Why Nations Go to War

Why Nations Go to War

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (ALBERT CAMUS, “THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS”)

“If you look too deeply into the abyss,” said Nietzsche, “the abyss will look into you.” The nature of war in our time is so terrible that the first temptation is to recoil. Who of us has not concluded that the entire spectacle of war has been the manifestation of organized insanity? Who has not been tempted to dismiss the efforts of those working for peace as futile Sisyphean labor? The face of war, Medusa-like with its relentless horror, threatens to destroy anyone who confronts it.

Yet we must find the courage to brave the abyss. I believe deeply that war is a sickness, though it may be humanity’s “sickness unto death.” No murderous epidemic has ever been conquered by avoiding exposure, pain, and danger, or by ignoring the bacilli. Human reason and courage have frequently prevailed, and even the plague was overcome; the Black Death that ravaged our planet centuries ago is today but a distant memory. I know that the analogy between sickness and war is open to criticism. It has been fashionable to assert that war is not an illness but, like aggression, an ineradicable part of human nature. I challenge this assumption. Whereas aggression may be inherent, war is learned behavior and as such can be unlearned and ultimately selected out entirely. Humans have overcome other habits that previously had seemed unconquerable. For example, during the Ice Age, when people lived among small, isolated populations, incest was perfectly acceptable, whereas today incest is almost universally taboo. Cannibalism provides an even more dramatic case. Thousands of years ago, human beings ate one another and drank one another’s blood. That, too, was part of “human nature.” Little more than a century ago, millions of Americans believed that God had ordained white people to be free and black people to be slaves. Why else would He have created them in different colors? Yet slavery, once considered part of human nature, was abolished because human beings showed capacity for growth. Growth came slowly, after immense suffering, but it did come. Human nature had been changed. Like slavery and cannibalism, war too can be eliminated from humanity’s arsenal of horrors.

It does appear, however, that people abandon their bad habits only when catastrophe is close at hand. Intellect alone is not enough. We must be shaken, almost shattered, before we change, just as a grave illness must pass its crisis before it is known whether the patient will live or die. Most appropriately, the ancient Chinese had two characters for crisis, one connoting danger and the other, opportunity. The danger of extinction is upon us, but so is the opportunity for a better life for all people on the planet. We must, therefore, find a way to confront Medusa and to diagnose the sickness. Diagnosis is no cure, but it is a necessary first step. To begin with, the dawn of the twenty-first century coincided with two sea changes in the nature of war. First, September 11, 2001, demonstrated that nineteen fanatical terrorists armed with hijacked passenger planes could inflict serious damage on the world’s only remaining superpower. In the wake of that horrible event, al-Qaida cells, lurking in the shadows, have continued to target victims in countries all over the world, including Morocco, Indonesia, Kenya, Spain, England, and even the United States. Twentieth-century wars, on the whole, had fairly clear-cut beginnings and endings. The war against terrorism, by contrast, has ignored national boundaries and will end only on some distant day when ordinary people, going about their daily business, lose their fear of another September 11.

The second sea change occurred when President George W. Bush decided to go to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by invoking the doctrine of preemption, or first strike. This decision flowed from the president’s conviction that “to wait for America’s foes to strike first [was] not self-defense, it [was] suicide.” In Osama bin Laden’s case, the new doctrine made eminent sense, as it would be fatal to wait for a suicide bomber to complete his murderous mission. But in the case of Saddam Hussein, the doctrine was widely criticized because the Iraqi leader, despite his brutality toward his own people, did not pose a direct and imminent threat to the United States. Bush chose to overturn more than 200 years of American foreign policy on a dubious assumption. Be that as it may, the new century ushered in two new kinds of armed conflict: an apparently endless war against men and women who hated so passionately that they would welcome death to achieve their ends; and a preemptive war against an evil tyrant who murdered his own people and was perceived as a threat by a superpower intent on replacing him with a democratic government.

Let us now proceed to the major findings of my research for this book.

Source: John G. Stoessinger, “Why Nations Go to War,” Cengage Learning, Boston, 2011

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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