Where does war come from?


“Peo­ple want a big dis­as­ter to have a big cause and a recog­nis­able vil­lain, so peo­ple writ­ing about the out­break of World War 1 try hard to find some coun­try to blame. If they are writ­ing in English or French they gen­er­ally blame Ger­many ...”

“IF they are not re­mem­bered, was the sac­ri­fice they made even worth­while?” asked an Amer­i­can vet­eran of the Iraq War who named his son af­ter a fel­low sol­dier who was killed there.

It’s quite com­mon, ac­tu­ally. My brother-in-law is named af­ter a mem­ber of his father’s bomber crew who was killed over the Balkans in 1944. But World War 2 is still just within the reach of liv­ing me­mory.

This week we are asked to com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of World War 1. That is no longer me­mory; it is his­tory. The im­ages are fa­mil­iar and some fam­i­lies have names and even pic­tures of rel­a­tives who died in the war, but very few peo­ple now alive ever knew them per­son­ally.

So how should we com­mem­o­rate the war? There’s not too much rhetoric about glory any more, thank­fully — we have grown up a bit — but a lot about sac­ri­fice. That’s a safe sub­ject, although the ma­jor­ity of the sol­diers who fought in the war had no choice about be­ing there.

Just un­der the sur­face, how­ever, al­most ev­ery­body now re­alises that World War 1 was a huge, point­less waste of at least 11 mil­lion lives. Many peo­ple knew that even at the time. Yet no­body knew how to stop it at the time, and we in the present don’t re­ally know what to say about it. The best use of the brief in­ter­val of con­tem­pla­tion about war on Novem­ber 11, there­fore, is to try to un­der­stand what kind of phe­nom­e­non it is. Start with a sim­ple ques­tion: where does war come from?

The an­swer is equally sim­ple. Hu­man be­ings didn’t in­vent war; they in­her­ited it.

Our branch of the pri­mate fam­ily has al­ways fought wars. If there is an orig­i­nal sin, it goes back be­yond the time when the chim­panzee and hu­man lin­eages split five mil­lion years ago. (Chim­panzees still fight wars too.) So for­get about the “causes of war” in the his­tory books. Ev­ery kind of hu­man so­ci­ety, with ev­ery imag­in­able kind of econ­omy, has fought wars.

Sec­ond ques­tion. How did war get so big? World War 1 and World War 2 were far more de­struc­tive than pre­vi­ous wars, and World War 3 (if the Cold War had ever turned hot) would have been at least 10 times big­ger than that.

When the size and re­sources of a so­ci­ety grow, it fights big­ger wars just be­cause it can. The is­sues at stake are not big­ger than be­fore, but los­ing a war is so un­ap­peal­ing that coun­tries gen­er­ally won’t quit un­til they have thrown all their re­sources into it.

And, fi­nally, how can you tell when some stupid lit­tle thing like an as­sas­si­na­tion in Sara­jevo is go­ing to blow up into a world war with all the trim­mings? An­swer: you can’t. Which brings us to the Power Law.

Peo­ple want a big dis­as­ter to have a big cause and a recog­nis­able vil­lain, so peo­ple writ­ing about the out­break of World War 1 try hard to find some coun­try to blame. If they are writ­ing in English or French they gen­er­ally blame Ger­many, which al­legedly wanted the war and made it hap­pen. But that’s non­sense.

The Power Law de­scribes how so­called “crit­i­cal sys­tems” like those that pro­duce earthquakes and for­est fires are com­pletely undis­crim­i­nat­ing about the scale of the event. Most events will be on the smaller side, but you don’t need spe­cial causes to get a huge one: lit­er­ally any size of event can hap­pen at any time.

A crit­i­cal sys­tem is one that is in­her­ently un­sta­ble, and locks in more and more in­sta­bil­i­ties as time goes by. Think of the ac­cu­mu­lat­ing stresses along a fault line be­tween two con­ti­nen­tal plates, or the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of in­flammable de­bris on the for­est floor. From time to time, there will be earthquakes and for­est fires, but most of them will be small. The Power Law says that any one of them could be the Big One.

To know if a par­tic­u­lar class of events is sub­ject to the Power Law, you just graph the scale of the events against their fre­quency. If it turns out to be a straight re­la­tion­ship where dou­bling the size of the event de­creases the fre­quency by half, or makes it four times less likely, or 16 times, or any other power of two, then you are deal­ing with a crit­i­cal sys­tem. In that case, you can for­get about seek­ing ma­jor causes for big­ger events. A ran­dom peb­ble is 16 times less likely to cause a huge avalanche than a lit­tle avalanche, but it can cause ei­ther.

Jack Levy, in a mas­sive 1983 study ti­tled “War in the Mod­ern Great Power Sys­tem”, mea­sured the size of ev­ery war in the past 450 years by its ca­su­al­ties, and found that dou­bling the size ex­actly halves the fre­quency.

This means that great wars do not need great causes. Once suf­fi­cient strains have ac­cu­mu­lated in a crit­i­cal sys­tem, a world war can strike out of a clear blue sky, as it did in the sum­mer of 1914. Or now, for that mat­ter.

• Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).

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