Note: Part 1 in two-part series. Part 2 is here.
We didn’t need William Tecumseh Sherman to tell us “War is hell.” The sentiment is pretty universally acknowledged. And yet generation after generation, members of our species keep plunging both their enemies and their own societies back into hell. Why? Even the official victors incur horrible losses on the road to triumph. So what is war good for? What good has war ever done anybody?
Well, quite a bit actually. War has made and remade our species innumerable times, driven almost every major field of human innovation, and if you take the long view of history, the most lasting spoils are often the newly superior cultural and technological innovations that fueled the victory in the first place. Which, dependably spread among victors and vanquished alike. War and conquest have always super-charged human development. War has driven the creation of what evolutionary theorist Peter Turchin refers to as the “ultrasociety,” as small human tribes scaled up to nation-states of billions in less than 10,000 years. Over our millennia of existence, competition and specifically bloody war has been the engine of human progress, a hell for those unlucky enough to live through it, but a massive net positive for the species’ posterity.
At least until recently. The hell that paradoxically gave our species civilization and so many of its greatest innovations is perhaps today solely an atavism that will finally prove our unmaking. War made us what we are as a social species. But our global civilization has reached a point of fragile interdependence and interconnectedness where this most primal urge to band together and fight some evil “other” no longer has an upside, not the faintest glimmer of a silver lining, even over the long-term. War for 21st-century humanity is finally, truly and simply hell. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, we see a massive depletion of human and physical capital on both sides for no purpose and no higher goal beyond hubris and ego. If it looks like pointless suffering for all today, we can be pretty confident that’s still what it will look like with the benefit of centuries of hindsight. War just isn’t a game worth playing anymore, no matter on what time-scale you evaluate its fruits.
And yet the impulse remains in our nature. So the question is whether our incredible advances in abstract human knowledge and applied technological capabilities, the civilization that our millennia of warring instincts have bequeathed us will be enough to help us suppress our basest urges. War has had the power to make us. Will it be our unmaking now, too?
Evolved that way
War has deep roots in our species’ evolutionary history. That is why it is so common, a near-universal in complex societies. Over the last 12,000 years, with the settlement of humans in villages and the rise and fall of civilizations, the scale of wars has increased radically, from clashes of dozens to battles of millions. And yet over this time, war played a constructive, even positive, role in social and technological progress. Only since 1945, with nuclear weapons, have the chilling downsides of war threatened to metastasize from innumerable local individual tragedies to encompass an existential crisis for the future of our species on planet earth.
The irrationality of war has long been plain to see, playing out on film and television, and recorded in the earliest histories. The first Gulf War in 1991 resulted in a total American victory in the Middle East. Out of 470,000 American soldiers deployed, 143 were killed in action. But over time, hundreds of thousands of American service members eventually suffered from “Gulf War Syndrome,” whose symptoms ranged from chronic fatigue to cancer. For the losers, the toll was much greater. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed, many of them incinerated in bombings. In the cold language of game theory, war is at best a zero-sum game, where spoils pass from vanquished to the victor. At worst, it is a negative-sum game, where each side walks away worse off. During World War II, Germany was destroyed, in addition to losing, but so were the victorious Soviet Union and France. The French lost more than 500,000 in the war, while the Soviets incurred a staggering 20 million fatalities. Even though Britain was not invaded, its resistance to Nazi Germany left it nearly bankrupt, with decades of loan payments pending to the US (the last of them deposited in 2006). The US emerged as the most powerful nation in the world, but at the cost of 400,000 of its own citizens’ lives.