source.   Emphasis added.
  3. Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered the persians, and the Egyptians, and the Greeks, and others too.  He did not have much more money.  Instead, he had a phalanx too, but one in which they got rid of their shields so they could hold longer spears.
  4. Rome, that pantheon of wealth and economic power, fell prey to relatively poor barbarian hordes.
  5. The mongols were poor nomadic peoples whose hordes conquered the wealthy Chinese civilization, the wealthy Persians, and many others.  Those steppe peoples had excellent cavalry, but very little money or economic power.
  6. The nomadic Arabs conquered Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Persia, the Byzantines, etc., and they also did not have incredible economic might.
  7. The English under queen Elizabeth went up against the mighty Spanish, who were far superior in money and arms, and yet were still defeated.

The list goes on…

It is hard to imagine this world because it is so different from our own.  Our basic understanding of geopolitics is thwarted.  Imagine if the richest countries in the world fearing invasion by poor neighbors who might covet foreign wealth.  This is a world where the United States would fear an invasion by Haiti, and where starving Haitians figure they might try their hand at an invasion, since, after all, it might succeed.

In theory, I like the old world.  I like the romance of powerful peasant countries.  But perhaps, in our new world order, war will become increasingly unlikely because a poor country can’t just invade a rich country because they covet foreign wealth.  But it also means that the rich will get richer, and their wealth will be unavailable to the poor, even if they are incredible soldiers led by Alexander the Great himself.

But maybe I am wrong.  But what about Vietnam?   What about Afghanistan?  Aren’t these modern examples of the little economy beating the big economy?  Perhaps, or perhaps these are exceptions that prove the rule, or perhaps victory of the little guy over the big guy is still possible—at least when the little guy’s military equipment is being shipped in from rival big guys’.