Why Should We Study War?

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Why should we study war?

Contrary to our modern therapeutic utopianism, the history of war shows us the unchanging, tragic reality of human nature and its irrational passions and interests that will spark state aggression and violence.

The modern world, in contrast, rejects the notion that human nature comprises destructive passions and selfish interests that will start wars only force can stop. On the contrary, to the modern optimist, humans are universally rational and peace loving, if only the external, warping constraints on these qualities — ignorance, poverty, parochial ethnic and nationalist loyalties, the oppression of priestly and aristocratic elites — can be removed. Then people will progress to the realization that their true interests like peace, freedom, and prosperity will be achieved not by force but by international trade, economic development, democracy, and non-lethal transnational institutions that can adjudicate conflict and eliminate the scourge of war.

This influential belief was famously expressed by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace.” In it Kant imagined a “federation of free states” that would create a “pacific alliance… different from a treaty of peace… inasmuch as it would forever terminate all wars, whereas the latter only finishes one.” In his conclusion, Kant expressed the optimism that would become an article of faith in subsequent centuries: “If it is a duty, if the hope can even be conceived, of realizing, though by an endless progress, the reign of public right — perpetual peace, which will succeed to the suspension of hostilities, hitherto named treaties of peace, is not then a chimera, but a problem, of which time, probably abridged by the uniformity of the progress of the human mind, promises us the solution.”

Throughout the nineteenth century international institutions were created to realize this dream and lessen, if not eliminate, the savagery and suffering of war. The First Geneva Convention in 1864 and the Second in 1906 sought to establish laws for the humane treatment of the sick and wounded in war. The first Hague Convention in 1899 established an international Court of Arbitration and codified restrictions on aerial bombardment, poison gas, and exploding bullets. The preamble to the first Hague Convention explicitly acknowledged its Kantian aims: “the maintenance of the general peace” and the “friendly settlement of international disputes” that both reflected the “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations” and their shared desire for “extending the empire of law, and of strengthening the appreciation of international justice.” One wonders how such optimism made sense of the Franco-Prussian War three decades earlier, when two of the world’s most “civilized nations” suffered nearly a million casualties, including 170,000 dead.

Even after the industrialized carnage of World War I showed international solidarity and universal progress to be a fantasy, the Versailles treaty established the League of Nations, the transnational institution intended to realize Kant’s dream of a “federation of free states” that would keep the peace and promote global progress. But within a few years the League had been exposed as ineffective, since the same sovereign nations that had fought each other so brutally in the war continued to pursue their zero-sum interests, frequently with force. No more effective has been the United Nations, a “cockpit in the Tower of Babel,” as Churchill feared it might become, that also has failed at its foundational goal of maintaining peace, becoming instead an instrument of the member-states’ nationalist interests, one that frequently supplements and abets, rather than controls or limits state violence.

Familiarity with the history of war should disabuse people of these Kantian illusions. Studying the causes and nature of armed conflict reveals that technological progress, better education and nutrition, global trade, and increased prosperity has not eliminated or reduced wars, but often made them more brutal and destructive. Military history teaches us that war is not a distortion of a peace-loving human nature that not yet has sufficiently progressed beyond such savage barbarism, but rather is a reflection of a flawed human nature, and the necessary instrument for states to protect their security and pursue their interests, whether these are rational and good, or irrational and evil. The study of war, in short, can remind us of the tragic wisdom evident on every page of history: that humans are fallen creatures prone to destructive violence that only righteous violence can check.


  1. John says:

    Interesting article. Do you have any suggestions for reading on the history of nineteenth century peace institutions?

Leave a Reply