War is an eternal fixture of the human condition. It’s dominated our history since civilization became civilization, for countless times have we met on battlefields and slaughtered millions of people from practically every walk of life. As our methods evolved from swords and arrows to rifles and aircraft, our efficiency in waging war has only honed further. From Hannibal to Hiroshima, the ever-increasing trail of destruction left in our wake has been testament to this fact.
In these actions we have deemed this destruction justified, telling ourselves that it was for the greater good, for our national security – even for a brighter future. And sometimes we’ve been right. War has achieved vital goals: winning independence, ending American slavery and defeating truly wicked foes that sought to cast darkness over humanity. But while these ends may have been necessary, the means we took to achieve them do not share the laudable morality they're often afforded. In that view we have been deceived – for while it may be an effective tool for a necessary end, the true nature of war is not a force for good. It is dark, primitive and evil.
Stripping away rhetoric and propaganda, war is simply the skillful execution of organized violence as commanded by a governing authority. Of the millions slain by this violence, each is not a statistic on a chart nor are they a faceless uniform or civilian. They are a person just like you and me. They are someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s spouse or someone’s friend. With any war that’s ever been fought, how many of the combatants have been legitimately bad people with a true desire to harm others by their nature? Some undoubtedly may have been, but the reality is most of them are similar to us and were simply called upon to fight for their country just as we would if we were in their situation. The same is true of civilians caught in the crossfire.
The nature of war blinds us from this realization because it forces us to view our adversaries as sub-human, evil and deserving of death. That’s why war propaganda exists – because society needs to be sold that message to support a war in the first place. Accordingly, we remain desensitized to the suffering war brings because most conflicts today aren’t fought in our backyards and their impact to us is minimal, leaving the ugliness of war out of sight and mind.
But whether or not we want to face it, the suffering war causes would be no less horrific if it happened to us. Imagine someone you love was cut down by a bullet or dismembered by a bomb, however many years of love, experience and potential that made them who they were gone in an instant. Imagine it happening beside you, your last memory of them dying in your arms. Imagine this because that’s been the cold and cruel reality faced by millions of people just like us, and their pain was no less real than ours would be if we were in their position.
That's the reality war brings. That's the reality war ignores.
In the first World War, approximately 1.5 million French, British and German troops were killed at the Battle of the Somme. That's more than every combat death the United States has suffered in every war we've ever fought combined, and the Battle of the Somme was fight over a time span of four months. Within other WW I battles such as the Battle of Verdun, there were cases where more than 20,000 troops were killed in a single day and hundreds of thousands of troops were killed in a week.
The deaths of WWII are even more staggering, totaling some 70 million lives, which the following video by Neil Halloran explains more eloquently than I ever could:
Loss of life to this scale is monstrously horrific, and each death carries a horrible story because people killed by war are just that: people with hopes and dreams – people that you would probably enjoy talking to if you met them in person. One million dead? Those are the children of two million parents. The friends of tens of millions more. Each one suffering a deep sense of loss, forever knowing that their loved one met a violent end that most likely was fearful, painful and alone.
Even on an individual basis the impact of that anguish is devastating - and not just to a family or a social circle, but to an entire community. Now imagine that happening a million times in a row.
Now imagine it happening 10 million times.
Now imagine it happening 70 million times.
As a construct, war is an instrument of extreme horror and death on a scale unrivaled. By most objective accounts, it is the single-worst thing in the world.
Yet on the other hand, war’s presence throughout history is ubiquitous. But how is this possible? War is this incredibly terrible thing, but yet we're so addicted to it. And even more than that – we expect it, even embrace it! But that's crazy when you just think about it, isn't it? I mean if we were to think about being addicted to doing something awful like staging mass suicides or habitually drinking toxic chemicals, we'd find it revolting. Why on Earth would one advocate for such a thing - let alone engage in it? Even more so, why would someone do it to the point of addiction? We'd consider it pathological, a function of madness. Yet here we are beating the war drum once again, as humanity has done for millennia.
That's what makes war so maddening as a concept. It's clearly horrific, yet at the same time it’s also an addiction of the human condition. This begs a critically important question, one that we too rarely ask ourselves as a people: why do we do this to each other? Why do we justify and embrace something so terrible, and unleash its horror again and again?
It's a question that prompts a hundred answers. Most people say religion. Many others say poverty, greed, even language or cultural differences. Others still say it's just how human nature works. In some degree, all of these answers are rooted in truth and can be validated by history to some extent. Yet while they scratch the surface of truth, they are all secondary to a deeper cause.
To explain what I mean by that, I’ll share a quote from a brilliant Prussian general, Carl Von Clausewitz:
"War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means."
Simply stated: war is the embodiment of state policy through alternate means, in this case hard power. But why does state policy seek to wage war to begin with? We point to the previously mentioned subjects of religion, nationalism and ideology, but in the realpolitik sense national leaders don’t spend enormous fortunes and millions of lives on wars fought over fleeting ideology. Leaders are usually shrewd as they must be to obtain and thus retain power, and no nation lasts long if its leaders seek returns on investments as poor as ideological or theological conflict. Religion, ideology and nationalism help fan the flames and earn public support once a call to arms is sounded, but they are not the spark that ignites them.
