Why Nations Go to War: Learning from History

Why Nations Go to War

If we are to seek understanding from history’s vast tapestry, we must also pay attention to its “might-have-beens.” These “might-have-beens” are not just ghostly echoes; in some instances, they are objective possibilities that were missed-most of the time, for want of a free intelligence prepared to explore alternatives. Hence, it is our responsibility not to ignore these “ifs” and “might-have-beens” for they could have been.

One such tragic “might-have-been” has echoed down the corridors of time. It concerns an earlier crusader, John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dulles, a stern Puritan, had scoffed at the containment policy and had advocated a new policy of “rollback” and “liberation” of Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union.

During the Geneva Conference of 1954, which marked the exit of France from Indochina, Chou En-lai, Communist China’s Foreign Minister, quite by accident, ran into Dulles in one of the corridors of Geneva’s Palais des Nations. The Chinese statesman stretched out his hand to Dulles in a gesture of reconciliation, but the American put his hands behind his back and walked away. A good Puritan would have no commerce with the Devil. It is tempting to speculate about the repercussions of this episode. What if Dulles had responded? Might the Vietnam War have been avoided? We shall never know. But one is forced to wonder, especially when one contemplates the 58,000 American deaths and the 3 million Vietnamese deaths that were to follow.

One final warning: How often have we heard that a particular war was “inevitable”? In my research, I have come across this phrase dozens of times since the “iron dice” of World War I.

Crusaders are particularly fond of making such assertions. In truth, no event in the affairs of states has ever been inevitable. History does not make history. Men and women make foreign policy decisions. They make them in wisdom and in folly, but they make them nonetheless. Often, after a war, historians look back and speak of fate or inevitability. But such historical determinism becomes merely a metaphor for evasion of responsibility. There is, after all, in our lives, a measure of free will and self-determination. One such case in point is deeply troubling. In November 2003, it was revealed that Imad Hage, a Lebanese-American businessman, had been sent by the chief of Saddam’s intelligence services to contact the Bush administration, during the final days of its rush to war, with three major concessions: 12 First, Baghdad was prepared to invite 2,000 FBI agents in addition to American weapons experts to Iraq in order to prove that there were no hidden weapons of mass destruction; second, the regime would pledge to hold elections under UN supervision; and third, Iraq would extradite to the Americans a leading suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

At the time this offer was made, the Bush administration’s preparations for war were complete. There was no turning back; war was seen as inevitable. The point here is not that a deal might have been reached; it is that the United States rejected the offer out of hand and thereby made the war inevitable. Now we shall never know and that, given the lives that were lost, is a tragedy. In his testimony before Congress on January 28, 2004, David Kay, who had served as chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq over a nine-month period, declared simply, “We were all wrong, probably in my judgment, and that is most disturbing.” 13 He did add, however, that there had been no political pressure exerted by the Bush administration on intelligence analysts to exaggerate the threat from Saddam’s Iraq. In short, the books were wrong, he believed, but they weren’t “cooked.” But as we have seen, this judgment was too generous. In the words of Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, “intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made.” 14

What is clear in the end is the absolute certainty with which all members of the Bush administration justified the war on the basis of the alleged existence of large stockpiles of illicit weapons in Iraq when, in fact, there was plenty of room for doubt. Moreover, the administration refused to grant a little more time to the UN inspectors who, as it turned out, had done a creditable job in disposing of Iraq’s illegal weapons.

Finally, Dr. Kay declared in his testimony that it was “important to acknowledge failure.” I believe that people learn more from failure than from success-if one keeps an open mind. But it is precisely that which a crusader finds almost impossible to do. Let there be no misunderstanding about this: Saddam was a murderous thug who demonstrated once again, when he meekly surrendered to American soldiers, that his highest priority was his own survival. But, as I have attempted to show in this and in the preceding chapter, he posed no imminent threat to the United States when President George W. Bush decided to go to war with him. I believe that Saddam Hussein was not worth the loss of a single allied soldier’s life nor that of a single innocent Iraqi civilian. I believe that he could have been brought down without a war.

As you may recall, during the final days of diplomacy in March 2003, I had approached the UN delegation of Pakistan with a proposal for the UN Security Council to designate Saddam Hussein as a War Criminal while also quadrupling the number of UN inspectors in an effort to speed up the inspection process. The Pakistanis were prepared to sponsor this resolution on March 17, but that very afternoon the president announced that the time for diplomacy had expired. Two days later the United States was at war.

