People often say that war is pointless, and it must be admitted that their argument is a good one:
What was gained in Iraq and Afghanistan? Things there are just as bad today as when the Western armies rolled in. And the threat to the West seems no less. To what end were all those people killed, mutilated, and terrorized?
What was the point of all the kingdom-versus-kingdom wars? Borders shifted left; borders shifted right; but the daily lives of the farmers, bakers, and traders mostly went back to normal after all the death.
And so on.
Even in the case of World War II – our best “wild man must be stopped” scenario – the facts don’t actually bear out the effectiveness of war. Yes, I’m very glad that Hitler was stopped (had I been there, I might have undertaken to kill him myself), but in full honesty, we must also admit that while the war stopped Hitler, it also made the world safe for Stalin, who went on to kill more people than Hitler ever did.
And without Stalin and a strong USSR, would Pol Pot have been able to kill a fourth of the population of Cambodia? Would Mao have been able to rack up the greatest death toll in human history… as much as Stalin and Hitler combined?
So, even in our very best scenario, a good argument can be made for war’s pointlessness.
But alas, I am drifting from my title subject, where I maintain that war is not pointless.
The Ruler and the “Poor Slob”
One of the more instructive quotes on war comes from Hermann Göring, a key member of Hitler’s inner circle. Notice the distinction he makes between the people and the leaders.
Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood.
But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship.
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
This explains why we so often see war as pointless: We’re looking at it from the vantage point of the poor slob, not from the vantage point of the ruler.
So, the truth is that war is not pointless… it’s only pointless from the standpoint of the poor slob who has to suffer and die in it.
For the ruler, war has a clear and compelling purpose: it gets rid of competitors.
States fight. That is as accurate as any statement of history that can be found. It was true 6,000 years ago and it is true now. Conflict is part of the core nature of states; they compete like animals over limited territories. Thus, war serves them.
Individuals can fight too, of course, but ask yourself this: Among the 200 or so human beings who live closest to you, how many fistfights have you seen over the last few years?
On the other hand, among the 200 or so states on this planet, several dozen have had wars over the last few years. Doesn’t that say something about the nature of states versus the nature of individuals?
The Other Reason
But it’s not just because of their perpetual competition that war has a purpose for state leaders. They also need it for upholding their legitimacy.
As we mentioned two weeks ago, every state rests on legitimacy: the belief that is it right for the state to take money by force, to punish those who disobey them, and to send children to die in wars.
If people ever stopped believing these things – if they stopped holding them as legitimate – the state itself would fail.
So, the other purpose of war is to uphold the legitimacy of the state.
One way to uphold state legitimacy is simply to work the perennial human weakness, fear. Thus, we have our modern “war on terror,” including this year’s new bogeyman, ISIS. The terror of monsters works for legitimacy, because scary monsters require something equally big and scary to stop them… and that necessary thing is a warfare state.
Interestingly enough, war is especially important for legitimacy just now, since “forever prosperity for all” isn’t working and the less-favored classes remain compliant only because they’re bought off with free food. So, war is one of the few things that still uphold the state’s legitimacy.
Curtailing war would help the economic situation, of course. But that would also remove the bands that tie millions of people to the state for emotional comfort. (See here for an explanation.) So, pulling back on war would probably be a net loss to legitimacy.
This is especially important to the state, because once legitimacy breaks, it’s hard to get it back. Following the Vietnam War, for example, “Team America Always Wins!” stopped selling and didn’t come all the way back for decades. So, with “forever prosperity for all” failing, war remains essential to state legitimacy.
My point in this article is that war tends to be pointless for the average person, but it’s definitely not pointless for their rulers. It is, to quote an old phrase, “the health of the state.”
So, when does war end? I’ll close by letting Albert Einstein answer that question for us:
Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.
That might be a good topic to discuss with friends and neighbors.