What causes war?

This is a question I’ve given plenty of thought to recently, in light of the centenary of World War I, the Syrian conflict and more recently the renewal of Israel-Palestine hostilities. I’ve been reading a lot of opinions on blogs and news sites.

Some say that religion causes war, some that governments do. Same say all wars are ultimately conflicts over scarce resources. Each of these theories seems to explain some wars, but not others.

I’m led to the conclusion that weapons cause war.

This might seem like a startlingly naïve and simplistic explanation, but it’s the best I currently have.

In World War I, Germany and Britain were turned into war machines, with much of the populations engaged in the manufacture and deployment of munitions.

Modern day Iraq and Syria are overrun not only with Islamic extremists, but with freely available guns and weapons in terrifying quantities.

The long-running dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians is quite possibly unsolvable, but it’s made 1000 times worse by the fact that one side has tanks and warplanes and the other has a seemingly limitless supply of rockets aimed at civilian populations. Rockets and tanks are never going to solve this problem – you could argue that they have now become the problem.

A world without easy access to weapons would be a world in which conflicts were extremely limited and localized. But how to get there? I’ve written about this before, but I can point to the international treaties that limit nuclear proliferation, that control the size of nuclear weapon stockpiles, that outlaw chemical and biological weapons and that ban exports of arms to particular countries. Imagine if that framework of international agreements could be extended step by step, so that over time the means of states to engage in warfare gradually diminished.

As Arthur C Clarke argued in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the very first act of the first human was probably to fashion a stone weapon, and there’s a risk that the fashioning of the ultimate weapon will be humanity’s final act. The arms race didn’t end with the Cold War – it predated it by millennia and is continuing at an alarming pace.

I’m no pacifist. To refuse to defend yourself or the vulnerable against armed aggression is no solution. It plays into the hands of the most armed, most aggressive and most ruthless. What I’m suggesting is a concerted effort by the United Nations to remove or limit the potential for armed aggression.

This is the US gun debate played out globally. In America, citizens have the right to defend themselves against attack by the use of arms. As a consequence, America has the highest murder rate of any developed country. In most of Europe, citizens don’t have the right to bear arms, and the murder rate is much, much lower. I say, let’s apply the same logic to governments.

It wouldn’t be easy or quick, but one day it might just happen.

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19 responses to “What causes war?

  1. Great post Steve! Great post- they should put you in charge of world peace.

  2. Nicely writte. I have similar opinion, and many more have similar thinking. But, we are not heard by others.

  3. stefankeys1997

    The United Nations is run by the same nations whose military power you want to limit, do you think that they would be willing to limit their own millitary power for the sake of world peace? I am not saying that you are wrong, but is what you’re thinking practicle, is it feasible in the near future?

    I do agree with you however that even though weapons are not the main cause for conflicts, they are always make things 1000 times worser.

    • Thankfully it’s not my job to propose or negotiate international treaties. I’m simply expressing my personal opinion. But you are completely correct that no nation will want to voluntarily give up power. Often it takes some terrible, catastrophically bad event for such things to happen.

      • stefankeys1997

        “Often it takes some terrible, catastrophically bad event for such things to happen”- like World War 2 caused Japan to demilitarize itself, I guess.

  4. Steve, you’re absolutely right that the juggernaut of global militarization is the US gun proliferation problem writ large. At best, it will require generations to get to a more secure, less violent world. I think we will get there, but not by choice. The amount of resources this planet currently devotes to weapons and war is staggering. The US alone spends a trillion dollars a year (defense + intelligence); the global figure is several times that, and it is simply unsustainable. As climate change accelerates and wreaks havoc with the world’s weather, habitats, food and water supplies, governments will find themselves struggling to cope with infrastructure rather than military threats. We’ve basically painted ourselves into a nasty corner, and shooting our way out won’t be an option.

  5. Most of us in the U.S. strongly favor gun controls to help reduce violence and crime. After horrendous mass murders, public opinion rises to demand changes. But, too many elected officials pay no heed. They are deaf to the public on this. Those with proposed common sense legislation do not get it passed. The gun lobby of the National Rifle Association has a tight grip.