The spark for state policy to wage war instead must be for an investment in a worthwhile goal, and with few exceptions, that goal is nigh always this:
Resource scarcity and the
economic damage caused as a result
It's not an absolute as nothing truly is (WWI, for example, wasn’t a resource conflict, and plenty of Roman wars were fought for "glory"), but in most cases war is fought to acquire resources, retain resources or secure logistical advantages in furtherance thereof for the economic benefit of a society. Above all else, that is why we fight.
Most of history echoes this reality:
We all know the Revolutionary War was fought to secure independence from British colonialism. But why would Great Britain care about an American colony 3,000 miles across the Atlantic? The honor of the empire? Not really – it was our taxes, products, and resources that Great Britain coveted so greatly. That’s the entire reason for imperialism: one nation colonizes another to take their resources for economic advancement and/or to control the strategic value of an area to allow for greater resource acquisition. Conversely, while our hatred of Great Britain’s oppression was indeed a motivating factor in our decision to revolt, it was our resources that were being taken from us without fair representation in government that ultimately sparked revolution.
It’s common knowledge that the Civil War was fought over slavery. But did Confederate states really secede because they liked owning people? It’s not that cut and dry. The southern economy was powered largely by cheap slave labor for farming and agriculture, so when the legal status of slavery was threatened, southern states seceded as they knew their economy would crumble without it. On the other hand, did the Union really care so much about slavery that they were willing to split the country apart through a bloody, bitter conflict? The horrific immorality of slavery was certainly a factor, but the deeper reality is that the powers that be within the Union were far more concerned about how much agricultural and economic importance southern states had to the fledgling nation than they ever were about the freedom of slaves.
In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler didn’t rise to power with massive populist support because he embraced militantly expansionist policies alongside state-sanctioned eugenics programs. Do you really think Germany got behind him simply to further Aryan greatness? To Hitler perhaps, but it was the mass economic depression caused by the treaty of Versailles that prompted the German people to rally around the man who promised to make Germany great again and in turn sparked the worst conflict and act of genocide in history. Had Germany been a thriving economy in the 1930’s, we would likely have never known his name.
The Cold War was a lengthy chess match between two superpowers with enough nuclear weapons to end life on the planet, but did we fear each other so much because of governing ideology? Highly unlikely. Considering the alliances the United States has maintained with despotic governments: The Kingdom of Saud, Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s, the Shah of Iran, Saleh’s Yemen, Pinochet’s Chile, Mubarak’s Egypt, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so on, the United States has few reservations about maintaining alliances with tyrannical regimes. Why was the Soviet Union any different? Because the aforementioned dictatorships served our economic interests and the Soviets did not.
The Cold War locked us and the Russians in a zero-sum game, where every inch of ground one gained was one the other lost, and vice versa. We postured over access to oil and gas reserves, rare earth metals, shipping lanes and the location of military bases to defend our means of resource acquisition. Russia wasn’t an adversary because we feared communism as a concept, they were adversaries because communism presented an alternative to American influence, which hamstrung our ability to acquire resources for the economic benefit of our nation and our allies.
We are now fighting a “War on Terrorism” throughout the Middle East, but the only reason we care about the region at all is because it has large oil reserves and strategic naval value. The first Iraq war started when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a country with nearly 10% of the world’s oil. We didn’t respond in force because we cared about Kuwaiti freedom, we and our Saudi allies didn’t want their oil to fall into the hands of Iraqi Strongman Saddam Hussein. While “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was the official justification for invading Iraq round II, it remains highly suspicious that its oil supplies and potential for post-war reconstruction projects were the main target of the Bush administration - which had several high-level officials deeply tied to the oil and gas industry. These officials pushed for war by selling bogus intelligence to the United Nations about weapons that didn’t exist, while simultaneously promising to secretly award lucrative contracts to business interests with close connections to the Federal Government after the invasion.
Afghanistan certainly contains legitimate terrorist groups we should target, but it also has trillions of dollars in mineral deposits and also happens to share a border with another oil-rich nation: Iran. If you follow the news, you know we’ve been sizing up Iran for years. When cooler heads prevailed and walked back the possibility of a war with Iran over their nuclear program, half of Congress was furious – which just so happened to be the half deepest in oil industry dollars. I think we can rule out that being a coincidence.
These examples are selected from hundreds throughout history. From the Nazis, the British and the French, to the Persians, the Mongols and the Romans, whether in this decade, this century, this millennium or any other, the motivations for war have remained the same: resources, economy, logistics, money, power. Fallout is right: at the heart of it, war never changes.
