A Philosophy of War

War is an intractable issue that always seems to be in the news. At any given moment more than a dozen wars are likely be in progress around the world — and every decade the major powers get involved in some conflict somewhere. Popular writers shoot off their thoughts on the latest crises, but often their contributions soon begin to look outdated. My book A Philosophy of War seeks to explain war rather than wars and attempts to produce a more durable explanation of war's nature and origins.

Most philosophers who have written on war have provided singular explanations of why we wage war: they blame the environment, our genes, culture, technology, or even our reason. In other words, they claim that man cannot stop war — it is in his nature to wage war. On the other hand, political writers on the subject enjoy describing and fleshing out the details of balance of power theories and try to avoid philosophical thinking; yet these too employ the philosophical argument that war is inevitable or that conflict is innate in human affairs, and the best we can do is to maneuver ourselves politically and militarily into a dominant or protected position.

Such thinking requires challenging, and in the book I advance the argument that war is the product of man's ideas and hence is a product of his choice. I was greatly influenced by the works of Ludwig Mises and the Austrian school after I had completed my degree in economics: throughout my M.A. in Economics and Ph.D. in Philosophy I sought to incorporate the school's method and framework into various essays. My doctorate was on the Philosophy of War, from which this book is a natural outgrowth. In it, I seek to synthesize Mises's premise that man acts on his ideas with Friedrich Hayek's insights into the role and nature of human knowledge. If we act on ideas, then it goes without saying that belligerent ideas will lead to war, and students of the Austrian school are quick to point out the militancy implied in a host of economic theories — notably socialism, mercantilism, and Keynesianism. Yet I was also concerned about man's desire to sustain old thoughts on war that linger around in our cultural and political vocabulary in new guises. I concluded that many of our ideas on how to behave, our moral status, our relationship with others, are often sublimated our thinking. Nonetheless, they are accessible to reason, for they are the product of reason, or at least of human action, but too often much that we take for granted is passed on down through the generations without proper consideration or reflection. The ideas that motivate us to go to war are of this kind.

The moral goal for humanity is to become more reasonable and to renounce violence. However, I argue that the gains of the Age of Enlightenment and of philosophical rationalism are relatively vulnerable: they are culturally shallow in comparison to the grand ideologies of war that we inherit and pass on. Only where the free market has developed and advanced unhampered by intervention do we see a reduction in men's latent desires to conquer and kill. But even in the West, it does not take much to stir atavistic dreams of revenge and to encourage men to turn their backs on peace in favor of war.

In the book I examine a variety of determinist theories of war — those theories that assume man cannot help what he does. In rejecting all that seeks to deny humanity of choice, I nonetheless try to incorporate those elements that are particularly useful in explaining war's attraction. For example, I thoroughly reject the idea that war can be explained by referring to man's biological make-up, but acknowledge, as Mises does, the strong draw such adrenaline boosting, collective violence can have on a man. The culturalist theory — that we are a product of our culture — offers much to explain why some folks are more militant than others, but the determinist variant would have us believe that a culture is an external agency imposed upon us and not the product of the ideas and behavior we accept and sustain over time. Again, the useful elements ought to be removed and the determinist philosophy rejected!

In all, I attempt to produce a solid theory of war's nature and origins. The book deploys a number of historical and literary anecdotes to supplement the theoretical analysis and provides two applied examinations of protracted warfare – Bohemia and Vietnam. In both areas, war has rarely been absent and it is a poor politician who considers that a thousand years of conflict could be stopped by the appeal to be reasonable! War's origins are complex but not beyond our understanding: certainly, our ideas need to change, but the free-market and libertarian philosophy needs to become embedded in our cultural outlook before war dissipates completely.

November 30, 2002