Why is War Easy?

I have spent the entire summer trying to put together my next research project, and it’s not been easy.  Teaching at a school without a “publish or perish” mantra, I’ve been able to pick and choose what motivates me, even if it is time consuming or ultimately leads nowhere.  I’ve published one book, German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, and have done other work on Germany and on Political Science teaching and learning, but am ready for a new direction.  So rather than just solicit academic input, I’m going to put my proposal for a project designed to yield a book about two years from now in my blog, and ask for any ideas and input readers have.  This description does not include my methodology and time line, though I may post that at a later date (it’s already long).

Why is War Easy?

Goal: to produce a book, at the reading level of an average advanced undergraduate, to make an argument about why war is chosen very easily by both publics and policy makers in the US, despite the intense human suffering caused, and to offer an alternative way to look at war and modern politics.

While most theories of war look at various causal factors (economic, ethnic, power politics, ideology, etc.), I argue that the core problem lies not with the external environment or variables that cause conflict, but in how we think about war. This includes not only publics and leaders, but also scholars who study war, even those who are skeptical of the use of war in foreign policy. The root issue comes from the nature of modern enlightenment thought, whereby sentiment is distrusted so one can undertake a rational and objective analysis of social reality. Yet if one can bracket out the intense human suffering caused by military conflict, then it becomes far easier to simply use economic interests, strategic concerns, or ideological causes as being enough to rationalize risking war. By not letting sentiment be a part of the whole analysis, our policy schools, foreign policy bureaucracies, and universities leave out the most tragic part of the analysis.

The goal of this research is to offer an alternative perspective, one that does not sacrifice the benefits of social scientific research in favor of a knee jerk emotional reaction to war, but which can posit ways to overcome the way modern enlightenment thought makes it seem necessary to bracket out sentiment. This problem moreover affects issues beyond war, such as consumerism and the difficulty people have in finding meaning for their lives. In that sense this project is as much about problems with western enlightenment thinking as it is about war.

Project Description

In past research I made the argument that German foreign policy norms are far less militarist and nationalist than those of the United States. German foreign policy (both actual policy and policy research) also tends to advocate multilateralism and places a higher value on peace, even though the methods and style of analysis are just as rigorous as those in the United States. It does not appear that the differences between the two cultures are due to better research or analysis. Most scholars believe this is a reaction to German history and the horrors of Nazism. This means that the causal factors for different attitudes on war do not come from rational analysis and study, but from culture. “Europeans are from Venus and Americans are from Mars,” as neo-conservative pundit Robert Kagan posits.

Social Constructivist theory considers culture as a result of shared/contested norms and understandings about reality, and there are various theories about why these understandings are reproduced and sometimes transformed. I argue that the reason for cultural differences cannot come from rational analysis or reason alone. Rather, they are rooted in psychology, particularly emotion and sentiment. Reason and rational analysis serve to justify and support cultural predilections; or they can be used to critique and criticize these traditions. Yet core values and their interpretation come from outside pure rational analysis.

After World War II scholars representing the so-called “Frankfurt School” tried to cope with the fact that Germany, perhaps the most culturally advanced state in Europe with top philosophers, musicians and scientists, slipped into barbarism so easily. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that the reason the enlightenment was not able to fend off fascism is that enlightenment thought was in fact the cause of fascism. The enlightenment creates a fiction that it is liberating humans from mythology and irrationality through the use of reason. However, reason has no center, no essential set of values that give meaning to human existence. A brilliant scientist and an evil genius can use reason just as well. Reason simply provides the capacity to build new myths, ones that seem rooted now in some kind of rational system of thought, rather than mere tradition or religion.

The inability of reason to provide any clear center for values and moral authority creates a void, or a lack of meaning, that people need to have filled. This allows the powerful in society to use the tools of the enlightenment to fill that void in a way that benefits themselves, and then justify it through secular myths. These myths can form ideologies (free market capitalism, nationalism, communism) or can involve narratives justifying various acts such as spreading democracy, waging war or allowing third world sweat shops.