From my experience with the United Nations for which I worked for seven years, I believe that this resolution would have been passed by the Security Council as an acceptable alternative to an invasion of Iraq, which had deadlocked the Council. Moreover, the United States could have avoided the breach it confronted with its NATO allies and with the United Nations. The precedent of Slobodan Milosevic is instructive here. He had been indicted by the then-Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal, Louise Arbour, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in May 1999 when he was still in power as president of Yugoslavia. Two years later he had gone from power to prison as a defendant in The Hague. In short, he had become a pariah before the world. The massing of a quarter million of American and British troops around Iraq, combined with more vigorous UN inspections might well have led Saddam to propose much earlier the desperate measures which he did in fact propose several days before the war broke out. And his new role as an international pariah would probably have motivated the survivor in him to act while there was still time. At the very least, he could have been defanged, and, at best, deposed without a war.

The cliché is wrong: History does not repeat itself, at least not exactly. But it does teach us through analogy. In 2009, the Americans faced a turning point in Iraq not unlike the British who, after World War I, tried to fuse three disparate provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, they failed in that attempt. Hope still remains that their modern-day successors will fare better in their efforts to help invent a new Iraq. Shakespeare described this challenge well in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the Flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of our life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full tide are we now afloat
And we must take the current as it serves
Or lose our ventures.

President Barack Obama faces the same challenge in Afghanistan where he made an inherited war his own in 2009. So far the evidence suggests that this thoughtful pragmatic leader will do better than his predecessor.

I love my country and wish it well. But I also know that history does not take reservations. It does, however, reward respect. Why does the human species learn so slowly and at such terrible cost? I keep wondering. What I do know is that, in the last analysis, the answer to war must be sought in humanity’s capacity to learn from its self-inflicted catastrophes. Why did the Germans and the French make war between them well-nigh impossible after a century that had witnessed three horrendous wars and the Holocaust? Perhaps because Germany and France produced visionary postwar leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Jean Monnet, who said No to war once and for all. Why was Nelson Mandela able to prevent a bloody civil war in South Africa? Perhaps it is total exhaustion and despair that produces visionaries. And perhaps it is the same as with ordinary people, some of whom learn and grow from shattering experiences, while others just get older-and more stupid.

Since the last edition of this book appeared, there has been a slow dawn of compassion and global consciousness over humanity’s bleak horizons. This is true despite, or perhaps because of, the catastrophe of 9/11. Increasingly, war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadjic, and Saddam Hussein are being held individually accountable for their actions before international tribunals. In July 2006, a UN-Cambodian tribunal was sworn in, at long last, eight years after the death of Pol Pot, to bring to justice the remaining war criminals of the “Khmer Rouge” killing fields.

And, in December, the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, sentenced a priest to fifteen years in prison for the bulldozing of 2,000 Tutsi refugees who had found refuge in his church in Rwanda in 1994.15 And in 2009, the main pepetrator of this crime was arrested after hiding in eastern Congo for fifteen years. Yet, even more important is the fact that in every culture, regardless of race, culture, or creed, there are men and women who will say No to absolute evil and thereby preserve our common humanity. Oskar Schindler during the Nazi Holocaust and Paul Rusesabagina during the Rwandan genocide are only two among many who have entered history.

There is progress, though it is maddeningly slow, and yet I choose to be an optimist. If I were not, I probably would not be alive today, as the Epilogue to this book makes clear. Humanity has built both cathedrals and concentration camps. Though we have descended to unprecedented depths in our time, we have also tried to scale new heights. We are not burdened with original sin alone; we also have the gift of original innocence.

Finally, I ask my readers’ indulgence to permit me to close with my favorite poem. It was written by William Ernest Henley a century and a half ago in England and expresses the need to transcend despair and tragedy with courage and with hope- qualities this generation too must live by if we are to live meaningful and caring lives in a world still beset by war.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


1. New York Times, July 4, 2003.
2. Ibid., December 7, 2003.
3. Ibid., December 18, 2003.
4. Ibid.
5. Washington Post, January 7, 2004.
6. Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 340.
7. Alan J.Kuperman, “Rwanda in Retrospect,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2000), p. 98.
8. Philip Gourevitch,We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
9. “Rwanda in Retrospect,” p. 115.
10. New York Times, December 4, 2003.
11. New York Times, January 2, 2010.
12. New York Times, November 6, 2003.
13. Ibid., October 30, 2003.
14. Paul R. Pillar, Op. cit. Foreign Affairs March/April 2006.
15. New York Times, December 14, 2006.

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

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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