War, Reality… and SF

Why do human beings go to war? This is a question that scholars, psychologists, historians, economists, military leaders, and others have debated over the ages. I won’t propose an answer to the question, but I will raise some questions about some of the commonly accepted reasons.

If human beings are generally aggressive, and war results from that aggression, why is it that we always go to war against comparative strangers and attempt to kill them, when most violence experienced by most people is from those they know and to whom they are far closer? Historically, in the United States, approximately 22 percent of murders were committed by family members of the victim, while in 53 percent of the cases, the offender and victim were acquaintances. Other offenses, from rape to robbery, from fraud to assault, are not committed against us by those in other lands, against whom we make war, but by those in our own communities.

Another reason given for war is a national need for resources or economic gain. Yet most wars cost far more than any potential gain to either party. By definition, the loser doesn’t gain and may lose independence and resources, and its citizens can lose personal freedoms, if not their lives. But the winner often loses far more than it can possibly regain. The current estimate for the relatively “small” [and it is, in historical terms] war in Iraq is an annual cost of $200 billion. Almost five years into this war, the U.S. cost alone is approaching one trillion dollars and has resulted in nearly 4,000 deaths of U.S. military personnel. This doesn’t include, depending on who is making the estimates, the deaths of between 60,000 and one million Iraqi soldiers, terrorists, and civilians. And for this expenditure, exactly what did we gain, either economically or politically? We aren’t getting any more oil, and we haven’t lowered the price of crude oil. In fact, before the 2003 invasion the price of crude was running at around $30 a barrel, and lately it’s been running over $90/barrel, and sometimes over $100/barrel, and we’re more dependent on imported oil than ever.

Another reason that people give for war is the need to project or protect power and leadership. Let’s see. We seized the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish American War, occupied the islands for over 40 years, lost men defending them in WWII, spent billions propping up corrupt governments, and finally turned over billions of dollars of facilities to the Philippine government when the last U.S. military bases were closed in 1992. Fifty years after we lost over 50,000 men in Korea, we’re still faced with a renegade regime in North Korea that is flirting with developing a nuclear capacity, and we’re still paying to maintain troops in South Korea. Thirty-five years after we lost over 55,000 soldiers and pulled out of Vietnam, we’re the ones begging for trade concessions from them… and from China. After two invasions of Iraq and one of Afghanistan, we haven’t stopped Al Qaeda, and we’ve lost more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than we lost civilians in the 9/11 twin towers disaster.

Another reason for war is “to protect ourselves.” I’d be naive not to say that at times this is a necessity, as in the case of WWII, but I have trouble seeing how the war in Iraq has increased our safety, or how fighting in Vietnam made us safer.

Another reason given is to “protect human rights.” Again, pardon me, but history doesn’t show the United States exactly rushing to protect all the Jews of Europe against Hitler. We did show great sorrow after the fact, but pretty much all of the major non-Nazi powers of Europe, as well as the United States, ignored what was going on until after WWII. We’ve ignored, except for a few diplomatic notes and protests, the genocide in Darfur, and the abuses of Stalin, Pol Pot, and countless other dictators — except when it suited other purposes. And now, we tolerate a president who claims that restricting torture of suspected terrorists will make us weaker as a nation.

So just exactly why do we as humans have to fight so many wars? Could it just be that, all protests to the contrary, as a species we really like conflict?

I’ve only seen this addressed directly once in SF, in Alan Dean Foster’s series The Damned. And, from what I recall, that series didn’t do all that well. He postulated that humans were bred to be warriors… and we didn’t want to face it. Neither did many of the critics. Imagine that.