In the past hundred years, the United States has sent more than 39 million Americans to fight in wars. More than 631,000 of them have been killed. More than 1,224,000 have been seriously wounded or maimed.1 Each of these Americans was or is a real person with real values, goals, dreams, loved ones. Each experienced his or her body in some way being violated, impaled, crushed, blown up, or torn apart. The families and friends of each have suffered a kind of pain for which there are no words. General W. T. Sherman famously said war is Hell. But war is worse than Hell. War is real, and it destroys people’s lives.
Today, war continues to wreak havoc on America and the world at large. Iran and Saudi Arabia—along with their proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and al Qaeda—are at war with America and Israel; Islamic State is at war with everyone who denies its interpretation of Islam; Russia is at war with Ukraine; Sudanese are at war with Sudanese; Somalis with Somalis; Syrians with Syrians; and on and on. War abounds.
Why? What are the causes of war? What are the causes of peace? And how can we work toward a future of less war and more peace?
Our concern here is not the proximate causes of war and peace, such as the fact that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor or that Japan surrendered to the United States or the like. Rather, our concern is the fundamental causes of war and peace, the causes that underlie and cause the proximate causes.
In terms of fundamentals, both war and peace are consequences of certain ideas and aims, which, when sufficiently accepted as true or good by the people of a given society, give rise to corresponding norms and policies that, in turn, either lead to war or enable peace. The fundamental causes of war are statism, collectivism, altruism, mysticism, and evasion; those of peace are capitalism, individualism, egoism, rationality, and honesty.
Understanding these causes is essential to fighting successfully for a future of less war and more peace, and seeing each cause in contrast to its opposite can foster greater understanding. Toward that end, consider the causes of war and those of peace, presented side by side in the chart below. The purpose of the chart is not to provide a comprehensive treatment of these causes (that would require a book); rather, the purpose is to indicate the essential nature of each and to show each in relation to its opposite.
|Causes of War||Causes of Peace|
The primary political cause of war is statism: any social system based on the notion that the state has a right to force individuals to act against their judgment for the sake of some “greater good,” whether the community (communism), the race (Nazism), the nation (fascism), or “God” (theocracy). For example, World War II was caused by National Socialist Germans embracing a social system based on the notion that people of an alleged “master race” (so-called “Aryans”) had a right to subjugate or kill people of other races for the “good” of the master race, and that Nazi Germany had a right to conquer other nations to sustain itself and expand. If the people of a society sufficiently accept the notion that they have a right to murder or oppress individuals for some greater good and to attack other nations to sustain or expand this practice, the government of that society will wage war accordingly.
The primary political cause of peace is capitalism: the social system based on the principle of individual rights, the idea that each individual has a moral prerogative to live his life as he sees fit (the right to life); to act on his own judgment, free from coercion by others (liberty); to keep and use the product of his effort (property); and to pursue the goals and values of his choice (pursuit of happiness). If the people of a society sufficiently recognize and uphold the principle of individual rights, they have no need for war and they won’t permit it (unless they are attacked or threatened by a foreign aggressor and thus need to defend themselves). Why kill or be killed when you can live and let live? Why engage in death, destruction, and misery when you can instead enjoy life, production, and prosperity?On the premise of capitalism, initiating war is immoral and absurd.
One of the main ideological causes of war is collectivism: the notion that the individual’s life belongs to some group or collective, which therefore may force him to “think” or act in accordance with the dictates of the group. For example, the U.S. Civil War was caused by a group of men (primarily white Southerners) insisting that they have a right to maintain states that permit the enslavement of another group of men (blacks). Some Americans (primarily Northerners) recognized that slavery is a violation of the rights of the enslaved and thus is contrary to the purpose of American government, which, as specified in the Declaration of Independence, is to secure the unalienable rights of Americans. Those opposing slavery demanded an end to the practice. The slaveholders and their supporters refused to end the practice and thus necessitated war to free the slaves and preserve the Union. (Other motives were involved, but desires on the part of some to maintain slavery and on the part of others to end it were the primary motives for the war.)