This is a different kind of myth than those promulgated by political fascism, which used hypernationalism, hero worship, glory and war. Yet this myth can just as easily obscure the actual human cost of activities undertaken or even see them as normal and necessary. The reason such myths have so much power is that they fulfill the need for meaning that humans have, a need which is not filled purely by intellectual satisfaction but also by a sense of emotional contentment and wholeness. A person lacking meaning in life seeks it, often driven by feelings of anxiety, depression or desperation at living a life which seems wasted. This has been called alienation by numerous philosophers. While many find religion sufficient to give them a sense of meaning, that is not as powerful a force in a secular society where rational thinking distrusts taking anything on faith. This means people move either towards secular myths (political ideologies, consumerism, careerism) or distractions to hide the lack of meaning (sports, video games, alcohol, various addictions, extra marital affairs, etc.)

These forms of finding meaning share two traits. First, they rely on sentiment or emotion for their potency. People need to feel something, create a sense of excitement, a rush, or an escape. Even people claiming to follow secular ideologies engage in emotion-laden “wars” on blogs, websites, and political campaigns. The second thing is that this is often an incomplete emotion. People aren’t sure what they’re seeking, they don’t know why they are taken by their political activism or obsession with sports, they just know they need it. By not understanding the motives and purposes behind their desires, people can be easily played by powerful actors – commercial advertisers, political leaders, and others who use the tools of the enlightenment to sell and entice people towards grasping at these myths and distractions.

These myths and distractions also disconnect humans from both nature and each other. Two generally effective ways people find meaning involve either family, friends and communities, or connections to nature. Modern rational thought has continually stressed control of nature, and individuals as discrete, disconnected units with self-interests which they rationally pursue. Both of these aspects of enlightenment thought abstract individual humans away from both nature and other people.

The goal in modern social science is to overcome sentiment to rationally understand the world one confronts. This means that emotion does not fill its role in expanding ethical concerns by increasing empathy, promoting listening, and exploring human connections. Rather, emotion is relegated to entertainment and consumption. This includes turning politics into a “show,” where the goal is to market candidates, parties and even wars, and create an emotional connection in much the same way advertisers try to sell their products. CNN and other media outlets treat war as a spectacle, as each conflict has its own graphic and theme music. The analysis by experts and on the field reporting treats war more like a sport than a human tragedy, with every effort made to “protect” the public from disturbing images, and anything that works against war as an abstraction. Embedded reporters telling life stories of the soldiers are much like reporters at the Olympics telling the personal stories of the Olympians before the competition. This warps our collective ethics, and creates the capacity to shut oneself off from considering the impact of choices made on others.

The result: war becomes easy to choose, easy to rationalize and easy to sell.  Only when the myth is exposed as having been based on lies or false beliefs, such as in Vietnam or Iraq, do people turn against it.  Even then the focus is less on the suffering of others, and more on the internal political battles.

I envision the final product of this research to be a book that: a) critiques the enlightenment approach of focusing simply as rationality as superior to sentiment, providing an alternative that, for lack of a better term, is able to ‘balance’ the two and avoid treating sentiment as knee-jerk emotion; b) better integrate an understanding of human psychology with analysis of  political culture and the way it shapes our ability to rationalize violence; and c) to unmask the myths used to make war appear rational, honorable and necessary in so many cases.   The goal is not to say all war is wrong, but to unmask the myths that lead us to accept rationalizations that hide war’s true meaning.

Finally, I plan to extend this analysis outward, to touch on issues like consumerism and how our culture often uncritically accepts as valid various ‘myths’ sold in the political and social realm.   I will conclude by considering how to “make war harder,” and figure out a way to reintroduce the importance of meaning into political analysis and our social discourse.

(Sorry for a boring research post today.  Methods for this will involve discourse and media analysis, including a look at how German political culture changed after WWII, and comparisons between the US and Germany in the present.  The biggest stretch for me is to educate myself more thoroughly on various psychological and philosophical traditions that speak to this issue).

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on October 6, 2008 - 17:07

    It funny, I was thinking about this exact topic right after my psychology class today, who do people psychologically justify war?

    The project sounds like a lot of work, but I would love to read the book. It does sound like you will be focusing much of your research on psychology and philosophy along with political science. It even sounds like this could be considered political psychology, which itself is very interesting topic.

    You could even take a further step back and as the question whether war is a bad thing? It sounds like your underlying idea is that war should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Well why then? It sounds like a dumb questions, but if war is really a human constant, a product of human nature (which is a big question by itself), then should we avoid it. Is conflict something that can be irradiated from human behavior? We hold the value in western society that you need a justification to harm another, if you want to suspend judgment, you can ask whether that is contradictory to our actual behavior?