This situation exists because resources power the societies we have evolved to depend on to survive. For example: where do you get food? Do you grow crops? Raise pigs, cows or chickens? Fish from the oceans? Most likely, you do not. Unless you are in the small minority, you get your food from the supermarket. You source water from a faucet. You buy your clothes from a department store. If your safety is threatened, you call a police officer – a government employee and a stranger – to come protect you.
Society removes the need to know how to survive on our own, all we need to know is how to do our jobs. Our jobs help maintain our economy, which is why society's functions pay us a certain level of resources (money) based on the perceived value of the job we perform. What we do vocationally has little to do with our survival, it just helps make possible the society that supports our survival. If society were to disappear tomorrow, most of us wouldn’t know how to perform the functions that keep us alive. For the most part, we’d be helpless.
Beneath our social system, the buildings we work in, the roads we drive on and the supermarkets we buy our food from, there is a resource-intensive system that makes our lives possible – and this is a system that we largely ignore. Ever wonder what happens whenever you flush the toilet? There are 7.4 billion people on the planet, and together we produce at least 7.4 billion units of bodily waste every day. That rises to 2.6 trillion per year, 26 trillion per decade – and that’s just from the waste produced by our bodies. Now think about every piece of trash that’s thrown away. Every gallon of gas delivered to fuel stations. Every product manufactured and stocked on a shelf. The energy that heats our homes. The water poured from our faucets.
All of those functions are made possible through systems powered by resources. Our civilization requires immense quantities of resources to operate, resources that have to come from somewhere. Most of us are oblivious to this need because society and its processes are managed for us by people who we largely don’t interact with. But just because it’s out of sight and mind doesn’t mean these systems and resource requirements aren’t present. We might ignore the true cost of these systems and take them for granted, yet at the same time without resources and the economy they power, society can’t operate. And if it can’t operate, it can’t exist.
The people who manage our society understand this reality, as they must in order to continue its existence. Thus it’s only natural that our clandestine services work to further the foreign agendas of corporations or support dictatorships that sell us cheap resources while turning a blind eye to their human rights abuses. Many react to this with surprise, but it should be assumed that a state is going to operate for its own benefit. And as resources power our society and corporations provide the jobs to sustain a healthy economy, it’s within our best interests to receive as much of the global pie as possible because if we don’t someone else will take it at our expense. Whether we like it or not, that's simply the way the world presently works.
The moral implications to actions taken under this mindset might be significant (hence why clandestine services are clandestine), but that’s the consequence of acquiring resources in a finite, zero-sum world as the alternative is distinctly worse. For as it is the allocation of resources that powers a nation and its economy, if resource supply gets too low its economy stagnates into decline or fails outright – which is precisely why states go to war when resources become scarce.
These facts being as they are, there are those who would correctly point out that there are sometimes legitimately bad actors who can convince others to commit violence regardless of the economic climate. It’s also true that religion, nationalism and xenophobia are motivations for people to fight each other as a consequence of human nature. But conflicts caused by these things are the exceptions, not the rule - all the more so on larger scales.
The divisive factors that lead us to become hostile against those different from ourselves do not manifest in force when we are flourishing – they manifest when we are starving. Universal prosperity always has been and always will be the natural enemy of war, while poverty and social decline will always be its harbinger, and both prosperity and poverty are directly relational to the resources available to and deployed by a state and its economy.
Find a person who has enough food, a good home and a means for recreation and self-advancement, and you will see a person who most likely doesn’t want to pick up a weapon and kill a stranger. Yet if a person lacks those things in perception or reality, their motivation to engage in conflict rises, a drive that can be focused in the form of enmity on any resource-holding entity with the right encouragement. This fact is true for most every person, and as such it is also true for governments of men.
Concerning a state’s decision to engage in warfare, it’s prohibitively difficult (especially in western states) to fight a war without public support. And it’s nearly impossible to motivate a nation to go to war if the populace is content and prosperous – barring the entry of a threat to rally around. Could you imagine the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan if the 9/11 attacks never happened? From there, would Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS exist if the Middle East were economically developed? Not likely – they’d have been quickly defeated and incarcerated because their society would have the means and public support to stop them, which is what happens to violent antagonists in prosperous societies.
Nobody is going to convince a rational person to commit terrorism if they and their communities are secure in life. But in the context of economic decay or social strife, causes can be propagandized into appearing noble and warranting violence. History has revealed this fact through the rise and fall of most every movement, society and civilization, as it nearly always has been and always will be resources and economy, and the status thereof, that ultimately draws the line between prosperity and poverty, and by virtue of that, war and peace.
That is the true nature of war: conflict in furtherance of our endless pursuit for finite resources and economic advancement, ensuring that our interests are met first while we disregard the fates of our extranational brethren. It is this pursuit that determines the application of state policy, and in the context of our present state of affairs, it is what will determine our future as a species.
This is because as we have concluded that the root cause of war is resource scarcity and the economic damage caused as a result, this conclusion was brought forth to reveal a truth that has bound all of our fates: that the finite resources civilization requires to operate are quickly running out...as is the time we have left to avoid the consequences of what happens once they're gone.