Bryan Caplan  

War: What Is It Here For?

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Albert Jay Nock's classic essay "Peace the Aristocrat" begins promisingly:
The peace advocates are notably disposed to rest their case with proving that war is irrational, illogical, horrible, and costly; and they appear to think it quite enough to do that, in order to make us all forsake war and militarism forthwith...

But, really, men are very little governed by reason and logic; and this accounts for the fact that in an issue between the philosopher and politician, the politician always wins. He may, nay, invariably does, have a worse case: but he quite regularly carries it, because he knows how men act and how they may be induced to act. He must know, for otherwise he could not be a politician; this instinctive knowledge is the primary essential qualification for his squalid trade.
Given this starting point, I'd expect Nock to lead the reader to an epiphany: War, like protectionism, is something that people vote for but flee from.  Individually, we do whatever we can to avoid war, but collectively, we often walk straight into the belly of the beast.  But he completely disappoints me.  Nock's position is simply that the man in the street prefers the experience of war to the experience of peace.  War gives people...

1. Equality
[W]ar addresses some of the best permanent instincts of mankind, addresses them powerfully and shrewdly; and they are the very instincts that have been most continuously baffled and denied by peace.

Foremost, perhaps, among these is the instinct for equality. War has invariably served and promoted this instinct, and peace has invariably disserved and disallowed it...
2. Sense of purpose

Another immeasurable advantage which war has over peace in competing for the common man's interest, is in its appeal to the sense of purpose... War has its perils and its horrors; but the first glad sense of great definite purpose dawning into stagnant and unillumined lives is sufficient to set them at naught. The conditions of war, terrible as they are, interpret themselves to the common man's satisfaction...

3. Responsibility

A third instinct, preeminently satisfied by war and notoriously dissatisfied by peace, is the instinct for responsibility... The soldier may not be idle; he may not be lazy, trivial, self-centred, untrustworthy, irresponsible, traitorous, disloyal. If a leader, he must lead; he may not shirk or malinger or dissipate his powers. If he fails, he is superseded; he has but one chance.

In short:

[T]he appeal of war to the common man is something far different from what the peace advocates appear to think it is. Nowhere, speaking broadly, does the common man enlist because he loves war, but because he hates peace... The more drab and unrelieved the conditions of peace, the more gladly will the common man escape them...
While Nock criticizes peace advocates for their ignorance of human nature, he is the one who overlooks truly obvious facts.  For starters: War is a spectator sport.  Getting people to personally fight in a war or even voluntarily contribute money is hard.  That's why countries so often resort to conscription, and so rarely fund their militaries with bake sales.  Yes, the man in the street often says he's rather die than yield an inch to the hated enemy.  But the vast majority are happy to free ride.

Nock acts like the man in the street has no choice but to endure the misery of peace until his country declares war.  But he's plainly mistaken.  If you find the conditions of peace "drab and unrelieved," you can just travel to a war zone, pick a side, and enlist.  This has been known to happen, but it's awfully rare.

To put the point even more starkly: If people really hated peace, refugee flows would run from safe havens into war zones, rather than the reverse.

You might protest that my claims are culturally specific, applicable only to modern, civilized man.  I agree that we're more cowardly than we used to be.  But human beings have always been war-fearing in an absolute sense.  In what era were wars fought by unpaid volunteers and financed by bake sales?  Refugees in Nock's time fled from danger to safety, just as they do today, and always have.

But aren't wars often popular?  Sure - if you measure popularity with applause, cheers, bumper stickers, or votes.  If you measure popularity with voluntary donations of life and property, though, you discover the truth that eluded Nock: People may love war in the abstract, but they loathe it in the concrete.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Vladimir writes:

Getting people to personally fight in a war or even voluntarily contribute money is hard. [...] But human beings have always been war-fearing in an absolute sense. In what era were wars fought by unpaid volunteers and financed by bake sales?

It seems like you're not aware of the scale on which people volunteered for combat (let alone all sorts of non-combat war-related work) in WW1. As one data point, the U.K. introduced conscription only in the spring of 1916, and its pre-war professional army was tiny -- but during the first year and a half of the war, about two million men enlisted voluntarily.

Hyena writes:

Would "Support Our Troops" charities which, for example, send e-books to soldiers be considered private donations for war fighting?

If so, doesn't the scale of this activity even given the massive government expenditure (crowding out and so on) indicate that people really would put up rather than shut up?

Tracy W writes:

In what era were wars fought by unpaid volunteers and financed by bake sales?

Does enlisting for the potential for plunder count as being an unpaid volunteer? If so, then the Crusades, Attila the Hun's hordes, the Scottish Jacobites, all spring to mind. From memory, Adam Smith talks about war slowly becoming more and more dependent on taxation, as people shifted from hunter-gathering and nomadism to agriculture (which requires men to be home for the hard work bits) to cities (which require ongoing labour), and also as military technology became more capital-intensive.

I agree that the miseries of peace don't seem to be biting today, based on revealed preference. But if I understand the history rightly, men did go to war without pay a lot in the past.

Steve Sailer writes:

Football possesses many of the virtues and fewer of the vices of war, so it's not surprising that football is replacing war in the male mind.

