War entails a prodigal destruction of human life and welfare. The death toll for 20th century wars was well over 100 million. Moreover, our world is currently threatened by catastrophic nuclear war that could wipe out all human life on planet Earth. These grim realities are widely known, and yet warfare remains astonishingly popular. The historians Will and Ariel Durant point out that less than 8% of the approximately 3,500 years of recorded history have been without warfare. And since 1900, every single year has witnessed substantial military conflict somewhere on the planet.
How can we explain the glaring contradiction between the undoubted destructiveness of war and its apparent popularity? One can always point to the profit hunger of the military industrial complex and to the cynical practice of bribing poor, young men to become cannon fodder. But such explanations for the acceptance of warfare are insufficient. Functioning economic and political institutions must rest upon deeper human propensities.
Former war correspondent Chris Hedges provides a plausible explanation for the enduring popularity of warfare:
“Even with its destruction and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.” (“War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”)
Survivors of combat often acknowledge both hating and loving war. Among the reasons given for loving war are: overcoming political divisions, comradeship with other soldiers, supreme intensity of the combat experience, god-like capacity to dispense life and death, and the heightened sexuality induced by warfare.
Love of war, it must be noted, occurs far more frequently among men than women. Perhaps biology and culture connect women with an entirely different existential project: the production and cultivation of human life. Given this project, women usually understand war not as a source of deep meaning but as despicable threat to their central mission in life.
Thinkers who elucidate the continuing popularity of war typically view it as a potent narcotic. Thus they are often pessimistic about the possibility of abolishing warfare. But I am more hopeful. If war rescues people from an empty existence, as Chris Hedges claims, we should ask what makes life shallow and vapid for millions of humans. Two structural realities underlie the psychological experience of emptiness in contemporary societies: the extreme inequality of material rewards within capitalist economies, and the extreme concentration of political power within capitalist states. These interrelated structures make it difficult for ordinary people (especially young men) to embrace the vital task of preserving human society. Hence such people are rendered vulnerable to the appeals of war. But if we build a society decisively more egalitarian than either capitalism or its historical predecessors, the narcotic of war will lose its potency and the permanent abolition of warfare will become feasible.
Hedges illuminates the camouflaged appeals of warfare, but he also issues numerous warnings about its lethal consequences:
“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.