How can we make sense of war? When we’re confronted with gritty, gruesome images of war, is it possible to understand the “why” behind them? How can we justify the incalculable human suffering that war inevitably brings? How can we not be perplexed by war, the destroyer of families, of cities and of nations, yet also the maker of heroes and the sometime harbinger of peace? We’re not alone in asking, “Why war?” The historian Thucydides puzzled over the great conflict of his time, the Peloponnesian war, 2,500 years ago. His state — democratic, imperial Athens — fought a 27-year-long war with the city of Sparta and her allies, who feared Athenian expansion.
In writing the classic study of war, Thucydides shared his observations of the behavior of states. One of his most provocative insights is that states robe their pursuit of power in deceptive language. States will pursue the path of war to satisfy their own interests of security, wealth and prestige, he reported; yet leaders cloak the self-interested nature of these goals in public discussions with their own citizens. States will lead their people to ignominious death while simultaneously offering them a chance to achieve glory by dying for a righteous, selfless cause. States also create a language of “the other” to denigrate the opponent and to spur citizens to commit war’s inhumane acts.
Thucydides invites us to join him in a conversation about war. Is war, in fact, necessary to achieve political goals? Can we imagine states that would act in ways opposed to their self-interest? Would ordinary people recoil from warfare if they were to see its actual dynamics? Are our leaders simply the true reflection of ourselves, as Thucydides thought? Are citizens unwilling to face the requirements of their own self-preservation? Don’t all reasonable people prefer peace?
Perhaps human behavior is the real question here. Are we really warlike? Is war only a mirroring of our nature? Perhaps there is a biological survival mechanism in humans that — although once helpful for primitive survival — has become dysfunctional. Despite the best efforts of civilizing forces, is the beast within all people only intermittently domesticated? Is it inevitable that soccer matches can only substitute for war for a limited time, as Orwell noted? Before World War II, Germany held pride of place in the culture rankings of the West; after the war, Nuremburg confirmed the extent of depravity there. Clearly, Western values are no inoculation against the fever of war and its attending horrors.
Thucydides’ ruminations might offer us a clue to the way out of the labyrinth of war. In spite of his revelations about the ruthless way that states wage war and his depiction of war as a common outcome of the pursuit of power, he understands humans to be capable of more than warfare. His own rational examination of the awful destruction around him stands as evidence that the human condition is not hopeless.
First, we need to take a clear look at the nature of our human interactions. Although we are all unquestionably capable of destructive acts, we are also the authors of acts of great nobility. The human race has lasted this long, not because evildoing is inevitable, but because overall we exhibit socially integrative behavior. For example, the sacrifices we make in family life are much more widely characteristic of human behavior than are the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. Even in the hell of warfare, soldiers’ actions of courage and compassion are everyday occurrences. Thucydides saw them, and we see them, too. We need not lose heart and retreat to the snatched pleasures of the private realm in the face of the brutality we witness.
Secondly, states don’t really do anything, waging war included. It’s actual people who do things, Thucydides reminds us. Individual people are policymakers, warlords and generals. It’s easy to feel powerless to stop a particular war or to change the conduct of warfare. However, when we remember that individual choices bring us to war, it becomes possible to see that statecraft is constructed. States don’t inexorably act, like glaciers. We can identify decision points where citizen intervention can make a difference. We might even become leaders ourselves.
If Thucydides is right about the lynchpins of war, we could begin to discuss in the public realm new ways to understand national security, wealth and prestige. We need not eliminate those policy goals: we could redefine their meaning. Instead of allowing our fears to lead us to war and to guide our conduct there, we could bravely consider what true political peace might involve.
War might be a repetitive motif of human interaction, but it’s certainly not inevitable. Political history is as much the story of the success of peace as it is the story of war. But the burden of achieving peace rests squarely on our own shoulders.
Virginia Lewis, Ph.D., is a professor in USD’s Department of Political Science.