Salem writes:

Vladimiar, I think the WW1 volunteers reinforces Bryan's point that people love war in the abstract but loathe it in the concrete. The millions of volunteers signed up before the fighting started, and had a wildly romantic, indeed abstract, idea of war - "home by Christmas," and all that. Once the actual fighting started, suddenly there were no more volunteers and the government had to introduce conscription. WW1, above all, is the war that best shows this dynamic.

However, I wonder if Bryan's point is overblown, based on his dislike of patriotism. Of course people dislike the brutality of war, but they often dislike an ignominious peace even more. The existence of resistance movements and guerilla warfare proves this.

James A. Donald writes:

The New Guinean highlands were notoriously warlike and war was fought by volunteers and financed by bake sales - also by abduction of women and seizure of land. The winners seized land and women for themselves and for their immediate kin, but mostly for themselves individually and personally. The losers lost land and women, individually and personally.

eccdogg writes:

Yeah this conflicts with my personal experience.

Certainly those who are willing to put their lives where their mouths are are not a majority but their still exist a large minority of men between the ages of 18 and 30 who are willing to do just that. And their probably always has been.

The call of patriotism, adventure, bravery, honor etc is very strong, I felt it too in my younger days and witnessed it in many of my peers and the sons of my peers.

As a non-intervetionist myself I think these drives are misguided, but I think Caplan dismisses them too offhandedly.

Joey Donuts writes:

I am thoroughly confused.

A man who argues, quite convincingly, that voters are irrational when it comes to political choices are suddenly rational when faced with another political choice (war or peace).

People who write or speak about war who were never in one are not to be taken seriously, unless they are condemning it for what it is. War is hell.

Behind every war that ever was is a single immoral human --- a human who was willing to compel others to his will and purpose, and who was able, somehow, to enlist the aid of others to do so. War doesn't just happen.

War is group aggression incited initially by a single individual. All the rest who get involved do so for a multitude of reasons that cannot be easily summed up with a few generalizations.

I continue to be mystified by the willingness of so may humans to follow a leader who proposes war in the first place -- that first initiator of aggression who is at the foundation of every war that ever occurred. People who think easy explanations of such herd phenomenon of humans are well understood are simply unconvincing to me. And most of those explanations come from people who have never been close to a battle field or at the controls of a war machine.

Soldiers at war fight because they see themselves as having no better choice, once the battle is joined. Some soldiers at war may be filled at first with esprit de corp, but not so much when the buddy on the left has his brains blown on his buddy on the right; some continue fighting for fear of the alternative -- better to die than abandon the band of brothers; and some do abandon the battle, branded forever as cowards.

The real question isn't why people in a war continue to fight. The real mystery is why anyone follows that single human who is the first initiator of each and every war. Why don't all who hear his idea turn, look at him with absolute disgust and contempt, and walk away?

Menschenfreund writes:

@Joey Donuts
No, his point is perfectly consistent with the insights in his book. Today's voters choose war because the expected costs (risk of conscription) are low (most western countries have an all-volunteer military).

Frost writes:

People love War when it's "far" but hate it when it gets "near". Everyone is very pro-war in the lead-up (As Vlad points out, voters and enlistees alike loved WW1) and also, as time passes, we remember wars past with increased fondness.

Check out the rankings of US Presidents. It seems like the best way to land a top-five spot is to get the USA into as bloody a war as possible (Wilson, FDR, Lincoln, Washington).

Scott Miller writes:

"We're at war with Eurasia. We've always been at war with Eurasia."
Enough said...

Tracy W writes:

David L. Kendall - I take it that you're not a fan of John Stuart Mills then. He makes what strikes me as two compelling arguments for seriously considering alternative viewpoints, even on things that we are extremely certain about:
1) That we might be wrong, even when we are very certain that we are right.
2) That even if we are right, we don't truly understand why we are right unless we test it against the best arguments that the other side has to offer. It's easy to say "War is Hell", but if that's just a slogan, if the opposite arguments are never seriously engaged with, how committed would most people be to pacifism?

Vladimir writes:


You can find some figures on WW1 volunteer enlistment in the U.K. here.

While the enthusiasm was clearly the greatest early in the war, hundreds of thousands of men volunteered even after the "home by Christmas" expectations had already been disproved. The article concludes: "A total of around 2.5 million British volunteers and 2.2 million British conscripts, served in the Great War; an impressive 22% of those potentially eligible to serve."

Now clearly, as in everything else, people's symbolic expressions of enthusiasm for war are never matched by their willingness to back them up with actual costly endeavors, and presumably Nock could have improved his essay by noting that. But Bryan's blanket dismissal of his thesis strikes me as very poorly argued.

As another data point, I myself lived through the war in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s (though I was too young to be eligible for service). From what I observed, lots of people dodged army service, and many had to be forcibly drafted, but there were also a great many who volunteered, especially in those places and times where the population was sincerely convinced (correctly or not) that the enemy is a real threat or whipped into extreme nationalist frenzy. And in WW1, the level of nationalism and propaganda-induced violent hate and paranoia reached its very historical peak in the Western world, which was in my impression considerably higher than even in the ex-Yugoslav wars.

agnostic writes:

Bryan's obviously never seen a good war movie. The sense of purpose may come from voluntarily joining the army, but often enough it comes from being called on and coerced into it. It's like a flood tearing through your neighborhood and being forced to swim for your life, and those around you.