One of the main ideological causes of peace is individualism: the idea that each individual’s life belongs to him; that he has a moral right to think and act as he sees fit, regardless of what others think or feel about his thoughts or actions, so long as he does not violate the same rights of others; and that no one, including groups and governments, has a moral right to force him to act against his judgment. If the people of a given society sufficiently recognize individuals as sovereign beings, each with a right to live his life in accordance with his judgment, they have no need for war and won’t permit it (again, unless they are attacked or threatened). Why initiate war against individuals in a foreign land when you can instead trade values with them, visit their country, enjoy their culture, invite them to visit and enjoy yours, and engage in countless other mutually beneficial ways with them?On the premise of individualism, initiating war is immoral, selfless, and absurd.
The primary “moral” cause of war is altruism: the notion that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. Importantly, altruism does not call for serving others in a way that advances your own personal values or that renders you a net profit or gain (such service would be egoistic); rather, altruism calls for serving others in a way that depreciates your own personal values or renders you a net loss. For example, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War—a war initially caused by the North Vietnamese and Chinese communists seeking to enslave the South Vietnamese (an instance of collectivism)—was a consequence of Americans’ acceptance of the notion that the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to selflessly serve others rather than to selfishly protect Americans. The U.S. government forced American boys to join the military, sent them to fight in jungles on behalf of strangers, and forbade them to use the full capabilities of the U.S. military to win quickly and return home.Consequently, after more than a decade of unspeakably horrific war, fueled by hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers’ money, America lost the war at the human cost of more than 58,000 American soldiers killed, more than 153,000 wounded or maimed, and nightmare-laden lives or suicide for several hundred thousand more.
The primary moral cause of peace is egoism: the idea that being moral consists in pursuing and/or protecting one’s own life-serving values such as education, a career, recreation, friendships, romance, family, and liberty; refusing to surrender greater values for the sake of lesser values (i.e., refusing to commit a sacrifice); and respecting the rights of others to do the same by refraining from initiating physical force or committing fraud or the like.To the extent that people embrace and uphold egoism, they have no need of war and won’t permit it (unless they are attacked or threatened). Pursuing life-serving values does not require initiating force against people; it requires thinking, producing, and trading value for value by mutual consent to mutual advantage. Nor can the act of initiating force against people be a means of pursuing genuinely life-serving values; it is a patent repudiation of the key social requirement of human life: the principle of individual rights. Only when people respect each other’s rights can they live in peace and harmony and thus prosper to the greatest extent possible.This is why genuine egoists always respect rights: They want to live in peace with other peaceful people so that they can benefit from all of the good things that other peaceful people provide.On the premise of egoism, initiating force against people is immoral, selfless, and absurd.
The most fundamental philosophic cause of war is mysticism: acceptance of the notion that knowledge can be acquired by non-sensory, non-rational means, such as faith, revelation, ESP, intuition, or any other form of “just knowing.”For example, Islamic regimes and jihadist groups are waging war against Western civilization because they have faith in the existence of “Allah” and in the truth and morality of Allah’s scriptural commandments requiring Muslims to convert or kill infidels—commandments such as “Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war” (Koran 9:5); and “Fight them until all opposition ends and all submit to Allah” (8:39); and so on.Why do Muslims believe that Allah exists, that Islamic scriptures convey his will, and that they morally must obey his will? They believe it because they accept the notion that knowledge can be acquired by non-sensory, non-rational means—such as faith—and because they have faith.Why can’t serious Muslims be reasoned out of this insanity? Because to accept ideas on faith is to reject reason. If a person can “know” by means of non-sensory, non-rational means, he has no need of sense or reason. He just “knows.” Moreover, on the premise that faith is a means of knowledge, he cannot be wrong: If faith is a means of knowledge, then faith is a means of knowledge; if his faith tells him that he should convert or kill infidels, then he knows that that is what he should do.
