Before we begin it is necessary for me to emphasise that this is a very generalised exploration of the reasons why someone starts a war. Not why someone fights a war, but why they start it, instigate it, initiate it. It is also important to note that I am dealing in gross generalities, not the specific causes of the start of a particular war. There will always be exceptions to anything I put forward in this essay but that doesn't invalidate the conclusions I have put forward.
I suppose some people are also wondering what use any of this is for them when they are only interested in writing a fantasy love story or a sci-fi space opera? Well, on the face of it nothing. That is of course unless you have some sort of power struggle going on in the background between two groups of, say Mages, or it could be between various factions of an Assassins Guild, or a couple of Mercantile Companies, or even two planetary systems vying for raw materials. As you can probably imagine, you don't need two armies running about to have what looks a lot like a war subtly influencing how people behave and what they do.
One thing a lot of writers fail to realise is that their audience is extremely intuitive when it comes to recognising whether the reason why something is happening is plausible or not. This is particularly true of conflict, whether it is a war or a personal grudge. Regardless of the details, readers will immediately recognise a contrived conflict that isn't based on sound, historic principles. Whether they know it or not, they can always tell the difference. And that's what this essay is about. If you have some conflict between groups bubbling away in the background, at least you'll have an idea of what their possible motivations are as you design and develop the conflict. And the reasons will seem real and plausible.
The following is to give you a basic understanding of the reasons why some lunatic starts a war. Despite the fact that in some instances it may appear that one person is driving the state (group) to go to war, they can never succeed alone, they need the help of their supporters. So, despite everything, the decision to go to war is a collective lunacy, not the whim of just one nutter.
First, we need to define just what war is. If you look it up in most dictionaries you'll see something like this: WAR:/n. War is a state of open and declared, hostile armed conflict between states or nations. Unsurprisingly there are as many variations of this as there are dictionaries, however they all have one thing in common: they all define war as a ď. . .conflict between statesĒ, and sometimes they'll add ď. . . or between groups within a state--a rebellionĒ.
Regardless of how individual dictionaries define war, in my opinion their definitions are all too narrow. Wars are NOT simply confined to conflicts between organised states. Some ant species wage war, some groups of chimpanzees have been observed waging war against other groups and killing their rivals, nomadic tribesmen have wars, and street gangs have wars. In short, all manner of societies and groups engage in organised and directed violence, or wars. There are declared wars and undeclared wars and the definition of what constitutes a war needs to broadened. Here is my definition; I think it does the job adequately: WAR:/n. A state of organised, collective conflict or hostility between groups.
I didn't think that up all on my own. It was originally posted on-line by Alexander Moseley in an article he wrote in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy website here:
In this he says: ďWar is a state of organised, open-ended collective conflict or hostility.Ē I added the between groups bit at the end and I deleted the . . . open ended section because in war there is always an endgame, whether realised or not.
Now you may be wondering why I have spent so much time in trying to expand the definition of war from what is in the dictionary and why I've gone on to explain my thinking. The reason is that when most people think about war, if they ever do, they think of images of the Second World War, Vietnam, or possibly the Gulf War, they don't usually think of an ongoing brawl between neighbourhood gangs as a war; but it is. This whole part of the discussion is about broadening your ideas of what might constitute a war. And just to clarify the concept, if someone simply walks in and takes what they want without resistance, that's not a war. For a war to occur, those being attacked must make some attempt to defend themselves and their resources.
Now that we know what a war is, I suppose the next question is: Why do we have wars? The answer is the most obvious one you can imagine: Someone starts them by making a deliberate decision to attack people who have something they want and try to take it from them by force. It's just that simple.
And just what is it that people want so badly they are willing to attack and kill thousands, perhaps millions for it? The only reason people start wars is to gain more Wealth, Power, and Prestige; and usually all three at once. These are the driving forces behind most wars, if not all, even if denied by some and dismissed by most
A contentious position? Possibly. However in over twenty years of academic study, although I'll admit most of it is with regard to Indo-European conflict, I am yet to find a war whose root cause was NOT the acquisition of more wealth, more power, and more prestige for the attacker. Of course, I don't expect you to take my word for it and, if you care to pick any war and do some critical analysis of the causes, not the publicly stated causes but the actual socio/economic causes in their historical context, I think you will end up reluctantly agreeing with me.
Now, just to forestall the obvious argument that some wars are fought for noble reasons like the emancipation of the slaves in America or the prevention of genocide; these are the reactions to an attacker and are not the raison d'Ítre of the attacker. The Federalists didn't attack the Confederacy to free the slaves, they reacted to the bombardment of Fort Sumter. NATO didn't intervene in the break-up of Yugoslavia to save the Muslims from genocide, which was a by-product, they went there to stabilise the security of the Balkans region because Russian influence was still perceived as a major threat to European wealth, power, and prestige.