Surely few people seek out floods or wars to delve into in order to feel this greater purpose and encounter with the sublime, but that's the point -- you have to feel that some outside force like fate has drawn you into the situation, and you've resigned yourself to fight against it as strong as you can rather than back out, especially when others are counting on you. If you chase it on your own, it doesn't feel as epic -- a victory would not be a triumph over the hand of fate.

This involuntary aspect also strengthens that of equality: whoever ends up in the military were all chosen by the same cruel force, so they're all in it together. If it's totally voluntary, they only share a common personality or set of ideals, which is good enough to bond them together, but nothing like the sense that some impersonal force out there chose all of them to be thrown into the war.

@Tracy W, That war is hell is far more than a slogan. People who have been to war know that.

As it happens, I am quite a fan of much that JSM wrote. The ideas that you noted are marvelous ones. And your point is?

Which "opposite arguments" did you have in mind? And who said I was a pacifist?

Salem writes:


Thank you for your response. I still think you are slightly missing the point about WW1 - British volunteer forces did not see action until mid-1915. It is at precisely this point - the soldiers letters letters home and the obituaries in the newspapers - that the volunteers stop.

I definitely agree with you, however, that there are many people who really are willing to sign up. I was actually thinking specifically of the wars in the former Yugoslavia when I put that bit about people disliking war, but disliking other things even more. I agree that Bryan's thesis seems to dismiss contrary opinions too lightly.

Where I think you and I part company is that I do not see popular sentiment regarding WW1 (at least in Britain) as having much to do with strident nationalism or propaganda-induced violent hate. I think it had to do with romance and (in Nock's terms) "sense of purpose."

Evan writes:

Not only does Nock not seem to see that prowar is "far" and antiwar is "near," I wonder about the truth of some of his arguments for the "good points" of war.

Equality, for instance, seems just silly to me. There is probably no organization on Earth with as strictly enforced hierarchy and inequality as an army (except maybe for prison). The officer class gets all sorts of privileges that non-officers do not.

And as for responsibility, in the typical military, everyone is getting orders from someone above them. Some higher up is always responsible for all the really big decisions in the soldier's life, and a lot of the little ones too. I remember reading in Frederik Pohl's autobiography that the main reason he liked his military service was the total lack of responsibility, there was always someone above him making all his decisions for him.

Tracy W writes:

David L. Kendall, my point was that you should take people seriously who write or speak about war, even if they're not condemning it for being hell.

Indeed, you should particularly take seriously people who don't condemn war for being hell, as they're holding a view remarkably different to your own. I think J.S. Mills is right when he argues that we should never close ourselves off to arguments that we don't agree with. (Obviously we don't have time to always pursue all possible arguments, but there's a big difference between saying "I don't have time for that" and categorically refusing to take a set of arguments seriously because you disagree with the conclusion.)

Which "opposite arguments" did you have in mind?

Whatever arguments those who think war isn't hell come up with. That's the point of open-mindedness, that we stay open to the possibility that those who aren't us might think of important things that we haven't thought of ourselves.

And who said I was a pacifist?

Me, well I implied it, though rechecking what I said, I didn't actually explicitly say it. I am sorry that I evidently mischaracterised your views. What word would you like me to use to describe your attitudes towards war, and the attitudes that I'm guessing you want others to take? (I don't promise that I will certainly use whatever word you chose, but I would like to use a word that both of us find accurate and reasonably brief).

Writing through a days old blog post is a really inefficient and ineffective way to carry on a dialectic, don't you think?

I do dismiss arguments from people who have absolutely no basis for shaping an argument. Not because its a waste of time, but because the argument couldn't possibly be correct, except by shear accident. I wouldn't listen to an argument from a blind person about the similarity of the colors blue and green, would you?

I stand by my words; people who haven't been to war should quit talking about it until they have. Some things aren't about logic, you know. They are about experience, feelings, pain, grief, torment, anguish, and regret. Arm chair philosophers who pretend to know something about war probably wouldn't know that, though, notwithstanding JSM.

Tracy W writes:

David L. Kendall:
You appear to have shifted the basis of your argument. Earlier you were saying:

People who write or speak about war who were never in one are not to be taken seriously, unless they are condemning it for what it is. War is hell.

This was a dismissal of all arguments that either used a different premise to "war is hell" or reached a different result to "war is hell" (I'm not entirely sure which you are aiming at, perhaps both). Now you appear to have shifted to saying that arguments from people who "have absolutely no basis for shaping an argument" should be dismissed, which is a much better position. This shift means you're advocating dismissing arguments based on their quality, rather than their premises or results.

As for your statement "people who haven't been to war should quit talking about it until they have", luckily for me your ability to enforce that viewpoint is seriously limited. I highly value my freedom to talk about a very wide range of topics, and am deeply suspicious of people who want to rule out areas of conversation all together.

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