  6. To paraphrase the mantra of the NRA here in gun-crazy America, the only way to stop a bad [guy/country/terrorist] with a gun is by a good [guy/country/terrorist] with a gun. How’s that for logic?

  7. Reblogged this on Another Spectrum and commented:
    While the reduction or removal of guns is not likely to see peace break out, it work certainly reduce significantly the harm caused by conflict.

  8. I completely agree with all of your points, especially about America. I wish they would outlaw all guns for ordinary citizens, except those in a profession that requires it (law enforcement.) I know that this will never fly in my country so I would even favor allowing citizens to keep hunting rifles because it is very popular here, but something has to change globally. War cannot continue.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

  9. Yes, the arms dealers have much shame to bear. On what causes wars, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Why does a peaceful nation bluster and threaten for a few months, and even commence fighting, when in a short time it sighs for peace, and illuminates its streets as soon as peace is proclaimed? The immediate causes differ, but the abiding reason is the same — man is fallen, and belongs to a race of which infallible revelation declares “their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways, and the way of peace they have not known.” http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

  10. This is a very big topic, with far more implications and causation than is easily seen at the outset. That being said, if we took away or limited availability of weaponry, how would that be done without weapons? It seems like that would leave one strong, large enforcer with all the weapons while they took them away from all the rest. Then, what would happen when one country/individual amassed weapons in secret and the rest of the world/ community has no means of stopping this bully? Also, how do you define “weapons”? Without nukes or tanks or automatic modern weaponry, we would all fall back on the stone-age clubs and rocks and still get the job done. Humanity is bent on using tools and with hate in our hearts, we will devise a way to hurt others. I say the cause of war is a heart problem. A person with a good heart will not hurt others with a weapon, no matter how much access they have. Great conversation to have… thanks for starting!

    • Thanks Laura. You have identified the one issue that concerns me with the idea – that it creates an organization with a monopoly of power. That might be the UN, or it might be something else. What are the checks and balances that prevent that organization turning into a dictator?

      1. Remember that the UN isn’t really an organization at all – it’s a coming-together of the nations of the world. It can only act if a majority of nations want it to. But organizations do have a tendency to creep towards greater powers, so this is a worry.
      2. If the world could be demilitarized, then the organization responsible for policing this could demilitarize at the same pace. If the nations you are policing have nothing more than handguns and a few armoured vehicles, then you don’t need nuclear weapons, fighter jets and aircraft carriers to police them.

      3. My examples of nuclear treaties and the banning of chemical and biological warfare indicate that the principle is possible.

      Humans will always fight, and they will turn whatever they can into weapons. But a bunch of people armed with knives, spears and baseball bats are never going to do a lot of damage. In the modern world it would be almost impossible to build any sizeable armed militia in secret.

      I agree with you that the cause of war is people themselves, but I don’t have a remedy for that, other than what we are doing here – having a conversation!

      Thanks for your thoughtful input, Laura.

  11. Maybe hands cause all wars. Hands can also be deadly weapons. Imagine a hand (fist) punching you in the face, or if two hands strangle you. hands killed people before “weapons” were invented, and hands continue to kill people. Maybe the solution is to cut off everyone’s hands? Or maybe the brain is the problem?

    • Hands can be deadly, but not as deadly as handguns, which are not as deadly as assault rifles, which are not as deadly as tanks, which are not as deadly as chemical weapons.
      If hands were the most lethal weapon available, the number of deaths from conflict would be rather small.

  12. Weapons are means to kills. They exist because there is will to kill. Taking weapons away does not take away the will. Where there is will, there are means. Desires and passions are irrational. Mass media, commercials, propaganda, religion, peer pressure, etc. can influence desires en masse, including the desire to kill people of another religion/nation/race/sexual orientation/tribe/gang etc. They can also serve to inhibit this desire. But who and how uses these tools is, in turn, affected by desires of these people – political and religious leaders, media and business moguls, even bloggers. So, it’s a yet another circular problem. I think, there is no single element which can be said to control the whole system.

    • Yes, I appreciate that. However, I see no way to stop hatred. If people want to hate, they will hate. But I do see a way to reduce violence, by limiting the availability of weapons.

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