    Regardless, I already want to read the book, finish it sooner! 🙂

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on October 6, 2008 - 17:08

    I really need to proof read my comment before I post them…..

  3. #3 by Jeff Lees on October 6, 2008 - 17:08


  4. #4 by Scott Erb on October 6, 2008 - 19:03

    Conflict is probably inevitable and even a necessary part of existence. Turning conflict into mass killing, especially since modern war kills civilians 80-90% of the time (WWI was the last war where mostly military people were killed) is certainly not a necessary part of human nature — most people do not go to war, most disagreements are solved peacefully. That suggests that humans have a capacity to choose not to engage in killing as the best way of conflict resolution. Finally, I think culturally we have chosen to see war as bad — that’s why it has to be sold and why even those who support a war usually start by saying “no one wants war, but this one is necessary because…” So I feel on pretty firm ground in saying that mass killing as a form of conflict resolution is not good. One can build myths and rationalizations that argue either way — but I think when we consider how we feel about the reality of war, innocents being slaughtered, few people can just shrug and say “well, no big deal, that’s natural.”

  5. #5 by Eve on October 7, 2008 - 02:46

    Scott, what an interesting article. I read about a third or so and was thinking to myself, “what about the psychological causes of war?” and then you suggested that as a motivator.

    You write in your comment to Jeff Lees that “most disagreements are solved peacefully.” I’m not sure that this is true. It sounds true, but what gives me pause is reading recently that something like 90% of the lawsuits worldwide are filed in the U.S. I think we have a warmongering national character; perhaps it’s an inheritance of our particular shared unconscious.

    Jung believed that war was in part caused by projected shadowy contents of the psyche. You suggested that we are filling a void of some kind. There’s something… James Hillman and Michael Ventura co-wrote a book called “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse,” and discussed many of the issues you bring up, but from a psychological perspective (because that’s what they are). They believe that our political and national decline began with the American rush into psychotherapy, of all things. We went from considering the larger perspective to considering only our own perspectives, and from understanding world history to caring only about our own personal histories and how our parents screwed us up.

    Anyway, this sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading more and may come back to comment on the latter part of your post.

  6. #6 by Mike Lovell on October 8, 2008 - 16:42

    On a psychological angle here, and this is completely uneducated or unfounded thinking I suppose but…
    As humans we feel a need to control things around us, even through violence..to make sure things go OUR way, no matter the costs to others. Part of the animal instincts, at our very base core of emotionality, allow the reasoning of violence to slip through easier than other things because of its naturalness to us.
    Like little kids who, when feeling wronged, will just let loose and pop another kid on the playground, for what we, as reasoning adults might find trivial in its entirety.
    On the psychotherapy issue, I think that there is valid reaosning in why it leads us backwards….the more we can make excuses for why things aren’t OUR fault, but rather someone else’s makes everything we do more justifiable, because afterall, we wouldnt do some things, unless someone else put us in that situation to begin with.
    And I suppose, especially with America, as a huge military superpower, we feel that we can always use that might to impose our will on other less militarily capable entities.

    Maybe I read wrong in the early part of the post, but you had Germany as less nationalistic…..however nationalism was huge component behind the NAZI ideology, and its rise to power, as was the same for Italy under Mussolini;s rise to power….”the people” in fact using violence as a way to project their power and/or cause influence towards their way of thinking to propel them to the ultimate power within the state, using the old cliche of “the ends justify the means”….like I said, maybe I read it wrong and you’re speaking entirely post WWII.

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on October 8, 2008 - 19:33

    Eve — one thing I’m going to do this year is learn more about the work being done in psychology, thanks for the book suggestion! The more I study “politics” the more I realize that social phenomena cannot really be understood without an interdisciplinary perspective.

    Mike, the bit about Germany’s lack of nationalism is a reflection of post-war Germany’s rejection of nationalism after having experienced Nazism and two world wars. Germans tend to distrust nationalist displays, and have a far more pacifistic culture towards war than other western states. In general, most Germans think war may be necessary for self-defense or humanitarian concerns, but should not be engaged in for purely national interest purposes.

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