The most fundamental philosophic cause of peace is rationality: acceptance of the fact that man’s only means of knowledge and proper guide to action is reason, the faculty that operates via observable evidence and logical inference therefrom.When people acknowledge that reason is man’s only means of knowledge, they have no need of coercion (unless they are attacked); they can and will deal with people exclusively by means of persuasion. When rational people disagree about a given issue, they simply present evidence in support of their respective views and see whose position makes more sense. For instance, when a rational person (or nation) says, in effect, “People need freedom from force so that they can act on their judgment and live,” he can point to mountains of evidence in support of this idea. But when a person (or nation) says, in effect, “People must obey God’s commandments, and God says we must force people to submit to his will,” he may believe this, but he cannot escape the fact that no evidence supports it. He cannot escape the fact that it is a baseless, irrational assertion. And he cannot escape the fact that he has no logical or moral right to force anyone to submit to his fantasy. If people uphold reason as their only means of knowledge and their only proper guide to action, they have no need of coercion and will not employ it. Rational people acknowledge that they can achieve their social and economic desires and ends exclusively by means of logic and persuasion—and they act accordingly.
The most fundamental psychological cause of war is evasion: the refusal to face relevant facts, the act of pretending that reality is other than it is. For example, in the 1930s, European leaders evaded the explicitly stated intentions and clear advances of the Nazis. Rather than eliminate these avowedly racist murderers who openly sought world domination when the Europeans easily could have, they permitted the Nazis to strengthen and expand for years on end, thereby eventually necessitating a massive war to end the nightmare.Similarly, today, U.S. leaders evade the explicitly stated aims and clear advances of the Islamic regimes that sponsor terrorism against America: the regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia. For example, U.S. leaders pretend that “Islam means peace,” when in fact it means submission. They pretend that the Saudis are “our friends,” when in fact they encourage and finance jihad against America. They pretend that we can fruitfully negotiate with the Iranian regime, whose ultimate goal—as stated in its written constitution—is to force everyone on the planet to submit to Allah, and whose leaders call regularly for “Death to America.” They pretend that America is at war with “terrorism” (recall the war on blitzkrieg?) or with small groups who “pervert” Islam rather than with Islamic regimes that fully embrace Islam and take it seriously.When a nation evades such facts about its enemies, that nation eventually will either fight a larger and more costly war than it would have had to fight if it had faced reality from the beginning—or submit to its enemies. It is either–or.
The most fundamental psychological cause of peace is honesty: the refusal to pretend that facts are other than they are. For example, when an enemy of America quotes his religious scripture to the effect that his “God” commands him to convert or kill unbelievers—when that same enemy founds a nation with a constitution stating that it intends to make everyone on the planet submit to his God—when that same enemy issues textbooks to its grade-school students “teaching” them that to be noble they must engage in jihad and kill infidels—when that same enemy materially and spiritually sponsors terrorist groups that murder many thousands of Americans in the name of this godly mission—when that same enemy pursues nuclear weapons while chanting “Death to America”—and on and on—honesty requires that Americans and their leaders acknowledge this enemy as an enemy that must be eliminated unequivocally and immediately. For the United States instead to “negotiate” with the leaders of the enemy regimes, and to sit with them at the U.N. and thus treat them as deserving of anything other than torture (for information) and death (for good riddance) is an act of dishonesty. It is an act of pretending that reality is other than it is.Insofar as a country and its leaders are honest about who their enemies are, what motivates them, and what must be done to eliminate them, the country will be able to employ its resources in the best way possible toward achieving and maintaining peace. Insofar as a country and its leaders pretend that the facts of the matter are other than they are, they will pay the price for their evasions. Reality cannot be fooled.
When and to the extent that people and nations embrace the truths and values in the right column, they have no need for war. If people are free to think, to produce, and to trade with others voluntarily (capitalism); if they recognize the sovereignty and rights of individuals and the moral propriety of self-interest (individualism and egoism); if they uphold reason as their only means of knowledge and their only proper guide to action in personal, social, and political matters (rationality); and if they refuse to pretend that facts are other than they are (honesty)—neither they nor their governments have any reason to attack other people or nations.
With apologies to John Lennon: Imagine no left column.
1. See “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2010, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf; and Chris Adams, “Millions Went to War in Iraq, Afghanistan, Leaving Many with Lifelong Scars,” McClatchy DC, March 14, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/03/14/185880/millions-went-to-war-in-iraq-afghanistan.html.