There are a lot of theories about why human beings make war on one another. Some postulate that the motive is primal. Others counter that it is a cultural invention. Still others insist that war is motivated by economic considerations. There is a wide array of possibilities. I’ve written elsewhere that:
Nations fight for land, vital resources, markets, independence, security, a way of life, a political system, an alliance, human rights, prestige, and power. People make the blood sacrifice for “God, country, nation, race, class, justice, honor, freedom, equality, fraternity,” and more. Truth be told, war is less a matter of strict rationality and cold calculation of strategic interests than it is an exercise in ritual, a sacrament of symbolism, and an enactment of tragic theater. (Dissent from War, p. 2)
It helps to keep the mythic function in mind when we consider any of the theories about human desires, impulses, or incentives for war.
A case in point is Paul Krugman’s recent op-ed, “Why We Fight Wars” (International New York Times, August 17, 2014). Krugman argues that wars happened in the past because of their perceived economic benefits, but war doesn’t pay any longer if you are a modern, wealthy nation. Modern war is just too expensive.
It is possible that political leaders don’t understand the math. The George W. Bush administration predicted the war in Iraq would cost a mere $50 or $60 billion. It cost more than $1 trillion. But the larger reason wars keep happening, Krugman argues, is that governments see political gain even though armed hostilities do not serve the economic interests of the nation as a whole. The political gain may come from distracting a public from economic difficulties at home and/or rallying public opinion behind the regime. Bush was made popular, at least for a while, by the war on terror.
Krugman’s conclusion? “Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway” because “authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they no longer can deliver good performance.” Political leaders either don’t get the economic costs of war or they don’t care. Staying in power is their real purpose for calling the nation to arms. Krugman seems to be saying that wars are the mechanism of authoritarian regimes, even in the United States.
Let’s overlook that Krugman is advancing a single-cause theory of war: whereas before the modern era war was economically motivated, today it is politically motivated. Let’s assume he is arguing that the self-serving needs of authoritarian regimes (even those that maintain they are democratic) are the primary cause of war in the present era. Maintaining power is their motive; engaging in war is their prerogative; selling war to a submissive public is relatively easy.
Krugman’s war myth (all accounts of war are necessarily mythic) punctures the democratic peace theory, which is the establishment’s favorite rationale for promoting global democratization: democracies supposedly do not fight one another. Democratizing the world is purportedly the way to put an end to warfare.
One major problem with the democratic peace theory is its loose definition of democracy. If the U.S. keeps fighting wars when it makes no economic sense for the nation as a whole (while certain parties get rich at the expense of everyone else) largely because our political rulers are authoritarians using war to sustain their rule, that is a pretty good reason to revisit the meaning of democratic America. Sporting the trademark does not confront the deeper question of whether our political institutions and public culture are sufficiently democratic to question the logic of war or even to perceive the irony of fighting wars in the name of democracy.