Given that human history is more than just littered with wars, it being dominated by them, it is ironic to note that, statistically, if you start a war hoping to gain more wealth, power, and prestige, then eight-and-a-half times out of ten you'll loose it all. However, if you are one of those lucky few who do actually win the war you started you inevitably find the butcher's bill is never actually worth the gain, or everything you gained is frittered away within a generation. All the English gains in the Hundred Years War were lost within twenty years.
So, why do people start wars if the statistics say you canít win? It's because people are basically stupid when it comes to a chance to increase their wealth, power, and prestige. Further to that, people are certain that THIS TIME we'll win, this time we'll buck the trend, this time we won't make those same mistakes. But they do, time and time again.
I break wars down into four basic types. There may be variations within each type, but these are only minor, and are unique circumstances specific in each instance--usually.
Wars of Conquest or Colonisation:
Also know as Empire Building, these are conflicts where one group of people invade the lands occupied by another group of people and either expel the original inhabitants or subjugate them by force and assimilate them (sometimes). This is s simple grab for land, wealth, power, and prestige.
Wars of Acquisition:
These are wars waged in order to increase a groupís wealth and power. It also has the advantage of enhancing that groupís prestige as well. Unlike conquest, they donít want the land or the people; they want the goods and money. With wealth comes power. The wealth can be obtained in any number of ways: plunder, ransom, reparations, slaves, punitive tariffs on trade, closing access to markets. The list is only limited by your imagination about whatís convertible to cash or influence.
Wars of Ideas:
The Crusades was a war of ideas; it is claimed. The Cold War was a war of ideas; it is also claimed. A war of ideas is one where two groups of people have opposing and irreconcilable ideas about the nature of the world, society, religion, commerce, or any other idea that can be used to motivate the masses to support their leaders stated views. Iíll try not to sound too cynical, but the real goal is the acquisition of wealth, power, and prestige; and in the case of the Crusades, a grab for land as well.
The Civil War:
A civil war is usually where a sub-group who doesnít have wealth, power and prestige seeks to take it from those members of the group who do have the wealth, power, and prestige. Discounting rebellion because that is simply a failed revolution, the highest level of civil war is The Revolution: The group is organised, well armed, has centralised command and control, and clearly defined goals. Next comes the Guerrilla War: The group is less well organised, less well armed, and probably has a dispersed command and control structure to protect organisational integrity, they begin with loosely defined goals that become more definite in the latter stages of the conflict. The Insurgency: This is the birthplace of revolution; a significant number of dissatisfied and disgruntled members of the group band together to protest their lack of participation within the groups power structures which denies them their chance to access wealth, power, and prestige. The group is disorganised, disparate, has little or no access to weapons, and has minimal command and control outside of small cadres with multiple ideas of what they want and how they will get it.
Of course there are other ways to increase your wealth, power, and prestige, but not everyone wants to marry the ugly daughter of the next richest noble in the land--war is so much easier and far less complicated.
Before people start to dust off their history books in an attempt to find every instance where a war was NOT started purely as a grab for wealth, power, or prestige, let me remind you again I am talking in VERY general terms about the reasons why someone starts a war. Nit-pick away if you want to but don't expect a detailed rebuttal.
An imagination of the first ever war might consider a step further claw back. Early hunter-gatherer hominids might have squabbled among themselves, even fought one another, though a troupe relied on each others' participation and contribution to, as much as able, the common good of the troupe. Separate troupes, though, warred over territory, resources, goods, and probably desirable persons.
Never mind each troupe probably thought they had an ordained right to the territory and its resources; and thought the other troupe trespassed, or some other real or imagined insult.
They warred, drew to a draw after much violence and maybe deaths, many bruises and blunt force traumas, and stalled short of mutual destruction -- and the survivors then allied -- because another troupe or two waited to attack if the troupe weakened. And so on.
What it was and is -- war -- is taking from others requires less effort than the effort to do for one's self.
Defense and offense, later, millennia later, are matters of keeping safe what one produces -- and steals -- for the common good of the family, kinship troupe, gang, neighborhood, settlement, nation, state, allies, etc., and outsiders can go elsewhere and do for themselves.
If a troupe shares territory, etc., they risk shortfalls. If a troupe trades, bargains, barters, negotiates reciprocal exchange, each participant troupe is strengthened.
Anti-war war, though, imposes order on unruly troupes. Attempt to impose imperial hegemony on peaceful contributors and participants, subjugate them to do an overlord's capricious bidding, serves to enrich a few at the expense of the many.
Though World War II entailed many unnecessary abuses by all factions, the overall intent of the alliance powers was to stop imperial monsters from rolling back the clock to an earlier era of imperialism. This and that troupe and their emperors took from others what was not theirs to take. Lazy habit -- sloth.
War, though, before, say, gunpowder, maybe earlier, say at the dawn of force multiplication maneuvers and unit tactics (Sparta maybe), or earlier, say when humans more or less permanently settled into fixed urban communities -- civilized -- functioned to improve and transmit genes, technology, culture, and strengthen humanity as a whole for the common good. No longer any common good in warfare, just wanton destruction and outright theft and murder and imposed imperial whim and possible elimination of the species, if not all life on Earth.
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